by Todd A. Kindler
|"If youve never done it, a good days quail or
grouse shooting with a trim old 16 is a day you wont soon forget. Then youll
know why sweet sixteens remaining beaux usually are silvery old-timers who seem to
know something that most others dont. Ours may be the last generation to know her as
anything other than a curiosity. Which is why shooting with my 16s sometimes feels like
dancing with a ghost."... Michael McIntosh, "Shotguns and Shooting"
Its interesting how things in life just seem to fall into place once in a rare while. For me this project was one of those things that was just meant to be. Normally if I plan for months on building a custom gun, everything that can go wrong does.
This project started in the early summer of 1994, when a shooting friend stopped over for a visit. He is primarily a rifle shooter, but during our visit the conversation eventually turned to hunting Cockers and double shotguns. He had grown up pheasant and rabbit hunting with his father and some good, old fashioned American hunting Cockers.
I introduced him to Shadows, our two year old male hunting English Cocker that has pedigree lines directly to Scotland and showed him my very lightweight English 16 gauge H. Monk. Later in the evening on the way out the door, I mentioned to him that I would like to find an old 16 gauge Fox. He turned and his eyes seemed to light up, and he said that he had an old one somewhere at home. I know he almost never turns a gun loose (hes one of those lucky guys), but I did mention to him if he ever wanted to sell it to let me know. The next evening the phone rang and he said, Why dont you come over and take a look at my old Fox. If you like it, you can have first chance at it.
A few days later I stopped by his house to see his Old Fox. We talked for a spell, and finally he got up and went into the next room. A few minutes later, he came out with an old Fox and handed it to me. He was right, it was old and it was a 16 gauge. The Old Fox turned out to be a Sterlingworth Field model with 28 inch barrels choked modified and full. I looked the Old Fox over carefully. The original bluing on the barrels had faded over the years and the outside of the action had turned a dull gray. The stock varnish had yellowed in time and there were a couple deep scratches on the right hand side that could be lifted with a hot iron and wet rag. At the end the original black butt plate had a small chip at the top, but otherwise; it was in relatively good shape. I opened and closed it over and over again and everything seemed to function properly and lock up very tight.
Finally, I got up enough nerve and asked the big question of how much he wanted for it. My friend looked at me for a few seconds and said, Four hundred. I opened it a few more times checking the bores, which had a little dust on the ends, but they looked real good. After thinking it over for a moment, I asked him if he knew that the current price for a Sterlingworth in that condition was around eight hundred dollars. A gun show is one thing, but this is an old friend. He answered, Four is enough. I opened my checkbook and wrote him out a check.
Once back home, I took a few photos of the Old Fox and sent off a letter and check to Roe S. Clark, Arms Historian, in Blandford, Massachusetts to perform a research history on this Fox. Then I started trying to decide how I was going to upgrade the plain old Sterlingworth Fox and began my search through sporting magazines for someone to do the work.
The name of Dennis Potter came up in two very interesting articles. One was a complete rebuild of a 20 gauge Fox Serlingworth that was in need of major work and the other was about Potters Purdey in which Dennis completely rebuilt a Purdey that had went through a fire. Two very interesting projects that showed some extensive restoration work and the superb talent of Dennis Potter.
After several days of thinking about exactly what I wanted in this 16 gauge Fox project, I called Dennis Potter. After introducing myself, I asked Dennis if he would be interested in completely upgrading my Fox. I explained the entire project I had in mind, which included straightening the tangs and lengthening the bottom tang for an English style stock. The action would need filed to remove the original Sterlingworth stamping and light engraving and reshaped to original graded quality. Then the barrels would need draw filed to remove the original Sterlingworth Fluid Steel stamping and prepare for the rust blue. The barrels would also need the original short chambers lengthened to 2 3/4 inch, and I wanted the chokes opened to practically nothing in the right and just a light modified choke in the left. After our lengthy discussion, Dennis agreed to do the metal work as long as the gun was in mechanically good condition, and that I would be willing to wait a couple months until his work schedule opened up a bit. I agreed to his terms and asked him to give me a call when he was ready.
In the meantime, I needed to find a decent blank of English Walnut and a good stock maker. I know who to ask about a stick of fine wood. My friend, Gary Ramburg, of Everett, Washington has taught me more about fine wood and rifles since I started writing five years ago. He has been a big help to me especially in my Classic Corner articles where we try to feature classic rifles with fine wood. Gary always has a few good stock blanks stashed away and aging properly for an upcoming project or for one of the top custom gun builders in need.
About a week after talking with Gary, a box showed up at the door. When I opened it up, I found a rough cut two-piece English Walnut blank. It is hard for the untrained eye to really know how nice the blank really is, but turning it in bright light revealed to me that this was no ordinary blank. In the enclosed letter, Gary stated he had purchased some decent walnut six or seven years ago and held onto the two best blanks for something special down the road. He went on to say that either one of these two blanks (including the one he sent me) would not look out of place on Holland & Holland or Purdey. The only thing missing in the letter was the cost of the blank, so I sent off a letter to see what was due. In his next weekly correspondence letter no mention of the price of the blank until the end where he said it was mine - no charge! I really feel indebted to Gary, not only for the blank, but all the help he has given to me on wood, stocking, and his wealth of knowledge about rifles that he shares with me. Thanks again, Gary.
Now that I had my stock blank, I needed to find someone to send it to who could do a top class job on the Fox. Gary suggested several top stockmakers and one was Fred Wenig, Custom Gunstocks, Inc. In Lincoln, Missouri. I contacted Fred Wenig, President and discussed the Fox project in detail. I was impressed with Freds easy-going mannerism and to know that he and his talented staff had many years under their belts in the stock business was a big plus. So the next day, I shipped the English walnut blank to Wenig Custom Gunstocks where it would remain until the Fox arrived from Dennis Potter.
In the meantime, Dennis Potter had received the Fox Sterlingworth and called to let me know it was a solid candidate for a custom upgrade. Dennis first heated the action tangs and altered the bottom tang guard which was cut and a longer section welded on and nicely shaped for the straight English style stock. The action was then annealed, so it could be filed to remove the Sterlingworth stamping on the sides of the action and the light border engraving. The last stop in phase #1 of the metal work was for Dennis to draw file the barrels removing all the original letter stamping, the little nicks and light barrel ripples. Once the action and barrels were finished down with 400 grit, it was then ready to send to Wenig Custom Gunstocks.
The in-the-white action and barrel arrived at Wenigs and was set on the shelf until its time in line came up. Several months later Fred Wenig called to discuss the stock in detail before his craftsmen got started. I used the exact stock measurements from my English H. Monk with the exception of the length, which I settled on at 14 1/4 inches. Fred then put Elbert on the phone. Elbert was going to do the rough inletting, shaping of the stock and forend and inletting of the skeleton butt plate. Just a few days later, Darrel (Elberts brother called to discuss the checkering pattern and type of finish I wanted. Between these two talented brothers are over 35 years of stockmaking experience!
Once the stock work was totally completed everything was sent back to Muskego, Wisconsin where Dennis Potter would do one more final polish of the action and barrel before sending it off to the engraver. Dennis called and told me that everything arrived back in fine shape and simply said you are going to like this stock. I now know that this was his quiet way of saying this is quite a stock.
Dennis shipped the barrel and action minus the wood to Stephen Olin in Mexico, New York, who would do the engraving. I had found Stephen through an ad in one of the gun advertising papers. Stephen specializes in upgrades of the old classic shotguns such as Fox, Ithaca, L.C. Smith, Lefever, Parker and others with the original factory patterns and cut with the correct tools and techniques of the original factory engravers. Stephen also offers restoration of original engraving and custom engraving as well. Stephen and I had already spent hours on the phone and exchanging letters discussing the engraving upgrade of this old Fox. I knew one thing from the beginning that the C grade Fox pattern was my first choice. The light English style engraving has always been my favorite, which is why I chose the C grade Fox pattern. Stephen has one of the early C grade patterns that he feels is nicer than the later C grade styles.
Although, I wanted an upgrade from the original Sterlingworth to the C grade, I had no intention of trying to fool anyone. First of all, the original serial number is stamped on the water table and also now engraved on the long bottom tang. This serial number is stamped on the water table and also now engraved on the long bottom tang. This serial number was assigned to the 16 gauge Fox Sterlingworth range of guns, so there is no fooling any knowledgeable Fox collector. The other change noticeable to the trained collector is the life-like upland bird engraving (although fitting for the times) needed to be improved. I asked Stephen to engrave life-like woodcock on one side of the action and ruffed grouse on the other. On the bottom of the action where Fox normally engraved a pointing dog, Stephen engraved Shadows, our English Cocker. Then on the bottom of the trigger guard, Stephen engraved a flying pheasant.
A few weeks later Stephen sent the engraved barrels back to Dennis Potter, so he could lengthen the original chambers, open the chokes to practically nothing in the right and around .015 in the left, mirror polish the bores and start the slow rust bluing process. The engraved action, forend metal, and skeleton butt plate were sent back to Dennis about one month later.
Once Dennis had all the engraved parts back from Stephen Olin, he called to notify me that he had received them. I asked how the engraving looked, and in his easy-going way he answered, You are going to like it.
Dennis then sent the engraved action and forend iron to Color Case Co., in New Springfield, Ohio. They specialize in color case hardening using the original bone pack hardening process. Three weeks later the case hardened action and forend iron was back at Dennis shop.
All that was needed now was for Dennis Potter to reassemble all the polished parts into the action and attach the beautiful stock to the tangs. This old Fox had went the miles to top craftsmen in four different states and now was on the way home in just a little over a year. Custom gun building, restoring and upgrading takes time. Almost all the really specialized gunsmiths, engravers and stockmakers have a waiting list, so patience is of the essence. But as you can see, it is well worth it.
When Dennis Potter called to let me know that the old Fox on its way back home, I could hardly sleep for two nights. The afternoon when it arrived my daughter and I opened it carefully on the tile kitchen table. After we opened the box, I started unwrapping the stock and action. When the newspaper was removed, I could hardly believe it and stood there staring at the wood. My daughter was watching me and asked, Whats wrong, Dad? I answered, Nothing, absolutely nothing!
The wood was as close to perfect as nature could possible make. Rich dark honey tones with medium black wavy streaks swirling through the entire stock and flowing with the grain that runs perfectly through the wrist area to the action. Darrel and Elbert of Wenig Custom Stocks laid out the stock just right with the figure flowing dead center from the bottom evenly up on both sides. A stockblank is relatively thick, so it would take a real lucky guess or years of experience to end up with the figure breaking at exactly 6 oclock on the bottom and flowing evenly to the top of the stock. In this case, I would say that it was experience!
Im not sure how many hours it took Darrel and Elbert to precisely inlay a skeleton butt plate and do the checkering, but it must have been a bunch. You can look at the precision workmanship for hours and wonder how any one would have the patience and skill to do such time consuming work. Then, looking forward to the grip, you see the fine checkering that meets at the top and flows down the sides to meet at the bottom. Next you see the angled splinter forend that meets the action perfectly with fine checkering as well. Hats off to the Wenig craftsmen!
Holding the Fox and looking down the draw filed and rust blue barrels and seeing no ripples or marks makes me appreciate the talent of Dennis Potter. Pushing the top lever over and letting the barrels open slowly reveal mirror polished bores and chambers that have been lengthened. The work on this set of barrels is just outstanding.
Looking close at the action, reveals hours of hand work by Dennis Potter to remove the old lettering and engraving and precisely shaping the action again, exactly like the Fox craftsman would have done on any high grade gun. The bottom guard/tang that was bent upwards, cut and an extension welded to for the English style stock is perfect as well. No seams or welding marks can be seen, and it is contoured and shaped very nicely. Dennis is well known for his restoration, upgrade and custom work and this is just another example of his fine work.
I have gotten to know Stephen Olin quite well during this Fox project and besides being a very talented engraver, he is one fine guy. His life-like woodcock floating towards the sky on the left side of the action and a drumming grouse on an old log with another flying towards the ridge of pines on the right hand side are just superb. On the bottom of the action is Shadows our very ornery English Cocker that Stephen engraved after doing several pencil drawings. As an extra touch, Stephen engraved a flying pheasant that looks like it is coming right off the trigger guard. To add an elegant touch, he engraved the skeleton butt plate with a light floral pattern at the top and engraved all four screw heads as well. Again the main theme was a C grade Fox custom upgrade, and Stephen did follow one of the original patterns to a tee. English style scroll graces the action on the sides, bottom and top and a diamond shape pattern out on the barrels. Ansley H. Fox is engraved above the grouse and woodcock on both sides of the action. Stephen Olin engraves many old classic American, English, and Italian doubles and the occasional classic rifle and handgun as well. His vast experience and talent is quite evident here.
The old utility grade 1929 Fox Sterlinworth 16 gauge is now a beautiful classic C grade Custom Fox. With its richly blued 28 inch barrels and highly figured straight English style stock, it tips the scale at 6 pounds 1 ounce. It is balanced perfectly at the hinge pin and seems alive in my hands and will soon be heading for the grouse/woodcock coverts and the cornfields of Iowa for the witty old ringneck!
It would be foolish and maudlin to insist that the 16 is irreplaceable; it obviously isnt. It had its day and now it seems that day is over. Yet, somehow, I feel a warm spot in my heart when I meet a man whiling away an afternoon over a couple of bird dogs and when we stop to chat, the sleek lines of his double gun whisper Sixteen. Theres a magic in it to him that has its roots in days probably, and sadly, no longer with us. It makes me wish that things were a bit different than they are - and glad to know that there is someone carrying a little gun as much out of affection, or more so, than a proven belief in its ballistics..... Gene Hill, Shotgunners Notebook.
There were few graded small gage (approximately 3400- 20 gage and 3800- 16 gauge) Sterlingworths. Graded Fox guns in quite good condition are now very hard to find and you had better have a thick wallet if you do come across one in decent shape. On the other had, Fox Sterlingworths, although not overly plentiful anymore, do show up from time to time at gun shows or in the gun advertising papers. If you find a Sterlingworth and the frame and barrels are in good solid shape and everything seems to function properly, then you have a good candidate for a custom upgrade. Although not necessarily cheap a custom Fox upgrade can be an affordable way to own a Custom grade Fox gun. Depending on the type of stock, English or standard, (tangs work for English style) the price of the stock blank and the engraving pattern coverage (A grade for example has minimal coverage - less cost) the price can be quite reasonable. If you go the full route of an English style stock with knockout wood and lots of engraving, the cost will of course go up substantially as well. A custom C grade Fox can be done for about the same price as an average English boxlock that is excellent shape. An old Fox from the golden era is also an American classic that will cast an Indian summer spell on you!
The author, Todd A. Kindler, is editor and publisher of Small Caliber News Magazine and a freelance writer specializing in accurate rifles and precision loading equipment and procedures. He resides with his wife, Linda; Shadows, his ornery English Cocker; Autums, a Gordon Setter pup at 11220 Hilltop Road SW, Baltic, Ohio 43804, (330) 897-0614.
Color Case Co. (Case-coloring)
Stephen L. Olin (Traditional Hand Engraver)
Dennis Potter (Quality double shotgun restoration and upgrades)
Wenig Custom Gunstocks, Inc.
There are many things in this world with which a man can form an addiction. Some of the less evil and more common are: women, work, coffee, tobacco, alcohol, sweets and so forth. The harder more costly ones are marijuana, opium, hashish, heroin, and cocaine. THE worst, of course, is English walnut and that family of woods brought back to enslave mankind by Alexander the Great some three hundred years BC..... Gary Ramburg, Everett, Washington.
(Except for posting strictly limited to "www.doublegunshop.com", all rights reserved by the author.)
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