How’d We Get From “Then” To “Now”?
by John Barsness
Many shotgunners believe the single sighting-plane of O/U guns allows more accurate pointing,
especially at longer ranges. This Beretta took this pair of white-fronted geese in Alberta.
In the beginning, shotgun actions were called locks. Eventually the flintlock made it practical to shoot flying birds by shortening “lock time.” That’s the interval between pulling the trigger and the bang. The flintlock is also why many shotgunners still consider side-by-side shotguns the classic form — and history is on their side.
Before self-contained cartridges appeared during the mid-19th century, a two-barreled muzzleloader was the only practical way to take a quick second shot at flying targets. Placing the barrels side-by-side was the most practical way to position a flintlock next to each barrel. After cartridges appeared, it turned out to be pretty easy to put a hinge under the barrels. That allowed loading shotshells into the chamber, while a latch at the rear of the barrels locked or unlocked things. All of this is why some purists even suggest double-barreled shotguns “need” two triggers, and a few even like outside hammers.
Shotguns have featured many different actions since self-contained cartridges were developed in the mid-1800s.
The four most popular today are (from top) pumps, semi-autos, over/unders and side-by-sides.
“OO” Or “8”?
New-fangled “hammerless” boxlock actions appeared in the 1870s, with hammers, firing pins and triggers contained inside a single block of steel. This eventually made it possible to tilt double-barrel orientation 90 degrees, creating over/under shotguns. Many shooters feel looking down the single sighting-plane of the top barrel allows more accurate shooting than the broad pair of side-by-side barrels. But O/U critics still occasionally comment side-by-sides are more “natural” because human eyes are oriented “OO,” not “8.”
Boxlock actions also resulted in single triggers on double-barreled shotguns. But, due to conservative classicists preferring side-by-sides, single triggers were primarily on over/unders. Newer shooters found it easier to pull the same trigger twice, rather than switch to the second trigger, but older shooters often preferred two triggers.
Before choke tubes appeared, doubles traditionally had a more open choke in one barrel, and a tighter choke in the other. Practiced two-trigger shooters can choose the appropriate barrel for a flying bird very quickly, but with a single trigger choosing the barrel was slower (using a “selector switch) or impossible.
The basic side-by-side break-action shotgun evolved from side-by-side flintlocks. Even today some
shotgunners prefer to use outside-hammer sidelock guns like the old Sauer, just for the fun of it.
Time to dig out Grandpa’s old shotgun!
Some shotgunners believe the traditional two-trigger side-by-side is the most practical bird gun.
Here’s an early Fox Sterlingworth 16, a classic example of the breed.
Despite over 150 years of evolution in break-action doubles, arguments still sometimes arise over the advantages of sidelock vs. boxlock actions. Some shooters claim trigger pulls on sidelocks are (or can be) much crisper, but on good guns I’ve never noticed any practical difference. Perhaps the biggest advantage of sidelock triggers are the “intercepting” secondary sears common on better sidelocks. Both primary and secondary sears move out of the way only when the triggers are actually pulled, so supposedly are safer. But, some boxlocks have intercepting sears as well. Plus, as somebody once noted, shotgun safety lies mostly between the shooter’s ears, rather than in intercepting sears.
Some double-gun addicts still suggest side-by-sides work better in small duck blinds than over/unders because they don’t have to be opened as widely to be reloaded. There’s some truth to this, but many (if not most) waterfowlers solved the problem long ago by switching to repeating shotguns — another evolutionary step made possible by self-contained cartridges.
Beyond Twin Tubes
Repeating shotguns are built on all the actions used on rifles. Often condemned as inventions of the devil by 19th-century sporting gentlemen who considered double-barrels the only acceptable shotguns, repeaters became popular anyway, especially among people who might require more than two quick shots. It should also be noted many British wingshooters used servants to quickly reload a “matched pair” of doubles, so sporting gentlemen could keep shooting quickly as driven grouse and pheasants passed overhead.
Lever, and especially bolt-action shotguns, are too slow for most bird and clay-target shooting. Having said that, when I was kid, a neighbor did all his wingshooting with a bolt-action Marlin and once got a triple on pheasants in one go. But, these days, most bolt-action “shotguns” have rifled bores for shooting slugs at big game — perhaps their highest and best use.
The Peoples’ Pump
While still common, pumps used to be far more popular back when lightweight, reliable semi-auto shotguns were uncommon. It takes a lot of abuse to keep a pump from working, and a real pumpgunner can shoot one as fast or faster than some semi-autos. Plus, shoving the fore-end forward can help get on target quickly after recoil.
Strange as it might seem to double addicts, at one time some pumps were considered pretty elegant shotguns, especially “classics” like the Ithaca Model 37 and Winchester Model 12. But today the pump’s major advantage is price. I started shooting pump-action shotguns primarily due to economics a few years after my wingshooting career began with grandpa’s Stevens side-by-side.
Plenty of shooters cut their early teeth on bolt action shotguns like this “Montgomery Wards” model.
The Rossi “Coach” gun with external hammers is finding a new life in home defense roles. Note the two
triggers. Sometimes modest old guns are still plenty useful.
Today probably the most popular all-around shotgun action in North America is the semi-auto, regardless of the use. In the past many semi-autos were criticized for being heavy, hard-kicking, butt-ugly and unreliable. This imposing list has certainly changed over the past quarter-century, even if some admirers of double-barreled shotguns consider any repeater as aesthetically pleasing as a post-hole digger.
Before WWII, recoil-operated shotguns were the only option, using the gun’s kick to work the action. Many were indeed heavy, hard-kicking and as attractive as a post-hole digger — but they were reliable.
The reputation for semi-auto unreliability arose after WWII, when gas-operated guns were introduced. These actions — like the Garand military rifle — diverted powder gas to work the action. Some early gas shotguns jammed frequently, even when well-maintained, but today’s can stand a lot of abuse thanks to better engineering. They also noticeably reduce felt recoil due to spreading the impulse over several more micro-seconds.
Gas-operated shotguns are particularly popular among people who shoot lots of rounds, whether competitors or hunters after crop-damaging doves and pigeons. However, many of today’s recoil-operated guns incorporate well-designed recoil-softening systems. I’ve shot hundreds of pretty stout rounds in a day from a Benelli Ethos 12-gauge without my shoulder getting sore.
The least popular type of shotgun is the break-action single-shot, because they’re not really practical for wingshooting or self-defense, except in a pinch. They are used for some clay-bird games and also work fine as slug-guns for non-dangerous big game. My wife Eileen uses a Harrington & Richardson 20-gauge for deer hunting in a local public area where rifles are banned due to close population areas.
Today’s variety of shotgun actions not only provides plenty of choices, but plenty of the debating points essential to some shooters’ psyches. Serious shotgunners are at least as contentious as handgunners and rifle shooters, especially concerning esthetics. That’s the reason some double-gun shooters look down on bird hunters who use those “blasted modern repeaters.”
Of course, some pump-gunners look down on double-gun snobs because they’re, well, snobs. Luckily, in America we can still buy whatever kind of shotgun makes us happy, even if it makes other shooters a little grumpy. Me? Unless you use a flintlock side-by-side, you’re cheating.