Thursday, October 11, 2012

Rifles: Double Rifles

Double Rifles were made in Europe, mainly England, for use in Africa in the late 1800’s. They had the same metal casings, but used black powder or a mix of black and smokeless. These latter versions were the “Express” calibers. The .577 Nitro used black powder only, the .577 Nitro Express used a mix.

This style looked like a side by side double barreled shotgun. Two rounds could be loaded at once, and each had a separate hammer and trigger. This allowed for very fast second shots. To reload, a lever under the trigger is rotated to the side and the barrels drop away from the shoulder stock on a hinge in front of the trigger. This is called a Break Action. One round is placed in each barrel and the barrels are closed and the lever is returned to the locked position. When the shooter is ready, the hammer is pulled back.

One other thing to make note of. These rifles are either right handed or left handed. If you have a right handed rifle and try to shoot it left handed, you won’t hit anything. Once the gun was finished, the shooter had to adjust the load in what is known as “regulating” the barrels. If the speed is too low, the right barrel will shoot low left, and the right barrel will shoot low right. As the bullet speed increases the impact points will climb higher and closer together, until the eventually hit in the same spot. Any speed after that will increase the climb and separation.

This is because the recoil moves the barrels slightly before the bullet can get clear. Looking down the right barrel will show it points low and left of the aim point. Looking down the left will show it points slightly right and low. As the recoil moves the barrels up, the shooter’s body twists to the right and everything lines up. If the right-handed rifle is fired left handed, the elevation will be okay, but it will hit quite far to the left.

Sights were a simple bead in front and a notch in back. In addition to this sight which was for close range, there were often express sights which can be flipped up for different ranges.

When these were in common use, they were very expensive to buy, and to shoot. It was common for the hunting guide to carry a double rifle to back up the hunter who used something more common or conventional. Even back then, there was a lot of emphasis placed on the fit and finish. As a result, a lot of old examples are still with us, and still perfectly useable.

Today, there is a company from those days still making double rifles. The wait is long and costs can run over 100,000 dollars. This can include a visit to London to measure the future owner for the stock to ensure that it fits them exactly. To describe them as the “Rolls Royce” of firearms is possibly making them too common.

Some personal experience with a .577 Nitro Express.

The one I fired was a Hollis and Hollis made around 1900 or so. It fired a 650 grain bullet at 1830 feet per second, and the gun weighed 11 pounds. Those numbers may not mean much to most of you, but for comparison, the .44 Magnum uses a 240 grain bullet at a slower speed. The bullet portion of a .577 is bigger than a fully loaded .44 mag. The diameter of the bullet is bigger than a .50 caliber Browning, though that bullet is heavier and goes about 1200 fps faster. The short version is, it kicks. Luckily it’s not a snappy kick. It’s more like a sort of gentle push, like stopping a truck that slipped its break and is rolling across a parking lot.

I’m about 6 feet tall and at the time I fired it weighed about 230 pounds. It wasn’t a solid 230, but mass is mass. I leaned forward over my left foot, with my right foot only supporting me enough to keep me stable. When the gun went off it knocked be back onto my right foot with enough force that I needed to step back twice to keep from falling over. My right thumb, which was wrapped around the stock like it’s supposed to be, hit me in the side of my nose (which has been broken a lot). My nose didn’t break, but I wish it would have. It would have hurt less. The lever used to open the barrels came back hard enough to crack the big knuckle of my middle finger in a way I thought broke it.

I still had nine shots to go.

Since that first one, I’ve taken to just resting the gun in both hands, not holding it. It jumps out of my left hand but I’m able to catch it before it goes too far. It still stands me straight up and knocks me back a step, though.

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