The overlooked side-by-side shotgun

side by side shotgunA gun I still own and still enjoy using and just handling is a single-barrelled 16 bore Webley & Scott non-ejector, built circa 1911. A single-barrelled 20, 16 or even 12 bore was, for me, the first step up from a .410 to a ‘proper’ gun.

I started shooting with a William Evans .410 double hammer gun when I was six until I was 11, when the single-barrelled 16 bore was brought home for me. It was light-weight and I could handle and move it as easily as the .410, something I probably would not have been able to do with even a 5½lb 20 bore double. After Jim Wills shortened the stock and fitted the recoil pad, I was taken to try the gun on a few clays at the Spa Shooting School with Chris Cradock. The kick from the 4½lb gun using standard 15/16oz cartridges was a revelatory shock, as were the bruises that appeared on my upper arm that evening! However, I persevered with this little gun which was furnished with a 25" barrel (almost true cylinder), and used it to shoot my first pigeon, rabbit, collared dove, crow, jay, mallard and pheasant. For three years it was my companion on sporting forays with my father until a George Gibbs 20 bore (with ejectors!) briefly replaced it and, finally, when I was 15, a very nice Belgian 12 bore sidelock ejector banished the 16 bore to the gun cabinet.

Later, when I was in my 20s, I followed trend and used a succession of over-unders. At this time, I also did a lot of stillwater fly fishing and followed another trend of the 80s and fished with what was considered to be the only fly to use – the Dog Nobbler. Yet, today, most youngsters fishing those same waters wouldn’t have a clue what a Nobbler is! By my 30s, I had reverted back to side-by-sides which I have felt most comfortable with ever since.

I have been interested in the current trend for some shooting coaches to insist that their pupils use over-unders and the very common perception that they are more accurate or more natural to use. Indeed the oft quoted “advantage of a single sighting plane” is at the fore in most publications. The side-by-side now seems to be viewed in the way that our grandfathers regarded flintlock guns!

The history of ‘shooting flying’ is interesting. In the early to mid 18th century, the shooting of flying rather than sitting/running birds became more popular. Because guns were so expensive, this form of shooting was mainly the preserve of the rich. But of course, there was a limit to what they would spend. 

Single-barrelled guns were the order of the day. Yet, by the late 1700s, double-barrelled guns were already being produced in Britain, copying the trend adopted on the Continent. The earliest double-barrelled guns were over-unders and some very good mid- to late-1700s over-under turn-over guns (they had one lock, the first barrel was fired then the barrels rotated to bring the second barrel into play) were built and used, but ease of manufacture and efficiency of ignition swayed production to the side-by-side and by 1800, the great makers such as Twigg, Nock, Smith, Egg and Manton were producing superb, efficient double-barrelled side-by-side guns, used by all the great sportsmen of the day.

flintlockInterestingly, these same makers produced over-under pistols and a few sporting guns of this configuration, proving that, had there been demand, the over-under could have held sway. Boys still started out with single barrels, but all aspired to move onto a coveted double. By the time percussion ignition was perfected in the 1830s, the building of over-under guns would not have been a great problem, yet one very rarely encounters British examples, although there are plenty of surviving Continental examples. 

By 1851, the breech-loader was born in nearly modern form, yet the side-by-side ruled supreme, even after the first great English over-under, the Boss, was produced in 1909. It has taken from then until the mid 1980s for the popularity of the over-under to overhaul the side-by-side. Yet, even in the late 19th and early 20th century, the amount of money at stake in live pigeon as well as clay pigeon matches was huge compared with today. There were professional live pigeon Shots who could have the fate of the equivalent of several hundred-thousand pounds resting on their next shot. These men purchased the best guns to suit their purpose and, up until the end of the Second World War, the side-by-side was the gun of choice right across Europe and the USA. Scores don’t seem to have changed much across that time, so maybe the gun does not have the effect that users believe, or are told it does.

It is interesting to speculate that great Shots such as Ripon, Walsingham and Stonor – who all appear to have started shooting with single-barrelled guns – and even Percy Stanbury, would have shot better if they had used an over-under. 

I was lucky to have Chris Cradock as a mentor when I was young. He was a superb Shot and when I knew him, his favourite guns were a 29½" Perazzi MT6 and a Remington 1100 semi-auto with a 28" Baker back-bored barrel. He used Beretta side-by-sides for the little game shooting he did, and the semi-auto was his favourite for his great love, pigeon shooting. Chris always told me that I should use what I felt comfortable with. As a good friend of Percy Stanbury, who was probably the greatest competition Shot of the 30s, 40s and 50s, and who used a side-by-side Webley & Scott, Chris had the opportunity to follow his friends’ lead and use a side-by-side or go the way he chose. Chris once told me that he felt that clay shooting was developing slightly towards long-range “trick” shooting where a heavy, rifle-like gun would aid consistency. Perhaps his comment was more prophetic than he realised, with the development of long-range, “extreme” game shooting.

I feel that youngsters entering the modern world of shooting are not being given the opportunity to try all types of gun. I read and hear more and more commentators in our sport saying outright that only a single sighting plane will allow you to shoot with any degree of accuracy, but it is provable that with both eyes open and focussing on an object 20, 30 or 40 yards away, you cannot see with clarity any form of sighting plane. 

modern side by side shotgunsThere is also no evidence other than hearsay – and the volume of people who are using over-unders – to support any such statement on the advantage of the single sighting plane. There are very accurate game Shots such as the Percy brothers who shoot game with side-by-sides, and there are others such as David Flux and Peter Schwerdt, who seem to shoot as well with either format of gun. Indeed, Simon Ward shocked the clay shooting world when he joined the finalists of the British Open Sporting Championship, shooting a nearly 100-year-old Holland & Holland Royal. Both formats have their plus points as well as their draw-backs. It is a great shame that a lot of fun is being denied to a large number of newcomers to our wonderful sport by the biased thoughts of a few. 

One problem, in my mind at least, is that a lot of side-by-sides are inherited and therefore seldom fit the new recipient; as a result, the new owner struggles to hit anything with it. An off-the-shelf over-under is easier to use in a rifle fashion by aiming, and clays in the main can be easily hit using this technique. The result is that the user ends up perceiving that the over-under has allowed him to hit more. 

Yet, maybe their long-term shooting prowess will suffer as a result, which could be why we are seeing 10, 11, 12 or even more shots per bird on very many shoots where the over-under is virtually the only type of gun used. 

I wonder, when was the last time the Duke of Northumberland or Lord James Percy shot at that sort of ratio with their side-by-sides?

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