How Do Over-Under And Side-By-Side Shotguns Compare?

The kickoff of South Dakota’s pheasant season is a big deal. Hunters from around the country flood into the state for the chance to experience some of finest wild-bird hunting in the world. For most of them, a pump or semiautomatic is their scattergun of choice—and for good reason. These get-it-done guns crank out shot after shot when big male pheasants (called "roosters") burst into the sky.

A few hunters carry will something different, though: A side-by-side or over-under. Like bourbon and scotch, these shotguns do similar things. But how they do it differs a great deal.

Side By Sides: The Traditionalists’ Choice

A side-by-side is a double-barrel shotgun with its barrels attached horizontally. These guns carry two shells and most have different degrees of choke in each barrel. Some side-by-sides have two triggers (one to fire each barrel); others have a single trigger which fires one barrel and then the other.

Starting in the late 18th century, side-by-sides became the gun-of-choice for anyone pursuing birds. Why? Because they let them take two shots at fleeing game. This advantage led to a boom in the popularity of side-by-sides which continued until reliable, easy-to-use pumps and semi-auto shotguns appeared right before the First World War.

But even after single-barreled shotguns took over, traditionalists still carried their side-by-sides. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the SxS’s position as the world’s leading doublegun was challenged, this time by a shotgun with two barrels going the other way.

Over Unders: Made Famous By An American

John Moses Browning was a genius. Born in America in 1855, he built his first gun at age 13 and was credited with 128 firearms patents in his lifetime. One filed on October 15, 1923 led to the Browning Superposed, the world’s first commercially successful over-under shotgun.

Over-unders are double-barrel shotguns with their barrels attached vertically. Like SxSs, they carry two shells and have different amounts of choke in each barrel. While most over-unders have single triggers, some have two triggers.

Most people think over-unders are a modern creation. But these guns have been around for hundreds of years. The reason they seem new is because they didn’t become practical until the early 20th century.

That’s when the German maker Merkel built some of the first useful over-under shotguns. These were followed by British OUs from companies like Boss & Co and James Woodward and Sons. While all these OUs were nice, they had a big problem: The German ones were expensive and the British ones were insanely expensive.

While Browning’s Superposed wasn’t cheap, it was an over-under many Americans could afford. After it was introduced in 1931, it was the two-barrel shotgun more and more American shooters picked when they wanted to own a double.

How Are These Guns The Same?

  • Both hold two shots
  • Both come with one trigger or two triggers (although most OUs have single triggers)
  • Both come in all common stock styles: Straight ("English"), semi-pistol grip, full pistol grip, etc.
  • On both, each barrel has choke, one tighter than the other (most times)
  • Both are available in all common gauges and .410
  • Both come in variety of weights and barrel lengths
  • Both are built for specific types of shooting: Game, target, wildfowling, etc.
  • Generally, both recoil more than comparable semiautomatics

How Do They Differ?

  • The way their barrels are aligned. ‘Nuff said.
  • The way they feel. When you mount a side-by-side, the barrels lie in the palm of your lead hand (the one extended forward). This makes SxSs feel more dynamic. Over-unders require cupping and some grip. This gives them a more "rigid" feel.
  • Their sight planes. Bring a side by side to your shoulder, look down it, and what do you see? Two barrels. This is called a "wide site plane". Some shooters find it distracting. With one barrel on top of another, over-unders have "single sight planes". This is a reason some people shoot them better--especially at targets.
  • Side-by-sides have shallow actions. This is another reason they feel more dynamic. Also, compared to OUs, the barrels on a SxS don’t have to swing open as far to expose the chambers. This makes them easier to reload.
  • Over unders have stiffer barrels. This helps them control recoil and makes it easier for you to take a follow up shot at a missed bird or second target.
  • Over unders can be heavy. Another byproduct of their design, although some British and Italian makers built OUs as light as SxSs.

Which Is Right For You?

While side-by-sides and over-unders have their differences--looks wise, mechanics wise, how they feel—most people can shoot either one well with a little patience, practice and training.

Rather than worrying about which way the barrels go, it’s more important to pay attention to how a gun fits and its weight. Fit will have a definite impact on how well you shoot a gun. And if you’re going to be hauling a shotgun around all day, you’re going to notice how heavy it is.

Other than that, picking a SxS or an OU has more to do with what moves you. Like bamboo and graphite fly rods, some people prefer one over the other, either for practical reasons or romantic ones. Other folks like them all. If you’re one of them, you’ll be happy with a safe full of shotguns with barrels going both ways.

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