March 28, 2023
By Joseph von Benedikt
TriStar self-styles as “the value experts.” Over the past several years, the company has earned a good reputation for building solid, no-nonsense semiautomatic shotguns at a very reasonable price.
That being TriStar’s position in the marketplace, I was surprised to hear that the company recently introduced a pair of side-by-side shotguns called Bristol. One is a pistol-grip gun with an engraved nickel-plated boxlock action, and the other is a straight-grip gun with a casecolored boxlock. Both are made in Turkey.
Being something of a double-gun snob, I shrugged off the possibility that a TriStar side-by-side could be of interest. The fact that both guns have single triggers rather than the double triggers didn’t help. Then I saw that the NASGW organization awarded the straight-grip Bristol SxS version “Best New Shotgun of 2021.” Intrigued, I read the press release, then went to TriStar’s site. Aside from that pesky single trigger, everything about the Bristol SxS looked right—particularly the fact that it’s available in 28 gauge and .410 Bore as well as 12, 16, and 20 gauge, and each gun sports an action sized appropriately for its gauge.
Swallowing my unrighteous pride, I requested a 28-gauge, straight-grip, casecolored gun to review for Shooting Times.
Candidly, I was still expecting little when I unpacked the Bristol SxS that TriStar promptly shipped to me. So perhaps I was caught flatfooted, but whatever the reason, I was entirely unprepared for the elegant little shotgun that emerged from the embossed cardboard box.
Slender & Stylish
At just 5 pounds, 2 ounces, it’s feathery light in the hands and seems to leap to one’s shoulder. The Anson & Deeley-type round-bottom boxlock action is as slender and stylish as Audrey Hepburn and is finished with vivid casecolors. Stock dimensions fore and aft are excellent.
A deep, low-luster blue sets off the barrels, which affix to the action via a monobloc. A glance down them shows a lovely swamped profile, flaring slightly near the muzzle to accommodate screw-in interchangeable choke tubes. (The gun comes with Beretta-style F, IM, M, IC, and SK tubes.) The polishing is good, with only a few slight ripples discernible to a critical eye.
I lost no time in removing the barrels and hanging them by one thumb while giving them a sharp, light rap with a wood dowel. While they didn’t emit the clear-as-a-church bell tone of a Boss English gun, they resonated nicely with a low-pitched note, suggesting the soldering between the barrels and rib is consistent and secure. Perhaps if I were to remove both choke tubes and try again, they’d ring louder and clearer.
Reassembling the gun, I noted how snugly fitted the action is, and indeed the forearm and Deeley latch, too. This gun will take a lot of heavy shotshells without shooting loose. It’s worth pointing out that the top tang and the trigger tang are machined integral with the body of the action, further adding strength.
Opening the boxlock action is accomplished by thumbing a nicely profiled traditional tang-mounted latch to the right. The breech is equipped with selective ejectors, so if you’ve fired one shotshell, it will eject the empty but leave the unfired round in the other chamber. When both barrels are fired and the breech opened, the ejectors send both hulls smartly aft, the two landing within a foot of each other some six feet behind the shooter.
Aside from the single trigger (which, in my opinion, is a travesty on such a nice side-by-side), the only feature that gave me pause is the safety. It’s mechanical, so it does not automatically engage when the action is closed—which is largely what American shooters prefer. A barrel selector is fitted to the safety, and it may be thumbed right or left to choose which barrel fires first. However, it’s friction fit and does not have a detent to hold it to one side or the other. Worse, if it’s not fully set to one side or the other, the safety locks up and can’t be thumbed forward to fire.
While a small point, it’s the one element of the gun that I’d like to see addressed and changed. Without doubt, locked-up safeties are going to save some feathered lives afield. As the proof in the pudding, I carried the Bristol SxS along on my morning walk, and my trusty Lab put up a ruffed grouse. The shotgun leaped to my shoulder and tracked the bird like a homing device, but the gun failed to fire when I pressed the trigger. Sure enough, the barrel selector was not fully to one side, and when my gloved thumb attempted to flick the safety forward, it hadn’t moved.
Fine-cut checkering graces the sides of the forearm and the wrist. It’s laser cut but elegant and features flat-topped diamonds. The result is just a bit of texture to aid one’s grip without being abrasive.
Both the splinter-type forearm and the wrist of the buttstock are appropriately slender for a 28-gauge gun. At its narrowest point, the latter is just 1.1 inches wide and 1.4 inches deep. Cradled across the palm of the shooting hand, it feels like a good straight-grip side-by-side should.
Length of pull is 14.5 inches, making the gun appropriate for most shooters of average height and usable for gorilla-armed guys like me. A half-inch-thick rubber recoil pad is nicely fitted, and it helps soften what little bite the 28-gauge gun has.
Stocks are advertised as “select Turkish walnut,” and while I’ve seen nicer Turkish wood, they’re quite attractive, with a bit of figure and nice dense grain. A well-applied oil finish protects the wood. Wood-to-metal fit is quite nice, certainly much better than average for a gun in the Bristol’s price range.
My son William (age 11) is right-handed but powerfully left-eye dominant. As a result, he’s been shooting left-handed since he was four. Like me, he loves unique guns, and he’s a big fan of the 28 gauge’s user-friendly capability. Eyeing the Bristol SxS wistfully, he asked, “Does it have a lot of cast?”
He’s smart enough to know that if a shotgun has a lot of right-hand cast, it won’t point naturally for him, and he’ll struggle to shoot it well. He also knows that most guns are built for right-handed shooters.
Glancing down the length of the gun, I began to say, “Not much,” but paused, scrutinizing the gun more closely. To my surprise, it is cast on rather than cast off for a right-handed shooter. I’m sure it wasn’t intended that way; rather, this particular piece of wood took on a bit of left curve as it cured and settled. Presumably, TriStar intends the Bristol guns to have zero cast, but this one came off the line with a little personality slanted toward left-handers.
It was going to make it harder for me to shoot well, but I couldn’t help smiling. “Buddy, it’s actually cast for a left-handed shooter!” Suppressing his excitement, William shouldered and swung the gun several times, finally stating, “Man, it feels good!”
A friend was visiting, and my two boys stood by, suppressing their eagerness. Chuckling, I dug out a box of 28-gauge target loads, a box of clay pigeons, and my hand-thrower. We wasted no time warming up the double barrels of the nice little side-by-side.
My first impression was one of pure liveliness. Being so light and sleek, the gun is extremely responsive. The accompanying drawback is, of course, that since it’s so light, it’s not particularly forgiving for shooters that—like me—struggle with their follow-through.
Second impression was that the single trigger has quite a nice, crisp pull. It’s mechanical, so it does not rely on recoil from the first shot to set the sear for the second shot. It will fire the second barrel reliably even if the first is a dud.
When I applied my Lyman digital trigger gauge, pull weight was heavier than I expected. The right sear tripped at 6 pounds, 8 ounces; the left sear tripped at 6 pounds, 2 ounces. The crispness of the triggers makes them feel better than one would think.
My friend struggled with the hand-thrower, and initially I struggled to catch up with the haphazard flight of the clay birds and break them. Realizing that I was shooting over most of them, I took a closer look at the breech, noting the significant ramp up of the rib between the barrels in order to marry with the top of the standing breech. It looked a bit high in contrast to the low profile of the brass bead at the muzzles.
Plus, the straight, elegant stock has minimal drop at the heel. Informal patterning on a dirt bank demonstrated that the Bristol SxS put a significant percentage of its shot above the line of sight, which is exactly as it should be on an upland gun optimized for the swift rise of wild-flushing birds afield.
Cheeking the shotgun a bit more snuggly and correcting my hold, I broke clay birds more consistently, ending with eight straight breaks that left nothing but charcoal dust in the sky.
Satisfied, I handed it off to my friend, who seemingly never missed with it, then to my wife, and then to my boys, who gleefully ran through the rest of the 28-gauge target loads we had on hand. Even Henry (age seven) mounts and swings the little double gun handily and never mentioned the recoil—a good indication of how comfortable the Bristol SxS is to fire.
I have yet to get a bead on one of the wild, wary pheasants that roam the brushlines of my Idaho farm, but I’m confident that when I do, the svelte 28-gauge TriStar double gun will do its part beautifully.
At a suggested retail of $1,190, the Bristol SxS more than upholds TriStar’s reputation as “the value experts.” I’ll stick my neck out and say it’s the most appealing modern-made side-by-side priced below $1,800 that I’ve handled. And the fact that it fits my southpaw boy William is just icing on the cake.
Bristol SxS Specifications
- Importer: TriStar Arms; tristararms.com
- Type: Double-barreled break-action shotgun
- Gauge: 28
- Cartridge Capacity: 2 rounds
- Barrels: 28 in., chrome-lined 2.75-in. chambers, chrome-lined bores
- Overall Length: 45 in.
- Weight, Empty: 5.24 lbs.
- Stock: Select Turkish walnut, straight-grip buttstock; splinter-type, Deeley latch forearm
- Length of Pull: 14.5 in.
- Drop at Heel: 2 in.
- Drop at Comb: 1.3 in.
- Finish: Casecolored receiver, blued barrels, oil-finished stock
- Sights: Brass bead front
- Trigger: Single, selective; 6.5-lb. pull right barrel, 6.13-lb. pull left barrel (as tested)
- Safety: Manual tang safety with barrel selector
- MSRP: $1,190