It is said that there are outdoor writers, and then there is Jack O’Connor. Before the days of the internet, when no one had ever heard the term “Instagram influencer” and information about a species, firearm, or hunting location wasn’t merely a click away, it was Jack O’Conner’s articles and books to which hunters would turn for advice about the sport. O’Conner was the longtime firearms editor for Outdoor Life, wrote for a dozen other outdoor magazines, and was the author of several hunting books, including “The Big Game Animals of North America,” “The Hunting Rifle,” and “Sheep and Sheep Hunting.” O’Connor was a hunter who did it all, and a writer who knew how to tell a good story. His work was the type that continues to be enjoyed and absorbed by both serious trophy hunters preparing for their next adventure and by young hunters at deer camp, reading under the covers with flashlights, dreaming of their first deer.
Jack O’Connor was born in Nogales, Arizona Territory in 1902, at a time when the Old West was still alive, determinedly digging its nails in and holding its own against the coming evolution of progress. Growing up in such a time, Jack’s introduction to the outdoor world was quick and eventually necessary. His parents divorced when he was only five, and young Jack was brought by his mother to the small city of Tempe, Arizona, where he lived with his mother and sister. Having no father in his life, Jack was taken under the wing of his grandfather, James Woolf, and his paternal uncle, Jim O’Conner. Both men were avid sportsmen and students of the pioneer days, and soon taught Jack to shoot and track. They brought young Jack on his first hunts for rabbits, deer, and eventually, the desert bighorn sheep, which would later become Jack’s favorite game animal. Little did they know, by taking Jack hunting, Jack’s grandfather and uncle were sparking something powerful in the young man. They laid the foundation, bestowing upon Jack O’Connor a love for the wilderness and an adventurous spirit that would remain with him for his entire life.
When he was 15, Jack lied about his age and joined the army, determined to fight for his country during World War I. It was a short-lived venture, as Jack was soon diagnosed with chronic tuberculosis and was discharged after only a short time on the battlefield. Discouraged but determined, Jack returned to work at his uncle’s sawmill. He went to school but spent most of his time hunting game in the nearby forest to feed the logging crews from the mill while they worked in the field. It was during this time that he refined his skills as a hunter and began to experiment with different rifles, determining the best calibers and models to suit his needs. Jack never gave up on his ambitions of military service, however, and in 1919 he left the sawmill and joined the Navy, serving as a corpsman on the USS Arkansas and traveling the world until 1921.
Following his return from the war, Jack attended Arizona State University for two years before moving on to the University of Arkansas, where he graduated with a degree in banking and finance in 1925. Yet Jack wasn’t satisfied with his chosen field. He wanted to write. So after a brief time as a reporter, O’Connor attended the University of Missouri to get his masters in English and journalism in 1927. It was during his time at UM that he met and later married Eleanor Bradford Barry. She moved with Jack to Alpine, Texas where he had accepted a position as a teacher at Sul Ross University. Eleanor learned to shoot and hunt from Jack while in Texas, becoming quite the hunter in her own right. She would join Jack on most of his adventures throughout their lives together, taking her own share of trophies along the way.
By 1936, Jack O’Conner was becoming quite well known as an outdoor writer. He had begun by writing articles on firearms and hunting for the Saturday Evening Post, and later became their arms and ammunition editor. Jack also began writing several articles for the magazines Sports Afield, Field & Stream, and Outdoor Life on subjects ranging from the attributes of the .270 Winchester, which he believed was the pinnacle of big-game rifle calibers, to the conservation issues of big-game animals, a subject to which he was obsessively dedicated. He was especially fond of sheep hunting, recalling his first hunts with his grandfather and uncle so long ago, and became an especially enthusiastic advocate for their conservation.
So much was he noted for his dedication to the preservation of wildlife, in fact, that in 1972, O’Connor was selected by a poll of outdoor writers to receive the prestigious Winchester-Western Outdoorsman of the Year Award in recognition of his conservation practices. Despite receiving this award so late in his career, it was in the aftermath of World War II that O’Conner’s popularity truly soared. American GIs returning home were looking to do something with their newfound shooting and combat skills, so many became obsessed with learning to hunt. Jack’s articles were there, ready to be read and studied. O’Conner had moved to Idaho by that time, believing the state had the best big-game hunting available. He began actively taking trophy-size game there, hunting nearly every day of the season while also traveling throughout the world to hunt and write as a columnist for Outdoor Life. While in Idaho, Jack also became secretary of the Lewis and Clark Wildlife Club, where he argued avidly against the development and construction of dams in the Clearwater Basin, which he felt destroyed the habitat of the elk, salmon, and steelhead of the region.
Jack O’Connor died of heart failure in 1978 at the age of 75, while en route to California following a Hawaii boar-hunting trip. During his time on earth he hunted all over the world, wrote thousands of articles and short stories, and ultimately elevated the concept of hunting into what we know it to be today. O’Conner’s advocacy of shot placement being more important than large calibers made hunters take a different view of how they treated game in the field and caused the .270 Winchester to become one of the most popular sporting rifle cartridges of the modern age. His work in conservation advocacy helped to protect and save dozens of game species from losing their range and becoming over-hunted. That was his legacy.
Jack O’Connor was a man who used his gifts, his God-given talents of hunting and writing, to shape not just his generation, but several generations, ensuring a future for sportsmen the world over by instilling a passion and respect for the outdoor world.
Featured image courtesy of jack-oconnor.org