Buying the Perfect Game Gun
The sensible shooter does not make do. He puts the odds in his favour methodically (a principle which applies to every aspect of his shooting).
A game gun does not want to be too heavy, but, it must have enough mass to manage recoil. The old rule is that a gun should weigh 96 times the weight of its shot charge. Thus a gun firing an ounce of shot should weigh 6 pounds, one firing an ounce and an eighth, 6 pounds 12 ounces. This applied quite well to side by sides (though 6 pounds is on the light side of my ideal unless one is considering a 2" gun or a 20 bore). If you are buying a traditional 12 bore side by side something in the region of 6 1/4 - 6 3/4 is about right depending on your preference. The very light gun may feel great in the shop, but it is often punishing in use. Over and unders, which are more complex, tend to be a little heavier than side by sides, somewhere near 7 pounds is ideal for a factory gun with 28" barrels in 12bore.
Whatever the barrel configuration, a game gun must be lively. Enough weight to handle recoil, but not so much as to suppress the swing. Barrel weight is an especially important consideration. Game shooting is a less deliberate business than clay shooting and requires a different sort of gun. Many mass produced guns, especially rebadged multi-choked clay guns, have barrels which are far too heavy for effortless, elegant game shooting. It is not just a question of cost. I have an old, cheap, Italian over and under which shoots very well because its construction without side ribs has allowed it to remain light in the tubes even though it is multichoked. I am also a fan of fixed choke game models (which can be a good buy second-hand) because the barrels tend to be lighter. As far as modern, mid-priced, factory made guns are concerned, the handling dynamics of the 20 bore models may be more conducive to good shooting than the 12s. Such guns can be exceptional value for money. I should come clean and admit a particular bias. My favourite amongst mass produced game guns is the Beretta 687 20 bore. For the price it is hard to beat, well made, well balanced and great fun to shoot (Ladies should look no further - but make sure the comb is high enough). Browning and Miroku also make excellent 20 bore models. In all these cases, one can get a 6 or 6 1/4lb. over and under 20 for a £1,000 or so which handles much like a bespoke side by side 12 costing 20 or 30 times as much.
Over and under or side by side? The modern trend is unquestionably towards over and unders. The single sighting plane has advantages and guns of this type tend to control recoil better. If I was advising a beginner, I would unhesitatingly advise a stack-barrelled gun. A very good gun can be bought new or second-hand at modest cost and one knows it will work well (cheaper side by sides tend to be more variable). I will also risk the statement that over and unders are easier to shoot for most people than side by sides. This comment is made after watching hundreds of beginners use both types of gun (but, I might add to this that I do much of my own shooting with a W&C Scott side by side gun made in 1896). Those who are used to side by sides and do well with them, should stick to them. If you need a new gun, however, consider an over and under. Do not think that they are a nasty modern invention. Over unders were first seen in the 16th century, the side by side did not appear until the 18th. Do over and unders have any disadvantages? Yes. The gape may not be as wide as side by sides (so they can be slower to reload). There tends to be a weight penalty as noted. Double trigger models are, sadly, rare today (so, even with a single selective trigger, rapid barrel selection is impeded). And, as far as best bespoke guns are concerned, they are significantly more expensive to buy (in the case of a new Purdey, the base price of an over and under is 11,000 more than a side by side).
Barrel length is another important issue when considering game guns. It is much influenced by fashion. Barrels have got longer in recent years. The 30" 20 bore is popular today and 32" 12s and 20s are quite frequently used on high bird shoots. I use 32" repeaters and over and unders in competition, but have always thought 32" too much for a 12 bore game gun - it is too easy to check one's swing. For most people 28" is the best length in a mass made 12. 30" should be considered if one intends to shoot clays with the same gun and if the barrel walls are not too thick (i.e. provided the barrel weight is not excessive). As far as 20 bores are concerned, I would advise 30" tubes on an over and under (and preferably fixed choke). The longer barrels make the gun a little steadier and improve 'pointability'. What about Churchill's famous XXV? 25 (or 26)inch barrelled 12 bore guns can be an excellent choice for someone of average height who shoots infrequently. Lead is applied more instinctively with such guns, but they do not have the pointing qualities of the Long Toms. Moreover, I do not advise short barrelled guns to those with eye problems. What about rib type? A traditional concave rib is as good as any on a side by side, an over under for game shooting should have a narrow rib or a tapered one (and no mid bead); there is a weight penalty to wide ribs and no perceptual advantage to the game shot.