A few years ago, back before folks realized that Berger’s VLD bullet was suitable for hunting, Walt Berger gave me a tour of the Berger Bullets’ factory. Then we flew to New Zealand to hunt. During those 10 days Walt told me his story.
Walt’s story is legendary, but it’s not one of fighting demons or overcoming all odds. Rather, it’s the story of a shooter’s quest for perfection, the story of a hunter crossing new mountains. And, it’s the story of a man realizing the American dream.
Growing up Outside
Walt was born in Easton, Ohio, in 1928. He was one year old when the stock market crashed. Times were tough, but when he was five he scrounged up a BB gun and like Roosevelt, it promised a “New Deal.” Walt’s dad liked to hunt. He enjoyed chasing raccoons, rabbits, and fox with scent hounds. It’s a pursuit as infections as Ebola. I know; I grew up with a father who had the same passion.
The outdoors became Walt’s playground. He was a product of The Depression, a time when you made your own way, created your own entertainment, or lived an unhappy existence. Walt’s way was found in the wild, and he funded his adventures by selling coon hides and collecting a 25-cent bounty on groundhogs he shot with an Iver Johnson .22. So passionate was Walt about hunting that he and a friend rode, with their .22 rifles, from Easton, Ohio to Fort Knox, Kentucky in the truck of a friend’s 39 Plymouth just so they could hunt.
And then, there was another crash. War took Walt’s brother and best friend away to fly B-17s and assault beaches. Walt, to young to go, stayed at home and continued to hunt. Walt coon hunted with his .22 rifle and a lantern. He’d blow out the lantern when trespassing. One night, while hunting while crossing property he did not have permission to hunt, the owners saw his lantern from their house. They started shooting and Walt’s hastily blew out his lantern and got behind a tree.
“I remember thinking, my brother is off in the war and I’m at home hunting his dog, and damned if I ant the one going to get shot. I learned then and there that sometimes being in the dark could be a good thing!”
Walt eventually registered for the draft but was never called. A high school basketball and baseball player and a track star, Walt most likely had a 1A rating with no exemptions. Walt later learned that no one in his home county who registered during the month of November 1946 got called up. The courthouse lost all the draft registrations from that month.
Out of school, he went to work for a box factory. With the promise of a supervisory potion he passed on college. In 1949 Walt became a husband and, inspired by the writings of Jack O’Connor, bought a life insurance policy to later finance a sheep hunt. At a gun shop in Akron, he also bought his first centerfire rifle for $198. It was a Winchester Model 70 Featherweight in .257 Roberts.
Walt and a friend practiced religiously in preparation for a hunt in Pennsylvania, even shooting a target inside a tire they rolled down the hill. On the first day of the hunt Walt jumped a buck and he shot it as it ran. It disappeared and another hunter shot at it. After a short argument, Walt walked away from the second deer he had lost to a bullet that failed him. (The first was a whitetail he dropped with a 16-gauge slug a few years before.) When Walt walked up to that deer and pulled out his trench knife it got up and ran away. The deer crossed a ridge and there was another shot and another argument about whom the deer belonged to. Walt lost that argument too.
Bench Rest Shooting
A few years later, while returning from a western hunt with some friends, the car broke down near Buffalo, Wyoming. In the process of getting it fixed they learned about a benchrest shooting match near town. They fixed the car, stopped by the range–and saw the future.
At Walt’s first benchrest match he didn’t have enough cash to meet the entry fee so they let him compete, ineligible for prize money. It was there he learned that to be competitive he would have to make his own bullets. So, he took a second job carrying blocks and cement to pay for the dies. Two-hundred-and-seventy-five dollars later he owned a set of .224 bullet dies, which enabled him to win a few matches. He even sold a few bullets.
Walt continued to perfect his bullet-making skills. This required lots of testing and the investment of a substantial amount of cash–just so he could shoot smaller groups. It wasn’t long until Walt earned a reputation, and fellow competitors were not happy when Walt and his bullets showed up.
In 1963 Spiveco Inc. began making the J4 bullet jacket; these were bullet jackets with a total indicated run-out (TIR) of 3/10,000 or less at the base and 5/10,000 or less at the mouth. The jackets changed the landscape as far as benchrest shooting was concerned, and Walt and almost everyone else began using them.
Walt continued to shoot with perfection and win awards. He became a bench rest Hall of Fame member, and he cashed in his insurance policy and went on that sheep hunt. And, in 1989, Berger Bullets, a garage operation, became Walt’s full-time job.
In 1985 Louis Palmisano, one of the originators of the .22 PPC cartridge, approached Walt about making a new, game-changing bullet called the VLD (Very Low Drag.) The major difference in the VLD was its incorporation of a secant as opposed to the common tangent ogive and the inclusion of a long, 90-degree boat-tail. This high-caliber secant ogive and steep angle boat-tail drastically increased the ballistic coefficient of the bullet, which gave it a flatter trajectory and better wind resistance.
Walt agreed, and his bullet-building success continued. But, unlike many who dream of turning a passion into a profitable business, Walt did not go out and borrow money to fund his company. Up until 1997, everything Walt had ever purchased, he’d paid for with cash, in the process instilling in his kids and grandchildren the concept of saving to buy what you want instead of borrowing.
“When I was still young I once hid some money under a bridge in a jar,” he told me. “A flood came and I lost it all. It was about $ 14. After that, I was always careful what I did with my money.”
Match Bullet or Hunting Bullet
Berger Bullets did not go in debt until 1997 when the company purchased a bullet-making machine. They had to do it to meet demand. Prior to 1997, every Berger bullet was made by hand. Berger Bullets became, and remains to this day, the premier manufacturer of match-grade bullets, which still use J4 jackets. In fact, at the turn of the century, Berger Bullets merged with Spiveco and became the sole manufacture of J4 jackets.
Surprisingly, through customer feedback Walt learned his VLD bullets were also amazingly effective on big-game animals. Their lethality is a combination of how their construction delays expansion until the bullet is at vital-organ depth. Combine this with their almost grenade-like eruptive deformation and the flat trajectories possible with the high ballistic coefficients of the VLD design, and you have a premium big game bullet like no other.
The One That Didn’t Get Away
On a clouding New Zealand day in early 2007 Walt Berger–the hunter–would take another .257 Roberts and put down a red stag, with one shot, using a 115-grain Berger VLD bullet. The stag did not get up and run away. Like millions of times before, Walt Berger calculated the proper hold, placed the reticle in the right spot, controlled his breathing and pulled the trigger with the same precision and attention to detail that has guided his entire shooting and bullet-making career. This time there was no question, no argument and no confusion about who shot the animal. And, there was no question who built the bullet or if it worked.
Walt Berger was the driving force behind the organization of the World Bench Rest Shooting Match. He developed a standard for the manufacture of bullets now revered by bulletsmiths worldwide. He distinguished himself as a world-class bench rest shooter, and he has set an example of leadership and character for his family, friends, and associates to follow.
Some shooters think of Walt Berger when they seat a streamlined, precision-engineered bullet into a brass case. Some think about him when they see that single hole made in a target by ten successive shots. And others think of him every time they see a rifle thrown over some sandbags. When I think of Walt Berger, I think about a young boy like me, following coonhounds and stalking groundhogs with a .22 rifle. I think of a man, like my father, who through hard work, dedication, and a relentless quest for perfection managed to make the most out of the American dream. And I think of the irony of how his motivation to build the best match bullet ever also produced one of the deadliest hunting bullets of all time.
*A version of this story was originally published in the 2015 edition of SHOT Daily, a Bonnier Publication.