We've Got Mail

Highlights from 30 years of corresponding with OL readers.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

You wouldn't believe some of the letters I get. Most are about guns and hunting, of course, but others range from threats from ecoterrorists to intimate confessions that would make even a sex counselor blush. During my first year at Outdoor Life I received proposals of marriage from no fewer than three women of apparently unrestrained libido. All three seemed quite sincere and I gave a lot of thought to each before replying, because there is no telling what a scorned woman is liable to do. After a year on the job, my picture had appeared often enough for readers to have some idea what I looked like, and the proposals stopped. I haven't received one since. But there have been plenty of other letters, hundreds of pounds of them.

A few months ago, when I cleaned out an office storage room, I threw away seven file boxes stuffed with letters from readers accumulated over some 30 years. Each box weighed about 85 pounds, amounting to more than a quarter ton of mail with my answers. I have no idea how many letters there were, but the postage alone surely totaled in the hundreds-even thousands-of dollars, and the hours of reading and answering are uncountable. But it has always been time well spent. Letters from readers tip me off to coming trends in the shooting and hunting world and provide insight into what our readers are thinking about. Plenty of times letters have given me ideas for my columns and articles.

The types of letters I get fall into three general categories, the most common being questions about hunting and shooting. This category, of course, covers a tremendous variety of inquiries, from the best places to hunt elephants to the value of an old gun found in Granddaddy's attic. The latter, by the way, can create a rather touchy situation, because "old guns" are almost invariably assumed to be rare and of immense value. More often than not I have to let my correspondent know that hordes of gun collectors won't be kicking down his door with buckets of cash.

For about a 40-year period beginning in the 1880s, there was a flurry of imported and domestically made "private brand" guns, meaning they were stamped with whatever name the customer-usually a distributor or a large dealer-wanted. There are lots of these guns still around. The variety of unfamiliar names causes much confusion among owners and collectors, and I get plenty of mail about them. Especially such private brands as Sam Holt, W. Richards and C. Parker, which were semi-fraudulent names intended to capitalize on the names and reputations of well-known, high-quality gunmakers. But their owners often think they have a bonanza.

[pagebreak] The Manton's Revenge
Once, after I had written an article about Joseph Manton, I received a half dozen letters from readers, all claiming to have shotguns made by the British master. As it turned out, each of the supposed rare Mantons were marked J. Manton & Co. and had actually been made by an American company specializing in low-quality, private-brand shotguns. Although I explained the deception, a couple of disappointed owners took out their ire on me, claiming I was trying to swindle them out of their valuable Mantons.

Altogether, I've received no more than around 20 letters asking about guns that turned out to be truly valuable and rare. Which pretty much explains why rare is, well...rare. Two or three of these I would dearly have loved to have owned; one was an M1886 Winchester and a couple of the others were Parker shotguns, but I have a policy of directing such inquiries to a few reputable dealers and collectors who I know will offer fair prices.

More often there are letters from readers who have retired from hunting and want to know what their used guns are worth and how to dispose of them. In these cases I can only advise that they consult guides such as Steven Fjestad's Blue Book of Gun Values, or show the guns to a few dealers orollectors at a gun show. There just is no way I, or anyone else, can appraise a gun sight unseen.

Another type of letter that raises caution flags begins with something like, "Me and the guys where I work are having an argument we want you to settle...." Right away I know that only some of the "guys at work" will be happy with my verdict and the rest will be mad at guess who. So I try to phrase my responses with the caution of a cat gnawing a spinning grindstone. Usually these questions are of a technical nature, such as "Do you aim high or low when shooting uphill?" or "Does a bullet rise when it leaves the muzzle?" So, being the coward that I am, I try to appease all parties by explaining that shooting lore is filled with inaccuracies and misconceptions that have been handed down by generations of ill-informed writers and misguided experts. But I'm also well aware that old myths die hard and for every one that is killed three are born, and that's what keeps the letters coming.

Postcards from the Pen
Some letters come from places where people obviously have lots of time on their hands-prisons. (Come to think of it, I wonder if my three marriage proposals came from female prisoners?) A few years back I received almost weekly letters that were written in a beautiful script that must have taken lots of time. In the first letter, the writer described in exact detail his collection of fine shotguns and custom-made rifles in exotic calibers. Such letters are not all that uncommon, as readers often write me about their guns, but this guy stood out from the rest because of the scope and excellence of his collection. After sending a brief note congratulating him on his fine taste in firearms, I got another letter from him, again beautifully crafted and describing an even grander collection of fine guns.

[pagebreak] After a few more letters my curiosity got the best of me, so I checked the name and address and found he was locked up in a notorious penitentiary. His "collection" of fine guns was imaginary and he wanted me to share in his fantasies. But I'll say this for him, he knew a lot about good guns, if only in his dreams. I'm still wondering if it was his exquisite penmanship that led to a career in forgery and a term in prison. Some of my most entertaining letters come from groups of prisoners who amuse themselves by dreaming up unlikely conflicts and having me pass judgment on eventual victors. Although they make little effort to hide their penchant for violence, they often show great imagination, such as snakes and armadillos mud wrestling.

My favorite prison letter asked my views on a fight to the death between a Kodiak bear and a Cape buffalo. I answered that it would be an interesting fight to be sure and to write if they ever saw one. I haven't heard from them lately, so I guess they served their time in the pokey and are now in politics. Less entertaining was a letter asking me about explosives that could be used for a "Black Sunday"-type massacre. The tone of the letter was so sincere and apparently authentic that I asked the FBI to have a look at it. As it turned out, a couple of FBI agents not only followed up on the letter but wanted a look at similar mail I'd been getting. That was in the 1970s, when the country was aflame with campus protests and civil riots, and ecoterrorists commencing their dirty tricks.

The FBI really got my attention when it let me know that my name was on a hit list found when it busted a cabal of eco-nuts in California. For a long while after that any suspicious looking mail and packages were X-rayed before being opened.

[pagebreak] Never Take Sides
Another common type of letter I get begins with something like, "Why don't you...?" Meaning they have a project in mind for me, such as writing about a particular gun, gauge, caliber, scope or whatever. Sometimes I'm able to do just as they request if, in fact, the subject will appeal to a large segment of our readers. But just as often the "why don't you" letter goes on to request that I take their side in a quarrel they're having with a gunmaker. Typically, they're having accuracy problems with a rifle and want me to lean on the manufacturer to have it fixed or replaced. First of all, I have to explain that any influence I might have is imaginary, and I try to point out diplomatically that a major component of "accuracy" is personal marksmanship. A rifle that shoots 1-inch groups in carefully controlled tests may do no better than 3 inches when fired by someone who flinches and jerks the trigger. But telling that to a person who paid good money for a rifle he expects to shoot tiny groups is about as risky as telling him his wife is fat and ugly.

There was a time, however, when I got several letters from various readers complaining about the performance of a particular make and model of centerfire rifle. The letters described an identical problem, so I tipped off the manufacturer that they ought to check it out. As it turned out, there was indeed a problem with the barrels being used. The manufacturer corrected it and the complaints stopped.

Among my favorite letters are those about problems that can be easily fixed. Like the one from a pitiful-sounding guy who said he was so recoil-shy that even a .243 caused him to flinch. Could I recommend any way to keep his guns from kicking so hard? I told him to get a good set of earplugs or muffs. A few weeks later I got another letter that was almost tearful in its gratitude. He'd never realized the pain of recoil was actually a reaction to painful muzzle blast, and his "recoil" problem was solved.

But my most favorite letters of all are those from youngsters who spell out their dreams of a first gun, a first hunt or the hunting they hope to do when they're grown. A 10-year-old lad once wrote a poem for me and others have sent handmade Christmas cards. These are the letters that get my longest and best replies, because I once had dreams just like theirs. if, in fact, the subject will appeal to a large segment of our readers. But just as often the "why don't you" letter goes on to request that I take their side in a quarrel they're having with a gunmaker. Typically, they're having accuracy problems with a rifle and want me to lean on the manufacturer to have it fixed or replaced. First of all, I have to explain that any influence I might have is imaginary, and I try to point out diplomatically that a major component of "accuracy" is personal marksmanship. A rifle that shoots 1-inch groups in carefully controlled tests may do no better than 3 inches when fired by someone who flinches and jerks the trigger. But telling that to a person who paid good money for a rifle he expects to shoot tiny groups is about as risky as telling him his wife is fat and ugly.

There was a time, however, when I got several letters from various readers complaining about the performance of a particular make and model of centerfire rifle. The letters described an identical problem, so I tipped off the manufacturer that they ought to check it out. As it turned out, there was indeed a problem with the barrels being used. The manufacturer corrected it and the complaints stopped.

Among my favorite letters are those about problems that can be easily fixed. Like the one from a pitiful-sounding guy who said he was so recoil-shy that even a .243 caused him to flinch. Could I recommend any way to keep his guns from kicking so hard? I told him to get a good set of earplugs or muffs. A few weeks later I got another letter that was almost tearful in its gratitude. He'd never realized the pain of recoil was actually a reaction to painful muzzle blast, and his "recoil" problem was solved.

But my most favorite letters of all are those from youngsters who spell out their dreams of a first gun, a first hunt or the hunting they hope to do when they're grown. A 10-year-old lad once wrote a poem for me and others have sent handmade Christmas cards. These are the letters that get my longest and best replies, because I once had dreams just like theirs.