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Double Your Hunting Fun With a Double Barrel Gun

A good "two-pipe" rifle isn't just for dangerous game.

Double Your Fun With a Double Barrel Gun
Although nontraditional, a scoped double rifle is the best of all worlds for buffalo hunting. (Photo courtesy of Craig Boddington)

American hunters crave accuracy and velocity. The double rifle delivers neither, at least not to the degree that most of us desire. First, there’s the practical impossibility of getting both barrels to shoot absolutely parallel. The bullet paths must either diverge slightly. Or, must converge, meaning the bullet paths will cross at some point, and then drift apart.

When it comes to velocity, break-open actions are not strong, naturally trying to unhinge with each shot. At its best, and for most lasting use, a double rifle needs to be chambered to cartridges with breech pressures in the 40,000 PSI range—about a third less pressure than our fast magnums.

Then, there’s that pesky issue of weak primary extraction. Doubles are most reliable with rimmed cartridges, so the extractor/ejector can get a big bite. Cruise through current cartridges, and you will find that most rimmed cartridges are older and, at best, medium in velocity.

Who Needs a Double Gun?

I could make an argument that nobody absolutely needs a double rifle. Bolt actions are stronger, more accurate, and chambered to a wide array of fast, powerful cartridges. Also, generally a lot cheaper. However, I don’t accept that price is a valid drawback to the double. Costly, yes, but more double rifles are made today than since the Great Depression. Many are purchased by folks who can probably afford them the least: young African PHs, barely getting by.

A hunter with an African plains game animal.
A double rifle isn’t a perfect choice for plains game, but this old .303 double has a pop-up tang receiver sight, offering more range and precision than typical open sights. (Photo courtesy of Craig Boddington)

They scrimp and save and pony up because they see a big double as essential equipment, the best life insurance money can buy. Good (and reasonably affordable) doubles are now made in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere. In about the last 25 years, I’ve been amazed at how many PHs who hunt dangerous game have gone to double rifles, including many younger hunters who, of all people, really shouldn’t buy them. Except with that fast, reliable, possibly life-saving second chance, they believe they can’t afford to not have a “two-pipe.”

In the PH’s context, limitations of accuracy and velocity don’t exist. They’re only going to shoot if things get serious, either to stop a charge or prevent the escape of a wounded animal. The range will be close, and most PHs cling to traditional open “express” sights for simplicity and certainty. Velocity matters not. Because of potential use and ammo availability, .470 Nitro Express is most common, followed by .500 3-inch.

For you and me, things are different. As visiting hunters, we’re not hunting dangerous game alone. We’ll have a licensed PH close by, probably carrying a big double. We can get by fine without one, and, in most situations, we’re at least as well served with a bolt action in appropriate chambering, topped with an optical sight. That doesn’t mean we don’t covet a double for tradition, nostalgia, and just plain fun.

I read too much Robert Ruark and J.A. Hunter when I was a kid. From high school onward, I dreamed of a big double. America is a wonderful country; if you want something bad enough—and work hard enough—dreams are possible. I got my first double, a well-used Wilkes .470, in 1979. Life has its ups and downs. There have been times when I had no double rifle. Once, in one of those times, colleague Bryce Towsley asked me, “How many double rifles do you own?”

I was embarrassed, but I answered truthfully: “I don’t have one right now.”

I fixed that problem when I could. For me, a double rifle was a luxury, never a necessity. I love ‘em, but don’t always take one to Africa. It depends on what I’m hunting and where.

I used a bolt-action .416 for my first elephant, but most of my elephants were taken with double rifles: .450/.400, .450 NE 3¼ inch, or .500 NE 3 inch. Oddly, I’ve never killed one with the most common .470. I am convinced the double rifle is superior to all else for elephants. If the brain shot fails, it’s that fast second shot that saves the day, and on heart/lung shots, the double’s quick “one-two” punch is invaluable. Although precise shot placement remains critical, shooting distances on elephants are so close that open sights are no handicap; most of mine have been within 15 yards.

The Buff Gun

More of my buffalo have been taken with bolt actions, several with single-shots, and quite a few with doubles in several cartridges. I’ve said it before: Year in and year out, you will take more (and bigger) buffalo bulls with a scoped bolt action than with a double rifle. For buffalo, accuracy is plentiful, and velocity and power are just fine, but most doubles wear traditional open express sights, so the practical range is limited. There was a time when I could be confident on a buffalo-sized target past 100 yards, but those days are over. Today, the difficulty of resolving the front sight is increasing, it doesn’t matter how much I practice; I’m not safe much beyond 60 yards and I know it.

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The African buffalo is a herd animal with lots of eyes, ears, and noses. We can’t always get as close as we’d like. My current .470 is a lovely William Evans, built for Col. Richard Bright of the Uganda Rifles, shipped to him in Uganda via Mombasa in 1906.  Bright retired to England in 1910; as far as is known, his rifle hadn’t returned to Africa until I took it home to Uganda last year. The hunt was in Karamoja, an area where I expected to get close to buffalo. It worked. I shot an ugly problem bull at 15 yards, and a wonderful old bull stalked to 30 yards. Such shots I can still handle with express sights, and I can’t even describe the satisfaction in taking a buffalo up close and personal with a classic double.

A double barrel rifle with Hornady ammunition.
Boddington’s Heym 88B in .450/.400 3 inch is well-regulated, but an Aimpoint red-dot sight tightened its groups dramatically. (Photo courtesy of Craig Boddington)

The problem is, such shots aren’t likely in all buffalo country, and they’re highly unlikely in many areas. The last 15 years, I’ve done most of my buffalo hunting in coastal Mozambique, typically among big herds in open swamps. Great buffalo hunting, but it’s not iron-sight country. The average shot there is maybe 90 yards, and sometimes we must reach beyond 100. That’s too far to be certain with open sights, so the double rifle’s real limitation isn’t accuracy or range, but sights. I think an optical sight (scope or red dot) looks awful on a sleek double. But, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned something I should have accepted decades ago: Update the sighting equipment, and the double rifle becomes more versatile and a lot more fun.

Optics Are Ugly, but Useful

Many modern doubles are set up to readily accept scopes or reflex sights. You just have to get past the nontraditional idea. Using an Italian Contessa mount, I put a 1-4X scope on a Sabatti 9.3x74R double. I used it for buffalo and did fine, but it’s fun on hogs and last fall, it accounted for a nice whitetail buck. Hunting buddies Gordon Marsh and John Stucker both have .450/.400 3-inch doubles of the same make, scoped with the same mount. They’ve used them for several buffaloes each, and I’ve borrowed their rifles for buffalo. Almost the best of all worlds: The joy of hunting with a double, combined with the certain shot placement of a low-magnification scope.

A hunter sighting in his double barrel rifle at a shooting range.
On the bench with a Heym .450/.400 3 inch, newly fitted with an Aimpoint S-1 red-dot sight. An optical sight changes the game, greatly increasing the versatility of a double rifle. (Photo courtesy of Craig Boddington)

There are other options. I have an old Holland & Holland double in .303 British that belonged to my late hunting buddy Joe Bishop, fulfilling an itch to have a light-caliber double. It has a flip-up tang-mounted aperture sight and a larger flip-up ivory front sight. Put these together, and I’m pretty good to 80 or 90 yards.  It has responded well to handloads, and I’ve had a ball using it for hogs and plains games.

We also have one of Heym’s first doubles in the Hornady-resurrected .450/.400 3-inch (aka .400 Jeffery). The rifle shoots so well and could be so versatile that I just had master riflesmith J.J. Perodeau put an Aimpoint S-1 shotgun sight on it. It doesn’t look traditional, but I’ve got handloads from both barrels touching at 50 yards. With hunting season around the corner, I’ll be doubling my fun this fall. 




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