Any modern and effective army prior to 1914 was made up of infantry foot soldiers, artillery to provide fire support, and horse mounted cavalry for scouting and to serve as a mobile reserve. In 1861 at the start of the American Civil War, the Confederate Cavalry had horseflesh, skilled riders, and a few rifles, but was lacking in pistols and sabers. They made up for this deficiency by using what every good southern home had over the mantle-- a shotgun. These shotguns, often side-by-side (SxS) double barrels were devastatingly effective in the hands of butternut and grey-clad troopers under JEB Stuart, John Hunt Morgan, and John Mosby and helped even the odds against the the more numerous and better equipped bluecoats.
After the war, the double barrel was often seen in the hands of Old West lawmen, stagecoach guards, and even a few outlaws such as when William H Bonney, (better-known as Billy the Kid) who used Bob Ollinger's Whitney 10-guage scattergun against him.
With the availability of the pump action shotguns after 1883, and the popularity of firearms such as the Winchester 1897 trench gun, the double barrel vanished from law enforcement and military use. In some instances, police agencies retained side-by-sides for use with stake out units and corrections but even these were eventually displaced.
- The NYPD gave up its last Stevens 311 double-barrels in 2002.
Even in sporting use, the SxS has seen replaced by many hunters with cheaper and more effective pumps and autoloaders to where today they are used by a small cadre of upland bird and clay target shooters, cowboy action shooters, and collectors.
- The double-barrel has long been remembered as the old school sporting firearm of upland game and waterfowl hunters as seen in this 1956 picture.
However, with all of the above being said, the venerable double barrel shotgun still has value and is even making a comeback of sorts.
Here are six reasons why
1. The double barrel is easier to operate than even the most user-friendly pump action or semi-auto shotgun. You can teach weapons manipulation on an SxS in about twenty seconds to even a novice shooter. They are the epitome of simplicity.
2. A SxS is shorter and handier to operate, because it has no action. A Stoeger Double Defense for instance with 20-inch ported barrels is only 36-1/2 inches long overall and weighs 6.5 lbs. This fact is a good point for maneuvering around tight hallways in home defense scenarios, or as a scrub-gun for hog hunters in thick underbrush.
- The Stoeger Double Defense. Each Double Defense comes with a Picatinny Rail that can be attached to the top of the receiver to accommodate speed- or red-dot optical sights.
3. Flexibility of shot in the fact that you have two separate barrels and triggers or controls which can allow a mixed load for instant interchangeability. For example, you can have a less than lethal round in one chamber such as a rubber bullet, and a 000-buckshot in the other. Alternatively, a slug in one and a No.4 buck in the second. Or a...well you get the point.
4. Its next to impossible to jam the action on an SxS shotgun. If you have found one that you could not fix in a second or less, let us know.
5. The break action allows use of non-standard rounds that have issues cycling in auto-loading or pump action shotguns. As long as it fits and closes, odds are, it will fire it.
6. With the use of short shells, such as the Aguila Minishell Ammunition 12 Gauge 1-3/4", recoil is very mild while still being an effective home defense arm. I personally know of an elderly woman who keeps her Remington Spartan stoked with mini-shells in an umbrella stand in the hallway of her house and she loves how it shoots.
Faults with the SxS
1. Its obsolete. When compared to any pump or auto-loader, the double barrel carries fewer rounds, and after the first two shots, an SxS owner has to reload.
2. With the nature of the design, an SxS cannot be left loaded but with a round not in the chamber. This presents issues in homes with small children or unmonitored house-guests.
3. Price. Used pumps such as the Mossberg 500 or Winchester 1300 can be found everywhere for about $150. Older designs such as the Stevens 820 and Ithaca 37 pumps can even be found for closer to $100. Odds are, if you buy an SxS for the same price it is a 19th century relic in non-firing condition. Modern coach guns are manufactured by many overseas firms like Stoeger, Boito, Baikal, Khan, and Rossi but all start at around $275 and go up from there, fast.
However, with many shooters, the pluses outweigh the minuses and as you can see, the double barrel still has a lot of life left in it.
(Photo by Oleg Volk)