If you are American and enjoy classic shotguns, the name Parker certainly rings a bell. It is one of the most famous “made in America” shotguns and certainly has earned its reputation for quality and durability. It didn’t come by the nickname “Old Reliable” by chance.
Charles Parker started his company in Connecticut, known as “America’s Arsenal,” during the Civil War and made repeating rifles for the government. In 1866, joined by his two brothers, he made his first shotguns. He changed the name of his Meriden Manufacturing Company to Parker Brothers and also took his three sons aboard. Their external-hammer guns were “lifter action” shotguns using a button in front of the trigger guard to open the action. They made a wide variety of guns at all price levels. In 1889 they made their first hammerless guns, and by 1917 most of their guns were hammerless. Exterior decoration and features of the gun models varied from the exotic to practical.
Business went very well until the Depression of 1929, and then it fell off from thousands of shotguns sold each month to just a few hundred. In 1934 Remington Arms bought Parker and continued to produce a low number of guns until the beginning of World War II. Production of Parkers ceased in 1947.
In all, Parker made about 245,000 guns, many of which are still in service today because of their great strength and reliability. The higher grades are quite sought after by collectors, while the lower grades continue to serve their owners.
Our test gun was a basic VH Grade Parker in 12 gauge with a set of 26" and a set of 28" barrels. A shooting companion, Dave Chadwick, was kind enough to loan me the gun. It has been in his family for three generations—originally purchased by his grandfather in 1926. The gun was mechanically correct, but the finish was quite worn and showed hunting usage of many years.
Parkers basically came in nine grades ranging from the basic Trojan to the glitzy A-1 Special and then the sainted three Invincibles. The VH Grade was the next step up from the Trojan and was Parker’s best-selling grade, with more than 78,000 produced. It came in 10, 12, 16, 20 and 28 gauge as well as .410, though examples in 10, 28 and .410 are rare. If you check out Gunsamerica.com and Gunsinternational.com, you will find many used VH Parkers for sale at prices from $1,000 up, depending on condition and extras. When the VH was first introduced, in 1899, it sold for $50.
Parker made guns with and without ejectors and with single or double triggers. Our VH was an extractor gun with double triggers. The Parker action of these guns locked up with a single Purdey underbite and a doll’s-head rib extension engaging a notch in the top of the receiver. These actions have proven quite durable. The side view of the action is unique in that it emphasizes the recessed hinge pin to give it that “Parker look.” The VH engraving was minimal, with just the slightest zigzag scroll along the edges of the receiver sides and around the exposed screws.
These guns originally had case-colored receivers, but after 95 years of use, the case coloring on our test gun was long gone. The extended trigger guard and underside of the receiver showed the slightest bit of corrosion, as one would expect after such a long and useful life in the field.
What I didn’t expect were the trigger pulls. They were marvelous. The front trigger broke crisply at 3½ pounds, while the rear broke at 3¾ pounds. There was no take-up slop and very little creep. I have no idea what their repair history was, if any, but they sure were nice.
The top-tang safety was automatic, going to the “safe” position every time the gun was opened. This is an extra level of protection in the field but a bit of a pain when shooting clays to get ready for the bird season until you get used to it.
The seven exposed screw heads on the receiver and trigger guard all showed the slightest evidence of having been tinkered with over the past nine decades, but I had to look closely. Whoever took the gun apart knew what he was doing.
As mentioned, this Parker VH came with two sets of barrels. The 28" Modified & Full barrels were elsewhere, so the 26" barrels were what was on the gun. “Vulcan Steel” was stamped on the rib right after “Parker Bros Makers, Meriden, CT, U.S.A.” The Vulcan cognomen refers to the grade of fluid steel used in the VH barrels as opposed to Parker’s earlier use of Damascus-steel twist barrels. The rib was low, flat, parallel and engraved on the top to reduce glare. It tapered from ½" wide at the rear to 3⁄8" at the front, where there was a single steel sighting bead. The exterior of the barrels was a dull blue and, as would be expected, showed some weathering.
The barrel interiors were clean and showed no obvious wear or abuse. The bores were both .733", a touch over the standard .729" for a 12-bore but certainly within accepted limits. Chokes were said to be Improved Cylinder & Modified. The Improved Cylinder right barrel mic’d to a .008" choke, a touch less than today’s nominal .010" IC. The Modified left barrel was .023", a bit more than the .020" Modified often seen today. In all, they certainly were close enough. The chokes were straight tapers front to back, not the usual taper followed by a stabilizing front parallel often seen today.
The chambers’ forcing cones measured around ½" long. That’s about what you would want when shooting the fiber wads used back in the day. Longer cones encourage gas blow-by with fiber wads. The chamber lengths were either 2¾" or 25⁄8". I couldn’t measure them precisely, and Parker made both lengths.
The gun had a relaxed pistol-grip stock. The grip had a black plastic cap imprinted with “Parker Bros, Meriden, Conn.” The stock also had a rock-hard 7⁄8"-thick red recoil pad that certainly was old and may or may not have been original. The Parker butts often were checkered, but some did come with pads.
The walnut used in the stock and forend was plain and straight grained. It was certainly strong and suitable for this basic grade. The checkering was hand cut to a relatively coarse 16 lines per inch. The pattern was conservative but attractive. The wood finish appeared to be lacquer, and it showed all the little nicks and dings that you would expect from a well-used gun. There was a little metal shield inlaid in the bottom center of the stock for initials, of which there were none.
The stock dimensions were 143⁄16" length of pull, 1½" drop at comb and 27⁄16" drop at heel. Pitch was about 2° down (1" standoff from vertical), and there was zero cast. Other than the pitch—usually 4° today—these are very close to modern dimensions.
The forend was a classic side-by-side splinter tucked under the barrels. A beavertail was also available. In the center of the forend was the Deeley latch for disassembly. The front of the forend had a small metal cosmetic inlay, sort of thistle-like, to give it an upscale look. Wood-to-metal fit was exceptionally good. Perhaps the wood was just worn down to meet the metal, but it sure came out nicely.
Shooting the gun brought no surprises. With the 26" barrels, the gun’s 7-pound weight was just a touch biased toward the rear. I’m sure that the 28" barrels would have produced an almost neutral balance. It is rare to find an older shotgun with a rear weight bias, but this gave our Parker a quick-handling feel. It would be ideal for game in close cover, and owner Dave Chadwick often uses it to hunt grouse as well as pheasants. The relaxed pistol grip in no way interfered with moving from one trigger to the other.
When shooting, the gun functioned correctly in all respects. Barrel convergence seemed fine, and the chokes patterned as expected. Those crisp triggers were very pleasant. I got used to digging out hulls from the extractors and lost only a few targets when forgetting to move the auto safety to “fire.” My main problem was that the stock was too short for me, so I fumbled around a bit. My double-trigger side-by-sides are stocked at least an inch longer because of my long arms. But Dave shoots the gun exceptionally well, and he is my size. That just goes to show that skill and native ability beat verbal glibness.
It was a pleasure to shoot this old Parker VH and even more pleasing to see that so many are still available on the used market. The good stuff never fades away.
Make & Model: Parker VH
Action: Break-action side-by-side
Finish: Worn case coloring and bluing, minimal engraving
Barrel length: 26"
Weight: 7 pounds
Chokes: Fixed Improved Cylinder (.008") & Modified (.023")
Stock: 143⁄16" x 1½" x 27⁄16", 2° pitch, no cast
Accessories: Extra 28" barrels choked Modified & Full
Price as tested: Used market estimate $2,000