Discover The Golden Age Of Gun Writing In Gun Digest Classics

The book includes a 16-page full-color section featuring the gun collection of Elmer Keith, courtesy James Julia Auction Company.
The book includes a 16-page full-color section featuring the gun collection of Elmer Keith, courtesy James Julia Auction Company.

Gun Digest Classics, a new Heritage Series book, features 53 classic stories from the world’s greatest gun writers, and a full-color section highlighting the gun collection of Elmer Keith.

What You'll Find In Gun Digest Classics

  • Stories of Jack O’Connor’s famous hunts
  • Townsend Whelen’s tips on rifle accuracy
  • Charles Askins’ insights on handgun shooting
  • Elmer Keith’s gun collection in full color

The 1940s and 1950s are regarded by many as the heyday of American gun writing. So it must have been divine providence for Gun Digest to have debuted when it did. That’s because the publication’s first edition, rolling off presses in 1944, would culminate with — and go on to feature — the best gun writers of that era. This would prove to be fortuitous then, and very good luck now, for Gun Digest Classics features hand-picked Gun Digest stories from those writers who truly are the greatest of all time.

Featured in this book are the towering giants of the trade, luminaries such as Jack O’Connor, Elmer Keith, Warren Page, Col. Townsend Whelen, and Col. Charles Askins, who all went on to make names for themselves writing what have become timeless classics — books, columns and articles for other publications such as Outdoor Life, Sports Afield, Guns & Ammo, and Petersen’s Hunting to name but a few.

These gentlemen were also propelled to stardom with bylines in the pages of the Gun Digest. And they likewise helped Gun Digest achieve worldwide prominence as “The World’s Greatest Gun Book” with their insightful and endlessly entertaining yarns about guns and hunting.

Read Also: Jack O'Connor's Take On The 7mm Mauser

During World War II and the years following, these men informed and entertained our forebears with a special sort of gun writing that reflected the spirit of that era — prose that has aged like a fine old Fox double barrel with just the right amount of patina. And they continue to entertain those today who seek out their wild stories. This book features the best of the best who put ink to paper in the Gun Digest annual book during this formative period in firearms literature.

The 1940s and ‘50s editions of the Gun Digest Annual featured what have become today’s most-revered gun writers. This rare photo features some of them — Jack O’Connor, Elmer Keith, Warren Page and John T. Amber, among many others — larger than life.
The 1940s and ‘50s editions of the Gun Digest Annual featured what have become today’s most-revered gun writers. This rare photo features some of them — Jack O’Connor, Elmer Keith, Warren Page and John T. Amber, among many others — larger than life.

Gun Digest Classics, the third in our widely acclaimed Heritage Series, gives a tip of the shooting cap to the men who inspired an entire generation of shooters, hunters and gun collectors from the beginning of World War II through the end of the 1950s. These masterful storytellers wrote with an old-fashioned flair that takes us back to what some believe was a better time and place. This book rekindles that charm.

Throughout its 75-year history, the Gun Digest has always featured stories from the heavy-hitters of the day; thus, it was not difficult to pull them together into one book. In fact, there were so many good articles from which to choose we editors literally had to limit the search to pre–1960 articles (could there be a 2nd edition coming soon?). Which brings me to how this book was edited. The editors felt strongly that we were treading on sacred ground when working with the files that would comprise this work. We found many stylistic nuances that we no longer follow but are not necessarily grammatically incorrect. Other than blatant typos or mistakes, we let sleeping dogs lie to maintain the feel and flavor of the original stories.

If you’re already a fan of “Cactus Jack” O’Connor, Elmer Keith aka “The father of big-bore handgunning,” or Col. Charles “Boots” Askins, then these men will require no introduction. What’s news to many, however, is that hidden in the dusty, dog-eared pages of the vintage Gun Digest annual books are stories by these characters, which until now have largely only been available to those with vast book collections or a hell of a lot of energy and ambition with which to search them out. Now the search is over.

Learn More: Elmer Keith: 3 Magnum Handgun Cartridges You’ve Got To Know

If you’re just discovering the classic gun writers, we hope this collection of stories will inspire you to look further into the literature they left behind. As Robert Anderson observes in his biography, Jack O’Connor: The Legendary Life of America’s Greatest Gunwriter, “And sad as it may be, there is a whole new generation of hunters and shooters out there who do not really know Jack O’Connor at all. The lamentable truth for his many fans, current or potential, is that Jack’s trail grows colder by the minute. Mention the name Jack O’Connor to many hunters and shooters of today and they’ll likely say, “Oh, yeah, the .270 guy!”

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But Cactus Jack sure did leave an indelible impression in the pages of Gun Digest. For example, O’Connor was featured in the 1944 first edition with his story, “Choosing the Big Game Rifle,” which he leads off with this classic line: “In a certain cemetery in British Columbia lie the remains of a hunter who took great pride in going after Canadian grizzly bears with a .22 High Power Savage using a 70-gr. bullet.”

In later editions, the professor went on to pen, “Outfitting for the Rockies (1951),” “Shotgun Choke and Pattern (1952),” “Tips on Big Game Shooting (1952),” and “Gun Games for the Game Shot (1953).” Then in 1954, Jack published “Rifle in the Field;” in 1957, “African Safari;” and in 1958, “Sheep Rifle.” And that is only a partial list of what you’ll find inside by the late, great Jack O’Connor.

Fans of Elmer Keith (who isn’t one?) can kick their spurs together and do a little western dance over the old cuss’ tales, such as “The Proper Big Game Rifle (1945-46),” and in 1952 two more good yarns — “British Double and Single Rifles,” and the subject for which Keith is perhaps best known, “Sixguns.” In this latter article the reader is treated to classic Keith, such as this gem (left unedited as it appeared in the original): “On other occasion the old gun was packed for social purposes — when serving on sheriff’s posses, hunting cow thieves, or to back our honor and judgment. I still remember seeing one cow thief squirm when I watched him and his three riders while my partner cut four of my steers from two cars of beef that he was preparing to load on the train. Those steers had my brand, badly blotched, and the wattle cut off their noses, but I would have known their hides in a tan yard; so I took them by force. Suffice to say, I would have been pushing up daisies over twenty years ago instead of writing this article now, had I not carried and known how to use a good, heavy sixgun.”

Read Also: Jack O’Connor: Tips on Big Game Shooting

Speaking of Keith and O’Connor, it almost seems wrong not to mention the elephant in the room: The feud between these two old gun scribes. It may be difficult for contemporary readers to see why any animosity existed at all between Jack and Elmer — and it’s unclear even today how much of it was hype and how much real — for they appear to be cut from similar cloth in many ways. Sure, O’Connor was a Southwestern mule deer and Coues deer hunter from Arizona with a reputation for preferring lighter-caliber, faster-shooting rifles; Idahoan Keith liked to plow over game with the largest calibers and heaviest bullets he could find.

The new Gun Digest Classics book revives the vivid tales of adventure told by “Cactus Jack” O’Connor, including some of his infamous sheep hunts, from the early editions of the Gun Digest annual book.
The new Gun Digest Classics book revives the vivid tales of adventure told by “Cactus Jack” O’Connor, including some of his infamous sheep hunts, from the early editions of the Gun Digest annual book.

But history is pretty clear that these typecasts aren’t really accurate. After all, O’Connor made no qualms about his belief in using enough gun, for he often hunted with the .375 H&H, .416 Rigby and .450 Watts while on safari. And on the other end of the spectrum, Keith held some love for small calibers. According to noted author Craig Boddington, in the January/February 2012 issue of Rifle Shooter magazine, “In private correspondence, though never in print, they even crossed over. In a letter I’ve seen, Keith grudgingly admitted that the .270, matched with a 150-grain Nosler Partition (the premium bullet of his day) would be perfectly adequate for elk. O’Connor, on his part, conceded that the .30-06 was actually more versatile than his beloved .270.”

An entire doctoral dissertation could be penned about the feud. In Elmer Keith’s book, Gun Notes (a collection of his Guns & Ammo columns), letters between Keith and Truman Fowler, publisher of Keith’s book Safari, shine some light on the matter. In one letter dated March 8, 1969, Keith (writing to Truman), states of O’Connor, “Think he is just jealous of me and my work, as well as the fact I beat the hell out of him every time he tried to beat me shooting. He is afraid of buff and elephant, and that’s the reason he doesn’t want to leave so many tons of meat for the natives.”

Take A Gander: Some Of Elmer Keith's Prized Guns

Yet on March 14 of that same year — just six days later — O’Connor wrote to Keith directly with a very cordial letter that simply stated, “I have just been reading your book Safari. You like bigger guns than I do, but that’s neither here nor there. What I was thinking of is why in the hell don’t you start writing your autobiography? You are a good storyteller and you have had a hell of an interesting life — a kind of life that will never be seen again. Better think about it! Best to you, Jack.”

So much for that!

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Of course, you’ll find no feuding or cussing between these two greats in this book. If their stories pique your interest, works by both authors would make excellent follow-up reads after you finish this one.

I’ve already mentioned the articles you’ll find inside by Warren Page, and Cols. Townsend Whelen and Charlie Askins, but we’ve also included a few by John T. Amber, the long-time editor of Gun Digest and man responsible for the hiring of so many talented gun writers. Amber was no desk jockey; he often contributed colorful stories of his own and was known for his interest in odd or rare, custom guns.

Amber articles in this title include, “Tokyo Treasure (1954),” “Battle of the Automatics (1956),” and also from 1956, “Custom Guns,” in which he dresses down gunsmiths who, in his opinion, were contributing to lowering quality standards at that time (in 1956!): “The other side of the coin is little less than revolting. The woods — and a hell of a lot of gunshops — are full of the botched abortions miscalled custom guns by their ham-fisted makers; sad, ugly affairs foisted on their eager and unsuspecting buyers by woodbutchers and hammer-and-chisel mechanics, a too large group who have done much to damage the standing of gunsmiths everywhere.”

And so on.

These are but a few of our favorite stories and quotes, found on the pages herein. No doubt, by the time you get done reading this treasure trove of gun lore, you’ll have your own favorites. From sheep shooting in British Columbia to stopping a charging cape buff in Africa, no one ever told of such high adventure better than these, the greatest gun writers of Gun Digest!

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