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A lifetime with the .30-06 rifle

The only center-fire rifle I owned was a Winchester Model 94 carbine in .30-30 caliber. I used it for deer when I hued in Ottertail County, at Melrose and near St. Cloud. After several moves with the family, we were at the fringes of St. Cloud. The area was wooded, and hunting was very much available. I used a shotgun on ruffed grouse, a 22 rimfire rifle on tree squirrels and rabbits, and of course the 30-30 for deer. Hunting was very good in those pre war days.

In 1937, Winchester surprised everyone with a new rifle. It was their Model 70, soon to become a masterpiece. It was the best thing around, and I was soon the owner of one -- a .30-06 in Super Grade. I remember that a three-digit serial number was stamped on the front part of the rifle's receiver. The rifle had a Lyman 48S receiver sight on it, but it was also drilled for the attachment of a scope sight, which I couldn't afford. This idyllic situation continued until the eruption of hostilities occurred, and the debacle known as World War II began. I was 21 and single, so it didn't take long before I was at Fort Snelling and the induction as a private in the U.S. Army was a reality. The Winchester Model 70 .30-06 was a forgotten memory.

Basic training

My civilian work with the Minnesota Highway Department and with the DuPont Company as a surveyor at the construction of a powder factory near Rosemount landed me in the Corps of Engineers and base camp at Fort Leonard Wood in central Missouri. I became a friend of another private; his name was Jean Johnson of Fergus Falls, who had been a surveyor with the Ottertail Power Company. Together, we would weather the rigors of being privates in the U.S. Army. Jean was an avid hunter as a civilian, and we did trade stories about Minnesota deer hunting, and guns and rifles. He did mention that he had been an instructor in rifle marksmanship, sponsored by the Civilian Marksmanship Program, a government paid entity, which was strongly endorsed by the National Rifle Association.

On the rifle range

After being issued a Springfield .30-06 military rifle, we were on schedule to fire these military guns at the fort's range, scores to be recorded in the soldiers' records. The gunnery sergeant grumbled about my shooting from the left shoulder. I took the instruction from several NCOs, who really weren't trained to give instruction, but I knew enough about the service cartridge and I was able to qualify as a marksman with the Springfield, although I didn't put in a stellar performance that day.

The shooting performance of Jean Johnson was something else! Jean had not mentioned his civilian familiarity with center fire rifles to anyone but me. Consequently, he made the most of receiving instructions in squeezing the trigger, holding your breath, how to use the open iron sights, and all of the other details the Sergeant or the Corporal on the firing line was able to dish out. It was time for Jean Johnson to shoot the rifle that he was very familiar with. Of course, the result was a fantastic, close-to-perfect score at long, long range. Jean Johnson was a quiet individual by nature, with very little to say, never boastful, never ready to give out any information about his life and times. His spectacular performance on the range that day surpassed all others on the line. The Sergeant in charge immediately took credit for having "coached" Jean to his excellent scoring. It brought no denial or contradictory remark from Jean Johnson. He permitted the NCO to make the callous claims, without disclosing, at any time, the fact that he had been a certified marksmanship instructor long before his appearance at that Army range. He left it that way!

The regular Army

The next step in training for Jean Johnson and myself, led to being assigned to formal classes at the University Of Kentucky in Lexington, in the midst of the horse country. We were billeted at a downtown hotel and took mathematics and surveying classes at the University. We were there for a year, but we had no service arms assigned, as we were downtown, amidst a civilian population.

To North Africa

Jean and I were assigned to the 405th Engineers as surveyors. We were issued Winchester M1 carbines with the small 30 caliber round. We saw none of the .30-06 semi-automatic rifles known as the M1 Garand, but we inspected this infantry weapon when encountering troops on the line.

And Italy

Now we were in the middle of things. Although we were in different line companies of the same Engineer battalion, Jean and I saw each other on occasion. Frequently, we heard of the opportunity for a line GI to take the additional training in order to be a military sniper. This was long range shooting of the highest order. The equipment included some civilian rifles, including the civilian Winchester Model 70, but usually it was the now retired Springfield bolt-action .30-06 rifle. It was equipped with the mount developed by Bill Weaver at his factory in El Paso Texas, and the best available rifle scope, which was the Weaver Model 440. Abysmal in quality, developed a decade later, it was the best that the U.S. Army had for a sniper. I do not know why Jean didn't volunteer for this adventurous, dangerous riflery, but he didn't. I'm certain that his cool approach to shooting, and his inherent ability, plus experience and training would have made him into a top-notch infantry-engineer sniper with a .30-06 rifle.

Both of us made it through the rigorous Italian campaign, including the invasion south west of Rome, the fiasco known as the Anzio beachhead. It was one of the most disastrous parts of the war in Europe. We were discharged at Camp Grant, Ill., and returned to civilian life in the summer of 1946, where each of us once again took up arms, usually employing a 30 caliber cartridge -- although in these post-war years, we graduated to speedy new cartridges -- but often they were in rifles stamped "Model 70."

Neither Jean nor I ever completely abandoned the military round. The U.S. Springfield arsenal developed the cartridge and the rifle more than a hundred years ago. The bolt-action receiver invented by Germany's Paul Mauser was a great design that the arsenal attempted to improve on. They didn't. But the .30-06 is the cartridge by which all others are evaluated and judged. New designs are always coming, including competitors as the .70 Winchester, the Remington 7mm Magnum and the Weatherby line of big cartridges. Yet the .30-06 Springfield and the '03 rifle remain with us.