A Thomas Stensby side-by-side turns up at the bargain end of the gun rack, but is it all it seems? Richard Atkins looks it over
The classic side-by-side shotgun has been the mainstay for field and game shooters for the last century and more. Its combination of lightweight, good handling, easy loading and choice of grades and prices, with models to suit almost everyone’s style and budget, has ensured the side-by-side its prominent place in sport shooting. While the over-under format has become more popular recently, the side-by-side has sufficient virtues to ensure its status for a long while yet. With this in mind, today we look at an interesting gun that turned up at a very modest price. We thought it an idea to check out this T. Stensby of Manchester game-style side-by-side to see if it would be worth putting your money – and additional gunsmithing work – into. We have all heard that if something seems too good to be true, it most probably is. But will that hold true with this Stensby?
The Stensby we have is a typical basic but soundly made 12 gauge shotgun from a known provincial maker. It has 28in barrels chambered for 21/2in cartridges with choked barrels, and is non-ejector. With double triggers, slim, straight hand grip and weighing just one ounce under 61/2lb, it’s a proper English, game-style, lightweight double shotgun. It has the straight, vertical action back where the stock meets steel, typical of the robust and reliable Anson & Deeley style boxlock action used by many makers past and present.
The degree and quality of the engraving over the action sides and floor, plus the fences, top lever and both top and bottom straps, all indicate that despite being a non-ejector this was not a budget gun in its day. This will seem odd when selective ejectors are now seen as a pre-requisite for almost any game or field gun. New non-ejector guns are almost unheard of and older secondhand ones, like this Stensby, often languish on the gun shop racks for a long time in search of a buyer: that could be, in part, why this gun ended up in the ‘bargain basement’ section.
First impressions are that the Stensby is quite attractive. Records aren’t currently available to confirm its age but from its style and proof marks (including reproof) it could well be from around 1955. Showing reasonable barrel bluing and deeply blacked action plate, plus very few marks on the woodwork for a gun its age, it’s soon obvious this gun has already been refurbished at some point.
The question is how much work, and how well was it carried out? Speaking with time-served gunsmith John Farrugia, owner of the Cheshire Gun Room and present owner of the Stensby name, explained that actual values will be dependent upon how well any work has been done – a comment that was to prove significant.The action of the Stensby closes tightly. The barrel ‘hook’ – on which the barrels hinge to the action – and the barrel extension appear to have had some tightening work done, resulting in the barrels closing crisply on the face. Some tightening is not unusual in older guns.
The design of this model incorporates a top extension between the barrels that sits in a recess between the fences and held down by a cam on the top lever when the gun is closed. This provides an extra locking point to the sliding A&D style locking wedges that engage the barrel under lumps to provide a very strong locking system.
Sliding a hand under the stock from toe towards the trigger guard was luckily done with caution; had it not been then a finger would have been stabbed or cut by the sharp tip of the now protruding extended strap of the Stensby’s trigger guard. This long strap is an excellent added strengthener for the wrist of the stock and all the more essential in its slimmed down form. However, its raised and sharp point needs attending to. Why not inlet the wood deeper to set the strap flush or sub-flush as it would have been originally? The refinisher no doubt thought of this, but maybe too late. With this style of long tang trigger guard playing its part in strengthening the stock’s wrist and joint to the action body, it means there are several screws involved. Two of these screw fit through the tang into the wood. Their heads are also engraved and head profiles shaped to match the slight curvature of the tang when their heads are tight in the metal tang. The slots for a turnscrew (gunsmith’s term for the screwdrivers they use) are very narrow and precisely cut such that both screws’ slots should neatly line up, and align with the strap. This adds considerably to the neat appearance of any decent gun and; when you see them at odd angles instead of aligned you know the gun has been fiddled with. The refurbisher faced a dilemma: either remove wood to inlay the strap properly, or metal from the underside of the strap this would require the two strap screws remaking to suit, which would be a very time consuming, hence costly, job.
Straight Hand Grip
A casual glance on the gun rack is one thing but closer inspection can take the shine off what may appear a glossy find. The first thing that caught my eye was how slim the straight hand grip of the stock is at the wrist; English game guns are typically slim here, but not usually such that my fairly short fingers overlap ‘thumb past first joint’ of my second finger! This, combined with really crisp chequering indicating a full re-cut, started alarm bells ringing. Closer inspection revealed several things arising from this raise notes of caution and which could render this gun not what it might at first appear.
So much wood has been removed to produce a smooth stock that, not only has the wrist been weakened (already a weak point on such guns if subjected to a hard knock), but it has adversely affected several things ‒ some more important than others. A good clue to excessive wood removal comes from the inlaid metal oval in the underside of the stock. This oval bears no inscription but does show marks of abrasion, to such an extent that in parts it is rubbed completely through! A careful refinisher would and should have removed this oval before sanding the wood, then re-letting it back into the stock (or fitted a fresh one if necessary). This only spoils the look; several other factors are less easily forgiven.
Wood had clearly had been removed from all external stock surfaces, as the stock head wood is below the level of the metal of the action sides when it should be proud. This also resulted in a similar situation with the top strap as the lower tang. It also sits proud of the woodwork when it should be no more than flush fitting; luckily its end is more rounded so it’s not sharp.
For good measure the screw coming up through the stock from the bottom action strap into a threaded hole in the top strap is now too long, whether from removal of some wood or shrinkage is less clear. Whatever the cause, the result is that it protrudes above the top strap but is hidden by the sliding automatic safety catch. This protrusion lifts the safety catch up as it is moved back into the safe position and easily seen from the side. The top strap also shows the remains of some light rusting under the top lever. A magnifying glass reveals abrasion from attempted rust removal here, leading to the gold inlay in the word “SAFE” being rubbed thin. Another area where rust was still present was the mating knuckle joint face of the forend iron and, although greased, the metal was red. This was hard to fathom beyond the refurbisher fearing a loose joint if the rust was polished off.
The barrel bores were well oiled and initially looked fine. Spraying with Bisley bore cleaner and a scrub with a phosphor-bronze brush revealed some staining, possibly light pitting. The bores had already been opened up – besides the original 13 over 1 markings, they also bear the later reproof marks with the bore size (.729in) stamped on the barrel flats. It will need our resident gunsmith to advise whether sufficient metal remains to bore them clean without need of another reproof. I will ask him to check the headspace as a cartridge dropped into either chamber sits slightly askew, with almost no headspace on the extractor side but almost 0.020in on the opposite side. It might just be barrel convergence, but possibly a shade deep. The trigger pulls are also a little light, so I’d seek Tim’s opinion as to whether that’s just fine trigger work, or wear that is reducing sear or bent engagement. The Anson rod forend catch was, at times, excessively tight to depress too.
From the notes above, readers will be picking up several notes of caution. I’m not the gunsmith so we must await his views on the gun and see whether there are sufficient redeeming features to make a cautious purchase sensible. As for the lack of ejectors, I feel the emphasis placed on them is sometimes misplaced. I say this because for a great deal of shooting the need to reload at the speed ejectors allow is just not required. If you spend more time picking up ejected cases than coping with flurries of shots, ponder the actual advantages ejectors are supposed to provide in relation to your shooting days.
In fairness to what had once been a very nice gun that has probably given someone very good service at one point, I felt I should give it an outing on sporting clays. The Stensby’s short chambers required the use of suitable cartridges and I had some Hull Comp X and some of the new Eley 1st Select to hand. While a bit erratic on Park Farm’s very fast overhead clays at first, we gradually improved. Then, on that interesting quartering away rabbit with a longer ‘looper’ against the trees the Stensby came into its own. The flat shooting shotgun with open choke right barrel smashed the rabbit while the half choke left barrel munched the looper nicely. Unfortunately the brass bead flew off the barrel on this stand into the long grass, so it was clearly not as well secured as it should have been! I can see how with its lovely weight and dimensions with reasonably blued barrels and oil finished stock it could appeal and someone pay good money for it. Providing they realise and accept its shortcomings that’s fine, but personally I would put it back on the shelf.