“BECAUSE there are two barrels.”
Several years ago, I had the pleasure of shooting a course of sporting clays in Texas with the sales representative of an Italian gunmaking company. As I remember, he broke 94 targets out of 100. I had one of my better days and broke 82. He shot the course with one of his company’s Pigeon Grade over-and-under 12 bores, a stunningly beautiful gun that had been expressly made for live pigeon shooting.
Banned in some states in the U.S. but still widely practiced in Europe and many Latin American countries, live pigeon shooting is considered the most challenging and difficult of the shotgun games. The pigeons are launched (sometimes thrown) into fast-moving, erratic, and unpredictable flight, and a bird must be shot and dropped before it reaches the fenced boundary of the ring – the circular shooting ground.
I was in awe of this Italian shotgunner who competed in these highly competitive and big-money shoots, which I would be too intimidated to attempt. My wing-shooting skills in the live pigeon ring would surely leave me 1) totally humiliated, and 2) dead broke.
Also, I was entranced by his custom-fitted Beretta. The most curious thing about this elegant over-and-under gun was that it had two triggers. I had never before seen double triggers on an over-under. My own Browning BSS side-by-side 20-gauge gun had a single trigger, which I thought at the time to be much superior to those awkward double triggers. I had the temerity to ask him, “Why does a best-quality gun have two triggers?”
He answered me with the obvious reason, and a pitying and condescending smile: “Because there are two barrels.”
Many years passed before I learned through experience, instruction, and reading the advice of accomplished gamebird shooters that the double gun for gamebird shooting incorporates a perfect synthesis of form and function. That synthesis includes two barrels, two triggers, straight stock, high comb, light weight, and balance.
My learning curve should have been much steeper. I should have appreciated the advantages of double triggers much earlier in my shooting life. After all, two is the universal number of rightness.
Two heads are better than one. Two of a kind. Two thumbs up. Two peas in the same pod. Tea for two. Two minute warning. Two for the price of one. Two to tango. Two by two. Two tickets to paradise. Two can live as cheaply as one. Big Two-Hearted River. One-two punch. Texas two-step. A perfect pair. And make mine a double at closing time.
Part I -Why two triggers?
Two triggers because there are two barrels. Simple as that. Double triggers on a side-by-side double are far superior to a single trigger for a compelling reason.
An aficionado of double guns since my earliest days afield, I was sadly misinformed about the supposed benefit of a single trigger and blundered through a process of self-enlightenment. The firearms and hunting writer Jack O’Connor was my guru, and he was an advocate of the single trigger on a double gun. But Jack was wrong about that, dead wrong, as he was about much else in shotgunning (read Jack O’Connor was wrong).
My first gun was a Savage-Fox Model B-SE that I believed was the best of the budget-priced doubles. Twelve gauge, 28-inch barrels choked modified and full, beavertail forend, pistol grip, thick-stocked and low-combed, it probably weighed eight and a half pounds and was quick and nimble as a dump truck. Naturally it had a single trigger (non-selective). I would not have considered anything less.
As my knowledge of wing shooting advanced and the shortcomings of that clunky Savage-Fox double became apparent, the gun underwent extensive modification, but it was hopeless. One cannot make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.
I moved to West Texas where the only birds one could hunt were mourning doves, white winged doves. bobwhite quail, and a horrid avian species locally called blue quail (more properly known as scaled quail). Unexpectedly given a bonus by my employer, I bought a Browning BSS Sporter in 20 gauge. Twenty-six-inch barrels choked improved-cylinder and modified, semi-beavertail forend, straight stock, trim, light, graceful and delightfully quick. Heavenly. I still have that gun, do most of my bird hunting with it, and love it.
The BSS also had a single trigger, but it was equipped with a barrel selector button inside the rear of the trigger guard. A push of the button and, voile!, one could choose the modified choke barrel for long shots or the IC barrel when shots were closer.
But over the course of three seasons the barrel selector was seldom used. It was set to fire the IC barrel first, and I almost never pushed it over to first shoot the modified barrel.
Selecting the tight barrel was cumbersome. I would look down at the gun and turn it sideways to punch the button, and that put a hitch in my shooting technique. Wearing gloves, the barrel switch was even more clumsy, and on two occasions the button became stuck halfway between right and left, which locked the trigger and allowing neither barrel to fire. Watching a covey of quail whirl away, I spoke a descriptive phrase about barrel selectors.
But the true epiphany came in the form of a family heirloom gun: an Ithaca-made Lefever Nitro Special. This was a “working man’s” double gun, manufactured in the 1920s, and it needed extensive modification to convert it into a gun I could take afield. From a piece of seasoned walnut I made a straight, high-combed stock, opened the chokes and lengthened the forcing cones, had the barrels re-blued and the receiver case-hardened – the whole nine yards. (Read Grandfather Clause and Lefever Nitro Special.)
But there was a problem. The old gun had double triggers, and I could not change that without going to great expense. Obviously, I would not shoot well with that handicap.
Continuing a family heritage, I took the gun to the Nebraska Sandhills to hunt prairie grouse. Cresting a dune late one morning a pod of birds flushed wild, at least 35 yards ahead. The old double gun went to my shoulder, my finger slipped to the rear trigger, I fired the left (improved-modified) barrel, and down came a sharptailed grouse.
Instant, automatic and effortless barrel selection. The “Hallelujah Chorus” did not erupt from the heavens, but it could well have. In that instant the value of two triggers was obvious. A double gun has two triggers because it has two barrels.
Part II- Why a straight grip?
A greater challenge has been convincing my cohorts of The Over the Hill Gang that a straight grip (English grip) on a gamebird gun is a better choice than a pistol grip (American grip). More than one Old Coot has said “a straight grip twists my wrist at an odd angle, and I can’t hold the stock as tight.”
Yes, that is the whole point, and the advantage, of the straight grip.
Proper shooting technique afield demands that the shotgunner point out his flying target with his lead hand. If you were to point at a flying bird without a gun, you would not press your closed fist against your cheekbone and point at it with an extended forefinger; you would fully extend your arm and point at it with a sweeping gesture that swings through the flight path of the bird.
That is what the straight grip more or less forces the shooter to do. The shooter’s trigger hand cannot tightly grasp the straight stock, especially with the little finger and ring finger. Consequently, he automatically and unconsciously shifts the control of the gun to the lead hand and therefore tracks and swings through the bird’s line of flight more smoothly and precisely. (My 16-gauge double gun has a pistol grip; when I approach my dog on point I whisper to myself, “shoot with the left hand, shoot with the left hand.” If I fail to do that, my wing shooting goes to hell in a handbasket.)
A pistol grip, conversely, tends to make the shooter point out his flying target with a “closed fist to the cheekbone” style. He over-steers the gun with his grip hand, which is almost always his dominant and stronger hand, which makes the barrels swing less smoothly and precisely, more herky-jerky, and liable to interruptions. An interrupted swing usually means a missed bird.
When shooting the clay target games the pistol grip has a lot going for it. Dedicated shotguns for trap, skeet, sporting clays, and 5-stand are heavier, often longer barreled and therefore barrel heavy, with a mount and swing that is less quick and nimble but more steady. But the clay target games are unlike gamebird shooting. The shooter calls for the launch of the target when he is ready, he knows about where the target will appear and how it will fly: its speed, angle, direction, line of flight, rate of deceleration, etc. And all the clay target games (with the exception of FITASC – Federation Internationale de Tir Aux Sportives de Chasse) permit the shooter to shoulder his shotgun before he calls for the clay target’s launch.
The clay target sports are great games, but they are games. Even an indifferent clay target shooter (me, for example) will be able to break 20-plus targets at trap, skeet, 5-stand, and about three of every four targets on a typical sporting clays course. These games have some features in common with field shooting, but not many.
Clay target shooting requires measured control of the gun, and the shooter disciplines himself to track the target with a balance between his lead hand and his grip hand. Shooting gamebirds afield, the gunner cannot pre-mount the gun and has no idea of the escaping bird’s moment of flight or its speed, angle, direction, line of flight, and rate of acceleration. He needs the quickness and precision of shooting with his lead hand.
And that is why the straight stock is an advantage.
Part III – Why do we go afield with double guns?
The ultimate question is this: Why do we go afield with double guns? Especially side-by-side double guns.
For that I have no logical or reasoned answer.
Appraise the shotgun choices of a million bird hunters and you will find at least a hundred semi-automatics and pumps for every double gun, and by far the largest share of the doubles will be over-unders, not side-by-sides. Many (I won’t say most) of the bird hunters who choose semi-autos or pumps are skilled wing shooters. Many more of the hunters who choose over-unders (especially those who shoot thousands of rounds at sporting clays targets each year) are awesome bird shooters afield.
Well, yer pays yer money and yer takes yer choyce.
For me the choice has always been a side-by-side. I think this is partly because a tradition of more than 200 years graces the side-by-side double gun, all the way back to its creation by English gunmaker Joseph Manton. And in part it is because the double gun demands more discipline and dedication to master, to learn to shoot it well. There is something almost mystical about double guns that weaves the man who shoots one into the fabric of the long history of bird hunting like no other type of gun.
Pick up a semi-automatic, a pump gun, or even an over-under, and you will immediately perceive the gun’s similarity to a rifle – the heft and feel and balance of it. No mystery there; American hunters are a nation of riflemen, and we are more comfortable with a shotgun that emulates a rifle. The side-by-side is different, especially the English style doubles that have not been Americanized with pistol grips, single triggers, beavertail forends, raised sighting ribs, and other adulterations. This is a birdgun. This double gun has no other purpose than to delight the man who takes it afield in pursuit of wild gamebirds.
Whenever I meet someone afield who carries a classic double gun, we strike up an immediate camaraderie. We always have excellent bird dogs, too, but that goes without saying.
With good fortune, there will be a few more years of bird hunts in my future. With good fortune, all those hunts will be with a double gun.