A double-barreled rifle or double rifle is a type of sporting rifle with two barrels instead of one, available in either side-by-side or over-and-under barrel configurations. Double rifles are one of the family of combination guns. In general, double rifles are much more expensive than the more common magazine-repeater rifles, and, owing to the large-calibre cartridges commonly used, have to withstand very high levels of recoil. Because of their ability to fire two quick shots, double rifles are often used for the hunting of dangerous game in Africa. While today double rifles are typically associated with African big game hunting, they saw their most extensive use during the colonial period in India.
The earliest double rifles employed two external hammers to "cock" the weapon, to ready it for firing, but later development brought about hammerless designs to the double rifle. Holland & Holland (of London) most notably perfected the hammerless design in the 1880s. Most double rifles also employ two separate triggers, one to fire each barrel, however, some modern double rifles have been built with one single trigger, which enables the shooter to fire each barrel in rapid succession by pulling twice on the single trigger. For hunters of dangerous game, however, the use of two separate triggers is preferred, being thought to provide an added measure of redundancy, thereby increasing safety for the hunter, in the event of a mechanical failure.
Although rifles with twin barrels were made as early as the seventeenth century, the double rifle, as it is understood today, first appeared early in the 19th century, due to sportsmen's need for a rifle capable of firing more than one shot, and doing so in very quick succession. This was during the period of the muzzleloader, when reloading each barrel was a slow, tedious process. The breech-loader form of firearm did not evolve until the 1860s, and was gradually perfected over time.
Double rifles intended for use on dangerous game came to prominence primarily in India and Africa during the height of the British Empire, and the principal quarry was elephant, tiger, rhino, Cape buffalo, lion and leopard. The double rifle excels over other repeating firearms in its ability to allow the shooter to make a split-second, secondary, follow-up shot on large, dangerous game without having to "work" the firearm's action. This can mean a matter of life or death for the shooter when a large, dangerous animal chooses to charge the hunter, especially in close quarters, and often in thick cover. That is why the double rifle has been a favorite "weapon-of-choice" of many professional hunters of large, dangerous game animals, especially in Africa, both now, and in the past.
The earliest breech-loading doubles firing black-powder cartridges handled very large cartridges, producing large amounts of smoke on discharge. Some were very large indeed, up to and including, the 4-bore (1.052 inches) calibre. These rifles were so powerful that their recoil could sometimes injure the shooter if fired too many times in succession, although the need to engage in such rapid fire seldom arose. To help counter the effect of the heavy recoil, and to also increase the inherent strength of the individual rifle when chambered for such powerful cartridges, these firearms were necessarily quite heavy, often weighing 15 pounds (6.8 kg) or more. Though generating tremendous power, the penetrative ability on heavy bone and muscle tissue of these earliest black-powder cartridges was relatively low; this, due to the large (and heavy) size of the projectile itself, coupled with its relatively low velocity. One of the most distinguished and prolific makers of these rifles was W. W. Greener in England.
At the turn of the 20th century black powder was replaced by cordite, and then by smokeless powders based on nitro-cellulose. These propellants enabled smaller-bore, higher-velocity cartridges to be produced, and rifles to be designed for them and their much higher chamber pressures. The smokeless powder cartridges were favored over the cordite, and earlier black-powder loadings, because the smokeless powder cartridges produced less corrosion and fouling inside the rifle bores, and with little to no smoke produced upon firing, it was much easier for the shooter to maintain visual contact with his quarry.
Most double rifles, particularly older ones, are chambered for "rimmed" cartridges. These are cartridges that have a prominent rim at the base of the cartridge case that is of larger diameter than the body of the cartridge case itself. The use of a prominent rim on these cartridges made for easier extraction (via built-in "extractors" within the rifle) whether the rifle had been fired or not. In later development of the double rifle, built-in "ejectors" were included as well. With these, when the firearm was opened, extractors would partially extract the cartridges from the two chambers, and ejectors would "kick" the cartridges free, completely out of the firearm. The latest technological development of the double rifle has seen improvement in the extraction/ejection mechanisms, allowing for the use of "rimless" cartridges whereby the rim at the bottom of the cartridge case is either the same diameter as the body of the cartridge case, or, in some instances, perhaps even "rebated." Further, some newer double rifles even have what might be termed as "smart ejectors." With these, the shooter can fire one barrel, open the firearm to reload the spent cartridge (which will then be ejected free of its respective chamber), yet the unfired round in the other chamber will only be partially extracted throughout the reloading procedure.
Most double rifles employ a "break-open" action whereby a lever, located either atop the tang or below the trigger guard, is moved to open the two barrels for loading or unloading the firearm. Double rifles are available with the two barrels in either side-by-side or over-under configuration. This contrasts with the bolt-action repeating rifle which may be equipped with a detachable box magazine; thus allowing the firearm to be loaded with more than just the customary two rounds of ammunition.
The double-barreled express rifle is a particularly difficult firearm to make and "regulate." Regulation of the two barrels is the trial-and-error, time-consuming, painstaking adjustment of the two barrels (and powder charges) prior to permanently fitting the "rib" between the barrels. During regulation of the barrels, the two barrels are mated to the rifle's frame and butt-stock, but the permanent "rib" that goes between the two barrels is not yet installed. Instead, the rifle builder will braze a "temporary" metal wedge between the two muzzles, fire each barrel at a target at a specified distance, then note the point of impact of each projectile on the target, comparing where the projectile fired from the first barrel strikes in relationship to the projectile fired from the second barrel. If the points of impact for the two projectiles on the target are outside the rifle builder's specific parameters, further regulation is called for, with adjustments made to the powder charge and/or the rifle barrels themselves. If the barrels themselves require adjustment, the solder holding the metal wedge in place is heated—freeing up the metal wedge—then the metal wedge is carefully moved incrementally forward, backward, or replaced entirely with a different-sized metal wedge. Each time moving or replacing the metal wedge is called for, the rifle builder must heat the soft solder, move or replace the metal wedge, then solder and test-shoot all over again.
The additional trial-and-error shooting and barrel/powder-charge adjustments go on until the projectiles of both barrels finally strike the target within the builder's specified parameters. Once the builder deems the double rifle is properly "regulated," the metal "rib" is added between the barrels, permanently mating the barrels together. The builder will then specify the exact projectile weight and powder charge used to keep the barrels "in regulation," and this information will be stamped into the metal flats on the top of the frame, underneath the barrels. If, at some later point in time, the shooter of a double rifle chooses to use a bullet weight and/or powder charge that is different than what the firearm was originally regulated for, the firearm will most likely require re-regulation. During the barrel-regulation process, some double rifles will easily "fall into regulation," while others will require considerable time and effort to obtain proper regulation—which adds to the labor cost and overall expense of the firearm.
By their very design, the two barrels of the double rifle must be aligned very precisely (but this does not mean in parallel) in order for the projectiles to strike at the same point of impact, or nearly so, at a given distance - usually not more than 300 metres (980 ft), and often much less. The alignment of the barrels is done so that the two projectiles will actually converge at a specified distance, whatever is deemed best for the given caliber and expected range of the quarry. Regarding sights, many modern double rifles will accept mounts to fit a telescopic sight, but most double rifles, particularly those used for dangerous game, are fitted with open sights.
As double rifle chamberings evolved, this culminated in the production of the famed .600 Nitro Express rifle, developed by the famous company of W. J. Jeffery in 1902. This cartridge was designed and developed to be able to stop a charging 6-ton bull elephant in its tracks, provided a vital organ or major bone was struck. It was not until the 1980s that an even larger-calibre, modern cartridge was produced for the double rifle: the .700 Nitro Express, developed by Holland and Holland of London. The .700 Nitro Express fires a 1,000-grain (65 g) projectile with a muzzle velocity of 2,000 feet per second (610 m/s). This equates to 8,900 ft·lbf (12 kJ) of muzzle energy. However, a few custom-built double rifles have been chambered for cartridges as small as the .22 Long Rifle rimfire.
Most of the world's high-quality riflemakers have produced double rifles for their customers, and the most highly regarded makers from England include Holland and Holland, James Purdey, John Rigby & Company, Westley Richards, George Gibbs, W. J. Jeffery, and Woodward. Outside the "best gun," by British definition, London trade, excellent double rifles of equal and better quality have been made by riflemakers in Germany, Austria, Belgium, France, Ireland, Italy, Russia, Spain, Scotland, Sweden and the USA, including makers such as LARM, Heym A.G, Hartmann & Weiss, Krieghoff Firearms, Merkel and Beretta; however, the "classic" British double rifle remains, to Britons, a distinctively British style of sporting firearm.
The UK trade over the years also featured many serviceable double rifles made under many names, not all featuring the famous Webley action. This was a box lock action made by Webley of Birmingham, England and sold on a wholesale basis to many makers, including some of the most famous names, who finished the rifles and put their names on them. An interesting thing about British doubles is that the named 'gun-maker' need not produce anything except a name; many British doubles were only sold as a name, with all the work being done by other skilled, but never-named firms, either in Great Britain, Ireland, or on the Continent, usually in Belgium.
Many large-calibre double rifles are still in everyday use in Africa, especially among professional hunters. However these firearms are now primarily collectors' items or, in the case of older specimens, antiques. Second-hand and auction prices for especially fine and rare double rifles can reach phenomenal figures, up to US$400,000, at least five very dependable modern double rifles are available for less than US$15,000. In the United States, one builder of modern, well-regarded double rifles in a variety of calibers is B. Searcy & Company of Boron, California. Other US-Based builders include John Rigby & Company of Paso Robles, California. Searcy rifles are popular: the price of a new Searcy double rifle starts at US$10,500.00, and goes up considerably, depending on specific model chosen, caliber, and adornment. Merkel is the "best deal" today in the US for simple, unadorned doubles. A large caliber (.470 or .500 nitro express) is less than $12,000 in the US and considerably less in various European Countries. One can take a trip to Europe "on the cheap," as the British saying goes, and return to the States legally importing one new Merkel .500 Nitro Express for less than buying one in the US. But if one is looking for a custom double rifle that is fully hand made, of extremely elegant aesthetics, engravings, and excellent craftsmanship then it would be very difficult to beat a LARM .500 Nitro Express which would cost around US$65,000. These have been built in Spain since the beginning of the 2oth century. They were also known by the longer name, "La Armeria de Madrid" today they are better known among African Professional Hunters.
Since double rifles are hand-fitted, custom-built firearms that require much hand-fitting, as do all doubles, plus the additional, time-consuming regulation required for barrels to shoot to one point of aim, these firearms must sell for high prices and are equally fine investments. Interest in large calibers, and dollars spent for large caliber double rifles has never been so great in the world, especially the United States. Even in the heyday of Great Britain's Empire, double rifle owners were among the moneyed few. In the famous words of Robert C. Ruark, who popularized African hunting in the US: "Use enough gun." This is always good advice regardless of the game, and that is what the doubles were designed for, to deliver two aimed shots with unequalled rapidity and absolute reliability, because each barrel's firing mechanism is independent in a double-trigger double. The British and Irish gun makers produced the pinnacle of game rifles for dangerous game at close range.
Smaller-calibre double rifles are commonly used in Europe for smaller game such as wild boar and roe deer. As interest in small-bore double rifles has increased over the last 15 years, there has also been an upsurge in interest for use in Africa on plains game. In the used market these rifles are typically less expensive than their large-calibre counterparts, allowing a collector to get "more for their money." That said, "factory" ammunition for these rifles is less readily available and in many cases these rifles are "project guns." This is especially true of rifles featuring older British small bore chamberings. The exception here would be the .303 British, which is a common double-rifle chambering.
The same is not true of modern small-bore double rifles made by continental makers such as Heym, Krieghoff, Merkel and Chapuis. These represent a good value and are chambered for commonly available European cartridges and some American chamberings including the .30-06.
Manufacturers of double rifles
- Holland and Holland
- Hartmann & Weiss
- Westley Richards
- Verney-Carron, French, imported by Verney-Carron US
- Aya, Spanish
- James Purdey and Sons
- John Rigby and Company
- Steinkamp, Germany
- Searcy, USA
- Anderson Wheeler
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