American Side-by-Side Economy Shotguns: A.H. Fox Sterlingworth, Lefever Nitro Special, Parker Trojan, Savage/Fox Model B and Winchester Model 24
By Chuck Hawks
There seems to be a revival of interest in economical, American made, side-by-side shotguns, particularly those manufactured prior to the Second World War. Interest in higher grade American shotguns has been strong for some time and now the less expensive models bearing the names of the notable U.S. double gun companies seem to be getting increased attention.
These economy double guns were all built with hammerless box lock actions and through-lump barrels. This is a satisfactory method of joining the barrels, but it produces a gun wider across the breech than the chopper lump, dovetail lump, or mono-block systems. Chokes were bored into the barrels; modern interchangeable choke tubes had not been invented. Standard grade walnut stocks, a Scott spindle top lever to open the action and top tang mounted safeties are universal features.
A.H. Fox Sterlingworth
The Fox Sterlingworth was introduced in 1910 in 12 gauge only for $25.00. By 1912 the 20 gauge had been added and in 1913 a 16 gauge appeared. The Sterlingworth was an economical, standardized, field grade double. Barrels were 26, 28 or 30 inches with Full/Full, Modified/Full or Cylinder/Modified chokes and solid ribs. The receiver was color case hardened. Fewer options were offered than for graded Fox guns and any deviation from the standard specifications incurred an additional charge. However, Fox did offer options on the Sterlingworth unavailable on most of its competition. Available at extra cost (depending on vintage and model) were such options as automatic ejectors, single trigger, custom stock dimensions, 32 inch barrels, beavertail forend, Silver's recoil pad and even an extra set of barrels.
Externally, the lines of the Sterlingworth were similar to that of the higher grade Fox doubles. The receiver and trigger guard even wore a bit of simple border engraving. Like the graded Fox guns, the Sterlingworth's light and compact action made it (depending on gauge and barrel length, of course) a potentially light and handy field gun. The action was based on the same design and contained the same parts as the more expensive Fox grades. Bolting is by a tapered rotary top fastener and a large rib extension. The mainspring is a durable coil spring. Fox extractors extract properly and selective ejectors eject reliably. Even the optional selective single trigger was reliable.
Most Sterlingworths were supplied with standard grade American black walnut, pistol grip stocks with three panel checkering. There was a black Bakelite pistol grip cap and butt plate. Like most economy doubles, the splinter forend was attached by a tension spring, rather than a mechanical latch. However, in the Sterlingworth this was a coil spring driving a bolt with a roller pinned to its front, a more durable and sophisticated design than other snap-on forend latches. In general, the Fox Sterlingworth was a more sophisticated field grade gun with more optional and desirable features than the other economy doubles. It was also the most attractive.
After Savage purchased Fox, they used an existing inventory of Super Fox waterfowl frames and barrels to create the most unusual Sterlingworth version, the Wildlife Grade of 1934. For $62.50 (a basic Sterlingworth retailed for $39.50 in 1934), this approximately nine pound, 12 gauge, Sterlingworth waterfowl gun came with 30 or 32 inch specially choke barrels and three inch chambers. It was, in fact, a Super Fox without engraving (except the usual Sterlingworth border) or fancy wood, but it retained the Super Fox Deeley type forend latch, instead of the usual Sterlingworth snap-on latch. These Wildlife grade guns were offered until1940.
Another late Sterlingworth variation was the Skeet and Upland Game Gun, introduced in 1935 for $44.50. This was available in 12, 16 or 20 gauge with 26 inch barrels and choked Skeet/Quarter (similar to Winchesters Skeet 1/Skeet 2 borings). A straight hand stock with a 14 inch length of pull was standard, as were double triggers and extractors. Available options at extra cost included automatic ejectors, single selective trigger, beavertail forend, recoil pad and ivory bead sights. 12 gauge guns weighed about seven pounds, 16 gauge guns weighed six pounds and 20 gauge skeet guns weighed only 5-3/4 pounds.
Lefever Nitro Special
Ithaca acquired the Lefever Arms Company and in 1921 capitalized on the Lefever name by introducing the Nitro Special, a gun that was basically the forerunner of the famous Ithaca N.I.D. design. The Nitro Special action was entirely designed by Ithaca and bore no resemblance to any earlier Dan Lefever design. The original price of a Nitro Special was $27.50. The Nitro Special, along with all Ithaca doubles, was discontinued in 1948.
This was an economical field grade gun intended to compete in the marketplace at a price point below that of the Ithaca brand guns. Unlike the Ithaca brand doubles, some of which were available with showy engraving and checkering, the Lefever Nitro Special was only sold as a basic gun with a color case hardened receiver.
The reliable action is kept closed by a rib extension and top bolt and is powered by coil springs. Double triggers (although a single trigger could be had at extra cost) and plain extractors were standard fare. Gauges were 12, 16 and 20. 12 gauge guns could be had with 28 or 30 inch barrels, while the 16 and 20 gauge guns only came with 28 inch barrels. Chokes were Modified/Full or Cylinder/Modified. In 1928, the .410 bore was added and supplied with 26 inch barrels.
The Nitro Special came with a standard grade, American black walnut stock built to standard dimensions and a black Bakelite butt plate. A rather limited three panel checkering pattern was scratched into the underside of the forend and both sides of the pistol grip. The buttstock was attached by a drawbolt, making the wrist stronger than most double guns, in which the buttstock is attached by tang screws. The splinter forend was secured by spring tension, not a mechanical latch. Like most classic American doubles, the Nitro Special stock has a lot of drop by modern standards and this can be a problem for modern shooters.
Although a plain field gun, the Nitro Special was built of good quality materials and designed for use with modern ammunition. Many remain in service to this day. They are tough, well made and reliable guns. Aesthetically, I consider the Nitro Special clearly superior to the Winchester Model 24 and Savage/Fox Model B and only slightly inferior to the Parker Trojan. It is a low grade gun, but a good low grade gun.
Introduced in 1915 and discontinued in 1939, the Trojan was Parker Bros. attempt to build a low priced, utility grade, double gun. The initial selling price was $27.50 and the gun remained the most affordable Parker model throughout its production life. It became their most popular model, eventually accounting for some 40% of the Company's sales with a total of around 48,000 Trojan guns built.
Externally, the Trojan lacked the slender and elegantly sculptured receiver of the graded Parker double guns and no engraving adorned the color case hardened frame. In the 1920's, the famous Parker doll's-head rib extension was eliminated to further reduce production cost, relying entirely on the under-bolt to keep the action closed. Internally, however, it was based on the same complicated and rather fussy hammerless action as other Parker guns. Like all Parkers, the Trojan was fabricated from high quality materials and the workmanship was good.
The Trojan was a production line model. Gauges were limited to 12, 16 and 20 and barrel length to 26, 28, or 30 inches. The barrels were marked "Trojan Steel" and supplied with a raised solid rib. Double triggers were standard, although a single trigger was available. (The Parker single selective trigger was complicated, unreliable and should be avoided.) Plain extractors raised the shells when the gun was opened; ejectors were not offered.
Trojans came with standard grade, black walnut, pistol grip stocks adorned with a simple checkering pattern on the underside of the forend and each side of the pistol grip. The typical butt plate was black Bakelite, although some Trojans were shipped with recoil pads. The forend was secured by spring tension and lacked the metal tip of the higher grade guns.
The Parker name has ensured the continuing popularity of the Trojan gun and it is typically the most expensive of the American economy doubles on the used market. It is not the best designed or most reliable of double guns, but the absence of the troublesome Parker selective ejectors made it more reliable than many of the high grade Parker guns. The Trojan's workmanship is among the best in its price class. While aesthetically inferior to the higher grade Parker doubles, the Trojan finishes second in our beauty contest, slightly ahead of the Lefever Nitro Special and well ahead of the Fox Model B and Winchester Model 24. Among low priced American doubles, only the Fox Sterlingworth is clearly more attractive and refined.
Fox Model B (Savage Arms)
In 1940, Savage capitalized on their ownership of the Fox name by using it on an upscale version of their Stevens Model 311 side-by-side utility shotgun, which had been introduced in 1931. The resulting gun, named the Fox Model B, was introduced at a MSRP of $25.75. It was to be a long lived model, remaining in the Savage line until rising manufacturing costs and the sale and reorganization of Savage Industries, Inc. (which became today's Savage Arms Company) caused it to be discontinued in 1988. By that time the MSRP for the Fox Model B-SE had risen to $525.
The Model B was introduced in 12, 16, 20 and .410 bores. At some point in the early 1970's the 16 gauge was dropped, but the other three bores were available until the end. As usual, 12 gauge guns are the most common. Except in .410, chokes were typically Modified/Full or Improved Cylinder/Modified. With a narrower frame and breech, the 20 gauge Model B is lighter and handles better than 12 gauge guns.
The most common variations of the basic gun were the Model B - Mfg. 1940-86, black or color case frame, double triggers, extractors, plain rib (later changed to vent. rib); Model BST - Mfg. 1955-66, case color frame, single non-selective trigger, plain matted rib, beavertail forend; Model BDL - Mfg. 1962-65, a BST with a satin chrome-plated frame, vent. rib; Model BDE - Mfg. 1965-66, similar to the BDL with reduced checkering coverage; Model BSE - Mfg. 1966-88, similar to the BDE with selective ejectors, vent. rib and select walnut.
The sides and bottom of the frame are decorated by a simple, roll marked, game scene pattern. Frames were initially given a black gun metal finish, but before long were changed to a color case finish that remained standard until the guns were discontinued. Model B-DL guns were supplied with satin chrome-plated frames. Model B-SE gun frames went from satin chrome to satin black to color case finishes as the years went by and styles changed.
Fox Model B shotguns are held closed by a single under-bolt. Coil springs are used throughout and power the hammers and sears. The result is a bulky, but durable, action that seldom needs repair.
For around the first 20 years, Model B guns had raised solid ribs. Later production, starting with the single trigger models, but eventually also including the double trigger models, switched to a ventilated rib.
All Fox Model B guns came with American black walnut stocks and forends. The wood that I have seen on these guns varied from standard to semi-fancy. Hand cut checkering in a simple pattern was used until sometime in the middle 1960's, when the change was made to impressed checkering in a somewhat fancier pattern. A glossy wood finish was standard. These are short tang guns and a drawbolt, a strong method of attachment, retains the stock. Stocks are of the pistol grip type with a fluted comb and a corrugated black plastic butt plate. Most guns produced from the mid-1950's on came with a better defined and more graceful pistol grip than the early guns and were fitted with a black plastic grip cap. White line spacers at pistol grip cap and butt plate came and went.
The forend is held in place by a self-adjusting spring tension latch that does not loosen with use. Forend style was initially a rather large version of the splinter type. This was eventually changed to a bulky full beavertail forend that became standard across the board.
The Fox Model B is not a slim, lightweight double gun built on the British pattern. It is relatively bulky and heavy, especially in 12 gauge, designed to shoot heavy American style shells and it has the heft to do so. Aesthetically, the Model B is superior to the Winchester Model 24, but less graceful than the other economy doubles covered here. The workmanship and fit are about average for mass produced guns. However, the number of Savage/Fox doubles still in use is a testament to their solid design and construction.
Winchester Model 24
The Winchester Model 24 side-by-side shotgun went into production in 1939 and stayed in the line until 1958. It was intended to compete with the Stevens 311 and cheap imported guns as an affordable, utility side-by-side. Available gauges were 12, 16, and 20, with 12 gauge being the most common.
Barrel lengths of 26, 28 and 30 inches were offered in 12 gauge, while 16 and 20 gauge guns could be had with 26 or 28 inch tubes. Modified/Full chokes were typical of guns with 28" and 30" barrels; 26" barrels were choked Improved Cylinder/Modified.
Despite being one of the bulkiest and perhaps the ugliest of all American double guns, the Model 24 was reasonably successful in the market place and a total of over 116,200 were manufactured. I believe this was because it was manufactured from high quality steel, worked reliably, its stock had less drop than most of the older economy guns and it was a good shooter. The Winchester name probably didn't hurt, either.
The Model 24 was produced only as a field grade gun with a blued receiver and barrels, wide 7/16" raised solid rib, double triggers and spring powered extractors that elevated the shells when the gun was opened. The crudely shaped trigger guard was stamped from heavy gauge sheet metal. It was strictly an economy gun and upscale features, such as a single trigger, ejectors, ventilated rib, engraving, stock checkering and so forth were never offered.
The Model 24 design is very unconventional. Its forged steel receiver body is rounded and exceptionally broad across the action body. The barrel breeches of most double guns are considerably wider than (and overhang) the sides of the receiver, but the receiver of the Model 24 is actually slightly wider than the barrels. This gives the gun a decidedly unusual appearance.
It is a true hammerless gun, striker fired, as opposed to having concealed hammers like most double guns.The Model 24 was designed with two lumps, one centered beneath each barrel, leaving a tunnel between the two lumps. It boasts a clean breech face and is held closed by a single under-bolt that engages a notch in the double barrel lumps. In the area between the 24's dual lumps are a cocking slide and the extractor. The Model 24 is about as wide through the breech and receiver as a side-by-side gun can possibly be. It is completely different from and should never be confused with the elegant Winchester Model 21 double gun.
Model 24's were supplied with standard grade black walnut, pistol grip stocks with a lacquer finish. A straight hand stock could be ordered, one of the only options. There was no checkering. Early versions had a hard butt plate; later this was changed to a ventilated recoil pad. The 24's semi-beavertail forend is held in place by spring tension.
Aesthetically, the Model 24 has to be one of the ugliest double guns ever made. It was a "plain Jane" gun, but it was widely available, reliable and surprisingly fun to shoot.
I have, at various times in the past, had a reasonable amount experience with the Lefever, Parker, A.H. Fox and Savage/Fox guns. I have never owned a Winchester Model 24, but I shot one enough in the course of a Guns and Shooting Online review to become reasonably acquainted with its action and get a feeling for it. With that in mind and for what it is worth, I offer the following opinions.
Only the Fox Sterlingworth and Parker Trojan have action mechanisms similar to those used in their manufacturers' higher grade guns and only the Sterlingworth has a similar receiver contour. The Lefever Nitro Special action was an Ithaca design much like the N.I.D. It was a good action that was to become a classic in its own right, but much different from Uncle Dan Lefever's automatic hammerless sideplate action that had made the Lefever name famous. The Fox Model B (a spiffier version of the Stevens 311) and Winchester Model 24 actions were designed for maximum production economy, without any pretension to greatness beyond the use of a famous name.
If I were looking to purchase one of these guns today, my first choice would be an A.H. Fox Sterlingworth, which I feel offers the best action and most refined style of the bunch. It is the only gun I would consider upgrading with engraving, high grade walnut and upscale checkering. With these enhancements, a Sterlingworth can become a "personal best" gun. My second choice would be a Lefever Nitro Special, which offers a simpler and more reliable action than the Parker Trojan, costs less and looks almost as good. Third would be a Parker Trojan, which is very well made and a more appealing gun than the mass produced Winchester and Savage/Fox entries.
The least expensive and sophisticated of these guns are the Fox Model B and Winchester Model 24. Both work fine, but they are cruder in design and workmanship than the three vintage brands and incorporate more production shortcuts. Because they are broad across the beam, these are the slowest handling and most ponderous of our economy doubles. If I were to buy one of these guns, it would definitely be a 20 gauge to reduce weight and bulk. The Stevens designed and Savage produced Fox Model B is a considerably better looking gun than the Winchester Model 24 and offers better features, but in my hands the Winchester shoots better. Your results, of course, may vary.
Note: Full reviews of the Fox Model B, Fox Model B-DL and Winchester Model 24 shotguns can be found on the Product Reviews page.
Copyright 2014, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.