These three guns represent different levels of condition. The Graded Lefever at the top is completely refinished with redone wood, refinished Damascus barrels and restored case colors. With most field guns, the cost of this would exceed the value of the gun. The middle Fox Sterlingworth has been restocked with a better grade of wood but is otherwise original. The bottom Parker Trojan is original except for scratches and hits incurred in use.
Doublegun enthusiasts will always give you a lot of great free information. This is a dealer set up at a doublegun shooting event, and these are held all over the country. You can go buy an inexpensive hardware store or Savage/Stevens side by side and get out shooting, then learn as you go. The guns aren’t going anywhere. Ten generations from now the same pool of classic side by sides will still be changing hands most likely, and you have all the time you need to find the right gun that fits your budget.
This is a classic Damascus pattern on a German guild gun in 16 gauge. All but the most specialized collectors stay away from Damascus guns, and you can often get a good buy on them. I load my own black powder shells for this particular gun for pheasant hunting and have taken successful 30 yard shots, but many poeple shoot low brass modern shotshells in sound Damascus guns. THIS IS NOT ADVICE. Talk to an experienced gunsmith who can check your gun out for you.
Classic doubles are great for more than field hunting. There are numerous events across the country like the Northeast Side by Side Championships in Friendsville Pennsylvania.
: Gun shows are a great place to find a classic double. Cherie checks out a rare 36” barreled Parker.
This Thomas Wild underlever hammer gun was rebuilt just for shooting clays. It has a raised rib and unoriginal beavertail forend. Still, it’s a beautiful competition gun and exactly what the owner wanted.
A recent family hunt with classic American doubles. Son in Law, Jeremy, daughter, Valarie, me, my wife, Cherie and Son in Law, Jeff. My grandog, Regan and my Lab, Larry. Three Foxes, a Parker and an L. C. Smith. A great day afield and the newest gun in the crowd was Val’s L. C. from the mid 1930s.
Notice the difference in these hammers, on two sides of the same gun. Nobody has ever noticed in all the years I have owned this gun, but it brought the price of it down considerably, to under $1,000, even though it is ornately engraved.
I found this restocked ejector Fox double with two sets of barrels on GunsAmerica. It was the first gun I ever bought online.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and Monte Carlo style stocks are not real popular in the US, but are very common on European guns. With the thin wrist, this gun is very elegant.
By Dick Jones
As much as I love, own and shoot modern shotguns, there is really nothing like a classic side by side doublegun. If you have never tried one, do yourself a favor and go heft one up to your shoulder in a gunshop. You may say eh, no big deal, but you also may fall in love, I warn you. The side by side shotgun has a contagious kind of energy to it, something like a built in romance, for a lot of us anyways.
Dating back to the flintlock and percussion days, then carried on through the early cartridge era of the late 19th century, to the bird hunters of today, the side by side has served as the classic “fowler” over dozens of generations in the western world. There is no single type of firearm with a richer history and tradition than a side by side shotgun. Buying one right isn’t hard. There are so many that you can really choose what priorities matter to you and focus on just those. Then just go shoot it.
New production side by sides coming mostly out of Italy and Spain are fairly expensive even in the field grades. Generally you will pay at least a third more for a quality side by side than for a similar quality over-under, and they are easily double even the nicest auto-loader, and three times a quality pump gun at minimum. Ornate, engraved and fitted side by sides can easily exceed the price of a well equipped SUV. It’s ok though. You’re worth it, if you can afford one. Used guns, however, are a whole other story.
The nice thing about side by sides is that there are a ton of them out there, and if you pay close attention to detail you can get yourself a really nice gun for a fraction of the price of a “top shelf” gun. “Real” collectors want only truly original guns in pristine original condition, and those guns tend to collect themselves up in gun shops that specialize in these types of guns. Collectible doubles generally bring two or three times the price of a non-collectible gun, even one that is extremely sound, but otherwise lacking in something specific that takes away the collectability. If you focus on the non-collectible guns, because they have been modified or refinished in a way that only makes you love them more, this is where you find the great buys.
There are few things in life we can both enjoy and that are also a good investment. But, provided you choose wisely, a vintage shotgun can will most likely be a better investment than a CD or stock account. You may not care about the resale or trade-in value of the gun, but knowing that it will retain its value is a great feeling. Even if you bought this particular gun because it is specifically not collectible, (because it has been repaired or refinished or something), you will most get your money back out at a minimum. In my experience nearly all side by sides that look good and feel good go up in value. In many cases it will only be you who knows the difference between the gun you bought will most likely retain its value should you decide to “trade up” at some point. You just have to know what for, and how different aspects effect overall value. But you can be fairly certain that if you do your homework and don’t pay too much for a gun, you will be able to sell it for at least what you paid to the next person, provided you take care of it fairly well.
If you plan to use the gun, collectibles are a bad investment anyway, because your field use will depreciate the value of the gun (you WILL bump the checkering even though you wish you won’t). As shooters, solid guns with some wear on them already are a better value. Refinished guns are also an option if you want something that looks factory new. We just had an article on Turnbull Manufacturing, and they restore field grade guns all the time. Many of these guns are out in the market and not in demand by collectors. You just have to find them.
Something you learn about side by sides is that most of these guns were regarded as tools by the original owners and there was little consideration that they would someday be valuable. Sometimes repairs were done to get by until the owner had the money to buy a nice pump or automatic shotgun. I look for lower grade guns from companies that made higher grade guns back in the day. They tend to feel more elegant and refined than the more blocky side by sides from Savage/Stevens, and the literally hundreds of brands of “hardware store” guns from the early 20th Century. Side by sides used to be the more common firearm in America, and you used to be able to buy them at hardware stores, as well as at Sears, Montgomery Ward, and many other hardware stores. Each had its own brand name, and there are whole books on the subject these days. Many of the guns came out of Belgium, France, England, and large firearm building guilds in the US, none of whom are memorable today.
The higher grade companies of the era included Fox, L.C. Smith, Parker, Lefever, and Ithaca, as well as some English names and few other European brands. If you care at all about what the guys at the bird farm or the trap bunker think, stick to one of the more recognized names. These guns can be found really cheap that have had what many consider criminal activity done to them, like improper refinishing, cut barrels, shortened stocks, poorly done repairs, and others too numerous to mention. Some of these afflictions are cosmetic only, some are a death sentence. You have to learn what hurts only your ego and the asking price of the gun, and what actually hurts the gun itself, or is a signal that the gun is in hurting condition.
Refinishing is not so bad if it is well done. If metal is refinished, the surfaces shouldn’t be rounded and look like a lump of Silly Putty. Engraving can sometimes pick up rust and pits, and it should not be polished in a way as to blur the edges of the pattern, so it looks worn away. Case colors on these old guns wear off easier than any other part of the finish, mostly due to UV rays in the field over the years, but an old brown or plum patina can be a beautiful thing too. Polished receivers detract value, but if you want to send the gun out for new case colors anyway, it can save you some money on prep. From a value standpoint, it’s better for the receiver to have gone to a patina than for it to be polished or blued.
Refinished wood, if properly done, isn’t a big issue on a gun you plan to use. What you don’t want to see is evidence of heavy handed sanding. This will show up where the wood meets the metal. It is called a condition of the metal being “proud,” or higher than the adjoining wood. This is an indication of sanding and refinishing. You will see it more pronounced at the corners of the receiver and the corner where the forearm iron meets the wood. If the metal is “proud” by the same amount everywhere it meets metal, it could just be wood shrinkage, but it still detracts from value.
The checkering should not be filled with varnish, and if it is, you know that the gun was sanded and re-varnished. The lines of the checkering should be sharp and pronounced, but not too sharp, or you can be sure it is a re-checkering. Few of these old guns had pointed diamonds in the checkering. Most were flat topped, especially in the lower grades. Be extremely suspect of pristine checkering when looking for refinished guns. Nice checkering is a plus on the gun you want to carry, but don’t pay for it as if the checkering is original.
Barrel bluing should be rust blued, which is a lighter, more blue colored bluing than today’s modern black bluing, or a brown or plum patina . If the barrels of a field grade gun are glossy bright black blue, stay away. The barrels were almost definitely re-blued with hot bluing, and this is a death sentence for an old double. To avoid this trap, you will have to look at guns that are “correct,” just to get a feel for the colors to look for. Once you know what the barrels are supposed to look like, hot blue sticks out like an Italian at an Irish wedding. The reason for concern is the voids between the barrels and ribs that trap the bluing salts due to the pressure changes involved in the heating and cooling of the barrels. The corrosive nature of the bluing salts will eat the barrels from inside those voids, until the gun falls apart, literally, in your hands. .
The temperatures involved in hot bluing can also loosen the ribs since the ribs on fine old guns are bonded with low temperature solder. The cost of repairing loose ribs exceeds the value of almost all field grade guns. To spot this, look closely at the joints of the barrels and ribs. You can also tap the barrels while hanging them on the barrel hook with a string. They should ring like a bell. Any dull tones and buzzing indicates a high possibility of the rib coming loose and solder that has partially let go.
Cut barrels are also common since most old field grade guns came with longer, full choke barrels. Shortening the barrels accomplished both making the gun handier in tight cover and opening up the chokes (not so great if you plan to shoot trap or sporting clays always). The normal way to tell if barrels are cut is to look for a space between the ends of the barrels. They don’t touch together, but this isn’t a certain test. Some manufactures shortened barrels on guns to fill orders, so the shortened barrels are in fact original. Also, conversely, some cut barrels continue to touch after being cut. American manufacturered barrels were always in even numbers from 26” to 32” as normal lengths. Most 12 gauge and even 16 gauge (more on those later) guns had 30” barrels with smaller gauges being 28”. If you measure your barrel and it is an odd length, or shorter than 30 inches, it is at least a decent chance that it is a cut gun.
The length of the choke cones is the best indicator of original barrel length, but this is hard to measure and not 100% reliable. On most old guns, there should be about four inches of tapered choke constriction. Less than two inches almost certainly indicates cut barrels. Taking all this into consideration, I would say that if the barrels touch, the lengths are correct, and the chokes are of normal length, I consider the barrels original. If you believe the barrels of a gun are cut but they suit your needs that way, buy the gun and use it. Just don’t pay the price on an original gun for it.
Factory letters are the best option to determine if barrel length is correct. Unfortunately though, often factory records are spotty and sometimes completely gone. Over years of experience I am also convinced that sometimes they’re just plain wrong. Nobody knew back when these records were being kept that even field grade firearms would become collectible, so the record keeping was really just for internal records and taxes. Pretty good records exist for Parker, and Fox Guns have a pretty good base for information. L. C. Smith has some. Most others are pretty much a guessing game. Sometimes factory records don’t agree for reasons that may not be obvious. I have a gun that originally came from the factory with extractors and 30 inch barrels. It now has ejectors and two sets of 26 inch barrels. It was sent back and upgraded at some point.
Extractors and ejectors may not be familiar terms to you. They are different ways that fixed breach (singles and doubles) shotguns deal with spent shell casings. Extractors lift the shells out of the chamber, making them easy to pluck out and dispose of. Ejectors are spring loaded and not only extract the cases, but also throw them out and over your shoulder. Upland game hunters with pheasants and grouse as their quarry generally favor extractors, because hunters prefer not to crap up the field with spent shells and don’t want to bend down for them, and the chances of reloading and shooting again is nill. Ejectors are sometimes preferred by competition shooters, duck hunters and casual trap and sporting clays shooters, because they do need to reload quickly and can bend down and pick up the shells later.
Damascus barrels were common on the early guns. I like and own Damascus guns and shoot them with low pressure loads, though I cannot here suggest that you do the same. It is arguable that Damascus is as strong as the steels of that time, but that discussion is for another article. Many early Parkers, Ithacas, Lefevers, and L.C. Smiths had Damascus tubes. Of all the American classics, only Foxes and Winchester 21s had exclusively steel barrels. This was more a matter of timing rather than a quality issue. Remember that in 1900 high quality Damascus barrels cost considerably more than steel barrels. Damascus had almost disappeared by 1920, but not because it was weaker than steel. It disappeared because the quality of steel was improving and the cost of Damascus barrels skyrocketed after the Great War. The look of Damascus steel is easy to spot once you know what to look for. It has lines in it, from layers of hammered steel.
In most guns, steel barrels are more desirable from a value standpoint, and Damascus guns aren’t even in that much demand by collectors. Even if they are stamped with a “P,” for proofed, the thinking is that Damascus can’t handle modern loads. You should know that Damascus can be blued to look like steel. If you’re buying a gun that is from this era and it would have normally had Damascus, a smooth black finish doesn’t mean that it’s steel. In American guns, steel barrels were almost always noted as Fluid steel, Armor steel, Vulcan steel, etc. Krupp or Whitworth steel was a premium material. If that legend is not present, look closely. You can often see the Damascus pattern around the forearm lug or in front of the barrel lug.
Cut stocks are a little easier to determine. On most field guns, stock length was about 14 ¼ inches to the front trigger. The wood should end at about 14 inches. The exception to this is with some 20, 28 and .410 gauge guns such as Nitro Special Lefevers. Since they were small gauges, the stocks were made shorter to accommodate younger shooters. Guns were often cut to install a recoil pad. Recoil pads do not hurt the value of the gun so much if the stock is not cut. Since these guns were on the short side for modern shooters, a gun that has a cut stock to accommodate a recoil pad is seriously compromised.
Most of these guns had stock dimensions that modern shooters would consider too low. If the comb is not low on a vintage field grade gun, most likely it has been restocked. Normal dimensions were around 1 3/4” at the comb and 2 ¾ to 3” at the heel. If the restock is well done, there is little effect on the value, provided the gun is not a pristine collector gun. I think the more desirable dimensions offset the loss of value due to the restock and might even improve the value of the gun if well done. Comb measurement is basically how far off the sight plane the stock is angled down. A good fitting shotgun is considered the key to better shooting, so getting a gun that feels right to you and points right to you is really important.
Stock repairs are normally easy to spot, and certainly common. These old guns had slim wrists and, in the course of 100 years or so of use, it’s likely that the gun was dropped and the stock damaged. Some repairs were well done, some were really ugly. Look for pins in the head area of the stock. The way many of these guns were made, the stock spread at the front and was often pinned as a fix. If the panels on the head of the stock are checkered on a gun that normally was not checkered, it is likely the work of a gunsmith trying to hide a repair.
Loose stock screws can make a gun feel “flimsy.” On most old guns, the wood has compressed as it dried out. (Remember that it has been drying for around 100 years.) This makes the stock screws loose on the tang. Often, tightening them can make an old gun feel much more substantial. It is amazing what a half turn of the screws makes. By the way, the screw that you can see under the gun on the tang of the trigger guard is rarely the lower stock screw. It is generally under the trigger guard tang.
Dents, bulges, and pits are common on guns this age. The best way to spot dents and bulges is by feel. Put your fingers around the barrels and slide them back and forth along the barrels. You can often feel something you cannot see. Dents are not that hard to repair but often require refinishing to hide the work. Sharp edged dents almost always require refinishing to not be visible. Bulges are much harder to repair. If they are not bad, they have little effect on shooting. They have a major affect on price. When you look down the inside of the barrels, look for dark spots. A bulge shows up as a dark smooth spot. The spot you see is the shadow of the bulge. On field grade and other low grade guns, bulges or dents can be a deal killer. Often the cost of the repair exceeds the value of the gun.
Pits can be polished out if there is enough metal. If they are not too deep, and are left alone, they have little effect on shooting. They do have an effect on the price of the gun. When you look for pits, don’t look into a really bright light. Look at a smooth light object, like a white wall. Also, be sure you look for them from each end of the barrels. Often, they only show from one end. Light weight guns with thin barrels and pitting should be approached very cautiously. Wall thickness should never go below .020 and it is easy to get that thin when trying to remove internal and/or external pits. Remember that these guns are about a hundred years old and you don’t know if this has been done before. Wall thickness can be checked, but it is something best done by an expert.
Don’t discount 16 gauge guns. America is really the only place that 12 gauge guns are the dominant size. Among European guns, especially Belgian, German and Italian guns made for the European market, 16 gauge guns are by far more popular for upland game. The nice thing about a 16 gauge gun is that you can usually find them on a 20 gauge sized frame. So they are lighter and smaller and more elegant feeling than the beefier 12 gauge guns, yet they lack very little in ballistics or pattern as compared to a 12 gauge. The big problem with buying a European 16 gauge is that many were built by nameless guilds, and though they may be gorgeous, there is little true collector interest in them, and even the specialized price books leave out more guns than they include. You can, however, get a fine looking engraved gun for not a lot of money in an old European 16 gauge, and though they may not have a recognized name, they are always head turners at the club or at the game farm.
Monte Carlo Stocks are also common in European guns, and some people just plain loath them, but with a thin wrist they can be attractive, and many of us even like them. Again, straight stocks with no grip are a very American feature, and like anything else, different strokes for different folks.
Mechanical problems are not that hard to spot if you know what to look for. Most show up by just cycling the gun through pulling the triggers, checking to see of the safety works, and paying attention to what the gun should feel like.
Looseness is a big issue, though it can be corrected. First check to see of the gun is loose on the hinge when it is open. With the gun open, move the barrels gently from side to side. The hinge should be tight that way with no lateral movement. To see if a gun is loose on lockup, close the gun, remove the forearm, and hold the grip in one hand and the barrels in the other. If you feel movement when you twist them back and forth, there is wear in the joint or hinge. This can be repaired but it is a major issue. I like to look at the surfaces on the hook part of the hinge. It’s the lug soldered onto the bottom of the barrels that engages the receiver. If it looks like it has been tampered with, I get very cautious. Low end guns are not really worth the cost of the repairing issues like this. It’s kind of like putting a $1,500.00 transmission in a $1,500.00 truck. Personally I figure a deduction of at least 25% for looseness, and I’m lucky enough to know people who can fix it. If you don’t, don’t waste your time.
Another issue can be the break-lever is way left of center, even though the rest of the gun is tight. This would indicate that there is a lot of wear in the locking system, and this is not a light issue. Never pay full price for a gun in this condition. It might not have an effect on the way the gun shoots for a long time, but it has a big affect on value.
Always carry snap caps when you plan to go out hunting for side by sides. Dry firing won’t actually hurt most guns, but that doesn’t mean that the owner will be comfortable with you sitting there snapping it over and over to check for function and trigger. If you carry snap caps in the gauges you will consider buying, you can test the operation of the gun without problems from the current owner.
This is actually a pretty big deal. You need to fire the triggers to tell if the gun is functioning properly. Pay attention to how the triggers feel. They should break cleanly and without being heavy. Most of these guns came from the factory with pretty good triggers, much better than an average modern autoloader. Funky feeling triggers are an indication of internal problems. Be very cautious of single triggers. I wouldn’t buy a single trigger gun without actually firing it. These mechanisms are very complicated and hard to repair.
If the gun has ejectors and you want a good functioning ejector gun, make sure that you allow the snap caps to fly from the chambers onto the floor. Often ejectors will kick the empties, but not kick them out. This can be expensive to fix and impossible to determine without actually kicking the snap caps out onto the floor. Ejector problems are expensive and many aficionados of these old guns avoid them as much as they do single triggers.
When you dry fire the gun to check for function, make sure you pay attention to the way it opens after firing. Opening is the cocking cycle. Sometimes, guns are difficult to cock due to mechanical problems. The clicks that indicate that the hammers are set should almost sound like one click. If there is a lot of difference, there may be internal problems. The same is true of the closing cycle on guns with ejectors. The closing cycle cocks the ejectors and listening for the click of the sears can tell you if the gun is well timed.
Remember that all the American field grade guns had automatic safeties. Non automatic safeties were an option reserved for competition or special use guns. If the safety is not automatic, someone made it that way. In other words it indicates that the gun has been worked on, or at least modified. It is extremely common for a doublegun owner to disable the automatic safety, so it may not be a big deal to you. This is not a common feature in European guns, if they have a safety at all.
Hammer guns are another one of those preference issues. Some people don’t consider a doublegun a doublegun unless it has exposed hammers, and some people wouldn’t ever think to own a doublegun with exposed hammers. More common are people fine with no external hammers, because they are a separate cocking step when you reload the shotgun. If you do decide you want a hammer gun, the Italian, English and other European guns are your best bet, though there were some American guns, including a Remington from the late 1800s, that had hammers.
One thing to look for with hammer guns, and you would be amazed at how many guns have this, is that they will have two different hammers on the same gun. As I said, many European guns were built by guilds, which were basically a group of gunmakers who ordered a bunch of parts as a group, then built their own guns with the basic parts. So, over the years, as some of the hammers on these guns broke, replacing them with the exact hammer was impossible. But since they were all pretty much made in the same fashion, different hammers still fit. You often see old doubles with different hammers, so be aware of it.
Buggered screws are an indication that a gun has been worked on or at least, taken apart. The condition of the screws can mean as much as 25% of what a gun brings. Also the screws in most guns should be “timed.” This means that they should always be aligned with the bores. This was done so the owner could tell at a glance if something was coming loose.
Be careful and buy your gun right! Owning and using a classic shotgun can be rewarding and a great way to own a piece of craftsmanship without worrying if it will lose its value. Buy your gun right and you cannot lose money. You should have enough information here to get a start, and to prevent yourself from getting burned by paying too much for a gun that is misrepresented. Don’t take anyone at their word. Look for yourself.
Also note that these simple information points will not protect you from buying a gun that is overpriced for its grade and quality. Get some price books and stick to the name brands as you learn the finer points of shotgun grading, and check out the collector discussion boards online. At the end of the day, if you just find a gun you love, check for obvious flaws and evidence of refinishing that can and will bring down value, and go buy it and shoot it you will seldom go wrong.
Ultimately we get sweat equity out of all of our working guns, and loving a gun can count for a lot when you add up what you paid and what you got back. You may have a natural love for the side by side doublegun or you may just be willing to try one for something different. Regardless, the side by side shotgun carries an enviable history in the path of the American gun, and becoming a part of that will be a rewarding new experience for just about any red blooded American gun lover. Have fun doublegunning.
For more information on specific brands, and to learn a little about grades and what to expect check these web sites: