My first experience with the side-by-side shotgun was with my neighbor, Clarence Craven. Clarence and I owned beagles, and we were rabbit hunting partners. As a 14-year-old boy, I carried a single-shot 16-gauge and Clarence, old enough to be my grandfather, a 16-gauge Fox Sterlingworth. I remember standing next to the creek on our little farm while Clarence explained to me how the Fox Shotgun was the finest double shotgun made. Later in life, I was able to afford some nice double guns, and to this day, I have a soft spot for Fox guns, especially a light and slender 16-gauge Sterlingworth just like the one Clarence carried.
The golden age of side-by-side shotguns began in the late 1800s and continued into the Great Depression. Recreational shooting competitions became popular, beginning with live pigeons, transitioning to glass balls and then to clay targets, hence the name clay pigeon. With economic malaise, and the loss of skilled craftsmen, the writing was on the wall, and they were supplanted by over/unders, pumps and semi-automatics.
About 20 years ago, I saw a Fox Sterlingworth at a gun show and came home with it. It was a 12-gauge Brush Gun with 26-inch barrels made in 1917 in good original condition. I’ve always thought the double gun was the most elegant of all shotgun designs and began to hunt and shoot clays with mine. I shot doves, ducks, geese, chukars and pheasants with it and enjoyed breaking clays with it as much as any gun I’ve owned. Later, I became enamored with doubles and shot them exclusively.
Side-by-side shotguns are certainly collectible, but they’re also enjoyable to shoot. Bill Kempffer, of Deep River Sporting Clays, saw a need and began hosting the Southern Side-by-Side Championship and Exhibition in 2001 at Deep River Sporting Clays, in Moncure, N.C. It’s now the largest event that he hosts. Currently, there are multiple side-by-side-only competitions, mostly along the East Coast. Events like this attract a wide variety of attendees and competitors, from collectors, to competitive clay shooters, and include many who simply enjoy the nostalgia of the heyday of handcrafted shotguns. There are competitions based on gauge in all the popular gauges as well as less prolific gauges like 10-, 24- and 32-gauge. The main events are open in any gauge, but with a separate class for hammer and hammerless guns. This year’s event hosted about 450 shooters, with many of them entering multiple events.
Competitors from every walk of life compete, from the guy who simply wishes to spend a day with his grandfather’s old double, to serious clay shooters and collectors who simply enjoy being around like-minded collectors. Dress ranges from shooters wearing period clothing to others in shorts and T-shirts.
In 2003, Ernie Haussmann, of Haussmann’s Hidden Hollow, followed suit with the Northeast Side-by-Side following the same pattern of competition and exhibits in Friendsville, Pa. In 2009, the Southern Side-by-Side Fall Classic, in Georgetown, S.C., was added.
Shooters and exhibitors come from all over the world as they did with the live pigeon shooting that inspired modern clay target competition. Millions of dollars in classic shotguns and rifles grace the exhibition tents, along with clothing and other collectibles from the era. Because it’s generally accepted that side-by-sides are harder to shoot well, target presentations are a bit less challenging than tournament sporting clay competitions with more emphasis on enjoyment of shooting classic guns. In addition to the sporting clays course, there are Compact Sporting, Classic Trap, Flurry team events and Long Bird shoots. My favorite event to watch is the blackpowder event for cartridge firing blackpowder competition. The clouds of white smoke from black powder are often so thick that shooters have to maneuver around the smoke cloud to see the second bird in a pair of doubles.
Even if you’re not intending to shoot, the guns on the tables are of interest, representing every imaginable maker and type of action. Hammer and hammerless, sidelock and boxlock, top-break, side-lever, under-lifter and underlever guns are plentiful, with makes from all over the industrial world of the era available for inspection. Collector groups have tables and gunsmiths, sporting locations and accessories vendors are mixed in with the gun sellers.
Beautiful wood, vivid case-coloring, Damascus and fluid steel, fine engraving and impeccable craftsmanship abound. Those who appreciate the classic shotguns of a bygone era will enjoy these events where hundreds of fine guns from the past are displayed and enjoyed in an atmosphere of fun and fellowship with like-minded shooters.
The Vintage Gunners 22nd Annual Vintage Gunners Cup World Side-by-Side Championship and Exhibition will be held at Hausmann’s Hidden Hollow Sporting Clays, Sept. 15-18, 2021.
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