Woodworking gives me something useful to do when I’m feeling puny and it takes my mind off my troubles.
– from the book Yellowstone Thunder by Gary McCarthy, American writer of historical novels and Westerns
I gouged the wood once with the belt sander but consoled myself by recalling that the mark of a true craftsman is his ability to hide his errors.
– Clement Seagrave, outdoor writer and novice woodworker
Eastern Arms Company project gun
My compulsion to “improve” the fit and performance of my shotguns began in west Texas about 35 years ago. Transplanted from the rolling country of northeast Nebraska to the flat, sandy plains of the Permian Basin, I discovered the heavy and cumbersome Fox Model B double gun that had served me well for shooting ring-necked pheasants in the cornfields and along the shelterbelts of Midwest farmlands was poorly suited to gunning coveys of bobwhite and scaled quail in the semi-arid land of the great Southwest. I missed too many shots at close-flushing birds, and those I did hit were often shredded by tight patterns of shot.
What I needed was a lighter, quicker, and more open-choked gun. What I did not have was money for a new double gun. So after reading and pondering advice from the shotgun writers Michael McIntosh and Gene Hill, I screwed up my courage and went to work on the Fox 12 gauge double with the intent of converting it to a passable quail gun. Back in those more innocent and ignorant days of my youth I did not yet know that my Fox gun was actually a Savage-Stevens “hardware trade gun” of coarse design and sturdy but crude manufacture. To me it was a thing of great beauty and utility, so setting upon it with drill, grinder, saws, chisels, files, and belt sander was a leap of faith into a new era of shotgun maintenance.
The alterations seem simple now. I used my electric drill and a wheel cylinder hone to open the chokes from modified and full to improved cylinder and modified. I cut the stock length by a half inch, hollowed it out with an auger bit and rasp, thinned the stock by about half an inch up top and three-quarters of an inch at bottom, and ground the forearm down from a full beavertail configuration to a semi-beavertail.
Those modifications changed the gun’s handling very little, lightening it from about seven and a half pounds to seven and a quarter pounds and making it noticeably muzzle heavy. The new coats of hand-rubbed oil finish did bring out the patterns of wood grain in the stock and forend and made the walnut glow with an unexpected golden-tones beauty. More importantly, it killed the next seven quail with eight shots, and I became a fanatic practitioner of the dark arts of shotgun fit, choke boring, and double gun configuration.
I have owned 17 other shotguns since my days with that Savage-Stevens-Fox Model B, and 16 of them have undergone at least some degree of modification at my hands. The only one that escaped my tinkering was a Benelli semi-auto that I won in a Pheasants Forever raffle. A friend who lusted for the gun bought it two days after the PF banquet, so I never had the chance to do so much as shim the buttstock where it met the receiver.
All seven of the shotguns that currently reside in my gun safe have undergone extensive alteration. Although it was not intentional, their final form has become eerily similar: weight 6 3/4 pounds, length of pull 13 7/8 inches, drop a comb 1 1/4 inch, drop at heel 2 inches, cast-off 1/2 inch, balance at hinge pin. (The only outlier is the Remington 870 pump gun, but since it is primarily used as a slug gun during deer season it is more a rifle than a shotgun.) Each was a “project gun” in its own time, and my unshakable belief is that I shoot them better because of this fanatic fitting and modification.
This long preamble about my compulsion to tamper with shotgun wood and steel is an introduction to my latest project, a gun much different from any I have tinkered with before. It is an Eastern Arms Company Model 1929, an exposed-hammer, break-action, single-shot 12 gauge gun, probably manufactured in the early 1930s. Eastern Arms was the “hardware trade” brand name of guns sold by Sears-Roebuck for 70 or 80 years. Eastern Arms guns were originally made by the Stevens Arms company, which was purchased by Savage Arms in 1920 but continued to manufacture firearms at its own facility in Massachusetts until 1960.
I acquired this shotgun many years ago through the familiar family hand-me-down process that plagues all gun owners. The gun was purchased 80-some years ago by a shirttail relative, probably for $10. It changed hands, funeral-by-funeral, several times and came to me about a dozen years ago upon the death of a maternal uncle. No one wanted the gun, least of all me, but as with all of these family “heirlooms,” cutting it up and throwing it into the landfill seemed sacrilegious.
The gun has hung on the wall of my clubhouse for a decade, utilitarian décor that spoke of another era of hunting. It had a 30-inch barrel, a birch stock cut down to 12-inch length of pull at some time, probably to fit a kid who was excited to learn to hunt and lost his enthusiasm the first time the gun’s recoil and short stock jammed his grip thumb into his face and gave him a bloody nose. The stock had a wide and deep pistol grip, a recoil pad gone rock hard with age, a draw bolt permanently rusted in place, a stiff hammer, small trigger guard, a fish-bellied forend, and a receiver with minor rust scars and faded case-hardening colors. The stock dimensions were a horror: 2-inch drop at comb, 3 1/2-inch drop at the much-shortened heel. The bore, however, was spotless, and the barrel bluing had held up surprisingly well.
When my two older grandsons turned 13 this year, I was seized by the compulsion to convert this old single-shot into a starter gun that I could use to teach them the basics of wing shooting. So I climbed onto a handy stepstool, took the gun down from its pegs, and got to work.
My goals were clear: all the “correct” shotgun dimensions for a small-framed person — 6 1/2-pound weight, straight stock, thin forend, open choke, balance midway between the hands, thick and soft recoil pad, 13 1/2-inch length of pull, slender stock for smaller hands, quick handling. It was all a just matter of time and labor. And a little cash.
My friend Dave Meier cut the top of the old stock flat and glued on a 2 1/2-inch piece of plain walnut. We didn’t even try to match the grain of the old, and soft, birch stock. I went to work with a rasp, mounted belt sander, grinding wheel, and palm sander to shape the stock, including the conversion of the severe pistol grip to a rounded “Prince of Wales” grip. I gouged the wood once with the belt sander but consoled myself by recalling that the mark of a true craftsman is his ability to hide his errors. Thus, the comb of the stock is a bit thinner than intended, but since it guides my eye down the exact centerline of the barrel I can pretend this was intentional. With 10 minutes of shaping on the belt sander the fat, fish-bellied forend became a slender, straight line forend. Applying four coats of stain and then five thin coats of spray-on polyurethane varnish made the stock and forend glow, much prettier than I had expected. The add-on walnut is obvious in its contrast to the original birch wood, but not glaringly ugly.
Rick Dotzenrod of Canoe Creek Gunsmithing cut the barrel down to 28 inches, swaged the last inch of the bore down .007 inch to create a skeet choke, and installed a new brass bead. I went to work with steel wool to pretty-up the receiver, although only a trace of the case coloring was restored.
The hard part was attaching a recoil pad because the shape of the stock required a six-inch-high pad and spacer, narrower at the top than the bottom, tapered at the toe to fit the bottom line of the stock. Because the original stock had been cut so short, I ordered a 1.1-inch thick Pachmayr recoil pad and a 1/2-inch spacer from Bownell’s gun supplies to extend the length of pull. Grind, grind, grind. Sand, sand, sand. The result was a functional stock, but one that my beautiful blonde wife Patti called, “The weirdest-looking stock I have ever seen.”
But the final product was what I wanted: weight 6 1/4 pounds, skeet choke (it actually patterns improved cylinder, but that is vastly better than the super-full choke the gun used to have), 13 5/8-inch length of pull, drop at comb 1 1/2-inch, drop at heel 1 3/4-inch, balance between the hands, easy for a teenager to handle. The trigger pull is a bit hard, and the hammer is still stiff for a kid to cock, but on the shooting range that can be done with the gun broken open, so safety is not compromised.
Project done, all for less than $200 in parts, supplies, labor, and beer.
I prepared some light loads (7/8 ounce of shot, 17.0 grains of Clays powder), and did some test shooting. The gun patterns well on paper and breaks clay targets on our hillside shooting range. We are ready for the summer games.
As I put the renovated Eastern Arms Company single shot into the gun safe I cast my eye on my Lefever Nitro Special 12 gauge, another family heirloom gun that I completely reconfigured 20 years ago. It is still butt-heavy, though, something that I could cure by auguring out a couple ounces of wood. And I’ve never really liked the white-lined butt pad I attached.
You know, it would not take much time and money to make it just the way I want…
More stories about hunting, bird dogs, bird guns, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays and two novels, all available through my Author Page on Amazon.com Jerry Johnson Author Page