2005 Side-by-Side Shotguns: The Best New Doubles

A good side-by-side shotgun points like a sixth finger when feathers fly and wings blur, yet doubles have been out of style in the United States for half a century or more. The Great Depression killed off most of the American-made doubles, and post-World War II hunters preferred repeaters that cost less and had more firepower. When hunters were ready to buy two-barreled guns again in the 1960s, they chose over/unders, which by then dominated the clay target sports. There is the occasional introduction of a new double model every couple of years, but one or two guns do not make a trend. This year, however, the Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show fairly bristled with horizontal doubles.

I shot the side-by-sides of the Class of '05 recently. Here, listed in ascending order of preference, is what I thought of them:

WEATHERBY ATHENA D'ITALIA

Weight: 6¼ lb. (20 gauge) Barrel Length: 26, 28 in. Gauge: 12, 20, 28 Cost: $2,840-$2,976 Like the Smith, below, Weatherby's double is made by Fausti Stefano Arms, but with a higher level of decoration and finish. Its silver side plates are fully covered with light scroll engraving. The elaborately figured wood is checkered with a kind of basket pattern that Weatherby calls "new Scottish."

The Athena d'Italia has a straight grip and a splinter fore-end. Like most long, light guns, it feels great, practically begging to be shot when you pick it up.

Purists will like the double triggers, the only truly "instant" barrel selectors. The Athena's only drawbacks are its heavy trigger pulls and a flat safety that's sometimes hard to disengage in a hurry. It's $2,840 in 12 and 20 gauge with three choke tubes; $2,976 in 28 with a hard case and fixed chokes. 805-466-1767; weatherby.com

BSA ROYAL

Weight: 6¾ lb. (20 gauge) Barrel Length: 26, 28 in. Gauge: 12, 20 Cost: $1,499 The BSA Royal bears the famous Birmingham Small Arms name, which dates to 1861. At its peak in World War II, BSA operated 67 factories in England, turning out guns, vehicles, and motorcycles to help win the war. Today, however, BSA shotguns aren't made in England at all, but in Spain by Zabala Hermanos.

Overall the fit and finish of the wood and metal is quite good. The single-selective-trigger Royal has a straight-grip stock with ¼ inch of cast off (lateral bend) that right-handed shooters will appreciate. At 6¾ pounds in 20 gauge, the Royal is a bit overweight but easy to shoot well on the range.

The version I shot is sold through Bill Hanus Birdguns. Hanus includes a pair of aftermarket Skeet chokes to accompany the IC, M, and F tubes that come with the gun. The 20-gauge costs $1,595 as sold by Hanus (541-265-7433; billhanusbirdguns.com). Both 12- and 20-gauge Royals are available for $1,499 without the Skeet chokes from BSA Imports. 954-581-2047; bsaimports.com

MARLIN L.C. SMITH

Weight: 6½ lb. (20 gauge) Barrel Length: 26, 28 in. Gauge: 12, 20 Cost: $1,800 At first I was put off by Marlin's nerve at sticking the grand old L. C. Smith name on an Italian boxlock made by Fausti Stefano. However, taken on its own merits, the new "Smith" is all right. It has case-colored, unadorned side plates and a fleur-de-lis checkering pattern. The fit and finish are good; my only quibble with its appearance is the mud-brown wood, covered by an uninspired polyurethane finish. Nevertheless, when I handed it around at the gun club, one of the regulars said, "Nice gun. What's it sell for, $3,000?" That's high praise for an $1,800 shotgun.

At 6½ pounds in 20 gauge, the gun handled very well on the skeet field. Americans accustomed to the hand-filling wood of o/u's and autos will like the pistol grip and wide beavertail fore-end. The gun has a single, nonselective trigger and includes three choke tubes. 800-544-8892; marlinfirearms.com

KIMBER VALIER

Weight: 6½ lb. Barrel Length: 26, 28 in. Gauge: 20 Cost: $4,480-$4,980

The craftsmanship of this Turkish-made sidelock is near flawless. Finished with 30 hand-rubbed coats of oil, the Valier has very rich and complex wood. The detachable sidelocks are jeweled marvels of watchlike precision, and the Valier has all the niceties of a fine gun, like an articulated front trigger. With 3-inch chambers, the fixed-choke barrels are fully approved for steel. My only complaint is that at 6½ pounds in 20 gauge, it's a shade heavier than it should be. The Valier comes in 20 gauge only; the Grade I extractor model is $4,480 and the Grade II ejector gun is $4,980. Yes, that's lots of money, but less than you would spend on a comparable gun made anywhere but Turkey, where quality work comes cheap. 800-880-2418; kimberamerica.com

RUGER GOLD LABEL

Weight: 6 lb. 9 oz. Barrel Length: 28 in. Gauge: 12 Cost: $2,000 Ruger announced its new side-by-side back in 2002, but production problems kept the gun from dealers' shelves until now. This gun was worth every minute of the wait. I think it's a new American classic.

Patterned after classic English "round-action" doubles, the graceful 12-gauge Gold Label has the slim receiver and stock wrist of a svelte 20-gauge. At 6 pounds 9 ounces with 28-inch barrels, the Gold Label should come as a revelation to American uplanders accustomed to bulky 12s. The checkering is sharp and well cut, the wood handsome but not ostentatious. Listing for $2,000 with five choke tubes, it's my pick of this year's side-by-side litter. 203-256-3860; ruger.com

USER-FRIENDLY AMMO

Shooters of side-by-sides fancy pigeon loads--those 12-gauge, 1¼-ounce, 1220-fps loads that hit birds hard without kicking unduly in lightweight guns. The problem is, these shells are rare in any shot size larger than 7½. New this year, though, Remington (800-243-9700; remington.com) offers their ShurShot High Base Pheasant Loads, featuring pigeon load specs but containing No. 4 or 5 shot. They will be perfect for late-season pheasants and prairie dwellers like huns and sharptails when they flush at long range. --PHILIP BOURJAILY

NEW TWOS: From top: Weatherby Athena d'Italia, Kimber Valier, Ruger Gold Label, Marlin L.C. Smith.