A. H. Fox BE Grade 12 Gauge Double Gun

By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff

A. H. Fox BE Grade
The A. H. Fox BE Grade gun that is the subject of this review. Photo by Rocky Hays.

Ansley Fox morphed the Philadelphia Gun Company into the A. H. Fox Gun Company in 1906 and announced a new line of shotguns, which were evolutionary developments of the gun he had designed for Philadelphia Gun. In Ansley's typical bombastic style, he proudly proclaimed that the A. H. Fox gun was, "The Finest Gun in the World" and it was advertised as such. In reality, it was based on a hammerless (concealed hammer) box lock action that used a barrel extension and a patented horizontal axis rotary fastener for locking and a top lever for opening. The double trigger mechanism is a simple trigger/sear/hammer design (the hammers were machined with integral firing pins) that promotes a clean trigger pull. The hammer style ejectors are coil spring powered. The barrels were built on through-lumps. A. H. Fox guns were strong, simple, durable, compact and reliable. However, despite Ansley's advertising slogan, in reality no American gun achieved the level of sophistication of the finest European guns, particularly at that time. Nevertheless, it was clearly Ansley Fox's intention to build an American "best gun" and in this he succeeded.

The 1906 catalog showed guns in three grades, A (the lowest), B and C; D and F grades were mentioned, but not illustrated. These doubles were mechanically identical and were offered only in 12 gauge. (16 and 20 gauge Fox guns were first listed in 1912.) The amount of engraving, checkering and the quality of the walnut stock and forend separated the various grades. In the first 1907 catalog, the very fancy D grade was pictured and a revised, mid-year 1907 catalog showed the ultimate Fox, the F grade.

The new A. H. Fox shotguns actually hit dealers' shelves in 1907. The very first guns were extractor guns, but late in 1907 the option of automatic ejectors was added as an extra cost option for $15. An "E" was added to the nomenclature of ejector guns, thus "BE," for example, would indicate a B grade gun with automatic ejectors, such as the gun that is the subject of this article. Note, however, that the grade letter stamped on the water table of ejector guns did not include the E, remaining simply A, B, C, etc.

The retail prices of Fox guns stayed the same from 1906 through 1912. An A grade gun was listed at $50, B grade at $75, C grade at $100, D grade at $200 and F grade at $500. Ejectors cost an extra $15, so the BE grade reviewed here would have retailed for $90 when it was made in 1909.

Consider that cheap shotguns could be had at that time for about the price of Fox ejectors and a decent field grade double gun for around $25, and it becomes clear that Ansley Fox was marketing his guns based on their quality, rather than price. His enduring faith that a high quality product would ultimately succeed against lower priced and merely functional products was to be his financial undoing throughout his business/manufacturing career.

Fox was a gifted inventor and designer, but apparently, a difficult businessman to get along with and he was forced out of the A. H. Fox Company by his investors in 1912. A. H. Fox guns remained popular for decades and continued to be produced until the beginning of the Second World War. Some were apparently assembled from existing parts after the war, but Ansley Fox was never again involved with the gun he had invented and which bore his name.

In addition to selective ejectors, there were other options available. The front bead could be metal or a Lyman ivory bead could be substituted; a small Lyman ivory center bead was also available. 16 and 20 gauge guns, "The Most Perfectly Proportioned Small-Gauge Gun Ever Built," were added to the line in 1912. Initially, all guns came with double triggers, but in 1914 the option of a Fox/Kautzky single selective trigger appeared. An automatic safety was standard, but could be made manual. Various chokes were offered in barrel lengths of 26", 28", 30" and 32". Barrels were generally made of German Krupp fluid steel, but British Whitworth fluid steel barrels were optional on high-grade guns. Special orders were accepted and custom stock dimensions, engraving, checkering and so forth could be provided to create a true bespoke gun.

One of the most famous of these was the 12 bore FE grade built during the winter of 1908-1909 for President Teddy Roosevelt, who proclaimed in a letter to Ansley Fox, "The double-barreled shotgun has come and I really think it is the most beautiful gun I have ever seen." Roosevelt used that gun on his famous African safari in 1909-1910, during the course of which he wrote (in an article for Scribner's Magazine), "I had a Fox No. 12 shotgun; no better gun was ever made."

Four different barrel weights were produced for A. H. Fox graded guns, numbered one through four, and usually marked on the barrels. For 12 gauge, 28" barrels these were the nominal barrel weights: No. 1 = 4 lbs., No. 2 = 3 lbs. 12 oz., No. 3 = 3 lbs. 8 oz. and No. 4 = 3 lbs. 4 oz. Although the weight number is illegible on our test gun's 28" barrels, they weigh 3 lbs. 7.8 oz. on our digital scale, making them No. 3 barrels. The choke borings are .002" (Skeet No. 1) in the left barrel and .008" (Skeet No. 2 or Quarter Choke) in the right barrel, which patterns 50% with #8 light target loads. The gun's selective ejectors are timed perfectly when using the 28" barrels. These 28" barrels were supplied with Lyman Ivory front and middle beads.

While on the subject of barrels and barrel weight, we should mention that our review gun came with a second set of barrels. These are 30" long and, interestingly, are incorrectly marked as No. 2 weight barrels. 30" No. 2 barrels are specified as weighing 3 lbs. 14 oz., while No. 3 barrels should weigh 3 lbs. 10 oz. These particular 30" barrels actually weigh 3 lbs. 10 oz. on the nose per our digital scale and thus are actually No. 3 weight barrels, at least if the markings apply to the finished barrel weight. The choke constrictions are .018" left (Improved Modified), which patterns 70% with #8 light target loads, while the right barrel patterns 80% (Full) with the same loads. With the 30" barrels in place, the gun operates as a non-selective ejector, kicking out both hulls when the gun is opened. The 30" barrels wear a single white front bead.

A. H. Fox BE Grade with case and two sets of barrels
A. H. Fox BE Grade with case and two sets of barrels. Photo by Rocky Hays.

Note that both sets of barrels have their tighter choke in the right barrel (fired by the front trigger) and more open choke in the left barrel (fired by the back trigger). This is the British system, developed primarily for shooting incoming (driven) game. American shotguns more commonly have their chokes reversed, so that the front trigger fires the more open barrel. Our gun's previous owner, the late Mike Catlin, a champion shooter and friend of the Guns and Shooting Online staff, preferred to fire the back trigger first. He said that the recoil upon firing automatically positioned his finger to fire the front trigger. It worked for Mike. Once during casual clays practice, on a dare, we threw four targets (two doubles from two traps) and he was able to break the first two, reload on the fly and break the second two before they hit the ground.

The barrels' top ribs are raised, concave and stippled to reduce glare. Each barrel set has its own matching splinter forend. These are attached/removed by a Dealy type lever and engage Fox "reinforced" type barrel loops. These are the early style, shorter forends; Fox forends were lengthened in 1914.

The 30" barrels were not originally shipped with this gun. They are from an A grade Fox built (according to the serial number) in 1910. Mike Catlin had Guild gun maker Larry Brace (another late friend of Guns and Shooting Online staff members) fit these extra 30" barrels to the BE frame.

At or about the same time, Mike had Larry fully restore the entire gun. Both sets of barrels were rust blued, the frame and associated parts were color cased and the gun was re-stocked in AAA grade English walnut with a gold oval for the owner's initials (left blank). The frame's water table and standing breech were jeweled, as were the flats, breeches, locking extension and ejectors of both sets of barrels.

The stock incorporates a slender, oval, straight hand, as befits a two-trigger gun. Larry fitted a black leather covered Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad for a length of pull of 14-3/4". The comb is straight and high, unlike the original that undoubtedly had a lot of drop. There is cast-off and twist for a right hand shooter. The original engraving was not changed and the gun's barrels and action not upgraded, but Mike specified elaborate F grade checkering patterns for the forend and butt stock. Larry brace was a master checkerer and the result is stunning. The traditional semi-gloss wood finish is hand rubbed oil.

The early Fox B grade engraving that graces our test gun is light English type scroll with small game scene panels on the receiver sides. Receiver engraving coverage is about 33% and there is additional light scroll engraving on the opening lever, trigger guard, forend iron and barrels. (A. H. Fox engraving patterns were simplified, cut deeper, became more open and less detailed between 1912-1914 to reduce engraving costs.) The tang mounted safety slider is checkered in the C grade pattern typical of many early A. H. Fox graded guns.

B and BE grade guns are rare, as they were discontinued in 1918, while the A, C, D and F grades (plus some other grades added later) continued at least until 1940. (A. H. Fox B grade guns should not be confused with the Savage/Fox Model B shotgun, an entirely different gun introduced about the time production of A. H. Fox guns ceased and actually built on a Stevens 311 action.) Apparently, the early 20th Century carriage trade was willing to spend a bit more for an upscale C grade gun and the ordinary hunter who could afford a Fox shotgun was satisfied with an A grade gun, so the B grade never developed a viable market niche. Today, the low production number of B grade guns makes them attractive to collectors.

Here are some specifications for our A. H. Fox BE grade test gun:

  • Type: Break-open, side by side, double-barreled shotgun
  • Gauge: 12
  • Chambers: 2-3/4"
  • Barrels: Krupp fluid steel, 28" (original) and 30" (added later)
  • Chokes: Skeet No. 1 and Skeet No. 2 (28" barrels); Improved Modified and Full (30" barrels)
  • Extraction/ejection: Selective ejectors
  • Triggers: Double
  • Trigger pull: 5.5 lbs. (front); 4.0 lbs. (back)
  • Safety: Manual tang mounted slider
  • Weight: 7 lbs. 5.2 oz with 28" barrels; 7 lbs. 7.5 oz. with 30" barrels
  • Overall length: 44-3/4" (with 28" barrels)
  • Length of pull: 14-3/4" (to front trigger)
  • Metal finish: Color-cased receiver, rust blued barrels
  • Stock: Straight hand, AAA grade English walnut
  • Wood finish: Semi-gloss, hand rubbed oil
  • Recoil pad: Leather covered Pachmayr Decelerator by Larry Brace

Guns and Shooting Online staff members Chuck Hawks, Rocky Hays and Jim Fleck took this beautiful example of a classic American shotgun to the Eugene/Cottage Grove (actually located on Highway 99 between Creswell and Cottage Grove) trap range to do a little test shooting. Also on hand to keep us honest were a Charles Boswell back-action hammer double (circa 1875) with 28 gauge Briley barrel inserts and a Charles Daly 20 gauge double.

Mike Catlin was an outstanding shot (a former Oregon State Champion) and he used this gun in classic double gun shoots (winning more often than not), so it was no surprise that it patterned and performed exactly as specified with both barrels. None of us are close to Mike's skill level with a shotgun, but when we centered the targets, they broke. We used Federal Top Gun (2-3/4 dram, 1 oz.) #8 lead target loads. It balances on the hinge pin with its 28" barrels and a bit farther forward with the 30" barrels, as you would expect. We preferred the gun's handling with the 28" barrels; it swings smoothly without being burdensome. Chuck shot a number of 16-yard trap targets starting with the gun in a sporting clays position (butt below the elbow), rather than at the shoulder as would be normal on a trap range, and found it shoulders naturally and consistently.

The non-automatic safety was appreciated by all shooters. Ditto the double triggers, still the best, fastest and most reliable way to select which barrel to shoot. Also appreciated was the Fox's mild subjective recoil. The stock and Decelerator pad handle recoil very well and its weight is correct for its 12 gauge 2-3/4"chambering.

The gun operates very smoothly. The barrels open and close easily and the triggers release without creep or grit. When you open the gun all the way, the ejectors kick out fired cases reliably, but without excessive force and the fired cases hit the ground practically next to each other. A top rib extension lug on an extractor gun can interfere with unloading, but ejectors minimize the fuss. What can we say; there was really nothing to criticize about this A. H. Fox shotgun. A quality gun like this has no serious negatives, only positives. It is light years ahead of the mass produced repeaters that crowd dealers' gun racks these days.

One of the things that makes this shotgun especially appealing is that its previous owners obviously cherished and cared for it and our departed friends Mike Catlin and Larry Brace conspired to restore and improve it. It is a unique, one of a kind, American best.

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