What makes game shooters abandon the side-by-side for the over-and-under?
On a shoot day in October I had a fascinating conversation with a fellow gun about his switch from a side-by-side to an over-under. After more than 30 extremely successful years of game shooting with the former, he decided the time had come to seek out even greater consistency, particularly on the high birds, and make the switch. But why make the change? I have shot with this man before and he is an excellent game shot; most birds he raises his gun to fall stone dead within a 40-yard radius of his peg, so it’s not as if he was struggling before.
One clear and obvious reason is that old English sidelocks do not withstand some of the heavier loads we use for high bird shooting today, and that’s fair enough. If you are lucky enough to own one of these treasures why would you risk damaging it by putting 36 grams of No.4 shot through it on a 300-bird day? But the more pressing reason for making the change is the over-under delivers a better and more consistent performance. If you watch the Olympic clay shooting events you will notice that side-by-sides are totally absent. This is not a coincidence. And perhaps there is a third reason; call it intrigue if you like. Sometimes we just want to make a change don’t we?
Game shooters are having their heads turned
So it is then that even the most traditional of game shooters are having their heads turned by the heavier and more consistently effective over-unders, which were sneered at in the shooting field 30 years ago. It was once said that with an over-under you could shoot 10 per cent more birds and receive 10 per cent fewer invitations. Or perhaps it was 90 per cent fewer invitations? Either way, it was largely apocryphal and hardly applies in 2016 when barrel alignment is not much of a consideration as guns are withdrawn from their sleeves for the first drive.
That said, I recently heard of the Traditionalists, a group who meet to shoot regularly in Wiltshire and share the same enthusiasm for all the old elements of shooting etiquette. They are wealthy and perhaps a little eccentric, but they insist on everything being done in a particular way. I’m sure side-by-sides are de rigeur on their shoot days, and it sounds like they have a fantastic time pursuing their shared interests.
An undeniable elegance
And, fear not, the side-by-side is far from obsolete. How could such a thing of beauty ever become redundant in a traditional pastime like game shooting? There will always be an undeniable elegance about one of these classic guns from a big London name like Holland & Holland, Purdey or Boss, or one of the provincial makers. Watching someone shoot well with a slender and beautifully balanced 100-year-old sidelock is a pleasure indeed. And there are some who revert back to the old style for the simple pleasure it brings. Our own editor-at-large Robin Scott is one of them and he told me: “I wouldn’t be without my 32” barrel Perazzi on a serious high bird day. But for smaller shoots, walked-up and duck over flight ponds, I use nothing but one of three 30” side-by-sides – all English, each with Damascus barrels.
“Yes, the over-under is rock steady in a hot corner but, for me, none can match the exquisite balance or timeless elegance of a well made side-by-side. They are a doddle to carry and are as lively in the hand as a ferret. Less recoil with an over-under? Nonsense! If it fits and you use light cartridges, a side-by-side will add a new dimension to anyone’s day in the field. Forget the gun; just keep your eyes on the bird…”
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