The double-barreled shotgun has become an icon in the hunting world. Despite being nearly as old as shotguns themselves, they are still very relevant and sometimes preferred over newer designs. It is viewed by many as an outdated design, yet there are still many advantages to double shotguns over pumps and autoloaders.
Double shotguns can be broken down into two categories; the side by side and over under. Those terms refer to the orientation of the barrels. The side by side shotgun is just as it sounds, the barrels are side by side or horizontal to each other. The two barrels for the over under are one on top of the other. Both have their place on the range and in the field, and it solely comes down to preference.
The action on double guns is almost entirely the break open hinge type action. This means that the shotgun essentially breaks open exposing the chamber area of the shotgun, allowing you to load it. This style of action is typically pretty strong depending on the type of locking mechanism used.
The Side by Side Shotgun
The side by side or SxS shotgun is an absolute classic. There is just something special about them that makes you feel good when carrying one in the field. They have the notoriety of being both the working mans gun and the gun of the highest class imaginable. A sub-gauge proprietary framed side by side is as good as it gets.
The sighting plane on a side by side is wider than on an over-under. Some like it, some don’t. Once again, it comes down to personal preference. Having the barrels oriented next to each other allows for a thin splinter type forearm if desired. This style forearm is primarily for hunting purposes as your hand will rest on the barrels a little bit during firing. If shooting trap or skeet, where a lot more rounds will be fired in a short amount of time, consider a wrap around beavertail style forend to protect your hands from the heat.
The Over Under Shotgun
The over under or O/U as commonly seen, has made a place for itself in the sporting clays, trap, and skeet world. The shooters that participate in these sports put more rounds down range than anyone else I know. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its place in hunting, many hunters hit the field each year with an over under, including myself. Just like the side by side, the sky is the limit as far as pricing goes. You can find an affordable one and you can also spend $50k if you have the mind too.
The people who prefer O/U shotguns tend to like the sighting plane a lot better than side by sides. It’s personal preference and comes down to what the shooter likes. I personally hated O/Us for a long time until I found one that fit me perfectly and I fell in love. Unlike the SxS, the forearms on over unders tend to be very similar to each other. There is only one common styling on factory guns and it wraps around the barrels keeping your hand protected from the heat of the barrels.
Why You Should Consider a Double Gun
Double guns are typically choked to allow the first shot to be a more open choke and the second to be a tighter pattern. This is a huge advantage to the wingshooter who may have to do a follow up shot on a pheasant or grouse. Many of the newly manufactured double guns come with interchangeable screw in chokes, making any combination possible. This really ads to the versatility of the shotgun in hunting scenarios.
While sometimes under-valued, the safety positioning on most double guns is as good as it gets. More often than not, it is positioned on the top tang, with the intent that it will be operated by the users thumb. The same can not be said for pumps and auto loaders, in which their safeties are sometimes located trigger guard either forward or aft of the trigger itself. While this may seem like a minute detail, it speeds up your reaction time in the field considerably.
Lastly, double guns or break opens are safer overall than other types of shotguns, making them perfect for youth learning the basics of firearms safety. When the action is opened, there is no way for it to detonate the shell as the firing pins are more than a half an inch away from the primer. This makes for a great reassurance when hunting with a kid, as you can visually verify the firearm is safe any time the gun is broken open. Also, breaking the barrels open, you can quickly make sure there isn’t any bore obstruction after a fall while hunting. A quick visual confirmation will assure your shotgun is safe and good to go.
The Problems with Double Guns
When the two barrels of a double shotgun are soldered together, they are done so that the pattern will impact or cross at a certain range. On cheaper double guns, this is done in a manufacturing environment, meaning there is room for mistakes. Once you hit a certain price point, those barrels are checked and double checked by the gunsmith to ensure they are hitting where you want. This process is called regulating. If not regulated properly, one barrel may not hit where the other one does, meaning potentially missed shots. Fortunately, this can be easily verified by patterning your shotgun at home.
Double guns aren’t finicky, per se. However, many of the ones in use today are getting up there in years. With the continued use of guns nearing and over 100 years old, sometimes parts break or quit working properly. This is the same for any gun that is up there in age, but the skill required to fix them is much different. Many gunsmiths today won’t even take in a double shotgun that has issues. Why? Because they are notoriously hard to troubleshoot and parts availability is virtually non-existent. That means that broken or worn parts need to be fabricated and made from scratch. The good news is that there are a handful of gunsmiths in the U.S. that specialize in double guns. These guys and gals tend to be the best of the best, and while expensive, they will keep that double gun running another hundred years.
This isn’t necessarily a problem but it is worth the consideration. Many double guns on the used market today have fixed chokes. This means what you get is what you get in reference to the amount of constriction and shot patterns you have. They can sometimes be fit for screw-in choke tubes by a gunsmith but that isn’t always the case. If the chokes are what you want there is absolutely nothing wrong with them, in fact I prefer them as it is one less thing to overthink on my way out the door to go hunting.
We have an article for you if you’re interested in Identifying and Measuring a Fixed Choke.
Further considerations for the Double Gun
If you’ve made it this far, you may even be considering buying a double barreled shotgun. There is a lot to entertain when doing so. First, should be the price. Set your budget from the get-go and don’t look above or below it. Second, is should you get extractors or ejectors? Fortunately, I’ve written a whole article about that exact comparison, that you can find here.
Next, is the barrels. Many of the old side by side’s barrels were made of damascus or twist steel and are not strong enough to withstand modern ammunition and the pressures associated with them. They could also be chambered for a shorter length than the modern shell, so care must be taken. Please do your research before running modern shells through an old SxS or O/U shotgun.
Finally, is the fit of the shotgun. I put this last but it is probably the most important part of these guns. Don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer that if enough time is spent behind a gun you will make it work as intended. However, if it doesn’t fit you, that process will take much longer. My only advice here is to handle the gun in person before buying or have a reputable gunsmith fit it for you.
If the double shotgun isn’t for you, here is an article on The Different Types of Shotguns.
Extractors & Ejectors -
The Different Types of Shotguns -
Written by Kurtis Martonik