Which gun for high pheasants?

English-built side-by-side shotguns have a proven pedigree. Classics which have stood the test of time and handle as beautifully as they look... but they weren't designed with 60-yard pheasants in mind. We are talking over-under territory, as Chris Batha explains. 

Growing up in the 60s and 70s, unless you lived in the London area and had access to the major shooting schools, clay shooting was a weekend ‘straw bale' affair. And here, once again, there would be an equal number of side-by-sides being used as over-unders – in some areas even more. 

With the increase in the popularity of clay shooting, and sporting clays in particular, the over-under became the gun of choice. There are several reasons for this, but first and foremost, the over-under is an easier gun to shoot than the side-by-side.

A side-by-side's barrels are aligned side by side and are above the centre of balance of the shotgun. On firing, there is a very slight flex of the barrels downwards and, from the recoil generated as the butt of the stock moves backwards and firmly beds into the shoulder pocket, the barrels, being above the centre of balance, rotate upwards. And, according to which barrel is fired first, they pull slightly right or left, resulting in a split second delay in firing the second barrel as there is an element of recovery (muzzle control) required.

If I asked you to point out a distant object, you would naturally raise your hand at arm's length, forefinger extended, with the thumb alongside and on top of your remaining three fingers. You would never point with two fingers next to each other, with your other two fingers and your thumb under your palm. 

The over-under has the advantage, in that the stacked barrels are held rigid by both side and top ribs in a vertical fashion, with the bottom barrel in line with the shotgun's centre of balance. So there is very little or no barrel flex and, if the bottom barrel is fired first, the recoil occurs in a single direct line that eliminates barrel flip, allowing for a smoother and swifter second shot. 

Furthermore, the over-under's single sight plane – over the breech, along the rib, past the muzzles to the target – is an uncluttered line of sight only a fraction of an inch wide, with minimal obstruction of the view of the bird. In contrast, the wide sight plane of the side-by-side – over the two barrels, held to together by the centre rib – is roughly 2" wide and can impede the view of the bird.

Then there is the difference in weight between the over-under and the side-by-side – weight is another brake on excessive recoil. The average weight of the side-by-side shotgun is 96 times the load – the traditional side-by-side was built to fire 2" cartridges loaded with a 11⁄8oz of shot, so most side-by-side 12 bore shotguns weigh in the region of 6lb. And though modern side-by-sides are now proofed for 2" cartridges and 1oz of shot, they still fall into the same weight bracket, and shooting heavy loads with a light gun can be uncomfortable, to say the very least.

The over-under is a heavier gun, 7lb to 9lb, and this weight gives it the edge over the side-by-side when it comes to controlling and minimising recoil.

Where the side-by-side wins hands down is in handling. Its light weight and svelte lines result in a fast-handling shotgun, which with 1oz of No. 6s, makes it perfect for rough shooting, as well as for traditional driven pheasants and partridges. In my opinion, a 16 bore side-by-side is, by far, the best choice for driven grouse.

However, this rapier-like handling can be a handicap to consistency in clay pigeon shooting, which requires a more steady shooting style and, as a result, the over-under has gradually taken over as the gun most preferred for all forms of competitive clay shooting.  

There are the side-by-side aficionados who believe that it can hold its own against the over-under. I do have to acknowledge that there are some formidable and consistent high bird specialists using side-by-sides. However, the ultimate test of shooting a shotgun are the Olympic Games and my argument in favour of the over-under as the best option for target shooting is thus: not one side-by-side is used in the modern Olympic Games. 

It is even rare to see a side-by-side at any clay competition with the exception of side-by-side events. On the other hand, the over-under, while once looked at with an arched eyebrow, if not outright disdain on driven shoots, has made huge inroads into driven game shooting. Today, it is not uncommon to see a line of Guns where the over-unders outnumber those with the side-by-sides.

Why is this? The side-by-side and the technique to shooting it evolved over 100 years and that well-honed combination is still perfect for traditional driven shooting. But the demand for higher and higher partridges and pheasants has created the need to change both the technique and the shotgun to tackle these birds at the ballistic limits of a shotgun.  

As author Robert Ruark said, you need to “use enough gun”, and the over-under has proven itself the right tool for the job. 

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