This Old Ithaca

The Ithaca Flues 12-gauge was all but unusable before it was rebuilt. Photo courtesy of Terry Allen.

Embodying a history of family, friendships and choices

This began as a drawn-out conversation about refurbishing an heirloom shotgun, and then it swerved sideways and got interesting. Years back, a friend called to discuss a ratty old side-by-side—an Ithaca Flues 12-gauge, Serial No. 369381—that had been in his family since 1923. It had two sets of barrels—long ones choked Full & Modified and short ones that were Cylinder & Improved Cylinder—but as a non-ejector Field Grade, it wasn’t worth much and was all but worn out. Unusable, in fact. Still, there was all this family patina on it. What my friend wanted to talk about was: repair, refurbish, refinish or rebuild? Or should he just leave it in the safe? Guns aren’t hung over the fireplace anymore, except in museum dioramas. 

At first, completely rebuilding the gun seemed expensive and impractical, and besides, then it would be like Granddaddy’s axe: I’ve replaced the head twice and the handle three times, but it’s Grandaddy’s axe! No, not if it’s important that Grandaddy’s calloused fingers gripped it and built a cabin with it or made kindling with it or, in this case, posed with it in old photos, used it over beloved family dogs and taught the kids to shoot with it. And killed upward of 20,000 quail with it before it led to an obsession that benefitted untold numbers of other wingshooters. 

The old gun did need repair, though, if it were ever to be fired again. While the wood was functional and the internal bits worked, there was a horrible crack in the action propagating from the angle where the face met the flats. 

“Peachy” Menefee (left) bought the Flues in 1923, and the American black walnut beside his cottage (right) eventually provided its stock.

This isn’t so unusual in old doubles. That corner is the focus of great stress, and countering that stress is what has led to the myriad ways of latching a break-action gun that have been patented through the years. The various locking mechanisms have become gunmakers’ signatures—from Henry Jones’s rotary-screw underlever to the doll’s-head fastener beloved in Birmingham, and including the Greener and Kersten horizontal crossbolts and John Rigby’s vertical bolt. In this case, it was Emil Flues’ three-bolts-with-slotted-barrel-extension lock-up. 

At minimum, then, serious metalwork was necessary and hang the expense. Dan May, at Classic Gunstocks, in Upstate New York, was willing to take on the job. He ground out the crack to make a clean channel, and then gradually filled it back in with a TIG welder, letting everything cool between passes to avoid distortion and to protect the surrounding case-hardening. Then he dressed down the weld, aged and polished everything to match, and recut the minimal engraving. Both sets of barrels were put back on face, for proper lock-up. (A deteriorating fit between the barrels and action probably had led to the crack.)

The barrels were sound, although they were showing the effects of a century of handling, bucking brush, crossing fences and bouncing around in trucks, automobiles, boats and saddle scabbards; the factory buttstock had already been replaced once. My friend, a grandson of the original owner, inherited the gun in 1966, when he was 16. Like many older American shotguns, No. 369381 had so much drop at the comb that it was impossible to achieve any sort of cheek weld. After Grandaddy gave it to him, my friend fitted a more modern stock from Fajen, but he kept the old dogleg for its originality—Grandaddy’s fingerprints. Today, to go with its rejuvenated metal, No. 369381 has a brand-new deluxe stock, but the wood is also part of the family’s history. There are photos, and there is provenance. It’s still 100 percent Grandaddy’s gun.

The friend I’ve been referring to is Jay Menefee, the founder of Polywad, the shotshell company in Georgia. Polywad made its name with Spred-R wads, which open up a pattern for shooting in tight cover. No one knows more about shotshell design, materials, behavior and loading than Jay, and he has sent me boxes and boxes of cartridges made up for particular uses. In the 2000s, for example, I was playing around at shooting driven birds with smallbore guns, and Jay supplied tailored 28-gauge and even .410 shells that were utterly lethal. He also carried out most of the development work for HEVI-Shot, and then did all of the company’s first year’s commercial manufacturing; so for a while much of my “bespoke” ammunition contained tungsten. 

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The Ithaca with both sets of barrels, the original stock and forend, and the Fajen stock and forend—all on the slab of walnut from which the new stock was made. Photo courtesy of Terry Allen.

While writing this story, I was reviewing my notes and got a shock. I’d written, “Jay is my age, early 60s, and began wingshooting in Arizona . . .” We now are in our mid-70s, and Polywad’s factory has passed to a new owner. But I’m not the only one who procrastinated; Classic Gunstocks dawdled over the job for five or six years too. Let’s call it part of the aging process—the maturation of this story. Fine wines and all that.

Grandaddy, the man who bought No. 369381 and then 43 years later handed it on to Jay, was M.J. Menefee—known in the family by his boyhood nickname, “Peachy.” In 1916 Marvin James Menefee rode with Black Jack Pershing’s “Punitive Expedition, US Army,” into Mexico after Pancho Villa, and then a year later shipped off to France to fight in the Great War. There he earned a double handful of medals, including the Distinguished Service Cross, the Croix de Guerre, the Légion d’Honneur and finally, in the Argonne Forest during the awful climax of the war, the Purple Heart. He barely survived his wound. He was shot in the face, lost much of his eyesight and spent months hospitalized back in the US. Today there is a photo of him in the Smithsonian Institution as an early example of reconstructive facial surgery. 

Jay, who didn’t come along until 1949, remembers his grandfather as a “scrappy little bugger” whose eyesight and marksmanship were said to have been so good—before the war—that he could light matches with a .22 rifle. Family lore also has it that, as a teenager, Grandaddy was offered a spot on Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics baseball team, but he joined the cavalry instead. 

After his discharge from the hospital and the Army, Grandaddy moved back to the family farmhouse in the small town of Luray, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. There he enjoyed a certain status as a war hero, and when the County Commissioner of Revenue died, he was appointed to fill out the term. At the next election the voters made it official, and this set the trajectory for the rest of Peachy’s life. 

As a commissioner and local celebrity, Peachy pretty much had the run of the county. In the fall he kept the Ithaca and his dogs in the pickup truck, and wherever he went, farmers invited him to shoot their quail. Eventually it was suggested that he run for Congress. He demurred, but this did take him to Washington, DC. He became an assistant to Senator A. Willis Robertson, later co-author of the seminal Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 (and father of televangelist Pat Robertson), and then to another Virginia senator, Harry F. Byrd. In the 1950s Byrd gave Peachy a 20-gauge AyA side-by-side, and Peachy liked it so much that he ordered a 28-gauge to match. 

Grandaddy had bought the Ithaca new in 1923. Until he switched to the smallbore guns, he shot quail with the short barrels and untold numbers of ducks and geese with the long ones. When he gave the gun to his grandson, in 1966, Jay recalls he said, “A thousand quail a year is enough for anybody.” 

Jay was then a sophomore at Glendale High School, in Arizona. Cash was tight, and he worked part-time at a supermarket and, in season, hunted before and after school for the family table. His first bird gun was his father’s Winchester Model 37, a long-barreled, Full-choke, single-shot 12-gauge with no recoil pad. When his shoulder would go black and blue, he’d lay off it for a while. Grandaddy may have given him the Ithaca out of pure sympathy. Jay also acquired a MEC 600 Jr. reloading press—$43.50 from Gander Mountain—to push down the cost of ammunition. 

One day in the fall of 1968, Jay’s gym teacher took him duck hunting near Casa Grande when the desert had been flooded by heavy rains. This was all new, and upon advice, Jay put the short barrels on the Ithaca.

“We were shooting handloads,” he recalled, “lead No. 6s, and standing in chest waders behind bushes. The limit was six ducks apiece. I’ll never forget this. I killed three pintails over the decoys with one shot, got two pintails with the next shot and finally got a greenwing teal that the grownups all missed. They started calling Grandaddy’s gun ‘Jay’s blunderbuss.’” 

By now the Ithaca was wearing the Fajen stock, and Jay was more than comfortable with it. “The right barrel, pure Cylinder bore, did 90 percent of the work for me,” he said. “In hindsight, that was a magic day that taught me the power of the right pattern at the right distance.” 

Jay also began to think about how to improve on—or compensate for—his barrel chokings. This was the seed that grew into Polywad, a company (also “small and scrappy”) dedicated to the proposition that, operator aside, cartridges are more important to wingshooting than guns or chokes. 

First, though, came college. A degree in Poli Sci was of little real-world use, so in due course Jay wound up managing the packing house of a peach and pecan farm in Georgia: “This was where I really got to develop my Spred-R device—shooting crows that raided the orchards.” 

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With its refurbished action, refit and cleaned barrels, and new stock, the Flues has never looked better.

If I’ve learned nothing else about Jay through the years, it’s that he is restlessly—and relentlessly—inquisitive. “This was pre-Internet,” he told me. “I scoured my stash of shooting magazines and searched the public library to find out how spreader loads were made.” The pieces all came together in 1976, when Sports Afield published an article titled “Who Makes the Best 60-Yard Duck and Goose Load? You Do!” The author was Tom Roster, already becoming a shotshell guru nearly 50 years ago and today the author of Shooting Sportsman’s Shot Talk column. 

“So I began designing and proving out my own spreader concept. This led to two years building a plastic molding machine to make my little wads, because I had no money to pay anyone else to do it. I sold my ’39 Chevy for $1,500 seed money to start it all. That was 1979 or ’80.”

The fixation on waterfowling that began in Arizona had led Jay to a massive 3½" 10-gauge AyA Matador choked Full & Full. But this gun needed help too. “Turned out it was near useless for most of my swampy, flooded-creek wood duck hunting or anything over decoys. I called it my punt gun.” There were few factory 10-gauge loads available then, and steel shot was coming in for waterfowl. Jay began to experiment with buffering, packing granular material around the pellets to protect them from deformation and improve patterning. Along with Spred-Rs, these loads, too, became a Polywad product. Whatever the gun, Jay’s ammunition could open up shot patterns at close range or hold them together at long range without blowing holes in them. 

Fast-forward many years. Jay sold the shotshell factory in 2017 but kept most of his patents and intellectual property as well as the ancient Mec 600 Jr. and a pressure/velocity measuring system. These days he’s working out of a small, rented office-workshop and developing more shotshell concepts. His company, Polywad, Inc., has become a consulting and R&D operation with no connection to the old manufacturing plant. 

Out from under the pressure of a daily production schedule, Jay could also refocus on the old Ithaca that had started all this. We’d agreed that it deserved some love and respect; now the time was right. Repair the action—check. Refit the barrels—check. Clean up the barrels to match the refurbished action—check. But with each step, the aftermarket stock stuck out more and more like the sore thumb it was. What to do without turning the gun into Grandaddy’s axe? Or simply cleaning up the old dogleg and putting it back on?

The answer was at hand. Probably around the time the Ithaca Gun Company was founded, in 1883, an American black walnut sapling had established itself outside a cottage on what became Peachy’s gentleman’s farm in Virginia. In the 1950s Jay’s family lived in this cottage for a time, and Jay’s mother and grandmother made brownies and fudge with walnuts from the tree. A year or two before he died, in 1983, Peachy had the tree cut down and part of it sawed into gunstock blanks. On one of their last visits, Peachy asked Jay if he was keeping up the old Ithaca, and then presented him with a choice piece of family-farm walnut for it. It was only right to turn this stick over to Classic Gunstocks, too, and the results speak for themselves. Grandaddy’s gun has never looked better—and not at the expense of decades of family patina. 

“The connections created by this old gun are still playing out,” Jay told me. “It led me to spreaders, biodegradable paper wads, wad-less buffered loads, nontoxic steel shot, HEVI-Shot, lighter loads, doing more with less, blending the old and the new . . . . Really, it’s about saving old guns, saving the shooting sports, maybe even helping save the planet! 

“There are things in our lives—objects, people, events, even poems—that shape us. This gun, this is what shaped me.”

For more information on Classic Gunstocks, visit classicgunstocks.com. For more on Jay Menefee’s Polywad, Inc., visit polywadinnovations.com.

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