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How much gun is enough?

posted Dec 7, 2011, 10:11 AM by Peter Lucas   [ updated Sep 23, 2013, 9:24 AM ]

Rod Gates with his 4 bore over/under shotgun. 
    In America we have been conditioned to believe that bigger is better.  Pictured to the left is Rod Gates with his 4 bore side hammer over/under.  Rod is known for building fine large bore shotguns. Rod's big bore guns are both works of art and pure joy to shoot. They also attract a lot of attention on the range.   Someday, I will have Rod build one of the those big guns for me.  However, were big bore guns really used back golden era of side by side muzzle loading shotguns?

    From time to time we see examples of some really large bore guns from the muzzle loading era.   For the most part, these large bore muzzle loaders were intended for flock shooting at waterfowl or dangerous African game. The typical side by side shotgun used for shooting upland game during the first half of nineteenth century was much smaller than you may think. 

In his famous book, Instructions to Young Sportsmen, Col. Peter Hawker suggested that a 14 gauge gun (or smaller) should be used for upland bird hunting.  Col. Hawker's favorite gun was a 20 gauge side by side shotgun which he named "Old Joe",  The gun had be specially made by Joesph Manton.  Old Joe originally had a flint ignition system, but it was converted to percussion by Joesph Manton during the 1820s.  Col. Hawker described his preferences the size of the shotgun as follows:

Old Joe and Big Joe

    Col. Peter Hawkers personal shotguns made for him by Joesph Manton.  The bottom gun is "Old Joe" a 20 gauge side by side. The top gun is the stock from "Big Joe" a single barrel 5 bore. The barrel from Big Joe was used by Col. Hawker to make a percussion duck gun. 
    In choosing the size of a caliber, it -, be considered, that a fourteen gauge at all events· the best for a bungler, and, on the whole, the most destructive gun; but, with a very accurate shot, the· size is not of so much consequence for killing game, "as the necessary substance to prevent the recoil of a large bore cannot be brought to bear so quick as a somewhat lighter gun; and, therefore, what is gained by weight of metal might be lost in time. Supposing, however that weight was not objected to, the gun to be recommended is a fourteen gauge, and, if a double one, of about nine pounds, after the beginning of October, till which time a twenty-two gauge gun will do equally well, and lighter to carry during the warmer weather.

    The use of a 14 gauge (or smaller) side by side shotgun was also suggest by in an Article contained in the August, 1837 Edition of the New Sporting Magazine and the November, 1837 Edition of the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine.

    With regard to the size of the gun, if the sportsman intends to confine himself to the use of one only throughout the season, gauge 14 is to be preferred, weighing (supposing a double) 7 3/4 lbs. If single, 12 gauge, weight 6 1/2 lbs. If, however, the shooter be not athletic, or resolves on using two guns, I would recommend, for the early part of the season, 18 gauge, as a trifling difference in weight will be found very agreeable, indeed a great relief, during the heats of August and September; therefore, a double gun, of the bore of caliber just mentioned, should weigh 6 3/4 lbs; of a single 6 lbs. In this case, the 14 gauge should not be used till, with cool weather, the birds have become wild.

    Other period literature which suggests that the guns should of a similar size for what we now term "upland game" shooting include the following:The Sportsman's Library By John Mills (1845) [the gun should have barrels of 14 gauge and have a weight of between 7 1/2 and 8 1/ pounds].  The Dead Shot or Sportsman's Complete Guide; a Treatise on the Use of the Gun by Marksman (pseud.) (1860) [For partridge shooting, the gun should be no larger than 13 gauge, nor smaller than 16 gauge. For grouse and black game shooting, the gun should be from 10 to 13 gauge; using the smaller size at the commencement of the season, and the larger as soon as the birds become strong on the wing and wary.]  Graham's Magazine, September 1841 [7 1/2 pound gun is the heaviest gun we should think of using in hot weather, or for a long day's woodeock shooting, Barrels twenty-eight inches long, and fourteen, sixteen, or eighteen gauge, are of convenient size for such a gun.]

Bore Sizes Joesph Manton SxS Guns

Gauge Number in Sample
10 1
12 6
13 6
14 27
15 12
16 28
17 3
18 2
19 8
20 31
22 15
24 2
26 1
Total Sample 142


     In a decidedly non-scientific study, I decided to take a sampling of the bore size of a sampling of side by side shotguns made be the famous gun maker Joseph Manton.   The excellent book The Mantons: Gunmakers by Neal and Black contains detailed information regarding many of the surviving guns made by both Joesph Manton and John Manton.   In skimming through the original book (not including the supplement), I was able to identify 142 side by side Joesph Manton shotguns which had information regarding the bore size. A summary of the bore sizes is found to the right.

    As can by seen form this sample, Joesph Manton's side by side guns tended to be in two distinct groups, Seventy seven of the guns (approximately 54 percent ) were in the 14-16 gauge range.  Fifty four of the guns (approximately 38%) were in the 19-22 gauge range.   Less than 10% of the sampled guns were of 13 gauge or larger.  The sample Included all side by side guns which have been identified as being made by Joesph Manton (including flintlocks, pellet locks, tube locks and cap locks.)  (Note: The vast majority of the Joesph Manton side by side shotguns had barrel lengths of between 28 and 32 inches.   The most common barrel length of the side by side guns was 30 inches.)

    There are a couple of things which should be noted about this sampling.  First, single barrel guns were excluded as they tended to have larger bores. Several of the single barrel guns were quite large (up to 5 gauge) with long barrels. These large bore guns were primarily used for hunting waterfowl.
One of the 5 bore guns made by Joesph Manton was made for Col. Hawker; who named the gun "Big Joe".  Big Joe had a 44 inch barrel and weighed 19 pounds.  Big Joe was used by Col. Hawker as his duck gun. 

    Second, the by sampling the guns made by Joesph Manton, I have tended to include only those guns which were intended for the English upper class who pursued hunting as a leisure time activity.   Joesph Manton was the premier gunsmith of his time and his guns had a price tag to match.  As a result, the my sampling is not necessarily reflective of the bulk of the shotguns which were produced at the time.

    So what have we learned from this history lesson.   For me, the answer is simple.   For most types of shotgunning, really big bore side by side shotguns are not historically accurate.  However, they are really cool and I want one.  After all, I am an American and bigger is better.