Fans of the Western film “Shane” will recognize the quote, “A gun is a tool; no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it.” On a hunting trip in South Dakota, we had the pleasure of spending time with a good man and one of the tools of his ranching trade – an Ithaca Model 37 shotgun. 

In the hands of LaVern Koupal, a hard-working, honest, God-fearing man, learned how his Ithaca helped build four generations of respectful, freedom-loving hunters and outdoors people. 

Patriarch Lavern’s Beloved Shotgun

At almost 78 years old, LaVern is the patriarch of South Dakota’s Koupal Angus ranching family. Their farmland covers some of the state’s most desirable pheasant hunting habitat, a fact not lost on LaVern. He has been a hunter since an early age, and when he bought his Ithaca new 60 years ago, little did he know the stories it could tell today. He saved his graduation money and purchased the Model 37 before finishing high school. 

The gun he chose from the rack of his local shop was a standard 12-gauge Ithaca Gun Company Model 37. With uncheckered hardwood stocks, a plain barrel, and blued finish, that pump action was destined for both work and enjoyment. There’s a fixed full choke, brass front bead, and bird-scene engraving on the receiver. The butt pad is a simple polymer plate – no rubber recoil pad here. Though the gun is no museum showpiece, the memories it carries are worth the gun’s weight in gold. 

Still wondering about the quality and durability of an Ithaca Model 37? LaVern says one of his proudest memories with that shotgun happened when he was picking corn with the gun in tow. He wanted to see how many pheasants he could harvest with a single box of 25 shells. Well, he bagged 23 birds, and, he said with a smile, “the gun has never failed me. It kicks pretty well, and none of the little great-grandkids want to shoot it yet, but I’m pretty proud of it.”

One Durable Gun

LaVern with his Ithaca Model 37 Shotgun
LaVern's old Model 37 has lived the life of a workaday gun for four generations now. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/

Looking at that old slide-action shotgun, there’s little doubt LaVern’s Ithaca could use not only a good cleaning, but some stock repair and perhaps also refinishing as well. He says he’s been thinking about that for a while. But, then again, the gun just keeps on ticking. It rides in the rack of the Polaris side-by-side he drives around the land every day. 

While LaVern’s gun shows the honest wear of a working man and practical hunter, we did suggest that LaVern repair the stock on his Model 37. Shooting a 12 gauge – including the Ithaca 37 and especially in a Featherlight – comes with recoil, and we’d hate to see that stock splinter or break further. 

It does, though, warm our hearts to see a well-made gun that has lived a life of old-fashioned use as a tool of the hunt and of the ranch. So many guns end up as safe queens, never finding their intended purpose, and this one is a testament to the quality of USA craftsmanship, a family of hunters, a running ranch gun, and what it means to be an American gun owner. 

About the Ithaca Model 37

LaVern with his Ithaca Model 37 Shotgun
From civilian hunters to military service, the Ithaca Model 37 has proven its lasting power. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/

The Ithaca Model 37 is a time-tested shotgun design that, like so many others, can be chalked up to John Moses Browning. The shotgun entered production in 1937 – thus the numerical name – and has been a consistent companion for both bird and deer hunters ever since. 

Few upland hunters who favor slide actions can resist the allure of the ol’ Model 37. Be it standard or Featherlight, there is a Model 37 suitable for almost any shooter. Choose from bores like 16, 20, or 28 for pursuing upland birds in style, or go with a standard 12 gauge for a do-all shotgun. 

One of the most important design innovations is how the Model 37 loads and ejects via its port on the underside of the receiver, making it more friendly for lefties. The solid receiver is engineered from a single block of American-made steel, and the 37 is fed by a tubular magazine. While synthetic variations were produced later, the most common 37s wear hardwood stocks. 

Many used the standard pistol grip style, but the company offered straight, English-style furniture as well. LaVern’s shotgun shows off the standard, plain field barrel, though some were fitted with a slightly pricier ventilated rib barrel, with length choices in 24, 26, 28, and 30 inches. The Model 37 Deer Slayer could even be had with a rifled slug barrel. 

Ithaca Model 37
The Model 37 comes in different variants, but all offer American-made quality. (Photo: Ithaca)
Ithaca Model 37
Models included standard, plain field barrels or ventilated rib barrels. (Photo: Ithaca)

The Ithaca Gun Company not only holds a special place on the civilian market but also contributed to the success of our country’s war efforts, producing a number of military firearms during the WWII era, including a run of shotguns. According to an Ithaca Times article, more than two million Model 37s were produced as of 2003. The company has changed ownership several times over the years, including a short lapse in production, but the name continues to find its way to shotguns today. That’s one heckuva legacy, and folks like LaVern characterize the Ithaca story. 

Buying a Model 37

Hunters in the field with an Ithaca Model 37
The Model 37 is a working gun, perfect for the field, and there are used ones available today at affordable prices. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/

The Ithaca Model 37 is a workaday pump that’s at home in just about any conditions. Though they are some of the most proven classic slide actions on the market, Ithaca Model 37s in perfectly serviceable condition sell for a bargain even today. On our South Dakota pheasant adventure, we saw more than one scarred Ithaca in window gun racks, each of which has bagged countless birds over the years, a testament to the gun’s longevity. In fact, the Model 37 has been claimed as the longest-running production pump-action American shotgun.

Over the years, the Model 37 could be had in the bread-and-butter 12 gauge, built for over 100 years, as well as 20 and 28 gauge. There have even been Home Defense, Deer Slayer, Turkey, Women’s/Youth, and Waterfowl variants. Whether choosing the standard Model 37 or the lighter Featherlight series, know that you’re shooting a finely crafted, USA-built, slide-driven shotgun with a lineage spanning a century. Not many shotgun manufacturers can say that. 

Hunters and shooters wanting to follow in LaVern’s big footsteps and create their own well-loved heirloom Model 37 have a choice of buying used or new, as the Ithaca Gun Company is still in operation. While new production versions retail from $1,199 to $2,154, used model 37s can be found for half that amount – or less – with plenty of life left. 

The American Dream Lives

Family of hunters with shotguns and pheasants
LaVern's Model 37 has been part of a hunting tradition now spanning four generations. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/
Children with a pheasant after a hunt
No matter who eventually inherits LaVern's Model 37, it will come with a long hunting legacy to cherish. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/

Though LaVern doesn’t do as much hunting as he once did, he’s sure to encourage that sporting way of life in his kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids. Not only does he teach them how to shoot and hunt, but he also helps protect the dwindling wild pheasant population by planting fields of corn and milo strictly at cover for those beautiful South Dakota ringnecks. 

Spending a few days with LaVern and the Koupal family gives all of us gun owners and hunters hope for a bright future. No matter who the heir of the old Model 37 turns out to be when LaVern decides to retire it from field service, they may not have the gun with the most monetary value, but it sure would be difficult to find one that could tell greater stories than this one. 

revolver barrel loading graphic