O’Connor versus Page; the Clash of the Gun-Writing Titans

Warren Page’s Mashburn custom rifles were auctioned by his widow, Martha, at the sixth GameCoin convention in San Antonio in 1977. All three were purchased by Arthur McGreevy, shown with Page’s Mannlicher-stocked bear rifle.

by David E. Petzal

The greatest rivalry in the odd world of gun writing was between Warren Page of Field & Stream and Jack O’Connor of Outdoor Life. There have been some splendid practitioners of this dark art since, but no one has been as popular as these two, and no one has had so much influence. As someone said of O’Connor: “If he wrote that he bought a Model 70 and had it made into a lamp, Winchester would sell 25,000 rifles.”

(Those of you who are very old may be asking, “Where’s Pete Brown of Sports Afield?”  Pete held the shooting editor’s job there during the same period as Page and O’Connor at their magazines. He did a competent job, but was never a star, so I have not included him here.)

Page got his start at Field & Stream in 1947 and lasted until 1971. O’Connor began in 1941 and ended his run in 1972. The two were dissimilar except in their dispositions: Neither was a dispenser of sweetness and light.

O’Connor was born in 1902 in what would become Arizona, and grew up with a rifle in his hands. He got a Master’s degree from the University of Missouri, taught English at the University of Arizona, was its first journalism professor and was, throughout his adulthood, a successful and prolific writer.

Page was born in Massachusetts in 1910. He was a fisherman early on, and did hardly any shooting. He graduated from Harvard in 1931 and then taught English at Lawrenceville, an exclusive New Jersey prep school. In World War II, he was a naval officer and gunnery instructor, and emerged from the war an advanced alcoholic. He was committed to an institution with the expectation he would die there.

But, Page did not. He dried out and never touched alcohol for the rest of his life. He applied to Field & Stream for the fishing editor’s job but was told it had been filled, so he signed on as shooting editor, knowing hardly anything about guns.

The new shooting editor was both smart and energetic. He saw immediately that he was going to have to become an authority on guns and, for the next few years, as he put it, “I fell asleep every night with a gun book on my chest.” He did more than that. He discovered the beginning sport of benchrest shooting, which is the deep end of the pool when it comes to what makes rifles accurate. He was very good at it, winning matches with frequency and infuriating his fellow shooters by never practicing.

Page was a technoid for all of his career and a tireless experimenter. He wrote so much about wildcat cartridges that “I wore out the decimal key on the typewriter.” Page did the bulk of his hunting with a proprietary wildcat called the 7mm Mashburn Super Magnum, and with a Weatherby cartridge, the .375 Weatherby.

O’Connor, on the other hand, was not an experimenter. He dealt with what already was and, in particular, the .270 Winchester.

Page was always identified with Remington and O’Connor with Winchester, but neither one would hunt with a Remington or Winchester rifle out of the factory. Page went to an Oklahoma gunsmith named Art Mashburn for his main guns, Old Betsy Number One and Number Two. O’Connor used rifles from just about all the great names all the way back to Alvin Linden, but his favorites came from a Spokane craftsman named Al Biesen, who built his matched .270s. Page favored commercial Mauser actions; O’Connor liked the Winchester Model 70.

Both men hit their peak of popularity at just the time air travel was making big-game hunting in faraway places a possibility for even the non-wealthy. Page went at it with a vengeance. He hunted on five continents and took animals of exceeding rarity, such as Alaska blue bear and African bongo. O’Connor hunted widely, but not as much, and his first love was always the North American wild sheep.

What made them so popular?

Page was never a great writer. He was a highly competent reporter, knew volumes about what worked and what didn’t, and gave better advice than anyone else.

O’Connor, however, was a great writer. At his best he was mesmerizing. His stock in trade was an acerbic wit and what Ernest Hemingway called “a built-in, waterproof, shockproof, bullshit detector.” At his peak of popularity, he got 3,000 reader letters a month.

He and I corresponded over a piece I wrote for Gray’s in 1976. He disagreed with what I wrote, and sent me a letter in which he said that I was “…a gifted young man whose talents were better suited to fiction than fact.” I treasure that letter.

O’Connor was a bully. He would come to Outdoor Life’s editorial seminars in New York and corner some hapless junior editor and ask him how much he was paid. (Like many deaf people who do not wear hearing aids, he bellowed.)

“Forty-five hundred dollars* a year, sir,” the kid would squeak. “WELL JESUS CHRIST,” the great man would thunder, “HOW DO YOU MANAGE TO LIVE ON THAT?”

John Kingsley Heath, who was O’Connor’s PH for several safaris, remembered him with a shudder. “O’Connor was an anglophile,” he told me. “I was damned glad I’m English.”

Les Bowman, who was a big-game outfitter, rifle experimenter, and one of the very first U.S. Mail pilots, guided both men on elk hunts. O’Connor, he said, expected to be waited on hand and foot. When he took Page out, a horse kicked Bowman in the back, putting him on a tent cot for the entire hunt. Page, Bowman said, guided himself, did the cooking, wrangled the horses, looked after him, and never said a word of complaint.

O’Connor probably never spoke a stupid word in his life. Page spoke carelessly, and a lot, and it eventually cost him his career. He seemed confounded by the America of the 1970s. On one occasion, he told a New York Times reporter that a particular gun-control problem was so complex that “a half dozen Jewish lawyers couldn’t figure it out.” The Times editors, no doubt weeping with joy, printed the comment, and the resulting uproar helped make Page unemployable. He was hurt and baffled. In his mind, there was nothing smarter than a Jewish lawyer, and he meant the remark as a compliment.

Page published only two books that I know of. The first is One Mans Wilderness, which is a collection of his Field & Stream hunting stories. It’s okay. The other is The Accurate Rifle, which is about what its title says and, despite being written in the early 1970s, is still worth reading. Page knew the subject cold, and unlike some technoids who write about guns, was very good at explaining things clearly.

O’Connor was prolific. He left us 15 books, almost all on guns and hunting. Technically, they’re obsolete because so much has changed, and the two that are particularly relevant today are Horse and Buggy West, a Boyhood on the Last Frontier, which is an account of what it was like to live in Arizona at the beginning of the 20th century. The other is The Big Game Animals of North America (1961; 2nd Ed. 1977). It’s a collaboration between O’Connor and a gifted artist named Douglas Allen, and is O’Connor at his best.

Page once said he hoped he would die walking off a mountain on which he had just taken the biggest elk of his life. His wish was not granted. He departed the earth in January, 1977, watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show and eating apple pie. O’Connor went to meet Lucifer in January a year later, at night, in his sleep, aboard a cruise ship.

 They were giants in their time, and they have not been forgotten. Nor will they be.

*This pitiful sum is, indeed, what an assistant editor would be paid in the early 1960s.

Dave Petzal once went shooting with Warren Page and took along a savage-kicking .378 Weatherby. Page, who detested recoil, was aghast, and said That f***inthing is gonna knock your head off.” Sure enough, Petzal got the second-best scope cut of his career, and Page actually did a jig from joy. I told you that f***inthing was gonna knock your head off,” he crowed, beaming in triumph.