40 years of Weatherby rifles.
This year makrs Roy's 40th anniversary in the business he began in his garage in Soth Gate, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb.
"Jon, if I had known back then what I was getting into," he told me in a recent interview, "I might have stayed in the insurance business. Don't get me wrong; I've never regretted for a minute getting into the gun business. I guess it's really what I always hoped to do. The only bad times, the only regrets, were caused by financial probmes, nothing else. The first 30 years . . . no, more than that, was one financial crisis after another." Indeed, Roy maintains that only since he bought out his last partner and now has both creative and financial control of Weatherby, Inc. did his dream become the reality he envisioned when a circle of friends convinced him to go into the custom gun business in 1945.
The Weatherby story really begins eight years prior, an entire world war before, in fact, when Roy began handloading his own ammunition in 1937, the year he moved to California from Topeka, Kansas. Back then reloaders were mostly looked upon as poor folks who loaded their own only because they couldn't afford to buy the "good stuff" as loaded by Remington or Winchester. And wildcatters, well, they were just crazies with a death wish. We know better today . . . But Roy knew better then! The kid from Kansas was convinced that the scret to increased killing power lay not in the size or weight of a projectile, but rather in how fast it was moving. So he set out to design his own cartridge with which he could prove the point.
Weatherby's keen interest in high velocity was hardly unique since ballistic experimentors at all levels of amateur and professional endeavor had been doing the same thing for quite some time. Indeed, such shenanigans began back in 1915 when the .250 Savage was introduced; some pretty extravagant claims were made on behalf of its 87-grain bullet exitting at a then incredible 3,000 feet per second (fps). By the time Weatherby fire-formed his first wildcat case in 1942, the .270 Winchester and the .220 Swift were already punctuating in spades whatever statements were being made on behalf of high velocity. So Roy sure didn't have any monopoly on the concept of sending out a relatively small bullet at high speed; he was just a guy who picked up the idea and was to run further with it than anyone else. A lot further!
Roy's early experiments were with the .220 Swift. Already the high velocity champ in its factory form, Roy wanted to see if the Swift could be improved upon by . . . well, "improving" it, i.e., fire-forming a case in a new chamber having less body taper, a shorter neck and a sharper shoulder and by so doing increasing its powder capacity. The result of Roy's first wildcatting experiment was the .220 Weatherby Rocket, an improved .220 Swift that ". . . really didn't perform any better than the original" says Roy candidly. Apparently the practical limit on case capacity had already been reached.
So he turned his attention to big game rather than varmint cartridges since, after all, that's where he wanted to prove his point about the lethality of super velocity. And what better caliber with which to do it but the high velocity champ of big-game cartridges, the .270 Winchester. Already around for nearly 20 years at that time, the .270 had been pilig up an impressive record in the world's game fields as well as establishing a certain mystique among the men who used it. Since the .270's effectiveness was attributed entirely to its high muzzle velocity-the 130-grain load especially, with its 3,100-plus fps--Weatherby figured that was the best caliber in which to seek that extra couple hundred feet per second he was after.
"Improving" the existing .270 Winchester hull didn't increase capacity enough so Roy went to the .300 H&H case, shortened it a bit, necked it down to .277, then fire-formed it in a custom chamber. It was early on in his experiments that Weatherby decided on the radiused neck/shoulder junctures that to this day make his cartridges so visually distinctive. "Back then," says Roy, "the rage among wildcatters was the Powell/Miller venturi freebore. It featured a sharp shoulder angle which funneled down in a venturi or concave shape to form the neck." The chambers were cut with a long leade in which the bullet would move 3/4 inch or more before contacting the rifling. The latter was thought to spread peak pressure over a longer period of time, thus better utilizing larger powder charges.
According to Roy, the freeboring made sense but not the single venturi-style shoulder. "It seemed to me," he says, "that gases would flow more more easily around radiused surfaces than acute angles. So that's what I went with."
He also admits, however, that even before the idea of commercializing a proprietary cartridge entered his mind, the fact that the double-radiused case could be arrived at only through fire-forming also had something to do with his decision. Says Roy: "The fact you couldn't run a .300 H&H case into a sizing die and come up with my radiused neck and shoulder was a definite advantage."
Incidentally, in the late '60s Weatherby abandoned the freebore concept because it was creating too many problems--not for him, but for owners of "wildcat Weatherbys". Because genuine Weatherby rifles had freebored chambers, the factory ammo by Norma was loaded accordingly. And there were too many gunsmiths out there chambering for Weatherby calibers who were ignoring the leade specs. The result was that use of Weatherby factory ammo would often freeze a bolt or blow a primer in a non-Weatherby rifle.
So even though there was never a problem for Weatherby owners it got to be enough of a headache for Roy that in the late '60s he changed the throating specs to where his chambers have a bit more leade than conventional magnums but are no longer what we'd call freebored. At the same time the specifications of the factory ammo were reduced somewhat in order to conform to the shorter leade. Anyway, it wasn't just all ballistics for Roy back in those early days for he was a hunter long before an experimentor. Improved ballistics were merely the means to an end, i.e., more effectively, humane cartridges. Toward that end Roy did plenty of hunting to put his theories into practice. The more he hunted the more he was convinced belief in high velocity was warranted. But the clincher, he says, was on prolonged deer hunts in late 1944. "Back then you could shoot a couple of deer on each license," Roy recalls, "and on a swing through several western states I took full advantage of the fact."
Roy was so impressed with the effectiveness of his .270 Magnum that he returned home and wrote a short report on his high velocity theories and his field test results and sent it to Field & Stream. 'Lo and behold they published it late that same year. Actually, it wasn't an article at all but a rebuttal to a comment made in an earlier issue by the magazine's then firearms editor, Charles Askins, Sr. (father of Colonel Charles Askins). It seems the elder Askins referred to wildcaters as "chamber doodlers" intimating that such machinations were hardly worth the effort.
In retrospect, we all owe a debt of thanks to the late Major for prompting Weatherby to write his rebuttal, because it was the tremendous reader response the letter generated that caused Roy to launch his company in September of 1945.
By then Roy had a whole series of cartridges all based on the belted .300 H&H case: a .257, a .270, a 7mm, and .300, plus his .375 Weatherby Magnum, based on the .375 H&H case. Operating in his garage using a Sears lathe and drill press, he started taking order for Weatherby Magnum rifles and building them on a part-time basis. Within a few months, though, he had to give up his insurance sales job and go at it full time.
In those first years, immediately after the war, there were no actions available so a Weatherby Magnum rifle was based on wahtever suitable actions Roy could scavenge from existing guns or those the customer furnished--Mausers, Springfields, '17 Enfields, Model 54 and 70 Winchesters, and Remington Model 30s. Strictly speaking, there was no definitive Weatherby rifle; the chambering made it so.
It wasn't until 1949 when Roy made a deal to import the new FN commercial Mauser with his name on it that the Weatherby rifle acquired a uniformity of components. For the first couple of years Roy Bought most of his barrels from Parker Ackley and did the chambering, fitting and stocking in his ever-growing South Gate store/shop. By the time he made the action deal with FN, Roy had his own broachtype rifling machine so he now controlled the entire production.
In 1950 the famous Weatherby stock came into being, the same one that persists to this day. "My first and best stockmaker ever," says Roy, "was Leonard Mews. Lenny was responsible for the styling of our early rifles which had lines similar to present-day guns except that they were a bit less flashy." It was Roy who took Mews' stock design and through what he describes as "doodling", incorporated the cosmetic features that have made the Weatherby stock the most distinctive. . . and most copied in the world. There was the squarish fore-end with the angled rosewood tip and white spacer; the accented pistol grip and flared cap, also of rosewood with white line spacers and white diamond-shape inlay; the forward-sloping comb and accented Monte Carlo with recoil pad; the glossy finish and skip-line checkering . . . Weatherby hallmarks all.
Prior to 1953, the year Roy contracted with Norma of Sweden to manufacture his ammunition, owning a Weatherby Magnum was strictly a handloading proposition. "C-H made our dies back in the early years, but cases had to first be necked down and fire-formed using .300 H&H brass or, in the case of the .375, .375 H&H brass." Roy recalls how he had no means of forming "factory" cases other than the way his customers were dong it, i.e. filling one case at a time with a small charge of fast-burning powder, an over-powder wad of tissue, then filling the remainder of the case with corn meal, sealing the neck with soap or wax, then firing it in the appropriate rifle. "We had employees who did nothing but that," he chuckles, obviously savoring one of the countless fond memories he has of those early years.
Having incorporated in 1949, moved to a new facility on Firestone Boulevard in 151, and now with the Norma deal giving him the legitimacy that only "factory" ammo can confer, Weatherby, Inc., became a viable firearms manufacturer marketing not only its own guns, but proprietary ammunition as well.
By 1956 the only component that wasn't of Roy's own design was the FN Mauser action on which his rifles were based. And let's face it: the action is the heart of any rifle so until he had one of his own design, he couldn't be satisfied. In concert with his chief engineer, Fred Jennie, Roy devised the Mark V action which was introduced in 1958 and has remained basically unchanged to the present day. With the Mark V, Weatherby intoduced a number of design innovations which have since been copied by many rifle makers world-wide. The most striking departure from convention is what I call the "fat bolt" system.
In Mauser-type designs the locking lugs protrude well beyond the average 3/4-inch diameter of the bolt body, thus necessitating raceways be broached into the innerside walls of the receiver. With the Mark V Roy went into a larger bolt body diameter, then formed small, multiple lugs at the head by machining away material. In effect, what's left after machining is the locking lugs, nine of 'em to be exact, each one quite small but boasting a combined strength and shear area comparable, or superior, to twin-lug actions.
Lacking the necessity of lug raceways, the "fat bolt" genre requires only a simple hole be bored through the receiver and that this hole can be reamed within a couple thousandths of the diameter of the bolt itself. The net result is an inherently smooth, wobble-free action.
Another benefit dervied from placing nine locking lugs in three rows on 120-degree centers is that only a 54-degree bolt rotation is required to unlock the action. This in turn translates to a mere 54-degree lift of the bolt handle instead of the 90 degrees required of a twin lug design. When unlocked the Mark V's handle is nearly horizontal, thus providing plenty of extra room for the hand to operate the action quickly from the shoulder.
Another first on the Mark V was the fluted bolt body--eight longitudinal grooves running the length of the body to reduce friction and colled dirt during rotation, thus keeping it off the bearing surface. Up on the head a counterbored bolt face was incorporated along with the plunger-type ejector that has become so common-place today. At the rear a massive shroud capped the bolt to preclude any particlebearing gases from reaching the shooter's eyes in the event of a case head separation or pierced primer. The bolt body was vented by three holes visible in the port when the action is locked.
At first Roy tried manufacturing his new Mark V action in California but found he could not produce them in the quantity he needed. Concurrent with the development of the Mark V was another of what Roy described as an ongoing series of financial crises. This time the needed capital came from J.P. Sauer, the German firm whom Roy contacted to produce the entire Mark V barreled action. Sauer became a major shareholder in Weatherby, Inc. in 1961 and remained so until 1971 when Roy moved the manufacturing to Howa Machinery in Japan.
One of the advantages of having Sauer manufacture his barreled actions was that Roy was able to avail himself to some new barrel-making technology that was just appearing in Europe at the time-hammer forging. According to Roy, he was the first to introduce hammer forged rifling to the American market in the Mark V.
Now that he had his own action, Weatherby to longer had to use the Swedish Schultz & Larsen actions for the huge .378 and .460, two belted magnums he came up with in 1953 and '58, respectively, and which would not fit the FN Mauser he was using for all his smaller calibers. Interestingly enough, the .378 and .460 cases are made in the artillery, rather than the small arms, section of the Norma plant--a fact I verified for myself on my first visit through the Amotfors facility back in the early '70s!
Actually, Weatherby never intended to offer a .45; he felt his big .378 moving a 300-grain bullet at 3,000 fps for 6,000 foot pounds of muzzle energy was enough for anything. However, when Kenya passed a law saying nothing under .40 caliber could be used on elephant, Roy was forced to neck his .378 case up to .458, hence the .460 Weatherby Magnum, "the world's most powerful cartridge," developing over 8,100 foot pounds of punch.
While discussing the .378 Roy related an interesting anecdote regarding the origins of the magnum primer. "In developing the 378," he says, "I couldn't get the powder to ignite properly. After all," he chuckled, "we were using charges of 110 to 115 grains of powder in that big case and no existing primer thad the necessary brisance to do the job. So I went to Bill Horn of Federal Cartridge and he said, 'Sure, we'll make you a hot primer.' That's how the Federal 2uk came to be. It's still the most potent cap and the only one we use and recommend in our .378 and .460."
Once the Mark V and the Sauer deal was squared away, Roy started to think about expanding the line. He figured--and with good reason I might add--that the growing number of Weatherby rifle owners out there would be prime candidates for a Weathery shotgun. He also believed he could successfully market a less expensive rifle chambered for non-Weatherby calibers but with the same flashy styling as the Mark V. After all, it would still be a Weatherby, even if it wasn't a Mark V.
History had proven him correct on both counts. Looking through a current catalog we find the Weatherby line of rifles and shotguns to be a comprehensive and wellintegrated one, exhibiting a styling theme that makes them unmistakably Weatherbys. There's the newly expanded Vanguard series which now has three different models; there's the Athena and Orion over/under shotguns; the Model 82 and 92 semiauto and pump shotguns, respectively; and the Mark XXII, Roy's semi-auto .22 rimfire. Recent additions are the Safari Grade Mark V and the Fibermark, the first production rifle offered with a fiberglass stock.
Yep, Roy's had a lot of "first." I guess he's kinda gotten used to looking over his shoulder from time to time to see who's following . . . only to find that it's usually pretty crowded back there!
It is difficult, nay, impossible to accurately assess the contributions Roy Weatherby has made to this industry over the past four decades, much less the influence he has had on it. If, however, I had to describe with one word what I consider to be Roy Weatherby's greatest contribution, it would be that he made the big-game rifle glamorous; and with his Weatherby Trophy made big-game hunting glamorous. In so doing he transformed what historically (at least here in America) had been a utilitarian tool into a highly sensual object.
I can well recall as a youngster back in the '50s paging through gun catalogs. The Remingtons, the Winchesters, the Savages, the Marlins . . . all were there to excite and conjure up all kinds of fantasies for a guncrazy kid, but primarily because they were guns. But the Weatherbys, ah, those were something else again. I remember especially those light-colored walnut and blonde maple stocks virtually jumping off the pages at me.
Inevitably, glamorous rifles attract glamorous people, and with Weatherby, Inc. being located just a stone's throw from Holloywood, it was just a matter of time before Roy could include among his customers many of the rich and famous. The fact that Weatherbys were custom made for and used by the likes of Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Burt Lancaster, Robert Taylor, General Curtis LeMay and assorted princes, dukes, and maharajas was extensively and successfully promoted and publizized by Roy.
Carrying on this tradition of custom guns, last year Roy was designated a licensee of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee to produce 1,000 limitededition rifles commemorating the 1984 Olympics.
This special Mark V has a fancy-grade walnut stock, the butt emblazoned with a unique multi-colored inlay depicting the Olympic "star-in-motion" motif.
The gun, which is available in either .257, .270, 7mm or .300 Weatherby Magnum calibers, has gold accented lettering and gold-plated trigger and swivels. As well, the action has been hand-honed and the bolt and follower jewelled.
Other special features include custom checkering, and a floorplate engraved "XXIIIrd Olympiad--1984."
The rifle comes fitted in a brass-mounted, blue Naugahyde case, with red plush lining and combination lock. Some of these guns are still available from retailers.
The firearms industry has never had and very likely never will have the kind of PR man we've had in one Roy Weatherby. If, as the saying goes, "legends are made, not born," work began on this one in a little garage on Long Beach Boulevard 40 years ago this year. And the world of guns and hunting has never been the same sinces. Happy Anniversary, Roy.
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|Publication:||Guns & Ammo|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1985|
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