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.

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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.