Elmer Keith and The Golden Years of Gunwriting

Fair Use Keith Elmer Image (WP:NFCC#4)

This past weekend, I played an event in southern Wyoming and then headed to Idaho on assignment for American Rifleman. Of course, I made time to be sure to visit Salmon, ID. Now, you old-timers reading this will know exactly why I was compelled to visit Salmon. It was the home and final resting place of Elmer Keith, one of the great gun writers of years past.

During a long life of cowboying and ranching in the northwest, Keith found time to assist in developing the .44 Mag. and .41 Mag. revolver cartridges. Early on, Keith supplemented his ranching ventures by writing stories for American Rifleman and most other popular magazines of the day. He was undoubtedly one of my heroes. But I didn’t stop by to visit his grave. I think that the rugged, Idaho mountains that surround Salmon are a far more fitting monument to this grand old man of sixgunning.

The years following the end of World War II became what I consider the golden years of gun writing. In addition to Mr. Keith, we read and enjoyed writers like Bill Jordan, Skeeter Skelton, Jeff Cooper, and Bob Milik, just to name a few of those who wrote mostly about handguns and handgunning. Again, the old-timers in the audience will add some favorite names of their own to this list.

Some of these writers taught us a lot about how to shoot, while others of them showed us a good bit about gunfighting since the two are not always the same. What they all had in common was the ability to entertain us while they also informed us. In that era, the gun writer had also better be an above-average storyteller.

Times change and publication focus changes, too. Storytelling is not as big a priority in today’s gun magazines. Quite frankly, I miss it. I surely wish that today’s magazines would reprint some of the articles of these great writers of the golden era. Today’s shooters, especially the younger generation, could get a lot out of the yarns and experiences of these men from years gone by.

Now, I’m not knocking today’s writers and shooting instructors; most of them do a great job, and many are my friends. It’s just that our handgunning history is full and colorful, and it’s a real shame to see it fade away. We, historians, believe that you can’t really know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. 

So I’m sitting in Salmon, ID, and this evening, I just believe I’ll raise a glass to those writers and handgunners who have gone before. May the red gods smile upon them.

This article originally appeared in Shooting Illustrated.

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3 Responses to Elmer Keith and The Golden Years of Gunwriting

  1. Larry Berry says:

    I went by Mr. Keith’s home in Salmon 0n November 1,1979 . He was in his office which was a separate building a few feet from his home. I bought 2 of his books “Hell I Was There ” . One for me and one for someone else. He autographed them and “Sixguns ” which I had brought with me . He was most gracious . He took me inside his home and introduced me to his wife .My wife took a picture of he an I outside the house in the yard . That picture got enlarged and is in my home now . Have to say that was one of the best days ever for me .Talked to Mr. Keith by phone a couple of times after that day .On 6-6-1981 he told me he had found out he was a diabetic and was feeling fair .I believe it was Mr. Taffin that said once you start reading “Hell I Was There” you can not put it down, how true.

  2. ED DOLAN says:

    Jim, I had not pondered all of the reasons why I consider most of the gun writing today “joyless”. You nailed it. Most of the current scribes are former military/operators who are not tasked with telling a story we can relate to. Mike Venturino and Garry James are notable exceptions. Ol’ Elmer and Jack O’Connor could really get after each others’ opinion! Bob Milek looked like my dad and could pull you into his latest yarn. John Wooters with “Bucky” and having to learn to shoot from his weak side. Jeff Cooper taught us about guns, life and the human condition. Skeeter Skelton may have been the best of the bunch of storytellers!

    You’re right, Sheriff. We older readers miss those days when the publishers’ focus was relateable.

    • Victor Ferrari says:

      I fully agree with you Ed. The older writers are so much better reading. I didn’t get started into guns until I was about 33. Right from the start, Jim, Skeeter, and Bob Milek were some of my favorite writers. I currently have Elmer’s Sixguns and look forward to getting Hell, I was there. Big thanks to Jim for all the writings that he has given us.

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