The big three

bigthree_browningb25Vic Harker looks at the top-end offerings from three of the world's biggest and best-known manufacturers of over-unders – Beretta, Browning and Perazzi.

As a game gun, the side-by-side still has much to commend it and yet, over the past 40 years, the over-under's remorseless rise in popularity shows no sign of abating. 

In the sale of new guns in almost any price category, the over-under now far outsells the side-by-side and yet when first introduced in the last decade of the 19th century and up until the 1960s, the British at least showed little interest in the superposed.

That's changed and now even in some of the most exalted circles, and certainly amongst the ranks of expert game Shots, the over-under is the natural choice. Perhaps by looking at the history and development of three of the most successful guns of this type, the Browning B25, Beretta SO and the Perazzi, I may be able to go some way to explain the reasons for this. 

When in the late 1890s James Woodward and a little later Boss & Co. introduced their over-under guns, though the British were not particularly impressed, the Americans – or at least those that could afford them – however, were. That they were handmade in London was part of the appeal, and both the Woodward and Boss were sophisticated designs requiring a lot of skilled handwork. Very early on, both makers had solved the problem of the inherently deep action that superposed barrels would create by locating the jointing of the barrels to the action at the internal sides of the action body and the locking-bolt above the bottom barrel. The elegance created by this arrangement can be seen in a number of over-under guns today that inherit the same concept.

In America, however, the legendary gun inventor John Browning, having turned his attention to the over-under gun in the early 1920s, saw things differently. He recognised the appeal of the superposed gun, as he called it, but he decided, acquainted as he was with volume production, his over-under would be the everyman's gun and be suitably affordable. 

bigthree_browningb25_mainAt Fabrique Nationale's factory in Herstal, Belgium, he worked on his design but although his gun would be manufactured in significant numbers, it too would eventually become expensive to produce, at least in Europe. Perhaps strength and durability or something tried and well tested was uppermost in Browning's mind, but for whatever reason, he chose a straightforward crib of Purdey's under-bolting for his superposed. This comprised of a massive rear lump and a second forward lump also fulfilling the role of a barrel hook and pivoting on a full-width cross-pin, both located through the floor of the action body. This was – as far as the jointing of the gun was concerned – a side-by-side turned on its side. John Browning died before his gun went into production, his son Valentine finishing some of the design including a very efficient single trigger.

The Italians, Beretta in particular, watched with growing interest the success of the Browning over-under in America. By the 1930s this centuries-old company had reached a position of some prominence in the firearms industry. This was in no small degree due to a man who had worked for the firm since the age of 12. If the young Tullio Marengoni had got onto a boat to America instead of joining Beretta, he might have become as famous as John Browning. He didn't, and so in the early 1930s, having produced a number of successful designs for other categories of firearm, his attention was drawn, or perhaps directed, to the over-under shotgun. 

bigthree_berettas06eellIngenious engineers, the Italians also have an artist's eye for line and form which is incorporated into everything they make. Tullio Marengoni was no exception – his superposed gun, he decided, must be beautiful and strong. Conducting a number of experiments, some of which terrified his employers, he concluded that the forces generated by the explosion of the cartridge, rather than tending to blow a gun's barrels and action apart, drove them together. Thus he reasoned that if he placed the locking mechanism of his over-under above the explosion it would reinforce this phenomenon. At the same time he would create not only a very strong gun, but one with a low and elegant profile for the action body. The cross-bolted locking system, or at least its basic principles, it must be said, were not entirely original and the system or variations of it were popular with other makers, most especially in Germany and Austria. Beretta's version of the famous Kersten bolt, as found on the German Merkel, locks the breech by closing over reciprocating barrel lugs integral to the monobloc. He also foresaw that without having to machine the floor of the action body to accommodate barrel lumps it would remain one piece of solid steel, cradling the barrels at their breech-ends for maximum strength and security. At least that was how Beretta's advertising described the benefits of their first Sovroposto, the SO3. The SO with its sidelock action was never intended as an everyman's gun, although the exchange rate of the lira against the pound and the dollar made it a very competitively priced gun for many years. 

In the post-war period, life was tough in Northern Italy and no more so than for Daniel Perazzi, a would-be gunmaker who, as a teenager, would take any job other makers offered him to help feed his family. Eventually he made some money from a small invention of his own and he was on his way to some considerable success. Becoming a partner with the young Ivo Fabbri, they made 

sidelock over-unders together based on Woodward designs until they went their separate ways. In 1963, Ennio Mattarelli, already having won the World and European Championships for olympic trap, paid a visit to Daniel Perazzi's workshop. He had heard about the sidelock over-under Perazzi was making and ordered a trap gun for use at the Olympic Games in Tokyo the following year. Mattarelli won the gold medal with his Perazzi gun and, on returning to Italy, formed a collaboration with his gunmaker to produce the ultimate shotgun for competitive clay target shooting. The Perazzi MX8, with its detachable trigger plate action and Boss-style bolting, became just that. In the 2008 Olympics at Beijing, 15 of the first 16 competitors in the men's trap event, including all the medal winners, used Perazzi guns. 

Three guns by three different makers with rather different origins... What special qualities do each of them have that so appeals to the modern game shooter? I have described some of their technical features, but what else does each of them offer? 

Shooting impressions

The Browning B25, in appearance and almost certainly in weight and balance, has moved on considerably from its original rather rugged and austere ancestor. This is due, in no small measure, to the Belgian gunmakers in Browning's factory in Liége. Made in relatively small numbers, the B25 as it is now designated is both a handsome and exceedingly well balanced gun. The example on the table in front of me has 30" barrels and weighs 7lb 9oz. Not especially heavy for a modern game gun, and the light barrels with a narrow 7mm rib keeps the gun's weight nicely between the hands. 

The stocking of the gun is first rate, the semi-pistol grip and Browning's signature Schnabel fore-end is beautifully executed and its slim shape provides a comfortable hold for the leading hand. I always relish the B25's unique sliding fore-end latch-fastening and, though its purpose is something of a mystery, I'm glad it's there. 

As to the under-bolted action, again I delight in its obvious strength and the number of valuable bearing surfaces it provides. As to its depth, Browning's skilled stockers ensure their work blends with the lines of the gun and in doing so it has the benefit of keeping both hands away from the line of sight. Shooting the Browning, its neutral handling gives it a feel of user-friendliness and always makes it a pleasure to use. 

Beretta's SO is an Italian aristocrat, looks it and feels it. Though my sample gun tips the scales at 8lb, much of this weight is in the action and its light 29" barrels make it faster handling than the Browning. A combination of this and the superb trigger pulls its sidelock action provides, make the gun an exciting one to own and use, and in EELL grade the SO6 is also an abiding pleasure to look at.

bigthree_perazzisc3The Perazzi as a game gun with its traditional elegance is always going to appeal to the British, owing as it does so much to Woodward and Boss over-unders. That said, although the jointing and bolting is similar to those guns, the dimensions are massive in comparison, designed as it originally was as a gun for clay target shooting. That, however, is no bad thing in the modern world of high birds and powerful cartridges. My sample gun with 30" barrels weighs 7lb 13oz, but the weight is comfortably between the hands and feels positively lively.

Although of no particular significance, I shot my best with this gun. My accuracy with the Perazzi was, I believe, almost entirely due to the stock dimensions and most particularly the comb height being very close to what I am used to.

I said at the beginning of this piece that perhaps looking at the history and development of these guns would explain their success, knowing of course that it would. All three created by great gun designers, John Browning, Tullio Marengoni and Daniel Perazzi were destined to be something special. Although these men would all have had some constraints placed upon them as to their eventual selling price, they brought their special genius to the task of making them great value for money. That they are all still in production is the most convincing proof of their intrinsic worth and are still relatively affordable.

Technical specifications
Browning B25 Game

Bore: 12

Chambers: 2¾" 

Barrel Length: 30"

Chokes: ¼ / ¾ or to order

Rib: 7mm parallel

Stock: Semi-pistol grip or to order

Weight: Approx 7½lb

Cost: From £12,390 (with sideplates from £21,700)

 

Beretta SO6 EELL

Bore: 12

Chambers: 2¾" 

Barrel Length: 29½"

Chokes: Interchangeable or to order

Rib: 10 x 7mm tapered

Stock: Semi-pistol grip or to order

Weight: Approx 7¾lb

Cost: From £38,250

 

Perazzi SC3

Bore: 12

Chambers: 2¾"

Barrel Length: 29½"

Chokes: ¼ / ¾ or to order

Rib: 7mm parallel

Stock: Semi-pistol grip or to order

Weight: Approx 7¾lb

Cost: From £12,500

 

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