The Column, No. 12:

Jack O'Connor and the Cult of High Velocity

By Chuck Hawks

The late Jack O'Connor, the Dean of American Gun Writers, seems to be have become stereotyped as the historical proponent of small bore, high velocity rifle cartridges. There is no question that O'Connor wrote extensively about such cartridges; in fact, he wrote about virtually all of the popular rifle cartridges of his day.

However, what many commentators today seem to have forgotten is that Jack O'Connor killed many large and dangerous game animals, including all of the African Big 5, as well as the heavy and dangerous game of India and North America. He used and wrote very highly of the .375 H&H, .416 Rigby and .450 Watts (equivalent of the .458 Lott), among others, for such use. O'Connor was, in fact, almost single-handedly responsible for the popularity of the .416 Rigby and subsequent .416 caliber cartridges in North America.

What differentiated Jack O'Connor from Elmer Keith (aside from the fact that Jack was a literate guy and a fine writer) was that he had enough sense to employ such cannons when required, and used more sensible cartridges such as the .257 Roberts, .270 Winchester, 7x57 and .30-06 for thin-skinned non-dangerous game.

Writers today usually summarize Jack O'Connor as the small bore, high velocity proponent so that they can contrast his accomplishments with Elmer Keith (the big bullet for everything guy). But in reality it just ain't so.

I've read just about everything Jack O'Connor ever wrote and talked to the man. The reality is that he advocated bullet placement first and then choosing a rifle/cartridge that allowed the hunter to place his bullet precisely. Most of the time, for most shooters and most game, that is one of the smaller (.24 to .30) calibers, due to less recoil and muzzle blast. However, for big and dangerous game, he used and recommended rifles and cartridges designed for the purpose.

O'Connor was never a high velocity "true believer" like Roy Weatherby, who went to Africa and knocked off a Cape buffalo with a .257 Wby. Magnum to prove that it could be done. Nor was he particularly a fan of "Magnum" cartridges, although he owned and used some magnum rifles. Jack always recommended appropriate calibers for the job at hand.

He preferred reasonably flat-shooting cartridges, because he hunted a great deal in open country and found that they made accurate bullet placement easier. He did not advocate velocity as the key to killing power. He advocated bullet placement as the key to killing power.

Lastly, the much ballyhooed Elmer Keith vs. Jack O'Connor debate in print was actually pretty one sided: mostly Elmer attacking Jack. Jack seemed to stick in Elmer's craw. For whatever reason, Elmer disliked O'Connor and it was often apparent in his articles.

I have always suspected that envy of a superior writer was at the root of Elmer's antipathy. It is not too well known, but Keith's manuscripts were crude in the extreme. The finished product that appeared in magazines and books was largely the work of his editors. Jack O'Connor, on the other hand, was a former college English professor and a polished writer. He was also more highly paid than Elmer Keith.

For his part, Jack largely ignored Elmer. He tried hard to report accurately, factually, and not to ride hobbies. He wrote the truth as he saw it, based on his vast experience and considerable research, and let the chips fall where they may. As far as I know, O'Connor never publicly expressed a personal opinion about Elmer Keith and he never semed very interested in Elmer's opinions or articles. In reality, I doubt that he thought much about Elmer one way or the other.

Back to General Firearms & Shooting

Copyright 2005 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.