Shedding light on the great shotgun debate

To state which style of double-barrelled shotgun is best for all ‑ goose, rabbit, duck, hare, skeet, trap and down-the-line shooting ‑ is an exercise in futility. There’s no such thing as a gun for every season and every reason. I’ve been using shotguns for more than two decades and to understand the ways and intricacies of the shotgun takes more than a lifetime’s experience.

Not a great deal of good work has been written with regard to side-by-side versus over-and-under guns as each has advantages, either real or perceived, for the user. These days, most shooters of sporting clays can be found using the vertical stack barrel gun with its much-vaunted single sighting plane. I may be sticking my neck out, but I reckon it’s this feature alone which has made the under-and-over the top choice in trap for more than 60 years.

Shooters who used slide and auto-loaders for this type of work in years gone by could associate with the over-and-under gun in the same way they did with their single barrel repeaters. I’m more a hunter than a shooter so the bulk of my gunning experiences have been spent afield. I mainly use clays as a means of keeping my eye in during closed bird seasons and have used my side-by-sides for clays with some success. It has to do with familiarity and balance and the advantages I see in European double guns over their US counterparts.

The greatest failing with US shotguns is the Americans never instigated an organised system of proof. People incorrectly assume that because US factories offer such heavy loads the American guns are good and strong, but after many years of using both I can say that no proof law has been a severe detriment to US designs.

To compensate for US shooters’ taste for heavy loads, American gunmakers have produced correspondingly heavy guns, adding more steel to the breech and action than is practical or necessary, in turn translating into an unresponsive, bulky and ‘numb’ feeling gun. Heaviness doesn’t always equate to strength – a well-designed smoothbore need not contain as much steel as a bank vault to be strong.

European manufacturers make guns and proof them to stay within a certain limit which only the foolish exceed. The Europeans are therefore able to produce guns which balance well, and none do it better than the British with their superb side-by-sides. Charles Lancaster made some of the best guns in England in the 19th century, producing not only doubles but triple and even quadruple guns. His idea was to get more shot in the air, and in the days prior to the widespread use of the repeater he simply added more barrels. An interesting venture to say the least, but a failed one.

By 1900 the side-by-side had reached the apex of its evolution, anything seen on guns made after the turn of the previous century viewed merely as a refinement of an earlier idea. More than three centuries of innovation had gone into the side-by-side prior to the release of the first moderately successful vertical stack gun around 1908.

By this stage slide and lever-action shotguns, which had appeared more than 20 years previously, were in use and had been readily accepted by the shooting public. The first auto-loading shotgun had been patented in 1900 by John Browning and was beginning to proliferate as well. Black powder shells were still being loaded but the advantages of the newer smokeless powder loads were being realised by modern shooters. What was also discovered was that modern-made guns, over-and-unders included, could easily handle the smokeless loads, whereas relatively new side-by-sides made within the last 10 to 15 years could not.

Their ability to handle smokeless shells was in no way due to their construction, rather the superior metallurgy which was beginning to predominate in the early 1900s. Sadly, even though smokeless proofed side-by-sides were still being made, they had already begun to lose a little ground to the repeaters. The popularity of the over-and-under would be appreciated a few decades later.

My preference is for a side-by-side. I do a lot of shooting competitively but mostly in the field and the classic side-by-side suits my style, though I also own an over-and-under. I find over-and-unders odd things and always fire the top barrel first. The second or bottom barrel now has the weight of the empty top barrel on it, helping to counteract the effects of muzzle jump if shooting a load in excess of 32g or 1⅛oz. It makes for steadier second shot and it’s for this reason I occasionally load a slightly heavier charge in the bottom barrel but only fire it if I miss with the top.

In the split second it takes for the shot to miss the target, for me to realise I’ve missed, calculate the next shot and where the bird will be and for my muscles to swing the gun to where it needs to be, my duck could be a great deal further away. If the bird is a fast low-flying teal, quail or pigeon it just aggravates the problem. A little more velocity coupled with a bit more shot and slightly tighter choke usually works as a second barrel option for me. I prefer more velocity than shot in the second barrel, finding it much easier to predict recoil, and its effect, in a side-by-side.

I’ve analysed my shooting style over the years and know my faults. If I miss my first shot with a vertical barrel gun it’s often because I’ve shot behind or low. That’s why I use a faster second barrel load, sometimes in the same shot weight but often in a size larger than I load into the top. I find the side-by-side, especially one fitted with ejectors, to be quick on the reload as both chambers are exposed simultaneously and there’s less loading gape.

The over-and-under gun lends itself more easily to the process of automated machine mass production. There are far more brand new over-and-under guns on the market than side-by-sides. Most stack barrel guns come with interchangeable chokes and being able to change your choke boring in 30 seconds really adds versatility to the gun and is a feature which many side-by-sides don’t have. Some side-by-sides will be old and some may have short chambers for the 2½^ or 2⅝^ shell.

There can be little doubt the design of the fore-end on over-and-under guns gives the shooter a secure grip. Perhaps this is the reasoning behind heavy loads ‑ they might kick but at least the shooter can hold on a bit better.

And consider reducing your loads. I do a lot of duck and hare shooting so it’s easy to go through up to 100 shells in an afternoon. The weight of a gun will dictate how it will recoil with light or heavy loads and if you must use heavy loads, anything in excess of 32g, you’d do well to pick a heavier gun with longer barrels to help stabilise your swing, much more preferable to slapping a thick recoil pad on the butt.

In summary, if you’re a one-shotgun person and hope to use it for everything, a model with interchangeable chokes is for you. Try different guns before you buy, shoulder them all fixing your point of aim on a ceiling fan or wall hanger, close your eyes and do it again. You should be aiming at the same place you were previously and if so that’s a good indication of gun fit.

I don’t place a lot of credence in centre beads on ribs. Place the butt of the gun on the inside of your elbow and extend your forearm along the stock. If the middle knuckle of your trigger finger reaches the trigger and is comfortable, the gun suits your length of pull.

I’d choose a gun with either 28^ or 30^ barrels and certainly no longer if choke tubes extend forward of the muzzle. Pistol grips are my preference too, particularly the long, sloping Prince of Wales style.

There’s an element of prejudice in shotgunning, which is strange, and experienced shotgunners can be more pedantic than riflemen when it comes to patterning, load testing and development, choke selection and shotgun styling, so it strikes me as bizarre they can be so one-sided when it comes to barrel arrangement.

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