How To Restore an Old Side-by-Side

Beat up and marked down, the 1939 Fox Sterling-worth on the used rack at my local Scheel's store was exactly what I was looking for: the perfect project gun. The Fox is my favorite among the classic American doubles, and I picked it up for a song (and $500 plus sales tax). Briley Manufacturing gave it a complete overhaul. As you can see from the before and after pictures, it's ready for its next 66 years in the field.

If you want to hunt with a refurbished classic next fall, now is the time to start thinking about it. Briley turned my gun around in about six weeks, but that's lightning speed for quality gun work. Restoration is a job for experts, not for your buddy who likes to tinker. A bungled amateur job can ruin the value of a gun, a lesson a friend of mine learned the hard way when he had a furniture shop refinish a nice Remington 3200.

Even a perfectly restored gun, though, won't bring anything near the price of the same model in original mint condition. Usually, the best you can hope for is to break even. Years ago my father gave me what was left of his Beretta ASEL, which had a deeply cracked stock and an action that rattled like castanets. I sent it to the Orvis gun shop. Several months and $1,800 later, I had a gun worth about $1,800.

Gun projects make the most sense if you look at them as indulgences, not investments. Maybe you've got an heirloom that's showing its age. Perhaps, like me, you've always wanted a particular make of gun, and you find one that's priced right but in need of repair. Sometimes all a gun needs is $200 or $300 worth of fixes to make it serviceable for decades.

A lot of the work done to the Sterlingworth is detailed below. What isn't shown is the strip and clean job, in which the gun was disassembled and internal parts were stripped of accumulated oils and crud, checked for function, and reassembled. A.H. Fox shotguns were known for never breaking, and that was the case with this gun. Everything inside was fine.

I also had the stock bent. Many older American guns, like this one, have way too much drop in the stock to suit modern shooters, like me. Some gunsmiths use hot oil to bend stocks. Others, such as Briley, use the heat lamps made for pet reptile cages. After refinishing, the gun was set in a cradle and warmed until the stock could be bent upward and given a little lateral bend (cast) as well.

One thing this gun didn't need was barrel work. If you're looking for a project gun, keep the trader's advice in mind: "Buy the barrels." Severe pits, deep dents, and bulges indicate that the gun may require sleeving, the extremely expensive job of cutting off the old barrels ahead of the chambers and fitting new ones. Stay away from Damascus barrels (recognizable by the swirling pattern in the steel) if you want to shoot the gun.

I'd have a very difficult time getting back the money I spent on the Sterlingworth--not a high-grade gun to begin with--if I were to sell it. But that's not the point. This fall, when a rooster flushes in front of me while the Fox is in my hands, money will be the furthest thing from my mind.

BEFORE My 66-year-old Fox Sterlingworth side-by-side was still shootable, but it needed a lot of restoration work. Because the Fox is my favorite double, I decided to go ahead with the investment--not to turn a profit, but to provide years of reliable service in the pheasant fields and the duck blinds.

[1] RECOIL PAD

BEFORE: The old white-line pad was ugly and had hardened over the years.

AFTER: The replacement red-and-black Hawkins pad suits the period look of the gun.

[2] WOOD

BEFORE: The finish was worn, with gouges and scratches, and some checkering was worn flat.

AFTER: The wood was stripped, steam-smoothed, restained, and recheckered.

[3] ACTION WORK

BEFORE: Although the gun was shootable, the action was worn and had begun to loosen.

AFTER: With a welding torch, the loop was heated and bent slightly to engage the bolt more fully.

[4] CASE COLOR

BEFORE: The factory color was faded to silvery remnants.

AFTER: The receiver, lever, and tang were heated to 400 degrees, then quenched in water to restore the brown and blue swirls.

[5] BLUING

BEFORE: The original bluing had worn to gray.

AFTER: The metal was degreased and polished, then chemicals were applied to oxidize the barrels' exterior, leaving them a blue-black color.

[6] CHOKE TUBES

BEFORE: The fixed chokes were Improved Cylinder and Modified.

AFTER: The bores were measured and tapped for thin-wall choke tubes that don't leave bulges in the muzzles.

AFTER I wound up with a beautiful gun that I used this fall. Briley Manufacturing (800-331-5718; briley.com) did all the work. Other restorers include Orvis (802-366-8235; orvis.com); Doug Turnbull (585-657-6338; turnbullrestoration.com); and Larry DelGrego & Son (315-894-8754), who restore Parkers and Remington Model 32s.

[1] RECOIL PAD

[2] WOOD

[3] ACTION WORK

[4] CASE COLOR

[5] BLUING

[6] CHOKE TUBES

Restoration Costs

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

Strip and clean $100
Blue barrels $250
Restore case color $450
Rejoint action $250
Refinish and rechecker wood $600
Install period recoil pad $150
Bend stock $125
Install chokes, with five tubes $499
TOTAL $2,424