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Ithaca Model 37 –  The Survival of an Iconic American Shotgun

Ithaca Model 37 – The Survival of an Iconic American Shotgun

By Numrich Gun Parts Corporation, Posted in Hunting, Shotgun
June 26, 2019

The Ithaca Gun Company was first founded by Leroy Smith and William Henry Baker in 1883. The company wasted no time building a reputation as a quality firearm manufacturer, and they did so by following a pattern of redesigning, or perfecting guns patented by other builders. The first gun to truly showcase the quality in their work was the Ithaca Flues break-action double barrel shotgun. The patent for this gun was first granted to Emil Flues in 1895 and was then purchased by Ithaca in 1907. They would slightly modify the design, which allowed them to mass-produce the shotgun, and then launched it to the public in 1908. The Ithaca Flues would go on to become the best selling American double barrel of all time.

Eight years later Ithaca would incorporate with the LeFever Arms Company of Syracuse, New York, and began manufacturing the LeFever Sidelock Shotgun that was first designed by Daniel Myron “Uncle Dan” LeFever. Again the quality of their gun showed, and they enjoyed several years of successful shotgun sales. However, advancements in shotgun actions began to change what sporting consumers were looking for. Both Winchester and Remington were finding success with their pump-action shotguns and as the 1920s were coming to a close, Ithaca recognized the need to be more competitive. In true Ithaca fashion, they began looking into the Remington Model 17 design as the basis for their own pump-action platform.

Now, something tells us that even if you have just a small amount of gun knowledge, and were allowed three guesses to figure out who designed the Remington 17 shotgun, you would probably get it right. That is because no one has had his design patents mimicked more than the great and iconic John Browning.

Ithaca Gun Company designer Harry Howland had his prototype shotgun ready to go by 1933. It was based on the 1915 design of the Remington Model 17 by John Browning, which also had additional elements added by John Pederson. The company now had a shotgun that could compete in the sporting shotgun market with the powerhouse Winchester Model 12, which as you probably already know was another of John Browning’s designs.

The Ithaca shotgun was originally designated as Model 33, but Ithaca had changed it when they were notified that a Pederson patent on the Remington shotgun had been overlooked. This meant that the last of the patent licenses on the Remington 17 shotgun would not expire until 1937. The oversight in the patent office not only delayed the Model 37’s release, but also made the timing of its introduction less than ideal.  The world was on the brink of war and the United States was deep into the great depression. Much of the population couldn’t afford to buy anything that wasn’t an absolute necessity. However, Ithaca felt that they had waited long enough and began production anyway. In 1937 they managed to sell a modest 4,365 Model 37 shotguns. In 1938 they would nearly double that amount, amassing a sales total of 8,336.

The Model 37 was an appealing gun in many ways. It featured fine engraving on both sides of the receiver. It had hand checkering around its grip and forend and it ejected from the bottom, which made it ambidextrous and the ideal choice for left-handed shooters. At the time a left-handed sportsmen had no other options in a pump gun. All shotguns ejected shells on the left side and sent the shell across the front of a left-handed shooters face.

Receiver Engravings

The first Model 37 guns off the assembly line were sent to gun writers around the country with the hopes of reaching those enthusiasts with the funds and genuine interest in obtaining a newly introduced sporting shotgun.

Bob Nichols a writer for Field & Stream wrote an article titled “The Model 37 Ithaca Repeater”, which first introduced the gun to the public. He explained the delay that Ithaca had faced with the patent, and presented the shotgun with much praise to Ithaca Gun Company for revisiting “one of the finest pump-guns designs ever devised”, referring to the Remington 17. As a writer in a hobby based industry he was not likely to reach most of the struggling population, but introduced the new shotgun with the following poignant statement in spite of the social misfortunes. “In this day of economic hi-jacking, sociological bellyache, political pilfering and general shenanigans, the dumb observer might be led to believe that the appearance of a new shotgun is not a matter of any particular interest.

His approach seemed to beckon sportsmen to look beyond the day’s toughest challenges and carry on with the American way of life; a sentiment that was repeated several times by other writers who received those first guns. The reason we chose to include this here is because we think it says a lot about the resolve that sportsmen, gun enthusiast, the firearm industry, and the American people show when faced with adversity.

However, any momentum the new shotgun had gained was quickly halted. WWII began and Ithaca was forced to cease commercial production of their guns and shift their focus to the war effort. Ithaca would continue to manufacture the Model 37 shotgun, but they did so for the military, mostly to be used as trench guns. Their factory would also be converted to produce the M1911A1 semi auto pistol and the M3 submachine gun during this time.

Records show that delivery of Model 37 shotguns to the Springfield Armory (still the primary arms depot of the U.S. Military at the time) began in June of 1941. Then in 1942 the War Production Board issued an order to stop all production of commercial 12-Gauge sporting shotguns. This declaration signified Ithaca’s complete involvement in the war effort.

In 1946, just months after the war had ended, manufacturing of the Model 37 resumed, but only after the factories' machines could be reconverted back to commercial production.

The war had brought about a change in America, many workforces including Ithaca’s had been unionized. The U.S. economy was recovering from the recession and the demand for sporting shotguns was once again growing. This was largely due to the prolonged period that Americans were unable to purchase the guns because of both financial hardships and the War Production Boards temporary blockage of sporting shotguns. The troops returning home also helped increase the demand for sporting guns, as they were eager to reacclimate to their daily lives and return to their normal activities.

Ithaca 37

These factors would all play a part in dictating a series of rapid price increases. The Model 37, which was listed in the Ithaca catalog at the beginning of 1941 for $56.60 saw a bump to $58.00 when production resumed in 1946, and then to $70.95 by the end of that same year. By 1954 the price had reached $91.16 for a standard grade Model 37. Seems dramatic for the times, but we say good luck in trying to find even an old beat up Ithaca for that price today!

To combat the continual rise in price, Ithaca made several changes to the production of the standard base Model 37. The shotgun lost its hand-checkered forend. It was replaced with a ring-turned machine-produced forend. The full checkered grip was reduced to a simpler pattern that just covered the sides of the grip. They eliminated the fine polish work that was seen on prewar shotguns and the top of the receiver was now simply covered in a matte finish. The comb of the stock was less dense and detailed and the slotted screws on the buttplate and grip cap were replaced with phillips head screws. There is no documentation to say exactly when these changes took place, but sample guns show that it was soon after post war production resumed.

Forend Change

Like many gun companies, Ithaca offered their Model 37 in variations for niche markets, which allowed them to sell budget friendly and higher end guns. They sold a skeet version, the Model 37S with specific measurements that could be sold at a premium. Its list price in the 1953 catalog was $186.46, which was coincidentally the last year it would be offered. The 37S was replaced the following year by the Target Grade Repeater Model 37T, which could be purchased with a choice of target or skeet dimensioned stock. The focus on product expansion of the Model 37 continued with various adaptations. It was selling well, but had yet to find that one feature that would skyrocket its success.

The competition was only getting tougher as time went on. Remington had introduced their own evolution of the Model 17 in 1950. The Remington 870 became a popular choice because of its relatively inexpensive manufacturing cost and low price point. Mossberg introduced their economical pump gun a decade later and made the market even more congested, as the Model 500 began to grab its share of sales.

So during these years of growth, Ithaca was relying heavily on the quality and craftsmanship of their shotguns, and trying to find unique features that could distinguish their gun from the pack. One of the first truly unique things that they developed was the Raybar sight, which debuted in 1955 on the Model 37 Featherlight Standard Grade Repeater. This early version of fiber optic, light retaining sight was well received. The high visibility sight was designed to allow the user to easily swap-out the brightly colored plastic sight with a standard black sight at will. However, the invention of a light absorbing sight was not going to launch a buying frenzy on its own, not with so many other proven shotguns out there. So, they continued to work on new developments for the Model 37. However, it wasn’t until the head of Ithaca’s Repair Department, Edwin W. Thompson, witnessed a hunting mishap, that he was inspired to have the company work on the development of what was possibly Ithaca’s most groundbreaking feature.

Raybar Sight

Thompson recalled the details of this hunting trip in an article that he wrote to introduce the new improved Model 37. While hunting in the deep woods of Ithaca, New York, Thompson observed a fellow hunter take a 100-yard shot on an eleven-point trophy buck with a slug gun. The hunter was certain he had cleanly missed the deer and being near dusk, made no attempt to search for it. The next morning he gathered several of his fellow hunters, which included Thompson, and set out to search for the prize buck. He was sure that the buck would return to the general area, but it turned out that the hunter had actually hit the deer, but very low in the paunch. Seeing the spoiled deer made Thompson consider that a more accurate slug would have surely averted this sad outcome.

The development of a more accurate rifled slug gun became a combined effort of Ithaca’s development team, but ultimately the credit would land to the barrel room foreman, Francis Keene. It was Keene who had developed a new technique for boring the barrel. His method was able to create a constant bore diameter from muzzle to breech that was only a thousandth of an inch larger than the maximum diameter of a rifled slug.

Rifling

In 1959 Ithaca would announce the launch of the Deerslayer, a Model 37 variant with exceptional slug accuracy. It was first offered with a choice of two models, Model 37 Deerslayer and Model 37 Super Deluxe Deerslayer, which reestablished some of the fine checkering and other higher end details. They were both built with 26-inch barrels up until 1962 when Ithaca would offer a carbine version in 20-inch. The barrel was tested by an independent laboratory, which backed Ithaca’s claims that they had created a barrel of superior accuracy. The Deerslayer barrel became the feature that would distinguish Ithaca from other slug gun manufacturers, or at least until the rest of the industry caught up.

After the introduction of the Deerslayer, Thompson sent a letter to all affiliated dealers and gunsmiths notifying them that Ithaca would offer the new rifled barrel to all existing Model 37 owners for the cost of $46.25, and even less for guns currently inventoried on store shelves.

Each year would bring new upgrades and offerings for the Model 37 line and the most sought after variation would remain the incredibly accurate Deerslayer. By appearances, it seemed that they had hit their stride, but in 1967 the company was abruptly sold to a conglomerate that was later to be known as General Recreation. This would mark the first time in the company’s history that there would be no member of the founding families controlling the day to day operations.

A year later, the one millionth Model 37 would leave the factory - a milestone celebrated with the release of a One Millionth Ithaca Commemorative Shotgun. Creative offerings would continue for the Model 37 lineup under the new ownership, but not in the form of engineering and innovative features as had been the goal of Ithaca in the past. They instead would attempt a series of novelty and commemorative models. A new logo would be introduced in 1968. The 16 gauge would be discontinued in 1973. In 1976 they offered a Bicentennial gun and in 1977 a Ducks Unlimited and a Sid Bell version. These would be embellished with unique engravings on their receivers, but they were more of a collector’s item than anything with real sportsmen appeal.  

By 1978 it looked like the company was realizing that they needed to recapture some of the sportsmen enthusiasm by creating something new. That year they introduced the heaviest Model 37, the Magnum 12-Gauge and the lightest, the Ultra Featherlight 20-Gauge. However, it may have been a bit late to change course, because that year would also mark the first time the company was forced into bankruptcy.

They would weather the storm for the time being, but the years proceeding showed more of the same for General Recreation. The guns introduced under Ithaca’s brand were the Centennial Commemorative Series in 1980 and LAPD Commemorative in 1981. They followed this up with the Model 37 English Ultralite and a Field Grade Series in 1982 and 1983 respectively, and the option of choke tubes on a few models in the following years. However, these attempts to reach sportsmen would come too little too late. In 1986 the company would close its doors after filing for bankruptcy for a second time.

In 1987 the Ithaca Acquisition Corporation purchased the assets of the Ithaca Gun Company and moved the operation to King Ferry, New York. They immediately rekindled the popular shotgun line, but did maybe one of the most bizarre things in the gun history - they changed the name to Model 87. In 1988 they introduced the Deerslayer II, which offered an interchangeable Deerslayer barrel. Two years later they would make choke tubes standard on all Model 87 shotguns, except for the Deerslayer II and Law Enforcement models. Then in 1996 history repeated itself - after a failed attempt to move and sell the company, the Ithaca Acquisition Corporation was forced to file bankruptcy.  All assets were sold to a new group of investors under the name Ithaca Gun Company LLC.

The new ownership quickly changed their best selling shotguns' name back to the well-known Model 37. In 1997 they also introduced Model 37 Turkeyslayer with an extended choke tube and camouflage patterned stocks. Although, they seemed to recognize who their target consumers were, something the previous owners struggled with, the company experienced other financial difficulties due to environmental issues at their factory and the associated clean up costs. In 2005 they attempted to relocate the entire operation to Auburn, New York but were unsuccessful and officially announced they would be closing the company for good.

Then once again Ithaca was rescued from its impending demise. This time by Craig Marshall and his father Floyd who had run a tool and die company for more than three decades. Under the name Ithaca Guns USA LLC, the Marshalls purchased the rights to the Ithaca’s name, drawings, files, and inventory and moved the company to Upper Sandusky, Ohio.

However, the Marshalls were never able to get the factory up and running at full steam and the company was once again forced to change hands. An Ohio businessman, named Dave Dlubak, stepped in to purchase the shotgun operation. Mr. Dlubak still owns the company today and operates it under the name Ithaca Gun Company out of Upper Sandusky, Ohio.

The current inventory offered by the Ithaca Gun Company covers a wide variety of these great American-made shotguns. Some with a classic feel of the old days like the Model 37 Trap, 28-Gauge, and 37 Featherlight, and transitional models such as the Model 37 Waterfowl and Turkeyslayer. Plus they built some modern variants like the Women & Youth model, Model 37 Defense gun, Hogslayer, and the short stocked Stakeout. And last but not least, the Deerslayer II and Deerslayer III shotguns. The company is also offering the Ithaca 1911 semi-auto pistol in both target and combat variations.

Though the prices may look very different than the early years (a Deerslayer III will run you upwards of $1,300), the Model 37 is still built with very much the same reliable American ingenuity. It may have faced extinction more than once, but here we are, 82 years later still talking about it and still able to walk out of the gun store with a brand new beautifully engraved shotgun in our hands. As sportsmen, we should all be thankful for the survival of this American shotgun legend. We have seen many great American firearms lost over time, but as fate would have it, the Model 37 continues on.