Often considered a ‘traditional’ sporting weapon, a relic from a previous era, the side-by-side still has plenty to offer the modern gun, says Michael Yardley – once you’ve busted the myths
The side-by-side shotgun should not be consigned to the history books, argues Michael Yardley. Though the ‘traditional’ sporting weapon, it has much to offer the modern gun.
The question of side-by-side or over-and-under is no longer a choice between tradition and modernity. So, which should you choose? We consider the age-old debate in over and under or side by side?
THE SIDE-BY-SIDE SHOTGUN
There are many guns who, like me, still love side-by-sides; indeed, the sporting gun juxtaposée is enjoying something of a renaissance. I am biased, I have used one all my life, beginning both game and clay shooting with a side-by-side. These days, I use one pigeon shooting and enjoy breaking clays with old Lang and Holland hammer guns (I have to confess to going over to the ‘dark side’ – over-and-unders – for much, not all, of my game shooting).
A lot of misunderstanding and myth surrounds side-by-sides. So, let’s dispel some of it and note a little history. Side-by-sides may be the ‘traditional’ gun but they are a more recent invention than the over-and-under, which has been around for the best part of 500 years. Side-by-sides appeared circa 1725, made possible by flintlock ignition and practical by improvements in propellant and breeching. The first British gun was made about 1750 by Griffin of Bond Street. Towards the end of the 18th century, side-by-side design was much advanced by London makers such as Durs Egg and Henry Nock. Joe Manton (1766-1835) went on to refine mechanisms, stock work and dynamic handling qualities, establishing configuration and form that have been little improved since.
The side-by-side developed into a breech-loader mid 19th century, initially as a pin-fire gun, as exhibited by Casimir Lefaucheux at the Great Exhibition in 1851, then a centre-fire gun as offered by Charles Lancaster with his ‘base-fire’ (detonating compound was placed under a perforated copper disc to the rear of a rimless case rather than in a central cap). Schneider improved the cartridge and Eley, after much legal wrangling, perfected it. The hammerless double gun itself was perfected by Anson & Deeley in ‘boxlock’ (main components within the box of the action) guise circa 1875 and by Purdey and Holland & Holland as a sidelock (the Purdey design based on Frederick Beesely 1880 patent).
The side-by-side developed in two notable forms in the second half of the 19th century: the lighter game gun (often used in pairs) dedicated to the new sport of battue (driven game) shooting; and the heavier ‘pigeon’ gun, dedicated to competition. The latter activity in the 1880s and ’90s was much like the modern Formula 1 circus. It spurred intense development because of inter-maker rivalry, the vast monies wagered and ‘Grand Prix’ on offer at Monte Carlo and elsewhere. Single trigger, choke and rib development all owe much to pigeon shooting (as does clay shooting, which gets much of its layout and terminology from the older sport).
Over-and-unders were not perfected in breech-loading form until the era just before and after World War I, with the advent of Boss, Woodward and Browning designs (although there were some combination guns before that). The over-and-under offered the advantage of a single sighting plane but the mechanism tended to be more complex and the guns heavier. This is still true today, the average side-by-side 12-bore weighing 6½lb to 7¼lb and an over-and-under about a pound more.
Side-by-sides and over-and-unders have noticeably different handling characteristics. We have noted the weight but there are significant differences in typical stock shape, too. In simple terms, side-by-sides usually have thinner butts (and notably combs) than over-and-unders and smaller fore-ends. They may be made with straighthand grips or in other patterns, from Prince of Wales to full pistol. They tend to be harder to hold onto securely than over-and-unders, often providing less hand purchase (made worse if the grip has been refinished frequently). Because of the lighter weight and the torque effect of having one barrel on either side of the central axis, they may be harder to control in recoil.
Side-by-sides may be less pointable than stack-barrelled guns with a raised sighting rib but they can be faster handling. They also have the advantage of significantly faster loading than most over-and-unders because of better gape. For some shots, the top plane of the two barrels may be a sighting advantage when seeking to follow line.
THE ART OF SHOOTING A SIDE-BY-SIDE
Side-by-sides are generally considered more difficult to shoot well as they require more control. However, the art of shooting is not an exact one. I once won the British Side-by-Side Championship with a relatively light Joseph Lang, non-rebounding lock hammer gun re-sleeved to 28in against more modern guns. That old Lang just works. It has wonderful stock shapes – fuller than the modern norm and similar to many modern over-and-unders in comb width (but with improved elegance and ergonomic taper). Similarly, I have a relatively light 30in Holland & Holland 16-bore hammer gun that has served well competitively. Its longer, damascus barrels seem to suit.
I have a 30in Webley 700 pigeon gun, too, made with tight chokes and a wide, file-cut pigeon rib and weighing more than most 700s. It was built to order as a copy of Percy Stanbury’s once famous side-by-side for a client of his. I had the gun restocked by Manuel Ricardo in Portugal with a full comb, subtly swollen and tapered, similar in shape to a Purdey pigeon gun. It keeps up with the over-and-unders.
All my guns have double triggers. Some people struggle with them but, contrary to popular opinion, there is no need to move the hand between shots if the triggers and grip are well designed. A straight-hand grip is not essential, although they can work well (especially the Holland diamond shape). A Prince of Wales or semi-pistol grip especially suits a side-by-side. Personally, I would not usually opt for a full grip even with a single trigger. My ideal modern spec would include 30in barrels, 2¾in chambers, a straight or semi-pistol grip, a raised rib and overall weight around 7lb. Thirty-inch barrels would always be my preference on a 20 or 16. With 12-bores, it depends on the gun; barrels must remain lively and not be too heavy or light. On modern guns, multichokes and the thickening of barrels to accommodate them can increase forward weight, although some modern multichokes work well.
Side-by-sides are less forgiving than over-and-unders. To use one well requires not just the right gun but good technique and practice. Mounting must be perfected. One needs to use the front arm and hand effectively. The swing must be generated predominantly through body movement, not just the arms. One must not lift the head from the stock prematurely (as is easier to do). Short-barrelled guns may require more perceived lead in some circumstances. With most light and mid-weight guns think: quick to start – quick to stop. Longer, heavier guns may require extra ‘push’ to finish the shot properly.
Careful cartridge selection is critical as excessive recoil can disrupt the second shot. My own preference is 24gm 7½s for clay shooting (I am especially fond of Express Super Light in this payload). For game shooting, I favour an ounce (28gm) of 5 shot. A friend has been experimenting with an ounce of 4s with good result. I would not normally exceed 1¹/18oz. With regard to steel, standard steel has become much better in recent years. Choke should not exceed half and I would avoid the use of steel loads in guns with thin barrels (if in doubt, get them checked by a gunsmith; side-by-sides usually have thinner barrel walls than over-and-unders; be especially aware of this if buying second-hand).
THE IMPORTANCE OF GUN FIT
Gun fit is more critical in a side-by-side (and, typically, easier to adjust). I prefer stocks with fuller combs, as mentioned. The butt sole should also be wide and deep enough to support well and distribute recoil comfortably. There is nothing wrong with a good splinter fore-end – it brings the hand closer to the barrel increasing a sense of ‘oneness’ with the gun, but many competitive side-by-side shots and pigeon shooters prefer a beaver-tail fore-end. They should not be too wide or deep.
Many side-by-sides are too low in the comb. I usually prefer a side-by-side a little higher in the comb than an over-and-under (about ⅛in). First, because stock combs on side-by-sides tend to be thinner, as discussed, but also, all other things being equal, because side-by-sides may flex in recoil (both in the action table, the grip and possibly the barrels themselves). I also tend to put a little more cast on my sides than my over-and-unders (on the latter, cast always wants to be used sparingly, otherwise the guns will shoulder awkwardly and feel unpleasant in recoil).
A side-by-side stock wants to be a little longer than an over-and-under (the extra length stabilises it). How much? Usually about a ¼in for a single trigger and ½in for a double trigger gun (I also like a definite ‘bump’ on the stock sole just below the heel to prevent the gun slipping in recoil). I am not a fan of single triggers on bench-made side-by-sides as even the best tend to be unreliable (because they are surrounded by wood, which may move). Single triggers on machine-made, more over-and-under-like side-by-sides can, however, work well.
Does the side-by-side have any other advantage? Side-by-sides are especially good for walking up. They are lighter, if well selected for the application, and faster and easier to reload. As far as driven shooting is concerned, they come into their own on grouse and classic partridge shoots. On the aesthetic front, it is a no contest. Side-by-sides look much more elegant, more svelte, than other guns. And they can still be a great bargain on the second-hand market (but beware of duff barrels and cracked stocks).
Side-by-sides also seem to promote a different attitude in their users, dare one say a more gentlemanly one? When you take out a side-by-side today it is not all about numbers or self. It is a statement of your sporting ethic. It is about putting the enjoyment of the day first. Of course, you can be a sportsman with any gun but side-by-sides seem to promote all the good stuff. They require dedication to shoot really well. There is enormous enjoyment to be derived from both using and exploring them.
Michael Yardley is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Shooting Instructors and a former British Side-by-Side Champion.