Appreciation for the craftsmanship of guns made in Fulton in the first half of the 20th century has triggered a special annual event that was celebrated again this past weekend.
The ninth annual Hunter Arms Homecoming took place in Fulton. Hosted by the Friends of History in Fulton and the L.C. Smith Collectors Association, the weekend included historical displays at the Pratt House Museum, a shooting competition at the Pathfinder Fish & Game Club, and an awards banquet at Tavern on the Lock Restaurant.
The Hunter Arms Homecoming invites collectors, shooters, and anyone interested in history to gather and share information about L.C. Smith and Hunter Arms guns. In the shooting competition, participants were required to use an L.C. Smith or a Hunter Arms gun produced in Fulton from the 1890s to 1950.
This year’s shooting competition saw more than 20 registered participants, plus walk-ins, according to event co-chair Les Weldin. Events included trap, skeet, 5-stand, and sporting clays. Awards were to be presented to the top three finishers in each category.
In addition, there was an overall competition. Shooters took their scores from 5-stand and sporting clays, plus either trap or skeet, and the person with the highest overall total score for three events also won an award.
But nobody goes home empty-handed.
“I personally make up souvenir gifts for every shooter and every displayer, so nobody goes home without a souvenir or a prize,” Weldin said.
The weekend is about much more than awards. It’s an opportunity for people from all over the country to get together and share their appreciation for these special Fulton-made guns. Weldin said people have come to these reunions from as far away as Alaska and California.
Terry and Barb Reckart made the trip from Geneva, Ohio.
“This is our fifth time up here,” said Terry Reckart. “We’re participating in the homecoming shoot, bringing all the old guns home and we get to play with them, do with them what they were designed to do.”
He said he owns six of the Fulton-made guns. The Reckarts return to the Hunter Arms Homecoming primarily to see friends they’ve made through the years at the event, and to meet new friends with similar interests.
“It’s the people. It’s the camaraderie. It’s a certain group of people that enjoy the same things,” he said. “We enjoy these guns and enjoy shooting. It’s a perfect weekend.”
He said he has won awards in the shooting competition in previous years. Last year was the first that the group was able to take part in the Pathfinder Club’s new sporting clays course. Sporting clays is particularly challenging for the older guns, none made in the past 70 years.
“The clays course is good. It’s a little difficult for these older guns because the older guns are typically tight choked,” Terry Reckart said. “The clays course here has a lot of in-your-face type targets. It’s pretty challenging.”
Barb Reckart said she enjoys seeing familiar faces at the homecoming weekend.
“I come for support and to see the area and see the same people year after year,” she said. “They treat us so nicely here. I try to find activities we would enjoy. The banquet is always something to look forward to. Les does a wonderful job. I’ve been to the Pratt House several times. They have just a great display over there. There are a couple of guys every year that bring guns that they like to show off.”
Weldin, a member of the L.C. Smith Collectors Association and Friends of History in Fulton, said the homecoming weekend is about friendships. “I’ve gotten to know some really nice friends. It’s a very congenial group,” he said.
Asked what makes the Hunter Arms/L.C. Smith guns special, he mentioned the quality of the craftsmanship and engravings and called each gun a work of art.
“For me personally, a Fultonian, they were all made in Fulton at the Hunter Arms factory,” Weldin said. “They’ve been called the best of the American made, although some other gun manufacturers will dispute that. They made over 500,000 guns. They’re known as a gun that never shoots loose. That’s because they patented the locking rotary bolt, which locks the barrels into the receiver and keeps it tight.”
He thanked the members of the Pathfinder Fish and Game Club for allowing the use of its facilities for the shooting competition.
The Pratt House has its own Hunter Arms collection that includes guns, engraving tools, historical advertisements, and more. In addition, several collectors brought their own firearms to feature in six Hunter Arms/L.C. Smith-themed displays. Visitors during the weekend were invited to vote for their favorite, and awards for the displays were presented at the banquet.
Jent Mitchell, a resident of Stephens City, Virginia, is a frequent visitor during the Hunter Arms Homecoming.
“We come to celebrate the home of this shotgun,” he said, adding that he owns between six and 12 of the Fulton-made guns.
“They were built in the traditional shotgun manner, copying the English shotgun. The English built the best side-by-side shotguns before Samuel Colt came along,” he said.
Mitchell said he comes back for the homecoming weekends to renew friendships and to celebrate the quality of these firearms.
“It’s like the Civil War reenactors. We come and shoot these old guns and prove they can still shoot,” he said.
Michigan’s Jim Hunter, whose great-grandfather was one of the Hunter brothers that owned Hunter Arms, was in attendance.
“We always like to make the trip because it’s very special. We get to see a lot of friends we’ve made over the years,” Hunter said. “We get to see the shotguns and actually try to shoot a little bit and see if I can hit a clay pigeon here or there.”
The quality workmanship of the guns is reflected in the fact they are still being fired, used, and collected. Owners of the guns get together on Hunter Arms Homecoming weekend to share their love of the guns and be with others with the same interests.
“This is a core group of people who love the L.C. Smiths and they love to do the shoots and spend time with each other,” Hunter said.
The Hunter Arms Company began in 1877 when W.H. Baker and Company started making the Baker Three-Barrel Gun in Lisle, New York. Baker formed a partnership with Lyman Cornelius Smith — whose name would be linked to the firearm for more than a century — two years later to begin manufacturing the weapon in Syracuse. By 1888, Smith had taken over the company and sold it to John Hunter Sr. of Sterling.
In 1889, a Fulton factory was completed and the Hunter Arms Company was manufacturing L.C. Smith firearms in the city. Production of the L.C. Smith guns remained in the city until the late 1940s when a section of the first floor of the factory collapsed, and was not rebuilt.
For decades, the Hunter Arms factory was located on the east side of the Oswego River in Fulton, just north of where the Oneida Street Bridge is. More than 500,000 L.C. Smith guns were produced in 25 different grades and variations at the Fulton factory, from a basic field grade to the deluxe grade, which have intricate, customized etchings and gold inlays.
Local officials and historians said the company employed around 400 people at its peak and played a major role in the city’s economy. The Fulton factory also produced fans, which are still produced under the Hunter name in Tennessee, and bicycles.
Over time, the shotguns became a coveted collectors’ item, and the L.C. Smith Collectors Association was formed in March 2003. The guns have become valuable collectors’ items over the years, with some valued at more than $200,000, according to historians.