Take a dive into the history and methods of grading wood gunstocks and why it matters
“It’s got awful nice wood for a Fox B,” I said to my dad.
There is always a gun that he has, or one that I have, that the other wants. In this case, we were hashing out the finer details of a swap that involved a Winchester 101 and a Savage Fox B (16 gauge, single trigger) with awful nice wood to boot. I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of who came out on top in this particular trade, rather, I’d like to address my own almost involuntary comment regarding the character of the wood on the gun.
| Read more about Fox shotguns here |
Wood has long been one of the best strength-to-weight ratio materials at man’s disposal and so has been and is still used preferentially for building of all kinds. It makes perfect sense that wood was chosen to be the buffer between flesh and metal where guns were concerned. Above all things, the gunstock needs to be functional and in the parlance of gunstock speak, functional means strong enough to endure the beating regular use implies.
Not all wood is equal
In the most basic terms, trees grow by adding layers upon layers, building out from within and up from the ground. This is why fences stapled to living trees don’t end up, well, up. If a tree grew up, the fence would be carried with it and away from the ground. This is the best example I can think of to illustrate the nature of tree growth and one that helps with the perception of grain in wood. Each year, the tree adds a layer. These stacked layers become the grain in the wood. Layers are added sequentially on top of one another until our tree is selected to become a gunstock.
If only it were that simple.
Layers are added each year, but trees do not add layers equally. We have all seen a tree bend to grow toward a light source, twist, arc, fall, and then curl back up again. Layers are added based on chemical changes in their response to, primarily, light or lack thereof. Additionally, trees do not all grow in the same locations; trees that grow on the sides of mountains have it harder than trees that grow in a lowland setting along a river. From a tree-centric perspective, deep nutrient-rich soil is better than the rocky hillside of a mountain with its shallow soil and minimal nutrients. Location-specific issues on a smaller scale are not the same as regional variation. If you have ever planted a garden, you know that your seed catalog splits all crops regionally, based on climate segments. This is why when you hunt birds in northern Montana, crops are wheat and beans, and as you go south there is more corn or canola. These crops, just like trees, prefer a specific set of conditions, growing season, rainfall, etc., to experience optimal growth and production.
So how does this factor into a gun’s stock? All of the above is to illustrate that not all trees are created equally, and even within a species of tree, each tree has been grown in a specific region and location. Each of these elements (and more) dictate the grain of the wood and as a result the outward physical appearance.
Gunstocks are typically made of walnut (with the most notable other option being maple). Walnut is a hardwood, broadleaf tree, that exhibits exceptional strength and typically dense grain. The Latin family name, juglans, has 21 species with black walnut (J. nigra) and English walnut (J. Regia) being the most commonly used for stocks. There are many names for the varieties of walnut used in stocks like French, English, Turkish, Circassian, Claro, Bastogne, California, and Black. To cut through the haze in nomenclature would require more words than this article allows, but know that these names either refer to a specific species or a physical location where a specific species of walnut was grown.
With location and species sorted out, gunmakers need a way to describe gunstocks from the perspective of aesthetics. We can pick out pieces of Turkish walnut that have appropriate grain patterns to produce strong functional gunstocks, but within our subset of Turkish walnut with good grain, there must be a way to differentiate the aesthetic qualities of a stock blank. Enter the myriad of stock grading systems that have been developed to attempt to put a quantitative measure on something that I would argue is rather qualitative/subjective.
Understanding stock grading
The features in gunstocks regarded as aesthetically pleasing are similar to those in other schools of woodworking. Fiddleback, a phenomenon where closely grown layers of curly grain reflect light in waves, is revered in furniture and instruments as well as gunstocks. The collective term for these imperfections in gunstock blanks is “figure.” Figure is described in many ways such as curly, ribbon, wavey, ropey, swirly, or wild. In gunstocks, the number of mineral lines (dark lines caused by differences in soil mineral content), the waviness or curl of grain, and the presence of burl all affect the appearance of the wood. Highly figured stocks receive higher grade values.
Grading systems use letters, numbers, or nomenclature to attempt to describe the percentage of a stock that contains figure. Standard, semi-fancy, fancy, extra fancy, and exhibition is one such set of delineations. Typically there is a standard grade, and 4 types of grade above that represent 25, 50, 75, and 100 percent figure, respectively. Grades that use numbers or roman numerals would run as Grade 1 or I for standard, increasing in number up to Grade 5 or V (and up). Letters might start with A and run up to AAA or X to XXX, and up. Additional terms like Royal, Crown, Presentation or Best are all thrown in for additional spice.
Wood grading: subjective or objective?
The take-home is no single system is in place that unifies all stock quality grades.
Stocks are placed on subjective scales that vary from company to company. It is worth noting that stock grades may or may not account for the actual strength of the stock (i.e. the wood grain that runs through the grip area). This is arguably the most critical portion of the stock as it will experience the most stress and is also typically the thinnest area of the stock. Grain that runs along the grip, curving to match the natural shape of a pistol or round knob, or that flows straight through the length of an English stock is imperative. This is why looking beyond the “pretty” aspects of figure is so important.
So what does this all mean? Without trying to be cliche, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some folks might love burl wood and birds’ eyes in their stocks, while some prefer the buttery look of French Walnut and others want the classic American Walnut feathering found in so many Winchesters. My suggestion is to always take a look at the grain of the stock in addition to its outward beauty. When selecting a blank, ensure that you look at both flat sides of the blank as well as the top and bottom. Getting a look at the grain on all sides is the best way to ensure you have a strong stock blank to start which will yield the best-finished gunstock. Some of the most figured and unique blanks I have seen have only been fit to stock a boxlock shotgun simply because the boxlock stock design is inherently more sturdy than a sidelock and those pretty blanks would simply have cracked or broken otherwise.
From my own experience, I should have slowed down and looked at the grain on the Fox B stock, but like so many others, I find it easy to be seduced by the beauty found in the wood. Lucky for me, the stock looks pretty and has good grain through the grip. My biggest suggestion; don’t rely on luck like I did and check the grain the next time you consider a shotgun or stock blank.
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The Gun Room Podcast is presented by Upland Gun Company
Joel Penkala is an Upland Bird Hunter and outdoors enthusiast from New Jersey. His love of all things upland has led him to travel and hunt around the United States and fostered his affinity for double guns and bird dogs. He runs English Setters in his home covers chasing Woodcock, Grouse, and Pheasants.