Why Side-by-Side Double Barrel Shotguns Survive
September 17, 2019
A side-by-side double barrel shotgun is much more than a fashion statement. The type has been a practical choice for hunters for more than 180 years.
Photos by Michael Anschuetz
While some hunters consider the side-by-side double barrel shotguns the epitome of mechanical perfection and style, some wingshooters think it’s a weird antique. In 2001 my wife, Eileen, and I were invited to hunt a South Dakota farm owned by a young man named Cameron Wyly. He had let wild vegetation grow between his cornfields to allow pheasants to nest and hide from predators. We’d met Cam that spring on a snow goose hunt arranged by the state tourism department, and he had invited us to hunt wild pheasants in the fall.
In October we packed up shotguns and a young bird dog named Gideon, the result of a midnight dalliance between a Labrador retriever and a Llewellin setter, and arrived at Cam’s place shortly before the noon opening of pheasant season. It’s a ritual as important to South Dakota as Mardi Gras is to Louisiana. Cam also invited some local friends who’d joined us on the goose hunt, and we caravanned to the first cornfield, a half-mile strip of still-standing stalks, where I uncased my A.H. Fox 12-gauge side-by-side. It is an antique made in 1911.
The South Dakotans all had repeaters, mostly semiautos like those we’d used on the goose hunt, and they looked at the Fox as if it might explode. Finally, Cam asked, “What the heck is that?” When I said a Fox, they looked puzzled.
Eventually, we all positioned ourselves at the ends of the corn, with Eileen, Gideon, and me among the hunters walking toward the blockers at the other end. Soon Gideon put up a rooster in front of me, and it fell to the right-hand, open-choked barrel of the Fox. The next rooster got up farther out, but I squeezed the left trigger and the tighter-choked barrel dropped it cleanly as well. Nearer to the blockers, one rooster flew back over me, and the open barrel worked again.
That filled my daily limit, so I planned to shoot with a camera. When we gathered around the vehicles for the trip to the next field, I started to case the Fox, but the others now wanted to handle my ancient relic. I obliged.
In one sense, the first impression of Cam and his friends was correct. The side-by-side shotgun is a primitive artifact and was the original solution to a problem that plagued firearms during their first several hundred years: the lack of a quick repeat shot. This particularly bothered hunters who wanted to shoot flying birds but couldn’t because early ignition systems were too slow. While a hunter could certainly point a matchlock at a flying bird, by the time the fuse touched off the powder, the bird would be out of range of a choke-free barrel. (Choke didn’t appear until the 1800s.)
Early “self-igniting” systems using flint and steel, such as wheellocks and snaphaunces, went bang somewhat faster than matchlocks but not by much. Wingshooting didn’t become truly practical until what some call “true” flintlocks appeared in the early 1600s. The priming-powder cover and striker steel were combined into a single unit, knocked out of the way by the falling hammer-flint, shortening the delay between trigger pull and ignition. Putting a pair of flintlocks and barrels next to each other in one stock resulted in the first practical two-shot bird guns.
By the late 1700s, side-by-side shotguns were pretty common, and the quick second shot was attractive not only to hunters but also to soldiers. For close combat a side-by-side shotgun was preferred by many, including Col. William Travis, commander of the Texas forces at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836.
By then, percussion caps had made flintlocks nearly obsolete and also had doomed caplock muzzleloaders by making self-contained cartridges very practical. The first break-action, breech-loading side-by-sides appeared around 1860, followed quickly by “hammerless” actions. Opening the gun cocked the small internal hammers. But cartridges also resulted in actual repeating shotguns, with one barrel and a magazine full of cartridges. Side-by-side shotguns became an option rather than a necessity. And inevitably, they became something of a fashion statement.
Shooters tend to cling to what’s worked even after major technological advancement. A famous example of shotgun stubbornness was George V, king of England from 1910 until his death in 1936, who insisted on outside-hammer doubles. (His father, Edward VII, wasn’t so picky, using both hammer and hammerless guns.)
Cartridges also resulted in the boxlock action, with the firing mechanisms for both barrels contained in one action rather than a separate lock on each side of the shotgun. Developed in the 1870s as an improvement over sidelocks, some 21st-century shotgunners still consider sidelocks superior, though the extra inletting required for two locks weakens the head of the buttstock. Still, the classic cachet of sidelocks means plenty are produced, even though they normally cost more than the equivalent boxlock.
Eventually, firearms designers turned side-by-side barrels 90 degrees, resulting in over-under doubles, which also led to single triggers. While single triggers work fine in boxlock side-by-sides, single triggers became the system for over-unders, which started to become popular before World War II, largely due to the Browning Superposed, the last firearm designed by John M. Browning.
By the time I started bird hunting in the late 1960s, over-unders dominated the high end of the American shotgun market. The postwar U.S. economy had boomed, and the resulting “consumer society” resulted in more shoppers buying stuff they thought would impress others. Over-unders cost more than repeaters, so they appealed to folks who considered pumps and semiautos suitable for meat hunters but not to more discriminating sportsmen.
However, over-unders started selling well partly due to the market shift to repeaters in the first half of the 20th century. Most classic American side-by-side companies (including Fox, L.C. Smith, and Parker) failed during the 20-odd years from the start of the Great Depression to the beginning of the postwar boom. By then, more Americans had grown up shooting repeaters instead of two-trigger side-by-sides, so they were more comfortable with the single triggers and sighting planes of over-unders.
The 1961 Gun Digest annual lists only five brands of American-made side-by-side double barrel shotguns, four with suggested retail prices around $100, only slightly higher than most pump-action shotguns. The lone exception was the Winchester Model 21 that had a base price of $1,000. The foreign doubles listed show a similar dichotomy, with several boxlock side-by-sides selling around $150, but above that bottom line, the price rose gradually, with higher-priced guns rivaling the Winchester 21’s price. (According to the U.S. government’s inflation calculator, $100 in 1960 is equivalent to almost $1,000 today.)
Whether domestic or foreign-made, almost all side-by-sides were available with either double or single triggers. Single-trigger models were priced about 50 percent higher. Obviously, single triggers were considered superior, partly because so many American hunters had never fired a two-trigger double.
However, a few still started hunting with two-trigger side-by-sides because plenty of affordable American-made side-by-sides were produced before 1950. I was one of those hunters, and I shot my first gamebird in 1966 with my grandfather’s Stevens 12-gauge side-by-side. He’d died during the Great Depression and apparently owned the shotgun only because every Montana homesteader needed some sort of firearm to slay varmints trying to invade the chicken coop.
Grampa’s double wasn’t particularly good-looking or “lively,” the sophisticated wingshooter’s compliment for really good side-by-sides, but it went bang—at least for a while. After taking my first wild bird, a hen mallard, I shot the Stevens quite a bit more until my early thirties, even after acquiring other shotguns. Eventually, it literally started falling apart.
By then, shooting a side-by-side was making a comeback, especially among the sort of hunters who a generation earlier considered over-unders superior to repeaters. However, many (including me) actually preferred side-by-sides, especially with two triggers, particularly for some kinds of hunting. How could this be when the two-trigger side-by-side is a primitive holdover from the pre-cartridge era?
Today, I hunt with all forms of shotguns and often choose pumps and semiautos for certain jobs…if 21st-century wingshooting can be called a job. But half of my modest collection consists of side-by-sides, all but one with two triggers, in gauges from 10 to 28. Over the decades, I’ve found more side-by-sides that seem to automatically hit birds than any other type of shotgun. The late Bob Brister, one of the best all-around shotgunners and shotgun writers of his generation, described this mysterious trait in his classic 1976 book, Shotgunning: The Art and the Science, which is still in print today. I was lucky enough to hunt and shoot with Bob in several places over the years, and while he could make a shotgun fit him, he knew some guns just had that mysterious quality of “hitability.”
Side-by-side double barrel shotguns do this for me more often than any other action, but they don’t for other shooters. The broad sighting plane may be part of the reason, especially in larger gauges, but it might also be due to eye dominance quirks. I’m strongly right-eyed and right-handed, but many shooters don’t have such a strongly dominant eye. My wife doesn’t, and while she really likes side-by-sides and owns as many as I do, she doesn’t shoot quite as well with them as she does with over-unders and repeaters.
The broad sighting-plane is often cited as the reason top-grade competitive shotgunners rarely use side-by-sides. I’ve never been an avid target shotgunner—I use clays mostly to test guns and tune up for hunting—because after about 50 rounds my concentration starts to wander. When shooting actual birds, say, doves in Argentina, this doesn’t happen. Still, I’ve shot 50 straight at trap with side-by-sides (at which point I quit).
I also prefer double triggers on double barrel shotguns because of two major virtues. First, they’re more reliable than single triggers. I’ve owned plenty of single-trigger over-unders that worked very reliably, but I’ve experienced far more malfunctions with those that didn’t than all the two-trigger side-by-sides of my lifetime. Second, double triggers provide the surest and quickest way to choose which barrel goes bang, especially on a side-by-side, since the right-hand trigger shoots the right-hand barrel and the left-hand trigger fires the left-hand barrel. This can be important in wingshooting, especially if the chokes are significantly different.
In most guns, the classic Improved Cylinder/Modified combination works very well with modern ammunition, but there are exceptions. A couple of my side-by-sides have tight chokes in both barrels. Both are older guns, made before plastic shotcups became standard. One is a 10 gauge by Armas Erbi, a Spanish manufacturer that went under during the DIARM years, with Full chokes in both barrels because it’s used for long-range waterfowling. The other is a 12-gauge Sauer Model 60, my favorite all-around side-by-side, that supplanted a long line of 12 gauges going back to Grampa’s Stevens, including the A.H. Fox, an AyA XXV sidelock, and a Merkel 47E.
The Sauer weighs just 3 ounces over 6 pounds, despite its 28-inch barrels, and like many European shotguns, it has sling-swivel studs, making the gun handy for many kinds of hunting. It’s choked Improved-Modified and Extra-Full, and it works great on both public-land pheasants and wild turkeys with standard 1¼-ounce loads. (In fact, it’s the only shotgun I’ve killed wild turkeys with since buying it 15 years ago.) It also works fine with spreader loads on forest grouse.
Unfortunately, it isn’t a good idea to shoot hard non-toxic shot through tightly choked old doubles because the shot can peen the chokes open, damaging the solder between the muzzles. There are three ways to avoid this problem. Perhaps the easiest is to have the chokes opened up to no tighter than Improved Cylinder. That’s very effective with hard shot, whether steel, other non-toxics, and premium lead shot. Another is to have a company like Briley install screw-in chokes. The third is to use only soft non-toxic shot like Bismuth or Ballistic Products ITX Original-10.
I’ve used all three solutions, handloading spreader loads for the Sauer and Bismuth or ITX Original-10 for the Armas Erbi, which indicates I may be almost as stubbornly old-fashioned as George V. On the other hand, I also often use pumps and repeaters with steel and other hard non-toxic shot, which may or may not afford me a place in wingshooter heaven.
My Fausti DEA SL 28 gauge usually has Improved Cylinder and Modified screw-in chokes in both barrels because the 28’s shot string is so short it kills better than most magnum-addicted wingshooters think it will. It isn’t only for short range, as many of those hunters also think, and with the right ammo, Modified works fine. I’ve dropped plenty of gamebirds, including pheasants and sage grouse, with Modified-choked 28s out to 40 yards and occasionally a little farther.
The Fausti 28 is also my only side-by-side with a single trigger, which has never malfunctioned during the five years I’ve owned it. Yeah, some hunters can quickly use the tang safety/barrel selector on single-trigger guns, but I’ve also seen too many safety selectors get stuck, at least momentarily, which is too long in wingshooting. Many shooters who think they can’t use double triggers will get over it after they shoot enough sporting clays.
Doubles can also be unloaded easier than any repeater, and that’s handy when crossing the barbed-wire fences that are common on the public land Eileen and I primarily hunt. A minor advantage of side-by-sides is not having to open them as widely as over-unders. This sometimes can be a factor in tight waterfowl blinds.
The other special place for side-by-sides is the typical three-barreled drilling. While drillings appear in various configurations, a rifle barrel under two shotgun barrels is the most practical both for mechanics and shooting. I’ve hunted with drillings a lot, partly because Montana’s hunting seasons for various kinds of game overlap, whether turkeys and bears in the spring or grouse and deer in the fall. My first drilling was an ancient Sauer 12x12/.30-30 with outside hammers commissioned specifically for the American market by the original Charles Daly importing firm of New. It worked very well, just as side-by-sides of all kinds have for centuries.
That’s the reason side-by-side double barrel shotguns survived into the 21st century—they work so well.