Why lightweight 12s are the kings of bird guns
“Another bargain!!!” I texted my friend the moment I spotted the gun.
I followed up with a link to the 12-gauge side-by-side. It was a boxlock by Linsley Bros.—a British maker I hadn’t heard of. The listing on Gunsinternational.com said it had 28-inch barrels, ejectors, double triggers and a straight stock. The weight was 6½ pounds. It even came in its original canvas case. While the gun was basic, it had the trim, racy look of a classic British side-by-side.
“Looks pretty original,” my friend responded.
I agreed. The barrels had plum-colored bluing and some silvering at the muzzles and breech. The scroll-engraved action had blushes of pink and blue color case hardening. The wood and checkering were clean but had the right amount of wear for a gun that had to be around 100 years old.
“A Parker that nice would cost 2x more,” I texted.
“And the dimensions wouldn’t be that good,” my buddy replied.
Unlike most vintage American doubles, the Linsley had the kind of stock dimensions modern shooters want: 14¾" length of pull and drops of 1½" at the comb and 2½" at heel.
“Just $2K!?!” I pecked into my phone. “Even so, bet it will sit for months.”
“Yup. Shows you just how upside down the gun world is.”
What’s the first thing you look at when browsing for a shotgun? Price? Gauge? Chokes? Most people look at the name. First and foremost they often want a Parker, a Fox or a Purdey. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The big-name American and British makers played important roles in the history of fine shotguns and built thousands of nice guns. As long as people are interested in vintage doubles, there always will be demand for these firearms. But when people focus on famous makers, they overlook a lot of great guns. And today they’re overlooking a lot of great deals.
Consider that 12-gauge Linsley. The gun looked solid and well made, and it was built on one of the finest designs ever created: the Anson & Deeley boxlock action. This action was patented by William Anson and John Deeley in 1875 and first built by Westley Richards. In its day it was recognized for being simple, strong and, as the first successful hammerless shotgun, revolutionary. Gunmakers in the UK and Europe recognized its possibilities right away and lined up to purchase a license to build it. In the US a small, new maker in Worcester, Massachusetts, named Harrington & Richardson secured the rights to build Anson & Deeley-patent boxlock guns. The company beat out a bigger, more experienced American gunmaker trying to do the same thing: Parker Bros.
Once the patent for the Anson & Deeley action expired, gunmakers everywhere were free to build their own versions of it. And that’s what they did. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Anson & Deeley boxlocks were being built throughout the UK and Europe by makers big and small. Today these boxlocks are some of the finest values—and finest bird guns—you’ll find, especially when they’re lightweight 12s built by lesser-known makers.
“Bit much for woodcock,” my friend Jim said to me.
He was looking at the 12-gauge in my left hand and the blue shells I was stuffing into my vest with my right. We were leaning on the tailgate of my F150 gearing up for an alder covert. My pointer Lexi was pacing around our feet, the bell around her neck barely ringing. This was several years ago, and the orange on her muzzle was still bright, like the amber and ruby leaves flickering on the trees around us.
“What do you mean?”
“Those shells. And that gun.”
He pointed to them with his chin. The gun was old, but it was new to me and Jim hadn’t seen it before.
“A 12-gauge?” he said. “For these little birds?”
“Sure,” I replied. “Nothing better.”
Jim’s rolling eyes said I needed to explain myself.
“Let me show you something.” I pulled a 12-gauge shell from my vest pocket and held it up for him to see.
“Seven-eighths of an ounce,” I said, pointing at the silver script on the side of the blue case.
“Now let me see one of your ‘proper’ woodcock shells.”
Jim plucked a 20-gauge shell from the webbing in his vest and tossed it to me. The brass was top-hat high, and the yellow case had “PREMIUM” stamped on it.
“Ha!” I said, pointing to the shell. “I figured. One ounce of lead, right there.”
Even though Jim was shooting a smaller gauge, the load he was using in his 20 was heavier than what I was going to put in my 12.
“Looks like you’re the one using a bit much for these birds,” I teased, tossing back his shell.
In 1900 the 12-gauge was the king of shotguns. From Americans hunting quail to Brits shooting driven grouse, almost everyone used them. But even though American and British 12-gauges used similar ammo, the guns were quite different. The typical American 12-gauge side-by-side weighed at least 7½ pounds. Makers like Parker, Fox, Lefever and L.C. Smith did build lightweight 12s, but these guns were uncommon then, and they’re hard to find now. If you really want one, focus on graded A.H. Foxes and be prepared to write a big check. As I’m writing this, there’s a beautiful, lightweight 12-gauge A.H. Fox XE on the market. It has original case coloring, 28-inch barrels and a round-knob stock with a decent length of pull. It weighs 6 pounds 10 ounces. And the price: $11,000.
While American makers were turning out heavy 12s, British and European makers were focused on making lighter versions. Most of their 12-gauge side-by-sides ranged from just more than seven pounds to 6½ pounds. Some weighed less than six. And these guns came with everything from 28-inch barrels with long, straight grips and double triggers to Churchill-style 25-inch barrels, round-knob grips and single triggers. Chokes tended to be on the tighter side, and many had 2½" chambers, some measuring 2¾".
Today these lightweight British and European boxlocks are easy to find. But because they’re 12s, most upland hunters pass on them, believing they’re too much gun for anything other than pheasants. Of course, this isn’t true—but it’s fine with me. This attitude keeps demand for these guns down and prices low.
As I showed Jim, the gauge of a shotgun and the size of the load you put in it are different things. Most “Express,” “Premium” and “Long Range” 20-gauge shells shoot an ounce or more of lead. This is really a lightweight load for a 12-gauge. I use ultralight loads in my 12s when hunting woodcock and grouse (three-quarters to seven-eighths of an ounce). So even though Jim raised an eyebrow when he saw my gun, to the birds the gun might as well have been a 20.
Back in the early 2000s, South Dakota was overrun with pheasants. I hunted them opening week every year with a lightweight 12-gauge boxlock. I shot 11/8-ounce loads and killed plenty of birds. Of course, with a lightweight 12, the recoil from these loads punched me a bit. But I didn’t shoot enough of the shells for it to bother me, and I was seeing many birds and having so much fun I never noticed the recoil anyway. When I headed home, swapping the shelterbelts of the West for the alder bottoms of New England, I carried the same gun but swapped in lighter, grouse-and-woodcock-appropriate loads. This versatility is one of the greatest advantages of a lightweight 12. For me, it’s the one gun that does it all—but of course I would never limit myself to owning just one gun . . . .
“You kids have no idea how good you’ve got it,” my grandfather used to say. So did my father. And now I’m saying it too.
If you’re young and just getting into vintage shotguns, you’re fortunate. It’s easier than ever to see nice doubles. It’s also easier to learn about them. Back in the dark, pre-Internet ages, the only way to see side-by-sides and over/unders was to visit gunshops and gun shows. I spent countless hours and drove thousands of miles doing it. Rarely did I see anything decent, and when I did, I had no idea what it was. The guns were scarce and information about them scarcer.
Today you can visit sites like Gunsinternational.com, Gunbroker.com and Proxibid.com and find hundreds of nice guns—including many lightweight 12-gauge boxlocks from British and European makers. Click, click, click, and in an hour you’ll see more fine shotguns than I used to come across in a year. As for information, it’s just as easy to find. There are dozens of books out there about fine shotguns, plus there are magazines like this one and websites like mine (Dogsanddoubles.com). My suggestion is to read every book by Michael McIntosh and Vic Venters for your crash course in fine shotguns. From there read back issues of magazines. I’ve been studying these guns for more than 25 years, and I’m learning something new all the time.
Is It a Bargain or Just Bad?
You’ve studied a bit about fine shotguns, and you’ve gone online and found a 6¼-pound 12-gauge boxlock side-by-side. It has double triggers and looks old. It was built by Charles Ingram of Glasgow, Scotland—a British gunmaker you know nothing about. The price: $1,800.
Should you buy it immediately or keep looking?
Since you’re shopping online, the first thing to check is the gun’s location. If the gun is outside the US, forget about it. Importing the gun would be expensive, and for something like this, it’s not worth the money.
Next, check the listing for information about the seller’s inspection and return policy. When you’re buying through the mail, most dealers will give you three business days to inspect a gun and decide if it’s right for you. If the listing says the gun’s being sold “as is,” which means without an inspection period, move on. The seller is asking you to take on too much risk. And if there’s nothing listed about an inspection period, ask before you move forward.
Once you’ve nailed down those details, you need to determine the gun’s condition. As much as I love vintage shotguns, I realize they have a few drawbacks. The biggest is that they’re old. You need to figure out if the gun you’re looking at is still in sound, shootable shape.
To do this, you need to ask a lot of questions. When buying online, I email my questions to sellers and ask them to respond in writing. The types of questions I ask are: Does everything function as it should? How original is the gun? Is it in proof? How long are the chambers and have they been lengthened? Are the barrels tight on the action and on the face? Are there any dents, dings or bulges in the barrels? Are the walls thick enough?
For a more complete description of the questions to ask and how to buy online, read “Buying Guns at a Distance” in Michael McIntosh’s book Shotguns and Shooting and “Double Dealings,” which I wrote for the May/June 2020 issue of Shooting Sportsman. These will give you the background you need to understand how to determine if a double that looks like a deal really is worth the money.
You should also make friends with a gunsmith who knows vintage shotguns. Every gun you’re considering should be inspected by this ’smith, who should tell you that the gun is all good before you close the deal. —G.E.
Gregg Elliott is an Editor at Large for Shooting Sportsman.