A Gun For All Game: German Drillings

By Glenn Zinkus

European hunting and the rich array of traditions that accompany it always fascinated me.  It was more than two decades ago that my book collecting expanded from some fly fishing and American upland bird titles to encompass big game and birds spanning the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe.  I developed a passion for Europe, savoring narratives of scaling the rugged terrain in pursuit of chamois amidst the majestic Tyrolean Alps, tracking roebuck through dense forests, and above all, indulging in the pursuit of upland birds.  While many may envision the traditional driven hunts of Great Britain and continental Europe, my imagination wanders to the serene forests in search of the elusive Capercaillie, a resplendent grouse inhabiting the alpine woodlands of the Alps, the Black Forest, and other ranges.  The Odenwald and the Spessart bear a striking resemblance to my home hunting grounds in the Pacific Coast Range, sharing similar elevations and, coincidentally, available types of food sources despite more than 5,600 miles of separation. 

Through my readings and occasional visits to firearms auctions, I came across a fascinating gun configuration from Germany known as a "drilling." Derived from the German word for three, “drei,” the term drilling aptly describes the triple-barrel arrangement, most commonly side-by-side shotgun barrels centered above a rifle barrel; a convenient arrangement when deer hunting in Oregon’s Coast Range or while stalking deer in the Cascades – all places where grouse are also plentiful.  In Europe, drillings are often considered a "forester's gun," prized for their versatility in handling a wide range of hunting scenarios. From birds and small game to larger quarry such as deer, stags, and even elk, their capability extends based on the rifle caliber employed.

I’ve always been drawn to the deeply carved Germanic engravings found on many drillings, particularly when they strike the perfect balance between ornate detail and tasteful restraint, avoiding excessive embellishment.  My first and thus far, only drilling, a Valentin Kern of Nuremberg showcases a pointer and a flying woodcock adorning one side, while a pair of hares grace the opposite side.  A tastefully rendered roebuck decorates the trigger guard, adding a touch of elegance to the firearm. 

The underside of the action has the words “Hubertus” and “Suhl,” with the latter paying homage to the esteemed German nucleus of gunmaking and steel craftsmanship, the city of Suhl.  It's interesting to note that "Hubertus" often appears as an engraving on many early German drillings, almost serving as a trademark of sorts. This association stems from the reverence for St. Hubertus, the patron saint of hunters, adding a touch of tradition and symbolism to these firearms.  The stock boasts a pleasing chestnut color exuding a subtle, captivating glow.  When I first saw this drilling, I found this to be an exceptionally attractive gun; and I knew I had to purchase it.

This drilling is configured like many, with a side-by-side shotgun arrangement and a rifle barrel set underneath and centered under the shotgun barrels.  The shotgun is a 16 gauge, the rifle is chambered as a 7x57R, a caliber popular in Europe, both versatile and readily available.  It’s a caliber well suited for deer and other game.  Some drillings are much more sought after than others. Kirby Hoyt, the owner of Vintage Doubles, a sporting arms dealer in Wenatchee, Washington, and an expert on drillings advises that most clients seek “a caliber that is good for big game but relatively easy to get.  7x57R and 8x57R are two of the most popular.”  Hoyt says, “Strange metric calibers scare off some buyers.” 

The Kerns drilling opens with a typical center lever, like all my other shotguns.  The distinction for a drilling starts with a selector switch for the shotgun and rifle along the top, behind the top lever.  When the selector switch is pushed forward, a concealed rod extends under the rib between the barrels, raising a set of rifle sights for precise aiming.  This drilling sports a Greener-style safety mechanism, positioned on the left side of the gun, just behind the receiver body. While commonly found on drillings, I must admit that the Greener safety may require some adjustment to become accustomed to its operation.  Unconsciously I slide my thumb forward on what actually is the shotgun/rifle selector switch just behind the lever.  I find it’s wise to engage in some practice sessions before the early bird season begins, allowing myself “learn” this safety position so it becomes instinctive.  

Both shotgun barrels were choked full when I purchased the drilling, but Hoyt, the owner of Vintage Doubles, planned with a gunsmith known for his meticulous work to bore these out to an improved cylinder and modified better suited to mountain quail and grouse hunting.  

The barrels measure 25-5/8th inches, or 65 centimeters, a not uncommon dimension in these drillings.  Although shorter than any of my other shotguns, I appreciate the snappier barrels in thick cover as they offer greater maneuverability. During my first season afield in the thickets of Oregon’s Coast Range together with my drilling, I found this gun easier to swing when I stepped into the forest, chasing after mountain quail singles after I broke up coveys along the open edges.

German drillings represent a fascinating chapter in the history of sporting arms, embodying the traditions of European hunting and the skill of renowned gunmakers, both past and present.  Hoyt opines, “I think it is a mistaken belief, one that in other things is often true, that anything made to perform multi-functions probably will not do any of them very well.  Drillings are the exception to this rule.”  During my first season afield with the Kern, I found this to be true.

About the Author
Glenn Zinkus is an outdoor writer and photographer from Corvallis, Oregon. When not engaged in piscatorial pursuits or shooting outdoor photos, he may be finding upland birds behind his Brittanies; or attending to other business that often has him traveling.