O/U Or SxS Double Rifles?

There is a twisting motion at recoil with a SxS that is lacking in an O/U, which recoils straight back.

Who says a double rifle for dangerous game has to be a side-by-side?

While meandering the aisles at the recent SCI Convention, I stumbled into the Antonio Zoli exhibit booth where I got to handle a really sweet double rifle chambered in .450/400-3”. It was Zoli’s Express Safari model and it felt amazingly good in my hands — compact, perfectly balanced, and lighter than it really was.

Now, I’m sure that everyone reading this immediately assumes I’m talking about a side-by-side, and that’s what prompted this column. Why is it that when talking about double rifles, particularly the dangerous game variety, one assumes the side-by-side barrel orientation when there are far, far more over/under rifles being made? And yes, that Zoli Express rifle I spoke of was an O/U. In fact, Zoli, as one of Italy’s largest firearms manufacturers, offers a wide assortment of twin-barreled rifles and shotguns…and not one of them is a SxS. As an aside, Zoli also produces drillings and bolt-action rifles.

The gape on this double rifle (above) is less than that of an O/U (below), but only 25% less. Does that really translate into faster reloading?

Anyway, the more I thought about it, the more interested I became in the whole O/U vs. SxS thing and decided to get some input from knowledgeable people. I certainly had my own opinions, though, even if I never owned either. For one, I’ve always bought into the idea that aiming over a single barrel, as is the case with an O/U, is more natural for someone like over-under-double-rifle-101912me who is primarily a rifleman. That being the case, I just naturally gravitated to an over/under shotgun for what little bird and waterfowl shooting I do. I found that looking over twin barrels was distracting for me. I’ll grant you that had I used a SxS shotgun more than I had, maybe I wouldn’t feel that way. And I’ll bet that the relatively small number of those who actually hunt with a double rifle here in the States (hereafter assume by “double” I mean a SxS), shoot an O/U shotgun.

I was also familiar with the consensus that says because an O/U has more gape than a SxS, it was less desirable as a dangerous game rifle. In other words, the action of an O/U must break to a more acute angle when opened to clear the bottom barrel for extraction/ejection and reloading. I suppose one could make a case that the extra hundredth of a second it takes to break open an over/under versus a double is worth considering in a dangerous game situation, but you can’t convince me that in the real world — even with a charging buff or jumbo — that it could mean the difference between life and death. Besides, if after expending your two rounds, more are needed, that’s when your PH enters the picture. While he’s getting off additional rounds, there’s plenty of time to reload, even if you have to break that O/U to a greater degree of arc than a SxS.

The Zoli Express Standard (top) chambered in 9.3x74R is a beautifully balanced rifle that is very popular with European hunters who overwhelmingly prefer O/Us for driven hunts. Bottom gun is the .450-400.

Lastly, there’s the argument that there’s something inherent in the mechanics of an O/U that makes perfect, mirror image symmetry of components impossible. I’m talking having two absolutely identical and independent rifles in one in the case of a double, but not so with an over/under. For some reason I always intuitively assumed that that assumption was correct. And if that were not the case, what would be the disadvantage(s), if any?

Thus was my state of mind when I returned home from the convention, having gotten a wealth of perspective and opinion from Zoli himself, as well as Steven Lamboy, the President of Zoli North America, both of whom are extremely knowledgeable about both gun types. For additional input, I contacted two of my good friends and colleagues — guys with whom SCI members are very familiar — Craig Boddington and Terry Wieland, both of whom have forgotten more about this stuff than I’ll ever know. I posed the same questions to both of them, which essentially was: “Why is the side-by-side generally considered to the only ‘proper’ barrel orientation for a dangerous game rifle, and is there any reason or rationale you know of that makes the SxS rifle any better suited as a DGR than an O/U?”

Most shooters find that aiming over a single barrel is more natural than sighting down twin barrels with a rib in between. Some contend that longer shots are more plausible with an O/U than a SxS.

The first issue Terry Wieland addressed was that of gape. “A SxS does not need to open as far in order to eject and reload,” he says. “You need a substantial gape to eject cartridges from an O/U, and to get fresh ones in. This is no small consideration.”

He’s right, of course, but just how much of a difference are we talking? Consider: the average gape of a double rifle is about 32 degrees. The gape on a typical O/U is about 42 degrees; that’s a difference of only 10 degrees, or roughly 25 percent more movement. The underlying idea here is that, theoretically, you should be able to reload a side-by fractionally faster.

As to Boddington’s comments about the shorter opening arc: “That might have made a slight difference when guys were wading into elephant herds and taking as many as possible in one session, but I don’t think it has much validity today.”

As for the notion that sighting down a single barrel is more natural, especially if you’re more of a rifleman than a shotgun guy, there were varying opinions. “Hogwash,” says Wieland. “I don’t buy it on a SxS shotgun, and most certainly not on a rifle. A rifle has sights and you line them up. You don’t pay any attention to the barrels. If the animal is in close and it’s a matter of instinct shooting, you look at the animal and hope the rifle points as naturally as shotgun — which it is more likely to do if it’s a side-by-side.”

Boddington, on the other hand, disagrees. “For most guys,” he says, I totally agree that sighting down a single plane is more familiar!”

Steven Lamboy also disagrees with Wieland.  “Try shooting a SxS at 200 yards — it’s impossible.  The O/U can be fired accurately at any distance with the lower barrel. Have a wounded buffalo at 200 yards? You’d better have an O/U.”

Zoli Express Safari rifles are regulated with Hornady ammunition.

Regarding the SxS’s total symmetry of components, Wieland says: “Logically, a side-by-side, either sidelock or boxlock, is a simpler configuration. You want double triggers, you have a barrel, a lock, and a trigger on one side, you have another of each on the other. With an O/U you are trying to marry some vertical components to some horizontal, which complicates things.”

Further expanding on the reliability question, Wieland says: “The strikers on an over/under hit the primer at an angle, rather than straight on. This reduced dependability in the early years (emphasis mine). But then he goes on to say that, “It took Boss and Woodward considerable effort to overcome that problem. The Boss O/U was introduced in 1909, and the Woodward in 1913. I have modern over/under shotguns which occasionally misfire for that reason.”

Merkel is another prestigious manufacturer of O/U rifles in a wide assortment of calibers for small to dangerous game.

But Lamboy disagrees, saying “25 million O/U shotguns later this problem is more an issue with SxS guns than O/Us. We have our guns shooting over 100,000 rounds without a failure. Also, our firing pin is in a full-length bushing and it can fire even if broken.” He goes on to say, “…only a relative handful of double rifles are produced each year compared to thousands of O/Us. There’s a reason for this. Most over/under rifles have fewer parts than doubles, or at least no more.”

When it comes to handling properties, both Boddington and Wieland prefer the double, but Boddington qualifies that by stating: “For me, a side-by-side handles better…but I started shooting them (shotguns) when I was 15, so that configuration is very natural and very familiar.”

Wieland was less magnanimous in his evaluation: “A side-by-side in any gauge or caliber is handier than a comparable over/under, which typically feel like a railroad tie.”

Lamboy strongly disagrees. “Handier? Not true. Our O/U double rifle is perfectly balanced at the hinge pin, and has the feel of an 8-pound gun, although it weighs 10. Also, O/U rifles do not suffer from the radical upward twisting recoil that side-bys do. An O/U recoils straight back in comparison, which allows the shooter to get back on target faster for the second shot. If there’s any validity to the gape issue, it’s negated by this fact.”

double-rifle-2-101912For my own two cents, when it comes to balance and handling, I think it depends on the individual gun, for I see nothing inherent that would make one barrel orientation superior to the other with regard to balance.  In other words, a nicely balanced double would feel the same if it were an O/U — assuming all other things equal. In fact, I think the narrower forend of the O/U is more anatomically suited to the human hand and affords better control than the wide and shallow forend of a side-by-side.

I’ve handled and shot more double rifles than I have O/Us, which together does not amount to a lot, but I’ve encountered many muzzle-heavy doubles, but not so over-unders. But again, it’s more a matter of individual guns, and it’s primarily barrel length that determines balance.

I’ll close by quoting Terry Wieland’s summation. “Except for cheap box lock versions in smaller calibers, I can see absolutely no good reason to make an O/U double rifle.”

Your thoughts?—Jon R. Sundra


13 thoughts on “O/U Or SxS Double Rifles?”

  1. To hit any vital spot at 80 Meters or more with a heavy S/S double (.470 N.E./ .500 N.E. is very difficult to hit without a support. However, with a O/U this is no problem whatsoever and even shots over an longer distance can be performed with success.
    Whats more, since shooting with a double is mostly standing up, the bigger opening angle of a O/U is of no real concern.

  2. Have owned and hunted with the same Antonio Zoli over and under 30-06 rifle for over 30 years. Have made a few double kills on deer . Also shot moose with this rifle, out to over 200 yards.all were off hand shots. Use a 4 x scope with quick detach base. It was regulated with 165 grain ammo.Test target , right on the money about 3/4 inch at 100 meters. Double triggers and extractors. Front trigger can be set but very,very light pull so I don’t use it.
    Nice engraving , skip line checkering and a hand rubbed oil finish.
    Only wish that there was more time to hunt with this gun each fall.
    My story is the reverse :over and under rifle to acquiring over and under shotguns to shoot sporting clays.u

  3. John “pondoro” Taylor wrote that he believed an o/u rifle was easier to regulate and that breech locking devices are stronger. Pg 17 of his book African rifles and cartridges. He also stated his very strong preference for the 450-400 cartridge. Based on that info, I bought a Zoli 450-400 o/u. I guide brown bears and believe it will be a superior combo. Just more food for thought

  4. i hunt with bolt guns for the simple reason that the double gun mess my instant shot up and when push comes to shove i’ll take a bolt gun every time over a double . but a nice sleek o/u , maybe

  5. I think, having shot both and owning mostly SxS’s. I think they can both be regulated just fine, they both handle well, but in a dangerous game environment, I’d rather have the quickest most reliable set up. And I think that’s the SXS. You own and sell whatever you want. I don’t have to pay your doctor bills, or your funeral expenses.

  6. Hi Jon, great to see your byline this morning. Been a long time since BlackStar in the 1990s — hope you’re well. I own and hunt with both action types, one in 470 NE (SxS) and the other in 9.3×74 (OU). I would say that the OU shoots better and comes back onto target faster, and I agree with a lack of imbalanced torque that you often find when shooting a barrel from a SxS. The greater throw of the action is something I’ve not found to be relevant. And its accuracy / ability to be shot well out to 200-250 meters is true. So in the “pretty is as pretty does” category, the OU wins. THAT SAID, nothing beats the SxS in terms of comfort of carry in the hand or over the shoulder, nor the aesthetics of the design. You get a shallower, trimmer action, and the pointability of a well-made SxS is unrivaled. The reason why my two guns have such a caliber spread is that I use them differently — the 9.3 is used mostly on big game that you shoot at a distance, while the 470 is up close and personal.

  7. Doubles, regardless of the configuration, are not engineered nor are they intended to be highly accurate, long range rifles… Too much emphasis is placed on long range accuracy these days especially by the sniper wannabes. Don’t think many respectable PH or guides would condone shots @ dangerous game @ 200 or more yards unless the shooter was highly trained & had demonstrated competence at ranges >200 yds. Handling characteristics and shootability should drive the double rifle purchase decision…mine SXS in 9.3×74…easy to carry, easy to mount, shootable with manageable recoil. Accurate to minute of buffalo.

  8. I don’t think this is a dilemma at all. It’s much more a matter concerning one’s experience. Hunters/shooters who begin with one style tend to favor that style in both long arms. For me, I grew up shooting single barrel repeater shotguns; so I gravitate to b/o and bolt rifles. However, when I was a competitive skeet shooter, ninety-five percent of the contenders used o/u guns in all gauges. That seemed like a grand notion to me and I adapted to it, very easily.
    In my life, I have fired no more than two dozen rounds through all S/S long guns. But each time I have done so, the distractions of all that metal in my vision focus have interrupted concentration. So,…I simply do not ‘go there.’ And I do not feel as though I have been denied anything in this approach.

  9. My grand son + I have used a Valmet 412 S in Africa during our three hunts . 1 in South A w/ Johny V and 2 in Tan. w/ great success using the O/U (in 30-06.) on Kudu on down to klips. It was set up for 200 yds without a lot of trouble by my gunsmith. My grandson was overjoyed with it when he was 12 as well as when he was 16. He had the opportunity to us an Austrian SxS 500 with great success on Buff, in fact the Ph let him use his 500 for all his buff . It was a little strong for me at 65 ,but my grandson was playing football and was in great shape.After the first hunt in Tan he wanted to get one for our next hunt. But at 34000 I could not be convinced, since we planned on going again.in four years The 500 was all a man could want in a sxs but I stuck to my Ruger No1’s in 375 and 458.

  10. I’m late to the party, but if the SxS is so good, why is the O/U far more common in high level shotgun competition? Autos are increasingly common, of course, but I don’t recall ever seeing a SxS being shot by a high level shotgun competitor in trap or anything like that. If the SxS is so good, why did the O/U completely supplant it in competition? And if an O/U shotgun is easier with which to hit than a SxS, maybe an O/U rifle is easier with which to hit as well…

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