We’ve all seen serial numbers that include letters either as a prefix or a suffix. However, have you seen a serial “number” that is all letters instead? Well, that’s exactly what Iver Johnson did at one point in its history.

Between 1909 and 1957, Iver Johnson – known for their inexpensive handguns – made a shotgun they named “Champion.” Johnson’s serial numbers consisted of a variety of different formats over the years, including all numbers, numbers with a letter (or two) as a prefix … and even all letters.

The “serial letter” identification is often seen on the Champion shotguns. What appears to be a random jumble of letters actually corresponds to individual digits. Here is the code they used:


Knowing the code, a serial letter of BHFI becomes 6521. While it may seem like an unusual choice of letters (wouldn’t alphabetical be simpler?), it actually has meaning. If you look down the letters, they spell out “FITCHBURG.” That’s the name of the Massachusetts town where the company was based.

So there you have it. If you come across an Iver Johnson shotgun with letters where the numbers should be, you can use the code above to decipher the real serial number.

15 Responses to Iver Johnson: What’s in a Serial Number?

  1. When I was a kid the old timers called them “Ivory Johnsons”. .22, .32 and .38 were the handguns and these single shots were available in all the gauges.

    Saw a bunch of them. Used a bunch of them.

  2. Iver Johnson is also known for NOT using serial numbers on the illegal M16s they made for the Sandinistas during the coke-for-guns deals being run out of Mena, Arkansas.

    • Hey Rusty , not many of us still around that know about all the Barry Seals , depositions from federal judges , dead kids on the tracks , girls thrown out of planes , ashtrays full of coke , guns for coke , old man Bush running the CIA ‘ guns for coke ‘ out of the Mena , AK airport and the Gov. of AK getting the White House as a reward story , but the real bulk of guns that those EL Salvador boys got for their coke , came from Iran . Good call .

  3. I came across this message thread while searching for approx when my IJ .32 safety top-break revolver might have been made; maybe one of you can help?
    Serial #: I “eye” 45320 (stamped on the frame under the left grip, owls facing in, and on the inside of the trigger gaurd)
    I’m trying to see if its safe to fire smokeless cartridges, but have found conflicting info everywhere I look.
    One Internet “expert” says that any serial # starting with the letter “G” or higher is version 3 post-1909 smokeless, but will never have a free-spinning cylinder – Mine is higher than G but spins freely.
    Wikipedia says version 3 post-1909 smokeless have double-latch top breaks – Mine is single latch.
    Another “Expert” says versions 1 & 2 (black powder) have “Patent Pending dates” stamped on top of the barrel rib underneath the “Iver Johnsons Arms & Cycle Works.” – Mine says “Iver Johnsons Arms & Cycle Works on top, and “Fitchburgh Mass, USA” under it, but no “Patent Pending” stamps.

    Is it possible to have a post-1909 “I” serial # smokeless model 3, with both a free-spinning cylinder and single latch top-break? Thanks for any insight you might have!

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