WEB BLAST EXTRA
My 40 Years As A Gunwriter
It Went By Pretty Darn Fast, Too
John holds one of Bill Jordan’s custom Smith & Wesson Magnums in Rex Applegate’s private museum.
As far back as I can remember in my early grade school days, I wanted to be a writer and an artist. Maybe it would be more correct to say I had a great desire to express myself. My favorite classes were art and any other class such as history or English for which I could do written reports. Having virtually no athletic ability, I never looked forward to what in those days was simply called gym.
I did discover I had one semblance of athletic ability in my teenage years, but it was all confined to my trigger finger. Since it was obvious I was never going to make a mark athletically or artistically speaking I was smart enough to concentrate on writing. My 9th grade English teacher, double bless her soul, had encouraged me to write by allowing me to read the things I was really interested in for extra credit. It was about this time my aunt gave me an old typewriter and by using two fingers to type, I buried my English teacher in report after report. My writing career had started.
Thanks to The Shooters Bible, I dreamt about all the rifles I would someday own. And someday, just perhaps, it would be me pictured with my rifle and latest trophy instead of Jack O’Connor. Then in 1955 two things happened to change the course of my life. When I got my latest copy of Outdoor Life I found it contained a full-size picture of Ruger’s first centerfire single action, the .357 Blackhawk. The sidewalls of my bedroom followed the outline of the roof so their top half was slanted towards the center. The .357 Blackhawk was tacked above my bed to be the last thing I saw at night and the first thing I saw every morning.
Little did I then realize what an effect this would have on my future. About the same time that first Blackhawk appeared I discovered Elmer Keith and my infatuation with rifles changed to sixguns. My future was set.
Today I find the Internet sites packed with those who take pride in not reading “gunrags” as they call them with disdain while at the same time proclaiming all gunwriters are hacks and shills for the gun companies. It is difficult to understand this attitude considering how hard we work to provide a few written pages and especially when I consider the fact of the high regard I have always held for gunwriters and how much I have learned from such as Elmer Keith, Skeeter Skelton, Bill Jordan, Bob Milek, Kent Bellah, Jeff Cooper, John Lachuk, and the current crop of writers such as Brian Pearce, Dave Scovill, Mike Venturino, Clint Smith, Mas Ayoob, and our own staff of writers here at GUNS and American Handgunner. As Rush Limbaugh says, “The learning never stops.”
Four .44s And A 1st
Forty years ago my wife and our three young kids spent the summer as caretakers of a youth camp in the Payette National Forest. Along with everything else we needed, I took the six firearms I had at the time, my .22 rifle and pistol, and four .44 Magnums. The latter consisted of two S&Ws, 4″ and 6-1/2″ versions, my already then old .44 Ruger Flattop, and a second Ruger, a Super Blackhawk.
During the week, we had camp duties to perform, however, I managed to get a lot of long-range shooting in on weekends, and even during the week many of the youth councilors managed to find time to retire with me to the lower pasture and shoot the big .44s. My weekend “shooting range” was 10 miles above the camp where we could sit down and shoot at rocks across the river. Somehow some of the councilors also found free time so we could get up there during the week. It was a wonderful summer and I learned a lot about those .44s that year.
I was in the midst of some of the most beautiful country on earth, I had my .44s with me, so it only seemed natural for the next step to be putting my thoughts about The King Of Magnums down on paper. That first article, entitled “4 x 44 = Fun” was sent off to a magazine called GUNsport and, lo and behold, was accepted for publication and showed up in the November 1967 issue. I just knew I was about to become rich or at least supplement my meager Idaho teaching salary, which anyone can judge by the title of my first article came from teaching mathematics. After the article was published I received an envelope from the magazine and I knew it would be a large check worthy of my efforts.
It wasn’t large; in fact it was nonexistent. What I received was a letter from the editor, Ken Warner, saying cash flow was slow. I wasn’t discouraged, and in fact did another article and sent it off. The reply came back to say it was accepted, however money was still tight and the editor said he had not been paid. I never saw another issue of the magazine and it folded shortly thereafter. Since I did not get paid, and since I was concerned my writing had helped speed along the demise of GUNsport, I abruptly ended my short-lived career as a gunwriter.
Another Major Change
Shooting and reloading continued to occupy my time with no thought of ever writing again. However, something was about to happen which would dramatically change the direction of my life. In the late 1970s, J.D. Jones founded Handgun Hunters International and along with it began to publish The Sixgunner as the club newspaper. I immediately joined and went back to writing with my first effort for J.D. being “Hunting, Yes! Handgun, No!” This piece appeared in the December 1979 issue and for the next couple decades I had at least one article in each issue.
Following Big Footsteps
My second article for J.D. appeared in the next issue and was one which also set the stage for many future articles in several publications. That article proclaimed “My Ultimate Sixgun” and told of my first but certainly not my last custom .44 Special built on a Ruger 3-Screw .357 Blackhawk. Skeeter Skelton had begun the practice of converting .357 Magnum Ruger 3-Screw Blackhawks and Smith & Wesson Model 28s to .44 Special with an article written in 1972.
Since his passing in 1988, I have tried to carry on the resurrection of the .44 Special. In fact, I try to write most of my articles in the spirit of Elmer Keith and Skeeter Skelton, both of whom wrote for this magazine in the 1950s. I cannot be either one for several reasons, not the least of which is they grew up in different times. What they experienced cannot be experienced by anyone else. I can only be myself and do what I can to keep their sixguns message alive and well.
Elgin Gates, founder and president of International Handgun Metallic Silhouette Association (IHMSA) saw some of my writings in The Sixgunner and contacted me about doing some experimental work with cartridges and guns and writing up the results for The Silhouette.
This put me in on the ground floor of many new cartridge developments, and over the next several years I would work with the latest silhouette handguns and also develop loads for such cartridges as the 7 Rimmed, the .357 and .375 SuperMags, and even the Freedom Arms .454 Casull for use as a silhouette sixgun.
This led to working with Freedom Arms in bringing out a silhouette model with custom sights. All of my work was published in The Silhouette during the 1980s and then used in two publications on silhouetting by Gates, Shooting Steel and The Gun Digest Book Of Metallic Silhouette Shooting, 2nd Edition.
J.D. Jones, Encourager
A lot of time and effort were expended doing load development for both The Sixgunner and The Silhouette, both of which paid large future dividends. J.D. Jones became a special friend and my number one encourager, telling me I was certainly good enough to be writing for the major magazines, so with his belief in me I sent off my second article to a major magazine. The article was entitled “Heavy .44 Bullets and the .430 JDJ.” J.D. had recently designed a superb 320-grain cast bullet for use in his .44 wildcat cartridge based on the .444 Marlin for use in custom barreled Contenders produced by SSK Industries. We found this bullet also worked superbly in the Ruger Super Blackhawk .44 Magnum thus giving me plenty of material to work with.
The article came back, however, it was not rejected. Instead, the editor, Ken Howell, made some suggestions of what else I should include. The additions were made, the article was accepted and published in the Nov/Dec 1981 issue of The Handloader, and I actually got paid! J.D. kept encouraging me and I started freelancing. My first article for GUNS appeared in the December 1983 issue as I called on my experience with developing silhouette loads to write “.357 Maximum Loads Ala Dan Wesson,” soon followed by a true big-bore sixgun article made possible by the introduction of the Dan Wesson .357 SuperMag.
A local friend, Lew Schaffer of 3K Industries had been working with his wildcat .44 — the .444 Schafer Magnum using the .444 Marlin in his custom barreled Contenders — when he heard of the forthcoming Dan Wesson .357 SuperMag, he got ready. His .444 Schafer Magnum was cut to 1.600″ and chambered in a Contender for experimental work with the idea of using this same cartridge named the .44 Schafer UltraMag in a converted Dan Wesson .357 SuperMag. The gun was built and my article “The .44 Super Magnum of the Future” appeared in the May 1984 issue of GUNS, and the course was set for the next two decades for me to be working with the biggest of the big bores and load development for same. During this time I was the only writer to thoroughly test and publish extensive reloading data on many of the big-bore sixguns.
Shooting Really Big Bores
Soon after my article on the .44 Schafer UltraMag appeared, Elgin Gates teamed up with Dan Wesson to bring out the .445 SuperMag, which was a dead ringer for Schafer ’s cartridge, so much so in fact I used Schafer’s dies to load the SuperMag version.
Over the years, the most comprehensive data on the .445 SuperMag, the .454 Casull, .475 Linebaugh, .500 Linebaugh, .475 Linebaugh Long, .500 Linebaugh Long, the .480 Ruger, the .500 Wyoming Express, the .460 Smith & Wesson and the .500 Smith & Wesson appeared in these pages or in our sister publication American Handgunner under my byline. The experimenting and shooting took its toll over the years and I am much happier today shooting the .44 Special, and the two .45s — Colt and ACP.
Choice Big Bores
My first articles here covered big-bore sixguns and the same is true for my first effort for American Handgunner. In the first issue of 1985 is found “New Speed, New Power For The .45 Colt,” written as a result of meeting John Linebaugh in the early 1980s and tapping into his vast knowledge of big-bore sixguns. John has also become a special friend over the years. Following on the heels of the .45 Colt article, two of my big-bore articles appeared in the 1985 Annual, Super Silhouette Sixguns and Heavyweights For Your Heavyweight which covered heavy cast bullets for use in big-bore sixguns.
In July/August 1987 the most extensive loading data ever published for the .454 appeared in American Handgunner in an article entitled simply “.454 Casull” and the art department did a superb job making very attractive reloading charts complete with color drawings of each bullet. I still hear from readers who have those charts tacked up on their reloading room walls and the art department for GUNS and American Handgunner has been going the extra step to make me and my articles look awfully good ever since. I long ago lost count of how many articles I have done over the past 40 years but I know it is well over 1,200 with right at 800 having been done for our two publications. We just happen to be the best in the business, and an endeavor I am immensely proud to be a part of.
J.D. the Encourager entered the picture again by recommending me to the editor when American Handgunner needed someone to do the “Siluetas” column. I joined the regular staff of writers and my first column appeared in the July/August 1987 issue and would last until the May/June 1994 issue and thereafter became “The Sixgunner.” One issue after beginning the “Siluetas” column, “Taffin Tests” began in September/October 1987. Virtually every cartridge has been covered in “Taffin Tests” over the last two decades and it continues along with “The Sixgunner” allowing me the latitude to cover a wide spectrum of handgunning.
During the 1980s my photography was black and white and very frustrating. I would do my best to take quality pictures, have the roll developed, and then find only a few were usable. In 1988 I did two pieces for Jan Libourel who was then editor of Petersen’s Handguns. “Don’t Knock Non-Magnums” appeared in March 1988 followed by “The Sixguns Of Elmer Keith” in July 1988. Jan called me to discuss the pictures and when I told him the problem I was having he said it wasn’t me, but rather the processor and suggested I simply send the whole roll to him. Instead I learned to do my own pictures using the school darkroom and the results changed dramatically.
However, I was most happy to upgrade to colored slides a few years later. Slides were expensive and usually took a week to get back, but the results were wonderful. It took a lot of talking by my wife and our editor in chief Roy Huntington to get me to switch to digital, which has turned out to not only produce better pictures, but do it immensely faster and cheaper. I can take pictures and within an hour have them burned to a disc and on the way to the magazine office via USPS Priority mail.
It took quite a bit of effort for the editor to convince me to start doing Campfire Tales for this magazine. The format was to be personal wherever possible, which, of course makes the writer quite vulnerable. The first Campfire Tales appeared in September 2001 as “Where Have All The Heroes Gone?” I have received more mail over these back page pieces than anything I have ever done as it seems no matter which topic I follow it taps into the spirit of some group of readers. The experience has been most gratifying for me and I hope someday Campfire Tales will be published in book form.