Customizing a Fox with English flair
Story & photographs by Dewey Vicknair
This project started in much the same manner as most custom-gun commissions: an initial call from a client who wanted something unique, made to fit, lightweight and well proportioned. That last part is the main reason behind using a Fox as the starting point—because of the gun’s slender action bar and its almost perfect visual balance with the rest of the frame. The base for the project was a NIB-condition Utica-made Sterlingworth in 16 gauge.
When making a custom gun from an already existing gun, the condition of the bores is really the most important consideration, especially with a 16-gauge Fox due to the fact that there is simply very little barrel wall to work with from the start and even less once the external contours are trued up. This is because 16- and 20-gauge Foxes share the same frame (firing-pin centers being the only difference) and external dimensions. Now, a seller’s idea of “mint bores” rarely aligns with my idea of what constitutes mint, so after a few false starts, when a literally mint-condition Sterlingworth turned up, I was relieved at being able to proceed with the project. (Though customizing a mint-condition gun may make collector types cringe, the good news is that their guns may be worth more now that this gun no longer exists as original . . . .)
In the past I’ve done some fairly extensive remodeling of Foxes, but all were still, at their core, mechanically unchanged. Granted, the internals were fit and finished to a higher level than original, but mechanically they remained Foxes. This gun, however, would not be merely a superficial restyling, for the first thing to go was the rotary bolt and all its attendant parts, including the toplever. There were a couple of reasons for this. The first was that the owner and I both have a bit of a soft spot for Westley Richards guns—specifically the design of the toplever and the unique way in which it functions. The second was that I have never worshipped at the altar of the rotary bolt. This design is found in guns from L.C. Smith, Philadelphia Arms Co., Fox and Ithaca, and while it is a pretty clever way to package what amounts to a crossbolt in a very small space, it does have its drawbacks. The biggest is the fact that, since the “sole” of the bolt is a concave curve and the “bite” of the rib extension is a convex curve, the guns are apt to try to open themselves upon firing unless everything is properly fit, which is oftentimes not the case. Sometimes they will open completely, but the most common symptom is that the safety will “mysteriously” engage after firing the first shot, due to the complementary angles of the bite and bolt causing the bolt to partially rotate when upward force is applied to the rib extension during firing, thus partially actuating the auto-safety pushrod with enough force to engage the safety. Because the bolt rotates clockwise on opening, a properly fit bolt will make no contact with the right-side “ramp” portion of the bite, which does not leave a lot of contact-surface area.
The decision to use a Westley Richards-style toplever (a design also used on early toplever Lefever doubles) started a cascade of design changes. The Westley’s lever pivots on its right side, which translates into linear motion at the bolt via the screw that links the lever to the bolt on the gun’s centerline. The lever’s function would be the same in this Fox but with a flat-soled (the portion that actually engages the bite) bolt that is externally cylindrical so as to travel axially (fore and aft) inside the original rotary bolt’s bore in the frame. The frame also was machined for a doll’s-head rib extension for further English flavor. When it is actually bolted, a doll’s-head proves useful in mitigating “gaping” of the action during firing (caused by the standing breech and barrels moving away from each other due to “barrel flip” and frame flexure). Obviously, all of this necessitated a new rib extension, which was made and installed after removing the ribs and machining away the original extension at the braze seam. To sum up: The new bolt travels axially, entering the doll’s-head rib extension from the rear, and has more contact-surface area than the original bolting system. The new bolt is also self-acting via a cam surface on the bottom of the rib extension, thus negating the need for the bolt-catch mechanism to hold the bolt open when the gun is broken. The entire system is powered by a light, single-leaf spring acting upon a roller in the bolt’s rear surface, making for a very smooth function.
This was followed by a Westley-styled safety slide, operating in a sunken pocket in the reshaped top strap, and the hand-screw hole, which was originally a through-hole, was made blind for aesthetic reasons. The fences were reshaped (via hammer and chisel) to follow the entire exposed curvature of the barrels, with raised beads around the newly formed coves at the fence/frame juncture and a raised, semi-circular pad ahead of the toplever. The original ogival Fox “cheeks” were retained as an homage to the gun’s roots but were filed up so as to match side to side and to be more sharply defined, and the backs of the frame sides were filed to a “scroll” edge, which I’m pretty sure originated with Westley Richards.
With the main frame mostly done, I turned to the triggerplate. The bottom tang was reshaped in the same fashion as the top strap and reconfigured for a straight-hand stock (the original had a pistol grip), and all internal tool marks were removed (as they were throughout the gun), because a part or surface being hidden is no excuse for poor craftsmanship. The original triggers, trigger guard and pivot pin were consigned to the parts bin and replaced with bench-made items that didn’t look like they were fresh off the blacksmith’s anvil. The trigger pivot pin was replaced with a proper screw of larger diameter, so there would be no fear of the pin backing out and the triggers would not rattle laterally as the originals had. The triggerplate was machined for a dovetailed cover plate that would hide the prominent triggerplate screw on the bottom of the gun. In order to obtain a smooth, uninterrupted bottom surface, the gun also got the forend-gap cover that originally appeared on Fox No. 003 (see “Crafting a ‘Hot Rod’ Sterlingworth,” July/August 2016) and hides the unsightly space for the forend travel. The forend iron was reshaped, and the entire latch mechanism, including the forend lug attached to the barrels, was scrapped. A new forend lug was made to accommodate a wedge-style forend fastener. The wedge escutcheons were filed up along with a forend tip, and an escutcheon for the forend-iron retaining screw. The forend wedge is retained by a pin in one escutcheon, so it can’t be lost.
A new swamped and concave top rib was made and installed after smoking it to the barrels for accurate contact along its entire length, as was a new bottom rib. The ribs were made and installed after truing the barrel surfaces so as to remove the factory ripples and general “lumpiness.” The trigger guard was fabricated as usual, but for the tang portion I filed each side in a “scroll” shape that would “tie in” visually with the back of the frame. Both guard screws as well as the breech screw were lock screwed.
At that point the metalwork was ready for stocking, but before I embarked upon that journey there were the remaining original internal parts to deal with: specifically, the very, very rough hammers and sears. The internals of any American machine-made gun from this era are rough, but Utica-built Foxes are positively raw; so after many hours of hand stoning and polishing, the left and right hammers and sears were free of all tool marks and ready for plating. I always plate the internal parts of a custom gun with nickel followed by gold. This is done for corrosion protection, lubricity and because it looks good, even though I’m the only one who sees it. The triggers were nickel plated in order to have the bright look without the corrosion that would have been inevitable had they merely been polished.
The gun was stocked in a beautiful piece of Turkish walnut with a thin red recoil pad (for traction and a splash of color) and a gold oval on the toe line. Once the gun was stocked, all of the final screws were made and the metalwork was polished and prepped for engraver Lee R. Griffiths, of Hyde Park, Utah. Griffiths’ work speaks for itself and was key in completing this American homage to the best English boxlocks, which is exactly what this gun was meant to be: a blend of Greener’s rounded action bar with Westley Richards’ toplever and not a few unique touches.
The stocked gun in the white; the Westley Richards-style side-pivoting toplever; the forend-gap cover pivot plate; and the wedge-style forend fastener.
While the metalwork was away, I checkered the grip and forend panels in a pattern designed to tie the entire gun together and finished the wood in traditional, laborious oil but without the red alkanet in order to show the unadulterated beauty of the wood.
Upon receipt of the metal from Griffiths, I checked everything over and began prepping the parts for finishing. I color case hardened the frame and all external parts, and then chemically removed the colors and “grayed” them in order to show the engraving to best effect. I then blacked the barrels and detail polished the breech faces and rib extension (after the necessary hard fitting following hardening the frame), and then applied the “Geneva stripes” to the breech faces.
Once the final assembly, function check and test firing were complete, I breathed a huge sigh of relief but then realized that I still had to photograph the gun (always a challenge for me). The owner will use his new gun to fulfill his quest to harvest at least one of every upland species in North America, starting with the elusive Himalayan snowcock (a hunt for which he has neoprene “socks” to protect the gun) and ending with who knows what or where.