Many of us have an old side-by-side shotgun at home. Maybe it’s a family heirloom, an unexpected attic find, or given to you by a friend or neighbor. This article is pointed at shotguns made between the 1880s and 1920s era, many of which have Damascus or “twist-steel” barrels. Some of these barrels feature very striking patterns, and the workmanship in many of the guns is very good. Such efforts are expensive for gunmakers to recreate today due to the time and skill required. Despite their artistic quality, many of us have heard tired comments like, “That’d make a great wall hanger,” or, “That Damascus barrel will blow up in your face!” But are those statements really true? Can these old shotguns be safely put back into service and used effectively in the field? The answer to the latter is “Yes,” but with caveats.
For many of these guns, a careful inspection, some key measurements, and a diet of the proper ammunition will have them ready for action on your next bird or squirrel hunt.
To begin, let’s talk about Damascus and twist-steel barrels, and how they are made. The origins of Damascus steel are not clear, but it is believed to have come from India before Christ. Its development seems to have been perfected and used to produce high-quality blades in and around Damascus, Syria, during the 3rd and 4th centuries, AD. Damascus was popular because it was harder than the common iron blades of the era, and it held an edge better. However, the original process for producing Damascus steel appears to have been lost sometime in the 1700s.
In the late 18th century, Damascus-barreled guns were brought to Europe from the Middle East, and European gunmakers began working with and making their own Damascus-steel barrels. A considerable amount of research, experimentation and reverse engineering has been done in recent times to try and reproduce Damascus steel of the past, but the process has never really been nailed down. Modern-era Damascus steel (1800 and later) is made by layering iron and steel, heating it to high temperatures and hammer forging them together. Many patterns can be achieved in the finished steel by twisting the layers of metal during forging or introducing charcoal while forging to produce small spots of carbide in the matrix. The material is then drawn to produce a long rod of metal and then machined into a barrel.
Another method for producing shotgun barrels brought about what are commonly called “twist” barrels. The process involved pieces of iron and steel being drawn out into long rectangular bars or “threads.” These threads were then heated and alternately wound around a mandrel and hammer forged together. It took approximately seven feet of metal threads to form one foot of barrel. Damascus and twist steels do not have the strength of modern fluid Bessemer-process steels, but they are not weak if properly manufactured.
Cautions for Old Damascus-Barreled Shotguns
One of the first things that should be checked on an old shotgun is how tightly the action locks up. If you close the action and the barrels appear to have some wiggle relative to the receiver, the gun is not a candidate for shooting. A gunsmith might be able to tighten it up, but don’t shoot a shotgun that has a loose lockup. You should also have a gunsmith check the headspace of the gun to make sure it is in specification. If it is not, don’t attempt to shoot it.
Any old shotgun you are contemplating shooting should be thoroughly inspected by a gunsmith that is familiar with this type of firearm. There are several points that should be looked for when inspecting a Damascus-barreled shotgun. The first is the condition of the barrels. Are the barrels bright and shiny inside, or are they heavily rust pitted? If the barrels are heavily pitted, it is not a candidate for shooting. Heavy pitting causes surface roughness, which increases friction with the wad and can increase pressure. Rust can also decrease the wall thickness of the barrel and compromise its strength. Remember, shotgun barrels are much thinner than rifle barrels and don’t have the same margin of safety. Some of the old guns have also been reamed out to remove pitting. Your gunsmith can measure the wall thickness of the barrels and determine if they have been reamed out. If this is the case, the barrel’s wall thickness has been decreased and the gun is not safe to shoot.
The second aspect to check is whether or not the barrels have been dented, or if they have had dents removed. It is relatively easy to remove a dent from a fluid-steel barrel, but not so with a Damascus barrel. Removing a dent from a Damascus barrel will create a weak spot on it. A gun in this condition is a wall hanger.
Barrel constrictions, or choke, in most of these side-by-side shotguns were Improved Cylinder, Modified or Modified/Full. If you have a gun that is choked Cylinder/Skeet, chances are pretty high that the gun has been modified. It is easy to look up the diameter of different chokes and use a set of calipers to measure the muzzle diameters. A gun that has obviously had the chokes reamed should immediately be inspected to determine if the entire barrel was reamed.
The last area to check is the length of the chamber to validate the chambering of the gun. Many of these old shotguns were chambered for 2½-inch, 25⁄8-inch and, of course, 2¾-inch shotshells. The concern here is that a 2¾-inch shell may chamber in a 2½-inch shotgun, but this combination would cause excessive pressure when fired, and likely damage the firearm.
Ammunition for Old ShotgunsI can’t emphasize enough that establishing the chambering for an old shotgun is critical. Just because a shell fits in the chamber does not mean it is the right ammunition. If the shell is too long for the chamber the hull will be forced into the forcing cone when it is fired, resulting in a constricted bore and significantly increased pressure. You might get away with this for a little while, but sooner or later you will damage the gun. Damascus barrel steel, as I said, is not weak, but it is more brittle and doesn’t have the margin of safety found in modern gun metals. Many Damascus barrels were primarily designed for blackpowder shotshell loads. The adjacent graph shows comparative pressure-versus-time curves for the same shot load and muzzle velocity loaded with blackpowder and modern progressive smokeless propellant. What jumps out immediately from the comparison is the fact that blackpowder produces about half the pressure of smokeless powder, and it stretches out the pressure curve a lot more than smokeless. So, while the Damascus barrels are plenty strong for blackpowder charges, the much higher pressures produced by smokeless powders exceed their safety margin. Although some of these older Damascus barreled guns were advertised at the time as being designed for smokeless loads, the powders available back then don’t compare to the propellants used today.
Pressure vs. Time for Blackpowder & Smokeless
The next question is do you have to shoot blackpowder loads in your old shotgun? The answer to that is “no.” However, let me be clear: Do not shoot standard modern loads in an old Damascus-barreled shotgun! Several companies make lines of shotshells that use smokeless propellant, but are tuned for low wad compression and use slow propellants in order to limit peak pressure and spread the curve out (much like blackpowder loads). These companies offer lines of low-pressure 2-inch, 2½-inch and 2¾-inch shells. My personal preference is to use 2½-inch shells all the time, even in a 2¾-inch chambered gun, just to play it safe. RST (rstshells.com) and Polywad (polywad.com) both offer lines of shotshells appropriate for Damascus-barreled shotguns. Nearly the entire RST line is loaded to low pressure with the exception of their Pigeon line. Polywad offers their Vintager and Double Wide lines loaded to low pressure for old shotguns. As I said before, I only shoot 2½-inch shells in my Damascus-barreled 1894 Remington, even though it has 2¾-inch chambers. Despite its age, with 7⁄8-ounce and 1-ounce loads, that gun may be more effective than my Beretta 686 in 28 gauge, which has accounted for many birds over the years, albeit with only ¾ ounce of shot.
Shooting a Damascus-Barreled Shotgun
I have a 12-gauge 1894 Remington side-by-side shotgun made circa 1901 with 30-inch barrels and 2¾-inch chambers. It has little finish remaining, but possesses beautiful Damascus barrels with bores that are bright and free of pitting. The gun locks up tight with the lever running straight down the tang. It headspaces correctly and shows no signs of rough handling or abuse. The gun comes up quickly and fits quite nicely. I get considerable pleasure from hunting with it. Using the 2½-inch loads from RST and Polywad, I have no trouble knocking down pheasants at reasonable ranges.
For this article, I chronographed two loads from RST and one load from Polywad. I used the RST Paper Lite 2½-inch load with 1 ounce of #7 shot advertised at 1,175 feet per second (fps), and the RST Falcon Lite 7⁄8 ounce of #6 shot advertised at 1,200 fps. I used the Polywad Vintager 2½-inch 24-gram (essentially 7⁄8 ounce) load with #7½ shot 2¼-Dram equivalent. These loads were all comfortable to shoot with modest recoil, and are plenty effective on upland game.
So, if you own a vintage side-by-side with Damascus or twist barrels, get it checked out by a qualified gunsmith. Many of these guns are high quality firearms capable of producing results with proper ammunition. In a good-condition firearm, low-pressure and low-compression loads are perfectly safe to shoot. I can tell you from my own experience that hunting and taking game with a 120-year-old shotgun is very satisfying.