It’s got awful nice wood for a Fox B I said to my dad. There is always a gun that he has, or one that I have, that the other wants. In this case, we were hashing out the finer details of a swap that involved a Winchester 101 and a Savage Fox B (16ga, single trigger) with awful nice wood to boot. I won’t get into the nitty gritty of who came out on top in this particular trade, rather, I’d like to address my own, almost involuntary, comment regarding the character of the wood on the gun.
Why We Use Wood for Stocks
Wood has long been one of the best ‘strength to weight ratio’ materials at human disposal and so has been and is still used preferentially for building things of all kinds. It makes perfect sense that wood was chosen to be the buffer between man and metal where guns were concerned. Above all things, the gun stock needs to be functional and in the parlance of gun stock speak, functional means strong enough to endure the beating regular use implies.
In the most basic terms, trees grow by adding layers upon layers, building out from within and up from the ground. This is why fences stapled to living trees don’t end up, well, up. As the tree grows taller, the fence is carried with it and away from the ground. This is the best example I can think of to illustrate the nature of tree growth and one that helps with the perception of grain in wood. Each year, the tree adds a layer. These stacked layers become the grain in the wood. Layers are added sequentially on top of one another until our tree is selected to become a source material for a gun stock.
If only it were that simple. Layers are added each year, but trees do not add layers equally. We have all seen a tree bend to grow toward a light source, twist, arc, fall and then curl back up again. Layers are added based on chemical changes in its response to (primarily) light or lack thereof. Additionally, trees do not all grow in the same locations; trees that grow on the sides of mountains have it ‘harder’ than trees that grow in a lowland along a river. From a tree-centric perspective, deep nutrient rich soil is better than the rocky hillside of a mountain with its shallow soil and minimal nutrients. Location specific issues on a smaller scale are not the same as regional variation. If you have ever planted a garden, you know that your seed catalog splits all crops regionally, based on climate segments. This is why when you bird hunt in northern Montana, the crops are wheat and beans, and as you go south there is more corn or canola. These crops, just like trees, ‘prefer’ a specific set of conditions, growing season, rainfall, etc. to experience optimal growth and production.
Tree Species, Aesthetics and Countries
So how does this factor into a gun stock? All of the above is to illustrate that not all trees are created equally and even within a species of tree, each tree has been grown in a specific region and location. Each of these elements (and more) dictate the grain of the wood and as a result the outward physical appearance.
Gun stocks are typically made of walnut (with the most notable other option being maple). Walnut is a hardwood, broad leaf tree, that exhibits exceptional strength and typically dense grain. The latin family name, juglans, has 21 species (according to Wiki) with black walnut (J. nigra) and english walnut (J. regia) being the most commonly used for gun stocks. There are many names for the varieties of walnut used in stocks like French, English, Turkish, Circassian, Claro, Bastogne, California and Black. To cut through the haze in nomenclature would require more words than this article allows, but know that these names either refer to a specific species or a physical location where a specific species of juglans was grown. An example being that English Walnut is J. Regia. while French Walnut is also J. Regia but grown in France.
With location and species sorted out, gunmakers need a way to describe gun stocks from the perspective of aesthetics. We can pick out pieces of Turkish Walnut that have appropriate grain patterns to produce strong functional gun stocks, but within our subset of turkish walnut with good grain, there must be a way to differentiate the aesthetic qualities of a stock blank. Enter the myriad of stock grading systems that have been developed to attempt to put a quantitative measure on something that I would argue is rather qualitative or subjective.
The features in gunstocks regarded as aesthetically pleasing are similar to those in other schools of woodworking. Fiddleback, a phenomena where closely grown layers of curly grain reflect light in waves, is revered in furniture and instruments as well as gun stocks. The collective term for these ‘imperfections’ in gun stock blanks is figure. Figure is described in many ways such as curly, ribbon, wavy, ropey, swirly or wild. In gun stocks, the amount of mineral lines (dark lines caused by differences in soil mineral content), the waviness or curl of grain and presence of burl all affect the appearance of the wood. Highly figured stocks receive higher grade values.
Grading Wood for Shotgun Stocks
Grading systems use letters, numbers or nomenclature to attempt to describe the percentage of a stock that contains figure. Standard, semi-fancy, fancy, extra fancy and exhibition is one such set of delineations. Typically, there is a standard grade and four types of grade above standard which represent 25, 50, 75 and 100% figure respectively. Grades that use numbers (or Roman numerals) would run as Grade 1 or I for standard, increasing in number up to Grade 5 or V (and up). Letters might start with A and run up to AAA or X to XXX (and up). Additional terms like Royal, Crown, Presentation or Best are all thrown in for additional spice.
The real take home is that no single system exists that unifies all stock quality grades. Stocks are placed on subjective scales that vary from company to company. It is worth noting that stock grades may or may not account for the actual STRENGTH of the stock which has to do with the wood grain that runs through the grip area. This is arguably the most critical portion of the stock as it will experience the most stress and is also typically the thinnest area of the stock. Grain that runs along with the grip, curving to match the natural shape of a pistol or round knob or that flows straight through the length of an English stock is imperative. This is why looking beyond the ‘pretty’ aspects of figure is so important.
So what does this all mean? Without trying to be cliche, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some folks might love burl wood and ‘birds eyes’ in their stocks while others prefer the buttery look of French Walnut. Still, others want the classic American Walnut feathering found in so many Winchesters. My suggestion is to always take a look at the grain of the stock in addition to its outward beauty. When selecting a blank, ensure that you look at both flat sides of the blank as well as the top and bottom. Getting a look at the grain on all sides is the best way to ensure you have a strong stock blank to start with which will yield the best finished gun stock. Some of the most figured and unique blanks I have seen have only been fit to stock a boxlock shotgun simply because the boxlock stock design is inherently more sturdy than a sidelock and those pretty blanks would simply have cracked or broken otherwise.
For my own experience, I should have slowed down and looked at the grain on the Fox B stock, but like so many others, I find it easy to be seduced by the beauty found in the wood. Lucky for me, the stock looks pretty AND has good grain through the grip. My biggest suggestion; don’t rely on luck like I did and check the grain the next time you consider a shotgun or stock blank.