11 Great Guns of American Presidents
Not all of our presidents have been so great, but the shotguns and rifles many have owned are nothing short of spectacular
From George Washington to George W. Bush, hunters have been well-represented among American presidents, who have left behind their guns as well as their thoughts on the sport. Thomas Jefferson, although not the most avid hunter among the presidents, still wrote the following advice to his nephew, Peter Carr, in 1785:
[For exercise] . . . I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprize, and independance to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks.
We can debate whether all the following presidents possessed “boldness, enterprize, and independance” of the mind some other time. For now, let’s a look back at our president’s guns, as well as on their thoughts, remarks, and writings about hunting.
1. George Washington’s Fowler
Better known for his love of fox hunting, America’s first president loved fowling, too. In a letter written after his presidency explaining why he let no one hunt at Mount Vernon he wrote: “[A]s I have not lost my relish for this sport when I can find the time to indulge myself in it…it is my wish not to have the game within my jurisdiction disturbed.”
The fowler shown above was made around 1750 by Richard Wilson of London and was inherited by the executor of Washington’s estate. It may or may not be the gun he used to shoot the two mallards and five bald faces (wigeon) mentioned in his diary February of 1768, because records show that on July 20, 1767 he ordered a fowling piece for his 14-year-old stepson, John Parke Custis, and on another occasion, ordered for himself a gun, “as handsome a fowling piece 3 feet in Barl. As can be bot. for 3 Guins.
2. Abraham Lincoln’s Berdan Rifle
One non-hunting president makes this list, because (1) it’s Abe Lincoln and (2) the gun is too remarkable not to include..
Lincoln grew up in very difficult rural circumstances, and his mother died when he was young. When Lincoln’s father wasn’t farming, he was hunting to feed his family. Young Abe was so traumatized by killing a turkey at age 8, however, that he never hunted again.
Lincoln’s interest in firearms, especially during the Civil War, was both genuine and hands-on. The story of Abe shooting a Spencer repeater on the White House lawn is well known. Less well known is this rifle, made for him by sharpshooter, inventor, and Army officer Hiram Berdan. It was at Lincoln’s insistence that Berdan’s men be issued the Spencer repeaters that Berdan wanted in place of the muzzleloaders the Army wanted them to use to conserve ammunition.
In gratitude for Lincoln’s support, Berdan crafted this .44 caliber rifle with a hammer in the shape of Lincoln’s head. Although he made the rifle in 1863, Berdan was unable to deliver it to Lincoln prior to the president’s assasination in 1865.
Incidentally, Lincoln’s general, and later president, Ulysses S. Grant was no hunter either. During a tour of the Continent after the Civil War, Grant declined a royal invitation to hunt deer in Scotland, remarking that he had killed wild animals twice in his life and had cause to regret it both times.
3. Grover Cleveland’s 8-Bore Colt Shotgun
Upon winning his second term as president in November of 1892, Grover Cleveland celebrated by taking a duck hunting trip to Hog Island, Virginia. His companion on the trip, John Sergeant Wise, wrote this about Cleveland:
I have known him to sit on a calm sunshiny day in a duck blind for ten consecutive hours, with nothing but a simple luncheon to break his fast and nothing but whistlers and buffleheads coming in to his decoys, and return home at night with nothing but a dozen “trash” ducks … as content and uncomplaining as if he had enjoyed real sport.
Our second-heaviest president at 275 pounds (nieces and nephews called him “Uncle Jumbo), Cleveland owned a shotgun that suited him perfectly: a massive Colt double, the only known Colt shotgun made in 8 gauge. Cleveland’s name is inlaid in gold on the trigger guard of the boxlock gun.
The 8-bore, although never popular, was legal until the Migratory Bird Treaty Act limited shotguns to 10-gauge or smaller. The Act was signed a decade after Cleveland’s death. Cleveland’s critics believed his hunting and fishing trips were actually excuses to debauch, an assumption Cleveland rebutted in magazine articles extolling the healthy benefits of the field sports. Writing in his book Fishing and Shooting Sketches he admitted that “as far as my attachment to outdoor sports may be considered a fault, I am…utterly incorrigible and shameless.”
4. Theodore Roosevelt’s Fox
Theodore Roosevelt overcame a sickly childhood by throwing himself into a vigorous life that included lots of hunting—and plenty of quotes about it, too. He wrote this about the benefits of blood sport: “The chase is among the best of all national pastimes; it cultivates that vigorous manliness for the lack of which in a nation, as in an individual, the possession of no other qualities can possibly atone.” He also articulated the role of the hunter-conservationist and his philosophy of conservation when he wrote: “In a civilized and cultivated country, wild animals only continue to exist at all when preserved by sportsmen.” He also admitted to being a poor marksman.”
Shortly before Theodore Roosevelt left on his famous nine-month Africa safari, the A.H. Fox Company presented him with an FE grade 12-gauge shotgun. Roosevelt wrote to Ansley Fox: “It is the most beautiful gun I have ever seen…I am almost ashamed to take it to Africa and expose it to the rough usage it will receive. But now that I have it, I could not possibly make up my mind to leave it behind.”
Later, in his account of the trip, African Game Trails, Roosevelt wrote: “I have a Fox number 12 Shotgun; no better gun was ever made.” Fox used that quote in ads to sell guns for years and years. The gun also accompanied Roosevelt on his trip down the River of Doubt in the Amazon Basin, on which he nearly died of fever.
5. Calvin Coolidge Winchester Model 94
Born on the Fourth of July, 1872, in Plymouth Notch, New Hampshire, Calvin Coolidge was a lifelong hunter and shooter. As Warren Harding’s Vice President, Coolidge was thrust into the Oval Office when Harding died suddenly of a heart attack. He won re-election in 1924. Known as “Silent Cal,” he was famously taciturn and possessed of a very dry wit. Asked at a press conference in 1928 if he planned a hunting trip to Kentucky, he replied, “I think the idea that I might go hunting in Kentucky arose from the fact that the bird dog that was given me in Superior [Wisconsin] I had Colonel Starling send down to a friend of his in Kentucky, who is a very fine trainer of dogs. I presume that all the hunting I will do in Kentucky will be done by proxy through this dog.”
A Youtube search turns up a short video of President Coolidge shooting trap with a Winchester Model 12 at his vacation home in Wisconsin, very much looking like someone who knows how to shoot a shotgun. He was also the recipient of one of the best Christmas presents ever when Winchester gave him the one-millionth Model 1894 lever-action rifle on December 25, 1927.
6. Franklin D Roosevelt’s Grant & Sons Double
Although Franklin D. Roosevelt isn’t the first president named Roosevelt we think of when the topic turns to hunting and conservation, FDR nevertheless owned and shot guns and hunted. As president, he formed the Civilian Conservation Corps by executive order, and the CCC (as well as other “alphabet agencies” of his administration) planted trees and worked to undo the soil damage of the Dust Bowl.
Growing up in Hyde Park, New York, Franklin Roosevelt led an active life, riding, shooting, hunting, sailing, and golfing. A bout with polio in 1921 left him almost unable to walk, but he continued shooting and owned several handguns, as well as a pair of London-made Steven Grant & Sons doubles made in 1890. FDR gave one of the two Grants to General Walter Bedell Smith, Dwight Eisenhower’s chief of staff. Smith had a gunsmith shorten the barrels to 26 inches. An oval inset in the stock reads “Presented by/ President Franklin D. Roosevelt/ to/ General Walker Bedell Smith/ Who Bequeathed it to/ A. F. Wechsler/ 1962”.
7. Harry S. Truman Remington Model 141
There is 1937 photo that shows then Senator Harry S. Truman holding what looks like a Remington Model 141 on a deer hunt in Pennsylvania. It was here that he first broke out his famous catchphrase, “The buck stops here.” Well, no, not really. Nor did Truman shoot the forkhorn in the picture. Vice President John Nance Garner shot the deer. What Truman actually said was “John, you should have let him walk. He would have been a shooter in three years.” Okay, he didn’t say that either. In fact, despite being a lifelong hunter, Truman left us with no enduring words about field sports.
Truman started out hunting as a boy in rural Missouri. Both his parents hunted (Martha Truman’s 16-gauge is part of the Truman Library collection) and he followed in their footsteps, with a break to shoot big guns at Germans as an artillery officer during WWI.
The original “Buck Stops Here” sign, incidentally, sat on the warden’s desk at the El Reno Federal Reformery in Oklahoma. A friend of Truman’s saw it and asked the warden if one could like it could be made for the president. It was mailed to Truman in 1945.
8. Dwight Eisenhower’s Model 21
Mocked in his time for golfing through his presidency, Dwight Eisenhower also loved to hunt, shoot, and fish. Ike had a Skeet field built at Camp David and would regularly have the streams there stocked with trout before he arrived. A lifelong bird hunter from his boyhood in Kansas through his retirement to a farm full of pheasants near Gettysburg, he owned a number of shotguns, but his favorite was this Winchester Model 21, a straight-gripped 20-gauge with the receiver worn from hours in the field.
There wasn’t much ostentatious about Dwight Eisenhower, and it’s fitting that his favorite gun was made in the United States and doesn’t bear much decoration. The otherwise un-engraved receiver has a gold pheasant inlaid on one side, a gold grouse on the other, five stars on the floorplate, and “DDE” on the trigger guard. The gun was presented to Eisenhower by Robert Woodruff, president of Coca Cola, with an engraving on the stock medallion that reads: “To a straight shooter from a friend”.
Mamie Eisenhower gave the gun to the NRA in 1969, the same year Ike died. The Secret Service agent who drove Mrs. Eisenhower to NRA headquarters shared a story about Eisenhower and his Model 21. A foreign dignitary visiting the ex-president at Gettysburg brought him a lavishly engraved shotgun. As they got ready to hunt, Eisenhower took his new gun and told members of the Secret Service to take guns from the cabinet. The Model 21 was the only gun left when the agent who drove Mrs. Eisenhower reached in. One of the other agents said, “Don’t touch that 20-gauge. It’s the president’s favorite.” Eisenhower, who was close enough to overhear, told him: “Go ahead and take it. They were made to be shot.”
9. Lyndon Johnson’s Winchester and Weatherby
Lyndon Johnson loved his ranch in Texas and made a point of being there for the opening of deer season. Mike Howard, head of President Johnson’s secret service detail, recalled that “the president carried a chrome-plated 30-30 Winchester rifle in the car, all the time, and he went deer hunting with people, and they hunted from the car.” Beside deer, Johnson shot hogs and audad on the ranch. “He shot that Winchester a lot,” said Howard. “I know, because there were times when we (the Secret Service) ducked under my pickup to keep him from shooting us.”
As vice-president, Johnson once brought John Kennedy to the ranch to hunt deer. Accounts of the hunt vary. Johnson insisted Kennedy enjoyed it and had to be restrained from shooting more deer. Kennedy claimed to hate it, although he did relent and hang a mount from the hunt in White House when Johnson gave it to him.
Johnson also presented a classic Weatherby rifle in .300 Winchester Magnum to press secretary George Reedy. Johnson had the rifle sent back to the factory for additional decoration on the stock and to have Reedy’s name engraved on it.
10. Jimmy Carter’s Ruger Red Label
Jimmy Carter’s reviews as president were mixed, but it’s hard to imagine a much better former president. Carter has taught Sunday school, built houses with Habitat for Humanity, and kept on hunting into his 90s, bagging a turkey with Tyler Jordan on Realtree Farms in 2019 at age 94. He is also a 2016 inductee into the Georgia Hunting and Fishing Hall of Fame.
As a farmer from Georgia, Carter is most closely associated with quail hunting and once said, “Life is just too short to go quail hunting with the wrong people,” although by now he’s outlived a lot of them.
Carter mentions owning a few handguns, shotguns, and rifles for plinking and hunting. One of them is the Ruger Red Label O/U he mentions in his essay collection An Outdoor Journal. He wrote a letter to William Ruger thanking him for help in ordering a pair of Red Labels, one for himself and one as a gift to vice president Walter Mondale.
11. George H.W. Bush’s Winchester Model 21
Having adopted Texas as his home state, George H.W. Bush loved quail hunting. In 1990, he had a 16-gauge Winchester Model 21 completely made over to left-handed by Roger M. Green, who stocked the gun in beautiful California walnut, sent it to an engraver, and traveled to the White House to present the gun to the president in a beautiful oak and leather case made by Marvin Huey.
As a conservationist, Bush 41 instituted the “no net loss” wetlands policy and signed the North American Waterfowl Conservation Act into law.
After losing his re-election campaign, the elder Bush said upon leaving the White House: “As for me, tough duty though it may be, I continue to do my part for the commercial recreation industry. Fishing, boating, tennis, golf, running, hunting, and all of this. Horseshoes. It’s tough duty. Somebody has to do it and I’m going to keep on.”
For his part, George W. Bush hunts quail, too. He once explained to New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici, another quail hunter: “Just remember, it’s the birds that’s supposed to suffer, not the hunter,” although as was often the case with W., it’s not entirely clear what he was talking about.
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