Do you know the Darne side-by-side double gun? This decidedly unusual shotgun, truly unique in its action design, has had small sale and distribution in the United States despite its several virtues and, in view of its quality construction — even in the lowest-cost grades — its moderate selling price. In point of fact, there is as far as I can determine, no difference in quality of workmanship metal-to-metal fit, jointing of wood and metal, polishing and finish of all components-between the lowest-priced Darnes and the highest.
There is, though, good value in the extra-cost versions — stocks of better-quality, fancier-figure walnut, a greater expanse of finer-line checkering, plus various degrees and extents of engraving. There is a basic design difference, too, but a relatively unimportant one — removal of the barrels is made a little easier on the higher grades, but that’s a matter, mostly, of convenience.
It’s the action of the Dame that sets it apart from all other shotguns. An action that, at the same time, makes it one of the trimmest and streamlined of shotguns, yet the basic design of the action was evolved some 80 years ago — Darne guns of that age look, in their essential form and style, identical with their latest productions. One could, I suppose, look on this adherence to long-established form and design elements in two ways — one, that the makers of the Darne have resisted change and modernization, remaining locked into the original concept through inertia or worse. Or it might be said that, once having brought the Darne design to its ultimate development, the makers looked on their efforts and found them good, even perfect, virtually.
I hold to the second view, for offhand I can’t think of anything that could materially improve the current Darne design — not and keep the Darne design intact. O, there are those who would like the safety repositioned — it’s on the left side of the action — but there are some shotgunners who prefer through-bolt safeties to top-tang types. There is another Darne aspect, a style point, that isn’t completely to my liking, and that’s a stock form Darne furnishes — and one that is, I’ll admit, quite popular in Europe.
This particular Darne stock has a semi-pistol grip — a long, sweeping form, with rounded end, that looks much like the type found on vintage Browning autoloaders. I’d bought my first Darne some 25 years ago, at which time this stock style was common and popular on a number of shotguns. I didn’t know much then, either, though of course I thought I did.
I’ve used that Darne a good bit over the years, but in this job there’s almost always a new shotgun to try out, sometimes several a year or season — and in recent years more than ever. For that reason I’ve used the Darne less and less, but that’s also true of some three or four other smoothbores I own — the shorter seasons in recent times account for some of that, too.
During all that long usage I’ve never had a moment’s trouble with the Darne — nothing ever broke, nothing malfunctioned.
Visit to St. Etienne
I’d always wanted to visit the Darne plant in southern France (I can’t think of any arms factory I wouldn’t like to see), but I’d never done more than pass through that area on previous visits. Last year, however, knowing that I’d be returning to that section of France from Budapest, to spend a few days with Raymond Caranta (our Continental editor), I planned a call on Darne. Caranta lives at Aie-en-Provence, only a short drive from St. Etienne, site of the Darne factory.
The general manager for Darne, Jean Bruyere, made Raymond and me welcome and escorted us on a tour of the buildings and shops. I don’t know what, exactly, I expected to find, but I’ve got to say that both of us were hardly prepared for what we saw! Imagine a one-story, long and narrow shop — perhaps 50 feet wide and maybe 400 feet or more deep. The ceilings, about 20 feet above us, were dark with the soot and grime of years. Down either side of the long room, high above the workers, ran shafting and pulleys — lots of pulleys.
Leather belts, small and large, fell to the machines, driving them. Here was a shop where Samuel Colt, Philo Remington or Oliver Winchester would have felt at home. The slap and clatter of the belts and pulleys would have been familiar music. The lighting was dim, the corners dark — one had a sense of what the oil-lamped factories of a century earlier might have been like.
There was a touch of progress, if that’s the right word. Standing in one area were two ultra-modern machines — high speed, tape fed automated milling machines. An incongruous sight, to be sure, but both were in operation. These new tools, with others perhaps to follow, may — one day — see the Darne factory a fully up-to-date plant, but for now the Darne shotgun is still fabricated, fitted and finished by hand. Men wielding files — and women, too — are there in force, particularly at a long row of benches in the final fitting and assembly stages.
Make no mistake, I’ve not described the Darne plant to criticize or deplore — far from it. An old pappy myself, and one who has always delighted in the genuine excellence that trained and dedicated hands can produce, I was gratified — if surprised — to view the Darne approach to gunmaking. Quality of materials and workmanship, close attention to the perfect assembly of even minor components — these are the norms at Darne.
As I’ve said, Darne guns are not highly expensive, even in the embellished grades. Some $500-$750 will buy their top model, I believe; compare that with certain English and Italian shotguns! No, what puzzles me — now that I know how they’re made — is how they can be sold at such attractive prices.
The Dame is a solid-frame double gun, there’s no dropping down of the barrels, released to open by means of a top-snap lever. For this reason the stock can be — and is — a one-piece affair. If the inletting at and around the receiver is examined it’ll be obvious that here is a hell of an inletting job. I don’t think there are a dozen stockmakers here who’d want to replace a busted Darne stock — not without an aggravation bonus!
The Darne breechblock is a sliding one; the side-projecting “ears” are grasped between the thumb and first fingers, drawing it back, and the operating lever — swinging vertically in a central channel in the block — is pulled smartly upward and backward. That movement pulls fired cases fully out of the chambers; unfired cartridges are extracted only for a short distance. A roll of the gun to either side, after fired-case extractions, lets the empties fall to the ground or, if you’re a reloader, into your hand. Darne calls this “automatic ejection,” but cases are not kicked clear and away, as we know happens with the usual ejectors. Semantics, maybe, nevertheless their system works.
All double-gun barrels converge from breech to muzzle. In all other doubles but Darnes, as far as I know, the loaded shotshell lies in a slightly cocked position because the standing breech is not at 90° to the long axis of the barrels. In the Darne this has been fixed — each half of the standing breech carries an obturating disk, these angled a small amount, just enough to bring them into exact square with each converging barrel.
Not very important? These flanged disks, completely encircling the shell rim, are an aid to gas containment if a rim lets go. In addition, and because Darne guns are carefully gauged to have minimum chambers and headspace, Darne claims reduced recoil, increased gas thrust on the shot charge for more velocity, and better patterns. In fact, Darne fully guarantees that their barrels, in whatever gauges and lengths, will pattern 72% to 82%. That “warrenteed” performance, note, was made before the advent of plastic shotshells and their enhanced patterning qualities.
All Darne guns, by the way, are fully guaranteed against defects in materials and workmanship for 5 years! They’re also approved by “Quality France” (an honor not lightly obtained), an organization which makes sure that French products live up to their manufacturer’s claims — sort of an industrial ombudsman.
The single trigger is not highly regarded in Europe, so Darne guns, like the others, have two triggers, but with the front one hinged. Trigger pulls are, in my experience, crisp and of moderate weight. I snapped some 7 or 8 guns during the factory visit, none of which showed any drag or excess heaviness. My sample Darne (which I’ll describe later) has triggers that weigh, consistently, about 4–5 lbs. rear and front — and they’re snappy.
Darne barrels are sleeved, that is, mounted into the breech sections via the “monobloc” system, a long-tested technique that offers various advantages — greater strength because the breech sleeve can be heat treated to better properties than conventional systems, and for less heat in assembly than is the case with brazed lumps.
Two styles of top ribs are furnished — a normal raised rib (not ventilated) and their “Plume” rib, the type sometimes called “swamped” also. This one drops away from its level position at the breech to lie between the barrels all the way to the muzzle — in effect, there is no top rib. The Plume rib is the type to specify if you want the Darne gun to be ultra light. As you’ll see, you can get them that way from Darne — no problem.
Darnes are made in all gauges extant — 10, 12, 12⁄3″, 16, 20 and 28, plus one you won’t want — 24! I don’t think the 24s are very popular in France, either. Barrel lengths — standard is 27.6″ (70cm), but lengths in 25.6″ (65cm), 26.8″ (68cm), 28.4″ (72cm), 30″ (75cm) and 32″ (80cm) can be had. All Darne barrels, price range regardless, are given the heaviest French proving — the Triple Proof Test — equal to 8¼ tons psi, and the fully finished guns are again proved at chamber pressure ranging from 5.4 tons to 7.7, the exact psi depending on chamber length.
All of the specs cited apply to standard Darne guns — those that can be bought over the counter from any of Darne’s world network of agents. However, Darne has long been geared to a custom gun setup — they’ll make one up with virtually anything the customer wants — stock woods, engraving, barrel lengths and chokes, whatever. All you have to do it name it — and, of course, pay for it!
As I’ve said, Darne guns are elegant and graceful, light and excellently balanced — yet they’re tough, too, and made to take it. The V22 grade gun loaned to me (while my special order Darne is being made) weighs just 6 lbs., and that’s a standard weight for them.
Heavier ones can be had, of course, and lighter ones as well in the smaller gauges. The Model V22 has Darne’s standard stock dimensions — 1½” at the comb nose, 2¼” at heel, and a pull of 14¼”-15¼” to the rear and forward triggers. I need a pull of 14¾”, and I like a comb cut to 13⁄8″ or a hair less, hence my special order — it hasn’t arrived yet, unfortunately, so there won’t be any pictures of it here.
The V22 has 27.6″ barrels, and for that reason it hasn’t been as handy as I’d have liked in the woodcock thickets I got into last fall. The one on order will have their 25.6″ tubes, which I think will help in like conditions. On the other hand, managing to get in a few days of pheasant hunting last year, I found the Dame a delight to carry and to shoot. I’d worked up some 2¾ dram loads, using an ounce of 6s, and when I was on ‘em they fell.
That light load produced no bothersome recoil, either, but I had slipped on a Pachmayr rubber pad to lengthen the pull. That doubtless helped. Recoil, it seemed to me, felt about like a 3¼-1¼ load would in a gun of 7–7½ pounds.
Stoeger marketed the Darne until recently — and they may still have some on hand — but now there’s a new importer — Firearms Center, Inc., 113 Spokane, Victoria, TX 77901. They’ll have basic models in stock, they say, but any of the many grades may be ordered. FCI hasn’t established firm prices, so far, but they are selling the Darnes on the company’s standard 5-year warranty. How can you go wrong?