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Why A Double Barrel Shotgun?
Part style, part nostalgia, part theoretical advantage, it is more of a matter of personal taste than anything else. Theoretically, on flushing game, two barrels gives you two chokes to work with, an action that can't jam or fail to feed, and (with double triggers) the ability to shoot past a dead round or a broken lock. A double is about 4" shorter overall than a repeater with the same length barrel, and therefore swings faster. No repeater handles like a fine double. Faster lock time is a potential benefit, and some shooters appreciate the lack of the grinding and clanking noise of an action operating after the shot. Reloaders like to pop the hulls in their pocket, and not chase them all over the field. Double guns are easily broken down for transport in relatively compact cases. And, of course, they are safer because all that one has to do is open the action to render them harmless and, when "broken open" it is obvious to everyone around that the gun is safe.
Over the years, most of the side by sides I've spent some quality time with have been inexpensive Crescent, Stevens (Savage/Fox), and Winchester Model 24s. I have also spent a little time with some better examples of the gun maker's art, such as the Browning BSS, SKB, and the Winchester Model 23. In the over/under department it is has been Browning Superposed, SKB, Winchester 101, Franchi, Browning Citori, B. Rizzini, and Beretta 686/687 models.
Though it shouldn't make a great difference, the barrel configuration of the O/U gives it a more precise lateral pointing index, while the wider muzzles of the SxS give a better elevation index. The single sighting plane of the O/U has made it the gun of choice for many Americans, and development in affordable side by sides has waned. I've found most of the cheap 12 gauge side-by-sides too bulky and clunky. It takes a well-designed (and usually expensive) 12 gauge double to really sing.
The smaller gauges can do wondrous things for the aesthetics and handling of O/U and side-by-side guns. There are rumblings that Ruger's ever so nice Gold Label may be coming out in 20, along with the CZ-Huglu Models and the recently introduced Marlin "L. C. Smith" branded guns. For the moment, anyway, readily available offerings of quality yet affordable sub-gauge side-by-sides are not well re-established.
When it comes to the popular over/unders, Browning and Beretta continue to rule the clays fields, the hunting fields, and the market. The Browning Citori and Beretta 686 models do the same basic things, but they look and feel quite different.
Some of the theoretical advantages of the double barrels vanish in the hunting field, as least as far as I'm concerned. Citoris and 686's both have recoil actuated single triggers, so the ability to fire past a bad cartridge is gone, as are most defective cartridges. The theoretical "two choke advantage" is also muted because the firing order is usually pre-set and flushing birds don't always flush the same way, and passing shots have infinite variables as well. Guns with double triggers, of course, sidestep both of these issues.
Additionally, we have a barrel regulation issue. Barrels in a double gun are set to converge their patterns at the same point of impact at a fixed yardage, at least they are supposed to. Proper regulation is a painstaking process, done by hand and tested by firing in a quality double. Unfortunately, it varies more then we would like to think in cheap doubles.
The single and double triggers in double guns allow faster follow up shots than any repeater with target and light field loads. However, the longer time it takes to acquire the second target due to the greater recoil makes a double gun with heavy loads slower for the second bird, for me, compared to a gas-powered semi-auto.
Many field double guns have three inch chambers in 12 and 20 gauge, some have 3-1/2 inch in 12 gauge, but you probably won't enjoy using them any more than you would with a pump gun. If you insist on shooting heavy and magnum loads, a gas-operated autoloader is probably the way to go.
Modern manufacturing methods are not as easy to apply to double barreled firearms, and the potential value / quality / cost point that would make them appeal to most (or at least far more) shooters has not been found by most manufacturers. I hope that changes in the future. For now, this ends as it began: doubles remain part style, part nostalgia, part theoretical advantage. It is more of a matter of personal taste than anything else.
Copyright 2006 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.