By Gary Hubbell
The world of shotgunning was enriched in 1994 when three of America’s foremost shotgun experts sat down to design the ultimate small game shotgun: a fast-handling, lightweight, well-made side-by-side boxlock double gun at a very reasonable price. It was quite a challenge, and many people would doubt that the goal could be accomplished. There are very few manufacturers who can produce quality guns at low prices, and the features on the wish list were difficult to accomplish at any price.
But the three gunners at the table were among the most knowledgeable shotgunners that America has to offer: Michael McIntosh, author of the famous book, “Shotguns and Shooting” and 17 other well-known sporting titles; Terry Wieland, author of “Spanish Best: The Fine Shotguns of Spain”, and a long-time contributor to such shotgun almanacs as Gray’s Sporting Journal, Sporting Classics, and Shooting Sportsman; and Jon Hollinger, owner of Aspen Outfitting Company, a well-known shooting instructor, gun-fitter, and bird hunting outfitter.
Hollinger’s idea was to build the ultimate upland game gun at a Spanish manufacturer and import the guns for American bird shooters to enjoy. As it happened, someone else’s difficulties became Hollinger’s opportunity. A well-regarded Spanish firm, Armas Ugartechea, had recently experienced labor difficulties, and had been forced to abandon their mass production of side-by-side game guns. Hollinger stepped into the breech, so to speak, and contracted with Ugartechea to manufacture the design that he, Wieland, and McIntosh had cooked up. As exclusive American importer of the Aspen Outfitting Company Small Game gun (AOC/SG), Hollinger designed exactly what he wanted for a light, fast-handling field shotgun that would be used to hunt fast-flying North American upland game birds.
THE ACTION: The renowned Anson & Deeley boxlock design was first patented in England in 1875 (see article) and has proven itself over the years as one of the most durable, efficient, safe, dependable, and practical gun designs ever conceived. The Anson & Deeley boxlock is not only dependable and safe, but the manufacturing process allows for a sleek, handsome, reliable gun action to be made at affordable prices.
WEIGHT: “First of all, there’s the factor of weight,” Hollinger says. His personal favorite gun is a 16-gauge side-by-side Spanish shotgun for pheasant, grouse, and partridge. It weighs in at 6 pounds 3 ounces. “You can carry that gun all day,” Hollinger says. The guns come in standard 12, 16, 20, and 28 gauges and .410 bore, with each gun made on its own frame. The 16 gauge, for example, isn’t made on a 12-gauge frame, and the 28 gauge isn’t a knocked-down 20-gauge frame. Each gun is lightweight and balanced to its gauge. (See chart for exact weights.)
THE STOCK: The straight or English-style stock on the AOC guns is crafted from high-quality, non-irrigated European walnut, and features a hand-checkered butt. The hand-cut 24-lines-per-inch checkering pattern on the butt matches the pattern on the wrist of the stock, as well as on the forend. The stock is attached to the action in the traditional fashion, using two screws that pull the top tang and the trigger plate together vertically, sandwiching the head of the stock, which is inletted to accept the action between them. In addition, the long tang of the trigger guard has two screws that pull the tang up into the bottom of the stock, creating a strong coupling between the stock and the action. This technique of heading the stock up to the action allows for adjusting the dimensions of the stock to the shooter’s measurements.
THE FOREND: The gun is fast-handling for those lightning-quick covey rises that a gunner experiences on wild quail or Hungarian partridge. “We build a splinter forend onto our guns that is literally a sliver of wood. It greatly reduces the weight and improves the balance of the gun. The forend has an inletted escutcheon that is threaded to receive the screw that holds the forend iron in place. This feature allows the shooter to tighten the forend screw which will eventually shock loose from repeated shooting. This is an important feature for ongoing maintenance, and will add years of service from the gun.
THE BUTTPLATE is hand-checkered wood. Have you ever taken the plastic buttplate off a gun and discovered a big hollow inside the stock, and a long threaded bolt that is used to attach the stock to the gun? “That’s the cheap and easy way of doing things,” says Hollinger. “It also makes it very difficult to fit the gun to the shooter.”
THE BARRELS: The AOC/SG chopper-lump barrels are made from one piece of high-quality steel from muzzle to breech, a technique that gives them great strength with less mass—which translates into lighter, thinner barrels. Many people don’t understand the meaning of the term “chopper lump”, so we’ll define it here for you. When shotgun barrels are extracted from a forge, they come as individual rods with a large lump of steel at the breech end. Imagine holding one of these rods at the muzzle end, and you can picture what you’re holding as a long-handled, small-headed axe, or “chopper”, as the English call them.
The barrels are then turned on a lathe and milled to the required outside diameter all the way to the breech, and the lump is then milled down to the required shape to fit into the action block as a lug. Being part of the same piece of steel as the barrels, these lugs, one on each barrel, make for an extremely strong and safe mechanism to lock the barrels into the breech for shooting. This method of locking the barrels to the action is referred to as a “double lug underbite”. It’s very important to note that the barrel and the chopper lump is all one integral piece of steel.
Why is this so important? SAFETY. Safety, safety, safety. If there is an obstruction in a chopper-lump barrel and the barrel ruptures, it will rupture at the weakest point, which, with chopper-lump barrels, is near the muzzle end of the barrel, far away from your face and hands.
The barrels on many popular imported and domestically manufactured guns are made with a “monoblock” technique, which involves swaging (welding) the barrel tubes together with the monoblock, just ahead of the forcing cones. This is very close to where you place your hand on the forend of the gun. The weakest part of a monoblock barrel, therefore, is right at the point where a right-handed shooter’s left hand grips the forearm, and very close to his face. If there’s an obstruction with this type of barrel, you’re going to be headed to the emergency room to see if they can repair your mangled hand and save your eyesight—at the very least.
SOUTHGATE EJECTORS: Many imported and domestically manufactured barrels have a single ejector rod to eject spent hulls. However, single ejector rods can torque and slip the ejector cup past the head of the empty cartridge, necessitating a complex and frustrating field repair. The high-quality steel used in the AOC/SG chopper-lump barrels, by maintaining strength with a thinner cross-section, provides space for double southgate ejector rods, eliminating any possibility of spent hulls getting stuck in your barrels.
The curved lifters on the southgate ejectors have 120 degrees of radius, approximately 50 degrees more than other common styles, giving further assurance of properly ejected hulls every time.
THE RIB AND SIGHT: Further, the AOC/SG has a concave rib (also known as a “swamped” or “quarter” rib) which enables the shooter to bring the gun well up on his face and under his dominant eye. The front sight is a small brass bead.
THE SAFETY: While many imported and domestically made shotguns have manual safeties (including most over/under shotguns) that must be pushed to “safe” after the gun is opened, the AOC/SG has an automatic safety that activates every time the gun is opened. “It’s much safer than many field guns you find on the market,” Hollinger notes.
DOUBLE TRIGGERS: The issue of the selector for a single selective triggered gun getting stuck between barrels, and thus disabling the gun from firing, is out the window with the AOC/SG (see our article about over/under guns). “The gun has double triggers, so for close or rapidly approaching incoming shots, you simply fire the right barrel, which is the more open choked, with the front trigger. You fire the left barrel, which is more tightly choked, at going-away shots, with the back trigger. It’s simple,” Hollinger says.
CHOKE SELECTION: With double triggers, a gunner can instantly assess a situation and choose the choke he wants to use by sliding a finger forward or back and pulling the trigger corresponding with the appropriate choke for the shooting situation at hand. For example, if a gunner is sitting at a waterhole late in the afternoon, waiting for doves to fly in, he might see a group of birds at 30 yards and choose the back trigger, which is choked more tightly with a modified choke, to kill the lead bird. If a second bird keeps flying in closer after he shoots the first bird, he slides his finger forward and pulls the front trigger, choked I/C, and kills the bird with the wider pattern at a closer range, properly utilizing the choke combination.
If a gunner is shooting a covey of flushing quail, he can pick out a bird on the initial covey rise and take it at 20 yards with the right barrel, choked I/C, by pulling the front trigger. The second bird is by then farther away and he can shoot at 30 yards with the back trigger, or left barrel, with the tighter modified choke. Barrel selection is made instantly by simply selecting a forward trigger or back trigger.
The AOC/SG is typically choked Improved Cylinder on the right barrel and Modified on the left barrel for a variety of bird-shooting applications. There is ample wall thickness in the barrels for opening them up to cylinder/cylinder or to install choke tubes if so desired. Any choke combination is available by custom order.
EXPANDED TRIGGER GUARD AND ARTICULATED TRIGGER: “These guns even have an expanded trigger guard bow so that if it’s a cold day and you’re hunting with gloves, you can easily fit a gloved finger into the trigger guard without any worries of an accidental detonation,” Hollinger says. The front trigger is articulated, or folds forward, so that if a gunner is wearing gloves and reaches for the back trigger, the front trigger will move forward instead of pushing the gloved trigger finger onto the back trigger, accidentally discharging the gun.
LONG-TANG TRIGGER GUARD: A long-tang trigger guard is more difficult to fit to a stock and requires a high level of workmanship, but it pays off in both looks and function. The long tang gives the stock more stability and strength. If a stock is going to break, it’s almost always at the wrist, and the long tang adds considerable strength to this area of the stock, preventing such a mishap.
SCALLOPED BACK ACTION SHAPING: Boxlock guns are easy to recognize by the straight line where the stock meets the back of the gun’s action. The AOC/SG throws a little loop, if you will, into this equation by featuring the aesthetically pleasing scalloped back action. For the manufacturer, the straight line is easy and inexpensive to fit. Any beginning stockmaker can accomplish this relatively easy fit of wood to metal. The scalloped back action shaping on the AOC/SG shows not only the gun-maker’s craft of fitting an undulating line of wood to a correspondingly undulating line of metal, but it also makes a stronger fit. With the scalloped back action, it is more difficult to loosen the stock from the gun, as the wood and metal link together like a key in a lock and offers a greater surface area to disperse the shock of recoil.
INITIAL SHIELD: Do you want to personalize your gun as a family heirloom? The AOC/SG comes with an inlaid initial shield to personalize your guns or to identify them by number if you’re using a pair.
THE FIT: The AOC/SG is made to be fitted to you, and can be easily adjusted to individual shooters. Jon Hollinger has been a professional gun-fitter for 35 years, and has taken measurements and has had shotguns built to fit hundreds of shooters over the years. Many shooters don’t realize the importance of a properly fitted gun. A typical 5’10”, 170-pound man with a 33” dress shirt sleeve is “Joe Average”, who will likely feel very comfortable shooting an off-the-rack gun with a 14 ¾” length of pull. However, a right-handed man with an angular, lean face may require only 1/8” of “cast off”, while a left-handed man of the same height and weight, who has a blocky, square face, may need a gun with 3/8” of “cast on”. If each shooter were provided with a properly fitted gun, they’d have great results, but if they were to pick up each other’s guns by mistake, they would shoot very poorly, indeed.
The AOC/SG is designed so that our warranty gunsmith can adjust the stock to any reasonable dimensions. Of course, shooters who are unusually short or tall, or large or small, should come to us for a gun-fitting and then have the factory make a custom gun specifically built to their measurements.
FEEL: Perhaps the most important reason to choose a side-by-side shotgun as an upland bird gun, however, is because of its feel. Because of the combination of components chosen for this model, and because of the care and pride put into their assembly and finish, these guns are at once dynamic and smooth, mounting effortlessly and tracking like a hound. They are balanced at the pin and feel much lighter than they weigh, consistently surprising experienced shooters. As Terry Wieland states in page 264 of his revised edition of “Spanish Best”: “The gun balances and handles like one costing far more. Putting an importer who knows wingshooting (Jon Hollinger of Aspen Outfitting Company) together with a gun-maker who really knows guns (Armas Ugartechea) can still produce a fine product at a low price.”
VALUE: Aspen Outfitting Company has about 400 of the model AOC/SG guns out on the market. They have been offered for sale since 2000, and are becoming more popular every year. Several proud owners have the AOC in two or three different gauges, and shoot them extensively the world over. The AOC/SG’s are supported by a limited lifetime warranty to the original purchaser, backed up by the services of an American warranty gunsmith who has spent time in the factory in Eibar, Spain, working with the various craftsmen responsible for their manufacture. He has a full inventory of factory-made parts for all gauges and can do what work is required in a reasonable turn-around time-frame. We have worked diligently with the factory to hold the costs at a reasonable level, not an easy task, considering that the Euro has appreciated over 25% on the Dollar over the past 2 ½ years.
©2006 Gary Hubbell and Jon Hollinger. This article may not be reproduced in any form without the authors' written consent.