A History of Parker Brothers Shotguns
By Danielle Hollembaek
When thinking about longstanding firearm companies, one question that frequently comes to mind is, “Where did these businesses get their start?” The origin of a firearm company is usually not a simple and easy story; the gun industry was, and truly still is, an extremely competitive field. One man who thought he might take a stab at the world of firearms development was Charles Parker, the founder of Parker Brothers shotguns. The company has a long and detailed story with its roots laid well before the Civil War.
The story begins in Connecticut, the state still referred to as, “America’s Arsenal” because of its deep roots in early firearms development in the United States. Charles Parker was born on January 2, 1809 in Cheshire, Connecticut. He was the eleventh of twelve children in his impoverished family. From a young age, Parker knew that he was destined for success. In his teens, he had been a farmhand to help his family make a living, and by age 18 made his way up north to Meriden, Connecticut to start making a name for himself. He first started work as a button maker, and in the typical “rags-to-riches” narrative style, he was then hired by a well-known business man Patrick Lewis to make coffee mills. After four years of working for someone else, Parker decided it was time to be his own boss.
In 1832, with $70.00 and a dream of what could be, he started his first coffee mill production plant. The plant ran strictly on horse power for twelve years. Today, that seems like an unusual way to power a plant, but in that day and age, it was a common power source. His brother Edmund joined him in the business in 1833 and was involved with the factory on and off for around a decade. It was a hard path to success with ups and downs throughout, but Parker never faltered. Once the business saw success, he upgraded to steam engine power to fit the growing producing demand of the plant in 1844.
1844 was an eventful year for Parker not only because of the power upgrade, he also joined with a pair of business partners to form the company that would start his firearms career: Parker, Snow, Brooks, & Company. The business functioned as a machinery and foundry, and in time made numerous household and factory items. Success within the plant is largely due to the fact that it was the era of inventions and industrial growth. With a crew of 120 men, the business began to produce the machinery and steel products needed by so many new and flourishing businesses.
As time went on, Parker was producing more than just coffee mills at the plant: lamps, tools, silverware, grain mills, and dozens of other necessities of the time were made at the factory. As the company expanded, it started to print catalogs of not only his plant-produced items, but also of goods that other companies in the area were selling. It is quite likely that the business-minded Parker invested in these companies to expand his portfolio and have multiple sources of incomes in different markets. As time went on, he assigned his son Wilbur Parker to look over some of these investments.
When the Civil War hit the states in 1860, the company changed its name to the Parker Snow Co. and the business was contracted to produce 15,000 Model 1861 Springfield rifled muskets for the Union with total earnings equaling $285,000. Charles was no firearm expert, so he hired William H. Miller and his brother George H. Miller to help manufacture the rifles. The brothers were skilled firearm designers and with them, Parker Snow Co. formed the Meriden Manufacturing Company, which also produced was the Triplett and Scott repeating carbines that were manufactured throughout the Civil War.
It is said that Wilbur was captured by the south and imprisoned for being a “Yankee” industrialist. He developed tuberculosis while imprisoned and suffered with spells of illness the rest of his life. Wilbur served as the overseer at a few different companies owned by his father, but his role as operations manager at the firearm company was said to be his favorite. The Parker family developed a great passion for firearms.
Towards the end of the war, Charles Parker’s brother John joined his company, and with his other brother Edmund, the three took full ownership of the business with the former partners becoming stockholders in in the factory. The facility’s name was changed to “The Meriden Company.”
The Start of Parker Brothers Shotguns
The Parker Brothers had no experience in firearms before the war, but after seeing the success and revenue generated by gun sales, their interest was sparked. Not to mention that the factory already had spent money on firearm manufacturing equipment they could not afford to let got to waste. They continued to sell the breech loading rifles while the factory was developing a shotgun design. The firearms market suffered after the Civil War, as it does with any war, because the government contracts and overall demand lessened greatly. Charles decided that the market for shotguns would be high after the war because of the rapid expansion and movement to the west. People needed a sturdy, reliable, and high functioning shotgun to defend their family and to get dinner on the table. He also saw potential for improvements in shotgun design.
In 1866, the first shotgun produced at the company was made using the Miller brothers’ patent for breech loading conversion. The markings on the barrel read “Made by the Meriden Man’f Co. for Charles Parker” and the marketing campaign for the firearm stated it was, “The Gun of 1866.” The shotgun used a “T-latch” which gets its name because it is a “T” shaped barrel release lever on the top of the tang. Pressing the release button at the bottom of the receiver releases the latch for loading. It operated with a spring-loaded pin to move the lifter bolting mechanism. The gun also had a common two trigger set up for accurate and quick firing. A keyed fore end was used on early models since the body of old muskets were the frame of the early shotguns. A unique element to the shotgun was its straight grip stock which was rare in the 1800s and early 1900s, when a pistol grip was more common. This shotgun was fine for hunting, but Charles knew that improvements needed to be made to keep up in the ever evolving firearms industry.
Between 1867 and 1868 the factory name changed again to “Parker Brothers.” Charles gave positions in the company to all three of his sons: Wilbur, Charles Eddy, and Dexter. The business had become a generational tradition. This is the same year, the first true Parker Brothers brand shotgun was sold.
The difference between the 1865 model and the 1868 model shotgun were improvements in the “T-latch.” The mind behind the change was former Smith & Wesson employee Charles A. King, who had recently joined the company. He has been called “Father of the Parker Gun” because his improved design was used for decades by the company. The guns became what are known as “lifter action” shotguns because a button in front of the trigger guard was pressed upwards to open the action. The shotgun used external hammers and ammunition similar to Maynard metallic cartridges – an important improvement to the original design. The next innovation for shotguns would be the pinfire mechanism, but Parker Brothers skipped that step and went straight to self-contained shotgun shells like the ones we know and use today.
Parker Brothers shotguns also came in a wide range of styles. The barrel design was the main distinguishing price factor for the guns. More luxurious Parker Brothers shotsguns had a twisted steel or Damascus barrels which looked elegant and were very sturdy. The twists had different names like the “plain twist” on common shotguns, the “three blade barrel” on more impressive guns, and the most expensive was the “Bernard Twist” barrel.
The Parker Brothers had many different grades and designs for their shotguns that all were laid out using a lettering and naming system. From extremely fine and expensively inlaid and engraved, to the classic, plain hunting shotgun, Parker Brothers had a firearm to fit anyone’s needs. The only issue that came with their expansive variety and broadly priced guns is some people assume that all guns produced by the company would be too pricey for them to buy. That was not the case with Parker Brothers, as they had a range of guns for a wide array of different buyers. Marketing guru Charles thought about how to appeal to a broader range people, and his scheme involved labeling the less expensive shotgun option as “Old Reliable.” Christian Sharps of Sharps Manufacturing, another Connecticut gun making factory, had already labeled his Sharps rifle as “Old Reliable.” Sharps manufacturing business went under in 1876 and in that same year, Parker Brothers took the tagline for their firearms.
In 1889, the Parker Brothers developed their first hammerless shotguns. This was a significant change since the double hammer look was a staple of the manufacturer. This was one of the most drastic changes in the gun since the early 1870s models. Later on, in 1917, the vast majority of the Parker Brothers shotguns did away with the exposed double hammer and became hammerless, though the double hammers did remain as a special order feature on high-end Parker Brothers guns.
The company continued to thrive for many years with few competitors. The Parker Brothers had a hold on the designer side-by-side double shotgun niche market until the 1890s when Winchester released their repeating shotgun, the Model 1893. The Parkers stayed strong and kept producing their quality shotguns.
Fundamental alterations were not made often to the shotgun, but one important change did happen in the early years of the 20th century when James Hayes patented an updated cocking and ejecting system that reduced the number of parts used in production. As technology advanced, so did the efficiency of the factory. Electricity, reliable transportation, and phones made ordering and receiving a Parker Brothers shotgun much easier for the customer. Manufacturing became quicker, and the rate of production increased. This lead to more time to create new designs and forms of Parker Brothers guns. There are a large variety of different shotgun grades produced from the company with the finest ones being the “A-1 Special” and “Invincible” grades.
In the early 1920s, a single trigger, ventilated rib, and an addition of a beavertail fore end were added to Parker Brothers shotgun. These were the last major design changes made to the shotguns.
The First .410 Bore Parker Brothers Shotgun
In 1928, Wilbur Parker Jr., son of Charles’ son Wilbur, developed the first .410 bore Parker shotgun. Wilbur Jr. or Charlie graduated from Yale in 1923 and spent three years apprenticing in the Parker Company’s factories. In RIAC’s May Premier Auction, the first prototype Parker Brothers First .410 bore double barrel shotgun ever made by Parker Brothers will be available to the collecting public. This historic shotgun was built by Charlie Parker, Jr in 1924 at Gun Works. The shotgun was built using a 28 gauge Parker Brothers frame and has lightening cutouts in the water table. It is documented as serial number “190767” and uses a stock seen on an A-1 Special grade model. The shotgun was very intriguing to people including Vice President of International Silver Co. and Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut Roy Wilcox. Upon seeing the gun, Lieutenant Governor Wilcox immediately requested Parker Brothers to make .410 shotguns for himself and one of his friends, and then ordered four additional guns. The shotgun is legendary and stayed in the Parker family until the 1970s. In 2015, it was the cover story for to Parker Pages: Journal of the Parker Gun Collectors Association. This is a one-of-a-kind historic firearm.
The build of the shotgun is truly amazing. Since it is a prototype, all the parts and pieces were put together like a glorious experiment. The barrels are from Ithaca, and are unmarked except for an “XF3” Remington code on the barrel flat. The shotgun has beautiful floral engravings on the boxlock receiver and the signature “PARKER BROS” on the side accompanied by sculpted fences. The upper tang displays elegant “A-1 Special” design floral engraving. The “A-1 Special” is only one step down from the extremely rare (only three were ever produced) and highly desirable “Invincible” grade Parker Brothers shotguns that are displayed in the NRA National Firearms Museum.
The buttstock possesses fancy and exquisite fleur-de-lis checkering. The forearm of the .410 bore has A-1 Special design engraving on the hardware and holds the numbers”191767”. It is believed that the second “1” is likely a mistake in the stamping process. The forearm is almost entirely covered by fine checkering.
The action harkens back to the signature double triggers seen on early Parker Brothers shotguns. From the sculpted trigger guard, automatic tang safety, and pierced break lever, this shotgun is a top notch example of Parker Brothers’ fine craftsmanship. With all the distinguished details and unique features on this shotgun, one could talk for hours about its history and rarity.
The End of an Era
The .410 bore was just one of the many astounding items developed by Parker Brothers. Their upscale and beautifully embellished shotguns had a hold on the high end long gun market for decades. They continued producing top of the line shotguns until 1934 when, most likely due to the effects and aftermath of the Great Depression, the manufacturer sold their production to the Remington Arms Co. Their shotguns continued to be manufactured in Meriden until 1938 and then the factory was relocated to Remington’s Ilion, New York factory. Remington produced Parker Brother’s guns for a little over five years. In 1942, the last Parker shotgun was made and the end of an era for exquisite shotguns was reached. In Parker Brothers almost 80 years of business, it is presumed that they produced nearly 245,000 shotguns.
In the 1980s, a rebirth of the classic shotgun hit the market. People whose fathers and grandfathers had used Parker Brothers shotguns desired having similar ones in their collections. In 1985, reproduction Parker Brothers guns were made in Japan, mainly in 20 and 28 gauge. The average price was about $5,000, a hefty price tag for a firearm at the time. The rebirth was short lived, and once again the Parker Brothers shotgun was retired. The original Parker Brothers shotguns still live on, however, and are highly desirable collector guns.
The Parker Brothers story is one focused on hard work, dedication, and family. Charles Parker was a man with an inkling of hope that one day he would be a success. With good investments, savvy business skills, and a work ethic that kept him and his family afloat, he became the honorable founder of the high-end shotgun company. The Parker Brothers name is one that has survived in the gun collecting world not only because of the top notch shotguns that were produced from the company, but also because of the quality minds and leaders that made the company successful.
In our 2019 May Premier Auction, we will be auctioning off the inaugural prototype .410 bore shotgun, but we also have other Parker Brother guns such as VH, VHE, BHE grades, and an additional .410 bore in our catalog. Be sure to keep an eye out for these highly regarded shotguns – you don’t want to miss out on your chance to own a piece of Parker Brothers history.
The Parker Story – Gunther, Mullins, Parker, Cote
Parker Guns “Old Reliable” – Ed Muderlak
Parker – America’s Finest Shotgun – Peter H. Johnson
Parker Gun, An Immortal Classic – Larry L. Baer