Black Rifles, Reputations, and Redemption: What Really Happened to Jim Zumbo
Outdoor Life’s former Hunting Editor sets the record straight on the end—and the revival—of his career in outdoor media
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In the cable-TV era, sandwiched roughly between the time magazines stopped advertising booze and the current age of social-media influencers, you couldn’t call yourself an outdoorsman and not know who Jim Zumbo was.
In case your own experience exists outside those benchmarks, Zumbo was the beloved hunting editor of Outdoor Life, and the popular host of a cable television show on the Outdoor Channel called “Jim Zumbo Outdoors.” He took readers and viewers along on elk and bear and turkey hunts, and endeared himself to his sizable audience with his accessible personality and easy smile under his trademark black cowboy hat.
But Zumbo’s world imploded in February 2007. He posted a blog on this very site—this was in the early days of internet-delivered blogs—that questioned the utility, legality, and the public image of ARs in hunting situations. In doing so, he peeled back the veneer on a schism that had been widening between shooters, who were starting to gravitate in numbers toward ARs (also called AR-15s, Modern Sporting Rifles, or “black rifles”) for target shooting and personal defense, and hunters, who more commonly shot bolt-action rifles or traditionally configured shotguns. But Zumbo had inadvertently also revealed a tension that exists between guns and the journalists who write about them. It’s a tension between the 1st and 2nd amendments.
In his blog, Zumbo slammed ARs and the hunters who use them.
“We [meaning traditional hunters] don’t need to be lumped into the group of people who terrorize the world with them,” he wrote, and suggested that game agencies should “ban” ARs from the field. “Excuse me, maybe I’m a traditionalist, but I see no place for these weapons among our fraternity…. I’ll go so far as to call them ‘terrorist’ rifles.”
Part of the resulting blowback was Zumbo’s absolutist language. But part of it was his tone-deafness. As a Wyoming resident who billed himself as the ultimate Western hunter, Zumbo probably should have known that, even in 2007, “black rifles” were increasingly popular choices for hunting varmints and coyotes.
But he also didn’t appreciate how volatile the internet had become. In those pre-Facebook days communities of hard-core shooters and gun-rights purists had gathered on the forums of sites like ar15.com and were on the prowl for statements on guns that didn’t align with their views. Zumbo’s words caught fire immediately. He posted the blog in the late evening, and late the next day his show’s title sponsor, Remington, had dropped its support. A day later Outdoor Life severed all ties with Zumbo. The internet simmered with calls to deport or decapitate Zumbo. He had death threats on his answering machine at his Cody, Wyoming, home.
Overnight, Jim Zumbo became not only a casualty of reactionary gun politics, but also a fable. Online, Zumbo was called “Jim Dumbo.” A new term was coined by internet-savvy “keyboard cowboys” to describe the out-of-touch conventional hunter: Fudd. As in, Elmer Fudd’s bumbling, befuddled character that is constantly being foiled by Bugs Bunny in Looney Tune cartoons.
And to be “Zumbo’ed” became a verb to describe a particularly spectacular sort of public shaming in the digital age.
Zumbo as Metaphor
Zumbo’s experience gets an entire chapter in Ryan Busse’s book, “Gunfight,” which came out last week, and which is highly critical of the firearms industry—Busse is a former executive of Kimber America. In the chapter “Zumbomania,” Busse uses Zumbo’s fall from grace as an example of the insurgent power of the rising “radicalized” faction of gun owners who identify with ARs. Zumbo’s experience serves as the centerpiece of Busse’s thesis that the firearms industry tolerates no dissent from its orthodoxy that all guns are equally worthy of protection and advocacy. For his part, Zumbo notes that Busse never interviewed or contacted him about his experience.
That experience is far more nuanced and redemptive than Busse depicts. What really happened to Zumbo?
“To start at the start, I wrote the blog at the Elk Mountain Hotel south of Rawlins, Wyo.,” says Zumbo, who at the time was on a guided coyote hunt nearby. “Incidentally, I stayed at that hotel a few years ago and peeked in the room where I wrote the blog. Wasn’t sure how I’d feel, but it was okay.”
“I wrote that blog post because I knew nothing about ARs,” says Zumbo. “I knew no one who owned one. I remember at SHOT [Show, the industry’s annual trade fair] the executive in charge was upset, along with many of us, when the first AR showed up in someone’s booth.”
Zumbo’s blog was the idea of his managing editors at Outdoor Life, who wanted his voice to appear in different content channels. Zumbo was told that he would be paid more for blog posts that increased website traffic.
“After a day of hard hunting coyotes in windy, cold-ass conditions, our group had a wonderful meal in the elegant hotel along with some tasty imported libations,” recalls Zumbo. “I learned that the hotel was equipped so I could actually write [and post] my blog. My latest post was due that night. Our group was chatting in one of the large rooms and the subject of shooting coyotes with ARs came up. I was sitting at my computer thinking about what to write, and it hit me that the AR subject would generate a little more traffic. I wrote [and posted] it. My life would never be the same.”
The AR blog was written late on a Friday night. Zumbo hunted coyotes again on Saturday well out of cell phone range.
“I didn’t know it but the firestorm was well underway,” says Zumbo. “During the drive home Sunday, my wife called and said Ted Nugent wanted to talk to me. I called and we chatted casually for several minutes and then Nugent said, ‘Zumbo, you fucked up. The entire industry is involved in the biggest firestorm I’ve ever seen.’ My TV show went off the air. Almost all my sponsors—some major ones in the industry—scattered like quail, denouncing me on their websites.”
The speed and finality of the fall is what Busse cites in his book, and Zumbo says it was even more discouraging than anyone has reported.
“Busse says I was ‘slowly assassinated,’” Zumbo says. “I wasn’t slowly assassinated. I was assassinated overnight.”
Zumbo says the months after the blog were “rather chaotic. I received death threats and nasty calls. I was deluged with calls from large newspapers around the country from the Los Angeles Times to The New York Times. Stephen Colbert did a satire on me on his comedy show. There were literally hundreds of editorials in newspapers, all based on news releases. I talked to no one.”
The Climb Back
But Zumbo says the depths, low as they were, didn’t last long. Partly that’s because he walked back his “ban the AR” comments less than a month later. On his friend Ted Nugent’s site, Zumbo issued this apology in late February 2007.
“Thank you all for letting me speak,” he wrote. “Yes, I know the 2nd Amendment has nothing to do with hunting and hunting guns, and yes, I promise you I am now dedicated to educate all shooters that we must stick together regardless of our gun choices, and also tolerate the firearms others may choose to use if they are dissimilar to ours. I will do everything I can, within my power as a journalist and public speaker, to protect the 2nd Amendment and America’s gun owners.”
While some dismissed the apology as insincere or forced, many more cited it as evidence of Zumbo’s redemption.
“After the blog, I received tremendous support from friends in the industry, and from strangers from all walks of life,” he says. “Some said I was right in the first place and shouldn’t have apologized. Others said I was wrong but had the right to express my opinion.”
The Outdoor Channel promised that his show would return to the air July 3. Zumbo was invited by SWAT Magazine to attend a tactical shooting course to learn more about ARs. Ted Nugent invited Zumbo to join him online, answering real-time calls about his blog and views. Afterward, Nugent and Zumbo shot black rifles at Nugent’s Texas ranch.
“I enjoyed it immensely,” says Zumbo. “I’d never shot one before. Incidentally, I bought an AR some weeks after that SWAT event and have enjoyed shooting it, both on paper and at critters.”
In the month that followed the blog and apology, Zumbo wasn’t sure where he stood with his contractual obligations as an event speaker, but he had an appointment to conduct a hunting seminar at a sports show in Oregon a short month after he was “Zumbo’ed.”
“I called the owner of the show and asked if he really wanted me to come,” says Zumbo. “He said, ‘Hell yes. We’ll kick anyone’s ass who gets in your face.’ My shows were standing room only. People were supportive. The NRA show was in April, and close friends warned me not to go. It was too soon after the blog. A few pals were convinced I’d be physically harmed. I didn’t go. I quit writing for a while after the blog, though some editors asked me to write for them. Instead, I concentrated on my TV show. It was business as usual; my cameraman and I made several spring bear hunts in Canada. I did a special episode in British Columbia, called the “Comeback Show” which aired July 3, where I apologized again for the blog in far more detail.”
Zumbo attended the 2008 NRA convention, a full year and change after the blog.
“I was in someone’s booth hanging out when a guy walks up and stares at me,” Zumbo recalled. “He is ripped, a big muscular dude wearing a black Harley Davidson shirt. I thought, ‘Shit, I’m gonna die right now!’ He reached out and shook hands and said something like, ‘I saw your apology and I understand. You’re okay in my book, but for a while I didn’t like you at all.’ Whew!”
Zumbo says that in all the exchanges he had over the blog, “never once did I have anyone say anything rude to my face.”
He continued to work in television and redoubled his work with combat-injured veterans, often hosting them on hunts.
“I was able to ignore the blog up to a point, but I always had a black cloud over my head,” says Zumbo. “Then, one day in August a half dozen years or so ago Tom Gresham called and said that the NSSF [the lobbying group that represents most gun and ammunition manufacturers] had nominated me for the Grits Gresham Award.”
The award, presented at a gala at the SHOT Show, is the industry’s highest recognition of lifetime achievement. It’s named after the iconic outdoor writer and longtime host of ABC Television “The American Sportsman” series. His son, Tom Gresham, hosts Gun Talk radio.
“I’ll never forget that moment,” says Zumbo. “I asked Tom what he thought about the audience’s reception. Would they boo, throw stuff at me? Tom said he had no idea. Here’s what happened: When Tom introduced me I received a standing ovation from 2,000 industry people when I walked up to the podium. I was shocked beyond belief and had to hold back tears. After my short speech I again received another standing ovation.”
So, what’s it like to feel the fire of an industry that discourages dissent? While Zumbo has reclaimed his audience and now writes for several different media outlets, other industry icons who spoke about the need for limits on gun ownership were silenced.
They include Dick Metcalf, longtime columnist at Guns & Ammo magazine, who wrote that all constitutional rights—including those enshrined in the 1st and 2nd amendments—have historically been regulated. He was fired. Jerry Tsai, editor at Recoil Magazine, wrote that some AR rifles are “unavailable to civilians for good reason.” He was pressured into stepping down from his position. Busse’s book has been roundly and quietly condemned by many industry leaders.
“Many people told me my blog opened the door for meaningful discussions of black rifles in hunting, a door they claimed needed to be opened,” says Zumbo. “Some firearms manufacturer officials privately told me I was responsible for a major upsurge in business.”
But Zumbo recognizes that there’s pervasive censorship within the industry.
“Does the industry continue to shun those who speak against guns? Absolutely,” he says. But these days he stops short of encouraging dissenting views. “We live in an age under an administration where the 2nd Amendment is in more danger than ever before. It’s only logical that we hunters, shooters, and those who have firearms for self-defense would be protective of our 2nd Amendment rights. It’s only natural to defend those rights and be totally opposed to anti-gun politics. We live in scary times. We need to stand together and support all pro-2A and pro-firearms issues.”