Light guns were once the height of sporting fashion, as were guns with short barrels. Today the pendulum has swung, at least as far as new 12- and 20-bore game-guns are concerned, where heavier, longer-barrelled guns are desirable. Now, 30in over-and-unders weighing 7½lb or more are commonplace, 32in-barrelled, 8lb Long Toms are routinely encountered on serious high-pheasant shoots and 34in-barrelled behemoths are seen on occasion.
Are we missing something in our quest for extreme sport and the perfection of specialist tools intended for it? Are too many people victims of fashion and over-gunned as a result? The simple answer is yes, but there are complications. I know of light, short-barrelled guns and much heavier Long Toms that, practically speaking, “do the business”.
I must confess that I routinely use a 7lb 3oz, 32in 20-bore Guerini for ordinary driven-shooting and I’ve been very satisfied with it. The Guerini is pointable, and its weight allows me to use 30g cartridges – a payload typical of a 12-bore – without any discomfort. I also use a 6lb 8oz, 30in-barrelled, Beretta 28-bore with good results and stuff it with 28g cartridges. Both guns work – the most important quality of any sporting firearm in the field.
Victor Chapman, a gun dealer and accomplished game-shot, uses two pigeon-ribbed, 6lb 12oz, 20-bore side-by-sides with great success, one by Bosis, the other an Arietta. I mention them because they represent a trend towards longer, significantly heavier small-bores which is evident among many serious shots. He also uses a pigeon-ribbed, heavier- than-average .410 most expertly.
BIGGER, BUT BETTER?
In Britain at least, game-guns of all bores seem to be getting heavier and longer. Modern British game-shooting may have been excessively influenced by clay-pigeon shooting. Long-barrelled over-and-unders such as the Perazzi, Kemen and Miroku were developed to break rangy clays in ever tougher sporting competition. Heavy, side-by-side pigeon guns have also found a new “extreme” live-quarry application. These really big guns (and I make distinction between the 7lb-ish norm and the 8lb-plus super guns) do suit some sportsmen, but most people are still best served by mid-weight, 28in or 30in guns in 12-bore for general use because they swing more easily.
More than a few use heavy, long-barrelled guns for the wrong reasons. One can delude oneself into thinking bigger must be better. People used to brag about using long skis as an indication of expertise – it can be the same with guns. The problem, as it was on the piste, is that only those with the requisite skill can make the best use of the length. Excessive overall weight and excessive barrel length can be real impediments to performance. We are not all built like George Digweed, nor do we have his extraordinary ability.
There are other factors to consider. It is difficult to make a steel-actioned, machine-made, multi-choked, 12-bore over-and-under that weighs much under 7lb. Mass-produced over-and-unders are necessarily a bit weighty if they are manufactured at reasonable cost, yet tens of thousands are in use. Nearly all of them tend to be chunky as judged by traditional British standards, and the majority feel less than lively in the hand.
The difficulty in manufacturing svelte, stack-barrelled guns by machine may account for the increased popularity of the 20-bore. A 30in-barrelled 20-bore over-and-under may be had that weighs and feels not unlike a classic London side-by-side game-gun. Such guns also look stylish and they work. Indeed, few would go wrong if they bought a Beretta Silver Pigeon 20 or Guerini weighing in around the 6½lb to 6¾lb mark with 30in tubes for general field use. These guns are well priced and well balanced and they really perform.
My own experiments have proved to me that ultra-light guns (those weighing under 6¼lb in 12-bore) tend to be uncontrollable and painful to use even with lighter loads. I also have a prejudice against over-and-under guns with alloy actions. Their handling qualities are spoilt because too much weight is taken from the critical central area, so there is not enough weight between the hands.
This brings us on to another vital consideration – barrel weight. The problem with many mass-produced 12-bore over-and-unders for game-shooting is that their barrels tend to be too heavy (often a consequence of litigation-wary manu-facturers erring on the side of caution regarding barrel wall thickness in multi-choke guns). Best British guns earned their reputation for handling well mostly because they had thin, hand-struck barrels. The barrels of a game-gun need to be quite lively – especially towards the muzzles. The user needs to be encouraged to swing well with minimum effort.
Barrels can be too light as well as too heavy. Some extremely expensive, bespoke small-bores, created with supreme artisan skill, are far too light in their tubes to be used effectively. The worst offenders are often delightful looking, dainty 5lb to 5½lb .410s and 28s with 26in or 28in barrels. They dart all over the sky when you bring them up outside the confines of a gunroom and, as with most very light guns, the danger is that you will rush to a stop.
I do not disparage all light guns, however. I once owned a 12-bore Beretta Essential, notable for the absence of joining ribs on its barrels. The reduced barrel weight made it lively without being wild. Equipped with two Seminole “spreader” choke tubes, it was the easiest gun with which to shoot game at average ranges that I had ever owned. I used it for teaching and lending to friends who needed encouragement.
I am the proud owner of a Joseph Lang hammergun of about 1870 with non-rebounding locks and (replaced) 28in barrels. Though it hits the scales at under 6¾lb, I won the British Side-by-Side Championship with it a few years back, beating many more modern but heavier hammerless guns. My 30in Holland 16-bore hammergun, weighing almost exactly 6lb, has been unbeaten in its class for six years at the same event. I also have an 1880s 5lb 11oz Turner lightweight boxlock with original 28in Damascus barrels. It works at its weight because every part complements another. I have been impressed with the 28in fixed-choke Beretta Silver Pigeon 20-bores and similar guns by other Italian makers, too.
A GOOD BALANCE
My usual recommendation in 20 and 28s is for the 30in multi-choke models but light guns in the range 5¾lb to 6lb can have a special charm if well conceived. My preference, because they feel a little steadier, is for machine-made small-bores – these tend to have a little more meat in the barrels.
In conclusion, barrel weight and weight distribution are as important as overall weight. The light gun can be a delight to use if well designed and well matched to its cartridge. My advice for general shooting would be for 28in-barrelled side-by-sides weighing about 6lb 8oz or a well-balanced gun of 7lb with 29in or 30in tubes. For over-and-unders, a 28in 12-bore around the 7lb mark would be ideal, a few ounces more in 30in form. Twenty-bores might be promoted at the same weights with longer, more pointable barrels if they are to use similar payloads. Just avoid the silly extremes.
Read more on using big artillery.
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