Jack O'Connor and Elmer Keith
December 22, 2011
Back in the 1970s we were fortunate to have two of our sport's all-time superstars working for the old Petersen Publishing Company: Elmer Keith and Jack O'Connor. Keith wrote for Guns & Ammo for many years, while O'Connor wrote for the fledgling Petersen's Hunting during the last few years of his life. RifleShooter didn't exist back then, and I don't know how it would have worked if we'd tried to package both of these strong-willed guys in the same magazine. It actually happened only once in the Petersen era: The inaugural issue of Petersen's Hunting, November 1973, had a story by eachâ€”but it never happened again.
Their war of words last for decades. It wasn't altogether for show. Correspondence I have from Keith, after Jack's passing, suggests that he truly hated the ground O'Connor walked on. I didn't know O'Connor nearly as well, but my impression is he was mildly amused by Keith's rancor and occasionally stirred things up on purpose.
As we know, Keith was a large caliber/heavy bullet guy. Like the good gun writer he was, he used lots of different rifles and cartridges, but his signature became the .33 caliber with heavy-for-caliber bullets; his preference started at 250 grains and went on up. O'Connor also used more rifles and cartridges than he is given credit for, but his baby was the .270 Winchester, and he generally used plain old 130-grain bullets.
Although Keith was a bit older, the two men were essentially of the same generation, but they came into the gun writing game from different directions, with different experience. In the 'teens Keith packed and guided in his native Idaho, and he recounted a lot of failures on elk from the early softpoints of the day. As a young man he returned to the large-caliber blackpowder single shot cartridges of the previous generation, and for the rest of his life he remained a strong proponent of frontal area and sectional density.
O'Connor's early hunting experience was on mule deer and Coues deer in his native Arizona. He didn't hunt elk until Arizona held their first modern season in the mid-1930s. By then expanding bullets were a bit better.
Despite the animosity, the two weren't really all that far apart. Elmer's .33 is a wonderful tool for elk, but thousands upon thousands of hunters, me included (grudgingly), have found Jack's .270 perfectly adequate, given only good shot placement with a decent bullet.
Keith is also known for his elephant hunting with his .500 Boswell and .476 Westley-Richards. But when O'Connor hunted really big game he left the .270 behind. He used the .375 H&H a great deal, including on tiger, lion and brown bearâ€”perfect game for the caliber. For African thick-skinned game, he used not only the .375 but also the .416 Rigby and wildcat .450 Watts (forerunner to the .458 Lott). These are not the tools of a smallbore man.
In private correspondence, though never in print, they even crossed over. In a letter I've seen, Keith grudgingly admitted that the .270, matched with a 150-grain Nosler Partition (the premium bullet of his day) would be perfectly adequate for elk. O'Connor, on his part, conceded that the .30-06 was actually more versatile than his beloved .270.
So, 30 years after Elmer's death, a bit more after Jack's, what would they think of the status of our hunting rifle world? Elmer, of course, would be delighted with the continued and seemingly escalating success of the .338 Winchester Magnum. He might even have liked the .338 Federal and .338 Marlin Express.
O'Connor would be equally happy to know that "his" .270 Winchester remains a popular, world-class cartridge. And I think he'd have given the clearly faster and more capable .270 WSM a fair shake, especially with modern bullets that he never saw. I tend to think both of them would scoff at the bewildering plethora of brave new cartridges that have come along in recent years. However, they were both serious gun writers. They would have given most of them a try, if not a fair shake, and they would have told us what they thought.
I'm uncertain what they might have thought of the amazing popularity of the AR-15. Neither saw active service in either world war, but both had military training and experience in service rifle competition. As with my own generation, I'm sure they were horrified by the switch from a "real rifle," the M14, to the flimsy, pipsqueak M16.
On the other hand, neither had the opportunity to see what that initial platform, with many flaws, developed into. Provided they weren't throwing stones at each other, both were fair men who knew guns, and it was their job to experiment and evaluate. I think both of them would appreciate the accurate, versatile platform the modern AR has morphed into.
Neither man lived to see the perfection of the variable-power scope. Although both proved themselves capable at long-range shooting when necessary, I think they would be horrified at the purposeful long-range shooting at game touted today. (Amen.)
I tend to think they would have embraced the medium-range variable (3-9X, 3.5-10X, etc.) as wonderful and versatile tools, but I think both would have regarded the very powerful riflescopes so frequently seen today in big game hunting best relegated to varmintingâ€”if not purely the work of Satan.
I think both of them, were they with us today, would have agreed that, for big game hunting, the most significant advance has been not in cartridges, scopes or actions but in bullets. If you read their writing carefully, both men had problems with the bullets of their day, as did all other hunters in their day. Both men used the pioneer bonded-core bullet, Bill Steiger's Bitterroot Bullet, and raved about it. But those bullets were made one at a time. Supply was a horrible challenge, and even Keith and O'Connor couldn't always get them when they needed them.
Neither lived to see what bonded-core technology has done for "conventional" lead-core bullets, nor the homogenous-alloy expanding bullet. Here I think their opinions might have diverged.
Keith was a heavy-bullet-for-caliber guy, worshipping the shrine of sectional density primarily because bullet weight compensates for deficiencies in bullet design. He wanted penetration. He would love today's small-opening, deep-penetrating bullets, typified by Barnes' X-Bullet series. He would love equally the Swift A-Frame. He was hardly unaware of the value of aerodynamics, so, with the right bullet (which we have today) he might well have, grudgingly, recommended dropping down in bullet weight to gain more velocity and flatter trajectory.
O'Connor liked bullet expansion. Sheep and deer were his favorite game, and among his favorite bullets was the quick-opening Remington Bronze Point. For lighter game, I think he would have embraced tipped, lead-core bullet like the AccuPoint and SST. For larger game, he might have shifted toward tipped, bonded-core bullets like AccuBond and Sciroccoâ€¦and, ultimately, to the A-Frame, GMX and TSX. Bullets such as these would have extended the capabilities of his .270 Winchester far beyond what he saw in his day, and, although we'll never know, I think this would have pleased him.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of RifleShooter magazine.