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March 09, 2007

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Why You Need to Know Old Elmer

Not Elmer Fudd, Elmer Keith--one of the four pre-eminent gun writers of the 20th century (the other three being O’Connor, Whelen, and Page). In 1974, while at the National Sporting Goods Association show, Winchester Press gave me a book titled Keith—an Autobiography. (Snappy title, huh? No wonder they’re long out of business). I wasn’t a fan of Keith’s, but I started to read it on the flight home and I was hooked for fair. The plane could have crashed and I wouldn’t have stopped reading.

Elmer Keith in his 20s or early 30s. The photo is from the Field & Stream archive.

Elmer Keith was born in 1899, and spent much of his early life in Montana, which at that time was still the Wild West. When he was 11, he was terribly burned in an arson fire, and by all rights should not have survived. Reading about his suffering makes your skin crawl. But survive he did, and he later became a cowboy, hunting guide, competitive shooter and, in the late 1930s, a highly successful gun writer.

Keith became famous as the father of the .44 Magnum, and as the Exalted High Poobah of big-bore rifles. He staged a legendary and long-lived feud with Jack O’Connor, who often ridiculed him in print, but to thousands and thousands of shooters, Keith’s writings were the Revealed Word.

Keith was a rarity in that he was an expert with rifle, revolver (he was no fan of automatics), and shotgun, and wrote influential books about all three. I never saw him shoot, but I knew people who did, and they said it was like watching a snake strike. His most famous single shot was at a mule deer at 600 yards with an iron-sighted (no scopes on handguns then) revolver. He said he killed it, and he probably did.

There are lots of Keith books around, but the place to start is with his full autobiography (the Winchester book is considerably shortened) Hell, I Was There. If you become a fan, I also recommend Sixguns and Guns and Ammo for Hunting Big Game.

Keith died an especially cruel death. In 1979 he suffered a stroke, and spent the next five years in a nursing home until he passed away. They are not making gun writers like Ol’ Elmer any more.


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Paul Kowalski

Being 55, life member of the NRA since 1973,reloader since the first clinton administration (lower case intentional)and having read everything more than once including my American Rifleman magazines since 1971(still have them all on file.
I am glad to see Skeeter Skelton get a vote. He was loved and will be missed.
As for current writers, I enjoy Mike Venturino, Rick Jamison and Sheriff Jim Wilson. Why Shooting times lost the first two is beyond me. I may be rethinking my subscription.
About Hoppes: as someone with a background in Chemical Engineering, I loved the original Hoppes with nitrobenzine. ( Still have a quart stashed away). Loved the smell.
For general purposes, I've been mixing my own "Ed's red bore cleaner" Formula on the web and from a cleaner recipe from Maj. Gen Julian Hatcher in "Hatcher's Notebook" A must read for anyone interested in firearms and ballistics. He wasn't a writer, but boy did he keep notes on his experiments!!!.

Ed's Red: Equal parts, I use one quart each, of: Acetone, Turpentine, Kerosene and DexronII auto transmission fluid.

You can use paint thinner instead of the turpentine, But real turpentine smells better and is available. The Dexron II replaces sperm whale oil from the original recipe. Pure lanolin can be added as well, but I have not done this.
Great for rimfires and shotguns. Save the good stuff for the copper fouling. And may the last good smell you remember be Ed's Red


The 600 yard kill was an elk. One day he shot one with 44 magnum handgun, probably one of the first Model 29 that were available to him as the creator of same. Since so many were skeptical of the shot the next day he did it AGAIN.

Del in Kansas

In 1979 the NRA convention was in Kansas city at Bartle hall. While there I had the great fortune to run into Mr. and Mrs Elmer Keith in the exibit hall. My all time favorite writer was friendly, gracious and took the time to talk guns with me while a small entourage waited. He was the real deal. Back when he was young most bullets were poorly made and often failed at high velocity. Large heavy bullets don't go to pieces and fail to penetrate. It's as valid today as it was then but now we have quality bullets by Nosler, Barnes,Swift and others that hold together at high velocity. Spelling be damned Elmer was a hell of a good writer and I don't doubt for a minute he made the shot.

roger estes

Dave - Do you know if Rick Jamison writes for an gun magazine anymore? I'd take a subscription to the magazine if I could just find one! Thanks,Roger


It is not possible to kill a mule deer, and especially not an elk, at 600 yards with a 44 magnum pistol, especially with iron sights. It cannot be done, it has not been done, it will not be done. I would love to be proven wrong, but do not expect it in my lifetime. Ask yourself - would you shoot at an elk at 600 yards with a scoped Marlin lever action in 44 magnum, and expect to have any chance of actually killing it? Then what chance would you have with your model 29? I don't care how many boxes of ammo you put through it practicing. Keith was a good writer but he was also a fearless self promoter.

Patrick G.

I believe that he did make that 600 yard shot - unless I'm mistaken, that elk had already been hit, so it wasn't really a matter of being reckless - the other guy was out of ammo so Elmer asked if he could get in on it and lobbed some rounds down range. Let's put it another way - it seems so fantastical that anyone who would claim such a thing would instantly be labeled a liar, right? Don't you think Elmer KNEW that? And yet, he chose to tell it like it was anyway. I think that it was probably a fluke more than anything (and the way he wrote it, I think he thought it was a fluke too) but I do believe that it happened, and exactly like he said it did.

john reinhart

Enjoyed note on Elmer Keith but you're off a bit on the year he had his stroke. One of my most prized items is a photo of Elmer with his arm around my shoulder taken at the 1980 Outstanding American Handgunner Awards Foundation party in KC, MO. Elmer was there with wife Lorraine. Seems to me Elmer had is stroke later that year. I know it was the last NRA/OAHA event he attended. A great man ... big bore handgnners all owe him much.

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