What Do I Need To Know Before I Buy A Vintage Double-Barrel Shotgun?

There’s a lot of beauty in wingshooting: From the staunch point of an English setter to the camaraderie of friends who get together season-after-season to chase pheasants.

For many hunters, vintage double-barrel shotguns are another aspect of this beauty. With two barrels, and capable of firing two shells, double-barrels are the original repeaters. Back before pumps and semi-autos were invented, they ruled wingshooting.

Today, many upland hunters are rediscovering vintage doubles, especially ones built by classic American, British, and European makers. If you’re looking to get into these vintage shotguns, there’s a lot you need to know before you buy one. To get you started, here’s a crash course.

The Basics

While firearms with two-barrels have been around for centuries, the doubles we know of today were created in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. At that time, companies throughout the U.S., U.K. and Europe were building them. These doubles were similar in some ways and different in others.

Key Parts They Have Common

  • Two barrels: Obviously, these are THE key components of double-barrel shotguns. On side-by-sides, these barrels are joined horizontally; on over-unders, they’re stacked. Most of the time, each barrel has some choke in it, with more in the left (or top) barrel. When the gun is fired (always one barrel at a time), both barrels shoot to the same point of aim.
  • Actions: This is where the barrels attach to the rest of the shotgun. Actions have locks and locks are what make a double-barrel shotgun fire. On most doubles, the locks are mounted inside a box-shaped action (a boxlock). On others, the locks are mounted on plates on either side of the action (a sidelock).
  • Butt stocks: This is the piece of wood at the back side of the shotgun. You hold it with you rear hand and press its butt against your chest.
  • Forends: This is the sliver of wood in front of the action and beneath the barrels. It secures the barrels to the action and may also house ejector work.
  • Triggers: Double-barrel shotguns have either double triggers (one for each barrel) or a single trigger (which fires one barrel at a time).

What Sets Them Apart

  • Ejectors or extractors: After you fire a double and open it to reload, models equipped with ejectors kick the spent shells free from the chambers and away from the gun. Models with extractors simply raise the shells up so you can remove them by hand.
  • The locks: While all double-barrels have locks, the way the lock are mounted on the action differs. To differentiate them, some doubles are sidelocks, some are boxlocks, and others are in between.

American Makers

Over the last two centuries, there have been thousands of gunmakers in the U.S. While many have made double barrels, the big boys of the business were Parker, Ithaca, Fox, L.C. Smith, the Lefever Arms Company and Browning.

  • Parker Brothers: The most famous of the American makers. Parker Brothers was founded in 1868. In 1934, the company was bought by Remington Arms. Remington made side-by-side shotguns under the Parker name until around 1947. In all, just over 242,000 Parker shotguns were built.
  • H. Fox Gun Company: Founded in 1906 by a competitive shooter named Ansley H. Fox, these side-by-sides were built into the 1940s. A.H. Fox only made shotguns in 12 gauge, 16 gauge, and 20 gauge. Their total production was around 180,000 side-by-sides.
  • thaca Gun Company: One of America’s most successful gun makers. The Ithaca Gun Company opened in 1883. From then until 1948, they built 300,000+ side-by-sides--more than any other U.S. maker.
  • C. Smith: Builders of the only mass-produced sidelock ever made in America. The L. C. Smith company started out in Syracuse, NY, in 1881. Side-by-side shotguns were made under the L. C. Smith name until 1950. Because of the way L. C. Smiths records were kept, it’s hard to determine how many guns they built. But it’s safe to assume the numbers exceed 150,000.
  • Lefever Arms Co: The platypus of American side-by-sides. Lefever Arms Co. side-by-sides are part boxlock, part sidelock, and totally unique. Introduced in 1883, they were the first commercially successful hammerless shotgun made in the U.S. Shotguns bearing the Lefever Arms Co. name were made until 1919. In all, around 73,000 were built.
  • Browning: The only major American gunmaker who offered over-under shotguns. The Browning Superposed was made in Belgium by Fabrique Nationale d'Herstal (FN) and introduced to the U.S. in 1931. In all, more than 100,000 Superposed were made.

British Makers

Great Britain used to be home to hundreds of gun companies building all kinds of double-barrel shotguns. Here are three of the most famous and most important.

  • James Purdey & Sons: Founded in 1814, Purdey has made some of the world’s finest side-by-sides and over-unders. Monarchs and Royals around the world have used their doubles. Today, Purdey is still in business. So far, they’ve built 30,000+ firearms.
  • W.&C. Scott: When the first World War broke out, Scott was one of the largest manufacturer of side-by-sides in the world--and one of the most innovative. They built shotguns of all grades under their own name. They also built double-barrel shotguns for other "makers" throughout the U.K., Europe, and even the U.S. While Scott made tens-of-thousands of guns, their total production numbers are unknown.
  • Westley Richards: Patentees of the Anson & Deeley boxlock shotgun and the "detachable lock" action, two of the world’s most famous side by sides. Founded in 1812, Westley Richards is still in business today. To date, they’ve probably made 25,000+ doubles.

The Europeans

Double-barrel shotguns used to be built throughout Europe. A lot of these them were beautifully made. Today, these shotguns are some of the best buys on the market. As you search for them, here are some gunmaker names to look for:

  • German and Austrian makers: Merkel, Heym and Springer
  • French makers: Manufrance, Verney Carron, and Guyot
  • Belgian makers: Francotte, Defourny and Lebeau Courally
  • Italian makers: Franchi, Abbiatico & Salvinelli, and Beretta
  • Spanish makers: Ugartechea, AYA, and Arrieta

And Keep In Mind

  • Condition is king: When shopping for a vintage double, the most important thing to look for is original condition. The more original condition (a.k.a. original finish) a vintage double has, the more valuable it will be.