Unique or An­tique? The Trusty Side-by-side

Ri­fles are about ac­cu­racy and cal­i­bre; in other words, the tech­nol­ogy of reach. The ri­fle­man seeks still­ness and they use ri­fles with a good deal of con­scious thought. Shot­guns are dif­fer­ent, be­ing about move­ment, han­dling and in­stinct.

Field and Game - - UNIQUE OR ANTIQUE? -

A se­ri­ous wing­shooter is al­ways look­ing for the in­tan­gi­ble — sweet heft, pointabil­ity and feel. Just about any­body can build a smooth­bore that works, but to make it come alive in the hands is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter al­to­gether.

I know quite a few young Kiwi hunters who are fond of their over-and-un­ders. I was like that my­self once, and if an­other good spec­i­men came along at the right price, I’d still be tempted. The prob­lem is that some of the young guys can be a touch over the top about ver­ti­cally ar­ranged bar­rels. They see the side-by­side as an anachro­nism, some­thing that should have been left be­hind with oil­skins and bully beef. Sooner or later, one of them will ask me what it was like when I was a boy — had fire been do­mes­ti­cated, did ptero­dactyls still cir­cle the skies? They don’t seem to know that their tech­nol­ogy is even older, with some of the ear­li­est dou­bles be­ing over-un­der de­signs. They’re also quick to point out that com­pe­ti­tion shooting has long been dom­i­nated by the over-un­der.

Each year, fewer peo­ple are see­ing the side-by-side for what it can do in the field, which is a pity. If it were in­vented today it would be seen as a ma­jor break­through in de­sign. Why? Well, it can buy you an ar­gu­ment any day of the week, but here goes …

With an over-un­der the frame must be deep enough to take su­per­posed bar­rels as well as lumps be­low the un­der bar­rel. This tends to make the de­sign just that bit big­ger and heav­ier, and it will al­ways need more room to load. In some duck blinds — you know, the ones with an un­planned shooter, an ex­tra dog and maybe some swamp creep­ing in — that might be an is­sue. That ex­tra weight is good if you’re shooting half a case of ammo at clays, but not so great af­ter a day walk­ing the hills for a hand­ful of op­por­tu­ni­ties. By con­trast, side-by-sides break with a shal­low gape, and typ­i­cally have a more slen­der frame be­cause the bar need only be slightly deeper than the bar­rel lumps. Not a huge dif­fer­ence to be sure, but whole mar­ket­ing cam­paigns have been based on less.

Trap shoot­ers will rightly point out that the over-un­der gen­er­ally re­coils ver­ti­cally, while the side-by-side will pull ever so slightly to­ward the bar­rel be­ing fired. Now, that might be a fac­tor in com­pe­ti­tion but it’s scarcely an is­sue for the field. Many hunters have shot hor­i­zon­tal bar­rels their en­tire lives with­out even know­ing about this slightly ob­scure phe­nom­e­non.

The side-by-side is the eas­i­est of all smooth­bores to carry in ei­ther the crook of the arm or on the shoul­der, and is the ori­gin of the ‘African carry’. To this day,

the iconic African Ex­press ri­fle — which might be car­ried a hot and dusty 20 km bal­anced over one shoul­der be­fore a show­down with dan­ger­ous game — is usu­ally a side-by-side rather than the more log­i­cal over-un­der con­fig­u­ra­tion. The rea­sons are sim­ple: com­fort, safety and speed. It’s worth not­ing too, that the old­school weapon for fol­low­ing up wounded leop­ard in heavy cover was not some huge mag­num ri­fle, but a side-by­side 12-gauge. Again, speed, rapid tar­get ac­qui­si­tion and in­stinc­tive han­dling, as well that in­stant sec­ond shot, were the de­ter­min­ing fac­tors. These pro­fes­sion­als could af­ford any gun they wanted. What they wanted was the one that pointed where they looked, with­out think­ing.

Open­ing Day is a spe­cial oc­ca­sion and one where the mad-keen Kiwi duck hunter prays for hellish weather. Not for him the hal­cyon days of an In­dian sum­mer, he wants lash­ings of wind to whip up the wa­ter and keep birds mov­ing. Some­times those prayers are an­swered and Open­ing Day de­liv­ers up a South Is­land weather bomb that threat­ens to blow the blind half­way to New Cale­do­nia. When that hap­pens, one down­side of the overun­der re­veals it­self. Any deep pro­file catches wind like a sail, and many times I swung my old stack-bar­rel onto a zigzag­ging duck only to find my­self fight­ing the wind. OK, it’s not a se­ri­ous drama … but on a slow day, it can get old, fast. I don’t need any help to miss.

On the other hand, a sin­gle sight­ing plane is very handy on a lone, high bird, where pre­ci­sion makes all the dif­fer­ence. That’s why the over-and-un­der is the go-to for shooting trap — pre­cise, re­li­able track­ing of a known and pre­dictable tar­get.

Up­land shooting is noth­ing like that. When a big covey of quail busts ev­ery which way from un­der foot, or there is noth­ing to be seen of a rab­bit but a fleet­ing blur in the black­berry, lengthy and pre­cise track­ing isn’t the an­swer. What’s needed then is pointabil­ity, han­dling, speed out of the blocks. I have no idea how you might prove that, all things be­ing equal, the side-by-side has the edge in these de­part­ments, but it does. Those twin muz­zles don’t trap the eye like a sin­gle rib. You aim a ri­fle, but you shoot a shot­gun. The re­as­sur­ingly large chunk of real es­tate blacked out by side-by­side muz­zles means the eye is free to con­cen­trate on the tar­get; in other words, to shoot like throw­ing a cricket ball. ‘Son, just watch the bird’, as my fa­ther used to say. Once you start fo­cus­ing on the rib and care­fully track­ing a swerv­ing tar­get, and think­ing hard about the swing … it’s start­ing to get com­pli­cated. Much of this is to do with the tem­per­a­ment of the shooter rather than the gear it­self. Try­ing to be cer­tain of your bird, to be re­ally sure about all those fac­tors si­mul­ta­ne­ously, is a great way to miss. With broad muz­zles, the shooter ben­e­fits from a wider-sight­ing plane for laterally mov­ing tar­gets — which in the field is most of them, apart from driven shooting. You might call it the Black-and-smack ap­proach, but the fact that it can be summed up in three words (rather than need­ing a whole book) says some­thing. I’m at my best when I don’t think too much, as my wife will con­firm. That’s also the rea­son the >>

>> sec­ond bar­rel is so of­ten bet­ter than the first.

Fi­nally, most shoot­ers have come to be­lieve that the straight grip seen on many side-by-sides was de­signed to al­low the hand to slip back for the sec­ond trig­ger. Per­haps, but there are bet­ter rea­sons than that. A clay may dip a lit­tle in the wind, but in gen­eral they fol­low a pre­dictable tra­jec­tory. Wild birds, I need hardly add, do not.

The closer the hands are in line with the bar­rels, the more con­trol­lable and re­spon­sive the gun will be when chas­ing an er­ratic tar­get. You get that from a straight grip, not a pis­tol grip. Many peo­ple write about drop, cast and other stock di­men­sions, but the heart of a re­spon­sive shot­gun will al­ways come back to weight be­tween the hands, and the hands close to the line of the bar­rels. That’s where those mys­te­ri­ous and essential qual­i­ties of live­li­ness, feel and pointabil­ity come from.

Hav­ing said all that, it must be ad­mit­ted that all these tech­ni­cal ar­gu­ments have a touch of the trainspot­ter to them. In re­al­ity, all types of shot­gun work, and there are some over-and-un­ders out there I’d walk on bro­ken glass to own. It comes down to pref­er­ence and pride of own­er­ship. I’d feel a lit­tle weird show­ing up for a clay com­pe­ti­tion with a side-by-side, though it will prob­a­bly hap­pen one day. In the same vein, a day out walk­ing up pheas­ant, rab­bits or quail with­out my old-fash­ioned com­pan­ion would leave me feel­ing that some­thing was miss­ing.

Like watch­ing a trout take a dry fly, there is some­thing unique and ex­cit­ing about side-by-sides. There’s the short, pre­cise arc to snap them shut, the sim­ple re­strained el­e­gance and clean lines. It’s that deep echo of tra­di­tion — fine wood and en­grav­ing, leather cases, baize lin­ings, Turk’s head brushes, chop­per lumps, splin­ter fore-ends and straight grip stocks. The quiet way some old guns sim­ply ex­tract rather than eject their spent cases.

Know­ing that each part was filed by hand, and many were once fit­ted us­ing a wisp of soot to test for per­fect align­ment. No al­loy or syn­thet­ics, just the pre­cise match of wal­nut to steel. Ac­tions so per­fectly crafted that af­ter a cen­tury of use some will refuse to close with even a hint of fine cig­a­rette paper in the breech. Yet the same pre­ci­sion in­stru­ment can be bro­ken down into lock, stock and bar­rels in just a few sec­onds.

Ladies and gen­tle­men, I put it to you that field gun­ning is not a ra­tio­nal sport. If you think it is, try adding up all your spend­ing — guns, ammo, truck, fuel, clothes, gun­dogs, dog food, vet bills — to get a cost per kilo for game birds on the ta­ble. Then de­stroy all the ev­i­dence, be­cause that way lies mad­ness. The fact is, we do it be­cause it makes us happy.

For some of us, that comes from charm and style (which is why we’re at­tracted to any­thing in our lives, how­ever log­i­cal we imag­ine our­selves to be) and side-by­sides have all of these in spades. Charisma counts, as any girl will ver­ify. Side-by-sides haven’t gone the way of the horse and cart for a very good rea­son — they can be very beau­ti­ful, and de­spite a cen­tury of new tech­nol­ogy, there still isn’t a bet­ter in­stru­ment made for up­land bird hunt­ing.

But let me tell you this — if you’re a real shot­gun­ner, some­one who truly loves the game, it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter whether you buy an over-un­der or a side-by-side — be­cause even­tu­ally you’re go­ing to buy the other one too.

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