Book Review: The Hunting Rifle, by Townsend Whelen

Throughout all my life a large and increasing number of red blooded Americans have been striving to make us a “Nation of Riflemen.”  We have succeeded.  May we ever remain thus, for the privilege to bear, and the ability to use weapons is the greatest guarantee of Liberty.

 

-Townsend Whelen, from the Introduction to The Hunting Rifle
In the course of my preparation of the article, The Townsend Whelen Challenge, I became curious to learn more about his thoughts on rifle shooting.  I found a copy of his book, The Hunting Rifle, at my local library.
Much like my blog, until you read it you probably aren’t going to be aware of how totally authoritative and knowledgeable the author was (that was meant to sound arrogant for a slight comedic effect).  The cover is a little odd, and like a lot of library books from 1948, there’s no dust jacket.  This is a second edition from 1948; the 1st edition was printed in 1940.

 

I feel a need to establish a connection with the riflemen of the past.  I don’t always expect to be wowed with technical information, especially concerning equipment.  What usually seems more valuable is perspective.  These men were from a more practical age where guns were just part of what you did.  They also seemed to be more literate, which is refreshing.

 

To get on with it, here are some details:
Table of contents:

 

PART I.  MATERIEL

 

              1.  Elementary Ballistics.  Safety Precautions
              2.  Basic Design and Principles
              3.  Types and Models
              4.  Barrels and Breech Actions
              5.  Stocks
              6.  Iron Sights
              7.  Telescope Sights
              8.  Cartridges
              9.  Hand Loaded Ammunition
            10.  Killing Power
            11.  Custom Rifles and Wildcat Cartridges
            12.  Binoculars, Spotting Scopes, and Accessories
PART II.  MARKSMANSHIP
1.     Rifle Marksmanship
2.    The Essentials
3.    The Prone Position
4.    Aiming
5.    Trigger Squeeze and Coordination
6.    The Rifle Range
7.    Sight Adjustment
8.    Slow Fire
9.    The Sitting, Kneeling, and Standing Positions
10.  Snap Shooting and Rapid Fire
11.  Trajectory
12.  Wind Allowance
13.  In the Game Fields
14.  Cleaning and Care of Rifles 
What was odd about reading this book for me was that I expected Part I to be outdated and uninteresting, and Part II to be some sort of mind-blowing epiphany.  What I found was to a large extent the opposite of what I expected, but that, for the most part, the entire book was like a warm, fuzzy, super comfortable experience for me.  It was just pleasant to read a book from someone who was knowledgeable, super-authoritative in the field, genuinely interested, a good writer, and just had a genuine love of shooting.

 

What was mainly different from what I’m used to is that it wasn’t like a marketing blitz that you’d get from a gun rag.  It was like sitting on a porch with someone who just knows everything and having a cup of coffee and taking it all in.  He had no master to please other than sharing his opinion because it was valid.

 

From reading Part I, I found that things haven’t really changed all that much.  The Winchester Model 70 and the Mauser 98 are still the best rifles around.  We have a lot more choices in cartridges now, and we now have a lot of semi autos.  Scopes are bigger and mounted a lot higher.  Range finders are cheap and portable.  That’s about how far we’ve come in 60 years.  A bit of the elegance and class is gone nowadays.  Other than that, what was true then is still true now.  

 

Whelen made a point that I thought was interesting, that the hunting rifle in those days was a military rifle perfected to be the best that it could be.  It’s not the same today.  A lot of us are still using a design that saw its pinnacle in 1898.  We’re not driven by innovation and doing whatever we can to improve our equipment so much anymore.  Today we’re more driven by what the companies want to market to us.  In those days, evidently, the big companies had to keep up with the demand being set by gun “cranks”, as Whelen called them, to produce a high quality product competing with what shooters were having custom built.  I think that the community of shooters today is more dependent on having our choices given out to us without really giving any input, or much thought, for that matter.  Sporting guns have been mired down by tradition on one hand, but also degraded by decreasing the cost of production.

 

In Part II I was expecting a lot.  I was a bit disappointed.  The tone reminded me a little bit of the narrator in the Goofy (Disney character) “how to” cartoons.  They were big on “science” back then.  I’m not saying it was bad or incorrect; I was probably hoping for a lot.  There is a lot of good advice to the hunter.  The chapter “In the Game Fields” was full of sound advice.

 

When I got to the part about trajectory, I was a little nervous because I had just written my trajectory article.  I was worried that I was going to get blown away, or that I would realize I had gone awry, or left something critical out.  What I found was that it seemed a lot more complicated back then, and that you had to do a lot more guesswork and conjecture to get to roughly the same place.

 

In comparison to Cooper, I think that Whelen was more of a real deal genuine rifle guy.  I’m not trying to disparage Cooper, I just think that there was more substance here, where Cooper wrote a much more general outline.  I would like to read some of Whelen’s other work.  I recommend this book, if you can find a copy to read.

 

The final thing I want to leave you with is the last paragraph of the book’s introduction.  It’s the quote at the top of the article.  Here it is again:

 

Throughout all my life a large and increasing number of red blooded Americans have been striving to make us a “Nation of Riflemen.”  We have succeeded.  May we ever remain thus, for the privilege to bear, and the ability to use weapons is the greatest guarantee of Liberty.
It makes me a little sad to think about it.  I’m not so sure they had succeeded, because look at us now.  If they had succeeded, would his generation, and the one that followed, have led us to where we are now?  I don’t think so.  It doesn’t make me sad so much that Townie might have got it wrong; it’s that the work he and the other great riflemen of his day, and before his day, was squandered.  It’s up to us to ensure that their efforts were not in vain.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Hunting Rifle, by Townsend Whelen

  1. Libraries have limited shelf space so, unless they are an academic library, they ‘weed’ the collection looking for tattered, torn, and unused books to remove and sell at book sales for a buck, or fifty cents for paperback – or they just recycle the materials through the trash. Specialty books, such as the one you have written about, are small audience of specialists users – never enough, but the people that need them – write them or blog about them and share.

  2. I was not able to find this particular work by Whelen as a digital book, however you can look at some of his other (similar) works on the internet archive.
    http://www.archive.org/search.php?query=townsend%20whelen%20AND%20mediatype%3Atexts

    If you prefer the hard copy (including the one reviewed here) you can get them on Amazon:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/search/ref=sr_adv_b/?field-publisher=Kessinger+Publishing&search-alias=stripbooks&unfiltered=1&tag=kessingerpubl-20&tag_value=kessingerpubl-20&field-keywords=townsen

    Cheers!

  3. “We’re not driven by innovation and doing whatever we can to improve our equipment so much anymore.  Today we’re more driven by what the companies want to market to us.  In those days, evidently, the big companies had to keep up with the demand being set by gun “cranks”, as Whelen called them, to produce a high quality product competing with what shooters were having custom built.  I think that the community of shooters today is more dependent on having our choices given out to us without really giving any input, or much thought, for that matter.”

    I think this differs quite a bit with different types of shooters. While the general shooting public as well as lower tier competitive shooters will go after whatever new “revolutionary” product is offered to them, from my experience the best shooters are still constantly customising their equipment, tinkering with their rifles and spending long hours with gunsmiths, discussing about a possible way of dropping a fraction of a millimeter from their groupsize. This of course goes to extremes with bench rest shooters, but at least 15 years ago, when I was still following competition shooting from the inside (through my father, who was one of the top tier shooters in Finland at the time), you wouldn’t have found unmodified rifle from any of the top shooters. What follows is that when advances are made this way, they still challenge the gun manufacturers to keep up and improve their product. Change is slow and practical new ideas are rare, but they still happen

    All of this of course applies only to guns sold as precision instruments. When people are buying weapons for “home defence” or as male organ enhancements, they will only care about what a weapon looks like and how fast can it send lead downrange and there isn’t much that can be done about that, but then, why should the manufacturer care about the quality and accuracy of their product, when the end users don’t?

    Thanks for a great blog, I’ve been reading my way through the archives after someone at Rimfire Central recommended it. I’ve been hunting with a shotgun for most of my life, but recently got a rifle to carry with me after getting tired of seeing the birds sitting in a tree in a middle of a clearing 200 meters away with no way to get close enough for shotgun. Now the problem will be hitting them at that range, while my father watches from the side and goes “From this distance, I’d aim for the head”.

    Apologies for my English, it’s not my first language and it shows…

    • It’s funny how perspectives change. I agree with you. I suppose when I wrote that I was thinking of the person who buys a rifle but doesn’t shoot much. It depends on the level of engagement and how much one is willing to spend.

      Your English appears to be better than many native speakers. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, and for reading.

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