A quick chat with Field & Stream’s David E. Petzal

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David E. Petzal is one of Field & Stream magazine’s shooting sports experts and is considered a top-rated writer in the field of guns, hunting, and shooting. That said, he leaves few topics untouched and has delighted his reader base for more than 50 years.

Petzal began at Field & Stream in 1972 as a managing editor. In ensuing years, he has held half a dozen different titles with the brand, and since 2006 has been strictly a writer, covering all manner of outdoor-related subjects, but specializing in guns and hunting.

He has pursued game all over North America, most of Africa, Europe, and New Zealand, and written about it extensively.

Petzal, who now hails from Cumberland, Maine, has written some popular books on guns, shooting, and hunting. The Total Gun Manual, co-written by Phil Bourjaily, is considered an essential read for anyone curious about different gun characteristics and for those wishing to improve their hunting and shooting skills.

Outdoor News: Describe your years growing up. Did you get to spend much time doing the outdoor sports that led to your career? Were you interested in journalism during the formative years or did that come after high school?

Petzal: I grew up on a farm in what was then an uncrowded part of New Jersey. We had a lot of land, and I roamed it every day after school, armed with either a Bear bow (60 pounds, much too heavy) or a Sheridan air rifle.

It was around the time I was 12 that I started reading Field & Stream, which was 25 cents at the soda shop. I was uninterested in writing about anything.

That didn’t come until much later when I got my first job on a magazine. I wrote a piece called, “A Bowhunter’s Guide to Rifle Shooting,” and when it came back in galley, and I saw my words in print, I was hooked.

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Outdoor News: How would you describe your “paying your dues” period before joining Field & Stream?

Petzal: I paid my dues on that first job, on a little magazine titled Guns and Hunting. I was paid so little that I won’t tell your readers what it was, they wouldn’t believe me.

Bob Elman, the editor for whom I worked, was a master of both writing and magazine editing, and a perfectionist to boot.

If I made a mistake, the whole office knew about it, so I stopped making mistakes. I didn’t enjoy this, but I had the sense to realize that I was getting an education you could not buy. I stayed for 4 1⁄2 years, and stayed friends with Bob for the rest of his life.

Outdoor News: Your initial focus with Field & Stream was editor. Then you shifted into writing. How did that happen?

Petzal: There was never a decision as such. I started writing the Shooting Department every other month in 1981, and after a while I caught on with the readers and started writing about other subjects. And by the late 1990s, it dawned on everyone that I was now a writer as opposed to an editor, so I dropped the title of executive editor and became features editor.

Titles among editors is largely like virtue among whores. Your title doesn’t mean a lot unless you’re editor in chief.

Outdoor News: You focused on guns and hunting. Why the focus?

Petzal: I am damned if I know.

When I was 10 or 11, or something like that, I crawled up into the top of a closet and there, cased, was a Savage Model 99 and an M-1 Carbine that belonged to my uncle, who did a little hunting. It was like laying hold of a live electric cable. I was never the same.

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Guns are the most interesting thing I know of. Same with hunting. I simply found everything about it fascinating. It’s not something you can explain rationally.

Outdoor News: Through your many years of gun journalism you’ve seen more that a few transitions from certain types of guns and ammo to others. Was this latest shift toward AR-style rifles something that was predicted? Or was it a surprise to those that have been involved in the shooting sports for many years?

Petzal: It was a surprise to me, sure enough. You have to remember that Colt began selling the first commercial ARs in 1965. They sent one of the very first to Larry Koller, who was the shooting editor of Guns and Hunting, and he loathed it and gave it to me.

I don’t think ARs really caught on until about the mid-1990s, which is a long time for something to go unnoticed. I think that very gradually, people became aware that, ergonomically, it was a couple of centuries ahead of everything else, and that you could build one (or have one built) to your own specs without spending a fortune.

I should add that I’ve seen more sheer BS printed and spoken about ARs than all other firearms combined, starting during Vietnam, when we were told that 5.56 bullets “tumbled through the air” on their way to the target.

Outdoor News: You are well known for writing some popular books on the shooting sports. If there was one piece of advice that you delivered to the readers of those books and you believed every shooter must know, what was it?

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Petzal: For shooters, I’ll quote my late friend G. Sitton: “All the good shooters I know have the nervous systems of reptiles.”

Effective shooting is comprised of self-control, hand-eye coordination, and concentration, of which the most important factor is the first one. For hunters, it’s all about patience. Saxton Pope, the great bowhunter, wrote of his Yahi Indian friend Ishi that the bows Ishi made were not much good, but that Ishi had patience that was almost beyond comprehension, and that gave him all the odds he needed.

Outdoor News: During your long career you have hunted in regions of the world that many hunters only dream of. What was your favorite hunting destination and what species were you hunting?

Petzal: I love Africa above all else. When I was 10, I read a book by a professional hunter named Alexander Lake entitled Killers in Africa and I was hooked.

I enjoyed everything about Africa except tsetse flies, which are the worst insects in the world, but my favorite animal is the Cape buffalo. If you become bored on a Cape buffalo hunt, there’s something seriously the matter with you.

Outdoor News: What’s the future hold for David Petzal?

Petzal: What’s in store? Who knows? I’m grateful that I can still shoot, and still write. If I can keep it up, that’s all I can ask. Hardly anything I have ever done has worked out as I expected.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>