By Chuck Hawks
The steeply rising production costs of the classic side-by-side shotgun eventually drove most manufacturers into extinction or forced their products into price classes that only the wealthiest shooters could afford. New or used, a Grulla, Pedro Arrizabalaga, David Mckay Brown, Purdy, Holland & Holland, Merkel, Francotte, Piotti, or Abbiatico & Salvinelli double gun is usually beyond the means of most aficionados. They are great guns, but their price puts these and the other guns like them beyond the scope of an article on "Affordable Doubles." Also beyond the scope of this article are most of the classic American double guns of the 20th Century, specifically including the Parker Bros., L.C. Smith (Hunter Arms), A.H. Fox, Lefever Arms Co. and Winchester Model 21.
The legend of the side-by-side shotgun has lived on to captivate a new generation of shooters. New manufacturing technologies like monobloc construction, CNC machining, investment casting and laser guided checkering, among others, plus the expansion of the world economy in Asia and Eastern Europe, has allowed double guns to make something of a comeback. I am not talking about--and do not recommend--poorly manufactured doubles, such as the low priced models manufactured in Turkey and Russia today and sold under a multitude of brands, the most commonly encountered of which may be Stoeger (now owned by the Beretta conglomerate). This article is about perfectly serviceable field guns built to last. Such guns are available on both the new and used markets. A middle class wage earner that is willing to do some scrimping and saving can buy a good new or used double.
Manufacturing double guns is never a very profitable business and making a high quality, field grade double at a reasonable price is practically impossible today. Field grade doubles cannot compete with pump and autoloading guns in price. If the selling price is cheap, so is the quality and construction. For those unable to find or unwilling to buy a used double, there are ususally a few new guns on the market that, while expensive compared to a good repeater or the used guns above, do not cost an arm and a leg in the greater scheme of things.
Understand that a double gun is a far more complex mechanism than a pump or autoloading repeater. The highly refined mechanism must be manufactured and fitted to close tolerances or it simply will not work and the regulation of barrels is an art that relatively few have ever mastered. So a double will always be much more expensive than a repeater of the same brand and grade. Don't expect miracles. If you want to enjoy the speed and handling of a double gun you will have to pay a premium price compared to lesser guns. Also be aware that most double guns use thin walled barrels that will be damaged by steel shot. Avoid the use of steel shot in any double not specifically recommended for such use by the manufacturer.
Used guns are almost always less expensive than new ones, so for those on the strictest budget, look to the used racks at your local gun shop, gun show, or in the classified pages of publications like the Shotgun News. For fair pricing, check the latest edition of Fjestad's Blue Book of Gun Values, available at most bookstores and gun shops. The guns that follow are not the cheapest doubles on the market and certainly not the most elaborate. They are mostly from what I consider the lower end of the middle price range of doubles, the area where real bargains are most likely to be found.
The Italian Beretta Silver Hawk, discontinued back in 1967, was resurrected in 1999. The old version sported a satin chrome receiver, high solid rib, checkered pistol grip walnut stock and forearm, double triggers, and plain extractors. It was a boxlock gun with monobloc barrels in 12 (3" chamber) and 10 gauge (3.5" chamber) only. The Silver Hawk Featherweight was similar but lighter and came with a beavertail forearm and standard 2.75" chambers in 12, 16, 20, and 28 gauges with a choice of double triggers or a single non-selective trigger. I sold these guns new back in the 1960's and found them to be a very good value and a classy looking gun in what was then the medium price range. I would have bought one in a second if I could have afforded it.
Vincenzo Bernardelli, of Brescia Italy, made guns from 1721 to1997. Since the Second World War they have had a number of U.S. distributors, including Stoeger. In 2002 they were reorganized and Bernardelli branded doubles are now produced in Turkey. These I would avoid. Bernardelli has, over the years, produced a number of nice doubles in the medium price class at their own factory in Italy.
Perhaps the best known of these were the standard grade Brescia and the higher grade Italia Model sidelock rebounding hammer double guns in 12, 16, and 20 gauge, and the lightweight Gamecock. The latter was a hammerless boxlock gun in the trim English style available in 12, 16, 20 and 28 gauges. All of these guns had nicely color cased receivers, beautifully blued barrels with low solid ribs, double triggers, and hand checkered European walnut stocks with splinter forearms. They were a lot of gun for the money, and a Brescia Model was my first quality double (purchased used in the middle 1960's).
If you yearn for a traditional hammer double gun, not a sawed-off "stagecoach" model but a quality sporting double, a Bernardelli Brescia or Italia would be hard to beat. And the Gamecock is the nearest thing to an affordable English game gun you are liable to find. Beware of guns marked "Pietro Bernardelli" and "Santini Bernardelli," as these trademarks are not the Bernardelli guns referred to here.
One of the best known discontinued doubles is the Browning B-SS. The basic models were the B-SS and B-SS Sporter, both sturdy boxlock guns available in standard Grade I and deluxe Grade II. Grade II guns came with more engraving and a fancier grade of walnut. There was also a considerably more expensive sidelock model that is beyond the purview of this article.
The BSS was made in Japan by Miroku (who also manufactures the Citori O/U) for Browning and featured a blued and engraved receiver, solid raised rib, single selective trigger (SST), selective ejectors (SE), checkered pistol grip walnut stock, and beavertail forearm. Gauges were 12 and 20. The fit and finish was to Browning's usual high standards. For years I wanted one of these guns, but I never got one. The Sporter was similar but featured a straight hand stock and splinter forearm. The B-SS guns were discontinued in 1988.
An equally well made double (and one of my personal favorites) was the basic Charles Daly Field Grade SxS, also made in Japan by Miroku in 12 and 20 gauge. This solid little boxlock gun had a blued receiver with minimal engraving, double triggers, plain extractors, a checkered walnut stock and beavertail forearm. Higher grades were also available with fancier wood and more extensive engraving. When I bought one of the Field Grade guns in used but like new condition, I was stunned to discover that this basic grade gun appeared to be constructed with chopper lump barrels and featured a "swamped" English style rib. It was a very neat and lively gun to shoot. A Charles Daly Field Grade SxS is a fine used value. I believe that these guns were discontinued about 1985.
The Charles Daly Field II Hunter was an inexpensive Spanish made boxlock marketed by K.B.I. (now defunct). It featured a checkered walnut pistol grip stock and beavertail forearm, engraved silver receiver, monobloc barrels with a solid rib, gold selective single trigger, extractors and automatic safety. It was available in 10, 12, 20, 28, and .410 gauge. The somewhat fancier Superior Grade weighed about 7 pounds and was similar in specification, but came with chrome lined barrels. It was available in 12 and 20 gauge only. At the top of the line was the deluxe Empire Hunter with game scene engraving and selective ejectors.
Fabarm is an Italian company that manufactures a line of boxlock double guns with monoblock barrels in 12 and 20 gauge. Current Classic and Nobile models feature interchangeable choke tubes; the latter come with false sideplates and upgraded wood. In the early 2000's, the famous German gun maker Heckler and Kock (H-K) offered what they called the Fabarm Classic Lion SxS. This gun received good reviews. Features included a silver finished frame, selective single trigger, interchangeable chokes and a hand checkered pistol grip walnut stock and splinter forearm. There was also a Classic Lion Grade II in 12 gauge only.
The Field Grade Ithaca NID was one of the classic American doubles. It was introduced in 1925 (replacing the Flues model) and remained the mainstay of the line until the Ithaca Gun Company discontinued all double gun production in 1948. These Ithaca NID Field Grade doubles were solid, workmanlike guns that will still serve modern shooters well, although their stocks usually have more drop than modern stocks. Gun fit is a personal matter and is something to which any prospective buyer should pay close attention. Try before you buy.
The NID was an improved Ithaca boxlock action that featured a rotary bolt locking system and a strengthened frame. NID Field Grade guns typically came with fluid steel barrels suitable for modern shells (but not steel shot), color case hardened receivers with a roll stamped game scene, double triggers, plain extractors, solid rib, and a checkered walnut pistol grip stock. Gauges were 10, 12, 16, 20, 28, and .410.
Today all but the 12 and 16 gauges are primarily of interest to collectors, who have driven the price of the small gauge guns beyond what most shooters are willing to pay. The NID was also produced in many other grades with increasingly fancy features, decoration, and wood. Except for the Grade I, which is similar to the Field Grade, these higher-grade guns are usually out of the affordable price range. Even NID Field Grade guns were produced with variations.
The American Lefever Nitro Special was introduced in 1921 and discontinued in 1948, making it the oldest gun included in this article. It was not a true Dan Lefever design; rather it was an Ithaca boxlock design, the precursor of the famous Ithaca NID that appeared four years later. Ithaca had bought Lefever in 1916 and wanted to capitalize on the famous name. The earlier Lefever double guns manufactured by the Lefever Arms Company and D.M. Lefever and Sons were highly regarded and are mostly collectors' items today.
The Nitro Special was not a fancy gun, but it was hell for strong. Nitro Specials were designed for modern smokeless powder shells (but not steel shot) and any Nitro Special that has not been abused should be safe to use today, which is why the model is included here.
Most Nitro Specials have color case hardened receivers, double triggers, plain extractors, a low solid rib, and semi-pistol grip walnut stocks and splinter forearms checkered about 16 lpi. However, there were variations, including beavertail forearms and a single selective trigger. Gauges were 12, 16, 20, and .410 bore.
My Nitro Special was a 12 gauge made in 1929, and it was a solid and reliable performer as long as I remembered not to press my cheek too firmly against the stock, which had a lot of drop. If I got my face in too tight against that stock the shot would go low.
Perhaps the most common and affordable of the inexpensive American made doubles is the Savage/Fox Model B series. This gun is not a classic A.H. Fox design, but rather an upgrade of the Stevens 311 boxlock. Savage Arms had purchased both Stevens and A. H. Fox, and combined the Fox name with the somewhat bulky but sturdy Stevens side-by-side shotgun to produce the Fox Model B series.
Where the Stevens 311 is generally seen stocked in plain hardwood and fitted with double triggers and extractors, the Fox Model B series came with checkered (impressed or otherwise) American walnut stocks and a raised ventilated rib. The plain Model B featured a color-cased frame, splinter forearm, double triggers, and extractors. The more deluxe B-SE had a satin chrome frame with a roll stamped game scene, beavertail forearm, non-selective single trigger and selective ejectors (SE). I sold these guns in the 1960's and cannot ever remember having a problem with one. However, these are heavy, rather "clunky" doubles. The line was discontinued in 1989.
SKB has built shotguns in Japan from 1855 to the present. They discontinued their line of high quality doubles in 2009. Not to be confused with the classic American made Ithaca doubles, the Ithaca/SKB doubles were nicely crafted boxlock guns with monobloc barrels made in Japan and imported for several years by Ithaca Gun Company. Later SKB shotguns were imported by others. They featured raised solid ribs, hand checkered walnut stocks and forearms, automatic safeties and selective single triggers.
The basic Model 100 usually came with a splinter forearm and plain extractors. Upscale models such as the 150, 200, 200E and 280E (the "E" stands for automatic ejectors) had increasingly nicer wood and finer checkering, more extensive engraving, and sometimes a recoil pad. The 280 series had straight hand stocks and splinter forends. The 200 series had pistol grip stocks with cap and a beavertail forend. Made in 12 and 20 gauges only.
I once owned one of the Ithaca/SKB 200E models (scalloped frame, coin finished receiver with 100% coverage deep relief etched engraving, black chrome barrel finish with chrome lined bores). The approximately 22 lpi checkering on the pistol grip and beavertail forearm was nicely done. Everything worked as advertised; the ejectors ejected, the SST never balked or doubled, and it was very easy to maintain with its durable barrel finish.
The most recently discontinued of the SKB double guns are the Models 385 and 485. The 385 is the successor to the Model 200. This classy double featured a boxlock action with a silver nitride receiver and game scene engraving, scalloped frame, double underlugs, single selective trigger, selective ejectors, automatic safety, monobloc barrels with a raised solid rib, interchangeable choke tubes, checkered (18 lpi) pistol grip American walnut stock with recoil pad and semi-beavertail forearm. The Model 485 was the same basic gun supplied with decorative side plates and a ventilated rib. The Model 385/485 was offered in 12, 20 and 28 gauges. These are quality doubles that can be relied upon.
Sturm, Ruger attempted to build a field grade double called the Gold Label in the U.S. during the first decade of the 21st Century. Its introduction was delayed for three or four years after it was announced by production difficulties and technical problems that were never fully resolved. By the time a few Gold Labels finally hit the stores, the gun had already been priced out of the market and production ceased after a couple of years. The selective ejectors were weak and the selective trigger occasionally malfunctioned. It was, however, a handsome gun!
The Gold Label was styled in the slender Scottish round action tradition. It came standard with a stainless steel action, monoblock barrels, selective ejectors and SST. There was no engraving, but the checkered stock was a decent grade of black walnut, available with either a pistol grip or a straight hand. The Gold Label was never the best double around, but if you can find one at a reasonable price it is probably worth the effort.
Roy Weatherby started out by designing wildcat rifle cartridges, became the guru of the modern high velocity movement, and founded the company now famous for its premium rifles. However, the Weatherby Company has also branched out in other directions; one of the latest of which is the importation of a well made Italian boxlock double with sideplates that is available on the new market as I write these words in 2010.
Like most Italian guns, this one is designed in the tradition of the English game gun. The Weatherby Athena D'Italia is available in 12, 20, and 28 gauge. These guns come with rose and scroll engraving and "silver slade" chromed frames, a straight hand stock, splinter forend, 20 lpi laser skip-line checkering, double triggers, selective ejectors, monobloc barrels with interchangeable choke tubes, and a high level of fit and finish. A foam-lined takedown case is included. The Athena D'Italia looks like more expensive gun than it actually is.
The Winchester Model 23 was manufactured by Winchester's Japanese subsidery between 1978 and 1987. Like all good doubles, the Model 23's price increased throughout its production life. It was often though of as "the next best thing to a Model 21" by those who desired, but could not afford, the latter. Model 23's were made in a variety of configurations, from quail guns to heavy duck guns and with varying levels of decoration. Gauges included 12, 20, 28 and .410 bore. As far as I know, all Model 23's came with a selective single trigger, automatic ejectors and a checkered walnut stock. Most had at least some engraving. I have heard of questions being raised about their SST mechanism, but they are generally well liked and today cost more used than they did new.
Winchester's American made Model 24 competed with the Savage/Fox/Stevens 311-series doubles in the low price category. It was one of the stranger looking doubles I have seen, with an unusual round action shape, but it was simple, well made and worked. It is a clunky "farmer's gun," but a good one. It is a boxlock, hammerless action. with fluid steel barrels, plain extractors, double triggers and a black walnut stock; 12, 16 and 20 gauge. Some 116,280 were built between 1940 and 1957. Unlike most vintage Winchesters, because it is a utility gun, Model 24 prices have not been driven totally out of sight by collectors, although you will still pay a premium for the Winchester name. In this case, it is worth it. Ugly it may be, but the Model 24 is a solid, good shooting gun.
There are other relatively inexpensive doubles with which I have had no experience and a few I did not mention because I was not impressed. In the latter category are the Russian Baikal doubles (crude now, but possibly worth watching in the future) and assorted imports from Brazil and Turkey, which are generally of low quality and poorly made. Many of these guns are not proof tested in any way and they should be avoided like the plague. Of course, even countries where world class doubles are produced, such as Spain and Italy, can also turn out some clunkers if the importer who is paying for the guns insists on emphasizing low price over quality and workmanship. As usual, the buyer should beware, particularly of seeming "bargains."
Permit me to close with a request: Please do not write to ask my opinion about a gun not mentioned in this article. If I left it out it is probably because I don't know enough about it to form an opinion. There are a lot of guns out there that I have never touched or even seen.
Copyright 2003, 2010 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.