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“I have sometimes been called a “big-game hunter,” but I dislike the term. I have been rather a wanderer in and worshiper of beautiful and unspoiled country, what some overcivilized and atrophied individuals call `The Waste-lands,’” outdoors writer and gun expert Townsend Whelen wrote in his book “On Your Own in the Wilderness.”
Whelen penned thousands of articles and countless words about the outdoors, guns, and ammunition for publications like “American Rifleman,” “Guns & Ammo,” “Field and Stream,” and others. He wasn’t a hunter who went out for the day, bagged game, then headed home. He believed in the whole experience of being outdoors away from civilization.
“To me hunting has always been a very different affair. I have always saved up my holidays until I could have a real long hunt in the unspoiled country I love so much, and I never returned to “brick and mortar” until I had to, and always with regret,” he wrote in his book “Mister Rifleman.”
A Griffin & Howe Springfield Armory Model 1903 rifle, customized to Whelen’s very particular specifications and carried by him, will be on offer in the inaugural Premier Auction in Rock Island Auction Company’s Bedford, Texas location, Dec. 8-10.
This Griffin & Howe Springfield Armory Model 1903 was customized to legendary outdoors writer Townsend Whelen’s particular specifications when he was the superintendent of Springfield Armory. A barrel was set aside as well as the piece of walnut that would be used for the stock.
Bolt action rifles took the world by storm at the turn of the 20th century. Designs such as the Springfield Model 1903 can handle higher-powered cartridges than their lever action counterparts thanks to their locking lugs. They also have a simpler action, are more reliable, and bring with them a reputation for accuracy. The Model 1903 was replaced by the semi-automatic M1 Garand in 1936, but the 1903 still served as the standard issue rifle during World War 2.
During manufacture, the Springfield Model 1903’s receiver started as a 5 lbs. piece of steel that was machined down to about 1 lbs. through nearly 100 machining operations. The gun enjoyed an excellent reputation, but was more from the .30-06 cartridge and workmanship than the gun itself, author Stuart Otteson wrote.
A career Army officer, Townsend Whelen was assigned to Springfield Arsenal in 1929 when he decided he would create “the finest” hunting rifle from the Springfield Model 1903, a bolt action gun he wrote about in “Mr. Rifleman,” starting with the barrel:
“… I determined that I would have made up the finest possible .30-06 Springfield hunting rifle that it was possible to construct. Accordingly I asked the foreman of the barrel shop to keep me in mind when his shop was making sporting type barrels, and when they turned out one that they deemed was perfect, to set it aside for me. To hold it six months, and then if they did not find a superior one, to let me have that one.”
In 1930 the armory found a barrel “not chambered, which star-gauging showed grooved .3080 inch, and bore .3000 inch for every inch of the bore, 24 inches long and that had been bored straight,” he wrote in “Mister Rifleman.” Star-gauging was the most accurate way of measuring the consistency of the lands and grooves of the bore diameter along the barrel length.
This Springfield Model 1903 received special attention from legendary outdoors writer Townsend Whelen, with a custom buttplate and a 2-1/4 Zeiss scope mounted on it. He grew tired of the scope and later changed it to a Weaver K 2.5 scope.
Next was to get an action with a nickel steel receiver and bolt that wasn’t heat treated and to send it off to Griffin & Howe where they matted the top of the receiver ring, turned down the bolt handle to accommodate a scope, and installed sights and a trigger guard safety.
The Model 1903 was returned to Springfield where it was heat treated, the barrel assembled, chambered, and blued. He sent the gun parts to have a very dark American walnut checkered stock attached along with a custom buttplate. Under his specifications, Whelen also had a 2-1/4 Zeiss scope mounted. He later became disenchanted with the scope and had it replaced with a 4x Lyman Challenger. The gun currently has a Weaver K 2.5 scope.
He wrote that he did accuracy test on the Model 1903 several times from 1932 until 1940 and always returned good groupings. “It averaged about two-inch groups of 10 shots at 200 yards.” He would give the gun away toward the end of his life.
Whelen was born to a family of Philadelphia blue bloods in 1877 and early in life was gawky and unassuming. He didn’t seem like the rugged outdoorsmen he was to become. His father gave him a .22 rifle when he was 13 and by 15 he was winning shooting matches against older competition.
At 18, he discovered weight training and a fitness routine and gained 30 lbs. of muscle. Whelen joined the Pennsylvania National Guard and was called up for the Spanish-American War three years later. Though he didn’t get deployed to the Caribbean, he saw a life in the military. He resigned from his National Guard unit to apply for a commission as a civilian but learned he would have to wait a year to be considered. At the age of 23, he decided to go west.
Townsend Whelen received his first gun at 13 and was winning shooting matches over older competition by the time he was 15. After serving in the Pennsylvania National Guard he decided he wanted to serve in the U.S. Army and sought a commission.
Whelen packed up a .30-30 Winchester Model 1894, a .40-72 Winchester-chambered rifle, ammunition, a tarp, Army blankets, a poncho, and cooking set, and boarded a train for British Columbia. Arriving in Canada, he bought a saddle horse, two pack horses, a saddle, packs, and “grub.” All for $110 and set out for the wilderness.
He befriended a prospector who taught him about living off the land, setting up camp, and cooking on a campfire. In his book, “On Your Own in the Wilderness,” written years later, he wrote of the tranquility he found in the wild:
“We eat our moosemeat and bannock, sip our tea, and gaze into the living warmth of the embers. Presently like a cool sough of air across a glacier, there breathes a sound: softly, hesitantly, sadly at first, soaring and falling and lifting again – a wolf singing of love, of the beauty of the silent places, and of freedom. Over and over again Mahheekun howls, so tenderly, sweetly, yearningly. Then we are alone with the stillness.”
Whelen roughed it for nine months before packing up and returning to Philadelphia. He later wrote of the trip:
“I’d had a wonderful time, learned the ways of the West and how to rustle for myself from a past master of the art, and I had obtained first rate trophies of all the game of the country except grizzly.”
Townsend Whelen resigned from the Pennsylvania National Guard to seek a commission in the regular U.S. Army. He had to wait a year but went to British Columbia to hunt for nine months, taking a number of game animals.
Whelen served in the infantry early in his U.S. Army career and part of that was at the garrison in Panama defending against threats to the construction of the Panama Canal. It also meant treks into the jungle to map out a largely unmapped landscape. He and his men camped in the rainforest, hiked over mountains, and recorded the land Whelen once described as “terra incognito.” It was on this assignment that 40-lbs. packs were reduced to 12 lbs., carrying just the essentials.
The young Army officer recalled encounters with coati, that he said were similar to raccoons, hunting sloth, peccaries, a crocodile, and even deer that were smaller than those back in the United States. He wrote about the various species of monkeys in Panama, and how he regretted shooting a monkey and would never do it again. “I cannot stand the expression on the face of a dying monkey.”
In one incident, he recounted coming down a steep mountainside and thinking he could jump down to a ledge. What he thought was a flat surface was just the jungle canopy and he went clear through, sliding down a steep slope until he could stop himself in the heavy vegetation. He was shaken up and bruised, but the worst of it was breaking his ubiquitous pipe.
Returning to the United States he served on the Army staff as World War 1 began and was assigned to write training manuals and review training procedures at bases across the country. He wasn’t deployed to Europe.
After World War 1, he moved to the Army’s Ordnance Department and headed the Frankford Arsenal, not that far from his boyhood home. He served as director of research and development at Springfield Armory where his specially made Model 1903 was made. After 34 years, Whelen retired from the Army in 1935 as a full colonel.
The Springfield Model 1903 of Townsend Whelen. Whelen served in the United States Army in the early 20th century, first in the infantry and was assigned to garrison duty in Panama during the construction of the Panama Canal and was involved in training during World War 1. After the war he was assigned to the Ordnance Department and served as Superintendent of Frankfort Armory and Springfield Armory before he retired in 1935.
Whelen took his last deer in 1958, and died in December 1961 at the age of 84. “Guns & Ammo” editorial director Tom Siatos, following Whelen’s death, recalled him as a good friend and declared him the dean of all gun writers. His name would remain on the magazine’s masthead in memoriam: “In this way, we can in some small measure pay homage to a man who saw fit to honor us by setting forth his prodigious gun knowledge on our pages.”
Whelen had an affinity for the .30-06 cartridge, writing “The .30-06 is never a mistake.” Still, he created several cartridges that bear his name: .25 Whelen, .35 Whelen, .375 Whelen, and .400 Whelen from when he commanded Frankford Arsenal. And Siatos wasn’t wrong about Whelen’s vast knowledge of guns and the outdoors. He penned books on the rifle, small arms, shooting, wilderness hunting, and trekking into the wilderness.
Rock Island Auction had the privilege of offering an extremely rare Springfield Model 1901 in its February 2022 Sporting & Collector Auction, and is pleased to offer this Model 1903 made to Whelen’s specifications and offer an opportunity to own a gun especially made for and owned by a true hunting and outdoor legend in December’s Premier Auction in Bedford, Texas.
The experimental Springfield Model 1901 carbine of Townsend Whelen was offered for auction by RIAC in February, 2022. It sold for $8,625.
“Mister Rifleman,” by Townsend Whelen and Bradford Angier
“On Your Own in the Wilderness,” by Townsend Whelen and Bradford Angier
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