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Townsend Whelen: Profiles in Marksmanship

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In my work in the Army I often come across men of a rather low order of intelligence whom no amount of practice will teach to shoot, chiefly because they have never learned how to use their brains. Any man of ordinary intelligence, who is not physically handicapped, can become a good shot. To become an expert shot requires both a good body and a good brain.

– Col. Townsend Whelen, The American Rifle 1918

I haven’t come across many people who know of Colonel Townsend Whelen, and that’s a shame. There are many of his quotes floating around the internet, some of which I’ll write here, but the man is nothing short of an inspiration. As I researched his life, I felt the pull of outdoors adventure tugging at my heart.

If you’re not familiar with him yet, Townsend Whelen, 1877-1961, is one of the most influential shooters and outdoorsmen of the early 20th century. What little space I have to write about him here hardly does him or his legend justice.

Origin Stories

Townsend Whelen
Townsend Whelen

Field & Steam, to which Whelen was a prolific contributor, wrote a fantastic biography of the man in 2006. I’ll borrow a bit from it here, as well as other places, to give you the quick details.

Townsend Whelen was born in March of 1877 to aristocratic parents. His father fatefully bought Townsend a .22 rifle when he was 13 years old, and he immediately took to marksmanship. By 15 years of age, Townsend was already winning matches.

In 1895, Whelen saw an exhibition by the father of bodybuilding, Eugen Sandow. So taken with the display of muscles on the man, Townsend immediately set out to lift weights and build his own physique. He added 30 pounds of muscle to his frame in a single year. He then enlisted in the National Guard.

Townsend rose quickly through the enlisted ranks, reaching Regimental Sergeant Major in only a few years. Shortly after that, he commissioned as a Second Lieutenant.

Townsend left the National Guard to pursue a commission in the regular Army. It would be a year until commissions opened up, so he set off for the Canadian wilderness.

The Telegraph Trail

On his adventure, Townsend sought to travel the Telegraph Trail through the Yukon Territory. Along the way, he befriended outdoorsmen and prospectors who taught him to live in the wilderness.

Townsend Whelen

On this journey, he learned the skills of self-sufficiency. He spent months on end living in the wood and off the land. His notoriously-light pack weighed a scant 12 lbs, but contained everything he needed. The campsite was always the same: a wool blanket roll laid under a lean-to tarp and a pot suspended over a campfire.

He returned from this adventure in 1902, ready to commission into the Army. At over six feet tall with a 44-inch chest and 29-inch waist, he must have made quite the impression.

Army Service

Only accurate rifles are interesting

Townsend’s military service is well documented. But some of the highlights include being in charge of security over an uncharted stretch of Panamanian jungle while the canal was under construction in 1915. Once again, he set off into the wild to map the area and learn to survive. He brought those skills back and trained others to live in the jungle as well.

As WWI broke out in 1917, Townsend joined the Army Staff and constructed training programs for marksmanship and survival. In 1918, he published a book based on his experience with marksmanship, The American Rifle.

After the war, Whelen joined the Army Ordnance Department. He eventually took command of the Frankford Arsenal, until he retired as a Colonel in 1936.

All throughout, his love of the outdoors. In 1925, for instance, he approached well-known expedition outfitter Abercrombie & Fitch (yes…that one) to produce a new kind of shelter. Today we call it the Whelen Lean-To.

The .30-06 is never a mistake

Notable Facts

Townsend Whelen never stopped his outdoor pursuits. He spent over 400 nights in the lean-to of his design, and hunted all the way up until his death in 1961.

Current day outdoorsman and survival trainer Dave Canterbury discussing the Whelen Tent

Over the course of his life, Townend Whelen wrote over 2000 magazine articles on shooting, hunting, and the outdoors. He also authored nine books, including the one I linked to above.

During his time commanding the Frankford Arsenal, Whelen oversaw the development of several powerful cartridges:

  • .25 Whelen
  • .35 Whelen
  • .375 Whelen
  • .400 Whelen

The cost of a thing is the amount of life required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run. When one has obtained those essentials necessary for well-being — food, shelter, warmth, and clothing, there is an alternative to struggling through steel jungles for the luxuries. That’s to adventure on life itself, one’s vacation from humble toil having commenced.

Wrapping Up

Having read a bit about this American legend, I hope you do a bit more research. In my view, Townsend Whelen is a hell of role model for young and old alike.

If you enjoyed this post, then let me know in the comments. While you’re there, is there any other great outdoorsmen you look up to?

Also, don’t forget to check out the rest of the Profiles in Marksmanship series.

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Matt is the primary author and owner of The Everyday Marksman. He's a former military officer turned professional tech sector trainer. He's a lifelong learner, passionate outdoorsman, and steadfast supporter of firearms culture.

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Wow! Great short article on an amazing man. Really impressed with the story you weave and really surprised there aren’t any comments. Thanks for the “lean-to” education, I did not realize that he was the Whelen of the Whelen Lean-to.

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