Yes, most of us are going to have to hit the lotto in order to afford a six-figure stack or side-by-side. But even if the oil well Uncle Zeb willed you has gone from gusher to gurgle, there are still some great double shotguns that cost less than the gross national product of Lower Slobovia.
You could catch the next flight to London and go to their gun rooms where every aspect of your shooting style and physique will be measured and noted, followed by a trip to their shooting grounds with an experienced gun fitter for an afternoon of shooting clay targets with an adjustable try-gun to finalize your measurements.
Then within a couple of years, maybe more, you will have your hand-made, bespoken shotgun. You can also go to Holland & Holland’s gun room in New York City where they will offer all the above.
Bespoken guns include the choice of wood and engraving. Top gunmakers reserve time with highly skilled engravers to put anything from traditional English rose and scroll to your retriever or perhaps the love of your life on the sides of the action.
Top bespoken shotguns are always sidelocks, where the trigger mechanism is mounted on the sideplates. Some feel sidelock trigger pulls are better, and of course there is a wide pallet available for engraving. Boxlock guns are more hearty, and there are top-of-the-line bespoken boxlocks, but now mostly on the previously owned market.
Chris Batha is an Englishman who spends most of his time in the U.S. as a shotgun instructor. In 2004 he and an American partner bought the Charles Boswell company name, records and goodwill, and currently produce exquisite side-by-sides. They are made using the age-old London tradition of “outworkers” making all the parts and finishing then finally assembled by a highly-skilled worker.
These new Boswells have consistently won the grand prix in several judged exhibitions, are made to measure and top-of-the-line examples of the gunmaker’s art. Batha personally fits each customer and ensures his gun is exactly to standard when delivered.
Don’t want to go to England? How about New Britain, Conn.? There Anthony Galazan makes exquisite side-by-side and over/under sidelock shotguns, all bespoken, with many attractive features, and for less money than their British-made cousins. When Galazan decided to make shotguns under his name, he carefully looked at every fine gun, and took those features he felt contributed to their greatness and included them in his guns.
Every part is made in Galazan’s shop, from barrels to actions; nothing is farmed out, making this a true all-American gun. Not ready to shell out $75,000 for a Galazan over/under or $50,000 for a double with extra engraving and wood upgrades?
Perhaps a Galazan RBL or A-10 American can be covered by Uncle Zeb’s oil well. The RBL set the gun world on its ear when it was introduced at $2,000 in 2006. Although the RBL has officially been discontinued, Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Company (Galazan’s official name) still offers them in higher grades running from about $4,000 and up.
The A-10 American is another of Galazan’s efforts to build quality guns here in America. While the RBL—RB stands for round body like the Scottish Dickson—is a boxlock, the A-10 over/under is a sidelock, and comes in a myriad of upgrades. Folks heading to England for driven bird shoots are buying them in pairs, and everyone speaks to the A-10’s greatness.
Italy has a long history of fine gun making. Sadly, fine Italian gun making lost two of its giants this past year; Daniel Perazzi and Avaldo Piotti. Of course Beretta is the giant, offering a wide variety of shotguns from semi-autos to exquisite double guns beginning with the 451 series, totally hand-made with scroll engraving that escalates through several grades. The 451-E is built to the customer’s specifications and rolls out at $18,500.
For a bit less, Beretta offers the Model Jubilee II—Model 470 EELL—with scroll or game-scene engraving signed by the engraver for $18,000. Beretta’s Imperiale Monte Carlo, introduced in 2010, is a totally bespoke gun with the base model priced at $131,000; if master engraving is included, add another $20,000-$25,000.
One of Italy’s finest is Armi Fabbri, who makes only 20 to 30 guns a year. Ivo Fabbri and the late Daniel Perazzi began as partners in 1960, and in 1965 they amicably split, Perazzi going on to make some of the finest competition and game guns—carefully hand assembled of machined parts enabling high-volume production—while Fabbri contented himself with producing a few totally hand-made guns each year.
Perazzis are great work horses capable of firing thousands of rounds a year with virtually no apparent wear. Kim Rhode, who recently joined Beretta’s team of top shots, won all her gold medals to date with a Perazzi. She typically shoots 500 to 800 rounds a day, and her Perazzi keeps going. Many top clay shooters shoot Fabbri shotguns, and like their Italian sisters they keep grinding away year in year out.
New this year for Perazzi is the DC12 side-by-side. The DC12 is built on two different frame sizes, one for the 12 and 20 and a smaller action for the 28 and .410. One of Perazzi’s most endearing features is their drop-out trigger group. Have a malfunction in the midst of a shoot-off or “hot corner” in Argentina? Drop out the defective trigger and snap in another. The same goes for the DC12 side-by-side.
One could argue that the Fratelli Piotti makes some of the world’s finest shotguns. Producing only 70 guns a year, the 12-gauge Piotti Boss over/under starts at $74,000 and goes up a mere $10,000 for the 28-gauge. Side-by-sides are less, starting around $24,000 for the Piuma and head to the 70s fairly fast. Hand-made to the customer’s specifications, they are considered by many to be a superior shotgun that can hold its own with any.
The new kid on the block is Caesar Guerini, formed in 2003 by top American shot Wes Lang with two Italian partners, Georgio and Antonio Guerini. Since then, Caesar Guerini has become a force in over/under shotguns here in the U.S. Lang, an excellent sporting clays shot, through years of experience in the U.S. shotgun trade understands what American shooters want and need.
Unlike other Italian companies who told us, “Here’s how we make it: Try it you’ll (learn to) like it,” Lang began building quality guns to American likes and physiques. Since his start in 2003, he has branched out into the clay target sports, but his library of hunting guns is extensive and excellent. Newest is the Ellipse EVO ($6,000). I had the chance to shoot one during dove season last year. It was light, but not whippy or unbalanced as some light shotguns can be, and filled my limit quicker than usual.
Another fine Italian gunmaker is Famars whose Excalibur Sideplate is worth a look. Made in the typical Italian boxlock style it has nicely engraved sideplates that look like a sidelock but are only there for added space for noted engraver Aldo Rissini to display his art.
Germany’s Krieghoff is well known in clay circles, but recently they have added a side-by-side and a lighter over/under called the Parcours that is intended for FITASC competition, but there’s little reason you couldn’t pop some doves here or in Argentina with it. Slimmed to eight pounds, the chokes are fixed at modified and improved modified, but there’s no reason Briley Manufacturing can’t install a set of screw-in chokes to make this gun more versatile.
Heading to scenic Bavaria, we come to the home of the Blaser F3. Made to very tight and consistent specifications, a single action will accommodate all gauge barrels from 12 to .410. Far from the ideal, where each gauge is mated to frames sized especially for that gauge, the advantages are obvious for the traveling hunter. Take the 12 for ducks and geese and perhaps a set of 28 barrels for quail or perdiz.
The Blaser action uses rifle-style strikers that provide very fast lock time, and trouble-free operation. I returned my F3 for service following two trips to Argentina and one to Uruguay, plus thousands of clays stateside, and other than some rust deep in the action, no major parts needed replacement. With barrel choices from 28 to 32 inches, there are numerous stocks to fit anyone, and everything is interchangeable from gorgeous engraved receivers to standard plain Jane’s like mine.
Belgium & France
Paul Buchet in the French gun-making town of St. Etienne makes the interesting sliding-breech Darne side-by-side. At the rear of the breech is a double-eared lever that when lifted and pushed toward the muzzle pulls the breech rearward and the extracted shells roll off with a twist of the wrist.
Of course Liege, Belgium is the home of Fabrique Nationale, who have for over a century manufactured Browning shotguns. It’s an interesting fact that Browning and Winchester Repeating Arms are now owned by the Walloon Business Region of Belgium, and high-grade Browning over/unders still hail from the factory at Herstal.
Looking on the used side-by-side market, we occasionally see used Browning sidelock BSS’s for sale. Built on a modernized sidelock, and although in production from 1983 through 1988, not many were produced by Miroku, Browning’s Japanese partner. They’re inexpensive and a nice handling shotgun…if you can find one with 28-inch barrels.
Spain used to be a major force in fine shotguns. The economy has not been kind to the nation, but we can still find great guns. Most familiar is the Aguirre y Aranzabal or AyA. Founded in 1917, they continue to make fine shotguns. In the 1980s, the Spanish government consolidated the shotgun industry into something they called DIARM, which considering the fiery Basque and Spanish temperaments failed within a few years. AyA was one of the survivors, and they continue to make excellent guns just as they always have for the past 96 years.
The “Purdey of Spain” is Pedro Arrizabalaga, who make only best-quality bespoken shotguns. They run less than half the price a similar British Best, and delivery is 12 to 18 months. Just as in England, buyers are fitted and the gun they receive is made exclusively for them. Like AyA, Arrieta, Armas Garbi and Armas Grulla are other survivors who continue to make fine quality shotguns, mainly side-by-sides, at very attractive prices when compared to other top-of-the-line guns.
Of interest is the old and hopefully dead rumor that Spanish shotguns are made of “soft” steel and will not hold up to heavy use. I only need to point to my late friend and colleague Michael McIntosh, who put well over 100,000 rounds through his 12-gauge AyA No. 2 without a hiccup. Yes, some of the low-grade boxlocks produced by second-string Spanish companies—none of the above—were tomato stakes, but a top Spanish gun can stand tall among the competition.
If you decide to take the plunge, order your fine shotgun through an established agent here in the U.S. With the exception of England and the U.S., the remainder of the gun-making world is on the metric system, and a fumbled conversion can mean expensive corrections when you find your new shotgun shoots off toward Finnegan’s Tavern.
And don’t forget, use your new gun and enjoy it! Holland & Holland tells of the late Larry Hagman—the evil J.R. Ewing on the TV show Dallas—picking up his new H&H with elaborate engraving and gold inlays on a rainy London morning, then asking, “Can we go duck hunting?” That’s how it ought to be.