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The Venerable A.H. Fox Sterlingworth – #004 of the Gun Room Podcast

The Venerable A.H. Fox Sterlingworth – #004 of the Gun Room Podcast

A bird hunter carrying an A.H. Fox Sterlingworth while hunting.

A side-by-side shotgun not originally held in high regard by the brand’s namesake, the Sterlingworth has held up to the test of time

Today we are going to take a deeper look at one of my favorite guns. I own several of these well built American side by sides and find myself picking up my 20-gauge more frequently than any of my other guns.

We are of course talking about the venerable Fox Sterlingworth.

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‘The Finest in the World’

Making the claim that your shotguns are “The Finest In The World” might seem bold. I am sure there are many gun companies out there who feel that they do in fact make the finest guns, but there are not as many coming out and saying it outright. Enter Ansley H. Fox.

The story of the Fox Sterlingworth begins with Ansley H. Fox, an engineer and inventor born in the 1800s, and was awarded his first shotgun patent at the age 24. Apparently, he was also a great shooter, making his rounds through the competitive circuit and using this fame as a springboard to support his various gun companies – of which there were several. 

Fits and starts in these other gun companies eventually led to the creation of the Philadelphia Gun Company in 1905, that would change names (whats in a name?) very shortly to A.H. Fox Company of Philadelphia. Ansley would separate from the A.H. Fox of Philadelphia only a few years later in 1911, though his indelible mark was left on the world of American side by side shotguns. 

Originally, there was no ‘Sterlingworth’ in the Fox lineup, only the standard graded models, beginning with A grade guns and working through the alphabet for higher grades: B, C, D, F.

They skipped E, perhaps because when they added Ejectors in 1907 they didn’t want to have an EE model?

In any case, in 1910, Fox introduced the Sterlingworth: a field grade version of their gun at half the price of the A grade at the time. From what I have read on the history, Ansley wasn’t very proud of the lowly Sterly (as they are nicknamed) and initially didn’t want the A.H. Fox name on those guns. Eventually, though, the Sterlingworth would bear the A.H. Fox name, perhaps after Ansley’s split with the company a year later. I would like to speculate that the name change had to do with the split; Ansley is no longer around to confirm or deny this thought.

Between 1910 and 1929, Fox had introduced models up to letter K, as well as single barrel trap guns. And, of note, Fox produced guns with their own “Fox-Kautzky” single trigger. The depth and variations of grades and options is a topic for discussion another time – let’s get back to the 20-gauge Sterlingworth. 

The November of 1929 saw Savage purchasing the Fox Company, and moving production to Utica, N.Y. On the whole, the Fox guns would change little during the Savage production years, though one can pick out differences in stock dimensions, forend latch styles, and some of the embellishments that went into early guns that were eliminated from later production Utica examples. 

And like for so many American makers, World War 2 was tough on the company and essentially spelled an end to the Fox.

What sets the Sterlingworth apart from the rest

The gun I own has 28-inch barrels, a properly scaled frame, and double triggers. In appearance, it resembles my 12-gauge Philadelphia Sterlingworth, but, clearly, the action has been shaped and sized for the smaller 20 gauge barrels. The sides of the boxlock action are sculpted into forward facing points about 2 inches long. Overall, the action is the same width as a 20 gauge V.H. Parker, but when laid side by side, the Sterlingworth’s action is shorter; more compact. In fact, the distance from the back of the action at the wood/metal union, to the center of the hinge pin on the parker is 3.6 inches. On the Sterlingworth it is 2.9. The almost 3/4-inch difference is noticeable when laid side by side. 

My gun with 28-inch barrels balances just under an inch behind the hinge pin, almost in line with the apex of the points sculpted into the sides of the receiver. It does have an almost 1-inch leather wrapped pad on the back which I suspect moves that balance point back from its original location as a stock gun. 

Though not an owner of the higher grade Fox guns, it is my understanding that there is little mechanical difference between the Sterlingworth and all of the lettered grades of Fox guns, save for the forend attachment. The Sterlingworth has the same rotary bolt locking mechanism that Fox’s are known for, as well as its accompanying barrel extension.

Fox actions are sturdy with ample metal and sufficient lockup to withstand years of abuse. Their internal design is simple, with minimal parts required to perform the basic functions required by a shotgun. The Fox Collectors Association’s website is worth a look if you are into Fox shotguns – they have a great photo series of disassembly – but their instructions are only 11 steps.

There are more steps on the back of a box of pasta these days.

Unlike field versions of its counterparts (Parkers, L.C. Smiths, and others) the Sterly is adorned with border engraving and minor accents on the top lever and top of the action. Although purely aesthetic, this attention to detail feels indeed like added value. 

If you want an education in Fox shotguns, I recommend picking up a copy of Michael McIntosh’s book A.H. Fox: The Finest Gun in the World, and of course checking out the Fox Collectors page.

A digression on the legacy of A.H. Fox shotguns

And one final digression, though not necessarily about Sterlingworths.

There are two particularly famous Fox shotguns that I would be remiss if I didnt mention. The first is an FE Grade gifted to Theodore Roosevelt and brought on safari. It sold at auction and commanded a price of over $800,000 – the highest a shotgun had ever sold for.

And, of course, no 10 minute treatise on Fox guns would be complete without mention of Bo Whoop, Nash Buckingham’s famous Super Fox. Super Fox guns were developed to shoot Western Cartridge Company’s new Super X loads. As most folks who shoot older doubles are aware, it is wise to be mindful of chamber length on old guns as many early guns were chambered for 2 1/2-inch shells as opposed to our modern standard of 2 3/4-inch. And even more rare were guns factory chambered for the newly developed (at that time) 3-inch shell. The Super Fox was not only chambered for the longer shells, but possessed lengthened barrels, overboard with lengthened forcing cones. These being alterations that would help the Super Fox cope with the pressures developed by these new loads.

As always, let me know what I got right and what I got wrong. Shoot me an email or message, and tell me about your favorite Fox. And thanks for stopping by the Gun Room. See you soon.

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