Remembering the rebirth of an American classic
by David Trevallion
In 1964, after completing my apprenticeship at James Purdey & Sons, in London, I immigrated to the US. Since that time I have plied my trade as a stocker and developed friendships with many wonderful men and women who shoot and admire fine firearms. Given my background, I am happiest when working with high-grade British firearms, though I have developed knowledge about and high regard for American double guns. In fact, I played a small role in the creation of one gun—the Parker Reproduction—and over time have realized that there is much misinformation about how Parker Repros came to be, why the guns were so short-lived and how the guns compare to original Parker Bros. shotguns.
Of course, a discussion of Parker Reproductions would not be complete without reflecting on the original Parker Bros. guns and their history. Patriarch Charles Parker, born in 1809 to a Connecticut family, first apprenticed in the manufacture of buttons; but by 1832 he had founded the Charles Parker Company, which grew into a conglomerate manufacturing hardware, kitchen utensils and machinery. Shortly after the Civil War, Charles’ sons—Charles, Dexter and Wilbur—incorporated Parker Bros. to build shotguns in Meriden, Connecticut, the company’s manufacturing base for many years. The first shotgun—an innovative double-barreled breechloading percussion hammergun designed with a locking bolt operated by a “lifter” in front of the trigger guard—debuted in 1868.
By 1880 Parker Bros. had introduced a break-open toplever to replace the lifter, and in 1889 the company introduced the most radical development up to that time: a hammerless shotgun with a push-button safety on the tang. Parker Bros. prospered, and the company’s shotguns became popular with competitive trap and exhibition shooters. (Between them, exhibition shooters Annie Oakley and her husband, Frank Butler, owned at least 12 Parkers.) The line continued to evolve with the addition of automatic ejectors, refined bolting systems, single triggers, beavertail forends, ventilated ribs and various grades. Fluid steel replaced Damascus in barrel manufacture, although the overall design of the Parker Bros. gun after the 1920s remained unchanged.
The highest-grade Parker Reproduction guns were A-1 Specials, and they were available with either factory or custom engraving. Examples shown here were engraved by Frank Conroy (top), a factory engraver (middle) and Geoffrey Gournet (bottom) Courtesy of Morphy Auctions
Unfortunately, Parker Bros. shotguns, which never were a “poor man’s shotgun” (none of the company’s guns ever retailed for less than $50—significant money even in the late 1800s) were early causalities of the Great Depression. In 1934 a financially strapped Parker Bros. sold its manufacturing facilities and trademark to Remington Arms, which wanted its own high-grade double shotgun. Parker Bros. shotgun production was moved to Remington’s headquarters, in Ilion, New York, and, beginning with Serial Number 236,531, continued on a limited scale until America’s entry into World War II, when Remington ceased civilian-arms manufacture to focus on wartime production. There was little demand for high-grade double shotguns after WWII ended, and by the end of the 1940s Parker Bros. shotguns were no more. The last serial number assigned to a Parker Bros. gun was 242,487 in early 1942.
In three-quarters of a century more than 240,000 shotguns in a bewildering series of grades, frame sizes and gauges—from 8 gauge through .410—bearing the Parker Bros. trademark were produced. Regardless of the grade—from the utilitarian Trojan to the three known Invincibles—the owner of any Parker Bros. shotgun is a trustee of an important memento of America’s firearms history.
Many Parker owners used their guns extensively in Midwestern shooting competitions, and my shop locations—first in Chicago and then Indianapolis—were ideally situated for me to attend the events. I met Tom Skeuse, a very knowledgeable Parker owner, at one of these competitions. He commissioned me to restock several of his Parkers while bemoaning the fact that the population of shootable Parkers was ever diminishing.
With the loss of Parker Reproduction records in the 1999 hurricane, the most accurate production statistics were reflected in Chapter VI, “Parker Revivals,” of the book The Parker Story, as they were remembered by Tom Skeuse’s son Jack. According to Jack, the total number of Parker Reproduction shotguns is about 12,225. Following is a breakdown by grade:
28 Gauge: 3,500
20 Gauge: 5,800
12 Gauge: 1,800
12 Gauge Steel Shot Special: 350
12 Gauge Sporting Clays Classic: 125
28 Gauge: 7
20 Gauge: 100
12 Gauge: 100
All gauges, factory standard engraving: 150
All gauges, custom engraving: 300
28 Gauge/.410 Combination: 16
All 28-gauges were built on a size 00 frame.
All 20-gauges were built on a size 0 frame.
All 12-gauges were built on a size 1½ frame.
The DHE initially was offered in 20 gauge with 26-inch barrels, 2¾” chambers and Improved Cylinder & Modified chokes. As customer interest grew, options became double or single-selective triggers, English stock or pistol grip, and varying barrel lengths and choke combinations.
Following the 1974 publication of his book The Parker Gun: An Immortal American Classic, distinguished Parker authority Larry L. Baer frequently visited my shop, and he often stated his wish that Parker shotguns be resurrected in some fashion. So I was surprised when, in mid-1984, Larry telephoned to advise that our mutual friend, Tom Skeuse, was resurrecting the Parker marque—with shotguns to be made in Japan and mostly by machine!
A year or so later Tom sent me two of his Parker Reproduction shotguns “in the white” to stock. I was pleased by the quality of the materials, mechanical excellence and craftsmanship in the guns. I have had a lot of experience with original Parkers, and in many respects the Parker Reproductions struck me as superior to many of the Parkers coming through my shops. On many occasions I discussed the quality of the Parker Reproductions with my friend Michael McIntosh, and I can do no better than quote his comments from the August/September 1991 issue of Shooting Sportsman: “In some ways the Parker Reproduction was one of the most important guns of the 1980s, because it demonstrated beyond any question that machine-manufacturing technology can accomplish an astonishing high level of quality at a comparatively low price. There is no object in the world quite so captivating as an exquisitely hand-made gun, but by the same token, excellent machine work is far preferable to mediocre results rendered by hand. Few modern guns show this more clearly than the Parker Reproduction.”
I learned more about the man who accomplished this remarkable feat, and the following narrative is derived from conversations with Tom Skeuse as well as Larry Baer and many Parker aficionados who entrusted their Parkers to my care.
Tom Skeuse was a chemical engineer, and in 1959 he established Reagent Chemical & Research, Inc., in Ringoes, New Jersey, to satisfy the growing demand for industrial chemicals such as hydrochloric acid (used for commercial purposes such as water purification and paper manufacturing). Twenty years later Tom acquired White Flyer Targets from Olin Industries—a natural fit with Tom’s interest in Parker shotguns. In mid-1983 Tom learned that the Olin-Kodensha affiliate in Japan where Winchester’s Model 23 side-by-side and Model 101 over/under shotguns were being manufactured had excess capacity. The Olin-Kodensha joint venture teamed American technical expertise with Japan’s lower wage and production costs—a major component of which was Japan’s modern manufacturing facilities.
In the March/April 2012 issue of Shooting Sportsman, Larry wrote in his article “A Parker Repro A-1 Special” that in the late 1970s when he and Tom had been standing before an exhibit of high-grade Parkers at the Houston Astro-Hall Gun Show, Tom had mused: “Why hasn’t someone brought the production of these magnificent guns back to life?”
Larry had replied: “Money, Tom, just money.”
Larry’s comments had inspired Tom’s search for some way to resurrect the Parker shotgun, and the seed planted in Houston germinated when Tom learned of the underutilized manufacturing capacity at the Olin-Kodensha facility. When Tom was assured that Olin would not object to him negotiating directly with Kodensha, he was on the next available flight to Japan with a D Grade Parker from his collection in checked baggage.
Kodensha managers initially were not swayed by Tom’s vision of producing an authentic “clone” of the Parker shotgun, for Tom demanded a gun that the Parker brothers themselves would have approved of. He was adamant that the receiver be a forging, not an investment casting, and that even the smallest screws and springs be so precisely made that they would interchange with original Parkers.
Finally persuaded by the confidence Tom had in the company’s capabilities, agreement to manufacture a prototype was reached. Kodensha technicians stripped the D Grade Parker to its smallest components and prepared their own technical drawings—always a procedure where errors could be made, as the United States Standard thread and component dimensions based on the English system of measurements were converted into metric dimensions. Tom made multiple trips between New Jersey and Japan to demonstrate to Kodensha management the benchmarks that the company had to attain.
Larry Baer recalled that Tom, returning from Japan with the first prototype, a DHE 20-bore, visited him with the gun. Superficially, the prototype resembled a Parker Bros. shotgun, but as the two critiqued it, they realized that the barrels, trigger guard, stock dimensions and other features were not up to Parker standards. When they concluded what modifications and refinements were needed, Tom, rather than continuing on to New Jersey, returned immediately to the Kodensha factory to oversee the changes. In all, five prototypes were fabricated before Tom was satisfied that the gun met the benchmark of shotguns produced in Meriden and Ilion.
The technology and metallurgy available in the early 1980s was greatly superior to those of 1869 to 1942. The Japanese were able to replicate the original Parker components precisely. Unknowingly, one of the screws in the D Grade Parker that Tom initially had taken to Japan was a replacement and not a factory original. The replacement screw, fabricated at the Kodensha factory, exactly replicated the screw in the D Grade, and it was only when some original screws provided by Larry Baer were meticulously compared to the reproduction screws that the slight error was discovered.
Of course, before Kodensha management could begin production, Tom had to arrange to use the trade name Parker Reproduction from Remington Arms, owner of the intellectual property relating to Parker Bros. Permission was obtained, and production began. Every shotgun from the Kodensha production line was marked with the logo “Parker Reproduction by Winchester.” The logo generally was imprinted on the top rib but sometimes was engraved over the chamber area of the left barrel. The Winchester Repeating Arms division of Olin Industries never was involved with Parker Reproduction shotguns, but the first Parker Reproduction guns shipped to the US in late 1983 were imported under Winchester’s import license, hence the latter’s imprint. The logo remained “Parker Reproduction by Winchester” after Tom obtained his own import license.
By late 1988, some 12,000 Parker Reproductions had been imported into the US.
Tom was not happy with the quality of stock wood available in Japan, so in 1984 he purchased Cali’co Hardwoods, a northern California company that for many years had been the world’s largest source of high-grade stock blanks. This resulted in the furnishing of high-quality, American-sourced walnut blanks commensurate with the quality of the Parker Reproduction shotguns.
The Parker Reproductions imported into the US were predominantly the smaller bores. There have been some misconceptions about DHE 20-bores also being fitted with a second set of 16-bore barrels. The 20/16 was never made or imported as a set. Rather, Tom was asked if a set of 16-bore barrels could be fitted to the DHE 20-bore frame. Such a fitting easily was accomplished so, although there was never much advertising of 20/16 sets, clients who knew they could be fabricated would order a DHE 20-bore from Reagent Chemical or an established dealer. Tom arranged with Krieghoff International, the importer of the distinguished line of German-made firearms in nearby Ottsville, Pennsylvania, to fit 16-bore barrels to the 20-bore frames. Approximately 500 16-bore barrels were fabricated at the Krieghoff plant in Germany and shipped to Ottsville, where factory-trained gunsmiths fitted them to the 20-bore frames.
The 16-bore barrels bear neither the “Parker Reproduction by Winchester” logo nor any manufacturer’s marque, and although they have serial numbers, those numbers are not matched to the serial numbers on the frames—or the 20-bore barrels. This has caused some prospective purchasers to dismiss the 20/16 sets as not sanctioned by Parker Reproduction, but that is not the case.
Tom had overcome production and sourcing problems that another person might have considered insuperable in offering connoisseurs of classic American double shotguns a reproduction that was in every respect equal—if not superior—to its illustrious progenitor. By late 1988, only five years following the gun’s introduction, some 12,000 Parker Reproductions had been imported into the US. But on Christmas Eve 1988 Tom received an unexpected message that Kodensha was ceasing production of the Parker Reproduction at year’s end. (Manufacture of the Winchester models 23 and 101 ceased as well). In the end, the total number of Parker Reproduction shotguns imported into the US was 12,225, according to Jack Skeuse, one of Tom’s four sons.
Shortly after Kodensha terminated production, the building housing the manufacturing facilities was demolished, and a multi-level golf driving range was erected.
American shotgunners lost a dear friend and strong advocate of fine gunmaking when Tom Skeuse died, in December 1989. The inventory of Parker Reproduction shotguns at Reagent Chemical headquarters and dealers’ stocks gradually were drawn down. No on-site gunsmithing services were offered—although the superbly gifted Geoffroy Gournet was the engraver in residence, operating from a well-lighted atelier of the headquarters building from 1987 to 2002 and delighting a legion of clients with his masterful engravings of Reproduction A-1 grades.
In September 1999 tragedy struck when Hurricane Floyd impacted the East Coast. Ringoes, New Jersey, was directly in Floyd’s path, and torrential rains flooded the basement of Reagent Chemical’s headquarters, inundating and irreparably damaging the inventory of Parker Reproduction components, some partially assembled firearms and the company’s records.
Tom Skeuse probably did not earn a penny on the 12,225 Parker Reproduction shotguns he brought to life. A significant amount of money had been invested in the specialized equipment to manufacture the guns, and that investment had not been recouped when Kodensha terminated manufacturing. Some commentators have opined that the effort to “clone” a shotgun from the golden age of American classic double guns was a quixotic quest. These naysayers are wrong. If you, as a shooter, hunter or collector, treasure high-quality double guns manufactured with the most modern technology that are affordable for almost everyone, then you are an heir to the legacy of Tom Skeuse.
I wish to dedicate this article to the memories of my friends Michael McIntosh and Larry Baer, who left us too soon. Michael died at age 66 on August 14, 2010, and Larry died at age 70 on February 5, 2015.