For those who know anything about firearms, the double rifle has always elicited awe and respect. It reminds of the early days of hunting dangerous game in India and Africa; when men pitted their hunting prowess against the most dangerous game on the “dark continent. It elicits respect due to the fine workmanship bestowed on double rifles as well as the technology involved to make the rifle into a highly efficient firearm.
Prior to the invention of smokeless powder, semi-automatic rifles or even bolt action rifles, it was the hunter armed with a single shot rifle and cartridges loaded with black powder. What was needed was a large and thus powerful cartridge in order to bring down an elephant or charging lion with the one shot at the hunter´s disposal. If this shot failed, then there would be one less hunter on the planet!! Enter the double rifle. If still fired a large diameter projectile with black powder, but it had two barrels if the first shot should fail. These rifles were made in large calibers such as the 12 bore (12 gauge) so that the black powder propellant could deliver maximum shock to the target. Some of the these double rifles were designed into what is called a paradox double rifle. The first part of the barrel was smooth bore and toward the end of the barrel it was rifled to give the projectile a spin and thus give stabilization through its flight.
As the gun smithing art progressed, calibers such as the 577, 577/450, 450, 470 and eventually the 600 nitro express were placed on the market with the double rifles chambered for these cartridges. At first some of the these cartridges use black powder as the propellant but later the cartridges were loaded with smokeless powder and were dubbed nitro express rounds. The smokeless cartridges had several advantages: first when the cartridge was fired there was no large cloud of smoke to give away the hunters position and second they had a much higher chamber pressure and thus more foot pounds of deliverable energy when an animal was hit. I might add that collects in the bore of a rifle fired with black powder can produce a caustic mix that can pit the barrels. Remember, black powder has a key ingredient, sulfur which can form sulfuric acid when mixed with water.
Witch these large powerful cartridges, there was a great deal of recoil and which was transmitted to the hunter´s shoulder. These double rifles were made heavy to decrease this heavy recoil generated by the powerful cartridge and could weight in the 15 to 25 pound range. This rifle would be a heavy load for a hunter of middle age or order to carry through the tropical heat of Africa or India so gun bears were used to carry these heavy rifles. When game was spotted, the loaded rifle was handed to the hunter for the shot. After the shot was fired, the rifle was handed back to the bearer.
Normally the double rifle cartridges had a tapered case with a rim at the base to facilitate extraction. In modern times some double rifles were manufactured with rimless cartridges, but the extraction of these rimless cases can fail with the inherent problems associated with a cartridge case stuck in the chamber.
Double rifles are made with both box locks (the least expensive) and side locks (the most expensive). The side locks cab be hand detachable and thus can be removed in the field if a spring breaks, for instance. Of course, an extra ser of side locks would have to be carried in the field and this raised the price of the rifle with hand detachable side locks.
Besides the inherent labor required to produce a fine double rifle, most of the well to do hunters of the era had the stocks and metal embellished with engraving, carving, inlays, and checkering. This could drive the price skyward, depending on the owners taste for the very best that money could buy.
Regulating a double rifle, to have both barrels hit within a specified area at 100 or 150 meters, was a gun maker´s nightmare. After the barrels were made and fitted as best that could be done, the rifle was taken to the range and fired with the specified load for which the new rifle was to be regulated. After firing, the barrels would have to be readjusted and re-soldered and fire again, and again…. and again. the process was only stopped when the proper regulation of the barrels was achieved. Firing expensive, high intensity cartridges was a tedious and expensive part of the final manufacturing process.
The double rifle is a rifle of close to moderate range and is not for varmint shooting at ranges of three to five hundred meters. Once the range is extended beyond the distance in which the rifle was regulated, the point of impact for the two projectiles will deviate greatly. Not only are we talking about the normal bullet drop as the range increases but the lateral dispersion of the projectiles.
The point of impact for the two projectiles can also be altered depending on the powder charge used, the type of powder used, the weight of the projectiles, the type of jacket material used on the projectiles, etc. When a double rifle is regulated, then this act of using a standard load in the rifle prevents one from going to the gun shop and saying, “Give me a box of ammo of this caliber”! Stick to the regulated load for the double rifle.
To fire a double rifle, fire the right barrel first and then the left barrel. For best results fire left barrel within five seconds of the right barrel. If not the heat generated in the right barrel can cause the barrel to move with a resultant loss in accuracy. Do not hold the barrel with you free hand! Lightly grasp the fore end, without any undue pressure and then fire the rifle. Do not let the barrel rest on a fence rail, branches or the side of a tree trunk.
Why would want a double rifle after reading the few points outlined in the paragraphs above. Well first of all, a double rifle is not for everyone. In fact it is only for the chosen few. You must follow the rules carefully if you are going to have any luck firing the rifle accurately. If you can find factory loads that work well in your rifle then you can stick to these loads. If not, you may want to reload. Reloading is also a requisite if you have a rifle in an absolute caliber or it the factory ammunition is very expensive. Cartridges for the fairly new (in double rifle years). 7000 Nitro Express can cost in the neighborhood of $ 70 per ROUND! Of course, anyone who awns a. 700 Nitro Express doesn´t have to worry about the cost of ammunition as he loads his double rifle into his Rolls Royce.
What do double rifles cost? The textbook answer to this questions is … whatever your want to pay for them. The double rifles of continental Europe are the least expensive. The British double rifles are the most expensive as they are virtually hand made and hand fitted with the finest finish, engraving and stock wood. As a ball park figure, the best British double rifle will cost some $ 60,000 on the low end. Used European doubles can be had for $ 5,000 on up. I might say, for clarification, that some good buys 303 British ammo can be has in Britain for used double rifles which are not of the Royal grade.
If you are interested in a double rifle, check the many firearms auctions that are held around the country. Get a copy of the Double Gun Journal at Barnes and Noble and get some books on double rifles. One that comes to mind is Shooting the British Double Rifle by Graeme Wright.
I hope I have piqued your interest on the world of double rifles. In the second part of this discussion I will go over a German double rifle that I have had for many years and is still my favorite rifle.
Clyde Cremer holds a Master degree in Forestry from the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in New Haven, CT. He has over 35 years of experience in the forestry industry is currently the president of American Log Homes Inc. in Pueblo, Colorado.