The Greatest Over/Under Shotgun
Resolved: The Browning Superposed, the swan song of the DaVinci of firearms, is the standard by which all over/under shotguns must be judged. Now that that’s established, I’ll proceed to tell you about this magnificent shotgun and how it came to be the gold standard of stack-barrel shotguns.
Side-by-side doubles have been popular long before the advent of cartridge guns, that layout being the easiest way to get two shots from a front-stuffer without reloading. With the advent of shotshell cartridges, the side-by-side layout remained popular. Side-by-sides are comparatively easy to manufacture, as the layout allows for a simple under-hook or cross-bolt locking system that snugs the barrel breeches up against a stout bearing surface.
Add to that the fact that side-by-sides, at least well-made ones, handle beautifully. I have one such, a hand-made Henry Tolley 12-gauge sidelock side-by-side made in Birmingham, England in 1892. Aside from the challenge of finding 2 ½” 12-gauge shells, it’s a joy to handle and shoot, and will no doubt perform well in the Alaska grouse woods, which is the purpose for which I bought the gun.
The balance point in a double should be just ahead of the action hinge, placing the center of gravity slightly closer to the shooter than in a repeater. The set of the barrels in a double – any double – also allows for a longer barrel with the same overall length as a repeater.
While the same advantages of handling and balance apply to an over/under layout, there are design challenges that side-by-sides do not struggle with; mainly, that being that the over/under barrels make for a deep action, complicating the locking mechanism.
While the over/under platform was the subject of a few expensive hand-made custom guns in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, those complications in layout and locking precluded any production models. At least, they did, until America’s Leonardo DaVinci of gun designers looked at the current state of affairs and said, “Challenge accepted.”
John and Val Browning
In the early 1920s, John Browning looked on the various custom over/under shotgun designs and determined that the American shooter would be attracted to the single sighting plane and handling characteristics of the platform, and determined to build his own production version. He referred to the over/under layout as “superposed,” which would become the eventual name of the gun.
Browning’s design used a barrel hook pivoted on a full-width cross bolt, with added bearing surfaces at the barrel breech in the form of extensions on the floor of the action. The full width locking bolt moved forward under the breeches and locked into a slot in the extensions. The result of this was a slim, rugged, relatively light action with great strength.
In 1926, John Browning and his son Val traveled to the FN works in Liege, Belgium, to finalize the design and transfer manufacturing of the world’s first production over/under to the FN plant. But, sadly, John Browning did not live to see his swan song in production; in November of 1926, he died suddenly in his office in the FN works, the victim of an apparent heart attack.
Thus, ended the career of the man who was without doubt the greatest American gun designer to date.
But his new stack-barrel, now officially named the Superposed, did not go into the hereafter with him. John’s son Val stayed at FN and completed his father’s final design.
Val Browning was left with several design issues to be resolved in the Superposed after his father’s death. How he dealt with those is testament to his father’s teaching and the likelihood that Val, who would eventually take the helm of Browning, inherited at least a small measure of his father’s genius. John Browning, at the moment of his passing, had at least three design issues unresolved:
- The selective extractor/ejectors, which were intended to extract unfired shells but eject fired hulls.
- The triggers, for which both double and single trigger designs were in the works.
- The takedown system, which was intended to allow removing barrels from actions without removing the fore end.
Val Browning quickly resolved the first and third issues, along with finalizing the overall fit and finish requirements of what was intended to be a top-end firearm. The triggers ended up being a more complex system, and in the end both double- and single-trigger options were added to the final product.
In 1931, the Superposed entered production. Initially the gun was offered only in 12-gauge, and four grades were available:
- The Grade 1, with conventional double triggers, one firing each barrel. The base Grade 1 sold in 1931 for the princely sum of $107.50, or about $1,840 in today’s dollars.
- The Pigeon Grade, available with fancier wood and either double triggers, a selective or non-selective single trigger, or the Val Browning-designed Twin-Single trigger. This was a neat system of two triggers wherein two pulls of the front trigger fired the lower, more open-choked barrel first and the upper barrel second, where the rear fired the top barrel first and the lower second. This gave the shooter a quick choice of chokes and was handy for targets of different ranges and directions.
- The Diana Grade, with even better wood and the same options of triggers.
- The Midas Grade, with the finest woods, bluing, and other options.
The nicer grades of the Superposed went from $175 to $374, which is from almost $3,000 to a bit over $6,400 in today’s dollars.
Consider the state of the world in general and the United States in particular in 1931. The Great Depression was just getting started, and not many people were interested in spending a lot of money on a carriage-trade gun, no matter how well designed. The sales of the initial Superposed were not impressive, leading Browning to reduce the price of the Grade 1 guns to $99.50 in 1934 and again to $69.75 in 1935. In 1936, trying to grow interest in the gun, Browning brought out the Superposed Lightning, a slimmed-down version that weighted 6 ¾ pounds compared to the standard version/s 7 ½ pounds.
Then World War Two happened. The Wehrmacht overran the FN works and set the factory towards making weapons for the German war effort. Production of Browning arms did not resume until 1946, with Superposed production on hiatus until 1948. Unlike the Auto-5, which was made under license by Remington during the war years, the Superposed simply dropped away; Remington was already building their Model 11, after all, which was basically a licensed reproduction of the Auto-5 without the magazine cut-off, and so they were able to quickly tool up to make the Browning version of the famous long-recoil auto shotgun. The Superposed, on the other hand, languished until FN was free to resume production.
The Post-War Guns
When Superposed production resumed in 1948, only the Grade 1 was offered at first. The first post-war Superposed sold for $241, or $2,600 in today’s dollars.
But Browning, with Val Browning at the helm, was ready to dive into the more prosperous post-war economy in a big way, and one of the ways was to expand on the options available in the company’s flagship over/under. In 1949 a 20-gauge version was introduced, weighting only 6 ½ pounds. In the Fifties, a Magnum 12-gauge was brought out, as well as dedicated trap and skeet versions of the basic gun. In 1959, Browning doubled down by finally offering 28-gauge and .410 bore Superposed although, for some reason, a 16-gauge gun was never offered, perhaps because that wonderful intermediate was already falling from favor with American shooters.
Superposed collectors consider guns made in the Fifties to be the most desirable Superposed guns due to FN’s renowned quality and the variety of options available. But, as with all good things, that happy situation would soon come to an end.
Throughout the Sixties, increasing labor costs in Belgium had driven the cost of a Grade 1 Superposed up to $435, almost $3,100 in today’s dollars. Browning made some cosmetic changes to the gun to hold the price at a reasonable level, most notably the replacement of the desirable “round knob” pistol grip with a more conventional flat-bottomed type. Fit and finish suffered, although not to the extent of Winchester’s guns following their infamous 1964 re-organization. The Seventies, as we Boomers remember all too well, were marked by double-digit global inflation, combined with stagnant economic growth, which again did not bode well for carriage-trade shotguns.
In 1977, Browning executives decided to scale back Superposed production. For the gun to continue in production at the level of quality to which Browning customers had become accustomed, the Superposed was relegated to production only as a presentation-grade custom-shop piece. Several Presentation Grade models were made from 1977 to 1986, but sales were not robust. In 1986, production of John Browning’s final masterpiece ceased for good.
But Browning wasn’t out of the over/under business yet, not by a long shot.
While increasing production costs eventually consigned the Superposed to history, Browning Inc. was not done building over/under shotguns. The offspring of the Superposed was, of course, the Mikoru, Japan-produced Citori, a redesign of the basic Superposed platform intended to lower production costs while still producing a strong, reliable, well-balanced fowling piece.
Introduced in 1973, the Citori was initially sold for a bit under $400 – about $2,350 in today’s money. That was still a fancy price, but the Grade 1 Superposed was at this time selling for about $1,100, which translates to $6,450 in 2020 dollars. The Citori was quickly made available in a variety of gauges and finished, and soon offered the Invector choke-tube system, making it even more versatile. The gun quickly gained a strong following, what with the many versions available while the Japanese manufacturer was able to make the gun at lower cost while retaining the quality for which Browning was famous. It was and is, therefore, a worthy successor to the Superposed.
Two Citoris reside in the gun racks at the Casa de Animal. Mine is a 12-gauge Satin Hunter, a great field piece intended for the game fields. The 28” barrels are fitted with the Invector Plus choke tube system and chambered for all 12-gauge loads up to the big 3 ½” Roman candles, making this a very versatile piece. Mrs. Animal’s copy is a 26” White Lightning in her favored 16-gauge, part of a limited run in that gauge made for Davidson’s. The 16 uses the standard Invector choke tubes and is light and fast handling. Mrs. A likes the gun and can shoot it frighteningly well.
These days there are over/under shotguns (and combination guns) from a wide range of manufacturers in a wide range of prices. These include such arms as the imported Russian “Baikal” shotguns that Remington brought on some years ago; I have handled but not fired one of these, and honestly, I don’t think they are worth the gunpowder it would take to blow them to hell. But there are lower priced over/unders from outfits like Mossberg and CZ that are good, well-made, reliable, and solid pieces. Beretta makes a range of over/unders, and of course the Citori is still available in a variety of layouts. Browning also manufactures the odd-looking Cynergy over/under, which is strange to my eyes, but carries with it a reputation worthy of a Browning.
All of these guns are, however, variations on a theme. That theme was established by the great John Browning in his final great work, the Browning Superposed, the world’s first production over/under shotgun, and still, today, the standard by which all other such guns must be measured.