by Richard Rattenbury
As a prodigious author, R. L. Wilson is known to tens of thousands of arms enthusiasts the world over. His bibliography treating the historic, technical, artistic and iconographic aspects of firearms includes nearly 50 benchmark titles, hundreds of articles and a score of documentary contributions. These range from thoroughgoing production histories and aesthetic appreciations of the greatest marques in American gun making (Colt and Winchester), to studies of firearms in various biographical and cultural contexts (two of which received Western Heritage Awards). In its cumulative influence, this body of material has done far more than inform and entertain those devoted students of firearms. Through their sheer volume, their impeccable research, and their cogent writing and striking visual appeal, Larry Wilson’s writings have permeated the broader American culture, dispelling the prejudices of some, and inspiring a fresh appreciation of the gun in many of the previously indifferent or uninformed.
And as author, Larry also proved enthusiastic and unselfish--amidst his own incessant writing--in supporting the research and writing of others. He honored this writer years ago in requesting that I pen the foreword to his groundbreaking work, Winchester: The Golden Age of American Gunmaking and the Winchester 1 of 1000. He later proved instrumental in promoting my Hunting the American West for publication with the Boone & Crockett Club (and allowed me to mine his image archive to enrich the work). More recently Larry very graciously authored the insightful foreword to the writer’s A Legacy in Arms. Not a few others could readily attest to similar effort and largess on Larry’s part over nearly half a century.
Latter days in the Castle View office. Left to Right: National Cowboy Museum curator of history Richard Rattenbury, RLW with Western Heritage Award for The Peacemakers, and National Cowboy Museum curator of art Ed Muno.
The well-known and influential writer, however, comprised but one facet of this man of many parts. Although he thrived in the commerce of history and material culture, Larry Wilson was equally devoted to their preservation and public appreciation. For many years he unselfishly shared his knowledge and many connections to the benefit of curatorial professionals and the museums they serve, often encouraging the placement of singular arms or important collections in non-profit institutions, or arranging significant benefit auctions for their support. As an ardent sport hunter who pursued the chase over several continents, Larry proved a dedicated advocate of wildlife conservation and habitat preservation as well. And, in the arena of contemporary gun issues and political discourse, he acted as a forthright advocate of individual rights and freedoms.
On a personal level, Larry Wilson struck this writer as a genuine renaissance man--one whose interests extended well beyond his recognized areas of expertise to embrace competitive auto racing, period architecture, fine art and photography, and the factual and mythic American West. Those privileged with his company came to know an engaging and witty conversationalist, a genuine connoisseur of fine things, a passionate sportsman, and an enthusiastic epicurean (who cherished his dessert). Larry liked nothing better than sharing his many enthusiasms and friends, and thereby one met a variety of artisans, collectors, historians, hunters, writers, publicists and entrepreneurs in his company. And in his company one might haunt the museum galleries and auction rooms of New York, or shoot pheasants in Connecticut; inspect the ornamentation of a fine antique Winchester or Colt in his Castle View office, or bang away in his back yard with anything from a flintlock pistol to a submachine gun to TR’s Big Stick. And always there were the delightful meals and stimulating conversation—from Hadlyme to San Francisco and so many places in between. Over nearly 40 years I enjoyed many such unalloyed pleasures in the good company of Larry Wilson. Yet, those are but the outward manifestations and fond memories of a generous mentor, a valued colleague, an abiding friend and a delightful raconteur. He was all of that and more.
Richard Rattenbury (left) and RLW partake of Larry's stress-reduction regimen in Hadlyme circa 2000.
Rest in peace, Larry; you will be missed.
Richard Rattenbury, Emeritus Curator of History
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum