The Good Side-by-Side Shotgun
By Chuck Hawks
The side-by-side is the epitome of elegance in the world of sporting arms. A good SxS is both a work of art and a supremely efficient implement in the field. They are justly renowned for their balance and unsurpassed handling qualities. Unlike most other firearms, their development has been exclusively as sporting arms, as they have virtually no military application.
Unfortunately, it has so far proven impossible to produce a good SxS gun at a price point comparable to a good repeater. It takes a great deal of time, attention to detail and hand work by skilled craftsmen to create a double gun.
As Randy Wakeman pointed out in this article The Good Over/Under Shotgun, a two-shoot gun requires about twice the complexity of a single barreled gun, not to mention the delicate task of regulating the two barrels to shoot to the same point of impact at 40 yards. You are essentially building two guns on one frame.
A BRIEF LOOK AT AFFORDABLE AMERICAN DOUBLE GUNS
Before the Second World War, several American companies produced upscale SxS shotguns. Prominent double guns included the Parker, L.C. Smith, Ithaca, Lefever, A.H. Fox and the Winchester Model 21. Any of the upscale American doubles are good guns and the top grades are among the fanciest guns ever made. Today, they are all collectable guns and thus the prices tend to be high.
Winchester never produced a dedicated economy model of their Model 21 and even field grade Model 21 prices quickly escalated beyond the reach of most shooters. However, Parker offered the Trojan, Fox the Sterlingworth and Ithaca/Lefever the Nitro Special specifically as economical, entry level doubles. Nor were the standard field grade Ithaca NID and L.C. Smith field grade guns particularly expensive guns in their day.
All of these guns are long discontinued, but examples are frequently seen on the used market. Although they are no longer dirt cheap, the entry level guns are still relatively affordable. (See American Side-by-Side Economy Shotguns for more about these interesting guns.)
Savage Arms successfully produced and sold the economical Stevens 311 and the somewhat upscale Fox Model B series guns (built on the 311 action) for many years; they were finally priced out of the market in 1988. The moderately successfully Winchester Model 24 sold well enough to stay in the line from 1939 until 1958. These were mass produced, largely machine made doubles and, although serviceable utility guns, they were heavy, rather clunky and could not be considered refined double guns. A reasonable supply of the reliable Savage made Stevens and Fox Model B guns are still available on the used market.
In 1968, Marlin tried to resurrect the famous L.C. Smith, a good double gun, to which they owned the rights. Despite such cost cutting devices as a polymer ventilated rib to keep the price down, Marlin found the gun could not be sold at a profit and it was discontinued in 1971.
Perhaps the most notable failed attempt at a good, affordable SxS in the 21st Century was the Ruger Gold Label. Ruger engineered the Scottish style, round action Gold Label to be produced by modern manufacturing methods with an investment cast stainless steel receiver, simplified selective single trigger (SST), simplified selective ejectors (SE) and so on.
After pre-production prototypes were shown at the 2002 SHOT Show, stirring great interest and much favorable comment, there was a three to four year delay until a few production guns reached dealers shelves. Unfortunately, the gun did not work very well--particularly in the trigger and ejector areas--and Ruger found it could not be profitably produced at the intended price point. A year or two later, Ruger threw in the towel and the Gold Label was discontinued. Ruger is one of the most innovative and successful firearms manufacturers in the world, so their failure does not bode well for future attempts to build a reasonably priced double gun in the USA.
NEW DOUBLE GUNS
Today, the cheapest double guns seem to be made in Turkey and Russia. I have yet to see a SxS made in either country I would want to own. However, the quality and workmanship of at least some Turkish made guns is improving, so at some point the best of these may become viable alternatives.
The best value in new, best quality SxS guns continues to come from the small Spanish (Basque) manufacturers. These include Grulla, Garbi, Arietta & Pedro Arrizabalaga, and AyA. These are largely hand made guns in the tradition of fine British doubles and they use H&H pattern sidelocks in their upscale guns. (Grulla, Garbi and Arietta & Pedro Arrizabalaga make only sidelock guns of very high quality.)
However, a couple of Spanish makers also offer less expensive models based on Anson & Deeley type boxlock actions. AyA, for example, has long had a couple of good boxlock guns in their line.
Spanish doubles are generally supplied with elegant chopper-lump barrels, bored chokes, double triggers (articulated front), double safety sears, selective ejectors, disc set strikers and decent engraving. They are stocked in good walnut (semi-fancy to presentation grade, depending on the grade of gun) with hand cut checkering and a hand rubbed oil finish. Although not inexpensive, they sell for very reasonable prices considering their quality and workmanship. The 2016 MSRP for a new, entry level AyA 4/53 boxlock starts at $6698.
Most Spanish models are available as bespoke guns, built to the buyer's dimensions, for a little additional cost. The highest grade guns are always built to the customer's specifications, cost considerably more and are among the best in the world. Prices are on request.
The least expensive Spanish doubles seem to come from Armas Ugartechea. I have no experience with these guns, but Michael McIntosh has written that they are a good value. They are built on Anson & Deeley type boxlock actions. The Ugartechea Model 40 has plain extractors, while the 40EX comes with selective automatic ejectors.
Since 2010, Lion Country Supply has been the direct importer of Ugartechea made boxlock doubles marketed as the Grade I Boxlock, Grade II Boxlock and Grade III Boxlock. The 2016 prices start as low as $1895 for Grade I, $1995 for Grade II and $2395 from Grade III from DoubleShotguns.com.
The German Merkel 47E is a well made and finished Anson & Deeley action boxlock. It comes with chopper-lump barrels, bored chokes, double triggers (SST available), selective ejectors, tasteful laser-cut scroll engraving and checkered Turkish walnut stock and forend. (Your choice of straight hand or pistol grip style.) The 2016 MSRP is $4595 in 12, 20 or 28 gauge, with frames correctly sized for the gauge.
These guns are being discounted by Merkel to only $3999 as I write these words. Friends, this is a lifetime investment and a great deal of gun for the money.
Merkel also offers nice (hand detachable) sidelock doubles regularly priced at $12,995 and discounted to $9500 with all the usual bells and whistles. (2016 prices from Merkel USA.) The Model 60E sidelock is available in 12 and 20 gauges, while the 61E sidelock is available in 28 gauge and .410 bore. Custom made (bespoke) Model 60E and 61E guns are offered built to the customer's specifications and with custom engraving of almost any sort. Prices are on application.
Some of the world's best double guns are made in Italy, with prices to match. Famars (Abbiatico & Salvinelli) and Piotti are examples of manufacturers of Italian best guns. Both Famars and Piotti offer Anson & Deeley boxlock and H&H sidelock guns of very high quality.
Bernardelli has traditionally offered (comparatively) reasonably priced SxS boxlock guns as their Hemingway and Mira Onyx models and these come with barrels struck full length, not mono-blocked. Bernardelli also offers upscale H&H pattern sidelock guns at higher prices. Although traditionally specializing in SxS double guns, Bernardelli also makes autoloading and pump action shotguns and the profit from the repeaters probably helps to keep their double gun prices reasonable.
Perhaps the most widely available of the reasonably affordable Italian guns comes from Beretta. (Beretta also makes some very fancy upscale models). This is due to the large number of Beretta dealers in the US.
The current entry level Beretta is the Model 486 Parallelo. This is a round body box lock of the Scottish type. It comes with barrels struck full length, a SST and 100% coverage floral/scroll receiver engraving. It can be had with a straight hand or pistol grip walnut stock, bored or screw-in choke tubes, automatic ejectors or manual ejection. Gauges are 12, 20 and 28. The 2016 MSRP starts at $5350 for this good looking gun.
Some of the best SxS shotguns in the world are still made in the UK. Among the most famous London gunmakers are Boss, Purdey and Holland & Holland. Shotguns don't get any better, more prestigious, or more expensive than a London "best gun." You are likely looking at a six figure price tag for a bespoke London best gun.
Good doubles are also made in Birmingham and Scotland, often at lower prices than a London best. Webley & Scott, for example, offer their 2000 Series boxlock and 3000 Series sidelock guns with bored (fixed) chokes or five interchangeable choke tubes. The customer can also choose between straight hand or pistol grip stocks.
These are made using CNC machinery in 12 and 20 gauge All are suitable for use with steel shot. Bud's Gun Shop in the USA lists the 2016 MSRP of the Model 2000 as $2749, hard case included. The 2016 MSRP of the Model 3000 is $7499, including hard case.
USED DOUBLE GUNS
Obviously, any of the new guns mentioned above should be a good buy used, if offered at a fair price. In addition, there are reputable discontinued guns to consider.
One of the best known of these is the Browning BSS. The BSS was made in Japan by longtime Browning partner Miroku. This boxlock gun featured a blued and engraved receiver, solid raised rib, single selective trigger (SST), selective ejectors (SE), checkered pistol grip walnut stock and beavertail forearm. The gauges were 12 and 20.
Another notable boxlock gun was the Charles Daly Model 500 field grade SxS, also made by Miroku in 12 and 20 gauge. This solid little boxlock gun had a blued receiver with minimal engraving, chopper-lump barrels, double triggers, plain extractors, a checkered walnut stock and beavertail forearm. Higher grades were available with fancier wood and more extensive engraving.
Not to be confused with the classic American made Ithaca doubles, the Ithaca/SKB doubles were nicely crafted, good quality boxlock guns made in Japan and imported for several years by Ithaca Gun Company. Later, SKB shotguns were imported by others. They featured monoblock barrels, raised solid ribs, hand checkered walnut stocks and forearms, selective ejectors, automatic safeties and selective single triggers.
The handsome Winchester Model 23 was manufactured by Winchester's Japanese subsidiary between 1978 and 1987. Model 23s 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. They are generally well liked and today cost more used than they did new.
Side-by-side double guns were once the norm, but rising manufacturing costs have priced them out of the utility gun class. For a time, particularly during the period 1950-1980, SxS double guns fell from favor and O/U models stole the limelight. Today, however, the SxS has made a comeback and returned to its place as the epitome of the gunmaker's art.
Good double guns are made in the USA, UK, France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Japan and other places. Obviously, an article of this type can only offer a few examples of the hundreds of different models of SxS guns made today.
Many good doubles come from very small specialty shops with employees numbering from one to, perhaps, a dozen or so. The very limited annual production from such shops practically guarantees high prices, but the guns themselves are usually of very high quality.
However, there are a few larger manufacturers with more diversified firearm lines that can offer good double shotguns at relatively reasonable prices. Beretta, Webley & Scott and Merkel are examples of these.
Anyone shopping for a good SxS shotgun on a budget would do well to investigate the used market. There are a number of reputable dealers that specialize in fine guns. These are a good source of quality double guns at a discount.
Copyright 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.