Revisiting the King of Trap Guns

This iconic (and archaic) engraving of an old-time trap shooter appeared on the frame of the famous Ithaca 4E, almost from start to finish.

by Terry Wieland

Trap guns, especially old trap guns, have a magic all their own. They are to shotguns what the .600 Nitro Express is to rifles: A highly specialized tool suited to one purpose only, but a purpose it fulfills extremely well.

The .600 NE is made for dealing with on-coming elephants at close range; the trap gun is made for breaking out-going clay targets at (for a shotgun) long range.  In the former case, your life is on the line, while in the latter, thousands of dollars.  Either way, you don’t want to lose.

In days past, all the great American gunmakers produced trap guns, including Parker and L.C. Smith, but one outlasted them all and stands alone: the Ithaca, known as the King of Trap Guns.  It was made from 1914 until 1977.  By the end, it cost more to make an Ithaca than they could sell them for.  The last dozen Ithaca trap guns went to Jaqua’s in Ohio, long a specialist in fine guns, particularly trap guns.

The history of the Ithaca trap gun can be divided into two distinct phases.  The first, from 1914 to 1921, was the era of the “Flues,” designed by Emile Flues; the second, the “Knick,” began in 1922 and lasted until the end.  The models remained the same, and looked much the same, but the Knick, designed by Frank Knickerbocker, had different internals.  It was noted for being stronger than the Flues, but when it came to durability, the Flues was no slouch.  Of course, standards of durability are different for trap guns, which are expected to routinely deliver 250,000-plus trouble-free shots during their lifetime.

The action of a Flues-model Ithaca 4E, made in 1919 and restored by Edwin von Atzigen. At the age of 102, it is still going strong and looking good.

In his book, The American Single Barrel Trap Gun, author Frank Conley examines various myths about the Flues versus the Knick, including the widespread belief that the Flues is not safe with modern shotshells.  Exactly how this got started is anyone’s guess, but it simply ain’t true.

Notable users of the Ithaca incude Annie Oakley and Theodore Roosevelt.  Miss Oakley broke 98/100 for the first time with an Ithaca.  Not bad company to be in.

By the time of its demise, however, the Ithaca looked decidedly old-fashioned.  Among the changes to the trap world were the rise of the over-and-under gun, which allowed a shooter to use the same gun for 16-yard, handicap, and doubles.  From this grew the “unsingle” — a single-barrel built on an O/U frame, but with only a lower barrel.  This reduces felt recoil, a never-ending search by trap shooters.  After Perazzi won gold at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, the Perazzi became “the” gun for any shooter with pretensions to the top rungs.

A recipe for success on the trap field — or, at the very least, a snappy appearance and olfactory satisfaction.

Since then, trap guns have become the most varied and, in some cases, bizarre of all shotguns.  I am thinking now of the Ljutic “Recoilless Space Gun,” a weird contraption unlike any shotgun seen before or since.  It was not cheap at $3,695 in 1988.  I know of only one person who has actually seen one, and the only place you’ll find a photo is a Gun Digest from the Eighties.

Aside from the unsingles, even allegedly conventional guns had adopted adjustable stocks that look like something out of Rube Goldberg, adjustable ribs, methods of varying weight and balance, adjustable trigger assemblies, and a range of interchangeable chokes that defy belief.

Still, for lovers of fine guns, there is nothing quite like an Ithaca from the golden age.  Every year, in October or November, when the leaves have turned and the air is crisp, I don a jacket and tie and take my Ithaca out to the trap range.  There I shoot a few rounds, always using Federal Paper, partly for the heavenly aroma, and partly because I’ve scored more 25s at trap with Federal Paper than any other shotshell.

I like to think that, on those days, the shades of Miss Oakley and Mr. Roosevelt are there on the line with me.

The Ithaca and I don’t always score high — and when we don’t, it’s my fault —  but we always look good.  Always.


Wieland really does wear a tie when shooting trap.  Not all the time, but often enough to sustain a reputation for seditious eccentricity.  Which he relishes.