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Reasons to Avoid Over/Under Shotguns
A lot of people write suggesting that they want an Over/Under shotgun. Many don’t know why, exactly, except that they have been told that they are a good idea. We all “like what we like,” of course. Some people prefer apple pie to cherry and vice-versa. I like them both. There are fundamental issues with stackbarrel shotguns that are rarely discussed. Perhaps it is time, maybe well past time, to take a look why an Over/Under double-barrel shotgun may not be a good choice for you.
BARREL REGULATION AND ACCURACY
Although “accuracy” is not generally thought of the same way when pointing patterns on birds rather than putting cross-hairs on game, real-world accuracy comprises many factors. The single sighting plane of a pump or semi-auto has the same benefit as the O/U (compared to a side-by-side double). How much that really means is up to you, of course.
No matter what double-barrel shotgun is under consideration, none of them shoot to the same point of impact at all ranges. They never have and they never will. Whether a side-by-side or an Over/Under, the barrels are not parallel, but set to converge their patterns at some point downrange (usually 40 yards). Some current models are close and some are not so close. Fortunately for many cheap O/U sellers, most of us never bother to pattern anyway, so no one will ever know.
Barrel convergence, even if precisely set at a known distance, can never be more than an approximation. Change the pellet size in your shell, change the total pellet weight, change the muzzle velocity, and the exterior ballistics of your patterns change in concert, for better or for worse. If we always shot the same shell at a target at the same range, it wouldn’t matter, assuming our shotguns were regulated at that range and with that shell. They aren’t, and that is where pointing error creeps in. Double rifles fail as long range hunting tools for similar reasons. (Of course, unlike rifles, shotguns are short range firearms that shoot a spread of shot, so a properly regulated double gun is sufficiently accurate for all practical purposes, including winning Olympic Gold Medals. -Ed.)
There is no doubt that a fixed breech shotgun (pump, bolt, break-open, etc.) pounds you harder than a gas operated semi-automatic. There is nothing about the action that absorbs recoil, lengthens its pulse, or takes the edge off it in any way. Rather than the standard 1-1/8 oz. load, 1 oz. and even 7/8 oz. 12 gauge loads have found favor with O/U shooters. It isn’t because they are more effective loads; they simply kick less. Unfortunately, as pellet count goes down, you have a thinner pattern. The only reason to use less than 1-1/8 oz. of shot in a 12 gauge gun is that you can’t take the pounding. Many people can’t and won’t. Rather than take the pain, they settle for less pattern. I can’t say I blame them.
The negative effect of recoil on the shooter is cumulative. It is increasingly important in high volume shooting, such as trap, skeet, pass shooting doves, or when payloads are upped for pheasant and waterfowl.
As long as we put stocks beneath barrels, guns will tend to recoil upward. Two barrels on different planes won’t have the same recoil feel; the “over” barrel results in more muzzle flip because of geometry. An O/U cannot recoil identically from first to second shot and it doesn’t.
Contrary to some ad-copy, recoil pads ameliorate the effect of recoil on the shooter, but do not actually reduce recoil and are not a cure-all. We have reduced felt recoil by 53% (in print) for so many consecutive years with just recoil pads that we should be careful not to get sucked downrange by the reverse thrust generated hypothetically, if not in actuality, by the wonders of marketing. The most efficient way to actually reduce recoil is to increase gun weight. Preferable scattergun weight will always be a personal choice. What isn’t a choice is recoil increase per pound of weight reduction—where fixed breech guns invariable lose.
You might be surprised at the notion that O/U’s can be clumsy to use; that goes against the marketing hyperbole that suggests O/U’s are automatically wonderful handling guns. Naturally, like most ad-brags, this is hardly a universal truth. It may be far from it.
Guns that have to broken open to load can be clumsy in a duck blind and slow to load in the dove field. It is no fun to have to move levers with frozen or wet hands. It is quicker (if not more elegant) to continuously feed shells into the bottom of a pump or semi-auto when doves are flying fast and thick than to stop shooting to break a gun in half.
Part of the ponderousness of many modern stackbarrels is a function of no-tox loads and screw-chokes. Steel shot produces far more stress on the muzzles of guns than lead. So much so that the CIP has introduced new standards for shotguns to bear a “Steel Shot Proof” mark. This has resulted in thicker and heavier barrels than ever before. Naturally, the extra barrel mass rears its head not once, but twice in double guns. The touted liveliness of the older, short range game guns is largely gone in steel proof, screw-choked barrels. To get the weight down again, one way is to remove a barrel. Though dedicated single shot trap guns have their following, the single shot field skeet, sporting clays and field guns have either no or low appeal. It is far easier to reduce the weight of magazine tubes and receivers in pump and semi-auto repeater than to fight with double barrels, although there are “super-light” O/U’s that make heavy barrels seem heavier and increase recoil to another level of discomfort.
RELIABILITY AND MAINTANENCE
Some may balk at the notion of reliability problems in a double gun, but it is nothing new. All firearms wear and require maintenance. Galling wear of an O/U receiver is a certainly without proper lubrication and you have a more complicated trigger mechanism (that may or may not have equal trigger pulls) and two firing pins to break instead of one. Krieghoff makes some beautiful shotguns, as most are aware. The service fee at this writing for a K-80 is $225; for a K-32 it is $295; parts and shipping are not included.
If you own a Krieghoff (or any gun), regular service may be one of the best investments you can make to protect your investment and insure reliability. Most shooters are not completely comfortable with “checking the gun for headspace, overcock, proper tolerances of internal parts and complete disassembly and replacement of springs as needed.” Few, if any, are capable of a “full rebuild” including headspacing, TIG-welding as required, rebluing then refitting the barrels to the action. (Equally few users are capable of performing the same or equivalent repairs to a repeating shotgun. -Ed.) While few low priced O/U’s are worth rebuilding, a Krieghoff is. It takes far more than casual use to wear one significantly, of course, but even the annual maintenance fees are more than many shooters feel their shotguns are worth. Often, double barrels get scant little maintenance at all. (Neither do most repeaters. -Ed.)
Most pump-actions and gas autos are easy to maintain. I’ve put 100,000 shells though a B-80 with no major parts replacement, and there are many examples of 870’s, BPS’s, 390’s, Browning Golds and A-5’s out there with no more maintenance than the usual springs, bushings, and perhaps (in the case of an A-5) a couple of bronze friction piece replacements. (I've never had to replace ANY of the parts in my doubles, the eldest of which is well over 100 years old. -Ed.) As a practical matter, no fundamentally sound shotgun is any better than the appropriate maintenance it sees or the quality of the ammo you feed it. It is easier and cheaper to keep many pumps and semi-autos running well than doubles.
The third shot may not be of any importance in clays games when limited to two, but it is far easier to drop three doves with three shots than with two. The nut behind the butt accounts for a lot of things, but the appeal of the two-shot rifle, the two shot revolver and the two shot autoloading pistol remains nil. It seems odd that the shot capability found to be of great value in all other sporting arms suddenly vanishes when shotguns and wing shooting is the subject matter.
Many popular O/U guns tip the scales at, or in excess of, 8 pounds. In fact, the lighter O/U's are criticized as being too painful to shoot for regular use on the clays courses. The gauge of the gun is not a reliable indicator of weight, either. Sure, there are whippy, flyweight 20 and 28 gauge guns out there. They are the reason that your 20 gauge O/U can pound you into the ground like a tent stake with heavy loads, resulting in more punishment than a substantial 12 gauge gun. Some of the “joy to carry” guns are tragically uncomfortable to shoot.
Light weight has its appeal, of course, but that can be found regardless of action type. A new Browning Silver 20 gauge gas operated semi-auto is a 6-1/2 pound gun, more or less. A day of dove shooting with one ounce loads in a Silver won’t wear me out, but with a double of similar weight it will, and has. There is a reason that some dainty doubles wear slip-on recoil pads . . . they need it. Certainly, super-light guns can be found regardless of action type. The Benelli Ultra Light weighs just over six pounds in 12 gauge or five pounds and change in 20 gauge. Unfortunately, as far as I’m concerned, such guns are the opposite of smooth swinging and comfortable shooting.
Mid-range quality O/U’s (Beretta / Browning) cost a lot more than their pump gun competition and significantly more than many good semi-autos from the same makers. A family can be outfitted with 870’s and BPS’s for a fraction of the cost of quality O/U models and mid-line gas-autos, though significantly more expensive than equivalent pump guns, are available at a far more attractive price point than the better O/U guns.
Shotgun choice remains personal preference and a matter of taste, like most things. Before you jump to the conclusion that an O/U is the right choice for all applications and all seasons, you might want to consider that for many it is just not very desirable for the reasons stated here.
Copyright 2008 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.