Humans first started hunting as generalists, going after anything edible, including wild veggies. After the advent of so-called civilization, we settled down and started specializing, whether in raising crops or cattle or shooting ruffed grouse with side-by-side shotguns.
Some humans resist completely settling down, including me, perhaps due to being raised in Montana, a more primitive state both in settlement and state of mind. As a kid, I hunted a wide variety of small game, both four-legged and flying—the reason for my first combination gun: a Savage Model 24 over/under with a .22 Rimfire Magnum barrel on top of a 20-gauge shotgun barrel.
The Savage had a single trigger and outside hammer and a sliding button on the side of the action to select which barrel fired. That gun took a lot of game, but I also inherited a side-by-side 12-gauge, my paternal grandfather’s old Stevens. He’d died during the Depression and evidently hadn’t been much of a hunter, the Stevens primarily serving as a typical homesteader’s gun for keeping skunks away from the chickens and the occasional obnoxious human away from the house. (My widowed grandmother raised two sons partly by hunting everything edible, the probable source of my hunting gene.)
The Savage and Stevens taught several lessons, primarily that two shotgun barrels beat one shotgun barrel, especially on covey birds. Incessant reading about hunting firearms eventually revealed something called a Drilling, German for a three-barreled gun, the common combination being a pair of side-by-side shotgun barrels over a centerfire-rifle barrel. This seemed ideal, since Montana hunting often resulted in encountering birds when after big game. Unfortunately, as a young adult my income was not Drilling-sufficient, so I often hunted with the poor man’s equivalent: a shotgun in my hands and a big-game rifle slung over my shoulder.
My income and Drilling desire increased in my 30s, especially after meeting a guy named Tim Crawford, whose collection of sporting firearms included several. This was before the Internet made finding Drillings easy, but more had started showing up at Montana gun shows because of increasing immigrants from other states. I got to look over several, often with Tim’s guidance.
My first purchase was a century-old, back-action sidelock hammergun with 12-gauge barrels over a .30-30 Winchester rifle barrel. It was made by J.P. Sauer & Sohn and had been imported by Schoverling, Daly & Gales of New York City. The latter had commissioned German manufacturers to make Drillings in common American chamberings rather than rimmed versions of European rifle rounds and called them Charles Daly guns, its house brand.
I found the Daly/Sauer on my friend Bradd Cobb’s table at the Great Falls show, and he agreed to let me test-fire it at a local range with factory ammunition. Due to its age, the Daly/Sauer did not have a scope, but along with an open sight on the rib it had a hinged aperture sight that folded into a slot on the tang, not uncommon on older German guns.
Three rounds of 170-grain Federal .30-30s landed just above the top of the front bead at 100 yards, and during the next several years the Daly/Sauer took game from grouse to mule deer. Eventually, however, I yearned for a scoped Drilling. By then the Internet had made searching easier, and my second Drilling was a hammerless Sauer chambered 12x12/.30-06 with a 6x32 Zeiss scope in typical detachable claw mounts, theoretically an excellent all-around combination.
Drillings normally have two triggers, which with three barrels means they have a variety of “fire control systems.” The Daly/Sauer had what looked like a typical toplever for opening the action but actually switched the front trigger from firing the right-hand shotgun barrel to the rifle barrel. The gun opened with a sidelever.
The 12x12/.30-06 had a classic hammerless system, opening with a typical toplever. Behind the lever was what looked like a tang safety but instead was the barrel switch: Pushing it forward changed the front trigger to the rifle barrel and also pushed a rod concealed under the rib between the shotgun barrels, raising the fold-down rear sight. The safety was a Greener slide button on the left side of the pistol grip.
Unfortunately, the advertisement hadn’t mentioned weight, and I was too eager to ask. The gun weighed more than nine pounds with the scope (one of Zeiss’s lightest models) and eight without, considerably heavier than the Daly/Sauer. By then I was 50 and, while in good shape, preferred lighter hunting guns. Except for a Spanish 10-gauge, none of my side-by-side shotguns weighed more than seven pounds, and most of my big-game rifles (especially for the local mountains) weighed less than eight pounds with scopes—and some less than seven.
The weight and 23.6" (60cm) barrels made the balance kinda weird, though at the local trap range after a mediocre “practice” round I broke all 25 targets during the second round. Still, the gun felt clunky, and trap shooting is not wild-bird shooting.
Shortly afterward I met another Drilling fan, a Nevadan named Bruce Cunningham. Bruce admits to having owned more than 200 Drillings in his life and has hunted Africa more than once with a Drilling as his only gun. In Tanzania he got a Cape buffalo with a Simson chambered 12x12/9.3x74R—a medium-bore cartridge with ballistics approaching the .375 H&H—along with birds and smaller big game.
To feed his addiction, Bruce often sells a Drilling to pay for the next one. He offered me a much lighter Sauer in 16x16/6.5x57R—a traditional Drilling round with ballistics similar to the 6.5x55 “Swedish”—with a 4X Hensoldt scope. This gun demonstrated why most Drillings have 16-gauge shotgun barrels: They’re noticeably lighter. It weighed eight pounds scoped and a little more than seven without the scope.
The rifle barrel shot very accurately, but the accuracy made me feel handicapped by the scope—not because of being “only” 4X, but because of its traditional reticle. In America called the German No. 1, the reticle has three heavy posts: one vertical with a pointed tip for aiming and two horizontal posts on each side. The heavy aiming post covered too much of a deer at ranges exceeding 150 yards.
As with most older Drillings, the claw mounts were designed specifically for the Hensoldt, so it wasn’t possible to simply switch scopes. Luckily, I knew a solution. Early in my Drilling learning curve my wife, Eileen Clarke, an avid hunter and game-cookbook writer, also became intrigued. One summer we attended the annual gun show in Wisdom, Montana, where Eileen found an old German over/under combination gun, with a 16-gauge barrel over a rifle barrel in 9.3x72R (which originally appeared around 1890 as a blackpowder cartridge with ballistics similar to America’s .38-55 Ballard).
It was a so-called guild gun, with no maker’s name anywhere, but obviously of high quality and proofed for smokeless powder. Along with the copious game-scene engraving, both on the action and a trapdoor cover for a buttstock “magazine” holding four rifle rounds, Eileen liked the light weight, which was about six pounds.
The gun also had bases for claw mounts, though as with many older European guns, the scope had “gone missing.” A custom-rifle maker we knew had been a general gunsmith for several decades and had figured out how to machine steel Talley mounts to fit claw bases. Supposedly, he didn’t do this anymore, but he agreed to help Eileen. We ended up mounting a 1.5X-to-5X Leupold scope on the gun that worked great.
After using the 6.5x57R’s 4X scope for a few years, I approached local gunsmith John McLaughlin (mclaughlincustomfirearms.com), showing him Eileen’s combo gun and my Drilling. John’s eyes widened, and he said he’d be happy to convert some Talleys. A month later I picked up the gun, with the 1X-to-4X Leupold I’d left with John perfectly mounted. (I suspect he also would be able to figure out how to make a receiver sight to fit the rear base of a typical claw mount, since he also makes a nifty reproduction of the Rigby cocking-piece sight for bolt-actions.)
Low-power variables solve another Drilling problem: shooting “surprise” birds flushed when primarily hunting big game. It’s pretty easy to wingshoot with a scope set on 1X to 1.5X or rifle-shoot a nearby deer, but there’s also usually time to turn up the scope for longer shots on big game.
I ended up using the 6.5x57R so much that the hammer Drilling eventually went to somebody who wanted it more. Of course, this did not cure my yearning for Drillings, and I acquired more—some with different fire-control systems, which convinced me to stick with the Sauer system I’d grown used to.
Eventually Bruce Cunningham needed funds for some other Drilling and sold me a 16x16/8x57IRS, basically identical to the 16x16x6.5x57R but with an 8x56 Hensoldt, a real “night scope.” I didn’t plan to use the scope much but wanted a Drilling in a more powerful rifle cartridge when hunting ruffed and blue grouse in the mountains. After we moved to this part of Montana 30 years ago, the state’s expanding grizzly population also moved into the ranges on both sides of the valley. I wanted some backup to the pepper spray I carry in grizzly country, because in early autumn (the best time to hunt mountain grouse) grizzlies like the same cover: shady spots near streams.
This seemed to complete my Drilling needs but, as many hunters know, need often has nothing to do with it. A year later another Sauer turned up on gunbroker.com that was identical to my pair except for being chambered in 7x57R and having an aluminum receiver, reducing weight considerably. It came with a 1.5X-to-6X Zeiss scope, so didn’t need the Talley conversion, and weighed only 7½ pounds with the scope and 6 pounds 5 ounces without. In fact the unscoped weight is almost exactly the same as my 30-inch-barreled British 12-gauge double by Robert Lisle of Derby and, despite the Drilling’s 23.6-inch barrels, the balance point is similar, as well, because of the rifle barrel under the shotgun barrels.
Hunting with Drillings can present game-law complications in North America. While the guns are perfectly legal, hunting big game with dogs generally is not. Since I usually hunt birds with a dog, it would be illegal to shoot a deer or elk encountered along the way; so I most often carry Drillings when hunting big game, especially doe deer, since they normally are easy to find and shooting a bird along the way doesn’t risk much compared to hunting bull elk.
One of my favorite Drilling hunts took place after pulling a doe mule deer tag in the Missouri Breaks of eastern Montana. The bends of the draws contained buffaloberry thickets—their orange fruit sweetened by the first frosts—and the sharp-tailed grouse hatch was one of the best in years. There’s nothing a sharptail likes better during the sunny days of late October than the shade and ripe fruit of a buffaloberry patch. My deer hunt became a bird hunt, and by the time the doe fell three days later the cooler in the back of the pickup held a pile of sharptails, all taken with my ancient hammer Drilling.
Some hunters are leery of Drillings chambered in traditional European rifle cartridges, but buying ammunition or reloading components is relatively easy for the most popular rounds: the 6.5x57R, 7x57R, 7x65R and 8x57IRS. A recent Internet search found ammo and components for all four available from US websites. I usually check Graf & Sons (grafs.com) first, and while I was writing this the company had ammo for all four rounds in stock, most for about $20 a box. The more expensive exceptions were Lapua and Norma loads with lead-free bullets.
The “IRS” added to 8x57 does not stand for Internal Revenue Service. The “I” stands for “infantry,” though sometimes appears as a “J,” apparently because the handwritten German “I” looks like a “J” to non-Germans. The “R” stands for “rimmed,” and “S” means the barrel uses bullets .323" in diameter rather than the .318" bullets of the original 1888 infantry round. In 1904 the rifling grooves and bullet diameter were increased to .323", solving a couple of ballistic problems—but for some reason most 8x57R Drillings have .318" bores, which makes finding or reloading ammo a little more difficult. While some .318" bullets are available for handloading, my friend Tim Crawford swages down .323" bullets for handloading in his 8x57IR.
Other than that, handloading those rimmed rounds is easy, especially the 7x57R and 8x57IRS, since standard dies for the “rimless” versions are readily available and work perfectly with the addition of a $10 shell-holder for the rimmed version. —J.B.
Drillings are still being made, though not by as many companies, due to less demand from fewer hunters and competition from already existing Drillings. Sauer no longer offers them, but a few others (such as Blaser, Krieghoff and Merkel) do, sometimes with typical tang safeties and even mounts for modern one-inch scopes. However, a new Drilling (like a new top-grade double shotgun) costs quite a bit, and even used Drillings chambered for “American” rifle rounds tend to cost somewhat more than Drillings for rimmed metric cartridges. Fortunately, the prices for used Drillings have dropped somewhat during the past decade or so, as more countries have made it harder for their citizens to own firearms. Consequently, now is a good time to buy an all-around, three-barreled hunting gun.