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Over/Under vs. Side-by-Side: Which Design is Superior? by Thomas Buck

© iStockphoto.com/tapgoodimages

et me say right at the beginning of this essay, I am fully aware of the fact I am about to make many new friends… and many new enemies… with the premise I am about to put forth. It is a proven fact very few subjects can generate such a heated debate among shotgun aficionados as the stated superiority of a side–by–side over an over & under smoothbore. Now that I have “thrown down the gauntlet,” let me state for the record a few absolutes I adhere to.

First, I have owned and continue to own many O&U shotguns. Second, I am a huge fan of both double–barrel designs. In fact, it is fair to say I have never seen a firearm I didn’t like. Third, I confess, depending on the field or clay condition one finds themselves in, both designs may demonstrate obvious advantages. However, after literally decades of competing, hunting and coaching with various double–barrels, I have come to an epiphany of sorts. The original smoothbore designers got it right: The SxS is the better overall design.

Comparison of the visual sighting plane

© iStockphoto.com/deimagine

A comparison of the wider visual sighting plane offered by the SxS versus the O/U design. Even the diminutive .410 bore, when constructed in a SxS configuration, displays a width of sight plane comparable to the larger-bored single–barrel or over/under.

Let Me Explain

Now, before you spit that sip of Woodford Reserve all over this page in disbelief, allow me the chance to explain that statement. Actually, let me restate it: By and large, and with exceptions, the SxS shotgun is a better overall design than that of the O&U.

I know many famous shotgun competitors and smoothbore instructors will take issue with my blanket statement. I also know much paper and ink has been devoted to the premise the O&U shotgun has all but made obsolete the “old–fashioned” SxS. I certainly don’t mean to stick my finger in the collective eye of the O&U worshipping community, but it seems a growing number of accomplished shooters are rediscovering the virtues of the venerable SxS.

The advantages of a SxS are measurable. Let’s start with the fact the shooter’s eyes are “mounted” lower to both barrels when a SxS is brought to the shoulder to fire. The shooter also benefits from a wider horizontal sight plane for laterally moving targets. While it is true the shooter is sighting down a rib with a bead sight of some type, having a lateral (level) point of reference provides the shooter with the ability to subconsciously make instantaneous micro–adjustments with the muzzles as the gun is moved to and through the target.

Unlike rifle shooting, a shotgunner is continually calculating angles, trajectories, velocity and other intangibles as they guide the muzzles to the point of intersection between the target and the shot charge. While none of these calculations are attempted consciously, our gray–matter super–computer is inputting constant updates and variables until well after the triggers are slapped. The peripheral advantage of a wider sighting plane cannot be overstated.

We’re not just talking about the obvious passing or crossing shot, either, although the SxS does really demonstrate its advantage in those situations. Let’s focus on field conditions for a moment and maybe you can visualize the stated advantage of the wider sighting plane.

When a field shooter with SxS experience encounters passing shots from game birds, the distance between the edge of the leading barrel and the sight bead becomes a natural reference point (approximately) for leading the bird. With each successive passing shot, the shooter makes small adjustments, either increasing or decreasing the amount of lead. Those adjustments are easier to make when your mind’s eye already has a prominent focal point to begin with.

One of the prevalent “knocks” against SxSs for upland birds has always been based on an elementary misconception. That is, with dog–flushed birds the SxS is at a disadvantage due to the fact the wider surface of the two barrels hides or screens the close–flushing birds as they begin their rise and the shooter drops his/her head and eyes to mount the gun. In reality, one only has to visualize such a covey flush to notice two things take place as the birds begin to make their defensive rise. First, even pen–raised birds get airborne faster than the shooter mounts the gun and brings the muzzles to the target. If done correctly, the muzzles are already in a slightly elevated position, allowing the shooter to look directly over the top at the target. As the muzzles are driven toward the target, they should never rise above the point they started at… which would result in them screening the target.

The operative words there are “…if done correctly.” That being the case, the width of the double–barrel for flushing or rising targets becomes inconsequential.

In addition, most close–flushing or rising birds very seldom continue their retreat in a totally linear fashion. They tend to turn, dart, peel off, fall away or climb at progressive angles. In other words, they don’t usually fly straight! Once again, as the target moves out and away from the shooter — and they tend to move off of a straight line of flight — the wider targeting line of a SxS becomes a distinct advantage in getting to the target more quickly. Once the muzzles are on the target, a small adjustment is made to fine–tune the sight picture.

The Intangibles

Of course, many intangibles come into affect when one is attempting to hit a moving target with smaller and faster–moving projectiles. Is the gun properly fitted to the shooter? Are the barrels correctly regulated to measured points of aim? Are the barrels properly choked for the type of target, shell being used and distance the target is acquired at? All of these (and many other) variables manifest themselves in how the shot “feels” to the shooter.

The advantages of the SxS over the O&U are measurable.

© www.iStockphoto.com/glenkar

The advantages of the SxS over the O&U are measurable. One important factor is the shooter’s eye is “mounted” closer to both barrels when brought to the shoulder to fire. Some obvious results of that advantage are evidenced here.

One could overly complicate the entire art form of shotgunning by fixating on the multitude of calculations that take place upon each shot. While the double–barrel may demonstrate a mathematical quotient that equates to a larger pointing surface on a SxS in reference to the optimum pattern distance for the gauge and choke over a single–barrel gun, I think it is easier to simply say… the SxS is a classier–looking gun!

While I am sure many O&U devotees have not bothered to finish this article — having gulped their single malt, torn out the pages of the article and pitched them into the fireplace — I just want to say in my defense I was once as lost as they are. Through experience and a strong desire to figure out why I was missing when I should have been hitting, it became quite obvious to me. It was the gun! Certainly it could not have been the shooter.

I think my next treatise should be on why we don’t need 16–gauge guns. That should really excite some readers! But I fear my good friend Bill Hanus may never speak to me again after that sacrilege. Meanwhile, enjoy your double guns — whichever you choose! The joy is in the shooting and hunting, and to each his (or her) own.

This article promotes a point of view that the side–by–side shotgun is the superior design. Here are some points in favor of the over & under shotgun. For the most part, we will consider these points from an “out–of–the–box” point of view. — Johnny Cantu, Editor–in–Chief

Weight:

Although virtually any gun can be weighted specifically to the shooter’s desire, an O&U generally weighs more than a SxS out–of–the–box, all the better to help reduce recoil and shooter fatigue.

Clay Target Use:

Yes, there are those who compete in special events with the SxS; however, of all the shotgun designs used in competition, only the semi–automatics rival the popularity of the O&U for clay–target purposes. Even in the field, O&Us are popular among upland bird hunters.

Sight Plane:

O&Us offer the shooter’s eye, once the gun is properly mounted to the cheek and shoulder, a more precise sighting to the intended target, whether it be feathered or made of clay. This narrower sight plane influences the shooter’s mind to pay more attention to muzzle placement in relation to the target, resulting in better shots that transfer more of the load’s energy to the target. On the clays course or range, this means more smoke. In the field, it can translate to more humane kills. Additionally, even as the O&U is in transition from a low, ready position in the field, it is much easier to “look through the gun” to acquire rocketing birds coming up on their initial flight paths out of cover.

Recoil:

The alignment of an O&U’s barrels is obviously superposed one atop the other. Although this might at first seem to be a marked disadvantage forcing the design of the receiver to be taller than a typical SxS, with regard to recoil control, it is an advantage. Look at an O&U in profile by laying it on a table or simply find a picture of an O&U, determine the centerline of the bottom barrel and trace its path from the muzzle all the way to the stock and continue to the butt. Notice how the centerline stays with the majority of the overall dimension of the gun. It does this because it is situated deeper within the gun. This is one reason recoil control is easier to achieve with an O&U, the recoil forces have to contend with more of the mass of the gun before they hit you. This means less barrel bounce, as well. More recoil control equals more shot control, more shot control equals better hits, especially on subsequent (follow–up) targets. Yes, the top barrel will bounce more than the bottom barrel when fired, but there is no third barrel to worry about, so as long as you point properly on your second target and trigger the shot at the right time, who cares if the barrel bounces a bit?

Heat Off The Barrel:

If you’ve ever shot in the summer (and who hasn’t), you know how toasty the barrel on a SxS or O&U can get. If your SxS gun is equipped with a splinter–type forend, your fingertips can become blistered in no time at all, not a pleasant situation for sure. I hear many of you SxS users screaming, “You can always wear gloves!” Well, I don’t know about you, but for me, gloves and summertime shooting do not compute. The only time I’ve ever wished I had gloves when shooting my O&Us in the heat of a summer day was after I finished shooting and didn’t give the barrels time to cool off when putting it back in its case. Ouch!

Stock Dimensions:

For my taste, the stocks on many SxS shotguns have far too much drop and too thin of a wrist for comfortable shooting in the field or target range. In my experience, the sweep of the pistol grip on most O&Us is reasonably comfortable for many shooters right out of the box. Of course, all these points become moot when you do the proper thing and have your shotgun — of any design — properly fitted to you.

There are as many points in favor of the O&U as there are for the SxS. Regardless which you prefer and regardless of the reasons, have it fitted properly to you, pattern it, test it with all the loads you intend to use, practice your mount and enjoy it!

Thomas Buck has been an avid outdoorsman for over 35 years. He is a certified gunsmith, firearms instructor and shotgun coach and a competitive shooter. For five years, Thomas co–hosted the CBS syndicated radio show “Austin & Buck Outdoors” and owned a high–end gun/outdoors shop for over 18 years. He is currently President of Clenzoil Worldwide, makers of premium cleaning, lubricating and restorative products for firearms. He can be reached through www.clenzoil.com.