I’m referring not to the Confederate general, as this is probably a crime now, but to Robert M. Lee, who departed this world in Reno on January 28th. If you’re not familiar with the name, Bob Lee was the closest thing to a Renaissance man our sport has produced; probably his only competition in the 20th century is Bill Ruger. Bob was one of those rare people who is born with a supercharger in their makeup; one-quarter of what he achieved in his lifetime of 88 years would be enough for anyone else.
An engineer by training, Lee was a big-game hunter who made his first safari at 19. In the early 1960s, he moved to Angola both to hunt and to establish one of the very first game-protection plans in Africa. He was a master fly fisherman and fly tyer and was the first person to import Tonkin cane to this country for the building of bamboo rods. He was a fine rifle shot, a designer of wildcat cartridges, an explorer and naturalist with museum accreditation, an author of numerous books (good ones, too), the owner of what has been described as the finest firearms collection in the world, an award-winning classic-car collector, an active conservationist, a member of the Explorer’s Club, Boone and Crockett, and the National Rifle Association, and a benefactor of several museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is part of it. If you’d like a full list, see his obituary.
We met because in 1965 he opened a store in New York City called Hunting World. It was a jewel box of a place where you could buy an elephant’s hair-bracelet made from elephant’s hair, or the same thing made from 24-karat gold. I was invited to the opening, and he could tell from the ropes of drool on the corners of my mouth and the glazed look in my eyes that I was a fellow enthusiast. The gold bracelets were above my pay grade, but I did buy a Parker-Hale gun vise that I’ve used almost daily for 51 years.
We were both custom-rifle lovers; he could afford lots of them, and I could afford one a year, but he checked in with me about what he should be buying and who was really good. Whenever this happened, I thought, “My god, you’re asking me?”
Winston Churchill, the greatest American gun engraver of the 20th century and a fellow who is not easily impressed, got to see a small part of Lee’s collection, and Winnie’s reaction was that of the archeologist Howard Carter who was the first man in five millennia to set eyes on King Tut’s tomb and, when asked if he saw anything said, “Yes. Wonderful things.”
The last time I saw Bob Lee was at the SCI convention in Las Vegas a few years ago. He was flying around in a power wheelchair. I don’t think he was confined to it, but more likely he was feeling his years and could see a lot more if he was motorized. And by gum, he was going to see everything.
I think of the saying “Whoever dies with the most toys, wins.” If this is so, Bob Lee is not only the winner, but the undisputed champ. For a hunter and a gun nut he had about as much fun in this world as it’s possible to have.