Townsend Whelen: Mister Rifleman
By: Hap Rocketto
One of the most accurate, and at the same time lyrical and romantic, descriptions of highpower rifle shooting is found in Charles G. Finney's The Old China Hands. The book is the wonderfully told tale of a young man's experience as a private soldiering in the 15th Infantry Regiment in China during the 1920s. In the chapter that tells of rifle qualification Finney mentions that some 20 years earlier a young lieutenant by the name of Townsend Whelen had been attached to the 15th. One of the Army's best rifle shots, Whelen believed that the U.S. Army's service rifle, the .30-40 Krag-Jorgensen rifle, was capable of accuracy out to 1,000 yards. Whelen convinced his superiors of the possibilities, built a range at Monterey, California for his troops, selected a team, and won the National Matches at Sea Girt, New Jersey. Both 15th Infantry veterans were remarkable men: Finney as a storyteller and Whelen as an outdoorsman.
Townsend Whelen was born in Philadelphia on March 6, 1877 in a United States that was still stretching and growing in its Centennial Year. It would be 16 years before American historian Frederick Jackson Turner would deliver his seminal address, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," that declared the American frontier closed. When Whelen was born, the greasy grass was just covering the graves of Custer's troopers on the banks of the Little Big Horn, the first Palma Match had been fired only six months earlier, and Samuel Tilden had just lost the presidential election to Rutherford B. Hayes in a disputed election. During the next 84 years Whelen would make an indelible mark on the shooting sports. A soldier by profession, he was also a hunter, competitor, researcher, and writer of such skill that he would become the touchstone by which others are measured.
A doctor's son, born into the protected upper crust of Philadelphia society, and descended from a long line of professional men, he was an unlikely candidate to become a professional soldier and renowned writer and outdoorsman. Whelen was a shy young man who seemed below average as both scholar and athlete. However, a gift turned him onto the path to fame in both vocation and avocation. On his 11th birthday his father presented him with a Quakenbush air rifle that he learned to use so well that any English sparrow flying into his backyard rarely flew out.
His father was engaged summers as the resident physician at various fashionable resorts, allowing the family to enjoy long leisurely summer vacations in pleasant rural surroundings. These summer sojourns gave the young Whelen time and place to hone his shooting skills. By the time he was 13 he had graduated from the air rifle to a .22 Remington rolling block that he outfitted with Lyman sights, a Number One rear sight on the tang and a ivory front sight. It was during one of these summers, on July 4,1892, that he won his first shooting trophy. His winning ways would continue for a phenomenal 68 years! He won his last shooting trophy in the hunting rifle class at a bench rest match in St. Louis in 1960, the year before he died.
About six weeks after bagging his first shooting trophy he arose in the wee hours of the morning on the opening day of hunting season with the hope of doing the same to a deer. Having reconnoitered the surrounding area by canoe he paddled to a location where he believed there to be deer. Soon after sunup he spooked a spiked buck and whipped off a shot with his rolling block .22. Uncharacteristically, and probably because of the excitement, he missed his target. The deer took to the water with Whelen paddling after in hot pursuit. Some 200 yards later the deer scampered onto an island. Whelen dropped into the bottom of the canoe, rested the rifle on the gunwale, and dropped the whitetail with a single shot. This deer, harvested in 1892 at the age of 15, was the first head of big game that would fall to his rifle. The last, number 113, would be tallied in 1958 when the colonel was 81 and hampered by the after effects of a broken hip.
Whelen continued his desultory school habits in the winter months. He worked his way through the curricula offered boys of his social class at the time. His Greek and Latin were poor, his mathematics and history mediocre but he excelled at geography and physics. He was sent to Philadelphia's Drexel Institute of Technology and after a year there he entered the world of work. Employed as an engineer's assistant, for a few months, he helped install electrical equipment on naval vessels. Leaving engineering he enjoyed a brief fling at the family banking business.
After visiting an exhibition of strength at a local theater Whelen under went a conversion, somewhat like Saul of Tarsus did on the road to Damascus. He became ashamed of his physical weakness and was determined to make a change. In the ensuing months he pursed a course of physical exercise that he carried on for the rest of his life. The results were a physical, mental, and spiritual rebirth. Soon after he enlisted in the socially correct Company D, First Regiment of Infantry, a unit of the Pennsylvania National Guard.
The new recruit was whisked off to the rifle range to qualify. Issued a Springfield Model 1873 single shot .45-70 rifle, equipped with a Buffington rear sight, Whelen qualified in a walk. The next spring he was assigned to the unit rifle team. It was here that he fell in with Captain William de V. Foulke. In 1897 Foulke, a fine shot was the last person to win the Wimbledon Cup Match with black powder. He mentored the young Whelen and got him to purchase his first target rifle.
Events were to soon overtake Company D. By the spring of 1898 William Randolph Hearst contrived to whip up emotions between The United States and Spain to such a froth that war was declared. Whelen's unit was called up and mustered into federal service. Within a few months Whelen rose from sergeant to second lieutenant. His unit never left the United States and this probably saved him from death by disease. Typhoid, dysentery, and Yellow Jack accounted for more American soldier's deaths during the war than did the Spaniard's Mausers.
He became ill while encamped in Georgia. He survived a bout of typhoid because of his robust health and swift evacuation, away from the biological vectors at Chicamauga Park, to his home in Philadelphia. While recovering, the war ended and he was returned to National Guard status. Although the unpleasant events of activation left a foul taste in the mouths of most of his comrades, it only serve to whet his appetite and he was determined to obtain a commission in the Regular Army.
The Army Regulations of the time were such that Whelen had to take the entrance test to enter the Army as a civilian. The first opportunity to take the exam was a year away so he thought that this would be a good opportunity to indulge his passion for hunting and the wilderness. He resigned his National Guard commission and from his job at the banking house, purchased a few pieces of camping gear, packed up a pair of Winchester rifles, one a .42-70 and the other a .30-03 Model 1895, and headed off to British Columbia. In the wilds of the Canadian west he learned how to take care of himself, collected a few trophies, and began to amass his encyclopedic knowledge of shooting and wildlife. Returning to Philadelphia in early 1902 he balanced his financial accounts and found that the entire adventure had cost him about ten dollars, so successful was his commercial hunting exploits while out west.
In May of 1902 Whelen traveled to Washington, D.C. where a politically well connected friend of his father’s introduced him to President Teddy Roosevelt. Whelen's request for an opportunity to take the examination for a commission in the Regular Army was granted. For the next month he crammed for the exam and did well enough to think he had passed. He was taken aback when notified he had failed the physical examination because he had "insufficient chest expansion". At the time he had a 44-inch chest, a 29 inch waist, and was tougher than woodpecker lips from his exercise program and time in the wild. He quickly took a train to Washington and sought out Elihu Root, The Secretary of War. After Root compared the records sitting on his desk to the applicant standing in front of it he told Whelen to go home and await orders. It was a simpler time and a combination of connections and confidence could work wonders on the small bureaucracy in that sleepy southern town on the banks of the Potomac.
Two weeks after his meeting with Root he was ordered to Fort McHenry in Baltimore to be sworn in. He was then shipped to California to join the 15th Infantry Regiment upon its return from the Philippines. Here he was introduced into the rhythms, customs, and duties of the service. In 1903 the regiment began its annual training cycle and Whelen gravitated towards small arms instruction. He spent a good deal of time instructing his men and having them dryfire. As a result they did well when qualification time came around. Four members of Whelen's company, including himself, were selected for higher-level competition. In the end Whelen and two others would end up at the National Matches at Sea Girt. Returning to Monterey he was assigned to test the new rifle manufactured at Springfield Arsenal, the 1903.
An eye inflammation caused him to lose the entire 1904 competitive season. However, he was not idle and during this period of he began to refine the scorebook that always felt should be called the rifle record book. More importantly he met, and fell in love with, Mary Louise Pratt. Miss Pratt's father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the 15th Infantry. When Pratt was promoted and transferred to the 30th Infantry, the love struck lieutenant requested transfer to the same duty station where he won the young ladies hand in marriage. That year he did not qualify for the Army Rifle Team but was ordered to attend the National Matches as a coach.
The following year he made the team and spent part of the summer training. It was during this session that the importance of the sling was learned and practiced. A study of wind and mirage was made and the team was issued new rifles to replace the worn ones that they had been using before the training session. The new rifles were specially selected and were forerunners of the National Match rifle. In 1907 Whelen again saw service with the team but at the conclusion of the matches left the United States to join the 30th Infantry for duty in the Philippine Islands.
While in the Philippines the 30th was issued Springfield 1903 rifles and much training was done with the new firearm. It was here that Whelen had occasion to witness an '03 receiver rupture as a result of poor heat treatment. In 1909 he was ordered back to the United States to participate in the National Matches, held at Camp Perry, Ohio for the first time. Whelen acquitted himself well. He was the first winner of the Adjutant General's Cup and finished second in the Wimbledon Cup using an issue '03 with commercial ammunition.
During the next few years his career took him to New York's Governor's Island with the 29th Infantry, followed by a two-year tour with the Connecticut National Guard as Inspector-Instructor. In 1913 he was transferred to Washington to work in the Militia Affairs Office. He returned to the 29th Infantry in 1915 in time to join it as it deployed to Panama.
There he spent every spare moment in the wilds exploring, hunting, and mapping. During World War I Whelen was a member of the General Staff, deeply involved in troop training. Soon after the end of The Great War Whelen requested a branch transfer from infantry to ordnance. He took this move because he felt, with some justification, that his lack of combat experience would handicap him as an infantry officer. Additionally he had developed a greater interest in the technical aspects of warfare and the ordnance branch offered him more opportunity to expand his horizons and further his professional career.
During the balance of his military career Whelen would serve his nation well. He served on the National Match Ammunition Board and was a familiar sight at Camp Perry. In the early 1920's he commanded the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia, which, in a way was like a family business as his great-great-grandfather, Commissary General of the Army Israel Whelen, supplied the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It was here that he was instrumental in redesigning ammunition. He developed a practical metal gilding that virtually eliminated earlier problems with metal fouling and conducted research on the appropriate angle for the National Match bullet's boat tail shape.
In 1929 he was ordered to duty as the Director of Research and Development at the Springfield Armory. While there he learned his friend, G.L. Wotkyns had investigated a center fire .22 based on the .22 WCF. Whelen worked with members of the Armory staff who took several Springfield M1 .22 rifles; adapted center fire bolts, rechambered the barrels for the new cartridge and mounted them in sporter stocks. He named the new cartridge the "hornet" and the rest is history. Prior to his death he passed this rifle, among others, on to his Vermont neighbor Creighton Audette. In 1936, at the age of 59, he completed his active military career. At the age when most are seeking a quite retirement Whelen launched a second career, becoming the nation's foremost outdoor writer, contributing to Sports Afield, The American Rifleman, Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, and Guns and Ammo among others. He found time to pen the books Telescopic Rifle Sights, The Hunting Rifle, Small Arms and Ballistics, Hunting Big Game, and Why Not Load Your Own. He additionally wrote introductions to various books and was involved in the production of Colonel Whelen's Gun Handbook and Catalog and collaborated with Bradford Angier in writing On Your Own in the Wilderness. He continued to hunt on a regular basis. In the midst of all of this activity he built a hideaway, complete with range, in Vermont, so that he might again experience summers like those of his youth when he freely roamed the woods and learned the skills he would later practice all life long.
In his 76th year he fell and shattered his hip. This proved a near disaster for such an active man as Whelen. He would be forced to rely on canes to assist him in walking for his remaining days. While this may have slowed him physically, the rest of his life continued as before. After his wife's death he moved to his daughter's in St. Louis. Within a short period of time he had ferreted out a small group of shooting enthusiasts and spent much of his time bench rest shooting and hunting small game.
As he saw the shadows of his days lengthening, Whelen began work on his autobiography, Mr. Rifleman. It was one of the few tasks that he started in his life that he was not able to complete for on December 23, 1961 Colonel Townsend Whelen passed away after a short illness. Working in spite of his weakening condition, his last article, on the 6mm cartridge, was a holograph finished just days before his death and published posthumously, as was Mr. Rifleman after completion by his daughter, grandson, and Bradford Angier.
So passed a man whose active shooting life began with the Springfield .45-70, when it was the service rifle, and spanned five rifle changes in United States military rifle, ending on the eve of the adoption of the M-16. General Julian Hatcher, who considered Whelen his "longtime friend and counselor", said of him that he possessed, "...many years of experience in all phases of shooting, together with an open and inquisitive mind, and a tremendous capacity for hard work." These traits allowed Whelen to earn his well deserved worldwide reputation as a hunter, author, and firearms authority - a reputation that is still intact some five decades after his death.
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