Apparently, the term "best gun" and what it means, is a subject of debate lately on certain gun forums. While it is amusing (and a bit cringey) to hear people extoll Parker (or any other maker) as the "Purdey or Boss" of American guns, it's simply not even remotely accurate. Where American doubles are concerned, there was no equivalent to Purdey and certainly not Boss. Ever. Full stop.
In yet another attempt at educating the unaware, I will endeavor to define what makes a best a best.
I will not cover strengths or deficiencies in the design of any particular gun, nor will I get into the sidelock versus boxlock nonsense. The idea that a boxlock, by definition, can't be a best is simply haughty ignorance. My intent is to provide a basic outline of the differences between a mass-market production item and a best quality gun.
- First of all is craftsmanship. This is above all else what sets a best gun apart from other guns. Craftsmanship, by definition, can only exist in a largely hand made product. Assembly is not the same as craftsmanship.
American double gun makers went to great lengths to eliminate as much hand work as possible from the manufacture of their products. This made complete sense from a business standpoint because highly skilled labor (such as actual gunmakers) has always been scarce and therefore expensive.
Machine-made guns, by definition therefore, can never qualify as a best gun and ALL American doubles were almost entirely machine-made. What little hand fitting that was necessary was rarely, if ever, done to the standards of best quality.
Frames were shaped in large part (in some cases entirely) by machine, whereas a true best frame would be sculpted by hand, using hammer, chisels, scrapers, files and supreme skill, with the cost of time being of secondary concern to quality.
Other than wiring the ribs in preparation for soldering, a typical production gun's barrels were entirely made by machine, including boring, choking and chambering.
The production gun's stock and forend were machine-inletted (sometimes entirely) and their external contours were machine-made as well, where the best gun was/is stocked, by hand, from the blank with the inletting being as close to a negative image of the metalwork as is possible.
Parker were the hands-down masters of the machine-made double, with 85-plus percent of the gun being machine-made, including the above-mentioned frame shaping, barrel-making and stocking. This is to (reasonably) be expected from a company with much experience in the manufacture of other mass-market consumer goods. That may have made them the best machine-made gun but not a best gun by any measure. Lest the reader think that I'm "picking on" American guns, let me add that there are more than one English maker of "bests" that I would no longer categorize as such, exactly because so much of their product has been turned over to automated manufacture in recent years. Bests are made from parts that were made by craftsmen, who believed that there are no unimportant parts in a gun and even if no one were ever going to see them, those parts are made to the highest standard. Production guns are assembled from bins of parts that are good enough to be just that, good enough.
- Second is ornamentation. Ornamentation, usually engraving, has nothing whatsoever to do with a gun being a best. A true best-quality gun is exactly that long before the engraver makes his first cut. A best gun is still a best even if it's never engraved but if it is (and most are), the engraving will be done to the highest standards. American makers of the "classic era" seem to have confused high standard with high coverage. Some of the "highest grade" American doubles sport engraving that, shall we say, wasn't the art form's highest expression (but at least you got a lot of it).
Where wood is concerned, the checkering of some high grade American guns was very good indeed. When it was good it was the equal of any. The wood finish is another story however. It must always be remembered that high grade American doubles were still production items, so countless hours applying a flawless finish was simply not on the agenda. A quickly applied film-type finish was used on the lower grade guns while high grades simply got a wipe with oil, leaving the pores unfilled. The "legendary" Model 21 was finished with varnish. An actual oil finish, as would be found on a best, can take weeks or even months to apply properly. This was never, and would never be, an option for a production gun.
Metal finishes are the next agenda item in this category and that includes surface preparation for the finish as well, which is where the production gun differs from the truly handmade gun. The production gun's surfaces were finished (polished) on powered machinery that included wheels and belts of differing grits and contours. Again, this was a time and cost saving measure. The best quality gun is entirely polished by hand, inside and out, with particular attention paid to maintaining flats, contours and sharp edges. While the rust bluing and color case hardening processes are similar, it is the preparation that makes all of the difference in the finished product.
- Third is what might be called the "intangibles" that supposedly make a best a best, things like cost, bragging rights, exclusivity, cache, etc. Let me put that to rest here and now. While some, or all, of these may drive the desire to own a best gun, none of these play any part in what makes a best gun. Quite the opposite, the gun creates them, not the other way around. If "intangibles" actually mattered, the cost of a certain German-made rehash of a failed American over/under might actually be justifiable.
So there it is, in short form. A best is mostly hand made to highest standards, a production gun is mostly machine made to a price point. With the arguable exception of the hammerless H&R, there were no handmade American doubles from the classic era. This does not mean that some of those guns were not good, reliable, serviceable guns but none of them were, are, or ever will be a best gun. It may be enjoyable to daydream about some long-gone white-haired gunmaker smoking the parts of your Parker/Fox/Winchester/Smith and fitting them exactly with no concern other than doing the job to perfection but it will always be just that, a daydream. It never happened and he never existed.
Maybe a photographic representation of one versus the other might help.