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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.