Parker Otto Ackley Hated his Christian Name

That’s why he went by P.O. all his life. Anybody claiming to be his friend and talking about, “Parker and I…” immediately made an ass of himself to Ackley’s real friends, who were many, and influential in the small world of American firearms.

This is just one of the fascinating details we’ve learned from P.O. Ackley: America’s Gunsmith by Fred Zeglin.

In a time when college graduates and even high school graduates were rare, Ackley was a magna cum laude graduate of Syracuse University (in New York, his native state). His degree was in Agriculture, and he was a member of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

Why did he become a gunsmith? “During the Depression, there was nothing else to do anyway.” His college studies had made him a remarkably good potato farmer, but his potatoes found no buyers.

In 1936, he bought the Roseburg, Oregon shop of Ross King, who had in turn bought the business from the widow of his former employer in Los Angeles, Ludwig Wundhammer, arguably the first great American sporterizer of military rifles. King moved back to LA and kept gunsmithing for some years.

Ackley bought the shop sight unseen, sold the family farm, and drove to Roseburg to meet King — whose work he respected greatly — and see his new shop. He paid King $1,000 down and $1,000 over time, on a handshake. But he didn’t know barrel making, so he accepted the offer of a friend to teach him. Leaving the family in Roseburg, he spent most of 1936-37 in Cincinnati learning the trade from Fritz, last name unknown, an employee of the friend, Ben Hawkins.

Ackley built much of his own tooling. He could afford only one gun-drill, so his early barrels were all bored .22 and reamed to final size with reamers he made himself. His own rifling machine was one of the earliest button-rifling mechanisms — he claimed to have co-invented the process, although he never filed a patent on it — and an entire chapter of the book is Ackley’s own detailed technical description of this tool. Ackley wrote it for a book that was never published, and the rifling-tool chapter may be the only surviving fragment.

In that chapter, as in many other places in the book, Ackley’s wit shines through.

“P.O. said that Elmer Keith was the biggest bullshit artist in the United States, but if he said he hit something with a .44 Magnum at 1000 yards, you better believe it, ’cause he could shoot.”

“The best way to get an answer to the problem is to ask someone who has never made a barrel. They can always tell you.”

Ackley’s foundation of the school of gunsmithing at the Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado was a surprising story. Ackley left the Ogden, Utah arsenal during the war — some say, after a falling out with co-worker Elmer Keith, the story of which Zeglin was not able to establish, and unconfirmed stories about which Zeglin was unwilling to publish. He ultimately wound up in Trinidad, and, after the war, was buried in a mountain of correspondence from GIs seeking gunsmithing training under their GI Bill benefits. The college, meanwhile, was getting similar letters — thousands of them.

The gunsmithing school was a success from the start, and early students remember an unusual instructional technique: Ackley would disassemble a gun and reassemble it where students could not see it, talking them through the process. Then, in the lab, they’d have to do it themselves, forcing them to learn by doing, not monkey-see-monkey-do.

Lee Womack, one of his former students, wrote:

In spite of his 16-hour days, he was always available…. He gave freely of any information he might have. He used to say that anybody in the gun business who thought he had a trade secret was just kidding himself.

This year will be the 70th anniversary of the program, a living memorial to an interesting American craftsman.

We’ll close with a few more Ackley quotes. On bullpup actions:

My opinion of the Bull-pup idea in general would not be very complimentary, and like the man once said, “If you can’t say anything good about it, then don’t say anything at all.” Therefore, I am silent as HELL on this subject.

On relative and absolute strengths of rifle actions, something which he experimented on extensively:

[A]ny action can be blown up if you try hard enough.

On the strength of the Italian Carcano, proven in his blow-up tests:

In spite of the fact that the locking lugs looked as though you could knock them off with a tack hammer, we were unable to damage any one of the four bolts appreciably. When the actions finally let go the receiver ring flew off, but this didn’t come until we had reached loads whitch had previously blown up P-17 Enfields. I wish to point out. however, that none of this should be used to conclude that the rifle could ever be made into a desirable hunting arm because that is a fairly good definition of the word impossibility.

As you might imagine, we’re loving the book.

19 thoughts on “Parker Otto Ackley Hated his Christian Name

  1. Pingback: WeaponsMan On A P.O. Ackley Biography | Western Rifle Shooters Association

  2. William O. B'Livion

    > I wish to point out. however, that none of this should be used to conclude that the rifle
    > could ever be made into a desirable hunting arm because that is a fairly good definition
    > of the word impossibility.

    There’s a joke about hunting Kennedys in there, but I ain’t going to make it. No sir, not me.

    1. Hognose Post author

      That’s okay. They do a fine job of hunting themselves, what with raping random women and babysitters, skiing / driving / etc. drunk, flying beyond their skillset, and the ever popular drug ODs.

      They’re more of a varmint than a game species these days.

      1. John M.

        “They’re more of a varmint than a game species these days.”

        LOL.

        -John M.

    1. Hognose Post author

      I got it from… I forget where. The link was in the story the first time I mentioned the book, a couple of weeks ago. I’ll dig it up.

  3. RHT447

    Memories. I was shooting a 100yd NRA Highpower match in northern Kalifornia back in the mid 90’s (yeah, you could do that there, then). There was a sprightly old gentleman in campaign hat who showed up to shoot with his trusty sporterized 03-A3. He chose to shoot the (then) DCM 30-06 ammo the club had available. He was affable and enthusiastic enough, but his SA was a little weak. Several of us soon noticed the fired brass coming out of his rifle was Ackley Improved. He seemed blissfully unaware.

    1. Hognose Post author

      One of the characteristics of an AI chamber is that the original source round can be fired in it with no problems.

    2. Dyspeptic Gunsmith

      Ackley designed his “AI” chambers so that a shooter would be able to take parent ammo, fire it in an AI chamber, get fire-formed brass and nominal accuracy results for the effort. The only point at which a shooter needed to worry about an unexpected AI chamber was when he went to reload – it really isn’t easy o push that shoulder back to the factory chamber angles.

      The .30-06 AI chamber was somewhat popular for a time to “get a little more” out of a trusty ’06 rifle. It was done to lots of ’03A3’s, which were dirt cheap back in the 60’s and early 70’s. The genius of Ackley’s improvements was that they headspaced on the juncture between the neck and the shoulder, while “blowing the shoulder forward, which allowed factory ammo to headspace properly in an AI chamber, while getting the increase in case capacity being sought.

      IMO, the only AI cartridges that really stand up as a real win today are the .250/.257’s: The .250 Savage AI and the .257 Roberts AI. In these two AI’s, you get far more muzzle velocity improvement for the increase in case capacity than you see in other cartridges. I don’t know why.

      Most of the other AI results can now be had by choosing a better barrel and better powder with a conventional cartridge case.

  4. Ti

    That’s a great story of someone as a kid, I would read articles and was always fascinated with the fire formed brass cartridges they would talk about.

    I am proud to say I use one of the instructors from Trinidad State Tech as my gunsmith. He built me my tradeshow Fairchild/Armalite AR-15(clone, ersatz copy,??) and an AC556k look sorta-alike( cutdown series 181 factory folder, barrel bobbed to 13.5, threaded, crowned, and 3.5 inch flash hider welded on. But the best part is he builds front gas block sights for mini’s ala ac556k. They aren’t like the ramped original, but you can get ’em w tritium inserts etc.

  5. TBoone

    Another well-written post that reminds me of “how much there is in the world I didn’t know I didn’t know”.
    I will add this book to me ‘acquire AnD read list.

    And thanks for all you do to keep us all up to date on the Critter Quality Rating of the Kennedy clownKlan.

    “… more a varmint than a game species…” Well Done Sir!

    1. Hognose Post author

      The filename says “rifling bench,” but the picture does not load. Endless spinner. C’est dommage.

  6. Dyspeptic Gunsmith

    Ackley found that the strongest military action was the Arisaka, which was also too ugly to turn into custom rifles. The Arisaka held up under chamber pressures over 100K PSI. Most all other actions started letting go in the 70K to 90K PSI areas.

    NB that while Ackley was a technically highly competent gunsmith, in the market of custom guns, I don’t know whether Ackley could compete with modern Guild-level gun makers today. Many of Ackley’s custom rifles were rather plain and unrefined by today’s standards. When the custom rifle industry really got to out-doing each other through the late 70’s and through the 80’s, the level of finish, fine adornments and refinements of artistic standards went far, far beyond what Ackley did on his rifles in the 50’s.

  7. Dyspeptic Gunsmith

    A couple of other notes for your readers:

    Having a degree in ag, agronomics, etc in the 30’s was a sure-fire path to poverty even worse than a SJW liberal arts degree today.

    About one-third of the US population was employed in the ag sector before the Depression. When the Depression hit, the hardest hit sector of the US economy was ag, and the ag sector, in particular bank lending to the ag sector, was an economic sucking chest wound throughout the Depression. Several of FDR’s more lunatic programs aimed at eliminating the surpluses of ag products that had built up during the 20’s as a result of rampant bank lending to anyone who wanted to be a farmer, no matter how inexperienced the borrower was, or how absurd their farming plan was. (eg, growing wheat in the panhandle of Oklahoma or southeast Colorado).

    FDR’s packing of the Supreme Court was in response to his “Agricultural Adjustment Act” being found unconstitutional. The AAA of 1933 created roving bands of “FDR Men” who came out to farms and ranches, whereupon they’d make farmers & ranchers deals that were “hard to refuse” (as people I know who were sons of farmers from that era have told me), and then FDR’s men would burn huge piles of ag products, shoot sheep, cattle and horses in the head and throw them in a ditch, burn bales of cotton, etc – all in the name of “removing surplus production” from the economy in a futile effort to raise ag commodity prices.

    PO’s degree in ag in this period would have been about as useless as nipples on a boar.

    Back in the 20’s and 30’s (the interwar years), gunsmithing wasn’t a bad gig. Unlike today, where American gun buyers are seized with a notion that everything that is “mil-spec” is the best quality that can be purchased, prior to WWII, gun buyers still sought out actual quality in guns, ie, a level of quality that is scarcely available anymore. As an example, the (justly) famous Winchester Model 21 was brought out at the beginning of the Depression, and even with the dire economic situation, the Model 21 was introduced at a price of just under $60/gun, at the field grade. In this environment, where the American gun buyer was supporting quality guns, a gunsmith who sought to make quality guns and deliver real value in quality guns, could make an OK living. I’ve met dozens of gunsmiths who started in the 50’s, and many of them put several children through college, supported their families with a stay-at-home mother, etc – on only their gunsmithing business earnings.

    Today, making that sort of money in gunsmithing is a pipe dream. But in Ackley’s day? A good gig. You just had to have the chops to deliver the goods, and then, as today, most don’t. Most who did, didn’t have any formal education in gunsmithing – they were just men who were very good with their hands at applying technical arts.

    re: Wundhammer. Here’s an article by Steven Dodd Hughes, himself a fine gunmaker in Livington, MT, on Whelen’s Wundhammer rifle. When you look at Wundhammer’s rifle stock, you can see the Germanic influence on his execution at a glance.

    http://finegunmaking.com/page28/page28.html

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