The Good Over/Under Shotgun
When John Browning worked on his Superposed O/U shotgun, which was finished posthumously, Mr. Browning envisioned it as one of the last firearms governments would try to ban from ownership by their people. As it turned out, John Browning was right, for break-open shotguns are usually the last sporting arms banned by most of the world's governments.
A good O/U shotgun isn't cheap to produce, for there are two barrels, two trigger sears, a selector mechanism (or two triggers), two extractors, two (usually selective) ejectors, and so forth. All of this requires more elaborate design, machining and fitting. In addition, the gun must balance perfectly for its intended purpose and the two barrels must be regulated to shoot to the same place, which is not easily accomplished.
Plastic stocks, rough matte finishes and camo-dipped are still resisted, for the "Aristocrat of Shotguns." Double-barreled shotguns, whether O/U or SxS, still exude prestige, quality and pride of ownership. They represent the apex of the gun maker's art.
The good O/U shotgun has crisp, light triggers built on a steel frame, not a cast aluminum or injection-molded plastic housing. The good O/U shotgun has barrels that shoot within a couple of inches of each other at 40 yards.
There is a rumor that cheap O/U shotguns are mostly junk. That rumor has proven to be true. A good quality, durable O/U has a steel receiver and is a joy to own and shoot, while a cheap O/U is a snare and a delusion. The manufacturing crime of the Benelli 828U shows what happens when the primary design criteria is how cheaply an O/U shotgun can be produced.
Over the years, there have been countless forgettable, crude attempts at the cheap O/U. These have not worked out well. If just purchase price is the criteria, you will get more quality and value in a pump gun and your shots are going to hit in the same place, round after round. A double-barreled gun simply cannot be made at the same low price point as a single barreled repeater.
American gun makers operate at a 35% or so manufacturing deficit compared to most of the world. The successful, affordable, American made O/U shotgun does not exist. The closest we had was the original Ruger Red Label, discontinued some years ago. The most recent attempt by Ruger to reduce the cost of the gun ended badly. It was an epic screw-up that has likely ended Ruger's re-entry into the shotgun market.
Remember when Marlin tried to relaunch the L. C. Smith, and later just the name on an imported double? Smith & Wesson with the over priced, Turkish-made "heirloom" doubles? Weatherby, after SKB, trying Fausti? Sigarms trying not once, but twice with the SA-5 and SA-3 line? Savage with their Milano (F.A.I.R.)? The Lamber? The Remington Premier (Sabatti)? Franchi division of Beretta now selling Bettinsoli? The original Mossberg Silver Reserve? If you are interested in spectacular failures, the double-barreled shotgun market is one place that will not disappoint you.
If history teaches us anything, it is that good O/Us don't make themselves and they sure don't sell themselves. Browning has been struggling with the Winchester Supreme, renamed the Winchester Select, now sadly renamed the Winchester 101 for so long I am surprised they still exist. It is been a 16 year attempt and counting.
The good news, for the American consumer anyway, has been the crash of the Euro and the Japanese Yen vs. the dollar. Reasonable quality O/U shotguns are a better value today than ever before. You have no doubt heard it before, but standard, reasonable quality O/U shotguns start with the Beretta 686 and the standard Browning Citori. Both are good guns and the Citori (based on John Browning's Superposed) is the most popular O/U ever made.
Field guns competitive with the Beretta 686/687/690 and also the Browning 725 Citori would include the Fabarm Elos. Fabarm USA offers versions of the Elos in 20 and 28 gauge. In 12 gauge, the Elos is sold as the Orvis Elos at $2395 (in 2016) and Orvis also offers the Elos in 20 and 28 gauges.
The Beretta 690 is new and, in the opinion of many, a bit overcomplicated and not as desirable as the older 682. The Beretta 690 Field III, Caesar Guerini Woodlander and Caesar Guerini Tempio are roughly in the same price bracket.
There are several reputable dealers for used guns: Cole Gunsmithing, Art's Gun Shop and Joel Etchen to name but three. If a used O/U is worth buying, it is worth paying an experienced, qualified gunsmith to give it a clean bill of health.
Aside from Beretta and Browning, there are good quality O/U field guns available under less popular nameplates. These include the original Winchester Model 101, Ruger Red Label, Remington Model 3200, Savage Milano, Ithaca-SKB, Weatherby-SKB (Orion and Athena) and Charles Daly (by Miroku), to name a few.
NEW BARGAIN O/Us
Standard quality O/U shotguns begin with the plainer Beretta 686 and Browning Citori models. Personally, I favor the Browning Cynergy, now that Browning has found religion in this lower price bracket.
Whether it is a Beretta 687 with a bunch of E's and L's after it, it is the same gun. Same goes for a Citori or a Cynergy. The higher grades get you no more functionality; you are buying upgraded wood, engraving, pride of ownership and increased resale value in the future.
MODERATELY UPSCALE O/Us
All Caesar Guerini USA sells are sleek Italian O/U shotguns. All have lifetime warranties, free service visits and outstanding customer service. CG speaks O/U fluently and exclusively.
Without the extra engraving and bling, the Fabarm USA models are commensurately economical; the RS-12 for clays guns, the Elos for hunting guns. These guns come with a five year warranty and the same customer service staff and in-house gunsmiths as Caesar Guerini USA. If husky Germanic style O/U guns are your preference, check out the Merkel O/Us.
For most of my life, I have watched as low-end O/Us quickly fail and fade from the marketplace. There is scant little less satisfying in firearms than a crummy O/U shotgun. Even some reasonably good vertical doubles are long gone, due to misguided marketing attempts or uneven quality controls.
It takes a lot of effort to consistently offer good O/U shotguns, backed by parts inventory, experienced in-house gunsmiths and customer service. Unsurprisingly, the cheap O/U can turn out to be the most frustratingly expensive shotgun of all.
Copyright 2016 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.