Townsend Whelen could’a been a Rokslider
Call me nostalgic, but I like to read about the history of hunting and the hunters who lived it. If you’ve got time to slow down, it’s worth the read. Amazing how mobile hunters were even in the early 1900’s. From Sporting Classics Daily http://
Townsend “Townie” Whelen (1877-1961) was one of the great hunting, gun and outdoor writers of the 20th century, ranking alongside the likes of Jack O’Connor and Elmer Keith as icons of the sporting scribes tribe, but certain characteristics distinguish him from them and others.
Townsend “Townie” Whelen (1877-1961) was one of the great hunting, gun and outdoor writers of the 20th century. He ranks alongside the likes of Jack O’Connor and Elmer Keith as icons of the sporting scribes tribe, but certain characteristics distinguish him from them and others. For starters, he arguably knew more about guns and ammunition than either (and that’s saying a lot), and was more skilled as a woodsman, familiar with all aspects of living close to nature.
Forgetting his gun-related expertise for a moment, Townie’s knack for woodcraft and living off the land put him in a category with Horace Kephart and Nessmuk (the pen name of George Washington Sears). He was a fine camp cook, a peerless survivalist who excelled in putting meat in the pot, understood the virtues of being a minimalist when camping for weeks, a first-rate natural historian, and in short, a man of many parts.
Whelen’s beginnings and the manner in which he blossomed as a hunter and outdoorsman are in many ways reminiscent of Theodore Roosevelt’s adolescence. Born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, he was the son of a Philadelphia physician and a bona fide Pennsylvania blue blood. He showed, from early childhood, a pronounced penchant for being a loner. In some senses he would be a misanthrope throughout his life, later acknowledging that “early on I seem to have formed a desire to wander off by myself into unfrequented country.” He loved ambling about wilderness areas alone, living off the land and utilizing his carefully selected outfit – tarp, bed roll, nesting cooking kit, rifle, two knives and other basic items – to its fullest advantage.
At the age of 11 his father presented him with a Quakenbush air rifle, which the youngster soon mastered so completely that the neighborhood population of English sparrows was decimated. Two years later, when he was just entering his teens, the senior Whelen bought his son a Remington rolling block .22, and an uncoordinated and somewhat withdrawn youngster found the key that opened a door to a new and remarkable life. Through practice and astute use of the observational skills (which would become one of his hallmarks), Whelen soon developed into an expert marksman capable of besting the finest shooters in his area. Interest in guns and the outdoors led him, while still in his teens, to enlist in the Pennsylvania National Guard. This marked the first step to a military career closely paralleled by his simultaneous development as a writer and outdoorsman.
With the sinking of the battleship Maine and the beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Whelen’s Pennsylvania unit was federalized and he soon earned promotion to the rank of sergeant major. Less than a year later he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He saw no action in the conflict, but his experiences convinced Townie that a military career was what he wanted in life. Many years later, looking back on his life, he commented: “I would chuck all the work I have done, all the small success I have made, if I could go back tomorrow as Captain in command of Company F, 29th Infantry.”
That was the position he held at the time the United States entered World War I, but a number of experiences in the interim – those years between the turn of the century and the outbreak of the Great War – did much to shape the man. At the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, despite his resolve to become a career soldier, Whelen found himself temporarily stymied. He applied for a regular commission only to learn that the competitive exams lay almost a year down the road.
He resigned his reserve commission and headed to British Columbia in search of adventure. There he acquired horses, saddles, grub, and, with a carefully chosen kit (some of which he had crafted by hand), headed into the wilderness. He had with him a free miner’s certificate, which meant he was allowed to kill game as needed for food, and his destination was the northern portion of what was then considered the most game-rich of all the Canadian provinces.
By good fortune he met an old guide by the name of “Bones” Andrews from whom he acquired the basics of woodsmanship he would build upon for the remainder of his life. Any time he ventured away from his base camp he carried a rifle and a rucksack, and by trial and error, along with guidance from Andrews, Townie soon became a first-rate camp cook. He traveled light, was in peak physical condition, and absorbed knowledge from his wilderness experiences in sponge-like fashion.
The trip was in some senses the making of the man. In 1901, not long before setting out for British Columbia, he published his first article on the outdoors. For the next six decades, right up until his death, he would contribute to the literature of sport and guncraft in a prolific and insightful way.
When he returned to Philadelphia in the spring of 1902, Whelen knew what he wanted from life. He encountered a potential obstacle when he learned that only a small cadre of candidates would be allowed to take the exams for Army commissions. However, his father’s connections with men of influence garnered him an interview with President Roosevelt. TR found him to be precisely the sort of man he envisioned when he talked of living “the strenuous life,” and decided Whelen was “the type of young man I want to see in the Army.”
Whelen would soon be commissioned as a second lieutenant, and over the next decade he honed his skills as a writer while settling into a military career. His first book, Suggestions to Military Riflemen, was published in 1909. His other works were, in chronological order of first publication, The American Rifle (1918), Cartridges and Loads for American Rifles (1922), The Care and Cleaning of Modern Firearms (1922), Big Game Hunting (1923), Amateur Gunsmithing (1924), American Big Game Shooting (1925), Wilderness Hunting and Wildcraft (1927), Small Bore Rifle Handbook (1928), Telescopic Rifle Sights (1936), Remodeling Military Rifles (in collaboration with several others, 1940), The Hunting Rifle (1940), Tips to Shooters of Shotguns, Rifles and Pistols (1945), Small Arms Design and Ballistics (two volumes, 1945 and 1946), Hunting Big Game (a two-volume anthology compiled and edited by Whelen, 1946), The Ultimate in Rifle Precision (with others, 1949),Why Not Load Your Own! (1949), Fundamentals of Scope Sights (1952), and On Your Own in the Wilderness (with Bradford Angier, 1958). His unfinished biography, Mr. Rifleman (completed by Bradford Angier and members of Whelen’s family, 1965) and The Best of Colonel Townsend Whelen (1983), appeared posthumously.
In addition to his prolific output as a book author and editor, Whelen was a regular contributor and/or columnist for a number of the major outdoor magazines of his era. His articles and columns appeared in Outdoor Life, Field & Stream, Sports Afield, The American Rifleman, Guns & Ammo, and several others. Purportedly, a grandson is busy compiling a complete Whelen bibliography; certainly an achievement for such a daunting task would be a godsend for students of this remarkable man.
Along with his endeavors as a writer, Whelen compiled a solid career as a soldier. When the Panama Canal was completed, it became the Army’s job to defend this strategic waterway linking two oceans. In 1915 Whelen and his 29th Infantry regiment became part of the garrison stationed in the Canal Zone, and one of Whelen’s first duties was to get a grasp of the rugged, uninhabited terrain surrounding the canal. He acclimated himself to jungle conditions, learned how to deal with decidedly hostile geography, and soon was as much at home in rain forest as in the Rockies.
Not long thereafter the United States entered World War I, and Whelen, through his enterprising efforts and expertise, already had attracted attention in the Army’s higher echelons. He was assigned to the Army’s General Staff and spent the brief period of America’s participation in World War I as a camp inspector and developer of training programs. He saw no combat experience, but thanks to his specialized knowledge of small arms, immediately after the war’s conclusion he received dual assignments as commanding officer at the Frankford Arsenal and director of research and development at the Springfield Armory. In these capacities he had invaluable opportunities to see both military and civilian gunsmiths busy at work, and his inquisitive mind took full advantage of this exposure.
He became a fixture at the annual matches at Camp Perry, worked assiduously in bullet design, became the unofficial king of wildcatters, and continued his military career, rising through the ranks to colonel, until retirement in 1936 at the age of 59. His energetic, active lifestyle continued apace once he left the military, because he was now able to devote all of his attention to literary endeavors and research associated with guns and wilderness life. This was the course of his life for the better part of two decades until he fell, when 76, and shattered his hip. The injury was a bad one from which he never fully recovered, relying on the assistance of canes for the rest of his days. Yet the old fire still burned in his belly and less than two years before his death, when living in St. Louis (he have moved from his Vermont home to be close to live with his daughter after the death of his wife), he competed in and won the last shooting match he ever entered.
Through his variegated experience in all aspects of shooting, achievements as a gun writer and developer of cartridges, knowledge of wilderness life, and possession of what his good friend and fellow writer Julian Hatcher described as “an open and inquisitive mind and a tremendous capacity for hard work,” Townie Whelen reached the pinnacle of his profession. By any standard of measurement he must be reckoned one of America’s greatest gun and hunting writers as well as an outdoorsman for all seasons. Today, more than a half century after his passing, his reputation is still widely and rightly revered. In short, the description “Renaissance Outdoorsman” used in the title is one he richly merited.