There are many ways a person might come to own a shotgun and become proficient with it. Be it through a love of dogs and pursuing game or the challenge and focus that sporting clays requires. Sometimes guns are passed down from family or friends who are no longer with us but whose memories are indelibly preserved in the guns that they gift. But anyone who uses a shotgun for any length of time will come to appreciate the ingenuity of its design, its beauty and the elegance of its function.
One of the most compelling and intriguing aspects of a fine shotgun is that it is a union of two very different materials: wood and metal. Metal is an unyielding material that is shaped with heat, pressure and force; wood was once a living thing grown from sunshine and soil. Wood has charisma that must be set free rather than being forced into a shape as with metal. The melding of these two dissimilar materials into a functional whole is one of the more beautiful aspects of gunmaking.
The action and barrels contain the energy and force that move the shot, but it’s the wood stock that conveys the resulting recoil energy to the shooter. The areas of the stock where this energy is conveyed from the metal to the wood are called the “recoil surfaces.” These surfaces are typically perpendicular to the longitudinal axis of the bore. The fit must be flawless in order that the pressure be evenly distributed and not cause a hot spot that will induce splitting and cracking. Proper wood-to-metal fit at the recoil surfaces is one of the most important aspects of stockmaking and is much underappreciated, probably because it is rarely seen unless the action is taken off the stock.
If this wood-to-metal fit is degraded in any way, some part of the stock head will inevitably crack and split. Generally this is caused by the wood of the stock being soaked with oil from excessively applying light lubricants to the action. The oil weakens the bonds of the wood fibers—with dire consequences. Also, there are unfortunate physical traumas that can damage the head of a stock, such as falling while carrying a gun or a gun accidentally tumbling from a golf cart.
One of the most common types of damage I see to a stock head is a cracked “stock ear.” If you were to look at the front of the head of a stock as if it were pointing at you with the action removed, the stock ears would be the upper and lower corners. Because of the design of the action and placement of the internal parts, the stock ears tend to be somewhat isolated from the rest of the wood. This creates a very thin section of wood that runs front to back in the stock head at the upper and lower corners. This thin section is common in both side-by-sides and over/unders in both boxlocks and sidelocks. It is very pronounced in sidelock guns, because the locks are set into the wood next to the action body.
If a cracked stock ear is left unrepaired, the crack will progress until the stock ear pops off or the head splits apart. A cracked stock ear can be very difficult to repair effectively. Due to the thin section connecting the stock ear, there is precious little wood to work with and not much surface area for adhesives to get purchase.
The most effective way that I have found to repair a cracked stock ear is to reinforce the thin section with a precisely made spring-steel staple. The staple is fitted in from the front. It has one leg anchored into the stock ear and one leg anchored into the main section of the recoil surface. The top of the staple spans the thinnest section where the ear meets the interior of the stock. In this way an extremely strong mechanical bond is formed between the stock ear and the main part of the head.
First I precisely drill the holes for the legs of the staple, taking great care to not over-drill the hole and cause further damage. Then a very narrow chisel is used to cut a track between the two holes, so the top of the staple will sit flush with the recoil surface. The staple is made from high-tensile-strength spring steel that is very strong in relation to its diameter. Using several sets of parallel-jaw plyers, I form the staple to exactly the right shape and dimensions. The staple is then glued in place using a very strong yet flexible epoxy. I then apply a very thin layer of epoxy that has fine fiberglass flock mixed in to the recoil surface. This thin layer of fiberglass-reinforced epoxy adds great strength and rigidity to the recoil surface and helps to evenly distribute the force of the recoil. Once completed, this repair is completely invisible when the gun is fully assembled.
I must say that I generally frown upon using epoxy on fine guns and avoid it as much as possible. But in cases such as this it’s the only viable option for a solid repair and will keep an otherwise unusable stock in service.
The importance of routine strip-and-clean maintenance cannot be understated here. During this kind of maintenance, the action should be taken off the stock and the head and ears of the stock thoroughly inspected for cracks and other damage. The sooner a cracked stock ear is detected, the more likely an effective and lasting repair can be made.