Who doesn’t like a bit of nostalgizing? Let’s take a look back to days long gone. Or, at least, to 1961.
The year was 1961. John Kennedy was President for most of the year, having assumed office from Dwight Eisenhower on January 20th. Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. The CIA engaged in a huge cluster-foul-up at the Bay of Pigs.
I was also born in 1961. The day after my birth a volcano exploded on the South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha, after which the island’s entire human population had to be evacuated to Britain. The refugees remained in Britain until 1963. I can neither confirm nor deny any involvement in that eruption. I’m sure the timing was just a coincidence.
Being no more immune to nostalgia than anyone else, I have a small collection of memorabilia from that year, including a stack of pulp sci-fi mags, a National Geographic or two, and a 1961 Gun Digest. When one looks through the contents of that 1961 Gun Digest today, it’s a cause for wonder. Here’s why.
By Way of Background
Gun Digest, described as “The Encyclopedia for Shooters,” is an annual book about firearms, published originally by Gun Digest Media, which is now owned by Caribou Media, LLC. The first annual edition came out in 1944, due to missing a couple of years this particular copy of mine is a representative of the 15th annual edition.
Each annual edition (at least in those years) followed a format: Some articles by leading gun writers on a variety of topics, which in the Sixties normally included formal target competition and the outdoor sports, which was the main focus of most shooters in those days. This was followed by a catalog of guns available for sale from both American and foreign manufacturers, along with the suggested retail prices of those pieces.
Looking back from today, those prices are pretty amazing. Of course – at the risk of sounding like a really old fart – in those days, a dollar was worth something.
My 1961 edition sold at the bookstores for $2.95. This was in a year when the average American home cost $17,000, a first-class stamp was four cents, a gallon of gas was thirty cents, a gallon of milk, fifty cents.
The cover features a drawing by James M. Triggs of a gun “Not yet announced publicly, this gas operated, magnum calibered sporting carbine makes a new “first” for a great American gun designer.” The designer was Bill Ruger, the gun, the Ruger .44 Magnum carbine.
243 or 244? By Warren Page, a discussion of the various merits of the .243 Winchester and .244 Remington (which later became the 6mm Remington) in the game fields. This is an interesting piece by one of the great gun scribes, even though we know now how that competition played out.
8-Gauge Guns, by Nash Buckingham. This piece compares the shot capacities of the then-new 3” magnum 12-gauge and 3 ½” 10-gauge rounds with the old 8-gauge market hunter’s guns, and finds that the new ammo packs more wallop indeed than the old loads.
Slappin’ Leather by Dick Simmons, an examination of the various Western-style gunbelts, holsters and general rigs for the single-action shooter. It’s important to note that this is around the time that the explosion of Western movies and television started the “quick-draw” fad that eventually morphed into cowboy action shooting.
Kill Deer! By Allyn H. Tedmon. This piece is a treatise on how to zero and otherwise prepare your hunting rifle for deer season, so, as the article’s tag line goes, you can “Kill your own buck – don’t let the camp hotshot do it for you!”
What I don’t see in the 1961 edition is any discussion of concealed-carry pieces, as most jurisdictions were still denying these across the country. Also missing is any discussion of body armor, tactical clothing, or any of the assorted Tacticool conversations that dominate gun magazines these days, reminding us that this was indeed a different time.
What I Wish
More than anything, I wish I could buy some of these guns today at the prices listed in my 1961 Gun Digest. Here are some highlights:
How much would a brand-new Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum set you back today? In 1961, the Model 29 was listed in Gun Digest with 4”, 6” or 8 3/8” barrels for the princely sum of $140. Mind you that’s about $1220 today.
In 1961 Remington was selling the Model 11-48, a gas-powered semi-auto shotgun that was the predecessor of the famous 1100, for between $122 and $152, depending on trim. In 2020 dollars, that ranges from $1062 to about $1325. Speaking of semi-autos, in 1961 you could get a brand-new Belgian Sweet Sixteen Browning Auto-5, nicely appointed, for $164, or about $1427 in today’s dollars.
How about a Pigeon Grade Winchester Model 12 in Skeet or Trap trim, with ventilated rib, for $345? That’s about three grand in today’s currency, which you’d probably pay for a premium shotgun of this quality.
Here’s the interesting thing about those prices: Take a look at them in today’s dollars, and these are some damnably expensive guns, even the rather plain-Jane ones like the 11-48. You can get solid, effective firearms today for much less money, after taking inflation into account, and nostalgia aside, that’s a really good thing.
But here’s the thing about 1961: When this 15th edition of Gun Digest was new, you could order any of these guns – including the handguns – from a catalog, mail in a check, and have the gun sent directly to your home address. And, somehow, the world held itself together.
No longer. That’s not such a good thing.
Nostalgia is fun.
Granted, in lots of ways the “Good Old Days” weren’t all that great. Medical treatments have made great strides since 1961. We have the internet, we have satellite communications, we have cheap and (reasonably) comfortable air travel; all over the planet, the average standard of living is higher than it has ever been at any point in human history.
It’s hard to know where we’re going when we forget where we’ve been. We’ve seen a gazillion guns laws passed since 1961, most of them with the stated intent of reducing crime, and none have been shown to have any effect other than making life difficult for the law-abiding.
Still. I’d love to be able to go back somehow and pick up a pre-64 Model 70, brand-new, off the rack in the local sporting-goods store. And nowadays, when I contemplate my every-year-older-and-uglier visage in the mirror every morning, it’s more fun than ever to see the state of the gun market and the shooting sports in the year of my birth.