In 1921, at the age of 34, Aldo Leopold was Chief of Operations for the U.S. Forest Service in the Southwest. While very successful in his chosen career, working for the U.S. Government in 1921 guaranteed a steady paycheck but was not a road to riches. He and his beloved wife Estella had settled in their home in Albuquerque and just about completed the task of making sure that there were several children to carry on the family legacy—only Estella (1927) had not yet been born. One could presume that feeding and clothing themselves as well as Starker, Luna, Nina, and Carl occasionally stretched the family finances pretty thin. Luxuries were probably at a minimum and certainly any major purchases would have required some discussion.
Who knows what convinced Leopold that his hunting gear was not complete. Maybe it was the full-page advertisement in the January 1921 issue of Hunter Trapper Trader magazine, encouraging you to “gratify that age-old instinct to go a-hunting,” further explaining that this activity would be greatly diminished if a hunter was not accompanied by a gun that was “hard-hitting, smooth in action, dependable, and suited perfectly to you.”
Or maybe it was Theodore Roosevelt’s tales of his great hunting adventures with his shotgun by the maker of Leopold’s interest. On February 11, 1909, upon receipt of a new A.H. Fox shotgun to be used on his now-famous 1909 African Safari, President Roosevelt penned a letter to Mr. Fox stating, “the double-barreled shotgun has come, and I really think it is the most beautiful gun I have ever seen. I am exceedingly proud of it. I am almost ashamed to take it to Africa and expose it to the rough usage it will receive. But now that I have it, I could not possibly make up my mind to leave it behind. I am greatly obliged to you, and I am extremely proud to have such a beautiful bit of American workmanship with me.” It is well documented that several U.S. firearms companies saw a marked increase in sales once Roosevelt’s hunting stories were published. There can be no doubt that Leopold read these captivating tales. Whatever the reason, Aldo Leopold began the quest to purchase “The Finest Gun in the in the World.”
So in January, 1921, with a pocket full of money, Leopold set off on the journey to secure a special-order A.H. Fox shotgun. It is likely he boarded a steam train on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railway in Albuquerque and began the over 300-mile journey to Colorado Springs, Colo. The train did not go through to Colorado Springs and he would have had to spend at least a day in La Junta, Colo., waiting for the spur link that would take him to his final destination. Perhaps dreams of great hunts to come occupied his mind as he waited anxiously for the train.
Upon arrival, Leopold headed for 107 North Tejon St., the location of the famous Colorado Sporting Goods Company. Widely known as the store that had “Everything for the Sportsman,” it was a destination for all who sought to go afield. Outdoor gear of every kind lined the shelves—lanterns and axes, pup tents and wall tents, horse harnesses and panniers. A visit to the store was an adventure in itself, tempting all those who love the rough and tumble of the outdoor life. Many things must have piqued his interest, but it was the gun section that Leopold had come to visit. At the counter he met with store manager Otis McIntyre, resident expert on all things related to outdoor pursuits and the only one allowed to take orders for the A.H. Fox Gun Company of Philadelphia.
They no doubt perused the order catalog that listed all models of the Fox shotguns available. But Leopold wasn’t satisfied with one of the ready-made models. It is here that he showed his keen knowledge of firearms. His specifications were those of someone who wanted a shooter’s gun, but with a touch of elegance—a gun that would be an example of American gunmakers’ art but still be reliable, fast-handling, and capable of taking game birds of all kinds, geese to grouse; a gun that would fit the bill sitting in a duck blind or walking the grasslands; a gun that would last a lifetime.
Leopold ordered an A.H. Fox double-barrel, 20-gauge shotgun engraved XE grade. He specified the barrels to be 30 inches in length, 2¾-inch chambers, and the chokes (bore constriction that controls shot pattern) to be improved cylinder in the right barrel and full choke in the left, allowing him a fairly broad pattern on close birds but also the choice of a tighter pattern at those further off or maybe a little harder to bring down. The gun was to weigh a mere six pounds, allowing it to be carried on long treks without fatigue. Its pistol grip stock was hand-fitted and finished beautiful American walnut. He ordered it without a safety. Before leaving, he paid Otis McIntyre the princely sum of $87.50 as a down payment on the shotgun, the balance to be paid upon delivery. The total purchase price of $175 would be equivalent to nearly $2,300 today—quite the luxury purchase for a young man with a young family!
The XE engraving pattern on the gun was a favorite among many of the discriminating shooters of the day. The pattern, developed in 1913 for A.H. Fox by world-renowned engraver William Gough, turned the shotgun into a canvas and a timeless work of art. Tasteful scrolling, combined with game scenes and the ever-present fox, wind around the receiver and the breech end of the barrels.
It is interesting that Leopold ordered the gun specifically without a safety. While that may seem strange in today’s “gotta protect everyone from everything” world, his experience as a hunter influenced this choice. Hunting journal entries dated prior to him ordering his new shotgun provide some insight.
Lower Tome Point & Square Lake
December 31, 1920, January 1 and 2, 1921
Just about sunrise as we were putting away the breakfast dishes, full of confidence, hope, and hotcakes. I heard a faint honk and there were ten big Canadas passing up the river about 20 yards high and 50 yards from camp. I made a wild grab for the gun rack, led a big honker about ten feet, and pulled… that awful feeling… had Ward’s gun and it was on safety. D____ a safety.
Real shooters of years gone by and today are very aware that there is little danger in a gun going off unless you pull the trigger, and so a safety, a mechanical device with the potential for failure, was not as sure as keeping your finger off the trigger or holding the gun broken open until you were ready to shoot.
The finished gun arrived six months later in July of 1921 and was picked up by a doubtless very excited Aldo Leopold. Leopold took his gun on its inaugural hunt in September of 1921. His hunting journal again documents the events.
Foothills west of Barelas Bridge, Sept 15, 1921.
7 doves. 19 shells. 3 shells per bird.
First trial with the new 20 gauge gun, bulk powder, and glasses. Couldn’t connect at first but later did a little better. Using 2¼ drams Dupont, 7/8 oz no. 8. Flick was very disappointing, mauling all the birds badly. Probably the combination of burrs and loose feathers got on his nerves.
Today, Leopold’s Fox resides at the Leopold Center in Baraboo, Wis. The 92-year-old shotgun, shows the honest wear of a life in the field, but also the care afforded a great possession. The finish is tarnished around the receiver where Leopold’s hand carried the gun. The figured walnut stock has some dings and scratches—likely well-earned from traversing brush and bramble, following the dog in pursuit of the birds of the day. Looking at and holding the shotgun takes you back to the days of Aldo Leopold. You might fantasize that it is a late fall hunt on the Wisconsin River. You might smoothly swing the little 20, tracking the path of imaginary ducks or geese, feeling yourself embracing the day. The story of Leopold’s shotgun reminds us that Leopold the conservationist was also Leopold the hunter.
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the foundation’s Outlook magazine, Summer, 2013.