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Charles Parker is one of those quintessential “American Dream” stories whose business success was forged during the War Between the States and America’s subsequent western expansion. It’s a rags-to-riches tale that combined ingenuity, hard work, and determination to create a multi-generational, family-owned business known for both introducing small-bore shotguns and producing collector pieces. His firearms were so inspiring that nearly 90 years since the company was sold, and over 75 years since a gun has been crafted with the Parker name, these high-quality guns are still sought out among collectors and the Parker Brothers name is considered a classic among gun enthusiasts.
The eleventh of 12 children, Charles Parker was born on January 2, 1809, in the town of Cheshire, Connecticut. Although the family was poverty-stricken, Charles was not deterred in his ambitions and always strived for success. To help make ends meet, Charles started working as a farmhand during his teen years, and as he grew into adulthood, he worked as a button maker and then made coffee mills.
After four years in the coffee mill industry, Charles decided he was tired of working for others and was determined to create his own business. At the age of 23, with 70 dollars in his pocket, Charles Parker started a coffee mill plant. The original plant ran on literal horsepower (which rumors claim was blind and half lame) until 1844, when sales increased to the point that consumer need demanded he switch to steam engine power.
The Beginning of Parker Brothers
This same year, Parker joined forces with Oliver Snow and formed Parker, Snow, Brooks, & Company, which would eventually become known as the Meriden Machine Company and later include Parker Brothers, a side company that would manufacture the iconic Parker shotgun. A machinery and foundry, the company employed 120 men and produced coffee mills, lamps, tools, silverware, and grain mills. It also helped put Meriden, Connecticut, on the industrial map, where it would stay for years to come.
Always a shrewd businessman, Parker released a catalog that showcased not only items crafted from his plants, but also goods that other companies were selling. These companies included in Parker’s catalog were companies he had invested in, allowing him to provide a secondary source of income for himself and his family.
But in 1860, the American Civil War broke out and the Parker Snow Company, as it was then called, was contracted to produce 15,000 Springfield rifled muskets for the Union army. As he knew little about firearms, Parker hired gunsmith brothers, William and George Miller, who assisted in the transition to manufacturing arms.
By the end of the Civil War, Charles was joined by his brothers Edmund and John, and the three of them, intrigued by the success of their war gun sales, decided to continue manufacturing long guns.
While the company continued to manufacture the breech-loading rifles that had been commissioned by the Union forces, the brothers started work on a design for a shotgun, which they figured could be marketed to those “going west,” who would need reliable and effective firearms to both protect and provide.
Parker Brothers’ Innovative Shotguns
Around 1867, Charles was elected as the first Mayor of Meriden and his three sons, Wilber, Charles Eddy, and Dexter, all took a company role to the newly rebranded Parker Brothers – the division of Meriden Machine Company that would continue to make firearms. The following year, they released the first Parker shotgun, an innovative double-barrelled breech-loading percussion hammer gun. Parker Brothers eventually offered shotguns in various configurations, including 8 gauge, 10 gauge, 11 gauge, 12 gauge, 14 gauge, 16 gauge, and 20 gauge.
Charles Parker Senior died on January 31, 1902, just a few weeks after he turned 93, but the companies he built continued to thrive for decades.
In 1903, Parker Brothers released the first-ever 28 gauge, a small-bore shotgun at only 0.550 inch. Even with its small size, the 28 gauge proved effective and became a trusted standard in both upland hunting and competition shooting.
In 1926, Charles’ grandson Wilbur Parker Junior and Wilber’s son Charles debuted the first .410 bore Parker shotgun, which Charles had actually crafted in 1924 while apprenticing at Gun Works.
The manufacturing of firearms continued at Parker Brothers until 1934, when the impact of the Great Depression led to the sale of the company to Remington Arms, which continued to use the Meriden, Connecticut plant for another four years. In 1943, the last Parker shotgun left the Remington plant, ending an era that lasted 80 years and accounted for an estimated 245,000 shotguns.
Charles Parker’s company and the guns it created are highly prized additions to any gun collector, and many bring in upward of $100,000. Parker shotguns are considered by many to be the best and most collectible shotguns in America. They’ve graced the shooting shoulders of American icons like Annie Oakley and her husband Frank Butler (who were rumored to have owned at least 12 Parker shotguns), Clark Gable, and Ernest Hemingway.
Today there is even a Parker Gun Collectors Association, which celebrates and memorializes Parker muskets and shotguns.