"Dream of things that never were and ask why not?" sums my reaction when handling a best quality, invariably hellishly costly, double.
Why can't this feel of a fine double be made available to all of us at an affordable price?
Because most people do not know the feel of a fine double. They have never held a 6 1/2 lb shotgun that is so finely balanced it almost reads their thoughts. Nor have they manipulated, opened and closed a properly finished double to get a first hand feel of that vaultlike lockup. Most people have SEEN such a gun in photos and Internet videos. They have visual information but not TACTILE knowledge of it.
So it is easy to fool people that a cheap item that LOOKS like a fine double is close enough. And inevitably there are "experts" who are there to tell the gullible that they, the "experts", have handled the original and the copy and ascertained that they are close enough to make the copy a bargain.
Add to the above the mental inertia of makers who ploddingly follow nonsensical conventions. So all double guns have ribs, even though ribs do nothing functional while adding weight rust nests. Inertia also burdens top of the line doubles with obsolete systems designed for uses that no longer exist. Auto ejectors, self opening, automatic safeties, are designed for shooting driven game with a pair of guns, assisted by at least one loader. When was the last time you hunted this way?
Taking away the superfluous while retaining the essential is minimalism in design. How much can you subtract from a best gun and still retain the "bestness"?
Quite a lot!
The list of features that can be subtracted from a double yet retain its essential handling qualities is extensive:
Let us count the parts in a sidelock:
Plate, Bridle, Tumbler, Sear, Intercepting sear, Main spring, Sear Spring, I.Sear Spring, Main spring link, that makes nine parts, add five pins and the total is 14 bits requiring careful hand fitting to the lock plate and each other. Add the cocking lever, its pin, sometimes a return spring and you are up to 19 parts PER SIDE!
The boxlock has:
Cocking lever, C.L. Spring, Tumbler, Sear, Main spring, Sear spring. Total six parts per side plus three axles makes 9 parts per side for what is reputed to be the simple double gun action.
There has to be a simpler way.
A modern hammer action using just three pins in a purposely designed receiver can be made with the following parts:
Tumbler, Sear, One COIL spring for both, Spring guide, that is a total of 4 parts per side. Such a simple action retains the automatic rebound and automatic hammer block that prevents discharge unless the trigger is pressed. Just FOUR parts per side powered by a coil spring bought ready made from any spring maker!
No, the writer is not the genius who contrived this simplification. An unsung genious gunmaker who worked during the early part of the 20th century simplified shotgun actions more than anyone else. William Baker was the brilliant man who showed the way. Some of his inventions found their way into best guns- the Baker ejector in the Boss, the Baker action in the Lancaster 12/20, the superbly simple action of the BSA Single XII, and many others. Baker proved that one COIL main spring can power the hammer as well as the sear, thus eliminating two V springs.
The traditional hammer gun proved that one spring can provide auto rebounding and offer just as much protection from accidental discharges as the intercepting safety of a sidelock.
In the modern hammer gun just one ready made COIL spring provides multiple functions: tumbler power, sear power, trigger return, auto rebound, tumbler block.
The simplified lock of the modern hammer gun retains the sophisticated geometry of a sidelock, therefore the much touted trigger feel.
The idea in getting a good trigger feel is that the sear should not need to move the tumbler upon disengagement. So the relationship of sear to tumbler engagement is at 90 degrees. In boxlocks it is more than 90 degrees hence the sear moves the tumbler back a little and that results in the spongy trigger feel associated with boxlocks. Sponginess also means increased safety since it makes accidental discharges more unlikely.
For safety's sake we will tolerated a little sponginess. Combined with the automatic tumbler block it will make the modern hammer as safe, if not safer, than a sidelock.
A hammer gun is an easy opener by definition. Chalk that up on the plus side.
The Purdey underbolt is the rule in most break open double shotguns. Most, not all. Horsley had patented a round bolt, which was later used in the Ithaca Flues double and the Winchester Model 21.
The round bolt makes engineering sense. It is easier to drill a round hole than broach a square blind hole. The round bolt has proven its strength in the famous Winchester destruction tests. Combined with modern metallurgy and quality control it surpasses the flat underbolt as locking system.
It would be silly to utilise a round bolt and combine it with the complex top lever opening system. There are other ways to open a gun, easier, simpler to make and regulate than the unergonomic top lever. If you doubt the unergonomic claim, try opening a top lever one handed!
Horsley combined the round bolt with a side pedal and on some guns with a pull back thumb lever. The modern Ljutic has a simple stud in front of the trigger guard. It is arguably more ergonomic to use this type of opening than the antiquted top lever with its side protrusions necessitating complex drilling and weakening of the action body.
The ability of an action to withstand normal service stress and probable overstress, depends on the quantity and quality of metal at its critical point: the section under the standing breech.
It is at this point that a double gun flexes during firing. A hammer design does not remove metal from this critical point. The action bar is solid since there are no recesses for springs or action bits, as in the bar action sidelock and the boxlock.
In addition to the strength issue, there is the matter of manufacturing cost. It costs time and money to drill long holes in a steel action.
As to the quality of the metal, keeping things simple means that funds can be diverted to proper heat treatment, including cryo treatment, and quality control checks to ensure not only strength but fault free construction.
Traditional best guns have chopper lump barrels.
But the most tested guns, those that fire hundreds of thousands of rounds in the hands of champion target shooters have MONOBLOC (without a K) barrels. As far as I can make out, no modern target gun has chopper lump.
When chopper lump barrels wear out, they are cut off, reamed out and they get turned into ersatz Monobloc barrels. So a modern design might as well opt for Monobloc from the start! Enough said on that point.
Break open guns eventually wear and come "off face". Retightening a loose double involves a fascinating repertoire of gunsmithing improvisations. Spray welding the hook, milling and adding bits to the Purdey type underbolt, shims, cross pin 180 degree turns, and other ploys.
It would be simpler to engineer renewability from the start, as was done with the Parker doubles. A removable and replaceable shoe at the barrel hook and the rear lump would make more sense, and provide a much saner repair system than all the improvisations.
"That is a hornet's nest of rust in there" says a top smith when removing ribs from a double. And promptly goes into a long process of scrubbing, sanding, tinning, jig fixing, inorder to stick the ribs back on so they can reform the rust!
Not all doubles had ribs. Alex Martin built ribless shotguns. The French Darne, one of the best handling doubles ever built, often comes with no bottom rib.
Shotgun barrels are not, or should not be, held together by ribs. Special pieces of packig hold the barrels together. Ribs are there to do... what exactly no one really knows. Certainly the bottom rib has no real function other than to act as a cover.
Whatever "sighting" aid is provided by the soldered top rib can be provided by a super light, snap-in, carbon fiber rib. A snap-in rib can be changed with another shape if the owner so wishes.
In terms of weight, two ribs add about 200 grams of weight, about seven onces. Note that this weight is up front, supported by the weak hand and its effect on feel and balance is negative.
On a non ejector hammer gun the attachment of the forend is simplified. The forend in such a system does not withstand forces from ejector or main spring cocking. So the forend can be a simple snap to device. In effect it is lighter, cheap to make and fit and this counts in the total cost.
General Journee in 1902, Ed Lowry in the 1960s, and Dr Andrew Jones in 2007 proved that shot ballistics is Gaussian.
Karl Friedrich Gauss gave his name to the statistical discovery that says that random events, and shot hits are random events, follow the "normal distribution" rule. There is no need to delve into the details here. The sources have been cited.
What is vital is that no matter what tricks and gimmicks are employed, shot distribution remains Gaussian. As long as there is enough velocity for the job, the only two things that affect ballistics are the choke and shot charge weight.
The above puts into perspective expensive gimmickry like overboring, expensive choke tubes, long forcing cones, porting and perhaps other unnecessary stuff. The normal barrel profile is all that is needed for success in the field or the range.
Barrel convergence and point of impact regulation are the truly important bits. The finest barrels can be made useless if they do not BOTH hit where the gun is pointed. It is easy to regulate barrels, so easy as to make non regulation inexcusable at any cost.
It goes without saying that the choice of steel, its elastic strength, governs dimensions and therefore weight of barrels. A strong steel allows lighweight barrels and this is the choice for the modern hammer gun.
The universal characteristic of top guns is that they are made for SOMEONE. There is not such thing as an off the shelf best gun.
Making the gun for someone involves the usual made to measure business of gun fitting, and a little more. In addition to the dimensional fitting there is personalised balance and the overall tactile feel that is transmitted during the manipulation of the gun. Individual fitting is expensive, but now we have mass customisation used in the garment and shoe industry, and it has applications in gun fitting.
There is a definite sense of precision transmitted when cocking a good hammer gun. The effort is there, but it is managable, smooth, pleasant. This positive ease of manipulation is evident in most quality mechanical devices, the snapping together of Hasselblad cameras being one prime example. This is the desired feel in the modern hammer gun. It is achievable because there are so few parts and all are mirror polished. Simple actions do not justify nasty finish!
As for balance, it can also be dialed-in according to pesonal preference. The ribless design and stock bolt system allow the removal and addition of weight at critical points to fine tune the balance.
And up comes the paradox of the stock. The stock is called on to be a fitted handle yet it must also be beautiful, therefore expensive, hence unlikely to be subjected to alteration and replacement. This makes no sense.
A plain, even grained piece of walnut, cheap enough to replace even on a whim, is the way to go. The finish is what will give such a plain piece the tactile feel of the good gun, and also the color of a classic stock which arguably is more classic than complex figure. The walnut fetish business is not part of the specs of a truly useful and modern double.
Perazzi's system of computerised stock manufacture is now available to all thanks to CNC machining. It is possible to order a Perazzi stock and it will be made, finished and shipped the same day, and it will fit the gun it was made for when it gets there. The significance of this in the case of used gun sales is obvious. By comparison a best gun stock takes about six months to make and the process requires the presence of the gun. There is no comparison really!
During the golden era of gumaking there was no engraving obsession. Each firm had its house engraving, often executed by itw own craftsmen who learned the pattern by heart. Check images of old Purdeys, Bosses, Hollands for verification.
Gradually the taste developed for artistic engraving signed by the creator. The impetus increased in the 1980s to the point that guns are sold by reference not to the gunmaker but the engraver. Sales notices beginning with "engraved by Firmo Fracassi...." are fairly common.
Originally engraving had a utilitarian role, it diminished the reflectivity of the action metal. Now engraving is purely decorative. It is also expensive!
Engravers' time is charged about 50 Euro per hour. A 100 per cent pattern for a sidelock with game scenes takes about 800 hours to complete. A moderate pattern is about 50 hours.
However, all the engraving in the world cannot beautify an ugly form. When it comes to doubles the form that is universally appreciated is the round shape. It is no accident that rounding the action bar draws a premium. So we might as well go to the proper source of roundness, and that means two names, Dickson Round Action and the French Ideal. Both are round actioned in the true sense, their actions (functions) lead to the external shapes (form), thus they justify using the old cliche "form follows function". Arguably the same can be said of the Modern Hammer Gun. Its function, inboard hammers on a trigger plate action, favor the external rounded form.
Gough Thomas had said of the Dickson Round Action shape: "for sheer thoroughbred lines and perfected functional form the Dickson Round Action yields nothing, nothing whatsoever, to the finest sidelock ever built". He was right, and engraving can be displaced by form, alhough when it can be cut by laser it remains as a secondary thought.
So what have we here? A safe, simple yet superbly made, robust, reliable, light weight, adaptable, beautiful side by side. It is easily serviced and repaired via drop-in parts that need no fitting. Its barrels to action connection is infinitely renewable. It should sell for around 2000 dollars, or 1700 Euros.
Would it sell? Lacking status and aping rights to a recognisable big name, it probably would not. If, and it is a difficult if, such a gun could be thrust into the hands of potential buyers, to appeal to their tactile and not visual or status sense, it would sell. The challenge is to find ways to gain tactile appeal when all advertising is visually oriented. One, just one, will probably be built for strictly private use.