Frederick Russell Burnham: The Man Who Inspired A Rifle 

We all know the great legends from the American West. Wild Bill Hickok. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Chances are, you’ve heard about these men and their exploits through a movie or a classic adventure novel of the American West. There is a lot of romanticism that surrounds the history of the American West. This, in turn, leads to some exaggeration of what actually happened as Americans made their way towards the Pacific Ocean. There is one man, however, whose life actually lived up to the legend, a man named Frederick Russell Burnham. He was a significant figure not only in American history, but in the history of South Africa as well. His legacy continues to echo through our society, and in fact is still affecting American gun culture to this very day. Here’s a little background on this remarkable and relatively obscure figure from history. 

Frederick Russell Burnham

Frederick Russell Burnham, DSO.

Burnham was born in Minnesota in 1861. He and his family moved to the west coast in 1870. Due to a series of unfortunate events, Burnham found himself alone in California at age twelve. He quickly gained work as a messenger for Western Union, riding all over California and the Arizona Territory. At age 14, he became a scout for the U.S. Army, pursuing Geronimo all over the Southwest. During this time, Burnham learned tracking, scouting, and fieldcraft from the scouts who had been tracking the Apaches for years. He soon mastered the art of pursuit and tracking his quarry no matter what the terrain. 

An Adventurer Goes Overseas

Burnham was also involved in the Pleasant Valley War in the Tonto Basin region of Arizona and spent some time in Tombstone while Wyatt Earp was there. However, the “wild” west soon became very tame, and Burnham looked for adventure elsewhere. He joined the British expedition in South Africa and soon gained renown for his ability to locate and follow enemy forces no matter the terrain. As the war in South Africa wound down, Burnham moved to the Klondike to seek his fortune. However, in 1900, the British Army requested his help in the Second Boer War, and Burnham travelled halfway around the world to fight in that conflict. 

Grievously injured in the fighting, Burnham was made a Major in the British Army and sent back to London to recuperate. While in London, he was presented with the Distinguished Service Order, Britain’s second-highest military award for his service, even though he was an American citizen. While in Africa, Burnham befriended Robert Baden Powell. Powell is best known for being the father of modern scouting. Powell based his ideas for the Boy Scouts on Burnham’s skills and abilities. Burnham survived his injuries and went on to strike it rich when oil was discovered on land he owned in California. 

Truly Larger Than Life

Extraordinary only begins to describe a man like Frederick Russell Burnham. His exploits drew the attention of another iconic man in American history, Colonel Jeff Cooper. Col. Cooper is a legend in American gun culture. He was a passionate fan of history. A former military officer himself, Cooper developed an interest in the duty of a military scout in general and Major Burnham’s exploits in particular. 

Colonel Jeff Cooper

Colonel Jeff Cooper

Cooper was an avid hunter, and spent many days pursuing game in the same parts of Africa where Burnham once trod. In the early 80’s, Cooper began to muse on the idea of a rifle that placed an emphasis on portability and usability in the field. Something that a scout like Burnham might put to use in Africa as both a weapon of war and a means to hunt big game. In 1994, Cooper wrote,

“Probably the first scout one is likely to think of today is Major Frederick Russell Burnham, the American who distinguished himself in both Arizona and fighting the Apaches and later in Rhodesia and South Africa. His definitive work, Scouting On Two Continents, gives us a dramatic and enlightening picture of what a scout was and how he operated.” (1)

Frederick Russell Burnham: The Man Who Inspired A Rifle

“What kind of rifle would a man like that need?” thought Cooper. The job of a scout is to work alone, in advance of an army. Suppressive fire or similar tactics don’t work if you’re by yourself. One shot would have to do the job. If you’re alone, your defense isn’t in the volume of return fire, it’s in not being around when the enemy is firing in your direction. A scout needs to move quickly. Weight becomes important when you’re traveling by yourself, as does portability. A big, long rifle is hard to carry in the brush of South Africa, and it’s hard to carry one through the scrub pines of Arizona as well (ask me how I know this). A good rifle for a scout, then, should be lightweight, easy to carry for hours on end, and capable of engaging any target from 30 feet to 300 yards. 

Or as Colonel Cooper wrote, 

“Such instruments are short, handy, .308, bolt action rifles, generally fitted with plastic stocks and featuring strong, low-power telescopes mounted well forward – total weight not to exceed seven and half pounds.” (2)

The modern Scout Rifle was born from those ideas. The actual parameters of what is and is not a “Scout Rifle” can vary. Cooper himself said at various times that the weight should be 3 kilograms (about 6.6 pounds) up to 3.5 kilograms (7.5 pounds, or so). The length of a scout rifle should be around a meter (40-ish inches) and it should be chambered in a cartridge big enough to hunt for major game out to 300 yards. The optic should be forward-mounted so it doesn’t interfere with your vision when not in use, and it should be capable of 2 MOA accuracy. A bolt action is preferred over a semiautomatic rifle like the AR platform because they are legal for ownership and hunting in both America and in Africa. 

A Gun For All Reasons

Steyr Scout

The Steyr Scout, the first commercially available scout rifle

I first heard about the scout rifle concept when the original Steyr Scout was rolled out in the late 90s. I have to admit, I didn’t get it. “What was the point?” I thought. There were plenty of rifles out there that were more accurate, and rifles that were much more capable as defensive firearms. What was the big deal about a lightweight rifle with a weird scope mount?  Then, in 2011, Ruger came out with the Gunsite Scout, and it clicked. Simply put, a scout rifle is the gun to have when you can have only one. Is it the most accurate rifle on the market? No, but it’s accurate enough to take any game you can see with your naked eye. Is it the most powerful hunting rifle on the planet? No, but it will handle just about anything you’d want to have for dinner. It’s not the rifle to do any one task exceptionally well. It’s the rifle you have with you in order to perform a wide range of tasks to a satisfactory result. 

This is not a new concept. In fact, in many ways, it has its roots in the firearms used to found the United States. The rifles used by the Minutemen were quite often their own personal guns. They relied on those guns to defend their lives, provide food for their families, and, when necessary, defend their freedom. The scout rifle, in many ways, is the latest iteration of a general purpose rifle. Namely, a gun that is meant to do a variety of functions well enough to ensure success. The scout rifle, like all other rifles, is a product of the technology of its day. 

Time For A New General Purpose Rifle?

In our next article in this series, we’ll look at how recent changes in technology have affected the features of a general purpose rifle such as a scout rifle. How have things changed since the days of Fredrick Russell Burnham and Colonel Cooper? Is the scout rifle concept still valid? What happens if you take Africa out of the equation? What does today’s military teach us about the general purpose rifle? Finally, in the last article in these series, we’ll look at what a modern general-purpose rifle might look like, and how it compares to Jeff Cooper’s concept for the scout rifle. 

Stay tuned.  

  1. From the personal notes of Jeff Cooper, as quoted in “The Scout Rifle Study” by Richard Mann 
  2. Jeff Cooper, Gargantuan Gunsite Gossip 3.