By Bruce Buck[W]hen it comes to the origins of wingshooting one tends to think of the English, but that may not be entirely accurate. The possibility of “shooting flying” was directly tied to the development of the flintlock action. The matchlock and wheellock guns that preceded the flintlock were suitable for ground-sluicing, but the time between trigger pull and ignition was too slow to effectively take birds on the wing.
That all changed when a Norman Frenchman named Marin le Bourgeoys enhanced the flintlock by improving the frizzen and priming pan and internalized much of the lock’s mechanism. Lock time became fast enough to be practical on flying birds. In 1610 he made a gun for Louis XIII, and shooting flying soon became popular with French nobility. It wasn’t until later in the century that King Charles II’s courtiers introduced the sport to England.
France certainly has been as forward in arms production as any of the European countries. Saint-Étienne is the gunmaking center of France just as Birmingham is for England, Eibar for Spain and Gardone for Italy. Note that all are in areas rich in the iron ore necessary to arms making.
The main market for French shotguns is Europe. Unfortunately we don’t see that many French shotguns imported into the US, and that’s a shame. They make some good ones. Verney Carron, Manufrance, Darne and Chapuis are probably the names that come up first today, but there were many others—and often they were (and are) of extremely high quality.
Our review gun this month is from French maker Chapuis Armes. Chapuis is located just west of St.-Étienne and has been making guns since the 1920s, when the company was started by Jean Chapuis, father of current owner Rene. The firm probably is known best for the 20,000 double rifles it has made through the years, but its shotguns are of very good quality as well. In addition to over/under and side-by-side rifles and shotguns, Chapuis also makes the Manurhin double-action revolver.
In the late 1980s, Chapuis moved into a modern plant. That and an investment in modern CNC equipment have allowed the company to manufacture vertically without depending so much on outside suppliers. This also permits more consistent quality control.
Recently the prestigious Orvis Company began importing two versions of Chapuis shotguns for sale under the Orvis brand. One is the “off-the-shelf” Classic for $4,595, and the other is the custom-ordered Artisan for $8,995. Both are side-by-sides with the same triggerplate action and other mechanicals, but the Artisan offers custom fitting, upgraded hand engraving and nicer wood in exchange for the higher price and a three- to four-month wait. The guns are available in 12, 20 and 28 gauge.
As this is an upland gun, it seemed that a review of a 20-gauge would be appropriate. With today’s readily available shells, a 20 can do just about everything upland hunting requires and do it at a comfortable carry weight. Orvis was kind enough to send us a Classic model with 28" barrels, fixed Improved Cylinder & Modified chokes, an auto safety and ejectors. Orvis says that these features can be changed upon request.
The gun is based on a triggerplate, or blitz, action, in which the moving parts are mounted to the triggerplate. This allows a somewhat more rounded receiver than the typical Anson & Deeley boxlock and has a smoother exterior with only one exposed crosspin head.
My comments on the interior of the action are based on photos of a double-trigger Artisan model that were sent to me by Orvis. Usually I disassemble a gun to review it, but Chapuis forestalled that by employing a stock bolt with a unique screw-slot head that had a bump in the middle. It required a special screwdriver with a notched blade that I had never seen before. The French often find ways to do things differently.
The photos of the action interior show a very simple action with coil-spring-driven hammers. The springs are located around horizontal guide rods. If a spring breaks, the guide rod should hold it in place, and it might just continue working. The safety is automatic, but the wire that couples it to the opening lever looks to be easy to remove if you prefer a manual safety.
While the design is extremely economical, the photos show that interior handwork and finishing are at a minimum. This won’t affect function, but it might explain why it is so difficult to remove the stock—to keep things hidden. On the plus side, the firing pins are disk-set, so you can remove and replace them from the breech face.
The lockup is again, well, French and not like the usual English, German or Italian approach. There is a fairly standard full-length hinge pin and a full-width locking tongue engaging notches in a unique, large underlug block. The lugs in the block are set up side by side, not like the usual Purdey underbolts running front to back. It is a little bit like the Perazzi side-by-side setup. In between the Chapuis lugs are nestled the ejector springs and mechanism. The broad sides of the lug block bear against the sides of the deep cuts in the bottom of the solid receiver. It certainly looks strong. In fact, the receiver is a serious one-piece forging. The only major separate part is the triggerplate.
Our review sample came with a non-selective single trigger, but tradi-tional double triggers are available on
request. Our single trigger had excel-lent pulls. The right barrel was 4 pounds, while the left was 41/4. Both were crisp with little creep or take-up. Very nice.
The fact that the single trigger is non-selective and the standard barrels have fixed chokes may prove inconvenient in certain situations where birds are incoming. Still, for most of the upland work for which this gun is intended, it will work fine.
The safety is automatic, meaning that it engages every time you open the gun. If you practice much on clay targets before the opening of the season, this may drive you loopy. As mentioned above, however, this should be easy to correct if you can figure out a way to remove the stock to get at the safety-actuating rod.
The cosmetics of the receiver garnered mixed reviews from both my local group of shooters and online comments. Everyone liked the slightly rounded action. It looks good and is comfortable to carry in one hand. The rear of the receiver is nicely scalloped to join the head of the stock, rather than being in a harsh flat line like so many boxlocks.
The issue was with the engraving. It is an extremely fine rose & scroll pattern in 100-percent coverage on a French-grayed finish. There is a small Orvis banner on each side of the receiver and “1856,” the date Orvis was founded, in gold amid the rose & scroll on the bottom. The engraving is applied by computer and looks it on close examination. Chapuis’ five-axis laser engraver did handle the receiver curves nicely, but the consistent depth robs it of life. Some who saw it thought it looked nice; others felt it was a bit too mechanical. Laser engraving can be like that. Some of today’s Italian variable-depth laser engraving is nicer. Of course, for an extra $4,400 you can order the upscale hand-engraved Artisan model. If you don’t want the Artisan’s usual dog-and-bird-scene engraving, you can have whatever you wish at additional cost.
The barrels on our gun were quite nice. Chambers were a useful 3", though the forcing cones were conventionally short. Bore diameters were overbore at .627" each (.615" is nominal for a 20-gauge). The barrels were stamped with a fleur-de-lis, meaning that they are proofed and OK for use with steel shot.
The fixed chokes were marked as being 1/4 (Improved Cylinder) and 1/2 (Modified), but that was incorrect. They actually measured .017" and .025", which is Improved Modified and Full in a 20. I don’t pattern my review guns, because I don’t want to deprive you of that inestimable pleasure, but it might make sense to test these chokes with your favorite shells to make sure that they aren’t too snug for typical 20-yard upland shots. Of course, if you wish, screw chokes or other fixed constrictions are available if you order the gun.
The barrels were nicely blued in a medium gloss. Solder seams were correct and without holidays. The top rib has my favorite classic concave shape, which dips down between the barrels nearer the muzzle. I prefer this on an upland gun, as it gets the rib out of the way and lets me shoot off of the broad expanse of the muzzles. This is especially handy when shooting against a dark background, as in grouse woods, where you would lose the ridge of an elevated rib. A simple classic brass bead adorns the front, and there is no silly middle bead to clutter things. The top of the rib is not matted to reduce glare. It is blued the same as the barrels, but it doesn’t matter, as the rib is swamped and below the line of sight. Besides, if you look at the rib while you shoot, you’ll be ordering out for dinner.
The wood on our Orvis Chapuis Classic was attractive. The stock was in the classic gripless English configuration and had a 143/4" length of pull, 11/2" drop at comb and 23/4" drop at heel, with normal right-hand cast and about the usual 4° of pitch. The grain of the walnut was very nice indeed. It wasn’t flashy, but it did go well with the gun. There also was a nicely figured wooden buttplate that was held in by two carefully engraved screws. The checkering appeared to be computerized and was in a simple pattern that didn’t overwhelm the wood. It wasn’t particularly fine, but it didn’t stand out as being too coarse either. As with the engraving, if you didn’t look too closely, it was fine.
I would rank the forend as being a slight semi-beavertail. The forend iron is a Deeley latch midway back on the forend rather than the Anson pushbutton found on many side-by-sides. The Deeley latch, most often found on over/unders, forces a deeper and longer forend on a side-by-side, hence the slight beavertail as opposed to the classic English splinter.
The stock finish was first class. The hand-rubbed oil filled all of the grain perfectly with no holidays. The semi-gloss finish and medium walnut stain were perfect. Definitely well done. Ditto for the wood-to-metal fit. It was noticeably better than on most guns I see in this price range.
The Orvis Classic comes in a Negrini ABS plastic locking takedown case, which appears suitable for air travel. Inside you get the gun, a two-year factory warranty and a proof certificate. Greg Carpiniello, Orvis’s personable gunroom manager, also mentioned Orvis’s standard satisfaction guarantee on all of its products: “We will refund your money on any purchase that isn’t 100 percent satisfactory. Anytime, for any reason. It’s that simple.”
I’ve been a little picky about some of the details of this gun, because it has a lot of competition in the $4,500 range. There is everything from the Connecticut Shotgun RBL to the Fausti Dea to the Merkel 40E, to name a few. But to me, cosmetic details pale in comparison to shooting. Some guns are shooters, and some just aren’t. And then there is the middle group of guns that some people can shoot and others can’t.
Our Orvis Chapuis Classic is one of the lucky guns. Perhaps it is some French subtlety or a credit to a knowledgeable gunmaker, but everyone who shot our test gun commented on how easy it was to shoot well. Excellent balance will do that for you.
At first I wouldn’t have guessed it, but our test gun weighed only 5 pounds 13 ounces. While that is nice to carry in the field, guns that light are usually whippy and hard to shoot with consistency. Not this one. To forestall whippiness, the weight-forward balance point was 3/4" in front of the hinge pin, and the barrels had enough moment of inertia to smooth the swing. The lighter the gun, the more of its weight you want forward and, unlike so many other makers, Chapuis understands this. This gun handled remarkably well and was easy to shoot. In fact, it was one of the better-handling side-by-side 20s I’ve had the pleasure of shooting.
Classic lines, innovative design and superb handling. Orvis, always known for quality, is very wise to offer the Chapuis Classic. Vive la France!
Author’s Note: For more information, contact the Orvis Flagship Store Gun Room, 802-362-2580; www.orvis.com.