February 22, 2021
By Mike Burns
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“Those of us that have used side by sides and over and unders, when forced to choose one option, will find the choice difficult. Subjectivity will play a large part, I suspect, far more so than mechanicals.” - Former Technical Director of Holland & Holland, Russell Wilkin
For many enthusiasts, there have been endless nights spent passionately debating the question of which is the superior double barreled shotgun: over/under or side-by-side. While more conventional shooters will opt in favor of the side-by-side (SxS) because of the long history carried behind the weapon, most experts agree that over/under (O/U) shotguns are generally more consistent because of the firearm’s single sight plane of view. Nonetheless, both variants of the double barrel design have their advantages as well as their disadvantages, however the conversation really boils down to personal preferences.
However, there are some helpful hints, clues, and differentiating features to be aware of before purchasing. How they will be shot, expected recoil, and weight are all factors to consider when confronted with the choice between an SxS and an O/U shotgun. Despite being similar in general appearance, mechanics, and required ammunition, there are still glaring differences between the two that dates back decades. How they were developed and why certain design choices were made can reveal insightful information regarding their intended usage that could aid in the selection process.
Shotguns were not a sudden invention to spontaneously appear from the aether; the presence of large diameter, smoothbore barrels used for hunting (particularly birds) dates back to the advent of blunderbusses, arquebuses, and “fowling” pieces. These rudimentary weapons were popular on the battlefield as well with muskets such as the Brown Bess famously used by the British army for over 100 years. Despite being popular and effective, these early designs were cumbersome and difficult to load.
As the development of firearms advanced exponentially starting in the 1800s, shotguns began to emerge as their own distinct classification of firearm separate from the rifles, revolvers, and repeating firearms being developed across the world. Still predominately favored for hunting, shotguns quickly began evolving and changing to suit different environments, targets, or competitive shooting events.
Cartridge technology, the advancement of other alternative types of ammunition, and various emerging hammerless firing mechanisms became prevalent in the market during the time—answering some of the issues experienced by earlier, breech-loading firearms. In particular, the boxlock developed by Anson and Deeley in 1875 was able to further popularize the double-barreled shotgun. While other models had been experimented with in the past, innovations such as the boxlock helped promote the weapon making it incredibly popular because of its simplicity and relative inexpensive cost of production compared to sidelock mechanisms found prior.
Configured with two barrels side-by-side, early double barrel shotguns were instantly popular, particularly among hunters who swooned at its capabilities to fire two shots without reloading. Further more, barrels could be configured differently to account for various distances and targets.
The traditional and gentlemen’s sport of bird hunting and competitive shooting quickly began to grow in popularity alongside a proliferation of double barrel shotguns around the world, but would be almost another 50 years before the introduction of the O/U alternative. Until then, SxS shotguns continued to surge in popularity across the American Frontier where it required much less fine muscle control or practice in operating compared to revolvers and handguns, proving a reliable and rapid means of protection. SxS shotguns have changed very little in their design since the late-1800s.
While double barrel shotguns and lever action rifles were growing in desirability and usage in North America during the 1800s, it was John Moses Browning who is truly responsible for increased prevalence of shotguns in the United States in the century following because of his work on the Model 1887 lever action repeating shotgun. While not a break-loading action, this invention—and the subsequent development of the Winchester 1897—would demonstrate the effectiveness of the shotgun as a weapon capable of being produced on a mass scale. Although shotguns had previously been seen in combat during conflicts of the late-19th century, Browning’s designs helped introduce and popularize the shotgun in the American market.
Browning’s designs, while ingenious, were also an affordable tool not exclusive to members of the elite or upper class. The beauty of his firearms was that anyone could buy them. His Superposed models provided a cheap, powerful, and reliable O/U shotgun that was lighter and less expensive than others available at the time. Inspired by the success of Italian gun maker Beretta, Browning spent much of the remainder of his life focusing on the development of O/U shotguns, perfecting them and cementing the weapon as a household item. The O/U shotgun is not a new invention, however, and many prototypes featuring the design date back decades before Browning’s. Despite this, Browning’s models became insanely popular across the United States and would later be the basis of basically all other O/U designs in the coming years.
An example of how versatile shotguns can be with the top picture being an antique Parker Brothers 10 gauge double barrel hammer shotgun and the bottom, a more modern engraved B.C. Miroku Model 800 over/under skeet shotgun.
Today, the shotgun is one of the most popular firearms for civilian self-defense, sport shooting, and hunting. As new slug rounds and different ammunition are developed, the firearm has quickly defined itself as an effective and powerful hunting tool. From birds to deer, the shotgun’s versatility and ease of use make it one of mankind’s greatest tools.
The shotgun has undergone some serious transformations since its humble beginnings. From breech loading flintlocks to O/U designs that maximize the natural perceptions of the human eye, these firearms can be daunting when asked to select one for personal ownership. With so many different kinds, how can you know you are buying the right one?
While there are shotguns with different actions, gauges, and barrel lengths, this article plans to look at the advantages and disadvantages of double barrel shotguns. More specifically, this article is directly talking about O/U shotguns that feature a single trigger system, a pistol grip, and a beaver tail forend, and SxS shotguns that feature a double trigger system, a straight stock, and a splintered forend. These traits are generally considered to be typical features that are immediately distinguishable between the two models. While it is entirely possible, and even likely, to come across examples of double barrel shotguns that don't fit the criteria explored here, this information should be useful for understanding the general differences between these two firearms.
Passionate shotgun enthusiasts will bend over backwards to convince you that one barrel configuration is better than the others, but the truth is that it really depends on how firearm will be used. There is no one perfect solution for every problem, so understanding why people favor certain models over others can be valuable in determining your own goals and expectations.
Side-by-side shotguns offer a range of different pros and cons in terms of shooting, weight, and price, but generally they provide shooters with a wide plane of sight because the barrels are oriented horizontally. As mentioned previously, this article is specifically referencing shotguns that conform to general specifics commonly associated with SxS models that feature a double trigger system, a straight stock, and splintered forend. Exceptions can be found and further research is always encouraged before making a new purchase.
The twin barrels next to each other provides a sense of balance when shooting. When trying to prepare for unexpected flocks of game birds to emerge and flutter from their elusive hiding spots, some hunters prefer the balance and “instinctive” shooting SxS shotguns provide. Fast flushing bird hunters looking for grouse or quail can especially benefit from this orientation. While the sense of balance might be attractive, the horizontal orientation of the barrels also intrinsically means there is a greater portion obstructed when pointing the gun. It might be marginal, and is also experienced with O/U models, but it can be distracting to some.
SxS shotgun configurations also frequently include a double trigger system that differentiates which side of the barrel is fired first. Strategically, this provides shooters with a variety of options to counter an even wider array of situations. In terms of mechanics, the double trigger system is simpler than O/U models that often require selector switch systems that are more complex and subject to problems.
While weight varies considerably between these different models, SxS shotguns are typically lighter than O/U shotguns because of the difference in their stocks as well as the differences in their actions. Less bulky than the larger "beaver tail" forends normally found on O/U models, many consider the slim "splinter" forend found on SxS shotguns to be a more graceful design. The weight of the weapon might be preferred while traveling long distances on foot while carrying it, however, recoil can be further exacerbated when firing heavier rounds. That being said, this feature can either be an advantage or a disadvantage depending on the circumstances of its use.
Arguably, the most compelling reason to own an SxS shotgun is the community behind the weapon and its long history. The tradition of using an SxS shotgun is parallel to black powder enthusiasts who commonly tout the addictiveness and thrill of using an older, less common style of firearm. Joseph Manton is often credited as popularizing the SxS shotgun in England during the 18th century in England. It was his own designs and innovations that helped transform the weapon from a tool of brute strength to a piece of craftsmanship, art, and luxury to be used as such. Soon, prominent businessmen, nobles, and members of royalty recognized the thrill and pleasures of using these shotguns, defining them as a symbol of wealth and status.
Today, this tradition continues for many and the reverent respect and diligence placed on the shooting of SxS remains a steadfast hobby that has extended far beyond the wealthy. That being said, SxS shotguns can be more expensive because of the demand for a higher-quality gun among these traditionalists. It is because of the tradition, respect, and reverence for these shotguns that users are sometimes willing to pay more for something that looks and feels a certain way. There are certainly expensive O/U shotguns and inexpensive SxS models, but this demand for a higher-quality gun among traditionalist on a more consistent basis, generally leads to higher average prices for these firearms.
In more recent decades, the prevalence of SxS shotguns in television shows, movies, and videogames have created an intimidating reputation not matched by very many other weapons. Something about the two barrels like a pair of dark eyes gazing deep into the soul strikes a sense of anxiety. Furthermore, because of the lighter weight and angle needed to completely open the action, it requires less time to reload. For many people, just the appearance of an SxS shotgun is enough to send a message: do not mess with me.
Over/Under shotguns have seen a surge in popularity since the early 20th century largely due to the efforts of John Moses Browning in developing the Superposed shotgun that was one of his most ingenious designs. Today, over/under shotguns are incredibly popular because they are typically viewed as the "every man's" gun, or a weapon that was easy to use and relatively inexpensive to purchase. While there are certainly expensive O/U shotguns as well as inexpensive SxS models; many people are usually just looking for a reliable firearm over style when purchasing an O/U shotgun. This is not the case for everyone. Generally, most O/U shotguns feature a single trigger system, a pistol grip, and a beaver tail forend that are more commonly used for target competitions.
The most obvious advantage to an over/under shotgun is the consistency when shooting. It is the shotgun of choice for most—if not all—competitive shooting and it is difficult to find an event without these prominent firearms. O/U shotguns possess a vertical shooting plane because of the stacked orientation of the barrels on top of each other. A vertical shooting plane can be desirable for competitions as the stacked barrels eliminate some (but not all) of the horizontal sight obstruction found in SxS models.
Unlike SxS shotguns, most O/U shotguns feature a single-trigger system. While there are certainly over/under shotguns that possess a double trigger, it is very uncommon as most systems found on O/U shotguns feature some kind of selector switch. While this is more preferable in a competitive setting, it can sometimes require the shooter to manually flip a selector switch that many find awkward and difficult to use especially when wearing gloves. It is also worth noting that O/U shotguns with single trigger systems that feature selector switches are more mechanically complex than double trigger systems making them more prone to issues when operating because of such.
Despite this, there are differences between firing from the top barrel or the bottom barrel when using an O/U shotgun as recoil is affected by which one is being fired. O/U shotguns position the barrels of the gun deeper into the stock of the firearm and are generally heavier than SxS which can greatly decrease the recoil experienced after firing. More interesting, the recoil differentiates between firing from the top and bottom barrels, which is often used to an advantage during competitions and hunting.
Unlike the 2 dimensional force recoil experienced with SxS shotguns that can disrupt balance from either side, the vertical orientation of the barrels in an O/U shotgun produce a strictly upward recoil making it easier to handle. Also, since the barrels are above each other, the recoil experienced with each shot with be felt in a slightly different place or used to a competitor’s advantage for a quicker follow-up shot.
The most compelling reason to own an O/U shotgun would be because of its consistency when shooting that is largely attributed to the vertical orientation of the barrels. They are the only serious option for competitive shooters who would probably scoff at the idea of using an SxS firearm in contest. Although it takes slightly longer to reload the gun compared to the smaller angle needed to open the action in an SxS, this factor is not as important in skeet, trap, and sporting days and is negligible for many.
The choice between over/under and side-by-side shotguns is not a simple decision to make and there is a myriad of different resources that will try to convince you otherwise. However, the reality is that it does not matter what others have attested to if the weapon simply is not right for the job you need it for. If you’re looking for a reliable competitive firearm for skeet shooting, you probably would not want to buy an SxS shotgun. Adversely, if you’d like to explore something new and challenge your skills, a side-by-side shotgun carries a long and hallowed history with it that is fascinating to dive head first into.
There are many different aspects to consider, and hopefully the information discussed here has alleviated some of the distress caused by such a choice. However, both shotguns offer a sense of security and safety not found on many other firearms. Since the shotgun possess a break-action, the firearm must be closed completely in order to operate. If the action is broken, the weapon cannot fire. This fool-proof method to prevent accidents is certainly an advantage to buying a double barreled shotgun.
Whether you want an over/under shotgun or a more traditional side-by-side model, Rock Island Auction Company can help connect you to some of highest-quality and historic shotguns known to collectors. Since 2003, Rock Island Auction Company has reigned the world leader in the firearms auction industry. Discover what so many already know during one of our firearms auctions. Accessories & Arms Day Sales, Sporting & Collector Events, and Premier Auctions always have something in store for everyone. Don’t take our word for it, check out the upcoming auction schedule and make your arrangements to come visit today.
As always, if there are any questions about consignment, registration, and future auctions, please contact Rock Island Auction Company. Our 2021 auction schedule is now posted on our website, so be sure to go through the listing and start making your plans to come visit. All our events adhere to all COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions. We can’t wait to see you here.
Alicep. "Shotgun History: The Over-and-under." Clay Shooting Magazine. May 07, 2018. Accessed February 11, 2021. https://www.clay-shooting.com/features/shotgun-history-the-over-and-under/.
Barsness, John. "Why Side-by-Side Double Barrel Shotguns Survive." Shooting Times. September 17, 2019. Accessed February 11, 2021. https://www.shootingtimes.com/editorial/why-double-barrel-shotguns-survive/367871.
Young, Jonathan. "Over and under or Side by Side?" The Field. December 27, 2018. Accessed February 11, 2021. https://www.thefield.co.uk/shooting/over-and-under-or-side-by-side-31856.
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