Smith & Wesson Elite Gold 20 Gauge

The Elite Gold is a sleek, fast-handling side-by-side perfect for quail hunting or shooting passing doves.

A well-built side-by-side shotgun combines the rare qualities of grace and functionality with reliability and a service life that is measured across several generations. My deep affection for the side-by-side started with a field-grade L.C. Smith that still belongs to my father. When he purchased the gun in the 1970s for $350, the finish had long disappeared, worn by the hands of some lucky bird hunter enjoying the Bobwhite's last days in the fields across Georgia's Piedmont. I handled it every chance I could growing up, swearing that I would one day own one like it. Little did I know how hard that would be to accomplish.

The golden age of the American-made side-by-side is long gone and likely never to return. Side-by-side guns are not assembled from a pile of interchangeable parts but generally require a good bit of handfitting and know-how. In the States, the cost to produce a high-quality gun is a high-dollar proposition. Smith & Wesson, well known for manufacturing and engineering advances, found a way to bring a quality gun to market that is affordable. The company moved production offshore to Turkey, where skilled labor is not as expensive, and tweaked the design so quality and durability are assured.

The Elite Gold is one of the first guns out of Smith & Wesson's Turkish manufacturing facility. Its action is a sturdy but svelte hammerless, rounded box lock with classy scallops at the rear instead of a straight wall. Though it is hard to tell it, the trigger plate is a separate piece. Nestled between the two receiver walls, the plate holds the trigger assembly, hammers, and their associated pins and springs. Large, inverted V-springs power the hammers, which are held in place by an inertia block to prevent doubling under recoil. The firing pins are frame mounted and rebounding. Two rods in the receiver's bottom are pushed rearward by the fore-end iron to recock the hammers.

The top tang is 3.75 inches long, extending over half the length of the thin wrist. The rear of the trigger guard extends to form a lengthy bottom tang that reaches just underneath the comb's nose. The trigger guard's head is brazed in place, and two small wood screws secure the rear of the tang.

My early-production sample had a single trigger that was not selective and fired the right barrel first. The right barrel broke at an average of 4 pounds, 10 ounces, and the left broke at 8 pounds, 8 ounces--a significant difference I cannot explain. But we just learned that for 2008, Elite Gold side-by-sides will feature traditional double triggers.

A two-position, top-tang safety separates the connector from the sears to prevent firing. The safety is very positive but smooth.

The semichopper lump barrels pivot on a hardened dowel rod that runs through the front of the receiver and have two Purdey-style locking lugs machined from heat-treated 4140 steel alloy. Barrels, chambered for 3-inch shotshells, are 28 inches long and have a raised and tapered but unvented rib with an ivory front bead and small, gold mid-bead. The barrels are choked Improved Cylinder and Modified. The Elite has automatic-selective ejection that tosses the empties well clear of the gun. The splinter fore-end is attached to the barrels via a recessed latch that is quite sturdy and can barely be felt when the gun is mounted.

The receiver and the fore-end release lever are bone-charcoal color-casehardened and exhibit a lot of color character. The barrels, top lever, safety, and trigger guard/lower tang wear a deep blue finish. There is a small amount of tasteful receiver engraving, covering around a quarter of the receiver's surface. The iconic Smith & Wesson logo adorns the top lever, and "ELITE" is engraved on the receiver's bottom. All of the gun's screw heads are engraved.

The bordered checkering is hand cut at 24 lines per inch, and panels adorn the straight English stock's wrist, both sides of the fore-end, and the buttstock's face. Like many fine doubles, the buttstock does not have a buttplate. The Turkish walnut is straight grained with some figure. The stocks sport a glossy oil finish that seals the wood from the elements and proved durable. Wood-to-metal fit is exceptional.

The Elite Gold is a sleek, fast-handling

side-by-side perfect for quail hunting or shooting passing doves.

My first chance to field test the Elite Gold was on a late-season Oklahoma quail hunt, where the 6-pound, 9-ounce gem was a joy to carry all day behind a pair of Brittany spaniels. Seven months later, I was able to subject the Elite Gold to a lifetime's worth of wingshooting in Argentina. The little gun was passed around to my enthusiastic shooting partners and had to be pried away from each after a case or two of 20-gauge shotshells.

My notes indicate that the Elite was fired in excess of 2,100 times with a variety of different light and heavy field loads without any troubles. I am an average wingshot, and I shot fairly well at both quail and doves, though deceptively fast pigeons gave me fits. My friend Matt Haun picked up the Elite one morning, found a groove, and put on a ridiculous wingshooting display. We did not keep score, but he had to be well over 65 percent. The gun points nicely if an exploding covey of quail is the game, and on passing shots, a smooth swing is guaranteed because of the Elite's excellent balance.

Building durable side-by-side shotguns does not present vexing engineering challenges; though labor intensive, they are very simple designs with relatively few parts. Building a good-looking gun with a proper amount of fit and finish is a challenge and one of the reasons well-built guns are so expensive. The Elite exceeded expectations.

Even with its $2,380 retail price tag, the guns that are comparable to the Elite are generally twice as expensive. My British-made, best-quality double will have to wait, but the Elite Gold allows me to enjoy a well-built, beautifully finished double gun today because of its very reasonable price.

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