The over-and-under is now the go-to firearm for many Shots. But what does this mean for the side-by-side, asks Eleanor Doughty
“Snobbery and inheritance are the only reasons why people use a side-by-side.” So said one keen Shot, once described as the best of his generation. “But I’m not that bothered. I just like to shoot straight.”
Once upon a time, the side-by-side was the only gun to use. Turn up for a day’s shooting in some neighbourhoods with an over-and-under and eyebrows would raise. But now, anyone new to the industry is likely to be taught with an over-and-under. “If there was going to be a death for side-by-sides, then it’s from shooting grounds,” says Alastair Phillips, general manager of William Evans. “Instructors will get people hitting stuff with an over-and-under and they’ll think, ‘I must get one.’”
The logic, then, of dashing off to buy a side-by-side is minimal, Rob Fenwick, managing director of EJ Churchill says. “It’s like learning to drive with a four-wheel car, passing your test and buying a three-wheel Reliant Robin.”
The conversion rate is minimised by the fact that once you have learned on one, it may be hard to switch over. As Alistair Ferguson, coach at the Roxburghe shooting school in the Borders, points out, many over-and-under guns are single trigger. “Having learned to shoot with a single trigger, they’re not going to fancy a double.”
Selling more side-by-sides
Indeed, this shows in the marketplace. At Ian Coley’s gunshop in Cheltenham, 95 per cent of the custom is for over-and-unders. Of the 1,000 guns in stock, just 70 are side-by-sides. On guntrader.uk, a second-hand marketplace, there were, at the time of writing, 8,806 over-and-under guns listed for sale, and 1,746 side-by-sides. But Mr Phillips believes that his company is bucking the trend, selling more side-by-sides than anything else, thanks to two groups: “British clients in their mid-30s to late 40s, who have inherited old English guns that are now becoming unreliable and don’t fit the purpose of what they are doing”, and the new traditionalists: “overseas clients who want to have a black Labrador and a Defender. They will buy an old English gun because they want to fit in.”
Two further groups opt for over-and-unders. “Either because it’s a working tool or they’re interested in the result,” says Mr Phillips. “They want to do the best possible job at killing the game humanely, and they shoot better and cleaner with an over-and-under”.
It also depends on your quarry of choice. The fast-flying grouse and English partridge suit a lighter, fast-loading side-by-side. “If something is slipping past you at 50 miles an hour, you want to be able to throw the gun up, pull the trigger and the bird comes down dead,” says Mr Ferguson. “Unless you’re a big strong man, the over-and-under is heavy and too slow.” But for high pheasants, an over-and-under does the trick as “the profile of the barrels is slimmer for a smaller, higher target”. And for ducks, where big loads are also needed, consensus is to use an over-and-under because “it won’t damage them so much as an old English gun,” Mr Phillips says.
It is not surprising that even those shooters brought up on the modern imported over-and-under sometimes cast an appreciative eye…
The most beautiful thing to shoot
The end is not nigh for the side-by-side. “The side-by-side is never going to replace the over-and-under, and the over-and-under will never replace the side-by-side,” says Mr Fenwick. They are different guns for different jobs. “If you don’t care about trying to kill everything and you just want an elegant, pretty shot with a traditional gun, then the side-by-side is the most beautiful thing to shoot. If you’re shooting lots of cartridges then a side-by-side might not be as good.”
A small straw poll of active Shots aged between 25 and 55, a mix of those who have shot since they could spell the word “gun” and those who have learned later in life, found a majority of side-by-side devotees. One, who shoots with a pair of 1913 William Powell side-by-sides, explained that it was “more out of habit and affection”. Another admitted to being a side-by-side fan “because I have very nice ones”. A chap 25 years his junior brushed off the side-by-side entirely. “I’m not a snob,” he scoffs. “We don’t fish with pieces of wood and string, so why shoot with a side-by-side?” A side-by-side (and grouse) disciple confesses that over-and-unders are actually the way forward, pointing out that the professionals all shoot over-and-under. “All of us should be, really.”
Simon Rood, who works in the gunroom at Purdey, points out that it is unlikely that you will stand around comparing guns with your friends, anyway. “How often do you see another Gun’s firearm when you’re out? You get to your peg, take your gun out, shoot and put it back.” And really, does it even matter? “It should be purely down to the individual and what makes them happiest,” another over-and-under fan says.
Mr Ferguson has a theory. “You see ladies’ skirts coming down to their ankles again,” he chuckles. “Over-and-under is the fashion at the moment. If you go back 40 years, there was a fashion for a 6lb 12-bore with 25in barrels. Now you can hardly give them away.”