Held at the Deep River Sporting Clays & Shooting School in Sanford, North Carolina, the event, now in its ninth year, presented us the rare opportunity of searching for the ideal entry-level hammer gun among the approximate 60 vendors gathered under three tents.
The side-by-side confab naturally also gave us the opportunity to shoot and socialize. We brought our Beretta 471 Silver Hawk 12 gauge circa 1964. The last time we shot this lovely gun was at the inaugural Southern Side by Side Fall Classic held October 23-25 at the Back Woods Quail Club in Georgetown, South Carolina.
This year, the Spring Classic took place April 24-26. A heat wave had hit the Southeast, but another source of heat was the traditional rivalry between Team L.C. Smith and Team Parker. Both the hammer and hammerless categories were won by Team L.C. Smith in the Parker Brothers/ L.C. Smith Challenge Cup.
Other competitions on the sporting clays course included the FARMARS 10-Gauge and Small Gauge Side by Side Championship, the Charles Boswell Gunmaker 12-Gauge Preliminary, the Griffin & Howe Compak Sporting Event, the Atkin Grant & Lang Southern Side by Side Championship Main Event, and the Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Company American Classics Event.
Plenty of time was set aside for socializing with the Exhibitor Welcome Party, the Social Tent, and the Southern-style Pig Pickin' Banquet and 12-Gauge Preliminary.
Between the competitions we perused the exhibitors. The Southern Side by Side Championship and Exhibition is not strictly speaking a vintage-gun event. You won't find many shooters decked out in full Vintager period attire. More often than not, shooters are wearing shorts and polo shirts, a modern accommodation to the heat for their decidedly vintage side by sides.
Still, with so many vintage side by sides on display we began to wonder what would be the cost of entry to budget-conscious shooters interested in purchasing a hammer gun for vintage shooting events?
We set the price at $2,500. As for the hammer gun, we decided that a "good" gun would be a reasonable expectation: one that possessed decent cosmetics, was in solid working order and required virtually no work at the time of purchase. In other words, for $2,500 an aspiring vintage-gun aficionado could purchase the hammer gun, jump on a golf cart and head directly out to the sporting clays course with little concern for reliability.
When you're looking at a hammer gun that could be more than 100 years old, locating a good one for $2,500 or less could take some perseverance. What we ultimately discovered, however, is that it may be easier than most people would think given the age and condition of so many of hammer guns on the market.
Our first stop was with gun restorer Bill Schwarz of Schwarz FRS in Ellijay, Georgia. Bill provided us with a 12-point check list of what to look for in a used hammer gun.
- "Always buy the bones." By that Bill meant avoid barrels and other steel components that may be pitted or rusted beyond repair.
- If you simply can't tear yourself away from a hammer gun with questionable barrels, you should investigate the price of installing Teague sleeves. Nigel Teague, of Precision Chokes in Wiltshire, England invented a resleeving process which replaces metal from inside. Although it's less expensive than a full barrel replacement, Bill warned that in the end it may cost you more than what the gun will be worth after the work.
- "Always buy the barrels," Bill advised. "Everything else in the gun can be fixed." This holds particularly true if your hammer gun features Damascus barrels, which for the most part are no longer being manufactured. Proper wall thickness of the barrels is paramount.
- "Are the barrels on face with the receiver?" In other words, do the barrels fit tight? Loose-fitting barrels may indicate hidden problems that could significantly add to the cost of the hammer gun.
- "Is there up-and-down movement to the barrels?" If so, you may be in for a new breach bolt.
- "Do the barrels move back-and-forth?" This is clear signal that you would need to find a new hinge pin.
- "When you open the gun, do you get a side wobble on the barrels?" Bill warned this is symptomatic of either a loose forend or a loose fit between the forend iron and the lug.
- "Do the barrels ring or clunk?" Tap the barrel with a piece of metal, like a screwdriver. If the barrel clunks, it means that you may have a loose rib, usually around the breach. If the barrel rings, you're in good shape.
- "Are the hammers loose or tight?" That said, Bill said that "a little wiggle is good. A lot of wiggle is bad."
- Check the wood-to-metal fit. If you find a poor fit, it could mean that the wood has been over sanded, is oil soaked or rotten.
- Check the overall condition of the wood. "Look for repairs," Bill cautioned, "especially nails and screws."
- Check for major alterations. In particular, avoid guns in the $2,500 range that have been severely shortened. It probably won't be worth the additional investment to replace the stock.
After our conversation with Bill, we spoke with a few dealers at the event to see what was really available.
Joe Hale of Classic Collectibles in Jasper, Georgia had two hammer guns for sale at the Southern Side by Side Championship and Exhibition which sold for $2,500 or less. Joe restores the guns himself and offers a one-year mechanical warranty. Joe said his hammer guns were nitro-proofed, meaning that they were overloaded to test the limits of the barrel strength.
Although vintage hammer guns were designed for black powder, a nitro-proofed hammer gun is no clear indication that it can withstand the ballistics of modern, smokeless powder. You can allay concerns about the safety of a hammer gun with smokeless shells by actually having it reproofed for modern ammunition.
We spoke with Alex Papp, president of RST Ltd. of Friendsville, Pennsylvania, a company that specializes in low-pressure shells for vintage shotguns. He noted that many hammer guns shoot shells between 2 inches and 2½ inches in length, made with both paper and plastic hulls. He advised against buying shells that exceeded 6,800 pounds per square inch (PSI).
When it comes to shotgun shell pressure for hammer guns, "Lower is better," Alex said.
Jon Hosford is an avid collector. He owns Hosford & Company, a metal fabrication and ornamental ironwork company in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He observed that "you can get a very good hammer gun for $2,500 or less if you're not after a specific brand." He noted that German hammer guns could provide quality bargains if you can find a so-called Guild Gun or one with the name of a retailer on it instead of the manufacturer.
Toby Barclay of Heritage Guns in the U.K. was selling a very nice nitro-proofed Bozard & Company 12-gauge hammer gun with Damascus barrels for $2,890. He told us he would have accepted $2,500 for it.
At VintageDoubles.com of Wenatchee, Washington, proprietor Kirby Hoyt displayed several nitro-proofed hammer guns for under $2,000. "You can get a nice, solid shooter that's not fancy, no engraving, at that price," he observed.
In the end, the only thing that prevented us from buying a $2,500 hammer gun at the event was a lack of time. Between shooting, tailgating with our own Elizabeth Lanier and simply hanging out we felt that we did not have enough time to try out the many hammer guns that caught our eye.
Next year, though, will be a different story.
767 Brushy Top Road
Ellijay, Georgia 30540