This Old Gun

Classic Guns: Jack O’Connor’s Last Rifle, the Ruger M77

I love to find old hook-and-bullet magazines, the older the better, and read the old-school gun writers. I like the grainy black-and-white photos shot in the field. I like the horn-rimmed glasses, canvas shooting jackets and the Jones hats they wear. Some of these writers have penned stories for Gun Digest over the years. Terry Weiland, shooting editor at Gray’s Sporting Journal, curated some these writings for Classic Sporting Rifles, a collection that is a “who’s who” of gun writers from the twentieth century. And such a collection would be incomplete without something by Jack O’Connor. His 1958 article that is included in the book, “The Sheep Rifle,” makes an argument about what kind of shots are actually taken while pursuing sheep (shorter than you think) and what rifles are suited for the job.

O’Connor writes in the opening paragraph, “Lads who have never hunted mountain sheep but who would like to do so almost always imagine themselves shooting at rams far across great empty basins above timberline or lying down, taking deliberate aim from one peak and knocking a bighorn off another.”

He continues, “This sheep-and-hunter picture, by the way, is, along with the leaping marlin and the charging African lion, one of the favorite cliches among cover paintings for outdoor magazines.”

Jack O'Connor's Custom Ruger M77 in .280 Remington

O’Connor is known for being a strong advocate for the .270 Winchester but the last custom rifle he owned was a .280 Remington Ruger M77.

In the soon-to-be released 67th edition of the 2013 Gun Digest annual, Tom Turpin, author of Custom Rifles: Mastery of Wood and Metal, delves into how the writings of Jack O’Connor influenced his life and love for custom rifles:

“As a youngster, I devoured every copy of Outdoor Life magazine I could find. In my old hometown in rural Kentucky, copies of Outdoor Life were hard to come by, but I managed to find one now and again. While I did read an occasional yarn by other writers, it was the prose of Jack O’Connor I lusted for. I don’t think his writing influenced me to become the avid hunter that I am—that basic instinct was apparently already embedded in my genes. He did, however, influence my preferences in rifles and their stock designs. Through his writings, O’Connor also motivated me to try the .270 Winchester cartridge, which became my favorite hunting round. Even today, so many years later, it still is—and for good reason.”

Through networking and some historical research, Turpin comes across a letter from the Al Biesen, the rifle maker, noting what work was done on the .280 custom rifle:

“Stock French walnut in a nice grained contrasty piece not so elaborate with Deluxe Fleur-de-lis checkering, ebony forend tip, skeleton grip cap and skeleton butt plate. Old Win. Style swivel studs. Metal work Barrel was recontoured to light weight dimensions. Trigger guard hand made Blackburn style one piece model etc. Bolt handle knob hand checkered in four panel design, trimmed for style and shape. Trigger reworked and tightened with a nice let off. Action trued and hand polished, hand finished inside and polished for smooth working etc. Bolt jeweled. Special scope rings and mounts hand made to lighten them. Leupold 4 power scope. All metal parts blued with a Black Velvet non glare finish. Front swivel stud on barrel. Safety reworked and a Silver letter “S” ahead of safety showing safe position. Al Biesen Gunmaker Spokane Wn And Rem. 280 in Silver on the barrel.” [Sic]

It’s an interesting story of a gun writer and his relationship with a gunsmith and the masterpiece rifles they envisioned and created.

O’Connor passed away before he could see the finished firearm and Turpin ends with this anecdote:  “Biesen related to me that, at the funeral, he intended to drop a couple of .270 cartridges in O’Connor’s casket so that, whichever direction he went, he’d have some ammunition. Thankfully, shortly before he did so, he learned that O’Connor was to be cremated! ‘Not wanting to send the old boy out with a bang, I didn’t follow through,’ Biesen told me.”

 

 

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