Mecca on Madison

Abercrombie & Fitch were classic, Olde World outfitters where you could buy a genuine English sun helmet (this is not a pith helmet!) made for them in Piccadilly to the highest standards. This one belongs to Gray’s shooting editor Terry Wieland. On the same trip in 1977, he bought a birchbark moose call made for A&F in New Brunswick.

by David E. Petzal

Long ago (1945 to 1977, roughly) and far away (New York City) there was a wonderful store dedicated mostly to hunters and fisherman who were well to do—if they weren’t, they could take themselves elsewhere—and if not knowledgeable, at least pretentious. This store catered to a very large, very active, and distinctly upper-middle-class sporting community based in and around New York City. It was Abercrombie & Fitch. If you were a hunter or angler with money, and lived within driving distance of New York, it was the center of the known universe.

A&F began in 1892, and came to much of its gain and fame through its catalog, which contained 456 pages of wonders, and went out to 50,000 people a year. In 1917, the company moved into a 12-storey building on 45th Street and Madison Avenue, and that, now and forevermore, was Abercrombie & Fitch. A&F occupied all 12 floors, but there were only three that mattered. The ground floor, which was double-height and paneled in solid walnut, was where the knives dwelt. The seventh floor was guns (including the office for Griffin & Howe); the eighth floor was fishing, and stocked 48,000 flies and 18,000 lures. If your cast troubled you, you could go up on the roof and get coaching from an in-house pro. 

A&F would board your dog and, for a while, even your cat. 

In its heyday, A&F specialized in equipping expeditions. They outfitted Admiral Byrd’s trip to the South Pole, and Teddy Roosevelt’s and Ernest Hemingway’s safaris. If A&F supplied your katundu you were guaranteed to be the very fit and form of fashion. 

A&F sold the “Best,” not the “Best for the Money.” And sometimes they came to it in unusual ways. On the ground floor, you could buy a Randall knife. (In 1957, I bought a Randall Smithsonian Bowie for $40, new. Today, it’s $1,400.  The fact that they would sell such a fearsome snickersnee to a 15-year-old says much of the times.) But often there were not enough Randalls to meet the demand. 

So, probably in 1955, a merchant seaman named Robert Waldorf Loveless found himself Randall-less at A&F. He did what any knife nut would do. He went to a junkyard, picked up a collection of leaf springs from a wrecked Packard, and, with what was available in his ship’s machine shop, made a knife for himself. Then he made some extras, which he took to the buyer at A&F. 

The buyer said, “Can you make more?”

Loveless said that indeed he could. He marked them Delaware Maid. About the least that a Delaware Maid goes for today is $5,000, and they can bring twice that with no trouble at all. The point being that whoever bought knives for A&F back then knew exactly what he was looking at. 

On the seventh floor, there were the expected racks of London Bests, and an Italian-made break-open auto shotgun called the Cosmi which you would not expect, and side-by-sides made by Rizzini. Rizzinis were plain guns, relatively speaking, no bells, no whistles, that sold for $750, which was getting up there, but nowhere was there a shotgun half so well put together as a Rizzini. 

My favorite shotgun, which appeared briefly in the used-gun rack, was a side-by-side Boss in 10-gauge, choked skeet and skeet. It had been made for a New England partridge hunter who was exasperated by the birds and determined to fill the air with lead.

Off in a corner showcase, among the Weatherbys, was a small collection of Winslows. If a Griffin & Howe sporter was Perry Como, and a Weatherby was 1956 Elvis, a Winslow was 1974 Elvis. The Winslows seemed to give off a terrible inner light that pulled your head around to stare at them.