Belgians have always had a certain touch with firearms. From eminent shootability to breathtaking beauty, they have viewed guns as elegant instruments meant to perform an all-important function with impeccable style. John Browning’s P-35 High-Power would not have been universally recognized as the most beautiful pistol in the world, as well as one of the most efficient, were it not for the final design decisions of Belgian Dieudonne Saive. An elephant hunter with the proper respect for a trophy bull will bring him down with a rifle that lives up to the dignity of the occasion. To shoot a majestic lion with a soulless off-the-shelf rifle is an insult to all that is worthwhile in the world. Belgians know this. You can see it in their work.
World-renowned Belgian master Marcel Thys will not be building and engraving any more guns. He is now retired, and his lifetime body of work -– magnificently functional works of art, organically sculpted firearms of the highest order –- will stand on its own. This .470 Nitro Express sidelock is one of the legs it will stand on.
The gun is owned by Mark Buchanan, well-known American hunter, owner of Big-Bore Productions and producer of the popular series of big-game hunting videotapes and DVDs including Death By Double Rifle in which this Marcel Thys has a starring role. Mark is also a friend of mine and occasional hunting partner, which is why I can attest that the priceless rifle rests its butt in the dirt on actual hunts, and report back to you what it’s like to shoot a gun most owners would keep locked in the dark of a safe or under the invisible security lasers of a museum night and day.
Pressing the trigger on this best quality gun is like being French kissed in public by the most beautiful girl in town. The sensual walnut stock just happened to fit me perfectly, shoulder to cheek to fingertips, and I have a suspicion that the design is so extraordinary it will just happen to fit almost anybody just as well. The rifle is accurate enough, with Superior ammo loaded to match the original regulation of the barrels, to spend an afternoon shooting small plastic Coke bottles off fenceposts, which we did. The big rolling recoil is invigorating and satisfying at the same time. And planting one of those 500-grain .475-inch bullets in the shoulder of a galloping beast, even if it’s just a big old California boar, goes way beyond riding the six hundred horses of a blood red Ferrari down to the supermarket.
The .470 was one of the first new cartridges introduced in 1900 to replace the .450 NE after the British went topsy-turvy and outlawed .458” guns in India and the Sudan, and the .470 has maintained its popularity right up to today. Most new double rifles are chambered in .470. Federal offers factory .470 loads, Kynoch is back, and there’s always Larry Barnett at Superior Ammunition. Ballistically, the old cartridge runs neck and neck with all but the hottest rimless .458s of recent origin.
Double rifles and turnbolt rifles are quite different creatures, and rare is the sophisticated shooter who doesn’t treasure both. The Mauser ’98 certainly represents the peak perfection of big-game magazine rifles, but the roots of double guns run deeper in the history of darkest Africa.
Double guns operate with either a sidelock or a boxlock (with a few notable exceptions, such as the German Blitz trigger plate action and the Scottish round action). The moving parts of a sidelock are mounted on sideplates which are screwed or mortised to the action. All internal parts of a boxlock are contained within the action itself so sideplates are unnecessary, though false sideplates are sometimes added to give an engraver more flat surface area to work with. Which action is stronger, more reliable and even more pleasing to the eye is a debate that is often carried on between the devotees of each, with no objective conclusion ever reached. All that is certain is that a sidelock requires about twice as many man-hours to build as a boxlock. Since these man-hours number in the hundreds in a best quality gun, the sidelock is considerably more expensive.
As to the double versus bolt-action debate, that part is really very simple. A quality open-sighted side-by-side double rifle handles like a side-by-side double-barreled shotgun, quick and lively. A scoped bolt-action rifle built by one of the very few stockmakers worthy of the name handles just as well, though the bolt-action must be several inches longer for a given barrel length to accommodate the additional length of the turnbolt action. The first two shots out of a double are faster than the first two shots out of a bolt-action, period. The first three shots out of a bolt-action are faster than the first three shots out of a double. Only with the fourth shot and after is there any kind of race where the outcome is dependent on the gun-handling skill of the shooter.
We all like to think one well placed shot will do it, but many are the buffalo who have absorbed more bullets than today’s typical high school student can count. In such a case, whether you deliver them two at a time until your ammo runs out, or one right after another until your magazine is empty at which time you have to call a time-out, is entirely up to you.
I dearly love my bolt-action rifles. But I would give two fingers off my left hand for a Marcel Thys sidelock double.