The Many Reasons to Avoid Over / Under Shotguns

A lot of people write suggesting that they want an Over / Under shotgun. Many don't know why, exactly, except that they've been told that they are a good idea. Well, we all "like what we like" of course: some people prefer apple pie to cherry, and vice-versa. I like them both. There are fundamental issues, if not "problems" with stackbarrel shotguns that are rarely discussed. Perhaps it is time, maybe well past-time, to take a look why a double-barrel shotgun may not be a good choice for you-- or, perhaps not the best one.


No matter what double-barrel shotgun is under consideration, none of them shoot to the same point of impact at all ranges. They never have, and they never will. Whether a side by side or an Over / Under, the barrels are of course not parallel, but set so as to converge their patterns at some imaginary point downrange. Some current models are close, many are not so close. Fortunately for many cheap O/U sellers, most of us never bother to pattern anyway-- so, no one will ever know. Barrel convergence, even if precisely set at a known distance, can never be more than an approximation. Change pellet size in your shotshell, change the pellet density, change the muzzle velocity-the exterior ballistics of your patterns change in concert, for better or for worse. If we always shot the same shell at a target at the same range, it wouldn't matter greatly assuming our shotguns were regulated at that range and with that shell. They aren't of course, so that's where built in pointing error creeps in. Double rifles fail as long range hunting tools for similar reasons.


There is no doubt that a fixed breech shotgun pounds you harder than any other. There is nothing about the action to possibly absorb recoil, lengthen its pulse, or take the edge off of it in any way. Rather than the standard 1-1/8 oz. load, 1 oz. and even 7/8 oz. 12 gauge loads have found favor. It isn't because they are better shells; they are far worse. As pellet count goes down, you either have a thinner pattern or a smaller effective pattern, or a bit of both. The only reason to use less than 1-1/8 oz. load in a 12 gauge is because you can't take the pounding. A lot of people can't, and won't. Rather than take the pain, they settle for less pattern. I can't say I blame them.


You might be surprised at the notion that O/U's can be clumsy to use; that goes against the marketing hyperbole that suggests O/U's are automatically wondrous handling guns. Naturally, like most ad-brags, this is hardly a universal truth. It may be very far from it.

Guns that have to be broken in half to load can be ponderous and clumsy in a duck blind and horribly slow to load in the dove field. It is no fun to have to move levers with frozen or wet hands, and it is far quicker (if not more elegant) to seamlessly, continuously feed shells into the bottom of a pump or semi-auto when doves are flying in, fast and thick, than to stop to break a gun in half.

Part of the ponderousness of stackbarrels is a function of no-tox loads and screw-chokes. Steel shot produces far more stress on the muzzles of guns than lead. So much so, that the CIP has introduced new standards for shotguns to bear a "Steel Shot Proof" mark. It has had the result of enforcing thicker, stronger, and heavier barrels than ever before. Naturally, the extra barrel mass rears its head not once, but twice in double guns. The touted liveliness of the older, short range game guns is largely gone in steel proof screw-choked barrels-- and it is unlikely to return. To get the balance back, one way is to remove a barrel. Though dedicated single shot trap guns have their following, the single shot field skeet, sporting clays, and field guns have either no or low appeal. It is far easier to reduce the weight of magazine tubes and receivers in pump and semi-auto repeater than to fight with double barrels, although there are "super-light" O/U's out there that make heavy barrels seem heavier, and increase recoil to another level of discomfort.


Some may balk at the notion of reliability problems in a double gun, but it is nothing new. All firearms wear and require maintenance. Galling wear of an O/U receiver is a certainly without lubrication, and you of course have a more complicated trigger mechanism (that may or may not have equal trigger breaks) and two firing pins to break, not one. Krieghoff makes some beautiful shotguns, as most are aware. The annual service fee as of this writing for a K-80 is $225; for a K-32 it is $295-- parts not included, shipping not included.

If you own a Krieghoff, it may well be one of the best investments you can make to protect your investment and insure reliability. Most shooters are not completely comfortable with "checking the gun for headspace, overcock, proper tolerances of sears, ejectors and hammers and complete disassembly and replacement of springs as needed throughout the receiver and forend iron." Few, if any, are capable of a "full rebuild" including headspacing by redoing the trunnions, TIG-welding the monoblock, rebluing, then refitting the barrels to the action. While few (if any) value O/U's are worth rebuilding, a Krieghoff is. It takes far more than casual use to wear one significantly, of course, but even the annual maintenance fees are more than many shooters feel their shotguns are worth. Often, double barrels get scant little maintenance at all.

By contrast, most pump-actions and gas autos are simplistic to maintain. I've put 100K though a B-80 with no major parts replacement, and there are many examples of 870's, BPS's, 390's, Browning Golds, and A-5's out there with no more maintenance than the usual springs, bushings, and perhaps (in the case of an A-5) a couple of bronze friction piece replacements. As a practical matter, no fundamentally sound shotgun is any better than the appropriate maintenance it sees or the quality of the ammo you feed it. As it is easier and cheaper to keep many pumps and semi-autos running well than doubles: many of them are more reliable due to cost and convenience of maintenance alone.


The third shot may not be of any importance in clays games to you when limited to two, but it is far easier to drop three doves with three shots than with two. "Two-fers" happen of course, but they happen just as often with semi-autos as doubles. The nut behind the butt accounts for a lot of things, but the appeal of the two-shot lever action, the two shot revolver, and the two shot bolt-action rifle remains at nil. It shouldn't be any surprise that the shot capability found to be of great value in all other sporting arms suddenly vanishes when wingshooting is the subject matter rather than larger game.


Although "accuracy" is not generally thought of the same way when pointing patterns on birds rather than putting cross-hairs on game, real-world accuracy comprises many factors. The single sighting plane of a pump or semi-auto has the same benefit as the O/U does compared to the side by side. Not only may barrel convergence be an issue, but the recoil pulse is also. As long as we put stocks beneath barrels, they tend to recoil up. Two barrels on different planes won't have the same recoil feel; the "over" barrel wants to shoot high as is, and results in more muzzle flip because of geometry. A double barrel cannot shoot identically from first to second shot, and it doesn't. Nor should it; we are using a different trigger and a different barrel entirely.

How much that really means to you is up to you, of course. It means a lot to competitors, where the side by side has won nothing for many years. For a long while, gas semi-autos were ignored a bit-- until sporting clays enthusiasts began shooting them, and winning with them. Part of this phenomenon is accredited to Beretta, a very old company, not deciding to manufacture complete firearms until the mid-1800's after selling barrels to Napoleon. Beretta's entry into competition shotguns is a fairly recent development, some time in the mid-1980's. As the Remington 1100 was to skeet, Beretta became to sporting clays along with Browning.

It takes recovery from recoil to accurately get on the next bird, one of the reasons Benelli short-recoil actions are seldom seen on the clays courses. It means increasingly more in high volume shooting, such as dove, or when payloads are upped for pheasant and waterfowl. Though accuracy is combinatorial, there are enough quantifiable factors to make both pumps and semi-autos easier to shoot more accurately than doubles for many shooters.


Weight is not what many people seem to think, apparently. Many, many "popular" double guns tip the scales at or over 8 pounds. In fact, the lighter doubles see some criticism for being too painful to shoot to hit the clays courses with regularity. Gauge of the gun defines no particular weight, either. Sure, there are whippy, flyweight 20 and 28 gauges out there as well-- one of the reasons that your 20 gauge double can pound you into the ground like a tent stake with peppier loads, resulting in far more punishment than a more substantial 12 gauge. Some of the "joy to carry" guns are tragically uncomfortable to shoot. Light weight has its appeal, of course, but that can be found regardless of action type. A new Browning Silver 20 gauge gas semi-auto is a 6-1/2 pound gun, more or less. A day of one ounce loads dove hunting won't wear me out with it, but with a double of similar weight it will, and has. There is a reason that some dainty doubles have garish slip-on recoil pads sheepishly applied just so the shooter can make it through the next round of skeet . . . they need it. Certainly, super-light, whippy guns can be found regardless of action type-- Benelli Ultra Light driving down to nearly six pounds in 12 ga., and five pounds and change in 20 gauge. It is the opposite of smooth swinging and comfortable shooting, as far as I'm concerned-- though you may have a different opinion about modern physics. Ad-copy certainly does; as we have reduced felt recoil by 53% for so many consecutive years with just recoil pads by now, that we should be careful not to get sucked downrange by the reverse thrust generated mathematically, if not in actuality, by the wonders of the marketing. In any case, preferable scattergun weight will always be a personal choice. What isn't a choice is recoil increase per pound of weight reduction-- where fixed breech guns invariable lose.


Mid-range quality O/U's (Beretta / Browning) cost more than their pump competition by a lot, and still significantly more than many very good mid-range semi-autos from the same makers. Pump-actions not conducive to volume production have long ago left us (Model 12, Model 31) and pricing pressure forced the demise of the B-2000, and eventually even the A-5 succumbed-- though some of us still wonder if that wasn't a bit premature. Nevertheless, a family can be outfitted with 870's and BPS's for a fraction of the cost of quality O/U models, and gas-autos are available that are comfortable enough to shoot to entice Mom and lighter-framed shooters into the game as well; a very good thing still at a far more attractive price point than the better doubles.

Shotgun choice remains personal preference and a matter of taste, like most things. Before we jump to the conclusion that a double is invariably the right choice for all applications and all seasons, we might want to consider that for many it is just not all that desirable for the considerations stated here.

Copyright 2008 by Randy Wakeman. All Rights Reserved.



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