Side-by-side shotguns, whether cut-down coach guns behind a bar or bespoke doubles on a driven shoot, once dominated break-action/double gun designs. Why did side-by-sides come first before over/unders? My guess is that it was easier to make muzzleloading hammer guns than it was to make muzzleloaders with the barrels stacked, and that tradition as much as anything else kept the side-by-side on top even after the invention of breechloading and, eventually, hammerless designs.
Today the side-by-side is outnumbered by O/Us, pumps, and semiautos. You won’t find a side-by-side at a serious clay target competition except in special events for them. And while you’ll see side-by-side guns in the field, they’re rare.
The last hundred years have been tough on the traditional horizontal double, but it’s not dead yet. You might even want one, and we’ll get to that, but first, let’s take a look back at what happened to the side-by-side shotgun.
TL;DR: Repeaters, trap and skeet, John Browning, the Great Depression, and WWII happened, in roughly that order.
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The long version:
As slide, lever-action and semiauto shotguns came along the late 19th and early 20th century, they cut into the side-by-side’s market share, especially at the lower price points, although lots of lower-grade side-by-sides were made through the first half of the 20th century. Still, if you were a duck, bird, or deer hunter, a soldier, a lawbreaker or law enforcement officer, why limit yourself to two shots when you could have more for the money?
The invention of clay pigeons in the 1880s to replace glass balls full of feathers, which had replaced live pigeons, helped the popularity of trapshooting grow. Skeet came along in the 1920s and became a fad. Single barrel trap guns, pumps, and semiautos dominated clay games as shooters found it easier to be more precise with the narrow plane of a ribbed single barrel than with the broad expanse of two barrels side-by-side.
John Browning, having already delivered one kick to the side by side’s junk with the invention of several successful pumps and the great Auto 5 semiautomatic, followed up with another in form of the Superposed shotgun. Browning began work on the gun in 1922 and died before the job was finished by his son, Val in 1931.
The Superposed was a big deal. There were O/Us before the Superposed, but they were bespoke British guns from Boss, Woodward, Purdey, and others. They were gorgeous and far out of reach of the ordinary shooter. Browning envisioned the Superposed as an aspirational gun for the regular person and designed it to be comparatively inexpensive to produce.
Now Americans could choose between O/Us and side-by-sides. Remington’s Model 32 came along shortly after, and while not an immediate success (it would achieve greatness later after German maker Krieghoff bought the patent and turned it into the K-32 and K-80 target guns), it was another gun to compete with directly with the side-by-side.
The Depression killed off the American side-by-side makers. They either folded or sold out: Fox to Savage, Parker to Remington, L.C. Smith to Marlin, Lefever to Ithaca, and so on.
World War II forced gun factories to make weapons for the military, and afterward returning servicemen wanted repeaters, not old-fashioned shotguns. Also, the mass production techniques developed for weapons like the M3 Grease Gun paved the way for inexpensive repeaters like the Remington 870 pump, which was priced far below guns like side-by-sides that required machining and hand-fitting. Those hunters and shooters that did spend money on a two-barreled, break-action gun after the war wanted a Superposed.
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Why Would You Want to Buy a Side-by-Side Shotgun?
If the side-by-side doesn’t shoot as many times as a repeater, nor as precisely as an O/U, why buy one?
You can buy one for aesthetic reasons. Even in these times of plastic stocks and camo and cerakote finishes, some people still like good-looking guns, and there is no shotgun more beautiful than a traditional side-by-side. This is fact, not my opinion. Well, okay, it is my opinion but it is widely shared.
That beauty is more than skin-deep, too. Side-by-sides are perfect, deadly examples of form following function. They have their advantages as hunting guns.
Weight: It’s not a hard and fast rule but generally speaking, side-by-side guns can be built lighter than O/Us. For a gun you’ll carry a long way, weight matters. I have two 12 gauge side-by-sides. Both weigh under 7 pounds, making them comparable to 16 gauges or even many 20 gauges in weight, but with the advantage of 12 gauge ballistics.
“Pointability”: Side-by-side guns have shallower actions than over/unders. Many have trimmer forends, too. You actually cup the barrels of a classic side-by-side in your hand instead of holding the wooden forend. Paired with a straight-hand stock (what we American’s call an “English” stock) the result is a gun that sits low in your hands and truly points almost like your own finger.
While that design makes for a lethal hunting gun, it also makes classic side-by-sides poorly suited to target shooting. The barrels quickly get too hot to hold unless you’re wearing gloves or have one of those leather handguard things that slide over the barrels.
Choke Selection: You always hear about the two-choke advantage of break-action guns over single barrels, but without double triggers, you can’t truly select a barrel on the fly because it takes too long to fool with a barrel selector. Double triggers are much more commonly found on side-by-side guns than on O/Us. By reaching for the front or back trigger, you can instantly pick the right choke for the bird that jumps up underfoot or the one that flushes wild at the edge of range.
To clear up one potentially painful misconception, you don’t put a finger on each trigger, which is a good way to inadvertently shoot both barrels at once, which really hurts. You switch your trigger finger from front to back or back to front.
Reliability: A two-trigger side-by-side is essentially two single-shot guns built next to one another.
There’s not much that can go wrong with one. Unlike single trigger guns, there is no linkage or reset to make the gun shoot one barrel, then the other. If something goes wrong with one barrel, you have the other. If there’s a misfire, you just reach for the other trigger.
Sight Picture: Side-by-side guns usually have flat ribs and the view over the barrels is, to me anyway, like looking up a ramp to the bird. Point that ramp – it should be a wide blur in your peripheral vision as you focus on the target – at the bird and shoot. It’s fast, easy, instinctive, and especially good for shooting going-away upland birds. And, the barrels of a side-by-side can show up better in the brush than the single barrel of an O/U does.
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So You Want a Side-by-Side Shotgun?
Side-by-side guns are making a modest comeback. It’s both because many of the young adults taking up hunting prefer the traditional and the artisanal, and because Turkish guns are getting good enough that there are some nice, affordable choices. There are also some even nicer, less affordable choices out there, too.
Short-barreled side-by-side shotguns to play Mad Max with or keep under the bed are great fun. If that’s what you’re after, the Stoeger Uplander meets your needs, but it won’t do much more than that. It’s cheap, made in Brazil, comes in four gauges, and has two triggers for reliability. They also come in longer barrel lengths for hunting. Did I mention it’s cheap? Like $449?
A bare-bones – in the best possible way – double gun, the Bobwhite comes in the classic two-trigger, straight-grip, splinter forend configuration, which is how side-by-side guns should be, with the modern bonus of choke tubes. It’s light, made in Turkey, comes in 12, 20, and 28, and is a lot of gun for only $675. It’s a terrific, functional choice in a traditionally styled gun you don’t mind dragging through the brush where the birds live.
For two and half times the price of a Bobwhite – which still isn’t much for a good break-action — you can have the Dickinson Estate, which is more than two and a half times better looking than the Bobwhite. Glorious case coloring decorates the receiver, the stock is well-figured and finished Turkish walnut, and it comes in 12, 16, 20, 28, and a 28/.410 combo and you can have them with single or double triggers. They are good guns on the inside, too, and list for around $1700.
Made in Italy, the Autumn is a new offering from Caesar Guerini/Fabarm/Syren and the first side-by-side they have offered in the states. Currently available only in a 20 gauge, it comes in either classic straight or pistol-gripped versions, both with single triggers. I shot one earlier this year and was very impressed with the quality of the gun, but then, for $4000 you should get a good gun.
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Used Side-by-Side Shotguns
There are plenty of good old side-by-side guns out there with plenty of shooting left in them.
Two relatively recent models are the Browning BSS and the Ithaca SKB 100 series. Both are very well-made, durable Japanese guns. You’ll pay more for a 20, but the 12s are reasonable – about $1,000 or so for the SKB, $1,500 for a BSS, which came in both a straight grip and pistol grip model. You want the straight grip.
The American guns, the A.H. Foxes, Parkers, L.C. Smiths, Ithacas, and Lefevers attract a lot of interest on the used market if you can find them. A lot of those guns were stocked for a different style of shooting than what we are accustomed to today, and have a lot of drop in the stock which makes them tricky for some people to shoot.
Others have more modern dimensions. (There’s no reason to buy a gun that doesn’t fit, so be careful.) The Stevens 311 and Fox Model B, two inexpensive guns that survived the post-war side-by-side mass extinction, are great for what they are, which is inexpensive, serviceable double guns.
The best deal in side-by-side shotguns now is in 12 gauge British guns, especially the guns made in Birmingham, which lacked the prestige of London guns back in the day when people cared about those kinds of things. They don’t sell well because Americans like smallbore guns, but a 12 gauge British double often weighs about the same as an American 20 gauge and they make great upland game guns. There were a million different makers, and you have to study a bit, but there are great old side-by-side shotguns out there in need of new owners to take them hunting.
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