There was a time – not that long ago – when many thought the ideal game-gun had to be a lightweight one. Now the trend in the UK is towards ever longer and heavier shotguns in both 12- and 20-bore. Has this gone too far? Are British game-shooters too influenced by the clay-shooting experience and their often unfulfilled dreams of bringing down extreme birds?
Let me pin my colours to the mast. I use, predominantly, long (32in-barrelled), heavyish (7lb plus), 20-bore game-guns for routine driven work. Occasionally, I will pick up a normal-weight, 28in or 30in, 12-bore side-by-side for fun. I believe, however, that the lightweight and ultralight gun – which we might define as a gun at 61⁄4lb or less – does still have a place in modern shooting, most obviously, but not exclusively, when walking-up.
I had an illuminating experience some while back during a simulated driven day in preparation for last season at Firle Place in East Sussex. To add to the interest of these amiable proceedings, I used a variety of guns for comparison including a 71⁄2lb semi-auto (which would not have normally been welcome on a game-shoot, of course) and a vintage hammergun. Most surprisingly – to me
at least because I normally shoot quite well with my “bank robber’s” gun – I shot more birds, faster with a 61⁄2lb 1868 non-ejector underlever, half-cock Joe Lang than with my trusty ol’ Beretta repeater (which has, nevertheless accounted for tens of thousands of pigeon, live and artificial).
It was not that I was missing many birds – though I missed a few – it was a question of how many got away when the heavy, long gun just could not be raised in time or, on some occasions, that it could not be pushed through the flight-line fast enough. Normally, when shooting live quarry, one is too preoccupied really to notice subtleties of gun dynamics. On this fun day, with hundreds of artificial birds being presented, there was the chance for self-observation and experiment. Whatever other factors may have been involved (such as speed of loading), gun weight was a major issue when the sky was filled with birds and the muscles started tiring mid-drive. The heavy gun became an evident impediment.
My conclusion was that much above 7lb is simply too heavy for high-volume driven shooting (and that lighter guns might be especially useful for double-gunning). This was a useful revelation. I had a similar one about excessive stock length a few years back (as I had had about barrel weight previously on heavy, high-bird guns). The potential impediment of excess overall weight was much greater than I had previously realised, however. This still leaves the question concerning the role and utility of the truly lightweight gun unanswered. Perhaps a little history will help in its further consideration.
Gun weight is much subject to fashion. Most early-19th-century muzzle-loading fowling pieces intended for walking-up over dogs – then the norm – are very handy when you pick them up. Most are lighter than you might think as, indeed, are some of the earliest (circa 1700), very long-barrelled guns intended for shooting flying. As double-barrelled guns and, soon after, breechloaders developed and became the norm from the mid 19th century, game-gun weight tended to increase. From 1860 to 1900 the typical weight of a 12-bore double gun was about 7lb and the typical barrel length 30in. (Interestingly, both weight and length are at or near the modern norm.)
There were exceptions. There was a Victorian fad for lightweight guns. Thomas Turner made some efficient 12-bores a smidgen over 5lb. I own one of 1880s vintage with 28in Damascus barrels. It points well, shoots admirably and feels stable on mounting or firing (though it kicks a little more than the norm, if not excessively). Other Victorian makers experimented with weight reduction. My friend Diggory Hadoke mentioned a similarly positive experience with a 51⁄2lb Morrow (of Halifax), and also noted a contrastingly negative one with a 30in, 6lb Lancaster “wrist-breaker” that “kicked like mule and jumped all over the place”. These experiences prompt the question: why do some lightweight guns seem to work and others not? A little more history first.
From the dawn of the new (20th) century, a real rage began for lightweight game-guns with shorter barrels. Lancaster and Grant both built “12-20s” hovering around 6lb. Charles Hellis built “Featherweight” boxlocks and sidelocks. And, most famously, Robert Churchill developed his short and relatively light 25in-barrelled XXVs. They kept on selling quite well until the Seventies (AyA had particular success with the pattern). In re-action to the commercial success of the XXV – and there was much argument about it at the time between the sporting Majors Pollard and Burrard – Holland
 & Holland introduced its 261⁄2in Brevis model, and both Purdey and Boss made lighter guns (which, like the H&H Brevis, are not as popular with the market today as their traditionally weighted ones). Gradually, however, the ideal weight of side-by-side 12-bore game-gun settled at about 61⁄2lb to 63⁄4lb. This still holds largely true as far as bespoke guns are concerned – machine-made ones tend be a little heavier.
Lightweight 12-bores with 2in chambers had a following in the first half of the 20th century (though the “Pygmy” cartridge is a Victorian invention) and were marginally more successful than the wonderfully exotic Cogswell & Harrison 143⁄4-bore (a lighter gun once touted as the ideal by its maker). I know one excellent shot who used a pair of 2in guns for normal driven work – the late Michael Clark of Braxted Park, who went over to them towards the end of his life. His guns were a composed pair of Holland Dominions (H&H made quite a few 2in guns) and had 28in barrels and weighed in at or just under the 6lb mark (many 2in guns were built lighter). They appeared to suit him exceptionally well and he set an extremely high standard.
After the Second World War lighter guns with shorter barrels remained popular. In the Sixties most 12-bore game-guns tended to have barrels between 25in and 28in and weigh well under 7lb. There was a brief vogue for 27in, which might have been considered commercially ideal in the Seventies. Even as late as the Nineties and, to a degree, post-millennium, some best London makers continued making wand-like small bores with shortish barrels. They looked good and felt nimble “dry”, but they were pretty useless in the field (uncontrollable, heavy-recoiling, potentially fragile).
In recent years, game-guns have tended to get longer and heavier. But a niche market for lighter guns seems to have developed again. Browning, Beretta, Rizzini, Fausti, Guerini and several others now have lightweight model over-and-under 12-bores built on alloy actions (usually incorporating a steel or ti-tanium reinforcing strip on the action face). These guns tend to be rather barrel-heavy and, typically, weigh just over 6lb. They are especially popular on the Continent and in Ireland (where a lot of game is still walked-up). Lightweight smallbores are also increasingly popular with serious upland hunters in the US; 20-bores, 28-bores and even .410s are frequently seen on quail plantations, too.
For walked-up work the lightweight gun still reigns supreme and, frankly, I don’t think the bore size is of much consequence, nor is the barrel configuration. Length is another matter. My preference would be a 16-, 20- or 28-bore with 30in barrels and a weight of about 6lb to 61⁄4lb. What about 12-bores? The sort of alloy-actioned guns mentioned above can certainly be useful for walked-up grouse and woodcock on these isles. I would, however, prefer either an over-and-under 20- or 28-bore based on a steel action, or a light, quality side-by-side of traditional form.
I bought a best boxlock 12-bore with 26in barrels recently. It weighs just over 6lb and handles well with a semi-pistol grip (which helps to control it). Though otherwise “as new”, the barrels are dented, having been made relatively thin to achieve the weight. This is a potential disadvantage of some English lightweight guns. A 16-bore, on the other hand, may provide a route to a gun made with both strong barrels and a strong breech and still tip the scales at around 6lb. Food for thought.
A good lightweight gun has other essential or useful characteristics. Longer (but not ex-cessively heavy) barrels promote control and reduce flip. The efficiency of the grip and fore-end shape is critical (because the hands take so much recoil). The stock geometry must be right, with a comb that is well shaped and not too steeply angled. I think a slab-sided stock without proper taper is less comfortable than a rounded one (my light Joseph Lang – which does not kick much and mounts beautifully – has a lovely bow to the sides of the stock, a rounded full comb, and a good taper to the butt). My Turner has a very cleverly conceived stock as well, with a particularly good butt sole shape.
Another important issue is the way the gun is chambered and rimmed. A lightweight gun must not have excessive head space and the cartridges must not be loose in the chambers, otherwise there will be more felt recoil. Lighter payload cartridges are noted as important by some – but I am not really concerned about that when firing only a dozen shots in a day. There are paradoxes, too. I have shot well, for example, with a cheap little 28in-barrel, fixed-choke Lincoln 20-bore weighing 6lb – better than with some much heavier and longer-barrelled, if less well-conceived, 12s and 20s. Lightweight guns certainly have their uses, but the specification must be just right. As weight decreases, all the subtle variables become more important.
Let me conclude with the practical. Ultra-light guns were traditionally bought for young shooters, yet there are few worse guns – from a shooting point of view – than a folding single- or double-barrel .410. Typically, they have poor shapes, no rib and a terrible trigger pull or pulls. If you buy a gun for a young person it should be a shorter, higher-stocked, lighter version of something that you could shoot well yourself (a Lincoln or Rottweil 28- or 20- bore over-and-under would usually be my call, or a Webley bolt-action .410 for younger kids). Women are often given guns that are too light. I know of several who have struggled with sub-6lb, short-barrelled smallbore side-by-sides before excelling with a basic Beretta or Browning 20.
Finally, here is a tip when it comes to shooting the light guns: they often require more effort. Quick to start and quick to stop – that is the essential issue and potential problem (as well as the recoil). Some people buy light guns because they think that they need to speed up. They are often mistaken – and the lighter gun just makes things worse, increasing a tendency to slash wildly at the bird without due regard for line or a strategy for lead. The properly conceived lightweight, however, has its applications and can be a joy both to shoot and carry. Don’t buy one without a bit of thought and, preferably, a trial – some guns are much better than others.