Almost by definition, avid gun-magazine readers want the inside scoop on the latest firearms and ammo. But do they also want to peek behind the media curtain? It sure seems so judging from retrospective books periodically offered by “name” gunwriters. The latest shooting scribe to spill his guts is Jon R. Sundra, whose, Hell, I’m Still Here! Fifty Years a Gunwriter, more than delivers on a title that says quite a lot itself.
The newly released hardcover volume from Safari Press is every bit as loaded as a consequential half-century could make it: there are vignettes (gossip, if you will) of colorful big shots from the heyday of gun “journalism;” highlights from a uniquely varied track to success and longevity; and, thankfully, plenty of pure gun stuff.
Following a high-school salesmanship demo on the H&R M922 revolver that garnered more positive responses than raised eyebrows (yeah, it was 1957), Jon has been talking guns professionally via nearly every major shooting journal from the 1960s through present. Major outlets have included: Gun Digest, Shooting Times, Guns & Ammo, Petersen’s Hunting, Guns, Shooting Illustrated, Guns & Hunting and Safari, not to mention his unique 22-year stint as sole author and editor of the annual magazine, the Complete Rifleman. Readers knew the Sundra byline meant cogent technical descriptions free of pretentious jargon, measured opinions and a starchy wit. He doted on 7 mm cartridges, developed his signature JRS wildcat-cartridge series, was a fixture at northeastern hunting camps on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, and nearly kept a promise to hunt Africa by age 35.
Early on Jon found himself tossed in with writers and editors who were practically household names to greatest-generation audiences: Jack O’Connor, Elmer Keith, Bill Jordan, Jack Lewis, Bob Milek, Howard French, and long-time American Rifleman Field Editor Charles Askins, who offered to help Jon with a troublesome neighbor, vowing, “… I could make that problem go away. Just say the word.” Fans of these men and their high-spirited writing will appreciate chapters devoted to off-the-cuff personal glimpses you can’t find elsewhere. But what comes through even stronger is the lifestyle, the jet-setting perks and hard-drinking camaraderie that held their fraternity together. Though competitors, those guys knew how to have fun, and you can just about see the sly grin as Jon recounts hijinks they unleashed on the world.
Jon’s foremost expertise is hunting rifles, and in particular he self-identifies as “… a bolt-action guy.” Accordingly, his career heavily slanted toward big-game subject matter, and I’m Still Here! documents an amazing hunting resume and the tales it inspired. Those adventures took him around the globe, and among other things, chapters recap multiple trips to Africa, along with a comparatively measured take on Cape buffalo. Sans the all-too-common hyperbole, Sundra says that more than anything, Africa’s dangerous bull deserves our respect.
The author clearly has a thing for bears, too. He lived for many years in western Pennsylvania, home to a unique bear-drive culture, and has traveled across North America in pursuit. In “Bear With Me,” he recalls offbeat behavior, close calls and the thrill of taking a big one. Also revealed are a couple of times when Jon anointed troublesome characters, one with aged Cognac and the other with a liquid substance we won’t specify for the sake of spoiling the fun.
Scenes from stellar hunts are provided via the book’s rich photo package, along with a peek into Jon’s trophy room, plus snaps of fellow writers, shooting-industry luminaries and other notables with whom he crossed paths.
Interesting to me was learning about Jon’s sideline as a firearm-industry consultant. This decades-long avocation has involved chores like advertising coordination, press relations and product design. Often working with European companies, at one time or another he was been affiliated with: Husqvarna, Franchi, Llama, Sako, Zeiss, Leica, Norma, Fajen, Gamo, Schmidt & Bender, Legacy Sports and E.R. Shaw. Perhaps his biggest consulting gig was with Rutland Plywood, maker of laminated stocks. Jon was an early and persistent proponent of laminates for hunting rifles and after he hooked up with Rutland it soon became the world’s predominant producer. As such, he’s due much credit for the popularity laminates enjoy today.
One chapter I found hilarious is “I Get Mail,” wherein the author shares a sampling of the quirky, and sometimes belittling letters he receives. Perhaps it’s an “inside baseball” kind of fascination since I too am the recipient of such mail. For professional and personal reasons my responses are as straightforward as I can make them. But sure enough, I identified with the snarky context Jon provides. If readers truly want a taste of gunwriter life, just read this section.
Fitting of a long career packed with countless shots downrange, numerous mornings in hunting camp, and seeing one’s work in print many times over, Jon has assembled a deep chronicle that’s well worth reading, and not just by his fans. For all red-blooded gun cranks who have kept up with their passion through enthusiast magazines, Hell, I’m Still Here! Fifty Years a Gunwriter, is a validation of our kind.