Jack O’Connor was wrong


Mounting a pair of barrels side-by-side on a receiver does not, in and of itself, create a good upland gun. Some doubles are simply too heavy, unbalanced, cumbersome, and roughly made to be considered suitable game guns.

When I was shooting grouse in Scotland, my British friends thought my Model 21 Winchester, which weighs 7 1/2 pounds, quite heavy.
…the guns my British pals shot all had 28 or 30-inch barrels. They thought my 26-inch barrels a bit odd.
  – from The Shotgun Book, by Jack O’Connor (1902-78) shooting editor of Outdoor Life for 31 years and America’s foremost gun writer famed for his extensive knowledge of hunting and shooting.

A handful of American gunmakers did produce some fancy stuff. You could spend a tidy sum for a high-grade Baker or Lefever or L.C. Smith or Parker… But whatever the cost, the gun you got was a workhorse compared to the English guns – because that’s what the people who bought them wanted.
  — from Shotgunners Notebook, a collection of columns on shotguns and shotgun shooting by Gene Hill (1928-97), columnist and associate editor of Field and Stream who wrote hundreds of articles about gun dogs and bird guns

Jack O’Connor was wrong

Jack O’Connor is rightly regarded as the great sage of American riflery, and more than a hundred pieces of his wise and practical advice about rifle shooting and hunting are indelibly written on the scrolls held in the shooter’s temple of my mind. But no gun writer offered more bad advice on shotgunning to more shooters than did Jack O’Connor.

The greatest booster and most respected critic of gun and ammunition companies and their products, O’Connor was the carved-from-granite, dyed-in-the-wool model of the American outdoorsman, the rugged and self-made man who lived the hunting and shooting life the rest of us could only dream about. For three decades no month’s outdoor adventure reading was complete for me unless it included at least one article or story written by O’Connor.

But his revered position as the dean of gun writers had a downside for shotgunners. Because of his penchant for improperly applying principles of rifle design and function to shotguns, his writing fostered the application of many “American” features to shotguns, features that hinder rather than help the upland game shooter.

We shotgunners went down the wrong road when we allowed the fundamentals of riflery to be applied to shotgunning. Riflemen wanted better accuracy, longer range, more firepower, improved reliability, better sighting systems, higher velocity, better ballistic performance in flight, and better bullet performance on game. At the end of a hundred years’ pursuit of those goals, the modern hunting rifle is a marvel that has achieved the acme of all those aspirations.

But the shotgun shooter did not need any of those “improvements.” The English shotgun reached its acme more than a hundred years ago, and attempts to make its American descendants into some sort of smoothbore rifle have detracted from, not added to, the shotgun’s good qualities. (Shotshells, unarguably, have vastly improved over the course of the past 50 years, but that has not changed the capabilities or the function of the game gun itself.)

Gene Hill hit the nail on the head when he observed that American shotgun manufacturers have never produced best quality upland game guns, focusing their design and production standards on the duck guns that American hunters preferred. We have yet to come to our senses about form following function – achieving the arete of game gun design – locked as we are in the “more is better” philosophy of product design that exacerbates the liabilities and diminishes the assets of the upland gun.

Like the mad trend toward oversized and much-accessorized American automobiles, American-style shotguns have been mutated with gimmicks and add-ons that detract from both the style and utility of an upland game gun: pistol grips, single triggers, beavertail forends, raised vent ribs, recoil pads, chambers and barrel walls thickened to handle magnum loads, and shorter barrels, to name the most noisome. Some of these are outright handicaps to good wing shooting and others are, at best, cosmetic features that do nothing to improve the gun but add weight and bulk and encumber its handling characteristics.

In The Shotgun Book, O’Connor’s treatise on shotguns and shotgun shooting published in 1978, he devotes a chapter to The European Double –Barrel Shotgun, most of it describing the traditional English game gun. In addition to his lament that the skills and dedication of the “name” British gunmaking firms had gone to hell in a hand basket after World War II, he suggests that the form and function of a British game gun does not compare well with its American counterpart; the British guns are too light, have straight stocks (no pistol grip), splinter (not beavertail) forends, and barrels that are too long. They also have two triggers instead of the single selective trigger (which he regards as much superior), and are built to handle light loads of shot, not the heavy magnum loads American bird hunters seem to love.

Quoting from his European guns chapter”

When I was shooting grouse in Scotland, my British friends thought my Model 21 Winchester, which weighs 7 1/2 pounds, quite heavy.

O’Connor goes on to write:

…the guns my British pals shot all had 28 or 30-inch barrels. They thought my 26-inch barrels a bit odd.

O’Connor was always opinionated and often arrogant in his writing about firearms, which is why his readers loved his no nonsense style and his willingness to criticize low-quality arms and ammunition in a way that today’s writers have neither the audacity nor the editorial backing to dare (the style now is toadying to gun manufacturers so they will purchase expensive advertisements in gun magazines and websites). He usually got it right when his subject was rifles, rifle ammunition and hand loads, rifle shooting, and rifle hunting. These, after all, were his forte.

But he missed the mark when he wrote about upland game guns and shotgun shooting, an art and science that he addressed with much preconception and less expertise. Case in point: Even though O’Connor’s much lauded Winchester Model 21 is ostensibly a high-quality side-by-side, a 7 1/2 pound double gun is too heavy to be regarded as a suitable upland game gun, and 26-inch barrels on a 12 gauge gun are an abomination unless you are riding guard on a stage coach. Its pistol grip, wide forend, and barrels with thick (and therefore heavy) chambers and walls to withstand the high pressures of heavy loads also take a double gun farther and farther from the defining characteristics of the upland gun. A classy smoothbore double rifle, yes, but a game gun, no.

Mounting a pair of barrels side-by-side on a receiver does not, in and of itself, create a good upland gun. Some doubles are so heavy, unbalanced, cumbersome, and downright crudely made that no amount of tinkering could convert them into a shotgun that would be a pleasure to carry and shoot on a grouse and woodcock hunt. Conversely, I have recently handled and shot a Charles Daly over/under in 28 gauge and a Benelli Montefeltro semi-auto in 20 gauge that each had the qualities that constitute the “perfect” game gun. Well, not perfect-perfect; I am too hidebound to admit that anything but a first-class side-by-side could attain perfection.

Elegance is the marriage of simplicity and efficacy. The traditional English-style double gun bespeaks elegance. For me, going afield with a gun that emulates that style – straight stock, splinter forend, light weight, quickness and balance – adds much enjoyment and satisfaction to a day of hunting or shooting.

Regarding shotguns and shotgun shooting, Jack O’Connor too often got it wrong. So which shotgun writers are the best references? Which provide the most objective, accurate, and factual information about game guns and upland hunting and shooting? I recommend Michael McIntosh, Charlie Waterman, Gene Hill, Bob Brister, Bruce Buck, and Joel Vance – probably because they all share, to greater or lesser degree, my preferences and prejudices regarding game guns.

No, I do not yet own the “perfect” game gun, but I have a couple “almost” and one “damned near.” Maybe before the call comes for me to join my bevy of dogs in Bird Hunter’s Heaven I will acquire the one that embodies all the grace and elegance of that upland gun that excites my imagination. Until then I will go afield most often with a favorite 20 gauge double that can do everything an upland gun is supposed to do – when I do my part correctly.

More stories about hunting, bird dogs, bird guns, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays and two novels, all available through my Author Page on Amazon.com Jerry Johnson Author Page

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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