Outfitting yourself for a Cowboy Action event involves sixguns, rifles, and shotguns. Most stages of a typical Cowboy event require all three types of firearms. Many words have been written about today’s handgun choices, and a fair amount of copy has been penned about rifles, but precious little has been mentioned about shotguns.
The Cowboy Action-shooter’s shotgun has to be either a non-eject side-by-side double—with or without hammers—or an appropriate pump or lever shotgun from the tail end of the 19th century. Some shooters use vintage guns, some of them over a century old, but we think most shooters will be better served with modern shotguns. In this report we look at three double guns suitable for the game, all of them 12-bores with 20-inch barrels. They came from EMF, TriStar, and Stoeger. All were blued, and had wood buttstocks and forends. One of them was choked. One had hammers, but the others were hammerless. All had double triggers, and all were made with the Cowboy game in mind. Here’s our findings.
EMF Double Hammer Gun, $750
The EMF sidelock hammer gun was a study in contrasts. The wood was magnificent high-grade walnut, nicely finished, and would have graced even the most expensive shotgun. This gun was a real sidelock. Sidelocks traditionally have been higher-grade guns rather than the easier-to-produce and simpler boxlock design so commonly seen. Unfortunately, these locks were crudely built, did not have interrupting sears, and the spring force was so different between the two locks that one hammer was very much harder to cock than the other. This also affected the trigger pulls.
The inner parts of the locks had coarse file marks. The inletting of the locks into the wood was essentially nonexistent. Except for the lock outline, which was cleanly done, there was no effort made to fit metal to wood inside the stock. Instead, the wood had been hogged out to clear the lockwork, and the remaining wood had been smeared with what appeared to be epoxy bedding compound to help the stock retain some of its strength, some of which was lost due to the massive removal of wood to clear the lock mechanism. The triggers had no auxiliary springs, which means they rattled when given the chance.
A best-quality sidelock gun stock has most of the wood remaining under the lock plate, with wood removed only to clear the individual parts of the lock. Inletting like that is a time-consuming and tedious process that greatly increases the cost of a gun, but that’s part of the package of a top-of-the-line sidelock gun. This work was totally absent in the EMF. By itself, this wasn’t much of a detraction of the quality of the gun because of the synthetic inletting material placed inside the stock to give it strength. But the clumsy inletting and crudely formed lock parts were indicative of the degree of corner-cutting done to produce this shotgun.
Next, the attractively colored sidelock plates had been thoroughly and very clumsily rounded on their outside surfaces by filing, grinding, and/or polishing. That surface ought to have been thoroughly flat. This loss of the flat surface of the lock plates had the effect of making the gun look like it had been crudely refinished by a rank amateur who didn’t know how to keep the flats flat. The lock plates also had visible dents and file marks on the outside, underneath the finish.
The hammers were nicely finished and adequately serrated to give good cocking purchase, and stood at the same height when cocked or at rest. These were rebounding locks. This means that when the trigger is pressed and the hammer falls, it flies forward to strike the firing pin and then rebounds to a position short of the firing pin. When the trigger is then released, the hammer cannot move forward to touch the pin again. This serves as a safety mechanism of sorts. It also permits the gun to be opened without the need to first place the hammers on half-cock, and in fact there is no half-cock position.
The right hammer, in its fully forward position, did not positively push the firing pin all the way out of the action body. We suspected the gun would fail to fire, but testing proved that the firing pin flew forward far enough to do the job.
The sliding tang safety was not automatic, which meant it could be ignored if the shooter chose to do so. In its rearward position it blocked the triggers. For those who have no experience with hammer guns in the field, they are supposed to be carried with the hammers down. The hammers are cocked as the gun is raised to the shoulder in preparation to fire. With a little practice, this becomes very easy to do as the gun is mounted. Practically speaking, one hammer is commonly cocked in this manner, but some best-quality hammer guns permit the easy cocking of both hammers at the same time. That was impossible with the EMF gun, but again that’s not a distraction. The right hammer was far easier to cock than the left.
The exterior of the gun, as we first got it, had more contrasts. The glorious wood was complimented by the attractive color hardening, and the bluing appeared to be evenly and well done, so the initial impression should have been one of an attractive, handy 12-bore, all ready to help you have fun at the Cowboy Action game.
Instead, there was no protective wrapping on the barrels as they lay inside the shipping box. The stock and action were protected with a plastic bag, but the barrels were covered with dust from the box and the packing material. There were three large areas of unsightly white “bloom” on the blued barrels. This “bloom” sometimes occurs when bluing salts are insufficiently neutralized following bluing, and commonly appears several days or weeks following the bluing process. It usually comes out of joints and gaps. It does little harm and can be removed with a hard scrubbing with an oily rag or toothbrush. However, it ought not to have been there. We found it at the junction of the barrels with the monoblock portion of the breeches, at the muzzles, and in the chambers. We had a hard time getting it off. We noticed the left barrel was not placed fully home in the monoblock that formed the rear portion of the barrels. A fingernail could easily slide into the gap. The right barrel was installed as they both should have been, seated fully home so it was almost impossible to see the joint.
The buttplate was plain, case-colored and uncheckered steel. This buttplate had a razor-sharp edge, which would need to be filed off before using the gun. As it was, it was sharp enough to cut the fingers, and would grab on the clothing and probably tear one’s shirt in the heat of a Cowboy “battle.” One of the screws that held it to the stock had a nasty burr, caused by a screwdriver, that snagged one of our shooters’ fingers.
Inletting was poor throughout. There were chips in the otherwise excellent stock finish at the edge of the buttplate. There was a chip and a gouge in the wood to the rear of the left lock plate. The buttstock wood came nowhere near matching the contour of the action around the hammer cutouts. The wood on both sides of the trigger plate was rounded where it should have flowed smoothly into the bottom of the action.
The pistol grip had a checkered panel on each side, with good checkering. The forend had a multi-panel array of checkering that did little for the overall appearance of the gun, but was well done. The forend wood was not quite a match to the nice wood on the butt, but it was good enough. The trigger guard was just plain crude, being a rather thick and coarse stamping with a welded portion stuck on to form the outline behind the triggers. It was so poorly machined and finished that the stamping marks were still visible on its edges.
The wood had finish applied inside the forend. However, the forend fit so tightly that it was impossible to remove it without an appropriate pry bar. The knee of the action was rather rough, as was the mating surface on the iron of the forend. This does not appear to be a gun made for long service. These parts were not very hard. The “case coloring” appears to be a cosmetic wash on the action. We were able to mark the “case-hardened” parts inside with a screwdriver. With real case hardening this is impossible.
The top lever was very difficult to move, and the action very stiff to open. These traits diminished somewhat as the gun got some rounds put through it. However, the left side of the top lever had a sharp ridge right where the thumb pressed against it, causing distress to the user’s hands, particularly if he was in a hurry. On the action’s water table and on the flats of the barrels, the workmanship was almost crude. It was as though the basic gun had been rough-filed into shape, but no fine finishing had been done. The extractor was completely covered with burrs and rough edges. We nearly cut our fingers on it.
The bores themselves were very well polished and smooth. There was no detectable choke in either barrel, which is fine for Cowboy Action shooting or the other common use of a “lupara” (as such hammer doubles are known in some quarters), which is home defense. The 20-inch barrels had a large brass bead on front and a matted, low rib on top. It pointed well and was fast handling. The whole gun had rather fine balance, and it was a shame the details weren’t up to snuff. This could have been a much better gun if more care had been taken in its manufacture.
We tried field loads and target loads, but didn’t pattern the gun, except informally. It shot very close to where it looked, the patterns from both barrels centering over the bead at 15 yards. That’s plenty good enough for action shooting. The patterns were well dispersed, about what you’d expect from unchoked barrels. We strongly suggest the use of light loads for action shooting. This lightweight (6.6-pound) gun and its steel butt plate let us feel every bit of the recoil, which was substantial with field loads. With target loads the gun was much more manageable, and we could begin to have fun with it. With light loads designed specifically for Cowboy Action shooting, the recoil would be even less. Fired shells came out of the chambers easily enough, but did not always fall out. This was the case with all three guns.
Several times we thought we could detect a hesitation, almost a hangfire, from the right side, but it always went bang. If we owned the gun we’d fix that striker situation and make sure the hammer pushed the firing pin all the way out. The triggers were draggy and heavy. The right broke at 7 pounds with significant creep, but we could live with it. The left required all of 15 pounds before it let go. That was most likely tied to the extra-heavy left-side mainspring, which superficially looked identical to the right. The trigger pull and creep only got worse, and by the time our testing was done it required two pulls of the trigger to release the hammer. This was totally unacceptable, and the gun now needs the urgent attention of a good gunsmith.
The gun’s static balance was just in front of the breeches, which made the gun very lively. However, the bottom edges of the action at the balance point were (once again) so sharp as to nearly draw blood. These should have been beveled slightly before final finishing.
We were very disappointed in this shotgun. We believe there’s a market for a really well-made, plain, short-barrel, double hammer shotgun of 12-bore persuasion, but don’t know of any being made.
TriStar 411R, $745
This Italian-made beauty cost the same as the EMF. With no hammers to cock, this gun would be faster in an action shoot, if that means more to you than the traditional look of outside hammers. This Rota-made gun was attractive enough, and appeared to be very well made. The wood was several notches below that of the EMF, but by no means a plank. The wood appeared to be walnut. The stock had distinct cast-off, as did the EMF tested above, and the wood had a dead-flat oil finish with the pores reasonably well filled. We rubbed some linseed oil onto it, which improved its appearance. The forend had attractive grain. Both pieces of wood had outstanding and functional checkering, though the panels on the pistol grip were too small.
This relatively light double needed some sort of butt pad for fastest, most comfortable shooting when the going gets hot and heavy. All it had was a black, checkered-plastic plate that was slightly too big for the wood on top, which resulted in a sharp edge. With anything hotter than target loads, let alone any 3-inch shells, this gun had significant recoil. The buttplate checkering did a good job of keeping the gun in place during rapid-fire shooting. However, a rounded-top soft rubber pad would be just the ticket here for better handling and shooting comfort.
The action was case colored, and we believe it was another example of a decorative wash. However, we could not mark the colored parts as easily as we could those of the EMF. This was a simple boxlock gun, with a nicely rounded bottom to the action. The trigger plate held the same coloring pattern as the action. The top lever was comfortable to the thumb, though it was a bit hard to move it to open the gun when it was new. The sliding safety on top of the tang was non-automatic, and had a small central button that was serrated to ease taking it off (forward). It worked well.
The inletting was superb. The wood-to-metal fit everywhere was tight and clean. The buttstock was slightly higher than the metal of the action to allow for shrinkage over time. The forend was well inletted to the barrels. The forend came off and went back on easily. It was retained by an Anson rod, coming in from the extreme forward portion. This secured the forend to the barrels tightly through all our shooting. That’s about all you could ask of a forend latch.
The bluing of barrels, top lever, forend iron, and trigger guard was very well done. It was lustrous, almost. We found a few burrs here and there on otherwise cleanly machined parts. Five minutes with a small scraper got the gun clean and ready for action. For the asking price one would hope to have had this done by the factory, but at least the gun had a high-quality fit of metal to metal.
The gold-plated triggers were protected inside a nicely blued trigger guard that held a spray of roll-impressed “engraving” in a scroll pattern on its bottom. There was some lightly impressed “engraving” around the barrel breeches, and on the barrel tubes where they entered the monoblock. The TriStar name was engraved into the top of the left barrel near the breech. Beneath that, the model designation had been stamped into the barrel. On the right barrel was stamped “Made in Italy” and the gauge designation and chamber size (3 inch). The top rib was nicely matted, slightly raised, and led to a large-enough brass bead foresight.
The gun had a very generous extractor that caught nearly half the rim of each shell. We found the barrels easy to open with a normal push on the top lever, but there was a slight design or fitting problem in that the barrels didn’t want to open far enough to get a shell past the standing breech unless we forced the barrels open fully. After a bit of shooting, this stiffness was still there. We could reload quickly by placing the left hand on top of the barrels as we activated the lever to open the gun. A firm push with the left hand opened the gun fully.
The chambers and barrels were smoothly polished. Some Cowboy Action shooters mirror-polish the chambers so they can get spent shells out with just a forward flick of the open gun. We could do that with a perfectly clean gun, but not after a few shots had been fired. The barrels were not choked, but gave good patterns at 15 yards. This gun perhaps would do good-enough duty for close-range upland hunting, though we would fit some sort of recoil pad before attempting that with this 6.3-pound gun.
The trigger pulls were both excellent, with an acceptable bit of creep. The right broke at 6.0 pounds, the left at 4.5. We found if we shot the left barrel first we had a bit more control. However, we would have preferred both triggers to break at the same pull, or with the left slightly stiffer than the right. At the range we found the gun shot exactly to its sights at cowboy ranges of 15 yards or so. Also, the gun was very fast-handling, and it gave us lots of confidence. We would gladly take this gun to a cowboy shoot right now. It doesn’t really need anything done to it. If we owned it, we’d reduce the right trigger’s pull a bit and put on a recoil pad of some sort.
Stoeger Coach Gun, $310
Our first impression of the Brazilian-made Stoeger Coach Gun was: That’s more like it. The gun, which was way less than half the price of either of the other two, looked great, worked easily, was well balanced and well finished, opened easily, and in all respects—but one—looked like the ideal tool for the active Cowboy-Action shooter. The one “flaw” was that this gun had an automatic safety. Each and every time we opened the gun the sliding, tang-mounted safety went back on. In the heat of battle that could cost points.
The auto safety is out of place, we feel, on any sort of firearm designed for fast action, including double rifles designed for use against dangerous game and double shotguns designed for Cowboy Action use. In Cowboy matches, the shotgun is staged empty with the action open. After being fired, the shotgun has to be left empty with its action open before the shooter moves on. An automatic safety just gets in the way. The presence of chokes in this gun’s barrels might help make it a reasonable gun for upland hunting, so that’s one excuse for the automatic safety. If we bought the gun solely for action shooting, we would have the safety disconnected by a competent gunsmith.
The Stoeger Coach Gun was nicely polished and blued. The hardwood stock (which appeared to be birch) had a glossy, dark finish that was well applied. The forend was generous in size, actually a beavertail in configuration. It had good checkering, as did the two generous panels on the pistol grip. The forend came off and went back onto the gun appropriately, being neither too loose nor too tight, and stayed in place throughout our test firing. There appeared to be little or no finish inside the forend, where it met the barrels, but the wood was stained dark to match the surface. All the metal surfaces were blued. There was no attempt at superficial case coloring anywhere. The buttplate was black plastic, serrated to help hold it in place against the shoulder.
The inletting was excellent. There was enough wood above the metal to permit it to shrink over time and still look like it belonged there. The barrels were tightly fitted into the monoblock action. The barrel rib was slightly raised and had milled serrations that formed a matted top surface that kept off glare. The under rib was smooth and flat, but had an 1/8-inch-diameter hole drilled just over an inch back from the muzzles. A similar hole was hidden under the forend near the back of the rib. We don’t know what these vents are for, but there was no under-rib from the rear of the forend hook to the monoblock, so it was possible for water to get between the barrels. Those two holes would help dry any water that got between the barrels.
The action was well polished and blued, and had the name “E. R. AMANTINO” stamped into its left side. On the right was “MADE IN BRAZIL.” The firing pins were bushed. The action sides had nicely finished flats that met the curved bottom in a sharp-looking and very even edge that did not cut the hands. The metal was deburred everywhere, even around the extractor, which caught about one-quarter the diameter of the shell. The chambers were 3 inch, so marked by stampings over the chambers. The left chamber area of the barrel also held the gun’s “Coachgun” name, and the right had the Stoeger imprint and address. Both barrels were choked, the left slightly more than the right. The only indications of degree were three little stars beneath the right barrel and four under the left, stamped just in front of the monoblock under the forend.
The silver-finished triggers looked like investment castings. They were protected by a fairly shapeless strap of steel that was screwed to the steel of the action and to the wood of the buttstock. It wasn’t the most attractive item of the gun, but did its job well enough.
A smooth and long push on the top lever opened the gun, and it opened all the way with relative ease. This made for quick reloading. The chambers appeared to be slightly rougher than necessary, but empties came out easily. The forcing cones were very long. The bores themselves were mirror polished, as were the entire surfaces of the chokes. The gun looked like it was built to shoot, so we shot it.
As with the other two shotguns, recoil was substantial with substantial loads. Target loads were fine though, and with them the gun was as fast as lightning. The trigger pulls were both long and creepy, the right around 8 pounds and the left about 9 pounds, but they were usable in that there were no surprises. We’d like to see them a bit easier to pull, say around 5 pounds each. Both triggers felt the same, unlike the situation with the other two shotguns tested here.
The patterns were visibly tighter than with either of the other guns, and were centered just above the point of aim at 15 yards. Although we believe chokes are unnecessary for Cowboy Action shooting, this gun, with its slight chokes, would be more suitable than the other two for upland hunting. If you use the same gun for hunting and for action shooting, you’ll probably get fairly skilled, as well as very comfortable, with that one gun.
Gun Tests Recommends
EMF Double Hammer Gun, $750. Don’t Buy. Not surprisingly, we found no maker’s name on this gun anywhere. There were plenty of proof marks and odd letters, but the only legible thing was the word “Spain” on both action and barrels. Beneath the action was one of the most attractive items of this shotgun, the initials of the importer, EMF, very nicely engraved and gold filled. We believe EMF ought to have their name on a better-quality shotgun. We could see no saving graces here to justify even half of the asking price of $750.
TriStar 411R, $745. Conditional Buy. Compared to the EMF, the Italian-made TriStar 411R kept our interest. We believe it was well thought out and well built for the distinct purpose of Cowboy Action shooting. Although it was a bit costly, we believe this was a good-quality gun for the money. The TriStar 411R gave us the impression it would last through many a shoot-out and keep coming back for more.
Stoeger Coach Gun, $310. Best Buy. This gun was the clear choice of everyone who tried all three shotguns, even without knowing anything about the prices involved. We liked this gun a lot. It appeared to be built to last, and had some clever design work incorporated. It looked good, handled very well indeed, and captured our attention completely. In fact, after our evaluation of the Coach Gun, we downgraded the TriStar/Rota 411R to Conditional Buy, because there’s no need to buy the TriStar unless you prefer Italian to Brazilian guns and like to spend over twice the money for a slightly more attractive and refined gun. With a suggested retail of $310, and a street price lower yet, this Stoeger Coach Gun was the clear-cut winner for today’s action shooter. We think Doc Holliday would approve.