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Sporting Guns: side-by-side v over-and-under

From: Country Illustrated magazine. September 2002.
Sporting Guns: side-by-side v over-and-under

THE British side-by-side shotgun has dominated game shooting throughout the world for the last two centuries, largely through force of tradition. Part of this force lies in the general excellence of the way they are built, and part through a tradition of use. This tradition in favour of the side-by-side gun has also led, in some quarters, to a disregard for the over-and-under.

Many people consider over-and-under guns to be ‘poor relations’ of side-by-sides, but British over-and-under guns have always cost more than side-by-sides. Nevertheless, the arguments for one design over the other are as potent now as they have always been.

When I was a junior assistant in the Sporting Gun Department at Christie's, the vehemence of the argument surprised me. Use of an over-and-under gun on a traditional driven day was simply ‘not the done thing’, and the user of an over-and-under on a high-class driven day risked being laughed off the field.

In my job, I try to keep an open mind about different types of guns. It is important to do so, since one is confronted with something very unusual virtually every week. A mind closed to the unusual is also likely to be closed to a beauty of design or particular aspects such as the fine finish of a gun, the particular beauty of its engraving or a desirable specification. My view-(as a very average shot) is that any bird or animal must be shot as cleanly and as humanely as possible and that any gun which enables this to be done, whatever its design, is the right one.

Both side-by-sides and over-and-unders have very good points. For the side-by-side, tradition has made very many sporting people very proficient in its use. Its greatest asset is that it can be built to any number of specified, desirable weights, with the emphasis on lightness as a particularly desirable feature of a sporting gun. The fact is that a side-by-side gun requires a lighter, more slender action-body than an over-and-under gun because the bar of the action-body need only be marginally deeper than the depth of the barrel lumps.  The traditional disadvantage of the over-and-under gun on the other hand, is that the action-body must be deep enough to accept not only the superimposed barrels but also the jointing lumps which were traditionally placed beneath the under barrel.

The complications that arose from this are very clear and a large proportion of over-and-under guns exhibit these very clearly; deep, cumbersome action-bodies; an awkward shaping between the lockplates (which need be only marginally bigger than those of a side-by-side gun) and the other components, particularly the head of the stock and the junction of the forend and the forward action-bar; and, finally, the weight of the gun itself which will usually be something in the region of a pound heavier than its side-by-side counterpart—sometimes more for smaller bore guns which thereby lose one of their greatest attractions.

Another complicating factor for the over-and-under gun is that their action-bodies generally need to be longer because the extra length is required to help clear the barrels from the breech face.  The over-and-under gun does, however, have a number of distinct advantages.  It is probably quicker onto the target and it has greater pointability because a narrower line is presented to the eye.

As any user of a traditional side-by-side gun will know, a broader plane at the muzzles will blot out part of what needs to be seen.  Again, since the action-body of the over-and-under gun tends to be heavier, it provides a desirable concentration of weight at the centre of the gun which improves its balance, and it is well known that the U-section of the action imparts great strength. There is also the question of barrel 'flip' which is reduced in a gun which is given greater vertical rigidity by the placing of one barrel on top of the other.

These factors make it interesting to see a growing fondness for over-and-under guns in many sections of society. They are now almost exclusively used in competition shooting of every type, having supplanted the great British side-by-side pigeon guns in the years following World War Two.  There is also a devoted following among modern game shots; the reason for this lies firmly with designs developed by two great British  gunmakers (not forgetting the Continental makers such as FN/Browning and Beretta for whom over-and-under production has always been very important).

The first design, that of Boss & Co, appeared in 1909 and it revolutionised the appearance and the handling of the over-and-under gun. In this design the barrel lumps were split and placed on either side of the under barrel thereby providing an action-body only marginally deeper than a side-by-side gun. The second design by J Woodward was introduced in 1913 and achieved much the same result in a rather different way. The direct results of these developments were guns that rapidly became as desirable as the best side-by-side guns and as beautiful. In general terms, of course, far fewer of them were built and the side-by-side gun remained the general choice through the remaining years of the 20th century.

The general predominance of the side-by-side gun at auction is a fitting testament to this. The growing appreciation of over-and-under guns in stylistic terms has, however, been further helped by the fact that so many people shoot so well with them. The direct consequence of this is that more and more over-and-under guns are being built today by British and European makers. The consequence of this is that in years hence the auction and second-hand markets are likely to offer many more over-and-unders. The time may come when auctions will offer more over-and-unders than side-by-sides.

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