Examining a B Grade Lefever
American double guns are sometimes short-changed for their quality or sophistication by those who cherish guns of English, Italian or Prussian origin. This gun, by Daniel M. Lefever, however, present some of the most innovative designs, practical mechanical principles, soundest workmanship and loveliest embellishment of any double guns I’ve seen.
The subject of this column is a fine B Grade Lefever from the early 1890s from the collection of a close friend. The best part of the 16-gauge’s condition is the virtually untouched metalwork. The worst parts are the original stock’s overdone refinishing along with a stock extension and ventilated recoil pad.
The original high-contrast, black-and-honey-colored English walnut stock features an unusual Monte Carlo (raised) comb, fluted horn pistol-grip cap, and black-and-white stock spacers and a pad that were added later. The checkering appears to be in good condition, with elongated diamonds—about 3-1/2:1 ratio—with a mix of point and fill-in-style patterns on the grip and forend. Unfortunately, the drop points and stepped sideplate moldings were washed out during refinishing, and the triggerplate is proud of the wood due to either bent metal or overzealous stock sanding. Another touch of elegance is the checkered and gold-plated triggers.
The 26” barrels display a lovely Damascus pattern with reinforced breeches and elaborately chiseled fences with scalloping and flowers. The gun weighed about 6-1/2 pounds and cost $200 when new. The owner rescued the Lefever from the shelves of one of the current “big box” retailers who’d listed it as “restocked,” probably because of the refinishing and alterations. The B Grade is slated for restoration, to return it as nearly as possible to original condition.
I greatly enjoy the engraving on this B Grade. The views of the right lockplate and the right side close up reveal some of the nuances that I find so appealing. The dogs look like setters instead of generic hunting dogs. Maybe they’re not as perfectly rendered as a lot of fine modern engraving is, but surely they’re more genuine than some other American, English and Continental canines of this vintage. The vignette is attractive, though simple, with foreground grasses, a distant fence-line and open sky giving a realistic sense of foreshortening. (The way the case colors have faded to look like a storm cloud over the Montana prairie with the cocking-indicator sun adds unplanned loveliness.)
The central oval is well sized and well placed to draw the eye, and the way the oval’s border overlays the lockplate’s “comma” edge border is a technique employed by experienced engravers to lend another layer of depth. The repeated border between the vignette’s ovals reminds me of an ornate gilt frame of an oil painting of this era.
I also enjoy the use of “bright cuts,” the clearest example being the upward half-scroll tendril just behind the “L” in “Lefever.” Such thin-to-wide cuts are produced by tilting the engraving tool while it travels around a curve. Showing bright metal when freshly engraved, the cuts darken over time and offer depth in outlining the tendrils and forming the interiors of the scrolls.
Lefever guns were like no others, and because they continued to advance throughout the course of their manufacture, few folks are truly familiar with the mechanisms. One might separate Lefever guns into four different categories: pre-1880 hammerguns; the Automatic Hammerless, including the sideplated gun shown here; crossbolt, boxlock guns from D.M. Lefever & Son; and Ithaca made, Nitro Special and Grade A boxlock guns, which have no similarity except in name.
Possibly the most popular with today’s collectors, sideplated Hammerless guns are all quite old—the last having been made about 1919. The majority will be found with Damascus or twist-steel barrels. As with all true Lefevers (Not the Ithaca guns), these had many unique mechanisms, not the least of which is the ball-and-socket joint instead of a traditional hinge pin. Other innovations include a rib-extension lockup, a continually evolving cocking mechanism separate from the forend, and triggers adjustable for pull weight. Virtually all mechanisms of Lefever guns were adjustable to compensate for wear.
The Hammerless guns were offered in a variety of grades, with the lowest being the DS at $40 going up to H and then through A, AA and Optimus at $400. There was also a Thousand Dollar Grade, and one can only imagine what kind of shotgun that much money would buy in 1912.
More information can be found at: www.lefevercollectors.com/
A Better Grade of Gun Book
For those who have more than a passing interest in Lefever guns, I highly recommend Robert W. Elliot’s, Uncle Dan Lefever, Master Gunmaker (2001, self-published, 240 pp.). I had a copy of Lefever: Guns of Lasting Fame (1986), by Robert Elliot & Jim Cobb, and thought I had the book of Lefever guns. Not so. The Uncle Dan volume is a quantum leap forward in material and presentation.
In this article I have only scratched the surface, as the subject of Lefever guns is essentially limitless. Manufactured over a span of 80-plus years from Ellis-Lefever guns through the Ithaca Lefever Nitro Special, there is simply no end to the grades, varieties and developments to be studied.
As author Elliot told me, “Lefever is a name everyone knows, but few people know much about the guns.” I really appreciate Elliot’s approach to the material, as he relies on factual observation and original documents to present his subject. There is none of the conjecture found in some gun books, and the author lets the guns and documents speak for themselves.
A real treat is the 43-page color section in the back. Most grades are shown in near-original condition with high-quality photography. There are pictures of several Optimus Grade guns and even a few photos of the legendary Thousand Dollar Grade.
Uncle Dan Lefever, Master Gunmaker, is available for $81 postpaid from Robert W. Elliot, 224 Fairlawn Drive, Hideaway, TX 75771. —S.D.H.