The pointers are stiff on a covey; the setter is pointing a wily grouse, and in an instant the shot will emerge. A smooth mount, the bird and muzzles meet, a tick ahead and a stylish retrieve follows. It isn't always so, but in our dreams it always happens that way. The scenario's culmination is the shot, and making a good shot requires both good shooting technique and a shotgun that fits the shooter and the game.
The expression "bird gun" implies a sleek, fast-handling shotgun, but perhaps the description goes further. The double gun is the epitome of the American bird gun. Be it a classic side-by-side or more conventional over/under, it needs to be a part of the shooter. While there still exists the myth that short-barreled shotguns are the best in bird cover, one should seek a shotgun that swings smoothly, and that often requires longer barrels, 28-inch minimum, 30 inches sometimes even better.
Of course there is the age-old question of weight. The grouse hunter will carry his gun a long way but shoot it little. The quail hunter in good cover will shoot a good deal more. The 12 gauge will do everything, and the 16 bore with its one-ounce load may be the ideal upland gauge; still, it is the 20 or 28 gauge that sets many an upland hunter's heart a thumpin'.
The best small-gauge shotguns are made on an action scaled to that gauge. Many small-gauge shotguns are built on 12- or 20-gauge actions; the legendary Winchester Model 21 built all their small gauges on 20-gauge actions. However, a too-large action detracts from a 20 or 28 gauge that should be built on its own, proper sized action.
Time was when over/unders of any quality started at about $1,500 to $1,800, but that's no longer the case. Today, with the Euro, etc., entry level over/unders start a bit over $2,000, although street prices can certainly be less, and the sky's the limit on the top end. Side-by-sides go for a bit more.
Following are some great guns that are available from little more than the price of a top-of-the-line semiauto to those whose price might ransom a minor sheik. They all shoot well; the difference is in the fit, finish and decoration.
Does a $75,000 Galazan or $95,000 Holland & Holland kill a bird any deader than a $2,000 Beretta or Ruger? No. Is the pride of ownership more? Maybe, maybe not. But there is a certain panache to owning the finest.
Here, then, are some of the world's great guns. Not every one is represented here, and if your favorite isn't listed, please don't be too upsetâ€¦a man's bird gun is a personal thing, and that's something I'm not about to debate.
Shotguns from $2,000 to $3,000
One of the newest faces is Caesar Guerini, founded by top shot Wes Lang, whose goal was to combine the quality of top Italian manufacturing in shotguns made for American hunters, and he's succeeded.
Offering almost a dozen models from trap to field, perhaps the Tempio Light best suits upland hunting. Coupling a forged aluminum action and fore-end iron with a hollowed butt stock, the critical between-the-hands balance is retained. Wear points on the action are guarded with steel inserts. Barrels in 26- and 28-inch lengths are topped with screw-in chokes for the ultimate choke selection for the cover being hunted.
Sturm Ruger has become a powerhouse of firearm manufacturing. The popular Red Label over/under has become a standard for hunters. It's available in a number of grades and gauges, with the 20- and 28-gauge having the most appeal for upland hunting.
Although still advertised, the excellent Gold Label side-by-side may be difficult to find. Topped with Briley chokes, it's a fine shooting field gun. Too bad Ruger chose to make it only in 12 gauge (so far, anyway), as a 20 might have been a more popular choice. The Gold Label points well, and if you can find one, it's an excellent side-by-side for the money.
Browning is one of the grand names in American gun making. The 1931 Superposed was the first affordable over/under, and although "different" in appearance the Cynergy is an equally excellent shotgun. I particularly like their 28 gauge and had the chance to use one extensively in Argentina.
It uses an innovative breeching system that provides far more contact than the traditional hinge-pin and Purdey-style uunderbolt, and I doubt one will ever wear out. The slim action profile directs the recoil to the heavy muscles of the shoulder away from the shooter's face. Lock time is lightning fast.
Because of the recoil pad, stock adjustment is difficult, although Browning sells extra pads and spacers for length of pull. The Citori is modeled after the Superposed and is made in so many models it's almost impossible to keep them straight. The traditionalist might prefer the Citori, but the Cynergy is worth a look.
Remington's Premier line, available only through Remington Premier dealers, offers both a great feeling Spanish-made 28-gauge side-by-side and Italian over/unders. I had the chance to use a 28-gauge Premier over/under last season, and I enjoyed it immensely. The action is made of aircraft-grade aluminum action for lightness, and with its screw-in choked 28-inch barrels it performed very well on game-farm birds.
I only got to handle the side-by-side at the SHOT Show, but it felt very much like my 25-year-old AyA, a proven worker in the field. Should you be feeling flush, Remington is offering the legendary AAHE Parker in 28-gauge at a mere $49,000. In 1934, Remington bought Parker Brothers, and this newest Parker is being made for Remington by the Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Company.
Beretta's affordable 686 Silver Pigeon has introduced many hunters to the over/under. The Beretta 686 action uses trunnions to pivot the barrels and locks up with two pins that engage slots between the barrels and is the same regardless of grade.
New for 2008 is the innovative SV10 Perennia. Using a redesigned 686-inspired action, the Perennia has a unique trapdoor in the pistol grip through which a special wrench is inserted. A twist of the wrist and the stock comes off. The same tool also releases the trigger group for cleaning. The handling and function are pure Beretta and reflect the nearly 500-year heritage the company boasts.
Cabela's Gun Library offers a broad range of new and used shotguns. Their newest are fr
om the Fausti sisters, perhaps the only females in the world to run a shotgun factory. The Italian-made Albion over/under is available in 12, 20 and 28 gauges and features ejectors and monobloc barrels. Coming soon is the Dea (Day-ah) sideplated boxlock side-by-side with double triggers, a straight hand or English-style grip and splinter fore-end in 16, 20 and 28 gauges, all made on proper sized actions.
Cabela's just announced the addition of the Robertson shotgun by Boss to their line. Based on a boxlock gun designed by the late John Robertson, one-time owner of the legendary Boss & Co., they are now making this deluxe side-by-side in Boss's Birmingham, England factory. Featuring oil-finished French walnut straight-hand stocks, double triggers and ejectors, the stock dimensions are typically straighter that traditional Amercan dimensions. Initially offered in 20 gauge, the Robertson is choked modified and full, weighs a mere 6-1/2 pounds, and is currently priced at $17,000.
With the exception of the Remington Parker and Cabela's Robertson by Boss, the foregoing over/unders and side-by-sides are mainly in the $2,000 to $3,000 range. Let's now take a gradual step up.
Shotguns Priced From $3,500 to $5,000
Seemingly expensive, some of these offer custom stock dimensions, excellent fit and finish, and if cared for, will serve for generations.
Blaser, known for their rifles and newly moved to California, is making an equally fine over/under. The machining on the F3 is to such close tolerances that barrels and stocks can be exchanged with any action without fitting.
New this year are 20-gauge barrels in lengths to 32 inches. Due to the rifle-style firing system in which the firing pins are driven in a straight line without being first struck by a hammer, the F3 has very fast lock time.
The action is slim even though it locks up with a Purdey-style underbolt. Blaser offers both a Schnabel-style and beavertail fore-end; the beavertail is my preference. Blaser includes flush-mounted Briley chokes, and Briely's extended chokes are available as an option.
One of the great names in Spanish gunmaking is Aguirre y Aranzabal, best known as AyA. The Spanish gunmaking trade is located exclusively in the heart of the Basque region of Spain that lies between northern Spain and France, and some of the world's finest shotguns come from the Basque workrooms of AyA and others. I've owned two AyAs since 1985, and put thousands of rounds through them with little more than breaking a single top-lever and hammer spring.
Over the years, AyA has made numerous models, but for me their No. 1 and 2 represent their best art. Both are Holland & Holland-style sidelock guns. Sidelock guns provide a second or safety sear that prevents discharge in case of a sharp jar, and their trigger pulls are often lighter and smoother. The No. 1 at $9,899 goes above our price range, but the No. 2 at $4,795 represents a bargain.
The Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Company makes some of the finest shotguns ever made, and their Galazan over/under and side-by-side are arguably the finest shotguns in the world. However, always looking to make something different, Tony Galazan decided to make a quality shotgun that was affordable by the many, and so the RBL came into being.
Standing for Round Body Launch, the RBL is of boxlock construction with ejectors, and the choice of a single or double triggers. The buyer can specify the length of the stock and either straight-hand or pistol-grip style. Extras, at an additional price, include more deluxe wood; standard was nice American black walnut. The initial 20-gauge RBL had screw-in chokes and 28-inch barrels. They sold out quickly, and in 2007, the 28-gauge RBL was announced. This RBL version built on a diminutive 28-gauge action offers the same stock options, but this time the buyer can choose from 26-, 28- and 30-inch barrels with fixed chokes.
The actions are all bone and charcoal case hardened--seldom found on shotguns in this price range, which are normally case colored using hot cyanide--the checkering and engraving are done by laser, and the various parts made using CNC machining, but in the tradition of fine American gun making, all hand-fitted. A high-quality side-by-side for less than $4,000.
If Price Is No Concern
Chris Batha is a former London firefighter who worked his way into the London gun trade. An excellent shot, he has become an even better instructor, and is widely known for his great humor, down-to-earth coaching and his television show, Wingshooting the World. In 2004, Batha bought the records and goodwill of the Charles Boswell Gunmaking Company, and proceeded to turn out an outstanding 28-gauge over/under that won the Geoffery Boothroyd Peoples' Choice Award at that fall's Vintage Cup event.
The new Boswell has pinless (no visible screws or pins as the British call them) sidelocks, and they, with the action, are charcoal and bone case hardened. Wood, both grade and species, engraving, checkering, barrel length, choking, ejectors, etc., are all choices of whoever orders the gun.
Although a custom shotgun ordered from one of the London houses (Holland & Holland, Purdey, etc.) normally takes 18 to 24 months to complete--longer if the specific engraver is too busy to take the work at that time--Batha is attempting to provide Boswells with a 12-month wait. Prices begin at $40,000.
One of the great names of gunmaking is Holland & Holland, now approaching 200 years in the gun business. Innovators, as is witnessed by the .375 H&H rifle cartridge that is now 96 years old and still going strong, Holland & Holland now offers an equally ingenious over/under called the Sporting.
Designed to be both a clays and hunting gun, the Sporting features a detachable trigger/lock system that drops out the bottom of the action, thus enabling quick and easy cleaning and replacement of parts should that be necessary. The barrel selector is combined with the thumb-operated tang-style safety. If one wants a bespoke model, he can specify barrel length, rib style, stock style--competition or field--and dimensions, screw-in chokes, etc. If you don't want to wait a couple of years, you can visit Holland & Holland's New York gunroom and buy one off the rack.
As stated previously, for my money--not that I have enough, mind you--the Galazan side-by-side and over/under are the finest shotguns in the world. When Tony Galazan set out to make the shotguns that would bear his name, he decided that they must be the very best. The over/under came first, and bears the marks of many of the fine shotguns of the past and present.
One sees Boss, Fabri, Perazzi and other over/unders' inspiration, yet this is a unique gun onto itself. Every part from the pinless sidelocks to the exhibition-grade stocks have been thought out to the smallest detail. The interior is immaculate, and the engraving is intended to reflect the personality of the owner.
Equally, the newer Galazan side-by-side reflects the same quest for quality as the over/under. The locks are easily removed by opening the barely evident fingernail-size cover that reveals a screw that, when removed, allows removal of the two sidelocks. Pinless means that the screws or pins that hold the various parts that make up the lock--the hammer, tumbler, bridle, sears and other parts--do not pierce the exterior, as they commonly do in AyAs, Holland & Hollands and other shotguns, providing a completely smooth surface for engraving.
The selection of great guns available nowadays runs from excellent to truly great. Never before has the sportsman had such a smorgasbord of shotguns from which to choose. This is but a light skim of what's out there. Within the catalogs of Beretta, Browning and others are many versions of their basic shotguns providing even more choices.
The perfect shotgun is out there, and shopping for it is, of course, at least half the fun.