British, Spanish, German and American Double Guns: A Comparison
Great double barreled shotguns have been, and still are, produced by a number of manufacturers in a number of countries. Among the nations with a great shotgun heritage are the USA, UK, Spain and Germany.
Best grade guns are typically bespoke, meaning they are made to a specific customer's specifications and measurements. However, many firms that offer bespoke guns also make guns intended to be sold "off the rack" in gun shops. These may have simpler engraving patterns and less than exhibition grade walnut, but they are still very nice shotguns!
Of the four shotguns featured in this article, the Merkel 47E is an off the rack model; the Charles Boswell is a bespoke gun; the Grulla 216RL and Winchester Model 21 are models that were available off the rack, but also (and in this case) with customer specified features or as bespoke guns. All of these guns have been the subject of individual Guns and Shooting Online articles and reviews.
Most double gun terminology comes from British gunmakers, as they invented the actions and features used in practically all double guns today. For an explanation of the meaning of double gun terms, see Side-by-Side Shotgun Nomenclature and Terminology.
An Unfair Comparison
This is an inherently unfair comparison, as it involves guns built at different times, in different grades and for different purposes. Two are sidelock guns and the other two are boxlocks. One is a 12 gauge trap gun built in the 1950s, one is a 12 gauge live pigeon gun built in the 1890s with Damascus barrels and sleeved down to 20 gauge in the 1990s, and two are modern (built in the 21st Century) 20 gauge upland hunting guns. Two have double triggers (DT) and the other two have selective single triggers (SST). Three have selective ejectors (SE) and one has plain extractors. The ejector guns all use Southgate type hammer ejectors.
Thus, the purpose of this article is not to choose some mythical "all-around best shotgun," but to use four generally representative guns to highlight some of the typical differences between fine shotguns from these four countries. Understand that features, such as those just mentioned (gauge, barrel length, chokes, DT, SST, SE, etc.), are available to order on most fine guns, regardless of country of manufacture.
UK - Charles Boswell Pigeon Gun
British shotgun manufacturing has traditionally been concentrated in England and Scotland, although fine guns are also made in the provinces. The city of London, in particular, became known in the trade for its fine gunmakers. Many of the most famous British gunmakers were, and are, located in London and a "London best" gun is still the most prestigious of all the world's shotguns. Among the well known London gunmakers are firms such as James Purdey & Sons, Holland & Holland, Boss & Company, William Evans, John Wilkes, Churchill Ltd. and Charles Boswell. A Boswell gun is featured here.
Sidelocks are the preferred action type for London best guns. Purdey and Holland & Holland designed the two most popular types and both are bar action sidelocks. However, the British also made back action sidelocks and invented the Anson & Deeley boxlock action.
The boxlock, in particular, became very popular around the world, as it is less expensive to make and inlet into the stock than a sidelock. Its design leaves more wood where the stock joins the action, making for a stronger stock.
Britain's best gunmakers use chopper lump barrels. This means each fluid steel barrel, struck full length, has an integral half lump, thus resembling a "chopper" (axe) before joining. The two half lumps are brazed together when the barrels are assembled. This allows the narrowest possible breech in the finished gun. Guns with Damascus barrels are typically built with a through-lump, meaning the two barrel tubes are brazed to a separately machined lump fixture. Either way, the barrel tubes are not fitted into a monoblock that provides the chambers and lumps.
Most British makers eschew top fasteners, feeling that rib extensions slow reloading. Double under-bolts are normally used to hold the barrels closed, leaving a clean breech face for fast, unimpeded reloading.
Clay target and live pigeon guns, typically used to shoot hundreds or thousands of shells per year, are an exception. These are often fitted with a doll's head rib extension for extra strength. Side clips are often seen on the receiver of competition guns to reduce the possibility of lateral play between the barrels and the receiver.
Our bespoke Charles Boswell pigeon gun is a bar action sidelock hammer gun with both of these features, in addition to double under-bolts. This London best gun was built sometime around the end of the 19th Century. It is a fully developed hammer gun with low, rebounding hammers and frame mounted strikers. The triggers are slightly twisted to better accommodate a right hand shooter. It opens by means of a top lever and Scott spindle, just like a modern London best gun.
The exquisite, five blade English Damascus barrels are themselves a work of art. The top rib is the smooth, British concave type with a metal bead front sight.
Hammerless guns with fluid steel barrels were widely available when this Boswell was ordered, but many live pigeon shooters of the time were very conservative and preferred more traditional Damascus guns like this Boswell, which were considered stronger.
It has 100% coverage, very fine rose and scroll English engraving, elaborately sculpted and carved fences and elegantly shaped external hammers. The entire gun is truly a work of art. Double triggers and plain extractors (the configuration preferred by many competition shooters) complete the package.
The small, splinter forend has a Deeley type push button release, my favorite type. There is extensive, approximately 24 lpi, wrap around, British style checkering at forend and grip. Drop points decorate the wrist behind the side locks.
The slender buttstock has a delicate, oval in cross-section, straight hand and it terminates with a hand checkered buffalo horn butt plate. An oval silver plate is inletted into the buttstock for the owner's initials. The stock finish is traditional oil, hand rubbed to a glossy sheen.
The wood is very hard, fancy grade, genuine English walnut; the finest stock material on earth. Even after over 115 years of use, the wood to metal fit remains excellent.
The stock shape is essentially modern with a reasonably high comb and only moderate drop at heel. It does not have the extreme drop at comb and heel typical of American guns of the period. There is moderate cast off for a right hand shooter. The British adopted efficient stock design long before their American cousins.
In order to safely shoot modern shells, the 12 gauge Damascus barrels were fitted with 20 gauge Briley titanium liners. These accept Briley choke tubes. To at least partially compensate for the added weight in the barrels, Briley shortened the barrels to 28 inches. (The Boswell's barrels were regulated with a long parallel section at the muzzle, making this modification possible without ruining the barrels.) The result is that it still handles much as it did before installing the 20 gauge tubes.
Here is the thing about a London best gun: even with the addition of 20 gauge tubes in its 12 gauge barrels, the Boswell is sleeker than most 20 gauge doubles built on proper 20 gauge frames. The gun's lines are above reproach and the finest in this comparison. A London best gun, even a relatively heavy competition model, truly defines good handling.
Spain - Grulla 216RL
Spanish gun making has long been centered in the Basque region. The Basque shotgun makers have always been strongly influenced by British guns and gunmakers and Spanish best guns are almost exclusively based on British design principles. Fine Spanish guns are built on sidelock actions with chopper lump barrels.
Today, Aguirre y Aranzabal (AyA), Pedro Arrizabalaga, Grulla Armas, Manufacturas Arietta and Armas Garbi are probably the best known, active, Spanish gunmakers producing fine double guns. All are hand built. I have read, for example, that the AyA No. 2 sidelock is the best selling double gun in the UK today.
Arrizabalaga, Grulla, Arietta and Garbi build only sidelock shotguns. The AyA No. 4 is a boxlock gun; all other Aya side-by-sides are sidelock guns.
These are small firms. The last I heard, Grulla Armas (founded by six men in 1932) had grown to a dozen people that build all Grulla shotguns by hand and AyA, once the biggest and best known of all Spanish shotgun brands, now consists of 13 individuals.
Spanish best gun decoration is normally patterned on British best guns. For example, Grulla's top grade gun (the Royal), although a bespoke gun available with custom engraving (including Bulino style) to the customer's specification, is most often seen with Purdey, Holland & Holland or Churchill style engraving.
The best Spanish guns are equal to the best guns made anywhere in the world. Because the Spanish economy is more depressed than most of its fellow European Union countries, Spanish guns are normally less expensive than equivalent British, American, German or Italian doubles. Although they are not cheap and prices continue to rise, they remain an excellent value.
However, some Basque country gunmakers have, in the past, built economy doubles of indifferent quality and workmanship for export to the US and other countries. These guns were sold at low prices by various distributors under many trade names, much as Turkish made double guns are today.
None of these cheap Spanish guns are a good investment. As far as I know, upscale firms such as Arrizabalaga (known as the "Purdey of Spain"), Grulla (sometimes referred to as the "Holland & Holland of Spain"), Garbi and Arietta make no economy doubles. AyA, dedicated to manufacturing only fine doubles since the collapse of the short lived, government sponsored DIARM conglomerate at the end of 1988, has in the past produced guns of every grade, from the cheapest to the best.
I am most familiar with Grulla shotguns. Grulla builds only fine sidelock side-by-side guns. The Grulla 216RL is a round body, bar action sidelock of the Holland & Holland type. The Model 216RL was sold only in the US market between 2004-2009. It is a Model 216RB upgraded with exhibition grade walnut. The handsomely color cased receiver comes with 100% coverage, Purdey style, fine rose and scroll engraving and carved fences.
The example gun's 28 inch, chopper lump barrels are highly polished and blued. The barrels are choked Modified and Improved Cylinder. (They can be ordered in any choke combination.) There is a smooth, concave, British style top rib with a metal bead front sight.
The breech faces, action bar flats and barrel flats are engine turned. The inside of the side plates and lock parts are mirror polished. Other features include a drop forged steel frame, disc set strikers, double safety sears, gas escape vents, selective ejectors, cocking indicators and double triggers with articulated front. The cocking indicators take the form of an inlayed gold line on the hammer pins. Double under bolts keep the barrels closed, leaving a clean breech face. The gun balances on the hinge.
Other custom features are available. All gauges from 12 to .410 are available, built on an appropriately sized frame. Old silver or color cased metal finishes are available and stocks may be ordered with custom measurements.
The straight hand stock is very slim through its oval hand, second only to the Boswell in petite diameter. There is a generous amount of bordered, 26 lpi, point pattern, wrap around checkering at the hand and on the smoothly rounded splinter forend, which has an Anson push button latch. The Grulla has the finest checkering among our four guns. There is no butt plate; instead, the butt is checkered in a flat-top, skip-line pattern. A silver oval for the owner's initials is inletted into the buttstock. The wood to metal fit is perfect. The oil finished stock is hand rubbed to a glossy sheen.
Being the most modern best gun in this little survey, the Grulla incorporates more refinements than the others. It is specifically designed for a right handed shooter, for which the stock cast is appropriate. (Left handed guns can, of course, be ordered.) The triggers are subtly twisted to the right to accommodate the trigger finger. The right edge of the trigger guard is rolled (thickened) for additional trigger finger comfort. The front trigger is articulated. The gun comes with a small rubber bumper attached to the rear of the trigger guard to soften the rap should the middle finger of the shooting hand contact the rear of the trigger guard under recoil. It is a very nice package and in some respects the most beautiful gun in this comparison.
Germany - Merkel 47E
Among the notable firms in the long history of German double gun making are such recognizable names as J.P Sauer, H.A. Linder, Krieghoff and Merkel. The fine doubles marketed in the USA from the first decade of the 20th Century into the 1930s under the Charles Daly name were made in Germany by the firm of H.A. Linder.
The original German proof standards of 1891 required the use of exceptionally heavy nitro proof loads. (A double powder charge behind a super heavy payload.) Perhaps as a consequence, most German doubles have rather heavy frames and use both under-bolts and top bolts, a "belt and suspenders" approach to gun making. Ultralight, svelte upland guns of the British and Spanish type may not be the German tradition, but strength and durability are.
The reasonably priced (as fine doubles go), currently cataloged Merkel 40E (12 and 20 gauge; pistol grip stock w/cheekpiece and sling swivels), 41E (28 gauge; straight hand stock) and 45E (12 and 20 gauge, straight hand stock) boxlock doubles, for example, employ double under bolts and a Greener top bolt. The similar Merkel 47E 20 gauge double we reviewed in 2007 and that is featured in this article also has side clips.
Most of the German doubles I have seen use Anson & Deeley type boxlock actions, although some are sidelocks. The Merkel 47E is among the former.
Merkel claims the use of "demi-block" soldered barrels. Originally, this term was coined by Belgian gunmaker Henri Pieper to describe chopper lump type barrels vertically dovetailed together, as in a Winchester Model 21.
Unfortunately, the term demi-block has also been loosely used in conjunction with through-lump construction, as well as for pure chopper lump construction. (The Grulla catalog, for example, refers to their chopper lump barrels as "demi-block.") Thus, it is hard to be sure exactly what Merkel means by demi-block barrels. Even with a 10x loupe I have been unable to see the fine line that should be visible down the center of chopper lumps. Perhaps the Merkel barrels are true dovetailed demi-block construction.
Properly done, all three methods of barrel construction work fine, so maybe it doesn't matter. However they are joined, the Merkel's barrels are commendably narrow across the breech. They are actually a bit narrower across the breech than the Grulla 216RL's chopper lump barrels. A raised, solid, convex top rib with fine longitudinal, stippled lines and a brass bead front sight forms the sighting plane.
Anson & Deeley boxlock actions are, well, boxy. This is hard to avoid and Merkel makes no effort to round the action's contours, although the receiver is scalloped. However, the Merkel's receiver is tastefully color case hardened and the barrels are nicely polished and blued. Cocking indicators take the form of brass pins that protrude from the side of the receiver when the internal hammers are cocked.
Our Merkel 47E was supplied with a Class 3 (Fancy) grade European walnut stock. The English style stock is well finished, with all pores filled. The wood to metal fit is excellent. The buttstock terminates in a simple, black plastic butt plate.
This straight hand stock is commendably slim through its oval hand, comparable to the Grulla and Winchester, although it is not quite as delicate as the Boswell. The Merkel's splinter forend is slightly wider and somewhat deeper than the Grulla's forend and more squared in cross-section. (It has to join to the front of a boxlock action, after all.) It looks slightly less elegant, but is a bit more hand filling. Bordered point pattern, four panel, 22 lpi checkering graces the forend and buttstock.
The forend latch is the Deeley lever type, which is secure, but a bit more difficult to operate than the Anson push button type used on the Boswell and Grulla. It is, however, much easier to use than the Model 21's roller button forend latch.
German style decoration on high grade guns tends toward heavy, florid scroll work combined with deep relief game scenes, often highlighted by precious metal inlays. Stock carvings complement and sometimes completely supplant checkering on some guns. Acorns and leaves are a common carving pattern.
I find the simpler, Arabesque scroll engraving and point pattern checkering on the Model 47E more attractive than the heavy game scene engraving and elaborate stock carving so common on the highest grade German guns. It is all a matter of taste. The Merkel's scroll engraving covers approximately 1/3 of the action.
In the case of Merkel doubles, details such as triggers (double or SST), chokes, barrel length, grip style (straight hand or pistol grip) and receiver finish (color cased or gray nitrated) are optional. Different grades of walnut are available and stocks can be made to the buyer's measurements, even on the lower priced guns.
The 28 inch barrels are choked Modified and IC with three inch chambers. Other features include a color case hardened receiver, SST, SE and an automatic safety. The catalog weight is listed as 6.5 pounds. However, the test gun actually weighs 6.3 pounds per our digital scale.
Compared to the Grulla, the other field gun in this comparison, the Merkel lacks certain refinements. Of course, it sells for about half the price of the Grulla.
Overall, the Merkel 47E gives the impression of a solid, well made and finished gun that will last a lifetime. I can testify that the Merkel gets plenty of admiring looks and comments at my local trap and skeet range. It is not Merkel's best gun, but anyone shooting one of these Merkel 47Es has no reason to apologize for his or her choice in shotguns. With proper care, it will someday become a family heirloom, handed down from generation to generation.
USA - Winchester Model 21
American double guns are traditionally strong boxlock designs. The L.C. Smith is the exception, as it used a simple (some might say crude) sidelock, but all the other classic American best guns (Parker, A.H. Fox, Ithaca, D.M. Lefever and Winchester Model 21) are boxlock guns designed for the powerful shells with heavy payloads often used in North American hunting. Barrels are struck full length and, except for the Model 21, assembled on a though-lump.
All of the classic American double guns, again except the Winchester Model 21, use some form of top rib extension to bolt the barrels closed. This provides the maximum mechanical leverage and makes the most sense from an engineering perspective. Unlike British upland gunners, American hunters typically do not have servants loading a pair of guns for them at maximum speed to allow four shots at driven birds, so a clean breech face is less important.
However, Winchester designed the Model 21 to compete with the finest guns in the world, not just other American doubles. The Model 21 uses a unique, Winchester designed boxlock action. The Model 21's demi-block (dovetailed chopper lump) barrels are held closed by a single, tapered under bolt, leaving a clean breech face. The under bolt's engagement in the lump's bite is user adjustable by means of a single screw.
This bolting system has proven to be both simple and very durable. In fact, the Model 21's boxlock action is so well designed that it can easily be held closed during firing by one hand with the top lever, spindle and under bolt removed.
For publicity purposes, Winchester took a production Model 21 and fired 2000 proof loads without failure or any measurable change in parts dimensions. The Model 21 is almost certainly the strongest, most reliable side-by-side shotgun ever produced.
When it was introduced in 1930, Model 21s could be ordered by Winchester dealers with standard measurements and no engraving to be sold off the rack. (It was also offered as a custom gun built to special order.) The Model 21, regardless of decoration, requires a lot of hand fitting and assembly and it was simply not possible to produce the gun profitably as a stock item, although Winchester tried.
Practically from the beginning, many customers ordered their Model 21s with special features to their specification. The gun included in this comparison, began in 1949 and finished in 1950, is one of these special order guns. After 1959, Model 21s were built only to special order by the Winchester Custom Shop and the lowest grade was designated the "Custom."
American style engraving is somewhere between fine English scroll and German relief engraving, most typically bold scrollwork. Unlike many British best guns, top grade American guns usually incorporate engraved game scenes with gold or precious metal inlays found on the highest grade guns.
With most American doubles, the "grade" of gun is determined by the amount of ornamentation. The basic gun is the same in all grades. Higher grade guns have increasingly fancy walnut, engraving and checkering or stock carving patterns.
The Model 21 is the exception to this general rule. While all Model 21 actions are the same design, the guns were graded by their designed purpose. Model 21 grades started with Standard (the basic field gun), followed by Skeet Grade and Duck Grade (a waterfowl special). By 1932 the higher grade, special order, Tournament Grade and Trap Grade (the highest) were introduced. Over the years, these grades evolved and some new options were offered, such as the Trap-Skeet and Trap-Field Grades, intended to offer a top of the line Trap Grade gun optimized for other purposes.
Decoration in the form of engraving and precious metal inlays on Model 21s runs from nonexistent to elaborate 100% coverage. Standard Winchester engraving patterns run from 21-1 (the simplest) to 21-6 (Grand American). The 21-6 pattern is 100% coverage with gold Inlays on the bottom and both sides of the receiver. Of course, custom engraving to the customer's specification is also available. Note than on Model 21s, engraving and elaborate stock carving are completely independent of the grade of gun. A Standard Grade field gun could be ordered with 21-6 engraving and 21-B (the fanciest fleur-de-lis pattern) stock carving.
Model 21s are made of superior chrome molybdenum alloy steel, which cannot be color case hardened. Consequently, the receiver is polished and hot blued, while the barrels are rust blued. Some small parts were niter blued.
Our example is a 12 gauge, Trap Grade gun designed specifically for shooting trap doubles. The 30 inch, ventilated rib barrels are choked Improved Modified and Modified with 2-3/4 inch chambers. Only trap grade guns came standard with a ventilated rib. The Winchester Model 21 ventilated rib has been called the most elegant ever produced and I would agree with that assessment.
Since this is a trap gun designed to shoot rising targets, the barrels are regulated to shoot six inches high at 40 yards. The action has a single selective trigger, selective ejectors and a manual safety. The front sight is a Bradley 1/8 inch red bead with the Winchester 94B middle bead. The standing breech, barrel flats and water table are engine turned. The gun weighs 7.5 pounds.
It has 21-4 engraving (approximately 50% coverage) by George Sherwood, complemented by a beautiful Exhibition grade American black walnut stock and forend. 21-4 engraving has game scenes on the bottom and sides of the receiver combined with Arabesque scroll.
Most Trap Grade guns came with a pistol grip stock, as did this gun as originally delivered. However, the gun was subsequently re-stocked with a straight hand buttstock that is commendably slim through its oval shaped hand, comparable in diameter to all but the petite Boswell's grip. Since this is a Trap Grade gun it has a full beavertail forend to keep the weak hand off of hot barrels.
The forend latch is operated by a roller type button. I find this release more difficult to use than the British designed Anson push button or Deeley lever type forend latches.
There is deluxe grade, hand cut, 22 lpi checkering on the forend and hand. This is the coarsest checkering among our four guns, but it is also the best executed with the sharpest diamonds. The stock finish is many coats of hand rubbed oil. The butt originally came with a Winchester recoil pad, which has been replaced by a leather covered Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad. Practically all features on a special order Model 21 are variable, depending on the customer's wishes.
This Trap Grade, custom stocked Model 21 with 21-4 engraving is an exceptionally handsome shotgun in any company. Unlike typical (muzzle heavy) trap guns, it balances exactly on the hinge pin and is an absolute joy to shoot, not only at trap doubles, but also at 16 yard singles and for informal clays shooting.
Bear in mind that hunting conditions and traditions in Germany are different than those in the UK and Spain, while American hunting is different from UK and Continental hunting. This has, naturally, led to practical differences in the shotguns produced in these countries.
British and Spanish guns are probably the most sophisticated and refined upland game guns and there is little to choose among the best modern examples from the two nations. Chopper lump barrels and sidelock actions are the norm, although Anson & Deeley boxlocks are also available from some manufacturers.
Receivers are as lightweight, slender and elegant as possible, often with rounded contours. Double under-bolts keep the barrels closed, leaving clean breech faces.
Engraving tends toward conservative, fine scroll work, although other types of engraving are available on order. Stock checkering tends toward conventional point patterns, often with flat top diamonds for longer wear in the case of British guns.
American and German guns are probably the strongest doubles, designed to tolerate the heaviest loads. Most American and many German doubles are built on sturdy boxlock actions, whose stocks are stronger through the wrist than sidelocks. German guns tend to use both under-bolts and mechanically efficient top bolts to keep the barrels closed. Barrels may be chopper lump, demi-block or through-lump type.
German engraving traditionally favors deep relief game scenes and heavy scroll. Even plain Arabesque scroll tends to be more deeply cut than on British and Spanish guns. Stock checkering with pointed diamonds is sometimes augmented or replaced entirely by carving. A German gun's lines often tend to be subtly straighter, more squared and less fluid than equivalent British and Spanish guns.
Typically, American double guns tend to combine features of both British and German guns. Most American best guns are boxlocks with through-lump barrels, although the L.C. Smith was a sidelock and the Winchester Model 21 uses dovetailed chopper lump (demi-block) barrels. American guns tend to use heavy top rib extensions and mechanically efficient top bolts to keep the barrels closed, although the Model 21 action has a single under-bolt and a clean breech face. Because American hunters tend to shoot very heavy loads, American field guns are heavier than most European game guns, in order to moderate the recoil.
American style engraving tends to combine Arabesque scroll with simple waterfowl or upland bird game scenes on the sides of the receiver. American engraving tends to be more open and cut somewhat deeper than fine English rose and scroll, but not as heavy as German deep relief engraving. Top grade American doubles are, more often than not, accented with gold inlays.
Top level American checkering is the best in the world. The coverage tends to be extensive, with diamonds that are carefully pointed-up. Very demanding patterns, often borderless, such as fleur-de-lis and other curved shapes, are relatively common on American best guns.
All of these fine side-by-side guns, although subtly different, have an almost living presence. The difference in balance and handling between any of them and an ordinary repeating shotgun (pump or autoloader), must be experienced to be believed. After handling and shooting one of these guns, the bulky forend and pistol grip of a typical repeater feels like a 2x4 plank. It is not a subtle difference!
Copyright 2015, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.