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Selby & The Superposed: A World-Class Shotgun Afield

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A protégé of one of the world’s most famous professional hunters recounts his mentor’s generous gift of an over-under shotgun—one representing yet another seminal design from the greatest firearm genius in history.

Harry Selby’s daughter, Gail, enjoyed shooting the little Browning Grade I Superposed 20-ga. gun. She was a crack shot with it on Botswana’s plentiful doves and sandgrouse and equally efficient when dispatching the odd spitting cobra or mamba that committed the fatal mistake of slithering onto the Selby family property. Photos courtesy of author.

Most anyone should find the history of the Browning Superposed shotgun to be interesting, but, because of one particular example in my possession, I find it downright fascinating. You see, my Superposed was born in Belgium sometime in the mid-1960s, more than 55 years ago. At a young age, the 20 gauge, blessed with striking good looks, was shipped from FN’s Leige factory to a sporting goods store in Durban, South Africa.

It wasn’t long before the over-under was handed to someone with strong, certain hands who bundled it up and carried it off to a new home in Maun, Botswana. From there, and for many years, the Browning shouldered the responsibility of providing shooting enjoyment for its master and guardian, legendary professional hunter Harry Selby.

“From my earliest days in the safari business,” Selby explained, “clients often brought Browning over-under shotguns on their hunts. And from my first experience with the Superposed shotgun, I was so impressed with it that I knew one day I would own one.”

A few years after the Selby family had moved to Botswana, they were on holiday in Durban on the South African coast when Harry paid a visit to King’s Sport Shop, a local gun dealer. There, he spotted the Belgium-made 20-ga. Browning Superposed standing upright in a gun rack. Harry took an immediate liking to the little shotgun that was clearly the standout in a long row of shotguns.

“I asked to see the gun,” Harry said, “and once I held the little Browning in my hands and brought it to my shoulder, I knew it would be mine.”

Superposed shotgun

Selby’s Superposed “darling” was a Grade I over-under shotgun cut to satisfy the design preferences of the European market. The 26″, fixed-choke barrels were topped with an integral solid rib and a brass front-sight bead. The gun was embellished with subtle engraving and featured a slim Prince of Wales pistol grip with an extended trigger guard tang and slender fore-end that, combined, imparted an elegant, understated appearance. This “long-tang, round-knob” gun might even be a 20-ga. Lightning version of the Superposed, but, unfortunately, the paperwork to confirm that speculation does not exist.

Harry was pleased with the gun’s fit and feel, and his pride in shooting it well showed in his smile whenever he handled it. His safari clients watched birds fold to the bang of Harry’s little 20 gauge, often shouting “good shot” or “well done.” Whether it was knocking down high, driven guinea fowl, folding a flushing francolin or dropping numerous sandgrouse and doves coming to waterholes, in Harry’s hands, the Superposed’s impressive performance contributed to many a delicious meal enjoyed around safari campfires.

During the following 40 years, the little Browning saw plenty of action tackling the wingshooting challenges of Botswana’s abundant game-bird population, and it became one of Harry’s favorite personal guns. His daughter, Gail, also found the little Browning to her liking. In addition to being a crack shot on sandgrouse and doves, Gail was particularly adept at dispatching the odd spitting cobra or mamba that slithered into the Selby’s home garden in Maun.

The Superposed Story
In many ways, the Superposed story begins as long ago as 1903, when gun genius John Moses Browning offered a new shotgun design to Winchester President T.G. Bennet, who rejected the innovative semi-automatic. Browning was more than disappointed at the “thumbs-down” reaction to his design and angrily initiated an end to the 19-year relationship he’d had with Winchester. He promptly approached the Belgian gun company Fabrique Nationale (FN) to discuss his new concept.

The company welcomed the designer and, upon completing negotiations for the new gun, began work on producing what would become known as the Browning Auto-5. Twenty years later, Browning offered FN another design that would become as legendary. This time, it was for a double-barrel model, but instead of the traditional side-by-side setup, the barrels would be stacked one on top of the other. Browning called this new shotgun configuration the Superposed, which literally means the placing of one thing on top of another. It was an idea that began with the intention of creating an affordable double-barrel shotgun for the working man and offering it with a single sighting plane similar to that of the single-barrel repeaters.

The Superposed was the first commercially produced over-under shotgun and the very last firearm designed by John Browning—and it nearly didn’t make it off the drawing board. Like most John Browning guns, it’s a complicated design with many moving parts. But, on the plus side, having many parts reduces the stress on any given part. The result, also a signature of most Browning designs, is reliability, and, to this day, Superposed shotguns are renowned for being ultra-reliable.

boxlock-action over-underJohn Browning started sketching the design in 1922, but, unfortunately, he passed away in 1926 before plans for the boxlock-action over-under could be completed. In particular, the single selective trigger mechanism that he wanted for the Superposed had not been finished. In order to not hold up production, the Superposed was introduced in 1931 with double triggers.

By the time of his passing, John Moses Browning held the patents for more than three dozen separate firearm model designs, including everything from pistols to machine guns. In total, during his lifetime, Browning accumulated 128 patents covering more than 80 arms.

Fortunately, Browning’s son, Val Allen Browning, took over the work his father had begun and was able to complete the design’s details. The Superposed barrels feature a unique selector that is incorporated into the sliding tang safety. The shooter simply moves the safety slider to the right to shoot the lower barrel first or to the left to shoot the upper barrel first. Once a barrel is selected with the safety in the rearward (safe) position, the slider need only be moved straight forward to the “fire” position in order to shoot the gun. The Superposed’s selective ejectors work in conjunction with the selected barrel to positively eject fired cases while only raising unfired shells for easy finger removal.

Harry Selby, Joe Coogan

Harry Selby (l.) and the author stand among whistling-thorn trees on a plain in Tanzania during a 1991 safari. Twenty years earlier, the author had served an apprenticeship for his Botswana professional hunter’s license under Selby’s guidance and direction.

The action is held closed by an under-bolt that engages the tandem lumps machined integrally with the lower barrel. This system allows a “clean” breechface without protrusions to interfere with loading. Given the under lump and bolt, Superposeds are not shallow-frame guns, but they are solid and durable, balancing well with a weight that helps mitigate recoil.

The takedown system of the Superposed is also unique. A pull-down latch frees the fore-end and allows it to slide forward, after which the top lever is used to open the gun and the barrels are simply lifted from the hinge pin. The latter can be replaced should it ever become worn. When the gun is taken down, the fore-end stays attached to the barrels. This allows for a tighter fit between the fore-end and the barrels and also eliminates the possibility of misplacing, dropping or damaging the fore-end.

Val Browning continued working on the single selective trigger design that, once perfected, was the first single-trigger ever available on an over-under shotgun. This trigger design uses an inertia-block mechanism to prevent the gun from doubling. The single selective trigger became the standard Superposed trigger in 1939 and remains one of the very best and most reliable triggers ever designed. The Superposed became a cornerstone of Browning’s ultimate reputation for creating affordable, reliable and quality shotguns, while firmly establishing itself in the annals of shotgun history.

The appearance and finish of Superposed shotguns has always been excellent. The receiver and barrels are highly polished, deeply blued and embellished with exquisite hand-engraving—the engraving on the high-grade models can be quite detailed and ornate. The select French walnut stocks feature hand-rubbed oil finishes that absolutely gleam. Many consider the Lightning models with the “Prince of Wales” pistol-grip stocks and slim fore-ends to be the finest looking of the Superposed models.

Selby’s Browning Grade I Superposed 20-ga. shotgun

Selby’s Browning Grade I Superposed 20-ga. shotgun sports 26″ fixed-choke barrels topped with an integral solid rib and brass front-sight bead. The gun’s select French walnut stocks feature hand-rubbed oil finishes that gleam. Many consider the Lightning models with slim “Prince of Wales” pistol grips and slender fore-ends to be the finest looking of the Superposed models.

From 1931 to 1948, the Superposed was only available as a 12 gauge. The first 20-ga. Superposed was manufactured in 1949, and, in 1959, Browning rounded out the Superposed family with 28-ga. and .410-bore models. Finally, in 1977, the Superposed models in Grade I, the Pigeon, the beautifully engraved and pricey Diana and the gold-inlaid Midas, were all removed from the standard Browning catalog and price list. However, the company stated that it would continue to build the Superposed by customer request. Today, that promise holds true, as the Superposed is still available through the Browning Custom Shop in four grades, and each unique model is built by craftsmen at the FN factory in Belgium.

By 1985, some quarter-million Superposed shotguns had been produced and, during that time, the basic design remained virtually unchanged. In its time-proven configuration, the Superposed overshadowed successive developments in semi-automatics and other over-unders, firmly securing its place in history. Through the years, and in many influential circles, the Superposed had become recognized as the most reliable shotgun ever made and achieved a remarkable reputation as an American legend.

shooting the Selby shotgunBut it’s easy to understand why the American market believed the celebrated Superposed was at an end as inventories dwindled during the following decade—and also given Browning’s introduction of the Japanese-made Citori over-under shotgun. Furthermore, the second-hand market for the Superposed remained small with owners holding on to their shotguns, regarding them as the best shotgun in America that would never roll out of the factory again. While Americans clung to the belief that Browning had suspended production of the Superposed, European shooters, Belgians in particular, knew better. In the 1990s, they were buying a shotgun called the B25, which, in fact, was the Superposed with a different designation.

For The Honor … 
By early 2000, Harry Selby had cut way back on his safari schedule and realized the hard truth that nobody likes to face—he had too many guns, certainly more than he was using with any regularity. Sadly, this included the little 20-ga. Superposed shotgun. Knowing that I admired his Superposed, after having said so on numerous occasions whenever he and I shot birds together, he unexpectedly suggested I might like to have the gun to take back to the States. He knew my interest in bird shooting would ensure that it continued to be used in the manner for which it was built. I, of course, was literally speechless at his sudden suggestion. Words failed me as I regarded the honor of Selby entrusting his favorite bird gun to my care.

“I know this Browning will have an excellent home in America,” he said as he handed me the gun. “I have to say, this neat little shotgun has given me a lot pleasure, and I hope you enjoy it in the future as much as Gail and I have during its years in Botswana.”

In keeping with Selby’s wishes, I have done my best to fulfill his expectations by “exercising” his beloved Superposed wherever doves, quail or pheasants congregate. And, having done so whenever the opportunity arose—from Kentucky to Texas to Florida—I can confirm that this timeless, well-traveled, citizen-of-the-world shotgun is truly at home on any continent and in any field or patch of bush where game birds might hide, flush or fly.

Article posted with permission from American Rifleman

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