The two clay targets launched simultaneously over a slough at the Old Vermilion Trail Shooting Preserve north of Duluth. Norm Lorenson’s A.H. Fox double-barrel barked twice, once for each going-away disc.
Neither shot found its mark.
Lorenson of Crystal Falls, Mich., turned from the shooting station with a ready excuse.
“Poor ammo,” he growled in jest.
Those misses didn’t bother him much. He hadn’t come just to break targets. Lorenson was one of about 100 shooters who gathered at the woodsy preserve on July 15-17 for the 13th annual Duluth Double Gun Side-by-Side Classic. The event is a friendly shooting competition among those who also happen to value fine side-by-side double-barrel shotguns built in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Carl Caspers of Sartell, Minn., came off a shooting station on the Old Vermilion Trail sporting clays course cradling his 1871 James Purdey & Sons side-by-side.
“These are treasures,” Caspers said. “I handle this gun every day.”
He owns three Purdeys, he said, each worth about $20,000.
Or, take the handsome 20-gauge Fox that Lorenson was shooting on this warm-up round of sporting clays. The gun was built in the 1920s. It was in excellent condition, perfectly balanced, with blued barrels and intricate cross-checking in its burled stock. One could easily imagine a New England grouse hunter carrying such a gun to an aspen cover on a long-ago October afternoon.
What was it worth? Lorenson was silent for moment.
“Well, if somebody wanted to give me $15,000 for it, I’d probably take it,” he said.
Evolution to double guns
Bruce Smith of Gnesen Township is one of the Double Gun Side-by-Side Classic’s four organizers, along with Duluth’s Mike Koranda, Rick Olson and Randy Zahn. They have hunted grouse or pheasants together for many years. They used to use more common pump shotguns or semi-automatics, the kind of guns most hunters carry. One by one, they began acquiring some of these old side-by-side double barrels. Now, that’s all they shoot on their pheasant hunting trips to South Dakota.
“We each take a couple-three of them,” Smith said. “We’ll be swapping guns. It’s fun to carry them, fun to shoot birds with an old gun like that.”
The value of shotguns that show up in the Duluth shoot might range from $3,000 to $100,000, Smith said.
He’s quick to point out, though, that a hunter can pick up one of these old side-by-side double barrels for much less than some of those that were being toted around the preserve last weekend.
“Some of these guys are way above you and me,” Smith said. “All my side-by-sides are pretty cheap. You live within your means.”
Smith and his co-organizers had attended some of these “double-gun” shoots in other states and decided to start one here. The Duluth event has mushroomed in popularity over the years and now offers $6,000 in prizes for the three main shooting events. Registration for the events and practice rounds helps raise money to cover the cost of the annual shoot.
“This is one of the finest shoots I go to, and I go to a lot of them,” said Dick Held of Gaylord, Mich. “The facilities here are fantastic.”
Mostly, the event is a way for those who cherish and value these classic shotguns to come together, admire each other’s guns and maybe dream a bit. They’re celebrating not only the guns themselves but time-honored upland hunting traditions, good dogs and days afield.
The old side-by-sides (as opposed to over/under double barrels) are considered the classics from an era that’s the stuff of sporting literature. The guns — Parkers, L.C. Smiths, Foxes, Holland and Hollands, Purdeys, Ithacas, AYAs, Berettas — are highly valued as collectibles. Many of the best ones are exquisitely engraved, some inlaid with gold pheasants and hunting dogs.
“It’s more the esoteric value of these guns,” said Dan Menser, a retired dentist from Victoria, Minn., who attended the Duluth shoot. “The truly best guns are artistry in wood and metal. You can hold ’em — even use ’em once in a while.”
“It’s just a variation on nostalgia,” said John Chamberlain of LeSueur, Minn. “We’re the poster boys for ‘A fool and his money are soon parted.’”
Informal shooting on July 15 preceded the following day’s competitive events — 80 sporting clays targets, 30 more targets at a “five-stand” shoot and 30 at a “pigeon ring.” Sporting clays targets — singles and doubles — simulate situations a hunter might encounter in the field.
In the five-stand shoot, clay targets are launched unpredictably from any two of five stations.
The pigeon-ring event involves no actual pigeons, as is the custom in British shoots. A large ring is delineated in an open area. Two clay targets are launched from opposite directions in quick succession. Each target has a ribbon glued to it. The shooter must break the target so that its ribbon falls within the ring.
Smith, who is now too busy during the shoot to enter the competition, holds the Double Gun Classic’s record for lowest score. One year, he won two events and finished third in another. An awards dinner is held on Saturday night of the event.
“Nobody cares about who wins or what the score is,” Smith said.
Most who attend the event stay on the preserve’s grounds in tents or campers, meandering from camp to camp during the evening. Shooters come from as far as Texas and the East Coast.
“Everyone has the back of their trucks open,” Smith said. “Everyone’s handling guns. It’s a whole different world.”