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Comparing Two American Side-by-Side Classics: The Winchester Model 21 with the Browning BSS

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There’s nothing like a little controversy to stir things up – reading here about opinions on Winchester’s vaunted Model 21 side by side – along with opinions about a possible up-and-comer in the used gun realm – Browning’s BSS (acronym for Browning Side by Side). The Winchester Model 21 has a long standing favorable reputation among many shotgunners, but especially among those who favor Winchesters of all types, maybe even more especially among Winchester collectors.

 

It didn’t take long for the price of the Browning BSS to start escalating once production was stopped in 1987 – at least that’s the last time this double gun was in the Browning yearly catalog. I picked up the following from Paul Thompson at Browning. The BSS was introduced in 1972 – 12 gauge only – the 20 bore was added in 1973. A Sporter model and a Grade II were added in 1978. The BSS Sidelock model was added in 1983 – in 12 gauge – with a 20-bore sidelock in 1984. No Grade II models were listed in 1984. Browning now owns Winchester, and Paul tells me they have no Winchester records in their home base – Morgan, Utah. I’ve heard rumors that virtually all the Winchester gun records were destroyed – maybe about the time Winchester was bought by Browning.

BSS Studio2Three variations on the Browning BSS.

However, a lot of the Winchester Model 21 history is well-known. The world first heard about the Model 21 in early 1931 – in 12 gauge. Later that year single trigger and ejector models became available. By the end of the year 16- and 20-gauge Winchester Model 21s were being offered – these followed by a Tournament Grade, a Trap model, a Skeet gun and then Custom Shop Model 21s.

A friend of mine named Leonard owned several Winchester Model 21s, including the Duck Gun with 3-inch chambers. He bought a 20 gauge from Cape Girardeau, Missouri. The wood was in sad shape, so he had it restocked with just about the ugliest piece of wood you ever saw. I often kidded him about this – after all a Model 21 deserves better wood. Leonard shot many grouse with that 20 gauge, and he took it along on our annual pilgrimage to Tamaulipas, Mexico – back when crossing the border was without hassle – when 40-bobwhite covey flushes a day were common. Oh to have those days back, huh!

Model-21Winchester’s Model 21.

In addition to talking with Paul Thompson at Browning I talked with four guys who have extensive side-by-side experience – to obtain their input on these two shotguns. But before doing that it’s important to point out that the Winchester Model 21 and Browning BSS are not so-called English Game Guns – the latter appreciated for their outstanding balance, relatively light weight as well as their natural pointing qualities.

The Winchester Model 21 and the Browning BSS were comparatively heavy guns – especially in 12 gauge. In the big bore, the Winchester Model 21 and Browning BSS are perhaps most at home in a duck blind, and neither would be a bad choice for a crossing station where the doves were flying high. Although Leonard did well with his 20 gauge Model 21 on ruffed grouse it was not my figurative cup of tea for grouse, woodcock or quail in the brambles.

taylor-21Writer John Taylor with a Winchester Model 21.

John Taylor is one of my best friends, a scribe who knows guns inside and out, the Shotgun Editor at both Sports Afield and Delta Waterfowl magazines, plus he wears numerous other hats in the gun writing field. Here’s how John starts out regarding the Winchester Model 21: “The Winchester 21, while a heavy gun compared to a London ‘Best,’ is one of the toughest shotguns ever made. The long action absorbs the forces of firing and few if any wear out. The firing pins are integral with the hammers, and nothing seems to ever break. Besides, they shoot and handle very well.”

John then went on to talk about the Browning BSS. “The BSS was a wonderful gun. Built initially as a boxlock they were well designed and well balanced. Unfortunately the BSS came along at a time of transition from lead to steel shot for waterfowling. Further, this was also a time when double guns were not in vogue. If the BSS had been introduced in the late 1990s, during the piqued interest of vintage-gun shooting, Browning couldn’t have made them fast enough. Today the BSS demands top dollar on the used market. The sidelock version of the BSS was a thing of beauty but also didn’t sell well because the market just wasn’t ready for side by sides.” But oh to own and shoot one of those sidelock Brownings today!

My next side-by-side expert was none other than Terry Wieland. Terry has made many trips to Spain, visiting virtually all that country’s gun manufacturers, is a writer who knows as much about English shotguns as any scribe in the country, plus Wieland is on the staff of Shooting Sportsman and other top magazines. Here’s Terry’s take on this Model 21/Browning BSS comparison. Keep in mind that’s he’s an English-type gun enthusiast. Even all the Spanish guns he bought were made in the Purdey and Holland traditions.

TWTerry Wieland

“Regarding the Winchester 21 and Browning BSS – I had two of the latter, a 12 and a 20, have shot, but never owned a Model 21. In my opinion, both are good in some ways, bad in others. Both are undoubtedly strong – too much so in the case of the 21. It was built like a tank when a game gun should be built like an Aston Martin, and the excessive strength resulted into excessive weight. However, for a pigeon gun, a trap gun or a waterfowl gun to be used in a blind – I think it’s good. I could say pretty much the same thing for the Browning BSS. The 20 gauge I owned had 26-inch barrels, and weighed, if I recall, nearly 8 pounds. It was no upland gun, for sure.”

My next expert contact was with Nate Ottosen who is a gunsmith at Briley Manufacturing in Houston. Briley is well known for countless products in the shotgun world, with screw-in chokes and full-length sub-gauge tubes maybe leading the list, but Briley is also into fine tuning handguns, rifles – and especially into shotgun work. No doubt Nate works extensively on the latter. Here’s what he told me. “Two-hundred years from now there will still be Model 21s, but there will not be any Browning BSSs.” When asked to explain why Ottosen went on, “They are both fabulous guns, built so well and built to last, the 21 maybe more finicky; the BSS is not. People shoot the ‘crap’ out of the BSS, wear it out and just keep shooting it. The Model 21 usually gets a little respect (I think Nate means with regard to the amount of shooting); probably out of perceived value, so the Model 21 doesn’t usually wear out to the ‘marrow.”

The Browning BSS was made first with a non-single selective trigger, and my Gun Trader’s Guide from 2005 values a new-in-the-box BSS at $663, and Excellent one at $535 and Good at $372 – this for the single selective trigger model – add $100 for a 20 gauge. I have to almost laugh at those prices – and cry at the same time – laugh because there’s no way you’ll see those prices in a BSS today – cry because I didn’t buy every one I could find.

Model-21-top`Nuff said…

But the Winchester Model 21 is a different animal price-wise – where a Standard 12 gauge was valued at $4,034 for an Excellent, $2,783 for a Good – in the same 2005 Gun Trader’s Guide. Further, the list of various iterations of the Model 21 is a very, very long one – and as a rule price values continue to go up. Similarly, my bet is that it will be tough to find a Model 21 at the above estimated values – values which are now eight-years old.

Perhaps the guy with the most Model 21 and Browning BSS experience that I talked with is Bob Hunter (www.hunterguns.com). As you can see from his website address, Bob is a firearms dealer – but no ordinary one. He deals heavily in English game guns, partnered up a lot with William Larkin Moore (who unfortunately passed from the shotgun scene in 2011). Further, Bob currently buys Browning Superposed over and unders, has them thoroughly brought back to modern life, often has them engraved – and sends them back to Europe to be fitted with longer barrels for the sporting-clays enthusiasts among his customers.

Bob HunterBob Hunter

Bob has a friend he calls George. The two have made many trips to Argentina for those high-volume dove shoots. George started taking a popular pair of semi-autos on those trips, along with lots of replacement parts. Most semis don’t fare well when they are shot in hot weather 1,000, 2,000 and more times a day. George was having plenty of problems with his semi-autos. Maybe more importantly, while Bob Hunter and others were enjoying hors d’oeuvre and cocktails before dinner George was in the gun room replacing semi-auto parts and otherwise fixing his semi-autos.

On the flight back home from that first trip together George asked about the 20-gauge Browning BSS that Hunter was evidently shooting “Down There.” Bob ended up finding one for George, and the next year Bob’s friend took one semi-auto and his new-to-him BSS. The semi-auto had been thoroughly gone over by George’s gunsmith prior to departure and George was assured he’d have no problems. But the first day that semi broke down in the heat of the shooting, so George went to his 20-bore BSS. This time on the flight back home George asked Bob Hunter to find him another 20 gauge BSS.

Bob confided in me that George has shot over 50,000 rounds, maybe more, out of his 20-gauge BSS pair as he’s had them now for about 16 years. Bob has shot the Model 21 and Browning BSS extensively himself, and he says both really hold up. Both come with coil trigger springs, and Bob says he’s never had or seen one of these springs break. He also admits that these are not “game guns” as they are a bit heavy, stating, “There’s no comparison with either of these side by sides with a really high grade double gun.”

Hunter went on to tell me that the steels used in both the Model 21 and the Browning BSS are excellent, as is the barrel steel, and the barrels are well struck, with the wood-to-metal fit very good. Further, both these guns are not at all complicated, and Hunter loved this simplicity. In the late 1980s, as a dealer, Bob Hunter bought up all the Browning BSS shotguns he could get his hands on once they were discontinued – at the unbelievable price of $250! Doesn’t that make you want to cry?

I guess this leaves us with the mindset that both are very good guns, though they are not true “game guns.” No doubt the fact is that, if you can find them, a Browning BSS is a much lower priced side by side on the used market than the Winchester Model 21. Is the Browning BSS the equal of the Model 21? Despite both being side by sides the two are very different shotguns. My gut feeling is the Model 21 crowd will never wane in enthusiasm. But it appears the Browning BSS is also a shotgun for the ages – and maybe destined to increase in popularity and value as the years tick by.

Nick Sisley welcomes your emails at nicksisley@hotmail.com. Sisley has been writing full time for 43 years, his thousands of articles appearing in many, many magazines. He’s the author of eight books, is an NSCA, NSSA and NRA Shotgun Instructor and a pilot with many ratings.

Nick Sisley

Nick Sisley welcomes your emails at nicksisley@hotmail.com. Sisley has been writing full time for 43 years, his thousands of articles appearing in many, many magazines. He’s the author of eight books, is an NSCA, NSSA and NRA Shotgun Instructor and a pilot with many ratings.