By Ed Martley
Editor and Publisher
© Top Dog Publishing Inc.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Our story first appeared in the Rapid City (S.D.) Journal on Nov. 29.
RAPID CITY, S.D. — This is a tale of delightful serendipity, dogged perseverance, two wild and crazy guys named Cooper and Hemingway, and two rifles.
It’s a tale of Rapid City real estate Broker Bo Hauer who wanted to buy a classic firearm he couldn’t afford, and a firearms dealer who is probably still kicking himself.
For years, Hauer had admired from afar the classic rifles created early in the 20th century by the company of Griffin & Howe. About 12 months ago as he was scrounging around the Internet, Hauer found a G&H rifle in his price range, especially when he considered that he was sitting on a nice chunk of money recently acquired by selling a pair of classic hunting knives. A check was mailed to gun dealer John Mead at Dead Rat Ranch.com, and a 1936 G&H rifle was soon in Hauer’s hands.
Originally, the rifle was a hotrod .220 Swift, but since had been re-bored to a .30-06.
It was beautiful, Hauer said, and perfect in every way except that a trigger guard safety didn’t work. He took the ought-six to Jack First Gunshop in Rapid City, picking it up three weeks later. As he was leaving the shop, the gunsmith quipped, “Hey, does the GC on that medallion stand for Gary Cooper?” He was referring to a silver plate embedded in the bottom of the stock.
Hauer joked right back, “It’s either Gary Cooper or George Carlin.”
At home, Hauer undertook to learn more about Griffin & Howe and his new rifle. He found that “G&H is one of the most noteworthy custom rifle makers in America. Created in 1923 and committed to building the best rifles for the American sportsman, G&H was a great success. Abercrombie & Fitch bought the company in 1930.”
According to additional literature, “Many famous and powerful outdoorsmen counted on G&H to build fine, custom, well decorated rifles for their needs, among them Ernest Hemingway, Clark Gable, Jack O’Connor, Gary Cooper, Robert Ruark, Dwight Eisenhower, and Bill Ruger. You can find vintage G&H rifles that range from plain and utilitarian for about $4,500 to fine works of art that surpass $30,000. G&H continues building rifles today.”
Hauer began Internet research on Cooper, possibly the most famous film actor of all time, and found thousands of personal and publicity photos of him, some of which he bought on eBay. In the photos, Cooper is shown with a rifle, a rifle that bore a remarkable resemblance to the one Hauer was holding in his lap.
Several of the photos were of high quality and clearly showed the wood grain in the stock of a rifle held by the star. Uh-oh. Hauer caught his breath and looked more closely, matching the pictured stocks to his own rifle. They were identical. This was Gary Cooper’s rifle. Wood grain is as unique as fingerprints. There is no doubt.
Hauer didn’t stop there; for nearly a year he studied everything he could find about Cooper and that rifle, gathering material adding to his gun’s provenance. When he contacted the manufacturer for more information, he ran into problems. There was no record of the rifle being sold to Cooper, but the company did find an Abercrombie record showing a “G. Cooper” returning the rifle to Griffin and Howe for a modification or repair.
Hauer continued finding information and pictures and badgering G&H for a copy of that record but the company refused to give it to him, in case the “G. Cooper” was not actor Gary Cooper. But when G&H learned how much historical material the Rapid City man had collected, a deal was struck. In exchange for Hauer’s information, the company gave him a copy of the repair record. The serial number on the repair record is 1476, the same as on Hauer’s .30-06. That was the shine on his rifle’s already irrefutable provenance.
John Mead was understandably chagrined when he learned he had sold a valuable rifle to Hauer for a bargain price. Mead was a good sport, though, and several months later cheerfully told Hauer he had another G&H rifle, this one a .22 Hornet. It, too, bore a GC plate on its stock. “I’m not going to sell this one to you until I can find out if Gary Cooper owned it.” So he investigated, contacting Griffin and Howe in a fruitless search for documentation, such as evidence the gun was sold to Cooper. Thus, lacking proof of the Hornet’s history, Mead sold it to Hauer at an affordable price. Hauer had kept his mouth shut; because of his research, he thought there was a slim chance that this might indeed be a Cooper rifle. And it was. The Hornet matched perfectly some additional photos obtained.
“This is a case of lightning striking twice,” Hauer said. “What are the chances that John Mead would find not one but two Cooper rifles?” And not know it.
It is the Swift that draws Ernest Hemingway into our story. He and Cooper were buddies, both rabid hunters and each with colorful reputations. In addition to producing some of America’s greatest prose, Hemmingway was known for his brash, alcohol-fueled escapades. Cooper could never resist the flash of a pretty ankle, nor could the ankle owners resist the gangly star when he donned his bashful-boy persona.
Hauer ran across some fun stories about the pair. One of his favorites is about a time they were hunting coyotes in Hemingway’s expensive car. The driver was Lloyd Arnold. (Arnold later would write a book, “HEMINGWAY, High on the Wild.” He also would photograph Cooper.)
They spotted a coyote, Arnold recalled, and began chasing it across country, Hemingway firing from the passenger window and Cooper from the back seat. Cooper, a dead shot, dropped the animal with a .220 Swift, which is likely the .30-06 Hauer has now.
As their friendship progressed, Hemmingway came to covet Cooper’s Swift and wanted Cooper to bequeath it to him. Cooper opined he should give it to his buddy right now, but he never did. It is almost certainly the same rifle that today fills a slot in Bo Hauer’s gun rack.
Cooper often used his own firearms in movies. Hauer has not only brilliantly clear photos of his two rifles appearing in Cooper movies, he also has an Italian version of a movie poster showing the star aiming the Hornet. That movie, “Lives of a Bengal Lancer,” was filmed in 1934. The Hornet was also seen in the 1935 movie “Peter Ibbetson.” The .30-06 appears in “Souls at Sea,” made in 1937.
Hauer has not made a decision about the future of these storied firearms. He does not like the idea of imprisoning them in a vault; he thinks they belong to history and should be shared with all. He is contemplating lending the rifles to museums, such as the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyo.
Now that he owns the rifles, Hauer’s investigation has cooled. Maybe, he speculates, the thrill of the hunt was the best part of the story. Even so, on a quiet day he may open up the Internet just to see what’s out there. You never know.
And Dead Rat’s savvy trader John Mead is probably still kicking himself.