column By: Terry Wieland | November, 19
Long-time readers of Handloader, Rifle and Gun Digest will recognize the name Bob Hagel. He was a writer on rifles, ammunition and big-game hunting from the 1960s through the ’90s.
A professional guide as well as a writer, he was in some ways regarded as the successor to Jack O’Connor as a man of wide practical experience, delivering verdicts on what worked and what didn’t. Where O’Connor’s forté was wild sheep, Hagel’s was elk, although he guided for just about everything found in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
In reality, Hagel was more a successor to Elmer Keith than O’Connor. At the age of 20, he worked as a guide for Keith when he was outfitting in Idaho, which undoubtedly had an influence. But Hagel never rode a hobby horse as Keith did with his big-bore gospel. He was concerned with promoting the proper tools and way of doing things, not in making converts. Hagel was neither a relentless self-promoter like Keith, nor a compulsive author like O’Connor. He was, however, a good, clear writer who was able to convey common sense, and he put it into several books, including Game Loads and Practical Ballistics for the American Hunter (Alfred A. Knopf, 1978) and Hunting North America’s Big Game (Outdoor Life Books, 1986).
Biographical information for Bob Hagel is scanty, but according to notes in the latter book, he was born in Montana in 1917 and killed his first big-game animal (a black bear) while in his teens, with a .30-40 Krag. He subsequently worked for the U.S. Forest Service and as a photographer, acquiring skills and knowledge he later put to good use as a writer.
Jack O’Connor, not a particularly charitable man when it came to his colleagues in the magazine trade, had high regard for Bob Hagel as both a knowledgeable shooter and writer. In The Last Book, published in 1984, he wrote: “Bob Hagel lives in a wide place in an Idaho road called Gibbonsville…”
For O’Connor, that was high praise. By the time he wrote it Hagel had found his literary home writing for Rifle, Handloader, Gun Digest and Handloader’s Digest. Over about a 30-year period between 1960 and 1990, Hagel contributed some three dozen pieces to the latter annuals.
Hagel acknowledged that much of his hunting in later life was done with rifles and cartridges he was assigned to test, rather than with the equipment he would have chosen. This, however, gave him a much wider range of knowledge than most writers, and certainly most guides. Unlike O’Connor, Hagel was an admirer of magnum cartridges, but only if used properly, with the right bullets, by a hunter who could handle them.
His philosophy was summed up in his book on North American big game as follows: “You should not use a cartridge that works when everything goes right; you should use one that will do the job when everything goes wrong.” If he had a favorite cartridge – and he never said so explicitly, to the best of my knowledge – it was probably the .338 Winchester Magnum. It certainly ranked high, especially for his trademark animal, elk.
Bob Hagel was an early exponent of premium game bullets and especially liked the Nosler Partition. His writing on the subject helped bring about the revolution in bullet construction that occurred through the 1980s and ’90s. His concern about bullet performance stemmed from his experience as a guide. In the 1960 Gun Digest, he wrote a piece called “Too Many Cripples!” and gave detailed lists of what a hunter should and should not do to avoid wounding and losing game.
As much as anyone in the business, Hagel was concerned about ethical hunting, and high on the list was taking shots at impossibly long ranges, and wounding and losing game. In 1967, he wrote “1000 Yard Shooting!” which was highly critical of both hunters who attempted impossibly long shots and manufacturers who encouraged it with outrageous ads about one-shot kills at such distances. This was almost as prevalent then as now, and in fact such hogwash dates back to the late 1800s, but old age doesn’t make it right.
Before laser rangefinders, range estimation was difficult and often wildly exaggerated. Hagel judged extravagant claims by cutting the estimate in half and adding 10 percent. Five hundred yards thus became 275. As an experiment, hunting in Montana in 1995, I tested the theory. It worked with uncanny accuracy.
John Barsness, one of the most respected of a later generation of writers, holds Hagel in high regard in some ways, but not so much in others. Hagel’s handloading, for example, tended (like many of his contemporaries) to be overly ambitious. Granted, for most of his career, chronographs were few and far between, as were pressure barrels.
“His biggest contribution was Game Loads and Practical Ballistics for the American Hunter,” John told me. “Wore my first edition out, and eventually backed it up with the Wolfe reprint to avoid scattering pages around the house. That book really pounded the advantages of controlled-expansion bullets into the heads of American hunters.”
In my own experience, hunters should treat the golden words of old-time handloading writers with considerable caution, whether Phil Sharpe, Jack O’Connor or Bob Hagel. Barsness: “[Hagel’s] load work-up routine was dangerous. One of his editors (since deceased) told me personally that Hagel’s loads sometimes expanded rifle chambers to the point the barrels had to be replaced.”
Bob Hagel embraced new technology and then tried to get the most out of it. He used scope reticles to aid in range estimation. In his work on expanding bullets, he attempted to find a medium that gave reliable results. Just because we have moved beyond this now does not mean that his work was not valuable, if only to make people aware that they should be concerned.
One thing about big-game hunting does not change, however, regardless of new technology, laser rangefinders, digital scopes linked to iPhones, extra-long bullets and fast twist rates, and that is the ethical aspect of killing animals for sport.
Recently, I saw an ad which began “Putting your bullet a foot to the right does not matter when you are shooting steel plates at 800 yards, but doing so on a game animal can result in the ethical hunter’s worst nightmare…”
Ethical? No ethical hunter would take a shot at 800 yards unless the circumstances were exceptional, such as a wounded animal about to disappear over a ridge. There are just too many variables out of the hunter’s control, and which cannot be mitigated by any technology, such as a sudden gust of wind or the animal taking a step.
In his 1967 article, Hagel summed up his philosophy on long-range hunting: “As to shooting any game at 1000 yards – if you do manage to get a bullet into the vital area, you are damn lucky; if the bullet happens to kill the animal cleanly it is a miracle, and you are very, very lucky. You were also foolish for trying it.”
Bob Hagel died in December 2005. He still lived in Gibbonsville, had been ill for some time and did not want visitors. His departure was not given the publicity that attended the deaths of O’Connor and Elmer Keith, but like them, his writing deserves to live on. He may not have had O’Connor’s magic with words or Keith’s provocative irrascibility, but he packed sound advice, based on real experience, into the words he did write. That’s worth a lot.