Jan/Feb 2019Double or Nothing Text by Heyward Horton, Photos by Joey Frazier
Vintage shotgun aficionado Heyward Horton offers helpful tips in selecting a double gun, and sound advice for all gun owners.
I appreciate the beauty of a well-made, vintage, side-by-side shotgun, and I know others who feel the same way about the elegant lines and performance often associated with these treasures. On a one-to-ten scale of appreciation, I probably fall somewhere around an eight, with a ten representing one who would as soon throw rocks rather than to shoot something other than their beloved side-by-side. Of course, I know more than one gentleman who comes in as a solid ten.
Why one person prefers a double gun, rather than a firearm sporting a single barrel, is akin to the old adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Both guns are capable of doing the job of breaking clays or putting game in the bag. However, people often speak of one configuration feeling awkward versus the other. Well, I suspect it has to do with what a person becomes accustomed to shooting. So, I asked a few men and women what it is about a side-by-side that is important. One swears that a side-by-side means a quick second shot if such is necessary, and it is true that hunters of dangerous game trust their lives to the side-by-side double rifle. Not only is a follow-up shot swift, but there is reliability in that there are most often two triggers and always separate locks that fire each barrel. There is no redundancy with a single lock mechanism. Another friend said, on a more humorous note, “You can’t have a shotgun wedding without a double-barreled shotgun.” I suppose it’s true that I’ve never seen a shotgun wedding scene characterized in the movies with anything but an old side-by-side.
Sometimes choice of gun can be a statement on tradition. About two decades ago, I had the chance to shoot sporting clays with a business group at the Brays Island course. When I pulled out my side-by-side, the shooting grounds manager, who happened to be from the United Kingdom, commented, “finally someone with a proper gun.” Yes, everyone else was shooting an auto-loader or a pump gun. Even earlier than that, I was fortunate enough to be invited to shoot driven birds in Scotland. I was advised by my host to abide by two principles of driven hunts in the U.K. One, do not bring camouflage clothing, and, two, do not bring a pump or semi-automatic shotgun.
However, important to me is the utility to have two triggers and, thus, to have the ability to select which barrel I wish to shoot. Virtually all double guns are arranged with the forward trigger firing the right barrel and the rear trigger firing the left. Left barrels are usually choked tighter, assuming a more distant follow-up or second shot, and right barrels are usually choked more open. In the dove field, I like using either my Parker GH Grade, made in 1900, or an Arrieta, made in 1957. The Parker is choked modified left barrel and improved cylinder for the right, and the Arrieta is choked full for the left barrel and improved cylinder for the right barrel. Both guns have double triggers. So, in the field, I can select choke without having to first think about flipping a selector switch or having to push a selector button, or in the case of screw-in chokes, remembering which barrel has what choke. I can simply pull the rear trigger on a far bird versus choosing the forward trigger for a nearer bird.
As an aside, I have seen double guns choked the opposite way where the left barrel is more open than the right. I suppose these guns are designed for driven game shooting or perhaps decoying incoming birds. Think about incoming pheasant that overfly the shooter. This reverse choke arrangement takes any thought out of the process since you’ll almost always pull the forward trigger first to throw a tight pattern for distance. I have a couple of guns choked full and full. One is a Parker DHE Grade and the other is an L.C. Smith Ideal Grade, and both throw very good patterns at forty yards with number 1 buckshot. These are a joy to take to the deer stand on driven deer hunts. Do note that you should pattern your gun for the game you wish to hunt. I was with a friend last July as he patterned his Churchill for deer drives. It turns out that his 1929 vintage gun throws very good forty-yard patterns using single 0 buckshot. Find out what pellet size your gun likes best before going to the woods in pursuit of venison, turkey or some other quarry.
I fall into the camp of those who choose the double gun, a side-by-side. In my case, it simply happens to be what I grew up shooting. My father sent home a few side-by-sides from the European theater of operations during World War II, and we had no other shotguns. Now, that’s not to say that I don’t like the single-barreled guns, as I own a Benelli Super Black Eagle, a couple of John Browning’s A-5s, as well as a handsomely engraved over-and-under Remington Model 32 and a delightful over-and-under .410 Browning Citori. The latter two are arguably double guns that shoot as a single-barrel since the barrels are stacked vertically. However, I find that the side-by-side is the gun for me. It is truly elegant in form and style, seasoned with a taste for nostalgia. A well-balanced side-by-side, that reasonably fits its shooter, is more than just a gun of wood and steel; it becomes part of the shooter as if to be an essential part of their body. The lines of such a gun are beautiful to behold. Think of the A.B. Frost sporting artwork. Many of his prized works feature a sportsman with his double gun swinging on flushed snipe, quail, rails, grouse and the like.
The double gun and the beauty of its lines are one thing, but such guns are often the “canvas” for the artist to ply their works. Fine woodwork, inlays and metal engravings add not only to the attractiveness of the firearm, but such treatments also enhance the value in the marketplace. I tend to be attracted to guns crafted by A.H. Fox, L.C. Smith and Parker Brothers, all made in the United States during the early half of last century. The metal engravings on graded guns of these makes usually involve scroll work surrounding simple game scenes. The higher grades from each of these gun companies sport upgraded wood so that the stocks and forends have wonderful figure in the wood grain. More compact checkering and border patterns adorn the grips at the wrist and forend, and a little better wood-to-metal fit can be expected on these higher-grade guns. However, other than the aforementioned attributes, these guns are virtually the same, mechanically, as their basic field grade cousins.
In the marketplace, these factory engravings do add value, but the real value escalator has more to do with rarity. Thus, it stands to reason that since higher-grade guns cost more in the day when they were new, there were fewer of them made. Today, they are rarer, and the prices reflect this.
If you are considering a double gun purchase and don’t know where to start, here are some helpful tips. First, for what purpose is the gun being purchased? Is the primary use for flushed game birds, shot at fifteen to thirty yards? If so, one may consider a sub-gauge, maybe a 20- or 28-gauge gun, with more open chokes between, say, modified and skeet. Perhaps your interest is to shoot passing ducks, wild turkey or driven deer at thirty to forty-plus yards. For such application, I’d go with a heavier gun, choked full and full or full and modified. Bear in mind that steel shot, waterfowl loads, should not be put through the bores of older guns. I have had good results with the bismuth non-toxic waterfowl loads, and there are a couple of other types of non-toxic loads available for older guns. Check the length of the chambers too. Many older guns have chamber lengths other than the standard 2.75 inches. Companies, such as RST and Game Bore, still make 2-inch and 2.5-inch shotgun shells.
Condition is fairly subjective, and a good place to start is with the amount of case hardening colors that remain on the receiver. These case colors are a result of the bone-charcoal firing process to harden the receiver metal, and this process leaves behind a lovely mottled rainbow of varying shades of rich blues, auburns and purples. These colors wear off with regular handling afield and can be used as a gauge of overall wear. Another condition factor to consider is alignment of screw slots. High-end guns typically have the screw slots indexed in alignment with the barrels, and screw slot condition should be scrutinized.
Another important factor has to do with loose fit where the barrels meet the face of the receiver. Barrels that are on face will show no gap and produce a confident, metallic snick sound when the barrels are gently closed. Hold the gun up to a light source and look to see if you can discern any light between the barrels and the face.
Oh yes, and has the gun undergone any refinishing, chamber lengthening or choke modification? As with antique furniture, refinishing and alteration often reduces value to the collector. I don’t fancy myself as a real collector, since I don’t mind a well-executed refinishing, and if case colors are worn from the receiver entirely, leaving behind a silvery-gray patina, I can then see the engraving more clearly. I am, however, a stickler about the barrels. In fact, I read once that when buying a vintage double gun, you’re really buying the barrels. I am careful to look for dents, ripples, bulges and internal pitting. An easy test for quality of the rib joining is to hear if the barrels ring. To test, hold the barrels by the hook that holds the receiver hinge pin. I rest this hook on my index finger, then thump the barrels. If the barrel set yields a flat tone or thud, I steer clear, or at least I know that I will be adding the expense to have the barrels rejoined to the rib. As some gun aficionados say, “They should ring like church bells.” A good pair of barrels rings nicely.
Almost all condition flaws may be fixed; stocks may be steamed and bent for better fit, and wood cracks and splits may be mended. I have bought doubles knowing that my next stop would be a visit to the gunsmith. One just has to know the costs for repairs in contrast to the price paid for purchase. For some years now, I have had the experts at Darlington Gun Works perform all kinds of repairs. The only condition flaws that I won’t tolerate are barrel dents, internal pits and bulges. There are methods to repair even these flaws, but to me, barrel integrity is all-important as a safety issue.
This brings to mind my personal feelings regarding Damascus steel barrels and the importance of involving an expert before buying or testing. Some double gun enthusiasts believe that Damascus barrels, if in good condition, are perfectly safe to shoot. I think the Damascus patterns are beautiful, and sleeving the bores can make them safe. Sleeving aside, minute voids may occur in the intricate metal-folding process to make the Damascus steel. Gun experts advise that these voids may cause internal corrosion that is not visible, which over many years can result in a barrel burst. I like my fingers too much to risk injury.
Briefly touching on care for these treasured guns, I have only a few recommendations. I like to clean my gun immediately after use. It’s nice to be able to put my gun away when I get home. When storing a side-by-side, place it in the safe, or wherever you store your guns, with barrels facing down. As with many things, oils tend to migrate downward with gravity. If the barrels face downward, this will keep oils from building up in the wood where the stock meets the receiver, causing a weakness over time. When you use a bore solvent, which should be done with some regularity, mop it through the bores generously and let it sit for at least fifteen minutes, more if convenient, so that it may begin to break down fouling and get beneath any plastic film, especially in the chambers. Use a bronze bristle brush to further clean out the fouling, followed by a couple of runs with a clean, dry patch (I like to use a piece of folded paper towel). Now the gun is ready for a light coating of oil on the metal parts. Lastly, never slam the barrels to the receiver to close it, and caution anyone who wishes to hold your gun to be gentle in this regard.
Above all other means of acquiring a vintage gun, perhaps the most meaningful is being gifted one by a parent or grandparent. If you have an old double gun, take good care of it, and it will certainly outlast you. Pass it on to a family member. As a teenager, I shot my first gobbler with a German 16-gauge double, with hammers — one that my father sent home from World War II. I still take it afield periodically and enjoy holding it and looking at it and thinking about my dad and the unknown line of owners before him. It’s no Invincible Grade Parker by any stretch, but its provenance is special to me.