Another false premise was that you could take those pristine Churchills mentioned earlier, duplicate them down to the last micron on CNC, and have a matched-pair clone. But it doesn’t work that way. Making fine guns by hand involves taking part A, mating it with part B, then mating part A–B with part C, and so on. You don’t produce 50 component parts, bolt them together, and voilà! Both Purdey and Holland & Holland make extensive use of computers, CNC, and all the related technology, but only to take the parts to a certain level of production. From that point on, they are handfitted and hand-finished.
Instead of trying to simply replicate handmade quality, a better approach for modern gunmakers is to come up with a design that approaches the performance of the great handmade guns but lends itself to CNC production, then use the technology to mass-produce parts and keep costs down. Blaser, in Germany, has gone as far as anyone in doing this in production of rifles, especially, but also in their groundbreaking F3 shotgun, which came on the market a decade ago.
The F3 has established itself as being in the premier league of over-and-unders, for competition particularly, but also for game shooting. It has all the adjustable parts, and all the interchangeability that trapshooters now demand. An interesting thing, though: From the moment I picked up an F3, I knew I had found the trap gun for me, and I’ve been shooting one ever since. A good friend of mine, who is a better and vastly more experienced trapshooter, also got an F3, shot it for a while, and then went on to something else. He just couldn’t hit with it as consistently as he wanted to. Other competition shooters swear by it, though, which brings us back to the very first line in the very first paragraph above: It’s not how well the gun shoots; it’s how well you shoot with it.
“Not surprisingly, being a Blaser, the gun shot very well. More surprising, to me, was the fact that I shot pretty well with it, and I am a habitual user of side-by-sides on game birds.”
If there is one outstanding feature of the F3, it’s the superb trigger and lightning-strike lock time. A second is the complete interchangeability of barrels, buttstocks, and forends with no gunsmithing required. This is not new, either; it’s only new at this level of hairsplitting quality. As far back as the 1880s, Birmingham gunmaker C.G. Bonehill was producing a gun called the “Interchangeable.” Its parts were made on machines, and it fulfilled its promise, but only to a point. Mass production means tolerances, tolerances mean some parts will fit inexactly, inexact parts mean wear, and wear means breakdowns. For the modern trapshooter, that’s anathema.
CNC has allowed those tolerances to be tightened up almost to the point of nonexistence. If the F3 has a drawback, it’s the price: At a starting point of $7,950, it ain’t exactly cheap. CNC is certainly reaching its goal of ultra-quality on machine, but where does that leave the shooter of average means?
Recognizing this problem, Blaser was determined to build some of the F3’s virtues into a more affordable gun, and the result is the Blaser F16, introduced last year. At a base price of $3,795, the F16 is less than half the starting price of an F3. It sports many of the same features, such as adjustable weights (in the competition model) that allow changes in balance.
The trigger is a new design, different from the F3, but with a similarly excellent pull. It is a mechanical trigger, not inertia, which means it does not depend on recoil to cock for the second barrel. The locks have an Inertial Block System (IBS) to prevent doubling.
The F16 is available in both game- and competition-gun configurations, but it’s the game gun that interests me the most. It was originally available in 12 gauge only, but a 20 gauge is apparently on the way. The 12 weighs 6 pounds 12 ounces (depending on wood density) with 28-inch barrels, which is just about the ideal weight for a gun to be carried in the field. That is most unusual in an over-and-under, which are typically considerably heavier.
It also has a receiver that is reported to be the shallowest of any 12 gauge on the market. This is one of the huge advantages of the famous English Boss and Woodward over-and-unders, and the F16 has what is called a modified Boss lock-up arrangement. A shallow receiver allows the gun to sit lower in the hand, for better reaction and instinctive pointing on a surprise flush.
When the F16 was introduced, I had the opportunity to shoot one on several rounds of clays, as well as game birds that included pheasants, quail, and chukars. Those three species behave quite differently when they are pointed and flushed, and much of it is pure instinctive shooting. Not surprisingly, being a Blaser, the gun shot very well. More surprising, to me, was the fact that I shot pretty well with it, and I am a habitual user of side-by-sides on game birds. The F16 carried easily, came up smoothly, and tracked effortlessly. It’s not a Boss or a Woodward, but it’s not $150,000, either. It is, I believe, the CNC promise come to fruition at last.
Wieland once had a chance assignation with a Boss game gun, and the experience warped him for life. Everything since has been measured against that defining moment. But it was worth it.