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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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Milton  Burton

I think Page had a degree from Harvard in the classics. One funny story is that he was innitially a fisherman. He went to F&S to apply for the fishing editor job, but it had been filled by a guy I read for years but whose name escapes me. At any rate, he was told they needed a shooting editor also. He went home, brushed up on his firearms lore, and got the job. I too would vote for O'Connor. Not only was he a great writer, but he was blessed with enormous common sense as well. I have, however, read that he could be hard to get along with. I enjoyed Keith, but like the guy above I had my doubts about some of his more extraordinary claims.

Milton  Burton

A.J. McClain was the fishing editor at F&S whose name I couldn't remember yesterday.

Milton  Burton

A.J. McClain was the fishing editor at F&S whose name I couldn't remember yesterday.


Col. Whelen had considerable influence on handloading ("Why Not Load Your Own"); benchrest shooting ("The Ultimate in Rifle Precision"); and handgun forensics. He also hunted Central America while being staioned in Panama.

Mike Reeder

I agree that O'Connor tops the list of gun writers but I think you sell him a little short in terms of influence. He wasn't a wildcatter so he didn't do much in the way of cartridge development, but his influence can certainly be seen in light, classically stocked rifles like the Ruger 77, Remington Mt. Rifle, Winchester featherweight, etc. O'Connor did more than anyone I can think of to convince rifle makers to make their products more easy to tote over hill and dale. He was also an early advocate for scopes at a time when glass optics were regarded with suspicion and he surely influenced several generations in favor of modern, high velocity cartridges. I get the impression that some of the people who disparage O'Connor's opinions never actually read anything he wrote.
I actually read all the guys you mentioned growing up and enjoyed them all. I never put much stock in Keith's opinions but he was a hoot to read. His favorite shot seemed to be a the back-end of a spooked elk in heavy timber. No wonder he favored howitzers! If you expand the group to include hunting as well as pure gun writers then Ruark was wonderful, although his shooting and gun knowledge were abysmal. Capstick is another favorite, as was Finn Aagard. I'm a sports writer myself and had the pleasure of doing a feature story on him once, and he really did seem like one of the nicest guys you'd ever want to meet. Gene Hill and Corey Ford also rank high on any list.

Nigel deForrest-Pearce

Gary Sitton was a fine writer who, when our paths would cross, was always generous with advice and assistance. His finely crafted writing and common sense outlook will always influence me.

Finn Aagard fits in the same mold. Far more interested in hunting as opposed to firearms for their own sake, he was a great guide to to the art of hunting. Finn, Gary and Bob Milek still share a campfire, musing on the day's lessons, always willing to share with those of us willing to listen.

Of those writers still with us, Ross Seyfried is unafraid to share incomprable experience and acerbic opinions with an elegant style. You know what he thinks,and why.

John Barsness brings scientific method, a practical outlook and intellectual honesty to artfully written articles.

Brian Pearce is a bit raw, but always worth the read.

As for the negative...why bother?

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