The Genius of Spokane

by Terry Wieland

THE PIRSUIT OF PERFECTION IS NO EASY TASK. First, it requires the knowledge of what perfection is. Second, it requires the skill to execute. Third, it requires a modicum of luck, of timing, of planetary alignment in a certain way at a certain time.

In the history of gunmaking, such a fortuitous combination has occurred rarely, but always with stunning results: James Purdey and Frederick Beesley in 1880; Henry Holland and Sir Samuel Baker a few years later; and, in our century, Jack O’Connor and Al Biesen. Purdey took Beesley’s patented action and perfected the side-by-side shotgun, while Baker, one of the greatest hunters of all time, lent his expertise to assist Holland in accomplishing a comparable feat with the double rifle.

The relationship between O’Connor, the greatest hunting and shooting writer of the postwar era, and Biesen, a Spokane gunmaker, lasted from about 1947 until O’Connor’s death in 1978. But O’Connor’s influence did not die with him, and Biesen (16 years his junior) continued in business for another 38 years. He died in April 2016, a week after his 98th birthday. During those 38 years, we saw the flowering of the custom-rifle business that he and O’Connor had done so much to promote—38 years in which Al Biesen was held in near reverence by his gunmaking peers, and remained a magical name for all who admired O’Connor’s vision of a fine rifle.

To have “an Al Biesen rifle” was a dream for, literally, millions of readers of O’Connor’s books and articles in Outdoor Life. Jack O’Connor was born in 1902, before the bolt-action hunting rifle even existed. Through the influence of his grandfather and uncle, he became a “rifle nut of the most depraved kind,” and grew up hunting in Arizona and Sonora. Through the 1920s and ’30s, he hunted with rifles of many types. Being a professional journalist and a man of analytical mind, O’Connor became both a critic of rifles then available and an advocate in the outdoor press of what was required in a hunting rifle.

Al Biesen, meanwhile, was born and raised in Wisconsin—coincidentally the home of Alvin Linden, the most influential of the early stockmakers who attempted to fit rifles with stocks that were highly usable (ergonomic, in the modern parlance) and, at the same time, graceful and attractive to the eye. That both Biesen and Linden were named “Alvin” may or may not be coincidence. Linden, a Swedish cabinet maker, was also reflective and analytical, and wrote several booklets on stock design that guided an entire generation of stockmakers, Al Biesen among them.

O’Connor’s two favorite big game rifles were a pair of Biesens, both .270 Winchesters built on Winchester Model 70 actions, and he hunted with them all over the world.

Jack O’Connor took to custom rifles early in his writing career simply because the stocks on existing commercial rifles left a lot to be desired, and the craft of fitting hunting stocks to “sporterized” military rifles was in its formative stages. Gradually, through the 1930s, what we now know as the “American classic” stock design evolved. It was influenced by Seymour Griffin (of Griffin & Howe), by Tom Shelhamer (of Niedner Arms), by August Pachmayr and Hans Wundhammer of Los Angeles, and by the “neglected genius,” Adolph Minar, of Colorado. None, however, had the lasting impact of Alvin Linden. O’Connor’s first custom rifle had a Linden stock, and while it wasn’t perfect, it gave O’Connor the starting point for developing his own theories about the elements that combined to make the perfect stock for a bolt-action hunting rifle. In The Big-Game Rifle (1954), O’Connor wrote:

A good sporting stock should enable the shooter to get a shot off quickly and accurately and it should also be a thing of beauty. Many fine sporting stocks are handsome but are of little aid in accurate shooting. Many others which hold and shoot well are homely and clumsy. The very best sporter stock design results in a stock with handsome, graceful lines and one which also enables the man behind it to do his best work.

Alvin Linden died in 1946 at the relatively young age of 62, and O’Connor met Al Biesen shortly afterwards. O’Connor was then shooting editor of Outdoor Life, had already published several books, and was in the midst of a remarkable hunting career that took him all over the world. He was also known as an admirer of custom rifles. Biesen approached him with an offer to show what he could do by stocking a rifle for him. According to Tom Turpin, who writes about custom guns for Gun Digest and knew Biesen well, that first restocking job included some of the decorative features then popular with custom stocks, including white-line spacers. O’Connor was predictably caustic, since he equated such pointless decoration with tattoos on beautiful women.

“I never did that again,” Biesen told Tom. The second rifle was more to O’Connor’s taste—a classic piece of perfectly grained walnut, shaped in functional simplicity, with the fleur-de-lis checkering pattern that Alvin Linden originated, but which later became practically a Biesen trademark. Over the next 30 years, Biesen would complete 20 gunmaking projects for O’Connor, including restocking jobs and building complete custom rifles. O’Connor’s two favorite big game rifles were a pair of Biesens, both .270 Winchesters built on Winchester Model 70 actions, and he hunted with them all over the world.