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Paul Curtis: Self-Proclaimed “Father of the Riflescope”

Paul Curtis, the self-proclaimed “Father of the Riflescope”, was a flamboyant character and had a well-deserved reputation for being a remarkable wingshooter and a fervent big-game hunter.

Paul Curtis: Self-Proclaimed "Father of the Riflescope"
Amateur stage actor, accomplished writer and outdoor journal editor, and consummate hunter, Paul Curtis (1889–1954) was an early advocate of riflescopes for big-game hunting.

Talk about macho. Paul Curtis embodied what most early 20th-century men wanted to be. He was an expert swordsman with foil and saber. He was an excellent shot with rifle and shotgun. He took extended hunting expeditions and was an avid hunter, as evidenced by 33 years of game records. He was commissioned as a captain in the United States Army in 1917 and served in World War I and again in World War II. He was an able cowboy, being able to stay aboard a bucking bronco as well as the average wrangler, and he lived for the outdoors.

While readers today probably have never heard of Curtis, during the first half of the 20th century, he enjoyed significant influence within the shooting industry. From 1919 until 1934 he served as the shooting editor of Field and Stream, authored several highly respected books on various shooting-related topics, and was an early champion of the modern riflescope.

Paul Alan Mackenzie Curtis was born in 1889 in New York. He was educated in engineering and business in New York City and Glasgow, Scotland. He considered the British Isles to be his mother country and spent much time in Scotland, where he hunted grouse at every opportunity.

He was eccentric to say the least, often parading around New York City in a Mackenzie kilt with Scottish adornments. He was an accomplished polo player. He often acted in plays and was a member of the Players Club of New York. According to one biographer, he was so good he could have had a professional career.

Captain Curtis was a “zealous” hunter throughout his life. And while he kept game records for at least 33 years, his records were not complete. He started his game register in 1905 at the age of 16, and it included entries running through 1938. His “hunting diary” accounted for 36 species of game, but grouse hunting in Scotland seemed to be his passion. His favorite shotgun was made by Grant, but he was known to shoot several brands, and he was proficient with them all. One shooting companion said that when he served as the shooter for organized dog trials, Curtis could shoot all day without a miss.

He also loved learning about hunting and gun-related topics, and he gleaned information from anyone associated with the subject, including well-known experts as well as game trackers. As I said earlier, he used his knowledge successfully as shooting editor for Field and Stream. Later, he worked for National Sportsman (1937–1939). He also wrote a number of books about hunting and shooting, with Guns and Gunning, The Highlander, and Sportsmen All receiving high praise.

In his writings during the first half of the 20th century, he did much to promote the use of scopes on big-game rifles. He proclaimed himself the “father of the telescopic sight in America” because of his early testimonials to the riflescope’s value. He did a lot of experimenting with riflescopes from about 1920 through 1925, once stating that his favorite rig was a Mannlicher-Schönauer with a Kahles 4X scope. He claimed that as a result of his writings, riflescope sales soared.

Renowned wingshooter, hunter, conservationist, and outdoor writer Nash Buckingham (1880–1971) wrote of Curtis, “No American writer of shotguns, rifles, pistols, and revolvers, and their ammunitions, powders, scientific angles, applications, and ballistic variants, has been better equipped than was Curtis to depict and analyze that field clearly and critically. He never merely glamorized some new-fangled weapon or cartridge in order to boost its advertising appeal.”

In 1939, while hunting in Scotland, Curtis joined the Seaford Highlanders and had the distinction of being the first American commissioned in World War II. He served primarily as a firearms instructor; however, he suffered severe lung damage. After the war, he continued to hunt as much as possible, often on protracted expeditions, but his injuries from the war eventually put a stop to his enjoyment of the outdoors. Depressed due to his failing health, he took his own life in 1943 at the age of 54.

The average hunter today surely doesn’t think of Paul Curtis when his or her scope’s crosshairs are centered on a big buck, but Captain Curtis’s legacy is certainly present. I wonder if riflescopes would be as prevalent as they are today without the efforts of this eccentric and interesting man.

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