Dawning of the Light Doubles

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Dawning of the Light Doubles
 By Rudy Mola 

With advances in technology, manufacturing, metallurgy and the overwhelming success and popularity of the ARs as sporting rifles, many hunting enthusiasts find themselves looking for something different, and perhaps more personal, in a quality hunting rifle.  Many are discovering the emerging popularity of the Light Double rifle.

The double rifles have the distinction of being the only rifles developed strictly for hunting. All other rifles have a bellicose origin as weapons of war and conflict, then were sporterized and adopted for the more favorable sporting use.

Only the double rifle was designed for the exclusive purpose of stopping a large, angry beast from quickly and painfully ending a hunting career. They do this by providing a second independent lock and barrel for a quick and assured second shot.

To accommodate the twin hardware, the double rifle has been a large, heavy firearm, from an average of about 12 pounds up to a massive 26 pounds, and thus creating a job opportunity for a gun bearer.

Previously, accuracy was secondary to reliability and speed, as it was seldom used beyond 50 meters at a large charging beast, and particularly tight shot grouping was a lesser consideration to speed.

From reading Roosevelt, Hunter, Blixen, Ruark, Capstick, Boddington, and many others, I grew up with all the adventure and nostalgia of the great doubles.  Except when taken for its original purpose on dangerous game, carrying a twelve-plus pound rifle can lose much of its nostalgic appeal very quickly.

Today we see an increasing interest in the use of these wonderfully historical firearms, not only for dangerous game in their tried and proven calibers, but in a whole new developing branch in the form of the “Light Doubles”, offering the magnificence of a double rifle, as few other rifles can, with an assortment of additional features, opening their use to a wider field of hunting opportunities.

Light Doubles, at first may seem like a contradiction in terms. However, it offers the double rifle all the nostalgia and feel of its ancestors but packing a more adequate caliber for a larger range of game, with improved accuracy, range and much reduced recoil.  Although weighing in at less than seven pounds, it’s adequate for big game from hogs to deer, moose, big bears, and even into dangerous-game territory.  This is because they’re built on a 20-gauge frame as opposed to its larger caliber counterpart on a 12-gauge or larger frame.

The largest caliber for the light doubles seems to top off with the 9.3 x 74 R, hurling a 286-grain projectile at just over 2,300fps.   According to Cartridges of the World, this turn-of-the-century German caliber was designed to compete with the 400/360 Nitro Express, and is on the par with the .375 Flanged Magnum Nitro Express.  It is only slightly less powerful than the .375 H&H, rimmed to better feed into the double breech, and carries a history of proven performance on dangerous game.  Even more impressive, because of its gaining popularity, it can be found at afordable prices.

Among the inherent drawbacks of the double gun is the fact that it is normally regulated to a single bullet weight and load, but for the modern reloader it is merely a challenge.

Understanding the characteristics of the double rifle is important.  Simply stated, the tendency is for the departing projectile to be tossed up and away from the opposite barrel on recoil, due to the center of balance being between the barrels. By controlling the velocity (amount of powder) the reloader can control the point of impact at a given range.

The Light Doubles fit a practical purpose and can provide adequate accuracy and stopping power within 250 meters.  Doubles were never designed as long-range guns, but I would be delighted to be proved different.  Consider a .338 Lapua Light Double with 26-inch barrels for plains game or American large game?

The Remington marketing folks saw this niche a few years ago and tried the waters with the Spartan 22 from Baikal, Russia in .30-06 and 45-70.  It used a jack-screw to regulate second-barrel accuracy, and offered it at about $1,000.  It had a small following left longing for more.

From what I see, the main players – Chapuis, Heym, Krieghoff, Merkel, Searcy, Sabatti – are busy producing the latest crop for a new market of hunters desiring quality light doubles with prices at somewhere between   $5000 and $1200 depending on accessories and fluctuation of the euro.

Obviously, the great English firms, Holland & Holland, Purdey and Westley Richards continue their time-honored, proven tradition of making the world’s finest firearms for those able to afford them.  Design, quality, workmanship and prices will vary and, hopefully, improve as the Light Doubles become more popular.

After many years of longing for a double, I came across the Chapuis exhibit at the SCI show in Vegas 2017. Their Ugex model immediately caught my attention. The gun’s balance, feel, deep checkering, engraving and overall workmanship was impressive, the metal to wood fit well, and the beautiful Turkish walnut was superb. The fact I could use it in a caliber for general hunting and that it was also affordable, made me seriously consider it.

I decided on their largest caliber available for that model, the 9.3 x 74 R with 24-inch barrels, and requested it be regulated with scope at 100 meters with Hornady’s .286 soft-nose. By the time it was over, I had added a quick release Recknagel base and mounts, a set of 28-inch 20-gauge matching barrels and some custom laser engraving, then anxiously waited for their arrivals.

My contact dealer for Chapuis in America is Carl Bush of Blackbern LLC. Virginia.  Carl played a pivotal role as liaison on developing details and decisions along the way, and kept me informed of the process.

On arrival, I equipped the Ugex with, a Leopold 1-4 power Hog scope.  A Trader Keith sling made it ready for the field.  On the first range trial I was impressed with the accuracy.  Bullet impact for multiple shots with both barrels was within 4 inches at 100 meters. I felt comfortable I could reach out to 200 meters.

I have hunted Africa several times, but first I wanted to gain confidence with my new gun.  I booked a hunt in South Dakota with just that intention, and was rewarded with a 10-point whitetail, dropping him where he stood at 140 meters with my double’s first shot at game.

Now it was ready to travel to Africa.  I have hunted South Africa and a couple of places in Namibia, but since my first safari in 2000 I’ve kept in touch with my PH Ernest Dyason of Spear Safaris at SCI events, conventions and social media.  Prior to committing to my double, I approached Ernest and showed him the picture of the light double I was considering. “If I get this, can we take that,” I asked, pointing at the large buffalo picture on his display. At his answer I was back at the Chapuis booth.

To be perfectly clear:  Despite its wonderful history, in modern times the 9.3 X 74 R, considered within the .375 category, is at the bottom of the power curve and legality when it comes to dangerous game.   Proper bullet placement is never at a higher demand, and a trusted PH with powerful “medicine” becomes a very reassuring companion.

With my new Light Double, I booked a cow buffalo hunt with Spear Safaris and made arrangements with Africa Sky Guest House for my firearm paperwork, airport handling, and stayover in Johannesburg. I can’t say enough about their hospitality, excellent service and accommodations.

Your first buffalo hunt, as your first gun, car, girlfriend, (note priorities) is something you never forget, as well as a powerful lesson, for no matter how much you read up, watch, and get advice from the experts, you don’t know what to expect…aside from the PH behind you, you’re on your own. The experience is uniquely your own.

I find that the most important item on a buffalo hunt is comfortable boots. You walk when buffalo hunting! We walked seven to nine miles a day through very dense vegetation comprising mostly thorn bushes. Sometimes we could hear and smell the herd a few dozen meters away, and still not see them until the wind betrayed us, and a roar and dust announced their departure.

I also found that the least important item on a buffalo hunt was the rifle sling, negotiating the maze of thorn bushes, it was just one more thing to get snagged and make noise.

On the afternoon of the third day of following a wary herd, we came into a clearing, and a short way in, Ernest spotted the herd, and signaled us to sit. There we were, a little island of four with no cover. After an eternity of twenty minutes, the herd started feeding our way, mostly young bulls in the front.

As the herd thinned out a bit, a shot presented itself on an older cow at about 70 meters. Sticks went up, and (as best described by Hemingway), I found myself in that familiar “quiet place where one shoot from”, where the world disappears and nothing else matters, the accustomed deep breath, relax… A Hornady .286-gr soft point finds its mark on the shoulder, then pandemonium erupts.  Too much commotion for a follow-up solid and we waited for things to calm.

The shot was good, the buffalo was not going anywhere, and some of the herd came around to protect the injured. We waited a while and moved to a more advantageous spot to take a broadside on the opposite shoulder, this one a solid from the left barrel.  I take the shot. Nothing seems to happen.

“I heard a ricochet,” Ernest said.  Quickly reloading, I switch to a soft-nose on the right barrel.                                                 “I didn’t miss,” I said. A second shot dropped the buff, and again we heard a ricochet.  With the buff down I gave it a chest shot, and after the bellow, we moved in to give the coup de grâce.

The 9.3 requires accurate bullet placement. All three shoulder shots were within a five-inch radius. The lungs were destroyed. The chest shot was a solid that was recovered under the skin of the right rump.  The two ricochets were bullets that punched through and were heard hitting the bush beyond.

In retrospect: Using the 9.3 X74R, I would use soft-nose in any situation other than a quick running away second shot. The reasoning is that the .366 bullet has the velocity but not the mass of larger bullets that may rely on greater shock effect. The smaller diameter gives them more penetration which is best made up by an expanding bullet within the animal for greater wound cavity, and not exiting on the other side.

With time on our hands and a few bullets left, we headed for a zebra hunt. After stalking to about 65 meters, I had a forward quartering shot, and a single shot in the front inside shoulder did the job. The zebra ran and fell forty meters further on, a testament to the toughness and endurance of African wildlife.

After a couple of nights dining on the best buffalo fillets I’ve ever had, I headed back home, with experiences and memories of Africa, and of course a longing to return…next year.

With the dawning of the Light Doubles in a world of cookie-cutter products, mass-produced goods and lack of individuality, I see a growing market for hunting with this new-old design which awakens our early dreams of Africa, and allows us to experience the feel of a great gun carried afield.