The Belgian 12

Posted by Phil on January 29th, 2010 | Gear, Hunting

Round Rock, TX – “Well I just got that Benelli last year, I should just go with it again this year”, I say to myself, holding and looking up and down the possible opening-day-dove-hunt shotgun alternative.

The Belgian 12

A few years ago, my granddad traded someone somewhere for two Belgian guild-made side-by-side (SxS) hammer-guns made around 1930: an English stock 12ga., and a 28ga./7mm shotgun/rifle combo gun.  At the time, I was probably mesmerized with German or Spanish double-guns, and working toward justifying a $4000 expense attempt at entry into the world of fine SxS craftsmanship.  So I hadn’t ever asked to borrow or try these guns, even at the range.  I was also probably scared to fire them.

But now, as my gun wisdom/mantras had cycled over after a few years (note: and are sure to cycle again), I made my way to the gun safe and was imagining taking the old 12ga. out to hit some birds.  I wanted to shoot a dove with a SxS hammergun.  The gun’s action locked up solid, its hammers and triggers had little play.  Overall, the gun felt pretty good, and trustworthy.  It wasn’t my granddad’s trusty shotgun.  In fact, he traded guns often and he simply hadn’t traded this one away yet.  But it was $4000 cheaper than a Merkel, “shot the same shells”, and had enjoyed 70+ years of aging in its wood that gave it a feel and color as warm as some old whiskey.  I asked my granddad if I could borrow it.  Stupid question.

Gunsmith's Markings circa 1930 - special thanks to Alain and the experts at for help with the gun's identification

Before I got it out to the field, I took some pictures of the rudimentary and cryptic markings made on both the barrels and receiver and started doing some background research.  Most shotgun manufacturing in Belgium from 1700-1900 was controlled by the government and manufacturer’s guilds, conducting quality inspection, powder proofing, etc.  The guild-certified markings on the gun are be used to identify certain features of the gun, though they rarely indicate anything as interesting as build location or the gun’s particular craftsman.  One of the most remarkable things in my experience with this gun comes from researching it. The power of the internet is absolutely incredible.  I found, in less than 30 minutes of research, an association of gunsmiths and collectors in Belgium who are experts on the Belgian guild’s history, guns, and markings.  By sending a few pictures and explanations, these helpful folks sent me back a very detailed description of all the gun’s markings.

Broken - Hammers

I didn’t learn anything too interesting about this particular gun, other than that this particular grade of Belgian guns, of low monetary value both then and now, were sometimes called “garden guns” – utility guns that would rest in the corner of a barn or farmhouse until needed to take care of a snake or rodent, probably rusty and unused most of the time.  There’s something about that I really like: utility and dependability, the “throwdown gun”.  I wasn’t about to throw this one anywhere, though, and kind of liked the idea of bringing it back into respectable, maybe even sporting, service.

The Belgian in Snook (also pictured: Galco Shell Bag)

Snook, TX – I took the gun out opening day of dove season.  After a morning and afternoon of terrible luck with my semi-auto (which I decided to use first for dependability), I was ready to see if the SXS would fire (Note: a gunsmith had already looked over the gun to assist in verifying its safety, but in the future I’ll probably get a few second opinions).  Because I had read somewhere that the older guns weren’t proofed for today’s super-powerful shotgun shells, and never mind extra conservatism anyway in such a test, I had purchased the lightest loads I could find.  Two in the pipes, and lock it up.  It didn’t lock.  Something was getting in the way of the breech closing.  After a few seconds, I realize that the protruding firing pin on the left barrel was barely contacting the shell primer. “Hmm, that’s not good”, I said to my buddies as I opened and closed the action with the barrels pointed right at my target, fully anticipating the chance of a misfire.  The action did close, and I hip-fired a couple of shots, with the action of the gun away from my eyes and frontal-waist-area (I was still afraid).  No explosions.  Good start.

After fixing the firing pin problem the next week, I was ready to take the gun on a real hunt.

The Author in Abilene (also pictured: Filson Single-Wall Chaps, King Ranch Belt, Costa Del Mar Harpoon in 580 glass)

Abilene, TX – after an afternoon and subsequent morning dove hunt gathering some much needed birds for this year’s eventual cookout/BBQ with the semi-auto, I was ready to take the SXS out to the field.  Great time to test it – the fields were full of birds and strangely we were shooting all of the doves that day as they flushed up out of the sunflower.  Our quasi-upland hunt, as it seemed, for doves would be perfect for this gun, as its chokes were more than likely best suited for close-range shooting.  It took me awhile to get used to using hammers, the two triggers, and the English stock, three things I wasn’t used to at all.  Switching between triggers always seemed to stretch or cramp my hand.  The hammers sitting precariously back, waiting and threatening to fire, made me nervous.  I tried to keep the hammers down until I saw a bird, but once I did see a bird and did not take the shot for whatever reason, I was again on edge disarming the gun.  Even with all the problems, I never mind letting safety concerns like that take almost complete control of the day, and eventually I did get to shoot.

The rolling pasture and brushy hills south of Abilene, fenced by mesquite and barbed wire, were amazing.  The sun was setting back over the immense black hills of buffalo gap standing to our west as I trodded through muddy fields in my favorite pair of ropers.  The sunset put that warm orange hue over everything we were doing, and I couldn’t help but think about how surreal it was. But, trying not to get all weird about it, I focused on getting after the birds. Groups of 3-5 birds would spring up 20 yards ahead of us, and coast around to land 60 or so yards off.  To tell the truth, because that day the doves really didn’t seem to like criss-crossing the skies like normal doves do in a normal dove hunt, we ended up just chasing them like this over 20-some acres.  If the weeds were high enough or perfectly blocking the sight-plane between their little beady eyes and our mirrored sunglasses, we would get a shot.

It felt really good to get the first bird – flying low, right at the sun, banking right back over the brush as I popped the left barrel after getting a good stance in the muddy ground.  The sun, behind a gradual sloping field, behind a trail of floating feathers and a falling bird, behind my exhausted barrel and its now resting hammer – this is what I live for.  I lowered the gun, straightened my back, quickly opened the breech and extracted the no.8 hull, grossly marked where the bird fell, and started to walk – grinning from ear to ear.  “Got him”.

The Author with the Gun. Special thanks to Austin C. for his invitation to all the hunting locations referenced in this article (also pictured: LLBean Sunwashed Shirt)

Now, the reason I focus on all this imagery coupled with this story about the gun is that it all goes together, like some outdoorsmen know.  But I take this especially seriously, as there is something special about using an old gun.  I’d be lying if said I didn’t think about John Wayne, Ernest Hemingway, or Matthew Quigley doing the exact same thing as I walked with the gun broken over my shoulder.  Like a lot of hunters and fisherman these days, I often wonder if I was born at the wrong time and dream of a simpler, more plentiful, wilder outdoors.  I’m not a rancher or a cowboy, but something feels right about standing sweaty, sun beating down, in a field, staring out from under the brim of a hat (Resistol or baseball) on whatever amount of land you’re on, searching the terrain for activity, landscape, or quarry.  A trusty gun at your side, not just any gun, but one that you care for, that means something to you, that you’re proud to own.  You’re looking out on the world but also back and forth in time, and every once in awhile you feel a little bit connected.  And I’m chasing that feeling every weekend.

P.S.  While this entire hunt was taking place, my granddad, owner of the gun, had become terminally ill.  Instead of cancelling the hunt, I made it a point to take pictures of everything I was doing on the hunt and send them back to my family, who made prints and posted them all over the hospital room for him to see.  My granddad is a huge part of why I love the outdoors, guns, and wildlife as much as I do, and in the way that I do.  An avid hunter, from Kentucky to Texas, my granddad hunted everything from opossum to deer with just about the same passion.  When he passed away shortly after I returned to see him and tell the story in person, my grandmother was so grateful that one of his last experiences was with me, in spirit, in the field.  I hope, and she knows, that he’s proud of his grandson, and I’m out to ensure that.  I honor him, as a cornerstone of my life, every time I step into the field.

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