Michael Pearce

Master rifle maker had Wichita in his roots

Roy Weatherby, right, with John Wayne.
Roy Weatherby, right, with John Wayne. Courtesy photo

In the 1960s, most Kansas boys worshiped guys such Willie Mays. I idolized Roy Weatherby.

Arguably the most innovate firearms designer of the last half of the 20th century, Weatherby’s namesake rifles were as gorgeous as they were functional. His cartridges were faster and more powerful than standard fare.

Hunting magazines held photos of Weatherby in exotic places, using revolutionary firearms to take charging Cape buffalo. Hollywood heavies on “The American Sportsman” used his products often.

The first time I handled a Weatherby rifle is as vivid in my mind as my first slow dance.

My appreciation for the man and his makings were rekindled when I learned Weatherby was a native Kansan, with ties to Wichita.

Though his rifles and cartridges have long been equated with wealth and prestige, Weatherby’s early years were far different.

In the book, “Weatherby. The Man. The Gun. The Legend,” he told authors Grits and Tom Gresham he was born in the Flint Hills near White City in 1910.

“Dad was a tenant farmer,” he said. “All 10 of us, parents, six sisters and a brother kept moving from farm to farm.”

Weatherby said his family was in perpetual debt. Winter traplines and summers spent killing gophers and jackrabbits for bounty helped raise a little cash.

When he was 13, Weatherby’s family began a series of moves across Kansas, living “like squatters in the poorest part of town.” In Wichita, they lived in the single room of an abandoned grocery store. After several years of migrant travel across the eastern United States, Weatherby returned to take courses at the University of Wichita.

Dean Rumbaugh, Weatherby’s longtime friend and company employee for 52 years, said it’s not known if Weatherby graduated from college. He did know that while in Wichita, Weatherby started attending Sunday school for the express purpose of finding a girlfriend. He found one in a local college student named Camilla Jackman and they were married.

They eventually headed to California, where Weatherby had a successful, but not lengthy, career in insurance. It was out west that he rekindled his love of hunting, and began a now-common trend toward bigger cartridges and faster bullets.

Much of his work was done in his garage, including early orders when his works began getting publicity in articles he and others wrote for magazines. In 1945, he went full-time into a gun manufacturing business in the back of a small sporting goods store. Like a lot of businesses, the early years had many challenges. In 1947, his wife sold a 160-acre Kansas farm she’d inherited for $21,000 to save the fledgling firearms company.

Weatherby’s rifles, and eventually shotguns, eventually became the pick of some of the world’s most famous sportsmen, from John Wayne and Roy Rogers to the Shah of Iran and U.S. presidents.

One of America’s most prominent outdoorsmen of the time was also one of Weatherby’s earliest customers, contacting him for a rifle barely a year after the company began. They eventually became a widely-traveled hunting partners and friends.

“He and Sheldon Coleman had a good friendship,” Rumbaugh said of Weatherby. “It was a long relationship.”

And we all know you don’t get much more Kansas, or Wichita, than the man who piloted the Coleman Co. for so many decades.

And now, more than ever, I hope to someday own a Weatherby rifle.