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Why a double rifle?


The double rifle has seen a resurgence for the past twenty years that has surpassed its interest in the grand old days. A hundred years ago the double rifle was a tool used by sportsmen, primarily in Africa and India and to a lesser extent in the game fields of Southeast Asia. Today, while the number of hunters in need of a double rifle may be far less than in the past (due to the number of turn bolt rifles available) it seems the number of today's double rifle Aficionados is growing at a rapid rate. Few, if any, of these folks really need a double and some may actually hunt with one for dangerous game which is the double rifle's forte. Most, it seems, just want a double either a vintage fine rifle from one of the many makers in the UK--England or Scotland--or of similar vintage from Europe or the 'States. In addition makers of new double rifles are keeping busy, either in the UK, Europe, or the United States, as it is now in vogue--almost stylish--to own a double.

Where did this fascination with double rifles begin? Why is a double more desirable, or thought to be, than a more conventional rifle? What advantages did a double hold in the vintage years and are those advantages still viable today? What is the future of double rifles today as hunting opportunities are on a decline? Why own the most expensive rifles made when they are so limited to the ammunition to be shot through them?

The double rifle dates to the least the 1700's when reloading the flintlock firearms was a slow and tedious process. It didn't take a genius to realize that having two loaded barrels doubled one's firepower. This, of course, was done in rifles as well as shotguns. Continuing through the flintlock era to the rather short-lived percussion era, the double rifle did not evolve into the big game rifle it has become known as until the latter 1800's. This was due to the fact that most of the game lands were not open to hunters as yet--they were just being explored in the mid-1800s--and the game in Europe and America did not need the large calibre weapons or the instant second shot--at least it was not worth the extra expense for the average sportsman.

While double rifles are known as an English phenomenon, there was a small interest in double rifles in the 'States as Samuel Colt's son made a few presentation double rifles on the

Colt double shotgun frame, and gave them to his friends and dignitaries as special gifts. In the mid-1900s Winchester made a few double rifles on their model 21 shotgun frame. These Colt doubles, mostly in .45-70 calibre, and the Winchesters, are highly sought after in today's collectible firearms market. The Europeans, too, were ingenious in developing firearms that had a nontraditional look to them. Double rifles were made on the continent as well as three and four barreled arms, with several styles and numbers of shotgun and rifle barrels.

But it was the English who opened Africa and India to sportsmen during the Victorian era's colonial period and while they may not be credited with the invention of the double rifle they can with most certainty be credited with its refinement. It was the English, after all, who invented big game hunting and had to refine the most efficient rifle for hunting the biggest and most dangerous game on earth. (I know Europe had its brown bear, eastern Russia did, too, as well as the American grizzly and brown bear, but hunting these species did not compare with the grandeur of the African safari as to the possible encounters with dangerous game on one, two, or three months of safari.)

The advantages the double rifle held over the more common rifle of the late 1800's were many. First, most of the new metallic cartridges of the day were based on military or target shooting rounds. Some were developed for sporting use in areas that did not have any large game. These cartridges, such as the .44-40, .45-70, etc., did not have the penetration or stopping power needed for truly large game. A cartridge used in Vermont or Ohio to kill a white tail deer or black bear would only annoy or anger a rhino or elephant.

The new repeating rifles of the day were not large enough in size to accommodate a big game cartridge and, even if they were, would not have been strong enough to contain the enormous charges of powder and lead needed to kill the big game of India or Africa. In the late 1800's the largest of the Winchester cartridges were the .50-95 and .50-110 express rounds. They used 95 and 110 grains of black powder to propel a 300-grain bullet. In Africa and India the standard cartridge for non dangerous game was a .450 or .500 black powder express, the latter used approximately 136 grains of powder and a 340 to 440-grain bullet -far over shadowing the largest Winchester rounds of the day. Winchester also made about 240 of their Model 1886 in .50-100-450 but it was still less than the .500 3" and 3 1/4" English cases. While the Sharps single shot cartridges of .45-120 and .50-90 seemed monstrous on the American plains they paled when compared to the big English rounds.

Without the progressive burning rates of smokeless powder and jacketed bullets the only way to achieve more penetration and knockdown power was to increase the size of the projectile--both in weight and diameter. Starting from the .500 to the .577 and in the bore sizes from 12 (.719"), 10 (.775") 8 (.835"), 7 (.875"), 6 (.920"), 5 (.975") and 4 (1.052") it would have been impossible to make a viable repeating action to accommodate these rounds. It was only the double rifle that allowed the "bigger hammer" theory to be put to use. Then why not the single shot? Surely it allowed the larger cartridges. Yes and no. Yes, it allowed them but the double had the advantage of the second shot as well as the added weight to control the increased recoil. From personal experience a 4-bore will give the shooter a huge kick, but take the same cartridge and fire it in a single shot 4-bore that weighs 6 to 8 pounds less and the recoil is unbearable.

If the repeating actions of the day prevented the use of truly large cartridges then it was a double rifle that had the nod over the single shot. The extra and instant second shot could be called on to save one's life or prevent a wounded animal from escaping. It has been said the double rifle has the advantage of the shooter having a choice of a solid or soft nose bullet. This was true in the nitro era but in the 1800's lead was the bullet of choice so this advantage did not come into play for about 30 years.

One definite advantage of the double rifle is that it is two separate rifles sharing one stock. Two locks, two barrels, with one stock. In the game fields the early hunters and explorers were months, maybe a year's journey, from the nearest gunsmith and if one lock failed, a main spring broke, or a barrel split, the hunter had a single shot rifle to keep him in food and safety until a repair could be had.

In the vintage years it seems there were some definite advantages of taking a double rifle to the field. In the 1900's and even more so today these reasons don't seem to hold much water. Less expensive turn bolt rifles have as much energy as do the doubles with the advantage of holding 4, 5, or 6 cartridges. The instant second shot is not needed as paying clients have a professional hunter backing them up. Repairs and transportation to a repair facility is much more rapid--almost instantaneous when compared with travel in the late 1800's. The accuracy and ability to easily mount a telescopic sight on a bolt action rifle are a plus and a couple of disadvantages for using a double today, as is the high price of the rifles and the cost of the ammunition.

So why, then, are so many in use today? Why are the top English makers keeping busy producing new doubles as are their lower-priced competitors in Europe and America? Why are vintage doubles commanding prices that are increasing more than gold, the stock markets, and inflation? In a single word--quality. Well-made double rifles have a look, balance, and feel that are not attainable in a mass-produced bolt gun. The same can be said of a well made double shotgun having better lines and balance than a pump or self-loading shotgun. (A Winchester Model 12 pump shotgun, while a poplar utility shotgun, does not have the refined lines of a Purdey and the common lever actions--even of the finest custom quality--are merely mass-produced rifles with embellishments added).

Then, regarding vintage doubles, there is the history each fine weapon possesses. Newer rifles--of any cost--cannot compare with rifles that have "been there and done that". For the older rifles the quality is of even greater standards than contemporary arms. The engraving is a finer and more intricate style, the absence of CNC machining, the case colours have been muted over the years to a mellow tone. And, in the old days, one did not buy a .500, .577, or a .600 (or even one of the .450 class of doubles) unless he was going to hunt dangerous game. Whereas many of today's riflemen buy big rifles to have the biggest rifle at the shooting range to have bragging rights and rarely, if ever, use them as they were meant to be used. It can be argued the older rifles have a more refined balance and more graceful lines. Accuracy? It is about the same with modern doubles shooting the same groups of 2-3 inches at 50 yards as did their century old counterparts. (However it may be a bit easier to regulate a modern rifle, I have been told).

To conclude, doubles are here to stay. There is no finer firearm made than a double (rifle or shotgun). And, if I can close with a bit of personal philosophy, I feel the single barrel firearms that are so popular today, are a passing fad. As George Harrison said, "All things must pass" and so it will be with the single tube. Doubles Rule!
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Title Annotation:Tail Piece
Author:Pappas, Cal
Publication:African Hunter Magazine
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Apr 1, 2012
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