What do you think of when someone mentions double rifles? For many, the double rifle conjures romantic thoughts of nostalgia and tradition. In the United States, we tend to think of the double rifle as a large caliber specialist, meant only for dangerous game. In Europe, however, double rifles are favored for driven game thanks to the fast second shot. There’s no reason why a double rifle (of the appropriate caliber, of course) couldn’t be effective in the US for black bear, wild hogs, or any close-cover hunting where shots beyond a hundred yards are unlikely.
Although modern manufacturing techniques have lowered the costs of purchasing customizing a double rifle, they’re still generally more expensive. The double requires more hand-fitting, and getting both barrels to shoot together is a time-consuming process. The double is the least accurate action type, but it’s a short to very medium-range arm…and nothing is faster for delivering a second shot.
Picking the Right Double Rifle Cartridge is Crucial
So what’s the appeal? Well, as mentioned before, the nostalgia and tradition makes doubles an attractive option. Simply put, a lot of us want to own just one, and several makes of new production doubles are more affordable than ever before. But if you intend to own just one it’s crucial to choose the right cartridge.
Aside from accuracy, double rifles have two inherent limitations:
1. No break-open action is as strong as an action with a forward-locking rotating bolt. This means that, ideally, doubles should be chambered to cartridges with somewhat lower pressure.
2. The extraction system is not as strong on doubles as it is on most repeating actions.
When combined, these limitations suggest that doubles are at their best with rimmed cartridges designed primarily for double rifles. Doubles are chambered to various belted magnums and rimless cartridges. If properly made and in good condition, they are not unsafe with factory loads. Still, some doubles—older ones in particular—have intermittent extraction problems. This is a widely known issue, so doubles chambered to proper double rifle cartridges tend to hold (and increase) value better than doubles chambered to rimless or belted rimless cartridges. So, from this point, I will only discuss rimmed cartridges.
Cartridges for Vintage Doubles
Most “older” doubles made for smokeless powder were manufactured between the late 1890s and 1939. So at the start of my career, classic rifles ranged from 40 to possibly 85 years old. Today those same rifles are 80 to 125 years old and now more collectibles than working guns. So although I don’t want to spend too much time on older rifles because supplies have dwindled and prices have skyrocketed, I have to dedicate some space to them—after all, they’re still in high demand, and you can still find ammunition for them.
Condition is the most important criteria for a vintage rifle, but well-known rifles from famous houses such as Holland & Holland and Rigby command higher prices than equal guns from less-known makers.
Caliber: .470s and “Ultra Large Bores”
Caliber is secondary to condition, but everybody wants a .470, so in older guns, the .470 commands a premium price. The same is true for the .500, and the “ultra large bores.” There are nine Nitro Express cartridges between .450 and .475. Bullet weights are 480 to 520 grains in diameters from .458-inch to .488-inch. Velocities average 2150 feet per second (fps); energies around 5000 foot-pounds (ft-lbs). All of these cartridges are equal in performance on game. Factory loads are manufactured for several, but not all; still, cases and bullets are available, so you can still load fresh ammunition. Your ammunition choice should be made based on the rifle, not the cartridge.
“Large Medium” Calibers
In what John Taylor called “large mediums” there’s only the .450/.400, but there are two: .450/.400-3” and .450/.400 3 ¼”. Although equal in performance, they are not interchangeable. Both are common in older doubles, and do not command the premium of the big bores. These are nifty cartridges, ideal for buffalo yet adequate for elephant—and more pleasant to shoot than the big bores.
Medium Caliber Cartridges
In medium cartridges the primary choices are 9.3x74R and .375 Flanged. The 9.3s are usually European; .375 Flanged rifles usually British. Older European 9.3s can be real bargains, and ammunition is plentiful. The .375 Flanged isn’t as common, but fresh ammo is available. Both cartridges are adequate for buffalo and marginal for elephant. Their advantages are their versatility (like the .375 H&H), and their weight—these rifles are lighter and handier than the big bores, and they have less recoil, too.
Light Double Rifle Cartridges
Things are messier with light double rifle cartridges. In both Europe and Great Britain, a large number of early rimless cartridges had rimmed counterparts, and there were several stand-alone rimmed cartridges. Many of these cannot be loaded today, and not all can be readily made from available brass, so you have to be careful.
In British doubles, the two I’ve seen most frequently are the .303 British and .400/.350. In Europe, the 7x65R (rimmed counterpart to the 7×64 Brenneke) is probably the most common. It is still loaded, as are the 6.5x57R and 7x57R. With smaller caliber double rifles—which are generally less valuable than the big bores—one should do some research into ammo options before making a purchase.
Cartridges for New Double Rifles
New doubles range from semi-production rifles starting at about $7,000 to custom rifles priced well into the six figures. In the latter case, you can order whatever cartridge you choose!
Today, most “working doubles” are in the semi-production class; popular names include Heym, Krieghoff, Merkel, and Sabatti. Not all companies offer all cartridge options, but it’s a safe bet that everybody chambers to .470. It is the most widely available, and it’s a fine cartridge. The .500-3” Nitro Express seems second in popularity, followed by the .450-3 ¼” NE.
Newer “Big Bores”
I would never try to talk anyone out of a .470, but I prefer either the .500 or the .450. The .470 is a bottleneck case based on the .500 necked down; thus, .470s and .500s are built on the same action with little difference in gun weight. With a 570-grain bullet at the same 2150 fps, the .500 hits harder, but there isn’t much difference in recoil. If elephant hunting is on the horizon, the .470 is fine but the .500 is better.
The .450 and the .470 are essentially equal in power. What I like about the .450 is that it has a straight case with a smaller base diameter, so it can be built on a smaller and trimmer action.
New Large Mediums Options
If you don’t think you’ll be doing much elephant hunting, I want you to think about a .450/.400-3” instead of a big bore. This cartridge has become very popular since Hornady resurrected it, and all modern makers chamber to it. With a 400-grain .40-caliber bullet at 2100 fps, it is adequate for elephant, perfect for buffalo, and has much less recoil than the big bores. You will shoot a .450/.400 more, and you’ll become more proficient with it.
The other large medium option is Krieghoff’s .500/.416, introduced in 1996. With a 400-grain bullet at 2350 fps, it is much faster than the big bores and shoots flatter than the .450/.400. However, since it delivers 5000 ft-lbs of energy, recoil level is about the same as the .470.
Smaller Calibers: More Limited, But Still a Good Option
Options in smaller calibers are more limited. A few firms chamber to .375 Flanged, and all of the European gunmakers offer 9.3x74R, usually at less cost than a big bore. 7x65R doubles are still made, but the 9.3x74R is more common and can be housed in an amazingly light and handy double. With a 286-grain bullet at 2360 fps it shoots plenty flat enough for 200 yards, exceeding the double’s practical limit. Plus, it is adequate for buffalo.
Double Rifles in .45-70: A Different Approach
For a different approach, and forgetting African dangerous game for the moment, both Pedersoli and Sabatti make double rifles in the venerable .45-70. And why not? I had a Pedersoli on the range and it was fun, accurate with little recoil. It would be just fine for any hunting the .45-70 is suited for.
The only thing: With doubles you usually need to stick with the regulation load, or at least with bullets of similar weight and velocity. One of my rifles has been regulated with Hornady’s LeveRevolution 325-grain load on some trips. That’s a good choice for North American hunting, but don’t think you could stoke it up with heavy bullets and expect the barrels to shoot together.
Sometimes you get lucky, though. My Sabatti 9.3x74R was regulated with 286-grain Hornady. In order to use it for California hog hunting, where lead-core bullets are banned, I tried 250-grain GMX. Point of impact is not the same, but group size was similar. It rolled a big hog at more than 150 yards, and a few weeks later (re-zeroed with 286-grain bullets) I used it to make made a one-shot kill on a buffalo bull in Mozambique. Even the trackers were surprised at how effective it was.
So, there are options for both vintage and new rifles. We know why hunters like us want a double rifle, but it’s important to think about what you really intend to do with it. In older rifles, focus on condition, serviceability, and value. Don’t stress over your double rifle’s cartridge, as long as it suits your needs and brass and bullets are available. With new rifles, if you want a big bore, go for it. The .450, .470, and .500 are all great choices. If you don’t need that much power, think about a .450/.400. You’ll love it. But don’t overlook the European standby, the 9.3x74R. It’s a versatile cartridge that can be used on hogs, bears, and any close-cover hunting for deer, elk, or moose… and it will handle buffalo as well.
Craig Boddington is one of today’s most respected outdoor journalists. He spent the past forty years exploring our natural world as a hunter and sharing his knowledge and experiences in dozens of books and through thousands of published articles and essays. He’s a decorated Marine, an award-winning author, and continues to be a leading voice for conservation and ethical hunting around the world.
For autographed copies of Craig’s books please visit www.craigboddington.com.