Many American shooters have probably never touched let alone have shot a double barreled shotgun. They are expensive, and they are thought of as obsolescent. I mean, we have had reliable semi-automatic shotguns for over 110 years now, why would someone bother? Surely for the rich collector, or somebody concerned mostly with aesthetics, but that isn’t who this blog is for, is it?
The double gun is the most evolved firearm design, and it has gradually become near perfect for its purpose: shooting birds on the wing and fast moving rabbits. It does this job, which is the true job of the scattergun, better than any other kind of shotgun for basically two reasons. 1) It is perfectly balanced and of minimal weight which makes for speedy target acquisition. 2) Since it has two barrels, it should have two different chokes which will result in different ranges of optimal effectiveness, which is important in a field shotgun, because sometimes the quarry flushes in your face, and sometimes it flushes 50 yards away. No matter how fast your auto-loader cycles, it can’t have two different chokes, and so you are faced with having to split the difference and go with a middle-range choke like modified.
Now, a word about chokes, which are constrictions at the end of a shogun barrel. Chokes determine the “spread” of the shot pattern, which is a hopelessly vague word. It leads some people to conjure the ludicrous idea that if you use cylinder bore (the most open choke usually) that you basically wont have to aim. The whole area will be filled with shot. This is total rubbish. The way to think about shotgun patterning that makes the most sense is this: think of a 30 inch diameter circle, at, lets say, 25 yards. At that relatively close range with a cylinder bore perhaps 70% of the shot will fall within that circle if the barrel was pointed in the middle (if the barrel was pointed somewhere else, well, then there will be considerably less or none). At 50 yards the same choke will perhaps have only 30-40% of the shot in that same circle, and at the kind of density, the likelihood of a 2-5 pellets entering a little bird’s body is somewhat remote, and that is about what it takes to kill a little bird or rabbit. Now, with something like a full choke (a tight choke), 70% of the pattern will fall inside that circle at 50 yards, and so, it will continue to be effective at the range.
Of course, there are other factors at play here. I am considering lead shot for this discussion. The size of the pellet determines two things: 1) the number of pellets 2) penetration at a given range. Since small pellets pack more closely together, as there is less interstitial space between them in a given volume, you will have a greater number of them per unit of volume and mass. 1 oz of #8 birdshot has 410 pellets and takes up a small space and easily fits into a standard 20 gauge 2 ¾” shell, for example. #6 birdshot, however, will only manage 225 pellets in 1 oz, and it will take up more space. Of course, that #6 shot will penetrate much more deeply into a critter at 40 yards or so. Since 1) and 2) are inversely related, you want to pick one based on application. For small, wimpy birds like dove, woodcock, quail, etc. #8 is sufficient to penetrate deeply enough into their bodies at the ranges they are taken to kill them cleanly. For tougher critters, like big fat rabbits and pheasant, #6 or #5 or even #4 birdshot may be a better choice. The only such critters I hunt with a shotgun anymore are doves and rabbits, and I like an ounce of #8 for doves and an ounce #6 for rabbits.
Now, back to the virtues of the double gun. A double gun is the only gun that offers two different optimal ranges, and if the gun has two triggers, you can instantaneously pick which one. With both rabbits and doves I find this useful. Rabbits, depending on temperatures, can pop out 5 feet from you or they can be popping out 50 yard from you. It’s pretty hopeless to be without a full choke in this situation (the warm rabbit hunt), but a full choke can really tear the critter apart if you shoot it at a close range.
Another virtue is the tang safety. I really prefer the tang safety on all long guns. Some designs, like bolt-action rifles, do not lend themselves to this system. But every double gun I have ever seen has a tang safety. Because of the tang safety, and because of the overall design of a double gun, they are also ambidextrous. I shoot left handed, so it is of particular concern to me.
Another virtue is that they don’t make a mess. I never leave behind rubbish, and I like being able to remove the shells from the chamber of a shotgun by hand and placing them in a pouch instead of having to bend down and pick up stuff. This is a reason why I like revolvers, too. Hopefully the day will come when wads are made out of a UV and/or biodegradable plastic, because it is difficult to recover all of them.
Another virtue is that you seldom, if you are of normal ability, have the opportunity to take more than two shots, so there is no practical advantage to the auto-loader. And for the most part, laws restrict you to three shots anyway. At least with a double gun, you are almost assured of getting those two shots, which is not always the case with autoloaders, or even pumps, which can both jam. This is why double-barreled rifles have historically been used on dangerous game.
The greatest virtue, other than aesthetics (which are subjective of course), is balance and ergonomics. Since double guns lack design compromises caused by needing to accommodate a cycling action, a magazine, etc, they can be made more user-oriented. A double gun with a 28” barrel will be shorter overall than a repeater with a 25” barrel. It will also weigh less generally. The forend is shaped for your hand, not to accommodate a mag-tube or gas system. I have never picked up a double gun that didn’t fit me at least well. They tend to naturally come to the eye, swing so nicely, etc.
Now, about getting one. That is somewhat tricky. Most double guns are very costly, and this is because building a double-barreled shotgun has remained remarkably recalcitrant to modern manufacturing innovations. Nearly all are still made essentially by hand and trial-and-error. The two barrels are soldered together, they are test fired to see if they pattern in the same area (called regulating) and if not, the solder is melted and it is attempted again. Sometimes, this will happen a half-dozen times before satisfactory regulation is achieved. Much careful handwork is involved in fitting the lock into the stock. And the actions themselves need to be hand fitted to work well. Generally, interchangeable parts will not work. Only recently have double guns been made with interchangeable parts on automated machinery, whereas automated machinery has been widely employed in firearms manufacture for a century.
But there are some options. Many old American guns are still good. I heartily recommend if one is interested in getting a book on old double guns and reading it over. I simply don’t know enough to really offer anything here. Michael McIntosh is an author I recommend, and is one of the most admirable writers I’ve come across in any field. There are two reasons why I decided to buy a new double. 1) I feel that old guns now possess a sort of historical value and should be preserved rather than used. 2) New guns will certainly be made of modern steel and be proofed and there are no worries of safety. So I decided to get a moderately priced, high-value double gun made in Turkey. Generally, all moderately priced double guns are going to be made in Turkey or possibly Russia or Brazil. Some Italian and Japanese made guns are the next price level up, and they are usually double or triple the price. New American, English, Spanish, German and most Italian guns are simply beyond what most people can afford, and if they can, are so expensive I would hesitate to take them afield. The Turkish guns generally range from $600-900. The lowest cost Italian ones are about $1200, and there is a wide variety of Japanese and Italian guns around $1500. Most other pieces are over $2000, which, to my thinking is beyond what one would want to subject to damage. I realize people differ in this opinion, but this is how I feel.
I purchased a CZ-USA Bobwhite side-by-side in 20 gauge, which is made by Huglu in Turkey. It cost $586. That isn’t bad. It isn’t perfect by any means, and was so sticky and difficult to open an close due to poor final parts fitting and finish that I sent it back to CZ. The gun I received back after just 3 weeks was like a different firearm. The triggers went from too heavy, to pretty light, though the forward trigger was still a bit gritty. The action opened and closes much more easily and smoothly, and most of the action was polished. I really wish the Turks has but that work into it, because it would have saved some trouble. Sadly, the Bobwhite has been discontinued, and that is a shame, because it was, to my knowledge, the only moderately priced side-by-side with double triggers, which I prefer. I think side-by-side just looks nicer, and I like how the actions don’t open up at as steep of an angle compared to over-unders, and it had a straight stock, which I prefer. The CZ-USA Sharptail is the other side-by-side they offer, and a side-lock, also made by Huglu I believe, but it has a single trigger and a pistol-grip stock, which admittedly go together. If one prefers a pistol grip, then one should probably get a single trigger, even though they are mechanically more complicated, expensive, and prone to malfunction, etc. I also like the simplicity of just remembering that first trigger does right barrel, second trigger does left and cannot be changed. Thinking about these things when the bird is in the air is pretty hopeless. I like it to be instinct and not a memory game.
Yea, the Bobwhite could be nicer. Nicer wood, neater checkering, better fit. But it sure works well, as well I think as guns costing many times more. It probably wont hold its value as well, but I intend to use it, but hopefully never wear it out. It is nice enough that someone would appreciate inheriting it, too.
My sincere hope is that someday an enterprising folks design a humble, but entirely functional, double gun and build it in the USA. They shouldn’t go cheap. Each action should be sized exactly to its gauge, like the Bobwhite. It could be over-under, or side-by-side, but I think a side-by-side with double triggers would be simplest and least expensive. It can do WITHOUT engraving, fancy finishes, etc. It doesn’t need to be fancy wood, just a nice, sound piece of Walnut. With the recent resurrection of the Ithaca gun company in Upper Sandusky Ohio, and the re-introdution of the best pump-gun in my opinion, the Ithaca 37, why not bring back the Ithaca double? They already have the name, now bring the gun. I would think that if it could be built for around $1200-1800 (for high grades), the buyers would come.