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.
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 me 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.
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?”
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.”
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.”
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.”
For 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