Guns are tools built around explosions. When all goes as designed, they redirect the blast’s force away from the user and throw a projectile through the air at high speeds. But sometimes the trigger gets pulled and something goes wrong. For instance, the explosion might happen a lot closer to the user’s face than they expected.
On the December 8, 1943, Nathan and Benjamin Cohen of Goodwear Sporting Goods sold an Ithaca shotgun. It hadn’t been new for 14 years, and the Cohens were not the original owners. They sold it as an Ithaca Magnum 10 to a man looking for a fowling piece. He took it home, and, two days later, loaded up the left barrel, aimed, and pulled the trigger.
Something went wrong.
Facial scarring. Nerve damage. Blindness. The shotgun had exploded and left its user, Basil M. Zullo, with serious injuries. A little under a year later, he sued those he held responsible: the Ithaca Gun Company.
So why did the gun explode? The case hinged upon that question, with both sides trying to show that responsibility didn’t rest with them.
Zullo claimed that Ithaca’s negligence in manufacturing and testing its firearm put them at fault for Zullo’s injuries. Reconstructive surgery had partly restored his features, but some things could not be replaced. His sight and job were gone. He sought $100,000 recompense from Ithaca to make up for those losses.
Ithaca in Court: September 25th
A September day in 1944 found Ithaca General Manager Harry Howland representing Ithaca on the stand. He came before the Kings County, New York, Supreme Court armed with the company’s records on proof testing and serial number application, ready to defend Ithaca’s pride and process. Zullo’s attorney, Mr. Giblin, led the questioning.
Howland’s testimony revealed a discrepancy between Zullo’s story and Ithaca’s records that drove the case from then on. The manufacturing dates of the gun predated Ithaca’s line of Magnum 10 gauge shotguns. The serial number actually referred to a different shotgun, a New Ithaca Double (NID). The NID and the larger and heavier Magnum had differently sized cartridge chambers. The Magnum 10 moniker specifically referred to its ability to fire larger cartridges; 3 and 1/2 inches long compared to the NID’s 2 and 7/8 inch cartridge.
Howland requested a court order for an outside expert to examine the burst shotgun. If someone modified the original gun since sale to take the larger cartridge, then the court could reasonably dismiss the possibility of fault in the manufacture or design process.
The Shotgun’s Story: May 11th, 1945
Six months later, Harry Howland shut himself and John Pearce of Savage Arms in a lawyer-filled room with the damaged shotgun to determine what happened. All the signs pointed to a well-used gun in good condition.
Except of course for the hole and the bent metal where the breech should have been.
Howland and Pearce couldn’t agree whether the evidence reflected well or poorly on Ithaca. Pearce thought the coarseness of the steel and clear weakening of the frame from use suggested Ithaca used sub-par steel in manufacturing. Howland, on the other hand, maintained that the steel had retained the tensile strength for which it was rated; 70,000 pounds per square inch. The coarse steel, he said, came from the explosion’s force.
The two men did agree on one thing; if they could see the cartridge from the explosive firing, they could get a much better idea of what caused the explosion. Both speculated that, since Zullo originally claimed that he purchased a Magnum 10, he had attempted to fire a magnum cartridge—which the NID was not designed for—and his mistake had caused the explosion. If he had, then the fault was his, not Ithaca’s.
Magnum 10 Case Closed? Summer 1946
But the two experts never got a chance to look at the cartridge. Zullo and Ithaca settled for $24,000. The case had continued into 1946 and gone longer than expected. Still, Harry Howland maintained that Ithaca had done all it could to ensure the safety of all its guns—and this one in particular. His report contended that Zullo likely mistook the gun for a magnum and used the wrong ammunition, with devastating results.
If it comes down to it, I think he was right based on the evidence contained in the files available here at the Center’s McCracken Research Library. The lack of strong evidence about any failure in the gun’s design or proofing process, and the fact that Zullo settled for much less than his initial bid, tells me that Pearce and Howland had the right idea.
I’d like to know more about the gap between Howland and Pearce’s examination and the conclusion of the case, but that’s the historian’s lot. We have to work with the information available to us. Particularly if you’re writing for a weekly blog like I am here.
This tale contains a moral. On the one hand, it’s not necessarily Zullo’s fault that he thought the gun was a Magnum 10. He bought it from a dealer several steps removed from its actual sale after all, and they called it a magnum. But if he had known, he could have saved himself from injury and lawyer fees. Knowing your gun is important—sometimes vitally so.
So here’s a tip. If you want to know exactly how a Winchester, Marlin, or L.C. Smith gun left the factory, call us at the Cody Firearms Museum Records department for a search. Alternately, send us an e-mail at [email protected]. Other options can be found on our webpage.
All research for this post came from the following material: