Great by design: Vic Harker charts the development of the modern over-and-under in its most successful forms
How the over-and-under shotgun came about is open to debate, and some have suggested its purpose was merely to produce something new. Certainly, it was the case that gunmakers showed little interest in the over-and-under until the side-by-side had reached a pinnacle of handling qualities and mechanical design. This was before clay target shooting had any great following; makers in Great Britain looked to the game shooter almost exclusively to provide the demand. We must therefore conclude that the main reason for the gun trade to produce a new kind of gun was indeed a desire to stimulate sales. In London in particular, where the side-by-side was an exercise in both utility and elegance, the new guns had to shoot well and also possess good looks.
A major obstacle to creating a good looking over-and-under was in the jointing of the barrels to the action. Copying the design of the side-by-side, with a barrel hook and rear bearing surfaces, would have created a very deep action that the London makers would have considered unsightly. From the very beginning this problem inhibited the creation of an elegant over-and-under, and the best solution is still open to debate, even today.
Makers of less expensive shotguns now have to face the matter of cost, however for the best London makers like James Woodward, this was not the problem. Woodward’s solution was to place a system of draws and wedges on each side of the barrels’ breech ends that could mate with reciprocating surfaces machined into the internal walls of the action body. This arrangement was then secured by a substantial bifurcated bolt, which with the closure of the gun would move forward through the breech face to locate with the bearing surfaces either side of the bottom barrel. This made for a rather heavier gun than a side-by-side of the same calibre, but it created a very elegant appearance that can now be seen not only on the Woodward but also on the less expensive Perazzi and similar guns.
John Browning, in contrast to James Woodward, was the everyman’s gunmaker. This American gunmaking genius from Ogden, Utah, had revolutionised firearms design with his repeating rifles, pistols and machine guns long before he considered the problem of the ‘superposed shotgun’, as he described the over-and-under. Placing strength and rugged reliability above other considerations, his under-bolted superposed featured a substantial barrel hook pivoting on a full width cross-bolt. Further bearing surfaces at the rear of the barrels’ monobloc, in the form of extensions (or ‘lumps’, in gunmaking terms), also located through the floor of the action body. This was secured with a full-width locking bolt, which moved forward under the breech face and located with a slot machined at the rear of the barrel lumps. This feature has been endlessly copied by other makers, but usually without the same number of all-important bearing surfaces.
From the 1930s onwards John Browning found success with his over-and-under. This inspired the Italian gunmaking giant Beretta to enter the market with their sidelock Sovrapposto, also known as the Beretta SO. Like James Woodward’s gun, the SO dispensed with under-bolting to create a low-profile action by placing a sophisticated cross-bolt locking system above the barrel assembly. This, together with a replaceable shoulder abutting the top barrel at the breech face, created an elegant and very strong arrangement that could be easily repaired. This sidelock gun was a great success, but it was too expensive to sell in great numbers and so a non-detachable trigger plate action was created. This formed a base for a range of much lower priced over-and-unders, designated the ‘S-series’. This was very much the work of Beretta’s great designer, Tullio Marengoni.
Marengoni had begun working at the Beretta factory in Gardone as little more than a child. Gradually his creative genius, fostered by the Beretta family, came to be a major influence on the Beretta shotgun line (as well as other categories of firearm). Prior to Marengoni’s S series, double-barrelled shotguns had been made primarily by traditional methods. This process included producing all the major component parts by traditional hand and then fitting them together unfinished, or as gunmakers describe them, ‘in the white’. These unfinished guns were then disassembled, and the component parts of their lockwork put through a hardening process. The action body, after being engraved, would also be colour hardened. The barrels, having been bored and suitably struck-off or profiled, would then be blacked.
Until the 1950s all these processes were carried out largely by hand. Beretta, however, was a large producer of military weapons, and their production was being mechanised. Early forms of computerisation were a part of this process. Gradually these methods of production were introduced to Beretta’s shotgun line and the aforementioned S-series shotguns were the result. In this new era of the volume production shotgun some compromises had to be made, but they were relatively minor and in some aspects the durability and reliability of the guns’ mechanical functions were improved.
As far as Beretta was concerned, the partnership between Pietro Beretta and Tullio Marengoni was key to the company’s ongoing success. Meanwhile, other European gunmakers have chosen different strategies to maintain their business; the alliance of Browning and Miroku is a successful example. That the Browning over-and-under, in all its essentials, is still available at a relatively modest price, is almost entirely due to this east-meets-west collaboration, and shooters around the world are grateful for it. As for the UK, the British shooter can readily avail themselves of the latest Berettas and Brownings, not to mention Perazzi, Krieghoff and others who, though more expensive, still represent huge value for money. That British gunmakers do not at this moment produce an affordable clay target gun is to be regretted, but at least their grandfathers’ genius is still to be seen in the guns of today.