June 03, 2020
The first time I read about a Fox Sterlingworth shotgun was in the pages of Galen Winter’s book The Best of the Major. It made an impression, and when I spotted the worn 16-gauge shotgun featured here on the used-gun rack of my favorite local gunshop, I knew immediately it was coming home with me.
A.H. Fox began making fine shotguns in the very early 1900s, touting them as the best side-by-side guns in the world. While they didn’t legitimately compete with the finest English guns, they were indeed some of the nicest—and most reliable—ever made in America.
Early versions were called “graded” guns, as in A Grade, B Grade, and C Grade. This referred to the quality and quantity of engraving, the quality of the wood, and so forth. In 1910 Fox introduced the Sterlingworth for economy-minded shooters. These guns featured basically the same action and barrels as all the upper-crust Fox guns but had only a minimalist border engraved and were fitted with standard-grade walnut stocks. They had less-costly extractors rather than ejectors, although ejectors were available for a substantial additional price.
Early Sterlingworths featured a black grip cap. Later, after Savage acquired the Fox company around 1930, the grip cap was abandoned. Several different versions eventually wore the Sterlingworth label, but most commonly, barrels were available in 26-, 28-, and 30-inch lengths, in 12, 20, and 16 gauges. Typically, they were choked in some combination of Full, Modified, or Cylinder.
Sterlingworths are regarded today by many experts to be the best of all the “economy” American side-by-sides.
Featuring a box lock with internal hammers, Fox’s action is known for reliability. Action lockup is achieved via a rotary fastener activated by a top lever.
When the action is opened, the one-piece extractor is cammed rearward and draws any shotshells in the chambers—whether fired or fresh—about a quarter-inch out. Spent hulls may be plucked out and pocketed—one reason some avid shotgunners actually preferred the extractor over ejectors.
Thumbing the top lever to the right unlocks the action and mechanically moves the tang safety to the “Safe” position. As the action is opened, the dual internal hammers are cocked.
The Sterlingworth has a trigger for each barrel. The front trigger fires the right barrel; the rear trigger fires the left barrel.
Being an economy-grade side-by-side, the Sterlingworth has a simple tension latch to retain the forearm in place. To its credit, the latch comprises a roller-equipped plunger and coil spring and is arguably the best of its type.
Dating 16-gauge Sterlingworths is problematic, but according to my research, my gun was manufactured in 1935. It has 26-inch barrels, and the pistol grip is the cheaper-looking late type without the grip cap. The finish is mostly gone and the gun has extensive signs of hard use, but it still locks up tight and fires with absolute reliability. Mechanically, it appears to be perfect.
As witnessed by the small circles of erosion around both firing pin holes in the standing breech, I can tell it has been fired a lot. The exterior has areas of significant rust, well past the freckling and pitting stages and into the scaling stage; however, the polished bores glow beautifully, without a spec of corrosion, indicating that however hard the previous owner or owners may have worked the gun in the field, they kept the bores clean and well oiled.
With just a trace of trepidation, I fired the Sterlingworth the first time with a box of Browning 16-gauge target loads. It digested the shotshells without hiccup, handled so naturally, and was so pleasant to fire that I couldn’t stop shooting it.
According to informal patterning on a snow bank, both barrels put shot clouds directly atop point of aim. The right barrel appears to have an IC or Skeet type of choke; the left barrel patterns like a Modified choke. It’s perfect for fast-moving upland game in tight cover. The gun’s stock has 2.75 inches of drop and about 0.20 inch of cast. American guns of this era were intended for all-around use on game, and the bit more drop in the stock helps center the pattern on the point of aim—an advantage for ducks dropping in on decoys.
In addition to placing shot clouds right where I looked, the shotgun mounted smoothly, balanced nicely, and had a surprisingly responsive swing. Trigger pull was beautifully crisp, and as a result the pull weight feels lighter than it is. By my Lyman digital trigger gauge, the front trigger breaks at 4 pounds, 14 ounces and the rear at 5 pounds, 4 ounces.
Weighing 6 pounds, 5 ounces, the gun carries beautifully even for long treks through upland country, yet by virtue of its 16-gauge bores, it punches above its weight class.
I don’t know that I’d want to fire a lot of full-octane high-brass 16-gauge shotshells through this svelte Fox Sterlingworth, but a few over the course of an afternoon pursuing chukars would be just fine. This gun offers solid, reliable performance and a feel and liveliness that far surpasses expectations. It is an incredible value, given its low cost, and is arguably the best value in vintage American side-by-sides.
Fox Sterlingworth Shotgun
- Type: Side-by-side
- Gauge: 16
- Cartridge Capacity: 2
- Barrels: 26 in.
- Overall Length: 42.25 in.
- Weight, Empty: 6.3 lbs.
- Stock: Walnut
- Length of Pull: 14.25 in. (to front trigger)
- Finish: Blued barrels and action, oil-finished wood
- Sights: Bead front
- Safety: Two-position, automatic
- Trigger: Front: 4.88-lb. pull; rear: 5.25-lb. pull (as tested)
- Manufacturer: Savage Arms Corp., savagearms.com