by Terry Wieland
In the course of searching for some answers about some arcane aspect of shotguns, I found myself re-reading Bob Brister’s classic Shotgunning – The Art and the Science. Brister was shotgun editor of Field & Stream for many years, and had the distinction of being not only a fine writer but a champion shooter as well, in several shotgun disciplines.
Early on, Brister gets into exploring the age-old question of what type of shotgun is better—mainly side-by-side versus over/under, but also pumps and semiautos. This is one of those ever-green subjects beloved of magazine editors. It can never be truly settled, therefore it will always draw readers wondering if, this time, the writer will agree with them or send them into a frothing rage.
What struck me, reading Brister’s analysis almost 50 years on (the book came out in 1976), is just how bizarre some of the arguments are, both for and against, each of the major types. These are not Brister’s arguments, I hasten to add, but some he related. A few no longer really hold water, while others never did.
Then I started thinking about some of my own choices and found that now, 35 years after I really started writing about guns of all kinds, my reasons for preferring this gun or that, for this purpose or that, are not necessarily—or at least not only—the ones that caused me to buy any gun in the first place.
Let’s start with Brister reporting on arguments for and against the two types of double gun. He wrote that many shooters like O/U’s because they offer a “single sighting plane.” This echoes early Browning ads for the Superposed, which became an article of faith for Americans. Fact is, all shotguns have a “single sighting plane,” it’s just that some are wider than others. And you’re not supposed to look at your barrels anyway, but focus on the target.
Then there’s the counter argument that SxS guns don’t get blown around by high winds like an O/U does. They do? I’ve shot in some seriously high winds, with many types of guns, and never found that any of them move around like a boat under sail.
Both of these arguments strike me as grasping at straws, trying to find some additional point to bolster a position that one gun is superior to another. My question then is, why bother? Unless you’re a marketing guy trying to sell something new, different, or highly questionable (like the early Browning people), what’s the point?
As someone who, from early childhood, has rarely found a good gun of any description that he could not bond with, I wonder why the knock-down, drag-out arguments over what’s better? If you shoot a Winchester Model 12 better than anything else, then that’s the gun that’s best for you. Personally, I shoot a pump gun the least well of all the major types, but I still like them and admire them for what they are: a uniquely American design of undoubted “eumatic” qualities.
Eumatic is a term coined by the English shotgun writer Gough Thomas to denote the characteristic of being a pleasure to use, and it can apply to any tool, firearm, car, boat, or wristwatch—or not, as the case may be.
For field shooting, I prefer a side-by-side for all the usual qualities of balance, weight, and swing. More than that, though, it does not need to open as far to eject and reload, and when opened, it carries comfortably and safely under one arm. As well—and this is a feature I never thought about until I had one—a self-opening mechanism is a huge help in reloading quickly or opening the gun with one hand while your other is occupied restraining a dog, carrying a bird, or whatever.
Since opening such a gun is easy and effortless, it becomes second-nature to carry it open, which other shooters will appreciate at least as much as you do.
An over/under has some (!) of the same qualities, but opens considerably farther and generally reluctantly, unless it has been shot as loose as a pair of castenets. And no O/U has a self-opener that I know of. Is this why many O/U shooters carry their gun closed when it should be open? I don’t know, but it’s worth considering.
Another feature of the classic English double I greatly appreciate and heartily endorse is the automatic safety that goes on when you open a gun. This is roundly condemned by many, but not by me.
In 1976, Brister noted that two barrels give you two chokes, which is no longer as valid as it was, since with choke tubes one can have as many different constrictions as one’s heart desires. Of course, the double still offers instant choice of two chokes, provided you also have double triggers, but that takes us into some murky waters best saved for another time.
It’s funny: I went to Brister to get some answers on the thorny problem of flinching and found myself learning—or re-learning—all kinds of other valuable stuff. Funny how that happens.
Gray’s shooting editor, Terry Wieland, is now re-reading the entire book, starting with the acknowledgements and the Foreword by Skeet-shooting legend Grant Ilseng. For those who don’t have it, the book is readily available, new and used. Google “Brister, Shotgunning.”