The development of sporting clay guns

Vic Harker recounts the development of shotguns adopted for clay target shooting over the sports history

Relatively inexpensive and with a single sighting plane, for the Americans the pump ruled

For some, the shotgun reached an apogee of mechanical design and aesthetics in the form of the best English sidelock ejector somewhere between the last decade of the 19th century and the first of the 20th. For those whose shooting is centred exclusively around driven game, its case is a strong one – however, it should be said the best sidelock game gun is as specialised as any.

Weighing something between 6.5 and 7lbs, its fast-handling characteristics are best suited to deal with large numbers of game birds at moderate range as a single gun or a pair. As for the latter, the side-by-side’s shallow gape assists fast reloading and the automatic safety catch usually incorporated in this type of gun is also of obvious benefit. As a clay target gun, the side-by-side remained in common use with the British up until the 1950s.

The popular Browning A5

Although, to my knowledge, few if any guns of this type have been built specifically for clays, as the late Chris Cradock explained to me, ”We used what we had.“ This usually took the form of a long-barrelled gun with a raised rib and plenty of choke, at least in the left barrel.

For the most part made in Birmingham by companies such as W. W. Greener and BSA, we can be certain that few were purchased as new for clay target shooting but were rather hand-me-downs that had previously been used for other purposes. As for their effectiveness, suitably stocked for DTL and Sporting (the international disciplines were in the future), the best shots hardly ever missed.

All American Skeet with Model 12 pump

The pump action

Embraced by the Americans in vast quantities, its success reflected their ongoing affection for the repeater, although as with the British their clay target games never required more than two shots. As for ATA Trap shooting, with the exception of Trap Doubles, never more than one shot was necessary.

Relatively inexpensive and with a single sighting plane, for the Americans the pump ruled for decades. From Winchester came the Model 12 ”the Perfect Repeater”, as its makers described it, and from Remington the Model 31. Each company had their own top guns in the 1930s – at Remington it was Fred Etchen and at Winchester, Herb Parsons.

The British shooter eschewed the pump – unlike so many Americans, they had not grown up with the technique it required – although their judgment was tinged with just a hint of illogical snobbery: “Repeaters not quite the thing, yer know.”

Joe Wheater with his trusty side-by-side


The early semi-automatic shotguns were operated on recoil and the Browning A5 was the most successful. When the gun was fired, the barrel and the bolt moved rearwards, a fraction further than the spent shell case to re-cock the hammer. As the barrel returned forward, the bolt remained behind and the spent shell was ejected through a port at the top of the receiver. The bolt then returned forward and another shell from the magazine under the barrel was fed into the action.

The Browning A5 sold in vast quantities but by modern standards, as a clay target gun, it had its disadvantages. The most prevalent was the disturbing movement of the long recoil action, which was relatively slow.

Later semi-automatics utilised the gases expired from the first cartridge to cycle the subsequent round. The Remington Model 878 was the first auto of this type followed by the Model 58. The most popular were the 1100 and its successor the 1187, which incorporated refinements to the gas system.

It is hard to imagine a major championship without the now ubiquitous over-and-under

The over-and-under

The most successful of the early over-and-under shotguns were designed and built by English makers, most particularly those in London. This was not mere chauvinism – having perfected the side-by-side sidelock in the form of the self-opening hammerless ejector, they began looking around for something new and another challenge.

As the best London gun already attracted a wealthy clientele from around the world, cost was not a problem – although the design wasn’t without its challenges. These were overcome to most people’s satisfaction and so well before World War I, makers like James Woodward and Boss & Co were offering beautifully made, well balanced, sidelock over-and-under guns for the game shooter.

The side-by-side is a rarity in the modern world of clay shooting

It was, however, the Americans who first produced the affordable over-and-under. The great John Browning laid out the basic principles but it only appeared in significant numbers after his death.
The Remington Model 32 was another firearm of this type introduced in the 1930s but its production ceased in the United States at the beginning of World War II. It was therefore well into a decade later that the over-and-under gun was adopted by clay target shooters in numbers.

The Browning, made by FN in Belgium, was the market leader for a considerable amount of time. This position was further enhanced by Miroku in Japan making a copy of the firearm, first under their own brand and then Browning’s.

Refinements have been made to the semi-auto since its shaky origins

By then, the Italians were looking beyond their home market and this was reflected in the expanding product line that included clay target guns of increasing sophistication demonstrated in Beretta’s 680 series.

Meanwhile, Perazzi were offering their drop-lock clay target guns with bespoke options. As a result of ever-improving methods of manufacture and appropriate specifications incorporated into the over-and-under, combined with mechanical reliability in a way no other category of shotgun could fulfil, it became the clay shooter’s natural choice.

This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Clay Shooting magazine. For more great content like this, subscribe today at our secure online store

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Posted in Features, Modern Greats, Skeet, Sporting

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