Want to turn a few heads on your next pheasant or grouse hunt? Dust off Grandpa’s side-by-side. But first, here are a few considerations to make sure that antique double works reliably and safely.
Firearms were once works of art, individually handcrafted by master gunsmiths and lovingly passed down by their owners through generations. As metallurgy and manufacturing techniques have improved, guns have become stronger and more affordable—a positive trend, to be sure. But as a consequence of mass production, they’ve lost that artisan’s touch and much of what makes them so unique. The availability and comparative durability of these newer guns has also relegated some very fine pieces to the safe or the dusty corners of your local gun shop, which is a shame. But this also presents a unique opportunity for hunters to enrich their time in the field by gearing up with the same guns their predecessors carried.
Whether you inherited an antique double-barrel shotgun or picked one up on the cheap at an estate sale, there are a few crucial things to consider before you toss it in the gun case and head for the field.
What is it made of?
When dealing with vintage double-barrels—in particular those manufactured using Damascus steel or some variation of twist steel—strength is a concern. Damascus steel was fabricated by twisting together strips of steel and iron, then flattening and wrapping them around a spindle. Although those layers result in stunning, distinctive patterns, by the very nature of its composition, it’s a comparatively weak steel.
Almost all side-by-sides manufactured prior to the 1900s were designed for use with black powder, which delivers much lower pressures than modern propellents. Do not, under any circumstances, use modern shotshells in guns of this vintage! Neither the barrels nor the actions of these guns were designed to withstand such pressures. If you’re not a handloader, you can purchase obsolete blackpowder shotgun shells online, instead, which—assuming the gun is in good condition—should be safe to use in these antiques and will still deliver a killing blow to any bird within range.
What condition is it in?
Before you go loading up rounds for your side-by-side, have it inspected by a qualified gunsmith to ensure the barrel thickness and structural integrity haven’t been compromised by rust or deep dings, and that the action locks up tightly. Keep in mind that not all guns from this period were created equal. Although English and Belgian doubles are known for their fine craftsmanship, some lesser-known makers from other areas in Europe and elsewhere may have used inferior materials and techniques, and so may not be safe to shoot.
What was it designed to shoot?
Although shotguns today predominantly come in two flavors—12 gauge or 20 gauge—older doubles were sold in a number of calibers that have since fallen out of vogue, including 14, 16, and 24 gauge. Even if it’s chambered in a common caliber, it may not be designed to shoot shells of a length we’re familiar with today. Some older 12 gauges, for instance, may accept a common 2 3/4″-long shell, but are actually chambered for 2 1/2″ shells. Again, having a gunsmith give your piece a thorough once-over before using it is a sound strategy to make sure you don’t make a costly or dangerous mistake.
Although it might take a little more preparation and consideration than a modern bird gun, hauling one of these old timers into the field can enhance a hunt, evoking feelings of nostalgia and bringing a smile to your face every time you shoulder it.