Keith Sutton: Roosevelt record

In March, I reported on the sale of Nash Buckingham's Bo-Whoop, the fabled 12-gauge HE Grade Super Fox shotgun once owned by the renowned author of Tattered Coat, De Shootinest Gent'man and other outdoor classics.

At a March 15, 2010, auction, the gun brought a whopping $201,250, the third-highest auction record attained for an American shotgun.

Now, James D. Julia Auctions in Fairfield, Maine, the same auction company that sold Bo-Whoop, has established a record with the sale of an even more famous Fox shotgun, a Fox "F" Grade, double-barrel 12-gauge owned by President Theodore Roosevelt that sold on Oct. 5 for $862,500 (final price with premium), making it the most expensive American shotgun ever sold at auction. (The second highest American shotgun was an L.C. Smith Deluxe also sold by this firm, in March 2008, which realized $235,750.)

The Roosevelt shotgun has an intriguing history. Records indicate it was originally being made for display at the 1909 Grand American World Trapshooting Championship in Chicago. The work order stated it was to be an F grade fitted with 30-inch barrels choked modified and full, with an automatic safety, a trigger pull of 5 pounds on the right and 6 pounds on the left, and a total weight of 7 pounds, 8 ounces. A notation on the order card said "This gun is for exhibition purposes and must be as perfect as skill can make it."

The shotgun never made it to the Grand American, however. When that event took place, the 12-gauge was in Africa with Teddy Roosevelt.

In 1901, when President William McKinley was assassinated, Roosevelt became the U.S.'s 26th president at the age of 42, taking office at the youngest age of any U.S. president in history.

During his almost eight years in office, he became the most popular president since Abraham Lincoln and one of history's most noted conservationists and outdoorsmen.

By 1908, however, he was tired of politics and public life. He declined to run for reelection and began making plans for a much-desired hunting safari in Africa with his son Kermit. This would become the most famous safari of the twentieth century, and the Fox shotgun would be part of it.

Some think Roosevelt's wife Edith ordered the gun as a gift for her husband. That could be the case, but it seems more likely that someone at A.H. Fox Gun Company, probably president Ansley Fox, saw an opportunity for some excellent advertising if the gun accompanied Roosevelt on his highly publicized adventure.

Whatever the case, the Fox was diverted from its intended use as an exhibition gun and presented to the former president. Afterwards, Roosevelt sent a thank-you note to Ansley Fox:

My dear Mr. Fox:

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 extremely proud that I am to have such a beautiful bit of American workmanship with me.

Sincerely yours,
Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt left the office of president on March 4, 1909, and on the 23rd, he and Kermit steamed out of New York harbor. On April 21, they arrived in Mombasa, British East Africa, boarded a train and met their safari at Kapiti Plains.

For 11 months, with an entourage of 250 porters and guides, the Roosevelts traveled across British East Africa, into the Belgian Congo and back to the Nile, ending in Khartoum.

During that time, they hunted for specimens for the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History. The group included scientists from the Smithsonian and was led by the legendary hunter-tracker R. J. Cunninghame. Famous big-game hunter and explorer Frederick Selous also joined them from time to time.

All told, Roosevelt and his companions killed or trapped 11,397 animals, including 11 elephants, 20 rhinoceroses, 17 lions, 20 zebras, seven hippopotamuses, seven giraffes and six buffalos.

During the safari, Roosevelt wrote monthly essays for Scribner's Magazine, dispatching the manuscripts from camp to Nairobi by runner. In one of these, published in October 1909, he said: "I had a Fox No. 12 shotgun; no better gun was ever made."

The Fox Company had never used testimonial advertising to the extent some other American gunmakers did, but this was too good to pass up. The company capitalized on Roosevelt's endorsement, seeing that the former president's opinion on Fox guns was quoted in all the trade journals. Fox continued pounding the Roosevelt drum for years, even including the text of his letter to Ansley Fox in their 1915 catalog.

The articles Roosevelt wrote for Scribner's formed much of the content in African Game Trails, Roosevelt's straightforward chronicle of the adventure published in 1910. In it, he tells how the Fox shotgun was used for killing a wide variety of gamebirds desired by the expedition's scientists, including "Egyptian geese, yellow-billed mallards, francolins, spurfowl and sand grouse ... "

The gun proved to be "an exceptionally hard-hitting and close-shooting weapon ... " he wrote.

The shotgun also accompanied Roosevelt on his famous expedition through the Brazilian wilderness in 1914. And thanks to Roosevelt's writings, it became one of the most famous firearms ever made.

The gun stayed in the Roosevelt family for three generations. In 1974, it was sold to a Fox gun collector named Tom Kidd. Kidd sold the gun to its next owner, who prefers to remain unnamed, in 2000. It was that owner who put the gun up for sale through James D. Julia.

At the Oct. 5 auction, the much-anticipated lot opened with an absentee bid of $150,000 and moved steadily upward as four phone bidders sparred among themselves for the right to own the national treasure.

A full house of well over 200 participants and onlookers cheered and clapped as the hammer fell and the gun sold to an unnamed private collector for a record-setting $862,500. A rolling murmur persisted for several minutes afterward as spectators contemplated among themselves the history-making event they had just witnessed.

"The Fox gun becomes the most expensive American shotgun ever sold at auction and the second most expensive single firearm ever sold at auction," said Wes Dillon with the firearms division of James D. Julia. (A rare Colt Walker pistol sold by Julia Auctions in 2008 is the most expensive at $920,000.)

"Included with the lot inside the brass-bound, oak-and-leather hard case were a vintage Evinrude outboard motor tool/wrench thought to be from Roosevelt's 'River of Doubt' South American expedition; an H&H marked turnscrew thought to be from the H&H Royal Double rifle, which also accompanied Roosevelt on the African safari; and remnants of linen pajamas thought to be Roosevelt's and used as gun wraps."

For more information, click this link to visit James D. Julia's auction catalog pages.