Having a shotgun and rifle in your hands
makes sense when bird and big-game seasons overlap.
Hunters have probably argued about “all-around” hunting guns ever since they switched from longbows to matchlocks. Most print magazines run such an article once a year, but on Internet forums somebody asks, “What’s the best all-around big-game rifle?” or “Which shotgun for everything from doves to geese?” every day. Then there’s old-fashioned face-to-face arguing (yes, some people still talk instead of text).
The answers usually revolve around cartridges and loads, but beyond are endless arguments about bolt actions, pumps, autoloaders or double barrels. Yet highly opinionated hunters almost never suggest a combination gun, with both rifle and shotgun barrels, when they’re discussing the most versatile all-around hunting arms. When somebody does, objections include “too clunky” or “expensive,” but generalizations rarely land anywhere near the truth.
I’ve been hunting with combination guns off-and-on since 1968, when as a teenage ranch hand I entered a hardware store in Montana looking for an all-around shotgun and came out with a brand-new Savage Model 24MDL, an over/under with a 3-inch, 20-gauge barrel on the bottom and a .22 Magnum rimfire barrel on top. (The DL stood for “deluxe,” meaning a checkered walnut stock and simple engravings of a fox and a grouse on the receiver.) The price was around $70, much cheaper than buying both a 20-gauge shotgun and .22 Magnum rifle. By the time I gave the Savage away several years later to a 13-year-old friend, it had taken game and varmints from doves and squirrels to jackrabbits and sage grouse.
The 24MDL weighed less than 7 pounds and balanced pretty well, but did have a couple of faults. The bottom fringe of the full-choke pattern landed about where the gun pointed, but I got used to it. Pushing the barrel-switching button up allowed the rifle barrel to fire, and pushing it down switched to the shotgun barrel. But there was a hitch in the switch, and sometimes the wrong barrel went off. Even a 1-1/4-ounce “magnum” load of No. 4 shot doesn’t harm a coyote much at 100 yards.
Other 24s had varying “fire-control systems,” and those with separate barrels attached by a bracket at the muzzle could actually be adjusted a little for the shotgun barrel’s point-of-impact. All came with .410 or 20-gauge shotgun barrels, but rifle chamberings included .17 HMR, .22 Long Rifle, .22 Magnum .22 Hornet, .222 and .223 Remington, .30-30 Winchester and .357 Magnum.
Though the final version was discontinued in 2007, used 24s are still in considerable demand, and Savage also still offers the Model 42 combo gun under the Stevens brand, a similar outside-hammer over/under in .410 with a .22 Long Rifle or .22 Magnum barrel. (Savage also briefly offered a couple of hammerless combo guns in .222 and .308 Winchester with a 12-gauge barrel, known as Models 2400 and 389, both made by Valmet. Apparently these didn’t sell nearly as well as the more affordable 24, so aren’t nearly as common.) A presently manufactured, hammerless over/under combo gun is the Baikal, an affordable 2-trigger model with a 12-gauge barrel over a .223, .308, .30-06 or 7.62×39 rifle barrel. It comes with open sights and an 11mm scope-mount rail. European American Armory imports them presently.
In 1974, I was back in western Montana, where I was born and raised and it’s relatively easy to split the duties of a rifle and shotgun, partly because “mountain grouse” (ruffed, blue and spruce) can be legally taken with a rifle or handgun, unlike all other gamebirds in the state. At first I packed along the Colt Frontier Scout .22 revolver inherited from my father, but in my late 20s I discovered it’s easier to shoot the heads off mountain grouse with a scoped .30-06 than kill them with a revolver with primitive iron sights. On the valley farms where I hunted pheasants most landowners were friendly to shotguns but not rifles.
At 30 I remarried and my wife Eileen and I started hunting all over the state, and eventually in other states and countries. I started yearning for another combination gun—this time a drilling, German for a 3-barrel gun. The most common variation is essentially a break-action, double-barreled shotgun with a rifle barrel underneath.
This seemed perfect for hunting eastern Montana, or traveling anywhere for both wing-shooting and big game, since like double-barreled shotguns drillings break down easily, fitting into a small travel case. (By then I’d started using a take-down case even for conventional rifles, taking the stock off so they’d fit, finding this far more convenient than the typical 20-pound, 4-foot-long rifle case.)
The ideal combination would be 12×12/.30-06, since ammunition is available worldwide, but the majority of drillings are 16 gauge. This frustrated the search for a 12 gauge I could afford (drillings cost more than Savage 24s), but during the search I learned quite a bit about drillings from friends, the Internet and the German Gun Collectors Association.
Eventually the search built considerable drilling lust, and my first wasn’t exactly my idealized travel gun. It appeared at the Great Falls gun show, a back-action sidelock with outside hammers built by J.P. Sauer & Sohns and imported by the original Charles Daly firm in New York City, probably around 1900. The early guns had outside hammers, though they did have fluid-steel barrels.
The Daly company ordered drillings in American chamberings, and the gun I bought was a 12×12/.30-30 weighing a very well-balanced 7-1/2 pounds. The owner was an absolute firearms loony named Bradd Cobb, who let me test-fire the gun at a local range. Some 170-grain Federal factory loads shot 2 inches high at 100 yards with both the flip-up open rear sight and flip-up tang aperture in the top of the grip—a common feature in older German rifles, since they can have as many tricks as a Las Vegas magician. That fall I took a mule deer doe and several sharptails and pheasants with the old gun, and was hooked.
The Daly Sauer, however, didn’t come with a scope or any provision for mounts, and though it was easy to kill deer-sized animals out to 150+ yards with the tang sight, a scope would make a 12×12/.30-06 much more versatile. Eventually an almost-new Model 3000 Sauer, turned up, made in 2002, with a 6×32 Zeiss in claw mounts.
My prize weighed 9 pounds with scope, full chambers and sling, and 8 without scope and sling. It fit me pretty well, though, as I discovered at the local trap range when, after some preliminary practice, it broke 25 straight. I’d done this before but with far more conventional shotguns, and my friends didn’t think the drilling so strange anymore. But over several years my ideal travel gun never left the state, because when traveling on assignment I usually ended up with a specialized rifle, either due to the game involved (such as Cape buffalo) or a rifle manufacturer hosting the hunt.
Eventually I realized most drillings are 16 gauge because the trimmer barrels result in a lighter, better-balanced gun, so sold the 12 gauge and bought another scoped Sauer drilling, a traditional gun in 16×16/6.5x57R, a rimmed round with ballistics similar to the 6.5×55. It weighs much less and balances better, and like my old hammer gun has taken deer and a bunch of gamebirds.
During all this Eileen bought a 2-barrel German over/under combo gun, a light 9.3x72R/16 gauge (smart girl!) with bas-relief game scenes engraved on the receiver. There’s no name indicating who made it, but the proof marks indicate it was around World War I. The gun had bases for claw mounts but no scope. Older claw mounts come in as many forms as snowflakes, so we had a gunsmith make some from Talley steel rings, and mounted a 1.5-5X Leupold. With the scope it weighs exactly 7 pounds.
Luckily, the “9.3mm” barrel turned out to be actually exactly .35 caliber. (The bores of old German rifles can vary considerably as well.) This simplified handloading enormously, and Eileen ended up with a load using the 180-grain Speer Hot-Cor flatnose made for the .35 Remington at about 1,900 fps. This knocks the snot out of deer out to at least 150 yards, as far as Eileen has shot any, and she’s shot a variety of upland birds with the shotgun barrel.
The other, not-so-common form of a 2-barrel combination is the side-by-side “Cape gun,” so-called because the Dutch immigrants who settled in the Cape of Good Hope region of South Africa preferred an all-around gun chambered for pretty big cartridges. Both kinds of 2-barreled combination guns are by far the simplest to use, since they normally come with two triggers, one for each barrel, a distinct improvement over the sticky barrel-button on my Savage 24.
The fire-control systems on drillings obviously have to be more complex, though all I’ve seen only have two triggers. My old Daly-Sauer has a conventional-looking lever on top of the tang, but it switches the right hammer from the right shotgun barrel to the .30-30 barrel, whereupon the right (front) trigger fires the rifle. A side-lever opens the gun.
The 16×16/6.5x57R is typical of most hammerless drillings. The top-lever does open the action, but what appears to be a tang safety behind the lever is actually the shotgun/rifle control. Pushing it forward switches the right trigger to the rifle barrel—and also raises the open rear sight on the barrel rib. (This is accomplished by a rod running inside the rib, but the first time most Americans see the sight flip up by itself, their eyebrows also go up.) The safety is on the left side of the action, a simple up-and-down button like the one developed by W.W. Greener of England.
The claw mounts on the scope even have holes so the iron sights can be used without removing the scope. Theoretically you could also look through the holes to wingshoot an unexpected pheasant while stalking deer. When specifically going out after birds, however, it’s better to take the scope off, the reason for the claw mounts in the first place—and yes, the open sights are sighted-in with the rifle barrel, so a deer encountered while hunting pheasants isn’t exactly safe, either. (Eileen has wing-shot birds with the Leupold on her combo gun turned down to 1.5X.)
The old Daly 12×12/.30-30 opens with a side-lever.
The tang lever switches the front trigger to the rifle barrel.
Drillings are much easier to use than most American hunters assume. The safety is on the side of the action; the sliding button behind the opening lever changes the front trigger to the rifle barrel—and flips up the open rear sight as well.
Another clever touch on some combinations guns is a cartridge trap in the buttstock.
The trap on Eileen’s gun holds five rifle rounds and is engraved with the head of a fox.
The typical drilling is essentially a side-by-side shotgun with a rifle barrel underneath.
Some drillings even have game scenes carved on their stocks.
Versatile Chamber Insert
The 16-gauge Sauer also came with an extra “tool” many drilling users find handy in a truly all-around hunting gun, a chamber insert for firing small-bore rifle ammunition from one of the shotgun barrels. This one’s a .22 Magnum made by Krieghoff, with the .22 chamber offset so the firing pin will hit the rim. The gun’s scope, obviously, is already sighted-in with the centerfire rifle barrel, so the insert is adjusted to match the scope’s reticle through a couple of sliding wedges. It took about 15 shots to sight-in with Winchester hollowpoint and full metal jacket ammo, both grouping into about an inch at 50 yards. The insert is 22cm (about 8-5/8 inches) long, and the 45-grain HPs get about 1,400 fps and the 40-grain FMJs about 1,650, more than adequate for anything up to coyotes at 100 yards. With the insert in place I can quickly choose between shooting a centerfire rifle, shotgun or rimfire.
The other German solution for another, smaller round is a 4-barreled vierling, like a drilling but with a small-caliber barrel surrounded by the other three barrels. Often it’s a rimfire barrel, but the 5.6x35R (.22 Hornet) is also fairly popular. I’ve only handled a couple of vierlings, and to tell the truth can’t remember how the fire-control mechanisms worked. Most hunters prefer to limit themselves to two or three barrels.
The trigger controlling the rifle barrel is also usually single-set. Americans used to be fond of set triggers on muzzleloaders and the big single-shot cartridge rifles used to wipe out the buffalo, but these days we apparently prefer simple, single-pull triggers. I’ve grown accustomed to set triggers in the past decade of using drillings, however, and have them on some of my bolt rifles, the most recent a CZ 527 .17 Hornet, where the light-pull option makes hitting prairie dogs a lot easier from field positions.
Americans often hear the main reason for drillings in Germany and other central European countries is the restrictions on how many firearms a hunter can own. More than one European friend, however, has told me this isn’t necessarily so, since in most countries it’s relatively easy to own more than one hunting firearm. Instead, it’s due to the old tradition of shooting whatever game appears—and much of Europe still has a wide variety of game.
In some parts of the US a drilling would be fairly useless, since for some reason hunting seasons for different game aren’t open simultaneously. A friend in West Virginia once gave me a week-by-week of how the seasons “come in” and “go out” throughout the fall, and it made my head swim. Why not let somebody shoot a ruffed grouse while hunting deer?
Out here in the West, however, a drilling can come in pretty handy, either early in the rifle season for deer and elk when the chances for a buck or bull are slim, but we very well might run into a blue grouse, or when pheasant hunting on the prairie and a whitetail jumps from a buffalo-berry patch. In either case, a drilling doesn’t look nearly as traditional as a bolt-action .30-06 or a worn pumpgun, but for those of us who like to eat game instead of watch it fly or run off, a truly all-around gun works very well.
By John Barsness
P.O. Box 560746
Rockledge, FL 32956
100 Springdale Rd.
Westfield, MA 01085
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