These days, a lot of people look at an over/under and see only a shotgun that costs more than a pump or semiauto, yet it holds fewer shells. “Why would anyone want one?” they ask.
It’s a fair question. There’s no way around it: the O/U isn’t the right choice when firepower matters.
It’s not a great gun for home defense. It doesn’t even hold three shells, the maximum allowed for migratory bird hunting. Yet, if you go to a gun club, you’ll see clay shooters overwhelmingly choose O/U guns—as do a large number of upland bird hunters, myself included. We have our reasons for shooting O/Us. Here are 10 of them:
Break action guns are more reliable than pumps and semiautos. Period. They don’t jam. You can’t short stroke them. You get two shots with two pulls of the trigger every time. Also, O/Us will digest any ammunition. If you can cram a shell (assuming it’s the right gauge and length) into the chamber of an O/U, you can shoot it, which comes in handy with some cheaper brands of ammo that can strangle a pump or semiauto.
As a reloader whose quality control sometimes suffers, I appreciate this trait as well.
Herein also lies a reason target shooters love O/Us—they are only allowed a certain number of failures to fire in a round before it starts costing them targets on their scorecard.
2. Weather Resistance
The enclosed action of the O/U admits less dirt, weather, and powder residue than the open receivers of pumps and semiautos. Under difficult field conditions, an O/U stays cleaner, longer and keeps on shooting.
If you believe two certain shots beat three probable shots in any weather, the O/U might be for you.
An O/U is a good three inches shorter than a pump or semiauto of the same barrel length. And, because it has no parts up front under the forend, the gun’s weight is concentrated between the shooter’s hands, making it—potentially—livelier to swing and better balanced.
That forend can be quite slender, too, which aids in instinctive pointing.
This is not to say all O/Us are well balanced or that all pumps and semiautos aren’t—there are clunky O/Us and lively repeaters, but that “between the hands” feel of a good O/U appeals to many shooters.
O/Us don’t sling hulls all over the place. Although most have automatic ejectors, it’s a simple matter to cup your palm over the breech as you open the gun and pop the empties into your hand.
With an O/U it’s easy not to litter when you’re out hunting or shooting, and it saves yourself the trouble of policing empties on the range.
The ability to eject shells into your hand also allows you to keep the hulls to reload later, without having to pick them out of the mud or search for them in the grass.
A gun is only as safe as the person handling it. With that said, it’s easy to handle a break-action gun safely. Push the lever and the gun opens. Dump the shells into your hand, and you’ve rendered it completely safe for, say, crossing an obstacle while hunting.
That’s way more convenient than pumping shells on the ground and picking them up.
Additionally, it’s easy to open the gun and glance down the bores of both barrels to see if you’ve plugged your muzzle with mud or snow after a stumble.
At the club, or in the field, you can carry it broken open to show others that the gun is unloaded.
Properly cared for, O/Us last for hundreds of thousands of rounds. The high-end target guns like the Krieghoff, Perazzi, Blaser, and Beretta DT-11 will shoot practically forever. Caesar Guerini clams its Invictus can fire a million rounds.
There just isn’t much to go wrong with an O/U, as they have very few moving parts. Care for them, and your grandchildren will shoot them.
When they O/Us begin to wear, it’s a fairly simple, and not terribly expensive job, for a gunsmith to put the gun back “on face”—that is, to tighten the action.
It’s easy to tell, too, if a gun is wearing. If you look down at an O/U from the top, its lever angles slightly to the right, at about 5 o’clock. As the gun wears, the lever moves slowly to the 6 o’clock position. As long as the lever is between 5:00 and 6:00, the gun should be fine.
Another way to check is to remove the forend (there’s either a latch on the bottom or a pushbutton on the end), and hold the barrels in one hand and the stock by the grip and wiggle. It should be solid.
The durability of the O/U, and the relative ease of checking it out, makes it a great gun to buy used, which is my favorite way to buy any gun.
7. Two Chokes
Having two barrels, the O/U allows you to use two different chokes. Upland hunters will usually set up an O/U to shoot the more open pattern first, for flushing, going away targets, with a tighter second shot for the followup. Most O/Us have barrel selectors—usually part of the safety button—which allow you to choose which barrel shoots first.
That’s an advantage on a sporting clays course, where you may need to shoot a distant crossing or going-away target first, then shoot a close-range incoming bird as part of a pair, or you may need to shoot a close target, then a distant one.
Besides chokes, the two barrels of a break-action gun will accommodate sub-gauge tubes, allowing skeet competitors to shoot 12, 20, 28 gauge and .410 bore skeet events with the same gun.
8. Ease of Maintenance
Keeping an O/U clean is simple. You’ve got two barrels to swab instead of one, but cleaning the receiver is easy.
First, use a toothbrush-type cleaning brush to get any weeds or debris out of the receiver and to scrub under the ejectors.
It is important that you get any grit out of the receiver. When I clean an O/U thoroughly, I’ll clean off the hinge pin or trunnions on which the barrel pivots and put a dab of grease (never oil, which migrates) on them.
Every once in a while, you may need to take the stock off to clean and lightly oil the locks of the gun, but the truth is, I have O/Us I’ve owned for years that have never had their stocks removed, simply because so little grime can get into the enclosed action.
9. Ambidextrous Design
The top-tang safety switch found on most O/Us, which is a sliding button located on the tang of the receiver (similar to the safeties on the BPS, and Mossberg shotguns), is inherently ambidextrous, as it can be used the same way by the thumb of either hand.
Plus, the fact that there is no ejection port on one side of the gun or the other means that left- and right-handed shooters alike can shoot O/Us without modification or adjustment.
10. Pride of Ownership
If, like me, you are old-fashioned, you might appreciate owning a gun with some hand work put into it.
I have toured a lot of gun factories, and seeing the skill that goes into a gun like a Browning Citori or the CSMC A-10 makes me want to own them more than I want a plastic-stocked semiauto that’s built by robots and barely touched by human hands, that is, until it’s time to put the pieces together and stick the gun in a box.
Almost every O/U (the very modern Benelli 828U is one exception) requires hand fitting to mate the barrels to the receiver, and to regulate the barrels so both shoot to the same point of impact.
While it’s true that many functions once done by hand—like checkering, engraving, and milling receivers—are now done by lasers and CNC machines, in many cases that checkering and engraving is cleaned up with hand tools afterward.
In the upper echelon of shotguns, a truly fine O/U is simply a breathtaking piece of craftsmanship.
Bonus: Proper Etiquette Anywhere
You’re always properly dressed with an O/U. There are a few hunt clubs and field trial events that don’t allow pumps and semiautos for safety reasons.
In a few places—quail leases and plantations, mostly—pumps and semiatuos are frowned upon as they allow a skilled shot to take too many birds out of a covey—a smallbore O/U is the favored gun.
You may not travel in those rarified circles—I certainly don’t—but it’s nice to know that if I ever do get the invite from Ted Turner or Jerry Jones, I’ll have the right gun for it.
A Word on Double Guns (Side-by-Sides)
Break action guns come in two types, of course, O/U and side by side (well, three types if you count single barrels, four if you count three-barreled drillings, but you get the idea). The side-by-side, which is properly called a double gun, is seen less and less, except in the hands of traditionalists and cowboy action shooters.
The usual reason given is the “single sighting plane” of the O/U versus much broader view down both barrels of a double.
I’m never comfortable with that phrase, as it implies aiming, the worst way to shoot a shotgun, but there’s no question that the thinner profile of one barrel versus two helps some shooters, especially on crossing birds and clays, and at precise pointing games like trap.
No one has won any major target events with double guns for years.
As a small practical matter, unless you’re wearing gloves, you’ll find the barrels of a double gun quickly become too hot to hold if you shoot targets with them.
It’s also true that the view over the barrel of an O/U is more familiar to hunters who perhaps learn on single-barreled guns.
It’s a shame. A double gun is, I think, the best looking shotgun of all. They often have excellent pointing and handling qualities, and far more doubles than O/Us are available with two triggers, which is not only the most reliable gun design (it’s really two guns put together) but the only design that allows instant choice of barrels in the field.