A Vintage Game Gun for Quail?

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By Larry Brown
 
A classic game bird deserves a classic gun. I make my home in northern Wisconsin. That’s grouse and woodcock country, where I and many of my friends tote shotguns older than we are. The same line of thinking also makes sense for the bobwhite and other members of bob’s extended family.
 
We’re talking doubles—mostly side-by-side because the popularity of over-unders is a more recent phenomenon. However, you’ll see a few O/U’s going back to the pre-WWII days, and we’ll touch on those as well.
 
I’m intentionally leaving out American doubles like Parkers, Smiths, Foxes—mostly because they’re better known. Instead, we’ll look at the British and Continental doubles: their advantages and disadvantages for quail hunters, and how easy it is (or isn’t) to buy what you want without spending the kids’ or grandkids’ college money.
 
To set some guidelines, I’m going to define “vintage” as any gun made before WWII. While there are some great candidates on the used market made from the end of the war to the mid-70’s or so, they differ because they are mostly machine-made rather than hand-made.
 
For starters, looking at our specified market, you will likely notice that 12-gauge guns are less expensive than 16’s, and often significantly less expensive than 20’s. That’s because—especially in England—far more 12’s were made, the smaller bores often being boys’ or women’s guns—with quite a few having stocks too short for adult males.
 
And while you might be inclined to turn up your nose at 12’s based on weight, plenty of them are pretty light.
 
I still remember a guy who showed up at the club with his Ruger Red Label 28 gauge, bragging about how light it was. It just so happened that one other member had a postal scale along. He winked at me. “Let’s see how light it is,” he said. The scale read just over 6 ¼ pounds.
 
“Now let’s see how it compares to Brown’s Webley & Scott 12 gauge,” he suggested. (Both guns had 28-inch barrels.) “Hmmm . . . looks like just a little daylight under 6 ¼ for that big old 12!” And I’ve owned two or three other Brit or Continental 12’s that light or a bit lighter.
 
And with 12’s that light, you can imagine what the 20’s and 16’s weigh. My current lightweight champ is another Brit. Scottish, to be exact: An Alexander Martin 20 with a 15-inch stock and 28-inch barrels, checking in at under 5 ½ pounds.
 
So weight is clearly an advantage, assuming you prefer a light gun for quail—as most hunters seem to.
 
Disadvantage? Well, both of those guns left the shop where they were made with 2.5-inch chambers. You can get short shells from the American company RST, or from Kent in their Gamebore line. And other European shotshells are also exported to the States. But you don’t want to run out of ammo 50 miles from the nearest stoplight on a West Texas quail hunt!
 
On European guns, if you’re in doubt about the chamber length, look at the proofmarks (on the barrel flats underneath the chambers). If you see a 65, that’s the metric equivalent of a 2.5-inch-chambered gun. A “70” means it’s a 2.75-inch gun. British guns are easier, having stuck with inches until much more recently.
 
Another disadvantage to vintage guns? Shooting them is a bit like driving a sports car from between the World Wars: A lot of fun, but you won’t get it fixed at the local Ford dealer. While you won’t run into problems all that often, you may want something more modern along as a backup if you’re far from home, just in case.
 
One way to avoid some potential problems—and to save money on the initial purchase price—is to look for a gun with double triggers rather than single, and plain extractors rather than automatic ejectors. Fewer things to go wrong. If you’re like me, you probably don’t want to litter the field with empties, anyway. And compared to an auto or pump, reloading a double is a piece of cake even if you have to remove your empties by hand.
 
In general, compared to British guns, most Continental guns of the same grade and in similar condition will cost less. But that’s not always true in the case of a well-known European name versus a small British maker.
 
These days, we see a lot of doubles from Spain and Italy, especially O/U’s from the latter. On the vintage market, you’ll find more from Germany and Belgium. From Germany, the biggest makers were Sauer, Merkel, and Simson. Abercrombie & Fitch, a prominent dealer in good guns back in the day, imported German guns made by Greifelt as well as Sauer.
 
A&F also imported a line of side-by-sides from the Belgian maker Francotte, as well as a Belgian-made O/U that carried their own name. Stoeger, also a major gun dealer and importer back then, carried a line of Zephyr shotguns—both SxS and O/U—made for them in Belgium.
 
Other relatively common Belgian makes you’ll see are Masquelier and Defourney. Over-unders carrying the Charles Daly name were imported from Belgium in the 30’s. If you don’t see a name you recognize and can’t decipher the proofmarks, look for “Liege”, which was—and is—the city where most Belgian guns are made.

Because the cost of labor in Great Britain and Europe was pretty cheap before WWII, the vintage game gun you hold in your hands will have been largely hand-made—by individual workers who specialized in making stocks, barrels, actions, etc. I bought my first one, a fairly plain 16-gauge Sauer, over 40 years ago. When it developed a problem and I took it to my friend the local gunsmith (who was capable of making parts if it came to that), he told me that the workmanship was so good that it was like they expected someone to take the gun apart and examine it.
 
How much should you expect to spend? Especially if a 12 fits your needs, you can get a basic Continental gun starting for around $1,000, give or take. You’ll pay more for British guns, but generally, if you don’t go too fancy, you will find quite a few candidates with a budget of $2,000—including a fair number of 16’s and 20’s.

And if you think that sounds like a lot, remember that the better Turkish doubles are selling for around $2,000 these days. And while Turkish guns continue to improve, I’d rather take my time and buy vintage. The gun you’ll end up with is one that someone might well have carried in the early days of the last century as they chased the ancestors of the quail you hunt today.

And as reliable and efficient as technologically advanced modern guns are, that sense of deep history is the kind of cachet they just can’t offer. 

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Quail Forever Journal. If you'd like to read more stories like this, join Quail Forever today.