The Ithaca Model 37 inspiration was the Remington Model 17, a pump-action, repeating shotgun based on designs by the noted firearms designers John Browning and John Pedersen. The Model 17 was a 20-gauge of trim proportions, later redesigned and refined into the popular Remington Model 31. That gun would eventually be replaced in production by the Remington 870 which is still produced to this day.
Ithaca Gun Co. in Ithaca, NY was founded in 1880 and by 1883 was producing side by side 12 gauge doubles. Following WWI, to satisfy demand generated by the Winchester Model 12 repeating shotgun, the Ithaca Gun Company was searching for a pump-action shotgun design with which to compete. They decided to copy the Remington Model 17 and waited for its patents to expire. After gearing for production of the Ithaca Model 33, planned for introduction in 1933, they discovered more Pedersen patents that would not expire until 1937; they then waited four more years and changed the model designation from 33 to 37.
With the depression dragging on and war looming on the horizon, it was possibly the worst time to introduce a sporting arm. That this shotgun survived WWII is a testament to the soundness of the design. Many sporting arms manufacturers ceased production entirely during the same period, but Ithaca produced shotguns for military use during the war, as well as M1911 45 cal. pistols and M3 Grease Guns.
After WWII, Ithaca resumed production of the Model 37 and it became a great hit. Made in many different models, the Ithaca 37 has the longest production run for a pump-action shotgun in history, surpassing that of the Winchester Model 12 that had originally inspired Ithaca to produce repeating shotguns.
Over two million Model 37s have been sold, in three versions. The barrel threads are different for each generation and are not interchangeable. Various grades and sub-models of the 37 have been produced throughout this time: special edition guns with distinctive artwork, military and police guns, skeet guns, turkey guns, and big game guns to list a few. Many of these are quite valuable.
The standard field grade of the Model 37 series was offered from the beginning as the Ithaca Featherlight. The first year, only a 12 gauge was offered. The 16 gauge was first offered in 1938. The 16 gauge chamberings were discontinued in the early 1970s. At their peak around 1950, nearly 25% of Model 37s sold were 16 gauge. The earliest generation ran up until serial number 800,000 in 1954. The serial number placement of this generation is on the front right edge of the receiver. The magazine cap of this version has a push rod through it for extra leverage when unscrewing the magazine cap for takedown. There is no adjustment for headspacing on the threads of the barrel as it slips into the receiver. My M37 is of this original design.
The second version was produced between 1955 and 1986. The serial number placement on this generation was on the right side of the receiver near the rear. The push rod of the magazine cap was discontinued with these guns.
The third generation came about in 1987 during an ownership change. They renamed the old gun the Model 87, but the changes were only slight. These guns have their serial number on the side of the receiver. On the end of the barrel threads of these there is a flange that only goes on one way. This allows headspacing to be set properly. In 1996, the latest Ithaca 37 was reintroduced in yet another ownership change. The 37 is essentially still the same, and the newest ones are still the third generation designs.
In spite of its several advantages and unique qualities, the latest Model 37 continues to lose market share, due to cheap Chinese look-alikes, the competition of other manufacturers, and significant availability of cheaper used 37’s. Ithaca, in several reincarnations, has struggled to stay afloat in the last 20 years. This is an inevitable end-game for a manufacturer who builds a classic product with no built-in obsolescence factors. They must continue to introduce new, improved designs and entirely new products for new markets. The re-use market for the old product eventually will bleed new sales to death, and an entire market may go dry, as is the case with sporting shotguns as America continues to drift away from an agrarian society.