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March 23, 2007

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Who Was The Greatest Gun Writer Of All Time?

In my recent post on Elmer Keith I mentioned that the four major gun writers of the 20th century were Keith himself, Townsend Whelen, Jack O’Connor, and Warren Page. So the next logical step would be to see if one of them stood out over the rest. What the heck? Why not? Their spirits will not be perturbed by anything I say.

The rational way to do this is to create a checklist by which a gun writer can be measured, and see how each one stacks up. Theoretically, at the end, a winner may emerge. So here goes:

Writing: You have to go with O’Connor, who was a highly successful writer before he wrote about guns for a living. Not only he was great in his day, but what he wrote has aged well. Whelen was a good writer, but not a great one, and he is now old-fashioned. Keith could tell a story, and is still fun to read, but no match for O’Connor. Page was competent, and no better.

Experience: In terms of hunting experience, Page in a walk, followed by O’Connor. Keith rarely hunted outside the Rockies, and Whelen was quite limited as a hunter, although he probably had more technical knowledge than anyone except Page.

Influence: Page first, followed by Keith. Page was directly responsible for the .243, the 7mm magnum, and was one of the prime movers behind benchrest shooting, which has been a huge influence on guns. Keith was the daddy of the .44 magnum, and a constant experimenter. Whelen was hugely respect by the gun industry, but I don’t recall that he was an advocate for anything in particular, and O’Connor simply reported on what was there. He made the .270, but he wasn’t responsible for it.

And So? Page should get the nod, but the truth is that O’Connor is the most-remembered, most-quoted, and probably the most-read 30 years after his death. And so, with a heavy heart, I have to give it to him.

But as Jim Carmichel says, “There’s nothing deader than a dead gun writer.”


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John B.

I think you are right in giving the nod to O'Connor, although I disagree with the "reluctantly". O'Connor had a tremendous influence on his readers. You still read comments from people who got the hunting fever from reading Cactus Jack's articles.
Warren Page was a fine writer and had a solid shooting background as well. He was certainly influential as far as the firearms industry went, but he never could really stir the juices like Jack could. I suspect that many new hunters have no idea who Page was.
Elmer was really fun to read. Opinionated and dogmatic. As you say he did a lot of hunting but area-wise it was pretty limited. Although he did finally get his African safari.
Whelan was slightly before my time, but he was dated even then. He had very little widespread hunting experience with the exception of (I think) one trip to the Rockies, which he wrote about many, many times.
An interesting post. (And I still enjoy reading an O'Connor story).


And where does Dave Petzal rank?

#1 in my book, since I know of only two and the other one is that guy who writes the article on the last page of Field and Stream.

What's his name again? He is funny though. So he is a close 2nd

All hail Dave Petzal!!!

No, I'm not a stalker!!!



Charles  Benoit

#1 vote would be Skeeter Skelton even though he was not mentioned. Skeeter really knew how to write, and I am simply shocked that he was not included. His interests in firearms was not limited to just hungting as he was very knowledgeable about law enforcement and self-defense. #2,I would vote for Elmer Keith simply because he is the only one whose books I've read. Of the living writers, Petzal gets my vote.
Charles Benoit


You've probably read more from these authors than the rest of us ever will. Can you pick a single book from each of them which should be required bedtime reading?

Dave M


Back on 2/7/07 you told us to "stay tuned" for a gun nut reading list. Now that you've introduced us to the best writers, are you about to share your thoughts about their best works and get the long awaited list started?


Dave: There is some very good writing in F&S every month. My question: Is there a reason why F&S doesn't reprint some of the GREAT stories/articles from some of the above mentioned "past masters" ?? One article a month from one of these guys would be worth the price of the subscription alone. And if you're not the guy who can make that decision, would you please pass this along to the BONEHEAD who can and should have thought of it sooner himself. Thanks.
p.s. Don't forget - you DID promise a "reading list".


O'Connor was a great writer, no doubt. However, his writing always comes off as arrogant, it seems to me. My favorite gun writer was Gary Sitton. He could tell a story with humor, tell it well, and you always felt like you were right there with him. Bob Milek was another great, IMO. (BTW, do you have to be dead to be considered an all-time great?)

Aaron Pape

. O'Conner was a great writer and still enjoyed today. good pick. Dave Petzel is my number one pick these days, though.


I enjoy all the fore mentioned gun authors. Each has an individual style I appreciate and enjoy. O’Connor seemed more “studied”. I understand he was a journalism profession and a novelist. Page wrote with passion and “pizzazz”. Keith was a down home type. I thought Whelen wrote very well, but very technical such in his two-volume work of interior and exterior ballistics.

Page and O’Connor had considerable breath and depth to their hunting experiences if you can believe their yarns, but people tend to forget IMO Page was a fine target shot and O’Connor was a handloader. Keith had profound knowledge of western hunting conditions in the “Old Days”.

I like Pizza and so do most people, but I like anchovies on mine with mushrooms and pepperoni.


My vote goes to Kieth. I read his autobiography for a 9th grade english report before i had even shot a gun. But after i finished if signed up for my hunter ed. class. Elmer is truely my favorite. And though this might get me stoned i think the Jim Zumbo of 2 months ago was the best living gun writer.


Good choices Dave. Good writing is good writing. O'Connor could have written about any other topic and been successful. Gun writing is hard because some readers crave factual information and want something short of a lab report from a ballistics lab or a dull report from Consumer Reports. Others want the "how to's" of a successful hunt. The best writers can inform, entertain and guide all at the same time. Some of my favorites might be second tier but I have all of their books and they are treasures. Robert Ruark, Peter Hathaway Capstick and Jeff Cooper among the departed. Jim Carmichael is pretty good for a living guy. Dave, you need to write a book. An autobiography would be a good start. I would be happy to have "The Wit and Wisdom of Dave Petzel". Let me know when to send the check.

John Van Zant

Elmer keith,was nothing but a poacher,turned guide,turned bull boviner. Jack O,conner was the best in my opinion. anybody whom tried to and di convience the public,that he shot a deer on the run at 600yds with a 44 mag pistol,is full of it, to begin with!! I can say one thing in his behalf,at least he was in "the field" as many didn,t leave their desk,and just wrote stuff off the top of there head!! How, do i know,as in Keiths words! "hell i was there and knew a lot of them"

Pastor Thos. B. Fowler

I enjoyed the hand me downs of Jack O'Conner from my Dad, who developed a wildcat 7mmMag long before Page did. I spent several evenings in Col. Whelen's gun room listening to Pop and the Colonel talk guns, but was oblivious to the history going on there. I enjoyed Skeeter Skelton, a lot, and John Ross [seldom featured], and loved the straight talking bold style of Jeff Cooper. Who wrote the 'Lower Forty'? That was a good series, and Bob Brister was a talented story teller as well. I have met and liked Jim Carmichael, but his best writing may yet be ahead of him, when he can write for fun, not deadlines.
It may very well be that the very best writers have never been published, or never pursued 'greatness' in that field. Gun magazines have helped produce audiences and have given pulpits to writers...but greatness is something we might have a hard time agreeing on.
Write on Petzel...we're listening.

Tom Fowler


This is a great thread. As mentioned above, Bob Brister could write about shotgunning. Don Zutz was good also. Don could make one appreciate a fine Italian gun with words alone. I have learned more about handloading from Maj. George Nonte than anyone else, living or dead. It's too bad some writers are not appreciated until they are gone. Get busy on that book Dave.

Gable Sadovsky

I am going to Canada on a deer hunt this fall. The largest rifle I own is a .270, and the guide sais the shots will be really close (under 75 yds). I need a recomendation for bullets (I use Federal 130gr. sierra gamekings currently, but this is for shooting deer in TX--out to 300yds) what should I use in Canada?


I agree with the O'Connor choice of the departed writers. But there is another writer who I consider better than Cactus Jack,and more influential, and he is blessedly still alive, and that is John Barsness.
He is much more analytical and investigative than any current or past writer, and he can create pure magic with his words.
He is on the leading edge of what works, what does not, and most importantly, why, concerning bullets, rifles, cartridges,powders and hunting.

Dave, my guess is that he would also be your choice too.


I agree with the O'Connor choice of the departed writers. But there is another writer who I consider better than Cactus Jack,and more influential, and he is blessedly still alive, and that is John Barsness.
He is much more analytical and investigative than any current or past writer, and he can create pure magic with his words.
He is on the leading edge of what works, what does not, and most importantly, why, concerning bullets, rifles, cartridges,powders and hunting.

Dave, my guess is that he would also be your choice too.

Richard Hayes

Being 67 I experienced all of the mentioned writers. I have to say that Warren Page influenced me more in the field of hunting and shooting than the other three combined. O'Conner is a good writer, but overall knowledge of both hunting and shooting it is Page by far.

Dennis Smith

Truth is, I admired and respected all of them (still do).

They were the best at what they did in their repective fields, and in their time: Keith the big, slow bullet guy; O'Connor, the high velocity advocate; Page, the ballistics lab techie, etc. etc.

In terms of sheer reader influence and literary skills, though, I'd have to say O'Connor has a leg up, but then I've read more of his work than the others, so that's an admittedly biased answer.

Finn Aagard, Bob Hagel, Ken Waters, Ross Seyfried and a few others should be considered as well.

Among today's gun writers, I enjoy Dave Petzal for his biting wit, New Yawk City sarcasm and general hilarity.

But, where technical expertise, clarity of thought and the ability to simplify the complex without indulging his ego are concerned, John Barsness is without peer. He's factual, humble, entertaining and a superb wordsmith. He may yet prove to be the best of the best.

Dick Filippini

To the guy who mentioned Gary (G.) Sitton, you nailed it. In MHO he was outstanding, one of the very best of this generation of gun writers. Read Dave's tribute and the comments in his 4/27/06 post. I really miss his writing. He could tell a story better than most of todays clan. If you want to read good gun writing, technical and otherwise, try Wolfe Publishing's magazines: Rifle, Handloader & Successful Hunting. Barsness writes for all three and he's very good. (Excellent pick, Mr. Carberry.) I take all three and have dumped all the rest except for F&S - Petzal & Heavey alone keep me there. Gun writers, living and dead, are kinda like pizza, beer & women - we all have our favorites and thankfully, we still have choices.


All mentioned were great in their own right. Townsend Whelen probably knew more about firearms in his day than the others, by comparison. I enjoy reading John Barsness these days more than the rest (except you Dave). But I get a little sentimental everytime I shoot a half-MOA group or take a deer or elk with my .35 Whelen.


to Dick F. (above post):
Is there such a thing as bad pizza or beer?

Dick Filippini

To Mtnhunter: Bad beer? No, although some are better than others. Bad pizza? Yes. If it's got fruit on it, I'll pass. And we don't want to talk about the third one.

Dave Petzal

To all: Thanks for the kind words. But no book. At least not now.

To Gable Sadovski: I am a great fan of Sierra bullets, but not for everything. Those are big deer up there. I would look at Swift A-Frames, Barnes XXXs, or Nosler Partitions.

Roger Reeves

To Gable: If going on a hunt and pay the price of todays hunts, carry enough gun to kill what-ever may cross your path, even the big old bears. I;m 72 and hunted since I was 10 yrs old here on my N>C> Farm. My first gun after the BB was a 16 ga shotgun. I;ve hunted thru out the west in past 20 yrs and had many guns. I would suggest the 30-06 for a all round hunting weapon. With the assortment of ammo available, you will not go wrong with a 06. I killed a 4 x 4 last year in MT at 345 yds one shot using my Rem CDL 06 with Scricco l80 gr Ammo. Bullet never dropped more than 4" in that distance. I zero all my hunting guns @200 yds dead on,.AS for gun writers, I like all 4 mentioned by Dave. Never did believe OcConnor used the 270 always. Bet he sneaked in a larger caliber when bear hunting. Keith, was/is my pick. But we all got our opinions. That's what's so good about the good old USA, we can voice our opinions and not worry about being shot. As for calibers, if hunting only deer, my pick would be a 25-06 with Winchester Ballastic Tip in ll5 grs. It will fly flat and hard out to 500 yds. Got a Lope Last year in Wy @325 yds. Here in N.C.we don;t get shots that long, usually 200 or less. If hunting the woods, I use the MArlin 30-30 336 for fast shots. But again, if had only l firearm wwould be a 30-06, its large enough for most game, adn recoil is manageable, or is with me. At my age the Magums kill my shulders. Bought a 300 WSM, shot 3 times, and sold that sucker and bought another 30-06.I;m told, that more 06 ammo sold than all the other combined, except the 22's. HAve fun and good hunting ;Roger

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