The Mystery of the Over/Under Shotgun

About four years ago, I published an article titled “Reasons to Avoid Over/Under Shotguns.” That generated a fair share of hate mail, but only because folks didn't bother to read the sister article, “The Many Reasons to Buy an Over/Under Shotgun.” There are fact-based reasons both pro and con. A lot of the discussion isn't really an exchange of ideas at all. It is the “Romance of the Gun.”

The "romance of the gun" is an interesting phenomenon. Most of the things we buy and use don't have any thirty or fifty year track record. Not our phones, computers, power tools, or automobiles. We don't often want a 30 year old car, tractor, or even house. Thirty year old roofs, thirty year old plumbing, thirty year old television sets . . . many folks wouldn't want it. We don't often want 30 year old motorcycles, 30 year old ATVs, 30 year old campers, 30 year old snowmobiles, 30 year old much of anything. A 5 year old digital camera, camcorder, computer . . . all stone age stuff, according to some.

Yet, a shotgun is a very simple mechanical device-- simplistic, compared to many things we use everyday. It isn't splitting the atom, it isn't the space race, and it isn't cold fusion. In shotguns, we wax enthusiastic about the notion of feeding families, food on the table, but the reality of it that shotguns are recreational devices . . . at least O/Us are. A very low-tech, low-pressure device. A .22 Long Rifle has a Maximum Average Pressure double of most shotshells, at 24,000 PSI.

So, we like to talk about shotguns in terms of quality, but few people agree on what quality means. We like to say "you get what you pay for," but that isn't true. If we pay for over-priced junk, we likely get it. We like to pay for "Members Only" jackets, trendy things, exclusive things, things that come with prestige and so on. Shotguns aren't immune from the various human afflictions. It all works, to a degree. We get blinded by brands. Choosey mothers choose JIF. The sub-text is, buy Skippy or Peter Pan . . . you just might be abusing your family. My current favorite is "Chevy Runs Deep." That might be a good thing if you're shopping for a submarine, but you can only get so deep driving to work or heading to the hardware store.
My favorite shotgun test is still the "Argentina torture test." This is a test so grueling, so difficult, that no new model of shotgun has ever failed it. A shotshell payload leaves the barrel about 3.5 milliseconds after ignition. That's 3.5 thousandths of a second, the only time a shotgun is under significant load or stress. 1,050,000 milliseconds (1050 seconds) is about 300,000 shots. A shotgun that lasts for 17-1/2 minutes of use without breaking a part would be a fabulously long-lasting shotgun. Has anyone ever made one that lasts so much as half an hour under firing stresses?

Part of the mystery surrounding the O/U shotgun is when folks try to decide what is “best” or what “holds up.” No shotgun maker can actually prove that their guns hold up “the best,” that their design is the best, of course. If they could, they would. You won't find any any patents claiming “most reliable” or “longest-lasting.” You won't find any shareable data on it, that data does not exist.

There are good reasons for this. What an O/U shotgun action is, is just a hinge. Hinges have been around for a very long time. In a practical sense, the O/U shotgun was perfected in 1909 by Boss & Co. It wasn't from Thomas Boss, though, it happened close to a hundred years after Thomas Boss started in the British gunmaking world. It was from John Robertson, who joined Boss & Co. in 1891.

There is good reason why notions of the best O/U shotgun defy description. There is no easy way to articulate it, it comes down to who makes the better hinge. That is of course why we use terms like “hold up,” stronger action,” and assorted mythical, sometimes flowery, invariably imprecise terms to struggle to talk about O/U shotguns. A hinge that locks is a hoary old idea, with some of the cheapest and most utilitarian guns ever made (the H & R Topper) both hinge and lock. Both the Boss from 1909 and the Woodward O/U (1913) are considered low-profile actions. The notion of using trunnions, allowing a barrel to pivot, goes back to cannon, specifically siege cannon from the 1400s, not for ease of loading (they were muzzleloaders after all) but to change the elevation. After all thesae years we still can't quite come to grips with the idea that 12 gauge shotguns all fire the same shells and though we seek the mystery of “strength” in target guns, target guns shoot wimpy, low intensity shells compared to hunting guns. We still don't like recoil, so 28 gauge and 20 gauge payloads (3/4 and 7/8 oz.) are becoming more and more common. Not only is 7/8 oz. a 20 gauge payload, it is a 20 gauge light target load on top of that. Relatively heavy 12 gauge target guns see scant little in the way of shock and vibration compared to hunting guns.

Making a proper hinge in an O/U shotgun was old news ninety years ago. Despite crude metallurgy and lack of modern machining abilities, Boss, Woodward, and the Browning B25 made vertical double hinge guns that can last indefinitely. The stronger gun, the more reliable gun, the better quality gun is often more beer foam than reality. Buy a new Citori 725 or a Caesar Guerini, and just try to wear it out . . . without backing over it with the truck. Sub in a Blaser, etc., as you prefer. If you can, please let me know what it cost you in ammunition and range fees if you're successful at it.

The better guns are far easier to discern than wasting time romancing the hinge. Proper heat treat, consistency of assembly, trigger quality, barrel regulation, wood to metal fit, metal to metal fit, quality of polish, bluing, and walnut are self-explanatory . . . and what makes a gun a gun truly worth owning.

For many people, including myself, a desirable O/U shotgun may well be the most expensive firearm you ever buy. That's why gun fit, a proper gun fitting, or a custom stock may be the most valuable component of all. A gun that doesn't fit can make most anyone come “unhinged.”

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Copyright March, 2012 by Randy Wakeman. All Rights Reserved.

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