A MATCHED PAIR IN
The year was 1967. The place a field of maize in the Midlands of Natal, South Africa. A boy, ten years old, followed his father through the dry head-high stalks, rustling in the early morning breeze under eggshell skies. Suddenly the field erupted with flushing guinea fowl, boulder-sized birds beating their wings in frantic escape. A dozen birds, maybe more, rose up on all sides. Two shots rang out from the muzzles of a 12 bore Greener Empire Gun. Then silence. No bird fell. Boy and man stood, anchored to the soft ground, sharing the moment and wondering at it.
The year was 1993, the place Sotheby’s auction rooms in the
One pair in particular caught my attention. A pair of boxlocks,
rubbing shoulders with the best names in British gunmaking.
Glorious Greeners in the Maker’s Case, Identical in Every Respect
Guns as Refinished in
Needless to say, the guns were bought. Thankfully, nobody else in the room seemed to share my intense interest in these guns, as the bidding petered out comfortably below the limit I had set for my purchase.
For many years the guns rested in my gun room. I cleaned and oiled them from time to time, wondering about their special features, and at the same time thinking that they had become an anachronism. It seemed silly to take only one gun out, as I had other doubles (including an Empire Gun that was a dead-ringer for my father’s gun) that seemed more appropriate for my chuckar chasing. I could not imagine using both guns as they were intended to be used. A driven bird hunt was something you read about. So I shot the guns only once in ten years, at the local trap range, just to see how they shot. Everything worked as it should, except the safeties were now manual. The guns were carefully cleaned and returned to the rack where they patiently resumed their waiting.
Until this last summer, that is. Somewhere along the way, I
had turned my hobby into a business. There was no specific date or event….my
collection had just grown to the point where something had to go to make room
for something new. After a while, I went ahead an applied for a federal license
just to be on the safe side. I set up a website and what had been a hobby
became a business. In addition to
dealing in fine doubles, I began to represent a few wingshooting
destinations. Places I had visited personally, the kind of places you want to
share with your friends. In 2004, I received an invitation from a gentleman in
Almost every article I read about
This worried me for a while. I don’t have a 20 gauge semi-auto, and the only 12 I have is a Winchester Model 50 that has been modified to take screw chokes. It fits me well but it has also spit out some of its innards on occasion. I use it as a backup gun and on the Starlings that raid my grapevines in October. (I don’t feel guilty about not cleaning it). I thought about buying a Benelli, but then it occurred to me that the answer was sitting in my gun rack. Finally, the Greeners’ day had come. The more I thought about this, the more sense it made. Greener made a strong gun that would surely be up to the task. The automatic ejectors would be gainfully employed. And if something did go wrong with one gun, I would have a second gun that would require no adjustment of my shooting style. Perfect. Unfortunately, there were also two potential problems: these guns had 2 ½” chambers, and they had horn buttplates.
A call to my host solved the first problem. Orbea, the Argentinian cartridge manufacturer, makes all their 12 gauge cartridges in 67mm length. They actually measure 66mm, even though some of them are marked 70mm. It’s supposedly OK to shoot 2 ¾” shells in an English 2 ½” gun, but several thousand rounds? And they offer 24, 28, 32 and 36 gram loadings (7/8 oz through 1 ¼ oz, roughly). The 7/8 oz cartridges would also alleviate the buttplate problem to some degree. However, I procured a Bob Allen shoulder pad “just in case”. All that remained to be done was to send off the serial numbers of the guns with my passport info to Hector Perren, my host, and to book my flights, and to clear my desk. No problems there.
When time came to pack, another advantage of taking the pair of Greeners became obvious. Both guns, in their case of course, fit into the bottom of my Boyt roller-duffel. Clothes and boots went into the top. My cameras, reading matter and a change of clothes went into a carry-on and we all set off on the long trek.
The area I was hunting was not
Neither did Hector speak English, I discovered when I got off the plane. We had corresponded entirely by email, in near-perfect English, so I assumed….. Well anyway, he did have an interpreter, Monica, who was at the airport and stayed with me for the entire trip. (He has another for French clients.) This was going to be an interesting trip, I thought, as we made our way through town. Three things struck me: garbage, dogs, and cars without lights. It got better as we reached our destination, a gracious home on a large, well-tended lot in what was obviously the best part of town. This was to be our base of operations. The birds, at least in this area, tend to move around to the fields that have just been planted, or just been cropped, whichever the case may be. The town was the center of the action, a short daily drive from whichever fields happened to be hot at any particular time.
Hector Contemplating a Fresh Day from the Steps of our Base “Camp”
Hector has been a hunting operator for 30 years, I learned later that afternoon while strolling on the lawn with him. He was the first to begin hosting hunters in that area, and for many years was the only operator, both for big game and for birds. More recently, as a result of the growing number of hunters interested in Argentina, the strength of the dollar against the peso, and the lack of employment, lots of new operators have moved into the business, especially in Cordoba, some good and some not so good. When he wasn’t hunting, he was shooting live pigeons for the Argentinian national team and also for Beretta. So he knows a thing or two about shotguns and birds. I was somewhat crestfallen that he didn’t seem to think much of my guns, nor my idea of using a matched pair of doubles. Experience had taught him, if it wasn’t a Beretta, a Benelli or a Browning, then it was likely to break on the first or second day. Over 90% of his clients, mostly Europeans, use semi-automatic 12s. (It seems the 20 ga theory is just that…a gunwriters’ myth).
We started bright and early the next day (so early I wondered if we were going to shoot bats or owls). But the doves arrive early in the grain fields, and they were already there by the hundreds when we arrived, rising up in clouds as the vehicle drove by.
Marauding Doves are Early Risers in
I had asked for a pattern board the previous evening and a couple of sheets of wrapping paper were produced. Amid considerable joking about who was going to hold it up, a nearby fence was used for support. I took out the no. 1 gun and using the 24g load, fired the right barrel at 30 paces. (Both guns are choked identically, .012 and .017). The pattern was about 30” in diameter, and reasonably compact and even, although there were a couple of sparse areas. This told me that the open barrel was good for 30 yards, no more, with this light load. The left would stretch to 40 or so. That’s pretty close shooting for doves, and I recommend a little more choke or a little heavier load. In lighter gauges, I would strongly recommend at least one full-choked barrel.
While Monica, Hector and his bird scout stayed with the vehicles, Luis and I took up position in a dry irrigation ditch in the middle of the cornfield. There were a lot of doves and parakeets moving around (the latter very reminiscent of sand grouse in their silhouette and habit of calling as they flew by), with the occasional pigeon as well. But the majority of birds were on the ground feeding. This was normally not a problem with a large group of hunters, but in my case the action was measured. I didn’t need two guns, and I was able to keep up loading my own gun. Luis’ role was to fill my cartridge bag and alert me to birds from behind. Every time I took three or four birds in a row, a small cheer would come from the audience. I found the parakeets more difficult to shoot (and they are as big a pest as the doves) because they were slower but more agile than the doves, oftentimes appearing to swerve to avoid the shot. The pigeons kept their distance mainly, but there were plenty of other targets to keep me busy. Luis would encourage me with a loud “Bravo” whenever I pulled off a tough shot. I soon stood in a circle of “Argentine confetti”. The Greener’s muzzles were coated in black soot for the last two inches, although the powder seemed to leave the bores clean.
Later that morning, we moved to the tree line where the majority of doves were of the smaller “Torcasita Comun” (Ground Dove) variety. These doves were smaller, faster and very agile. They would come in low and fast, a real test of one’s instinctive shooting ability. Mine needed work, I concluded.
Two Species of Doves, Spot-Winged Pigeon, and Parakeets Provided Continuous Action
Around , we relocated to a watering hole. I assembled the no. 2 gun and instructed Luis in the two methods I knew for loading and exchanging guns. In the English method, the loader stands behind the shooter. The empty gun is passed back over the shoulder with the left hand, while the loaded gun is taken by the wrist at waist height, with the right. In the Spanish method, the loader sits in front of the shooter. The empty gun is handed down with the left and the loaded gun then taken with the right. Luis got the rhythm immediately although I admit that my shooting was not great as I tried to get the rhythm on my end. After an hour or so of easy practice, we retired the guns for lunch, a tray of multi-layered sandwiches with sodas.
The fact that the guns had survived the morning without breaking earned some positive comments, and the audience wanted to know how much a gun like these cost. My reply was “They don’t make them any more”. Actually, I was a little concerned that the no 2 gun had doubled on me twice, which I later learned was due to the very light loads we were using. When we moved up to 28g loads, it functioned flawlessly.
After lunch, we resumed and I managed 14 birds straight, doves and parakeets plus one pigeon shot going away. This gave my confidence a big boost, readying me for the evening’s action back in the grain fields.
Spanish Method, with Loader Sitting in Front of Shooter, is More Fluid but Puts the Guns at Risk of “Handling Marks”
English Method of Exchanging Guns Absolutely Avoids Collisions
Later, we returned to a field adjacent to the one we had shot over that morning. To my absolute surprise, the field was choc-a-block with pigeons, with only a handful of doves to be seen. My host, through our interpreter, told me this was pretty normal, with pigeons preferring fields where the corn stalks had not been trampled down by cattle, and the doves preferring the opposite. Jack Sprat of the bird kingdom, I surmised.
Both Varieties of Pigeon are Found Feeding Together but not with Doves
Pigeon hunting is not as frenetic as dove hunting, even in
By the end of day one, the guns had digested (and ejected) just over 600 cartridges without a hitch, the no. 1 gun doing most of the work. My shoulder felt OK although there was some chafing from the shirt I was wearing, right where the pad edge met my upper arm. Unexpectedly, all that looking around had chafed my neck as well, mostly a result of the fabric of the shirt I was wearing. So despite those minor discomforts, I felt good about my choice of guns and a little relieved that the pundits’ warnings about fixed-breech 12 gauges guns were not real.
An Afternoon’s Bag using Each Gun Separately. Note Typical Dense Thorn Brush
The next day we went after partridge using dogs. I took the
no 2 gun with 28g loads, partly to see if it would double, and partly to give
no 1 a rest. These birds are actually Tinamou, the Bushland (larger)
A Limit of Partridge with Number 1 Gun in Two Hours
Our dog was an amazingly energetic Pointer cross that was trained to “point” the birds by laying down in a contorted fashion. Once I figured this out, I quickly my limit of ten birds within two hours, using exactly 25 cartridges, with more of the larger (and slower) species in the bag than the other. The gun performed flawlessly. Two days later, I repeated this performance with only 17 cartridges, and this time the majority of the bag was the speedier variety.
Having enjoyed the previous day’s pigeon shooting immensely,
I requested that we return to the same location. We recovered twenty nine birds
with others unrecoverable in the thick (and very thorny) brush and trees to our
rear, in about two and a half hours’ work. Again, there are two species
intermingled: the Picazuro (collared) Pigeon , and the somewhat smaller Spot-Winged Pigeon. Hector
maintains that in
After taking a day off to visit Hector’s big game hunting camp some two hours away, the final day of hunting dawned clear and warm. Today was to be the day we put the Greeners through their paces. By now, my confidence with the guns had improved considerably and I trusted Luis not to shoot me in the derrier (now I understood fully why the original owner had commissioned those automatic safeties!). After the second partridge hunt in the morning, we moved to a spot known to offer fast action: a lane with an irrigation canal on one side, running through an area of thick bush that served as a dove dormitory.
Yet another case of ammo was hauled to our position, this time 28g loads as opposed to the 24g loads used the first day. We started shooting around , and while there was constant action, it wasn’t that hectic. We practiced the English and the Spanish methods. Until around 3 p.m, that is. From that time on, the skies above us were filled with doves swooping up, down and across the lane of fire. I shot them coming, I shot them going, and every angle in between. Luis and I worked like two cogs in a machine, using our own (Argentine) technique I dubbed “stirring the butter”. The gun and I became one….the barrels were getting hot and I was in the zone. I would hand a gun to my right, muzzle up. He would take it with his left and place the loaded gun in my right, muzzle up. Pick a target, shoulder, swing through and fire all in one fluid motion. The opening between the two walls of bush was only 20 yards wide, and a dove can cross that distance in a little over a second. That’s how long one had to make the shot. I found that the need to shoot fast actually improved my shooting. It wasn’t hard to hit three out of four doves, and we managed several streaks of four or more doves.
We took a break for a drink of water and to let the guns cool. Luis said (in Spanish, translated by Monica who was running the video camera) “This method is faster than with two automatics.” “Una caja en dos minutos”…a box in two minutes.
We kept his up for another hour. We had a problem with the left ejector of the no 2 gun…twice it failed. We had to get the cleaning rod out and knock the shell loose, upon which the spring kicked the case clear. Close inspection revealed that the ejector itself was fine, nothing broken or bent, but the chambers were dry and getting dirty. I suspect that the brass was not all fully dimensioned as well, allowing the ejector to slide up on the rim. While examining the mechanism, I noted that the rib of the no. 2 gun had lifted very slightly at the junction of the rib extension and for about an inch forward. There was no way this could be related to the ejection problem, but I decided to retire that gun in any case. The intense heat could have caused the rib to warp and perhaps also the solder to soften. At times, the guns were almost too hot to hold. We continued with the no. 1 gun. By four, we had exhausted our supply of ammo…one case and one box (525 rounds in total). Doves were strewn up and down the dirt track. But they were still coming, thick and fast.
Muzzles Black with Soot from Local Ammunition while Doves Continue to Fly
When the ammo was all used up, Luis and the others collected
the birds and we continued to sit and watch the doves swooping in. It astounded
me that we hadn’t even made a dent…and I wasn’t the first to hunt that spot,
and won’t be the last. Doves breed five times a year in
I made sure that both guns were well-oiled each evening
before putting them to bed, especially the ejector mechanisms and the hinge
pins. I probably should have cleaned and oiled the chambers, each night. Sadly, however, while giving the guns a final
cleaning on the last evening, I noticed a hairline crack in the wrist of the
no. 1 gun starting at the rear of the trigger bow and angling back toward the buttplate for a short distance. It could have been there
all along, but I am pretty sure it was not. This gun digested the majority of
the 1225 shells that I paid for upon my departure. So that too will have to be repaired.
Both will go to Ken Owen for a thorough cleaning and some minor cosmetic surgery
now that they are back in the
Was this too much for a pair of guns made in at the outbreak of WW1, almost one hundred years ago? I say not…this is what the maker and the original owner intended for them, and sadly, they had not had this much fun in a very long time. My only regret was that they were so perfect to start with.......and that my father wasn’t there to enjoy the guns with me.
Russ Gould is the owner of Double Gun Headquarters, a
virtual marketplace specializing in fine American, German and English double
guns, also offering wingshooting safaris to