Double Rifles

By Chuck Hawks

Merkel Model 160A
Merkel Model 160A safari double rifle. Illustration courtesy of Merkel Sportwaffen GmbH.

Double barreled firearms have been around for a very long time, dating back to matchlock and wheelock muzzleloading designs. In the modern era of cartridge firearms, double barreled rifles became famous as tools for hunting the largest and most dangerous game, especially in India and sub-Saharan Africa.

Side-by-side double rifles were the favorites of many, probably most, of the legendary African professional hunters and guides from the late 1800's into the 1950's, after which much cheaper bolt action rifles captured the bulk of the safari rifle market. This change did not occur because bolt guns are necessarily superior for the purpose, but because the extremely labor intensive double rifles were priced out of the market by rising labor costs after the end of the Second World War.

However, since the late 1980's, double rifles have been making a modest comeback. This is mostly due to nostalgia and partly because safari grade bolt action rifles are no longer inexpensive, but also because some experienced hunters are realizing that double rifles are extremely hard to beat for their intended purposes. They are just plain good at the job they were intended to do.

A break-open gun is exceptionally safe, as the action is very easy to open for inspection and once opened the rifle is rendered completely safe. Because of its break-open design, it is also fast and easy to reload. Doubles have separate locks to fire the right and left barrels; should a part in one lock fail, the other is usually unaffected and the gun can still be fired. After the hunt is over, a double is easy to clean. Because doubles take down, they are more compact than most other designs to transport and store.

Lacking a repeating action, double rifles are about 4" shorter than a typical bolt action or autoloading rifle with a barrel of the same length. This makes them handy in heavy cover or for use from blinds and tree stands.

There is no magazine or action that must be cycled to chamber another cartridge, so a double can use cartridges of any length. Many of the most famous double rifle cartridges (the 9.3x74mm and .470 NE, for example) are too long for use in repeating rifles.

A double can fire two shots faster than any other type of sporting rifle. This is because there is no action that must be operated to reload for the second shot. A double can shoot even faster than a semi-auto.

While there is seldom time for more than two shots in a fast breaking situation, it has been pointed out that a bolt action repeater is faster than a double for three shots. However, testing has shown that a double is faster for four shots if the bolt action has to be reloaded after three. The bottom line is that the reloading speed of a side-by-side double rifle means that, in terms of sustained firepower, it is not at a particular disadvantage compared to the typical bolt action rifle.

While on the subject of reloading I should mention that double barreled rifles are offered in both side-by-side and over/under configuration. However, the former is preferred for hunting dangerous game. This is partly because a properly designed side-by-side is sleeker and points more instinctively than an O/U, but mostly because the barrels of an O/U gun must be pivoted much farther down to clear the lower barrel for reloading. This unacceptably (and perhaps fatally) slows reloading.

Likewise, a double rifle should always come with selective ejectors. If there is an angry lion lurking in the tall grass you definitely don't want to fumble around picking fired cases from the chamber with your fingers.

The biggest advantage the side-by-side double rifle has as a dangerous game stopper is its "pointability." In a sudden emergency where the range may be measured in feet rather than yards, the double can be pointed like a shotgun rather than carefully aimed like a rifle. It is in such situations that it is superior to almost all repeating rifles. To take full advantage of this inherent pointability, the best double rifles are bespoke guns, built to the customer's measurements.

The emphasis on handling speed explains why safari doubles traditionally wear "express" rear sights, a low type of open iron sight with a very wide and shallow "V" notch. A white line or slender diamond often delineates the center of the "V" and the front blade is usually tipped with a brass or ivory bead. Some modern combat pistols are now appearing with this type of rear sight. Express sights are supposed to be the fastest type of open sight with which to achieve a "flash" sight picture for speed shooting. The express rear sight is low and interferes less than other sights with instinctive point shooting at very short range. Precision shooting at extended ranges is not the express sight's forte', but that is generally not a requirement of double rifles. Accuracy is measured in "minute of pie plate."

Of course, a low power scope is also a very fast way to deliver an aimed shot. Double rifles can be equipped with telescopic sights and many models come with integral scope bases. These often allow quick removal and replacement of the scope without disturbing the point of impact.

Merkel Model 141
Merkel Model 141 petite frame double rifle with detachable scope mount.
Illustration courtesy of Merkel Sportwaffen GmbH.

Double rifles are all about handling and speed; accuracy takes a back seat. Double rifles must be regulated like a double barreled shotgun in order to place bullets from both barrels to the same point of impact. Otherwise, they would crossfire. The regulation of shotguns is an art, and because rifles shoot a single bullet rather than a pattern of shot, the regulation of double rifles is even more critical and time consuming than the regulation of shotguns.

I once helped Guns and Shooting Online Gunsmithing Editor Rocky Hays do the shooting for a double rifle he was regulating and I can tell you from experience that it is a time consuming and painstaking process. A double barreled safari rifle that prints 2" groups from both barrels at 50 yards (4 MOA) with the load for which it is regulated is shooting close enough to do its job. Some double rifles can do better, but not always.

One serious limitation is that a double rifle can only be regulated for one load. That is the load that must be used in that rifle. If the bullet weight or powder charge is changed it is very likely that the rifle's barrels will no longer shoot to the same point of impact. In that sense double rifles are one trick ponies.

The great British gunmakers were (and still are) great believers in side-by-side double rifles and produced the most famous examples of the breed. They also designed most of the oversized, rimmed cartridges used in safari type double rifles. Double rifles made by Boss, Holland & Holland, Purdey and other famous London gunmakers still command extremely high prices on both the new and used gun markets. Like a "London best" shotgun, these rifles represent the pinnacle of the gunmaker's art.

H&H Round Action Rifle
Holland & Holland Round Action double rifle. Illustration courtesy of Holland & Holland.

British doubles have been made in every conceivable caliber from .22 on up, but the most famous are the big Nitro Express calibers. The best known of these include such creations as the .700 NE, .600 NE, .577 NE, .500 3" NE, .470 NE, .465 NE, .500/450 NE, .450 No.2 NE, .450 3-1/4" NE and .450/400 NE. At least some Nitro Express calibers are available from Federal, Hornady, Norma, Kynoch, A-Square and sometimes other sources. British gunmakers still chamber a few rifles for such cartridges each year, as well as for more mundane American, British and Continental cartridges, such as the .244 H&H, various 7mm and 8mm European numbers, .30-06, .303 British, 9.3x74R and .375 H&H.

The latter, in either belted or flanged (rimmed) form, is the most popular and probably the most versatile of the English safari cartridges. Holland's .375 Flanged Magnum, designed specifically for use in double rifles, drives a 300 grain bullet (SD .305) at a muzzle velocity of 2400 fps with muzzle energy of 3835 ft. lbs.

British double rifles are very expensive. Purdey prices in 2013, for example, started at $141,220 for a .375 sidelock double rifle and the price increases with caliber.

On the continent Austrian, Belgian, Italian, Spanish, French and German gunmakers, such as Heym, Krieghoff, Merkel, J.P Sauer & Sohn, Chapuis, Piotti and others produce fine double rifles in side-by-side and/or O/U configuration. Grulla Armas of Spain, for example, builds a beautiful sidelock double rifle.

Grulla E95 Rifle
Grulla back action sidelock double rifle. Illustration courtesy of Grulla Armas.

Most of the Continental guns are chambered for rimmed metric calibers developed by German and Austrian firms, although British and American cartridges are also offered. Among the calibers available from Merkel of Germany, for example, in their doubles and drillings (3-barreled combination guns) are .22 Hornet, .222 Rem., 6.5x55, 6.5x57R, 7x57R, 7x65R, .308 Win., .30-06, .30R Blaser, 8x57IRS, 9.3x74R, .375 H&H, .416 Rigby, .470 NE and .500 NE.

Double barreled rifles remain reasonably popular on the Continent, particularly in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, Spain and Eastern Europe. They are widely used for hunting wild boar, bear, stag and moose. For wild boar and red stag the standard 7mm, 8mm and .30 calibers are popular and entirely adequate.

For Scandinavian moose, as well as for large African game, the 9.3x74R and similar cartridges remain popular in double rifles. This long cartridge (3.74" COL) was developed in Germany as an all-around caliber for double rifles and drillings. In typical factory loads the 9.3x74 launches a 286 grain bullet (SD .305) at a muzzle velocity of 2362 fps with muzzle energy of 3544 ft. lbs. (Norma figures).

In purpose and application the Continental 9.3mm cartridges are similar to the various British .375 caliber cartridges. (9.3mm cartridges use .366" bullets.) In colonial times the 9.3x74R was a popular leopard, kudu, eland, lion and buffalo cartridge in the former German, French, Belgian and Portuguese African colonies, including South Africa. It is still used today, along with the 9.3x62mm, a ballistically identical but shorter (.30-06 length) cartridge designed for use in bolt action rifles.

In North America these two 9.3's are perhaps the best known of the classic German safari cartridges. Ammunition is available in the U.S. from A-Square, Nosler, Hornady and Federal, as well as European sources including Sellier & Bellot, Sako and Norma. There is probably more 9.3mm ammunition being sold in the U.S. today than ever before.

North American hunters seeking moose and the great bears are finding that double rifles, often chambered for 9.3mm or .375 cartridges, are well suited to the task. Some Alaskan guides and outfitters have turned to double rifles in safari calibers to back-up their clients seeking grizzly and brown bear trophies in Alaska's densely wooded coastal regions.

Unlike other types of rifles, doubles were developed expressly for hunting. They have no military, target shooting, or other extraneous applications. However, they do what they were designed to do very well.

Note: Full length reviews of the Merkel 141, Tikka 512S and Baily Bradshaw double rifles can be found on the Product Reviews page.

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Copyright 2007, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.