Where have all the great gun writers gone?

CooperThere was a time, not all that long ago because I can remember it, when the profession of writing about guns and the outdoors was looked at in an entirely different light. There were men who penned words and there were readers who anxiously awaited their publication. Pulling a gun or hunting magazine from a mailbox was as exciting as a first kiss from a new girl.

There were writers who excited readers. There were writers who inspired readers. And, there were writers readers respected. Keith captured us with his rough-cut honesty, O’Connor soothed us with his easy flowing sentences and Ruark reminded us that Grandpa was indeed a special man.

These men of the last century crafted a nation of hunters and shooters. In a round about way, they assembled their flock of followers and those who were good students still pass on their lessons. I learned things from these men; worthy lessons that still guide me along as a shooter, hunter and even as a person.

Four men were responsible for my early and never ending desire to write about guns and hunting. The first was Jeff Cooper. His matter of fact, practical approach made sense when a lot of what I read seemed contradictory to reason. The next was Gary Sitton. I’ve yet to read the works of any writer who could make me feel more, with only 1000 words, than he could.

Later on, as I became more able to just barely grasp the art of communicating about guns and hunting, it was Finn Aagaard who kept my attention. Finn wrote about things he knew about and when he didn’t know about something he tested and experimented until he did. My final inspirations as a writer come from John Barsness. John has a way of making something as boring as turning case necks an enjoyable, entertaining and educational read.

I’m not original, I’m just a shallow reminder of the greats who created the venue I use to, in a way, stay close to their memory. Cooper keeps me practical, Sitton keeps me real, Aagaard keeps me honest and Barsness’ lessons remind me that writing about guns is half education and half entertainment. If you’re not entertaining, no one will read a damn thing you write.

FINNSo it is that the days of the great gun writers are gone. There will never be another Cooper, Keith, O’Connor, Aagaard, Sitton, Skelton or Jordon. The world of communication has changed. The Internet and the plethora of gun blogs, gun magazines, gun television, gun DVDs and those who write about guns (including me) have, in a way, polluted the water.

The good thing is that now, no matter how you believe or what you think, you can find a writer who reflects your sentiments. That bad thing is that, no matter how you believe or what you think, you can find a writer that reflects your sentiments. With the modern world of outdoor communication its no longer about the message it’s more about the character the communicator plays. Good actors always seem to draw a crowd which is why no one is standing in line at my front gate. I guess I could blame that on the dog.

So what’s my point and why am I even bothering with this? A Facebook post by Nosler reminded me that last night I was re-reading some articles from some of the names I’ve mentioned. That’s when it hit me that 50 years from now, when all my current associates and I are pushing up daises, folks will still be reading the works of these same men. Why? Partly because they were first and partly becasue they were just damned good at what they did. All that we are doing now is telling the same stories in a different voice. Fortunately for us, there are some folks out there who never heard it the first time or who don’t get tired of hearing it over and over.

If it were not for John Barsness I'd probably still be a cop and countless others would be less informed about guns and hunting.

If it were not for John Barsness I’d still be a cop.

Do yourself a favor and read what some of the great gun writers had to say. You may have to go to a library, you may have to visit a friend who has old magazines or you may have to do some serious Googling on the Internet. But, trust me, your time will be well spent.

Where have all the great gun writers gone? I believe they’re sitting around a campfire on the back 40 of Gunsite, drinking whiskey, smoking cigars and talking to John Wayne. They’ve saved a seat for Sheriff Jim Wilson (The Sheriff told me in no uncertain terms that them fellows are going to be waiting for a damn long while.) and they’re probably arguing about which is better, the .270 or the .30-06. Not because it matters but because that’s what gun writers do…Even the great ones.

  1. Richard Venola

    We both know what happened. Publishing became easier for small outfits. Back when publishing required a 35-person staff, there were few outlets for advertising. Writers and publishers could publish the truth, and could do so colorfully, and manufacturers bit their tongues and built better stuff. The same is still true for off-road titles. But now, when a major title only requires a staff of three and a couple freelancers, the writers had better be damned careful what they say. Publishers and editors strike out even the slightest criticism, even if a product is shit. There are too many outlets and nothing bad can be said. The threat of withheld advertising mutes the creative authors, and the survivors instinctively hold back, knowing that a chance comment will end them.

  2. Don Gasaway

    You bring back a lot of memories. The only one of these writers I ever met was Finn Aagaard. I was privileged to hunt with him once in west Texas. He had some great stories about Kenya and had just begun to write for American Hunter magazine.

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  4. Bill Cooper

    I grew up reading Jack O’Connor. I still read his material over and over. In my book, no one compares. He got into my head due to his lifestyle as much as his writing. O’Connor lived the outdoor lifestyle. Far too many writers today are but poor imitations. They don’t convince me that they live the lifestyle. They know the technical stuff of firearms, but lack the descrpitive qualities of the total hunting experience, which can only be acquired through experience in the field.

  5. Doc B

    I think you’ve nailed most of it, with the explosion of media outlets and the huge volume of writers and articles out there, even the good writers can get drowned out in the background noise.

    I also think the death of civility has contributed. Any more, much less respect is paid to those who’ve been-there-and-done-that by a generation (or two) who have their own opinions. There are some very, very good writers doing very good things right now, but they don’t carry the gravitas of the ‘old corps’. In fact, I’d opine that there are a few writers now who are technically more skilled as writers and have participated in more hunting and shooting events then even some of the legends, but will never carry their authority in the culture.

    And finally, I think the general leftist bent against firearms has contributed to the problem. Back in the day, you could still find interesting hunting and shooting stories in the mainstream press, and a man like Cooper garnered respect from the media wherever he went. Not so anymore.

    Here’s my bottom line to all the good gun writers out there: Keep doing what you are doing and we readers will keep reading your stuff, admiring your hunting experiences, and wishing we had an opportunity to meet you someday, just like you always did when you read those men cited above!

  6. Mark Kakkuri

    Thanks, Richard, for a great post about the importance of reading and re-reading the great ones. I’ll echo some of the previous comments: The reason that there are so few of them now is probably due, in part, to the broad change in publishing – it’s just too easy for average writing to proliferate. Additionally, however, the current generation may lack the knowledge and passion of previous generations when it comes to deeper issues such as freedom and fighting for causes greater than self. What’s encouraging, however, is the increased interest in self-defense and all the related favorable legislation and opinions that have occurred recently. Anyway, the path forward must include long study of the path behind. This means having a good understanding of history in general and American history in particular — which is partially accomplished by reading the great gun writers.

    By the way, keep up the great work!

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  8. azduane

    I’ve read and re-read most if not all of the authors you mention. I enjoy your writing as well many others that in the business today.

    Maybe some of the problem, besides the over abundance of internet blogs and magazines, is the short attention span of so many people today. Example, Twitter. What can be conveyed of real value in less than 140 characters?

    Maybe I’m just too old.

  9. Michael Bane

    What can one say, brother? We work in the dark…we do what we can. The changes in gun writing are reflective of the overall changes in journalism. I was lucky enough to make my living for decades as a professional writer, working for brilliant editors and magazines that cut me an amazing amount of slack. Nowadays it’s $25 for 300 words, and for God’s sake don’t be original. I will say there’s a certain humor to the fact that the sad little weasels in J-school have to study some of my work…and take tests on it! Correct answer: “He made it up as he went along…”

    You and I are lucky to have spent time with the giants…I once told Col. Cooper that he had had a profound effect on my writing and my career as a journalist, and he made me spend a couple of hours explaining exactly how and why…those moments are precious to me now.

    The biggest difference I see now is that newcomers often “write” without having “lived.” They’ve never seemed to grasp the connection between doing and writing, and that the doing came before the writing. My best work has come out of a series of misadventures, stupid mistakes, bad judgement and blind-ass luck, right place, right time and a willingness to grab the ball and run like crazy.

    I’ve spent the week writing the script for GUN STORIES WITH JOE MANTEGNA Season 4…writing script for a Hollywood star to read is intense, focused work…finding the facts, the anecdotes, the off-hand comments, then putting them into someone else’s voice…then editing them down again and again. In 20 non-fiction books, 1 novel and heaven knows how many magazine articles, it is the hardest writing I’ve ever done…and I love it. It is ultimately a love of the craft that keeps us writing, and the longer we do the more we realize how incredibly hard — how brilliant! — the seemingly casual storytelling of a Skeeter Skelton or person commentary of a Col. Jeff Cooper really were.

    The only things I love more than words, aside of course my Sweetie, are guns and shooting..so, damn, am I lucky or what?

    Thanks for writing this post…I ‘ll see you on down the trail…

    Michael B

    • gunwriter

      Worth repeating: “It is ultimately a love of the craft that keeps us writing, and the longer we do the more we realize how incredibly hard — how brilliant! — the seemingly casual storytelling of a Skeeter Skelton or person commentary of a Col. Jeff Cooper really were.”

  10. Erin

    People don’t read much these days and most magazines are just big advertisements. Everything has to be now, now, now and reading takes up “too much time.”

  11. Dan Donnelly

    Mr. Mann,

    Your post was fine writing as well. There are still a few fine gunwriters around.
    rgds
    Dan

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