Driven Clays & Side By Sides

I’ve never really been a fan of Side-by-Sides. A controversial view, yes, but I don’t think it’s an uncommon one. I grew up around old-english and “English style” boxlocks in the Anson & Deeley vein. The first gun I remember handling was an AYA No4, the ubiquitous Spanish gun that seems to have found a place in almost everyone’s cabinet. My dad’s Webley 700, a 1962, straight hand stock 28” barrel game gun developed almost mythical status with me and my Brother, Ben.

When I eventually got my grubby, heathen hands on the thing I can’t help but say I was disappointed. I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with it, it didn’t fit me, it was too light, all the excuses. Ben seemed to take to it like the proverbial duck to water. This, as with all sibling rivalries, nettled me somewhat, and looking back this might’ve been the start of my irrational fear of anything parallelo.

Not for lack of trying, mind.

I recently acquired a W.C. Scott Live Pigeon gun that seemed to tick all of my boxes- more weight, longer barrels, a higher comb. Still no joy. English guns have never had that “Click” with me that my old Brownings have.

For driven game, I use the closest I can- an SKB Model 200E, manufactured in the same factory as later Auto-5 Magnum Barrels. With a pistol grip stock, a thicker foreend, raised rib and good, heavy barrels, this Japanese gun is as far from your traditional “English” side by side as you can get. Thus, when I finalised plans for a “Full experience” day with Driven Clay Company Lancashire- comprising partridge, grouse and mixed drives- only one gun sprung to mind as “essential”. The Model 200E would be my gun for the day, appearing traditional but with all the mod cons I’d come to appreciate.

Such plans, however, often and quickly go awry. I’d booked the day for 14 people, two teams of Seven. The initial idea had been for one team of “Students”, or current and previous members of the UYCPSC, and one team of “Old hands”, friends and members of the local syndicate. A couple of drop-outs left us with one team of Five and one team of Eight. Oh, and a shooter without a gun. The old SKB was therefore loaned to a member of the student group, and an “Old hand” volunteered to help even up the teams. I had a back-up gun- probably the most inappropriate thing for this scenario- but as I’d been wildfowling the day before all I had was my Browning Auto-5 Magnum, a 3” chamber 32.5” barrel monstrosity that weighs almost 9 ½ pounds.

Reader, I suffered for my actions. Chris tailors the difficulty of his clay traps during a drive- so the more you shoot, the more are thrown. The Magnum gave good account of itself on the first drive, simulated partridge over a bank, but boy did I struggle.

Swinging, firing, and loading 100-ish rounds over 10 minutes is a stamina challenge with anything. With something designed for the occasional flurry of shots at a skeen of geese, it was a nightmare. If all shooting was like this, I certainly wouldn’t be as portly as I currently am.

I caved. After loading for a syndicate pal, Dennis, on the next drive, I meekly consulted my ol’ dad…

“Grouse drive next.”
“Can I borrow the Webley?”
“Oh. I suppose. Have you got a glove?”

Turns out exposed metal gets hot, who knew? The Webley in question wasn’t his old straight hand piece. This particular gun sported a Prince of Wales stock, something I’d spotted in the racks at York Guns when I’d first arrived here. You’re never short of Christmas presents for shooters when you work in a gun shop!

I won’t say the experience converted me. I still don’t think that an “English Style” side by side is right for me. However: stood between those sticks, with my dad loading for me, clays coming in at what felt like head height, from odd angles and strange directions, I understood.

Those light barrels, the “Twitchiness” I’d felt before became a liveliness needed to jump from one target to another. The unforgiving lack of buttpad meant no snags or hold-ups transitioning from loading to mounted. Perhaps most importantly, the over 4lbs weight difference between it and the Magnum meant that by the end of the drive- despite singed hands- I wasn’t cramping in pain.

After this we stopped for lunch, consisting of pastries and some superb sausages, the recipe for which will be featured soon. The remaining drives were excellent, being based in the same area as we’d shot on the “Taster day”. The magnum came out again as I’d recovered my strength, but I turned back to the Webley on the final drive, blattering some rapid crossers from peg 1.

Chris, as always, was a superb host. Accommodating of our group’s oddities, easy going with our drop-outs, and always safety conscious, Driven Clay Company Lancashire continues to impress me. The experience really is tailored to you, to budgets and proficiency, and you can tell he’s got a real passion for the service they provide.

As for Side by Sides, I’m glad I gave the old English guns another look. This was as close to their “Natural environment” as I’ll probably ever get, and I’m settled enough with my A-5 that changing now would cause all sorts of hassle. As a trained Historian, I’ve always seen their value as artefacts, tracing evolving tastes, production methods and even the changing social make-up of shooting in Britain. From the individual pieces created by town blacksmiths in the early 19th Century all the way through to the almost-but-not-quite “Mass produced” Webleys of the 60s and 70s, they’re representative of a tradition and history I feel we’re losing nowadays.

I’ve developed an appreciation of their value to the shooter now, too. It’s a real shame just how much the old English Boxlock has dropped in price, but it represents a superb opportunity. I see people so often buying modern, 20b Over & Unders for game, stuffing them with the heaviest cartridges they can buy, then complaining about recoil. People chasing low weight and high birds seem to miss the obvious: the 2 ¾” Chamber, tight choked English side-by-side.

With more versatile shot weights available, more velocity achievable, and a light weight, easily handled, smooth loading gun tied to traditional lines and real retro credibility (for less than £500!), the old English side by side should still be a real contender for people’s affections. It’s a crying shame they aren’t. With lobbying for a ban on lead shot intensifying, we might very well be watching the death of these guns for the common man.

I guess what I’m saying is give Boxlocks a Chance.

Driven Clay Company Lancashire is:

Boasting 9 different locations and 60 different drives across the beautiful Lancashire countryside.

Webley and Browning shotguns purchased through York Guns Ltd

Photography credit: Chris Brindle, Driven Clay Company Lancashire