Side by Side Versus Over and Under
Over the last twenty years, the over and under, long popular with clays shots, has also become a favourite with gameshots. This does not just apply to the new generation of live quarry shooters. Go to almost any game shoot in Britain and you will see as many Berettas and Brownings as 'traditional' English and Scottish side by sides. Happily, the prejudice against the over and under that was once apparent in some more reactionary quarters seems to have faded (and with it a new appreciation of the side by side has grown).
Both over and under and side by side configurations have their strengths and weaknesses. I will place my neck on the metaphorical block: I think the over and under is, generally, the better gun if ease of shooting and the statistics of shotgun marksmanship are our primary criteria for assessment (though, for the record, please note that I do much of my own clay-busting with an 1896 W&C Scott side by side). The best game shots I know use over and unders (with two notable exceptions) and they are indisputably the gun of choice for most serious clay shooting competition. Not since the days of Percy Stanbury has a side-by-side been seen to take the main prizes in big competitions like the British Open (though Simon Ward, Mark O’Dowd and Jason Abbot have shown that side by sides can still do great things).
All sorts of blimpish tosh was written a generation or two ago to support the bogus notion that the over-and-under was inferior to the traditional side-by-side. None of those making these irrational and often silly statements were ever asked to put their arguments to the test. Nor - apparently - did they bother to look very hard at some of the great British over unders such as those made by Boss and Woodward (I tend to think, though, that the focus of prejudice was foreign over and unders).
Over-and-unders do have distinct technical advantages. Three of the most important are the single sighting plane, the stiffness of barrels (not to mention stock and action), and the efficient way that stack-barrelled gun controls recoil. It is frequently said that side by sides have a tendency to shoot lower than over and unders. They also have less reliable reliable single trigger mechanisms. Many of the finest game shots of recent times - Sir Joseph Nickerson and Barry Simpson, for example - opted for the over and under before they became the norm. Joe Nickerson used a trio of over-and-under Purdey Woodward 28-bores and Barry still uses his Beretta 687 EELL 20 bore.
Over and under do have some drawbacks, however. They can be more complicated to manufacture than the side-by-side (and are typically more costly in comparable qualities). Most designs require the firing pins to be angled. (which is a more theoretical than real-world concern). Cocking dogs in the forend on cheaper guns can be prone to breaking. Perhaps the most important practical problems is that in many over and under designs there is their lack of gape: they do not open quite wide enough for really rapid reloading. Holland and Holland made a great effort to address this problem in their relatively new range of over and under guns.
Another problem is the height of the action. To my eye, many over and unders look a bit too high in profile. This is especially apparent in 12 bore guns built with a full-width hinge-pin and under barrel bolting (20 bores are nearly always more aesthetically appealing). Weight can also be a problem with over and under game guns in 12 bore. Light weight guns (under 7 pounds) are quite a challenge to build. I often advise 20 bore variants of popular over and unders for those looking for a moderately priced gun with excellent handling dynamics.
Do not bother trying to argue the case that the over and under is a nasty modern invention. Some of the earliest double barrelled guns were made to this pattern. Greener built an experimental side-opener in the 1870s. Dickson also used this style in the 1880s. Boss and Woodward had patented their improved, low-profile, sidelock actions before the Great War. John Moses Browning died near his workbench in 1926 perfecting the famous 'Superposed' (leaving his son Val to complete the single trigger).
There is always a danger in this sort of debate of confusing apples and oranges. You can not usefully compare an 8 ½ pound over and under clay buster with a 6 ½ pound side by side game gun. We must only consider guns of similar weight and intended for a similar purpose. Within those limits, I think that the differences between the two action types are, in fact, quite small. As far as practical shotgun marksmanship is concerned, the over and under makes things just a little easier on paper and often in practice too, especially at long quartering and going-away targets. Beginners seem to progress better with over and unders. Those with eye dominance problems also appear to do better with the configuration in my experience (probably because a single sighting plane has less potential for visual confusion).
I will not over state the case, however. For those brought up on side by sides there may be no advantage in swapping to an over and under. Whatever theoretical advantages the configuration may confer can be outweighed by lack of familiarity. I have championed the over and under in this article, but I would still like to see a long (32”), but fairly light-barrelled, side by side put together to do battle on the clay circuits. It might do very well. The ideal side by side for shooting clays has not yet been made and consequently we cannot settle an important part of the argument.