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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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Charles  Benoit

Sixguns is my favorite book of all time. Could not keep track of the number of times I've read it. This book should be in everyone's home library next to the Bible.


O’Connor didn’t have much use for any caliber over .30, except for the 375 H and H*. Keith didn’t have much use for anything smaller than .30-caliber, or so in the books and articles I read by these two. Obviously, the real hunting world is somewhere in between.

*Not a fan of the 375 as a dangerous game rifle or for plains and mountain hunting. I believe the .338 and .35 calibers are better balance cartridges and can use standard length actions.


Mr. Keith is another author worth collecting and studying. If you follow all of his advice, you could wind up with bruised shoulders, detached retinas and migraine headaches. But you would also have a great time.


I enjoyed reading both Keith and O’Connor when I was young and although I agreed with Keith on the 44 magnum and like shooting the 35 caliber, I have always liked the 270 Win thinking it the most practice open country number, and now I have taken to the 260 Rem as it has many similar qualities. Along with the 308 Win. and the 7-08 Rem these and the 30-06 remain favorites.

However, I think it interesting that the 45-70 has captured so much attention; despite some exaggeration, I do agree that the ‘old solder’ is a great heavy woods caliber and will take the heaviest game in North America. This seems to be indicative that the words of Keith, as well as O’Connor are alive and well!


I have read several accounts of how poor Keith was in sentence structure, grammar and spelling. His manuscripts had to be severely edited by his publishers. It is a credit to his technical ability that he was able to become a writer at all. Can you imagine that happening today?


D Boone shot a bar

Dr. Killdeer

Seriously... that 600 yard shot with a .44... you'd have to sight the gun like a mortar. Besides, Myth Busters determined that falling bullets are not lethal. Something's wrong here.


Mythbusters determined bullets falling straight down, after being fired straight up, pulled soley by the force of gravity, are not lethal. They said that bullets travelling at an arc after being fired at an angle can indeed be lethal.

Dr. Killdeer

Agree... But still having a hard time with this one. Sounds like Davey Crockett or Daniel Boone lore

Scott Campanaro

600 yards seems doable - you have to remember Elmer shot more in a month than most people will shoot in their whole lives.

With natural ability and practice you can do quite a bit - I shoot with some guys who regularly (75%) hit a 20" gong at 200 meters with .22s I banged away at it for about 10 rounds until I put a .44 on it (once you get the hold over you should be able to hit the target at about 50%... better as you practice).

IF you were to make a practice of it you could get to where you hit consistently and not have to waste as much ammo as I did walking it on... on a 6-7" brrl you are probably going to have to hold past the front site post base an have some brrl in the rear sight. Using the "shoot over the leg" hold (kind of an old creedmore shooting position) you should do quite well.

If you set up a 55 gal drum at 600 yards and committed to 1500-2000 rounds of practice... I think most people would get it down.

Roger E. Reeves,  Sr.

If you have not read Keith's books, you have missed teh best books ever written on guns and hunting. Too bad he nefver got to write anymore. Thanks to Keith, we have the 44 mag. His Son is still alive and well. He does have a few of the 44 Mag with Keith's name on it for sale. Sorry, I don;t have his address. But, once you begin reading, you cannot stop. By far best guns books and Autobiography I ever read

Being a BIG BORE Fan, I liked Keith's writings and I seem to appreciate them more so as time goes on. I would say he is "old school" in a fast paced World that helps me slow down and smell the roses.

William Limpert

Agree with all prev comments re Keith. Just imagine the fun he could have had with the S&W .460 or .500.

Dr. Killdeer

I cannot disbelieve Keith's shot, as I do believe the famous 2,500 yd. shot of Hathcock. Different target, same super-human skill.


Many people have discredited Mr. Keith's 600 yard handgun shot as impossible. I have watched shooters regularly topple rams at 200 meters during IHMSA shoots and do believe it could be done consistently at distances much beyond that range. I have personally put all six rounds from my 7.5 inch Redhawk into a coffee can at 100 yards, so I know that modern handguns are certainly capable of fine accuracy.

I never met Mr. Keith personally, but his friend and fellow pistolero, Bill jordan, answered the question best when he offered anyone who thought Elmer was a liar the opportunity to let him shoot at them at the same distance. There were no takers.

John B.

Years back I ordered some of Elmer's books directly from him in Salmon Idaho. He autographed them of course, but also hand corrected publishing errors. Captions wrong, etc. It was really neat. Always wished that I had gone down to Salmon and dropped in on him for a chat. He was apparently quite accessible.


Always loved reading Keith. His book Safari (now a collector's item) was filled with beautiful pictures. As a teenager, I was enthralled with that book. Another excellent writer is Col. Charles Askins. Read his autobiography "Unrepentent Sinner"
for highly entertaining reading. He takes shots at Keith and O'Connor both in this book.


In the world of writers from the 50’s and 60s, Jack O’Connor or Elmer Keith were the two I disliked the most. Some of this initially had to do with my envy of their access to anything and everything hunting/shooting and how they clearly took it for granted. Most of it had to do with their overt egotism in a world of egotistic writers.

There were always two things that bother me about Keith’s (and O”Connor’s) views that prevented me from him too seriously. First, he characteristically viewed his opinion as fact. I don’t question his vast, first-hand experience. But, as another outdoor writer once quoted, he suffered from believing his experiences comprised all there was to know about a subject (i.e., if he could kill a grizzly at 300 yds with a .44 magnum handgun then any hunter that couldn’t was at fault). Second, as accomplished as he was, he took shots that can only be described as stunts and which no responsible hunter should ever attempt.

Reading Keith is interesting the first time around. After that, his all-knowing, “Hell – I Was There” attitude rings of bragging from a know-it-all. I also don't like having to trust a writer who's expliots too often smack of BS.


I'm no sycophant (read asskisser), but your a pretty good writer yourself.

Still I look forward to more of "The Guns I own" segmants!!

Or maybe some segmants on new guns?



al the infidel

600 yds? The better you are, the luckier you are......


I read 'hell i was there' in 9th grade before i started hunting (none of my family hunts, or anyone is so cal for that matter) and it converted me. It is a great read cover to cover and the reason i started hunting. I owe every outing in the woods to Elmer Kieths writings

O Garcia

Both O'Connor and Keith were right. Problem was, they were too proud and stubborn to see that.

Charles  Benoit

One thing I have to give credit to "Sixguns", it really gave me a lot of confidence in shooting a handgun. I always doubted my ability to shoot well in my earlier years, but after reading the book many, many times, I begin to look forward to practicing handgun shooting and to improving my skills. Skeeter Skelton also had an influence on me too, but Elmer's books really had a big impact. Both men agreed that practice was the constant key to improvement.

I still consider myself a very poor shot with any type of firearm, but I've got better over the years. The 44 mag is my favorite gun thanks to Elmer. Regards,
Charles Benoit

Blue Ox

I am all about big bore wheel guns. Was happy with my super blackhawk (.44mag) untill I outgrew it. Moved up to a redhawk in .454 casull. Found it lacking. The S&W .500 wasn't bad, but I wanted more. My current love affair is with Magnum research's BFR in .450 marlin. The recoil doesn't phase me but I'm having trouble with the grip- it's waaay too small. (my hands are 5 1/2 inches across at the knuckles.)Can anyone give me a suggestion on where I can have some custom grips made? Go F&S!!

I have many orig. letters wrtten to a friend of mine by Keith. $$ cannot buy them ( 50 or more letters) Spelling was not his best suite, but you can understand what he his saying and trying to convey to us so called marksmen. Yes, I believe he killed the deer at 600 yds with a handgun, as much pratice will help all of us when the game is there. I just wish I had the time and WANT TO to pratice more. I do a lot pior to hunting season, but need to each week. Last year I was hunting in Montana and did kill a nice 4 x 4 deer at 345 yds with a 30-06, one shot, He fell in his tracts. I also hunted Antelope in WY and killed a nice lope at 325 yds, one shot using a 25-06. Both guns had good scopes ( Nikon's Monarch's) each gun was zeroed in @ 200 yds and I shot them a lot prior to the hunts. I knew where the bullet would strike each shot and knew how my guns would take certain ammo over other brands. To be successful, you got to have good equiptment, Ammo, scopes and pratice a lot to know where your bullet is going to hit. I bet Elmer shot more in a week, than most of us shoot in a lifetime. Wish I had had the opportunity to visit with Elmer, but we put off the important things in life until its too late. Many outfitters tell me, that 50% of their customes come out on a dream hunt and buy a high $ gun, scope, etc and never fied it prior. They tell the guide, that it was bore sighed at 100 yds by the dealer. We all know thats more or less a guess, just to hopefully get you on paper at 50-100 yds. .O well, to each his own. At 72 yrs of age, I hope to take a nice animal with a 44 mag Blackhawk with 7 l/2" bbl before my hunting days are over.Another piece of equiptment I would not go West with out is a quality rangefinder. The way the land rolls and tumbles, we may think is only 200 yds to the game, but in reality is near 400 yds. I learned that the hard way many yrs ago, when I shot under a nice Elk, thinking he was 200 yds away and he was 300 yds out. Happy hunting guys.

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