May 17, 2023
The publishing empire he founded—and ran for 50 years—is no longer Petersen Publishing Company. Some of his magazines still bear his name. Petersen’s HUNTING is one of them. He was Robert E. Petersen (1926-2007). Some called him Bob. Tom Siatos, longtime head of the Outdoor Group, called him Chief. I think he preferred, and often suggested “Pete,” but to me he was “Mr. Petersen.”
Pete was a kid from California’s high desert, son of a truck mechanic, growing up fascinated by cars and guns, hunting quail and jackrabbits. He served in the Army Air Corps at the end of WWII, and in 1948 created Hot Rod magazine, in the early years selling copies personally at races and car shows. Over the years, most of Pete’s publications grew from his hobbies and interests. Guns & Ammo came along in 1958, and in 1973, 50 years ago, he created Petersen’s HUNTING.
In that year, Jack O’Connor had been shooting editor of Outdoor Life for three decades and was considered America’s Dean of Gunwriters. An avid hunter, Pete had wanted a hunting magazine for some time, and he believed magazines need the best writers. Rumor on the street suggested O’Connor, then 70, might be tired of the new leadership at Outdoor Life. Pete headed up to Lewiston, Idaho and they struck a deal. O’Connor’s last magazine work was done for HUNTING, a feature in every issue from October 1973 until Jack’s passing in early 1978. There were (and are) numerous good writers contributing to every issue but, without question, O’Connor’s presence contributed hugely to the early success of Petersen’s HUNTING.
To say that Pete was successful is, well, a gross understatement. A self-made man, he created, and lived, the American dream, but not without cost. In 1963, he married Margie McNally and they had two sons. Both died in a tragic private plane crash in 1975. Pete immersed himself in his business, but neither he nor Margie were ever quite the same. Margie Petersen, a wonderful lady, passed away in 2011, truly the end of an era, and an empire.
Now, Pete Petersen didn’t create this magazine all by himself. Hardly. George Martin (later with NRA publications) came over from Guns & Ammo as the first Publisher of HUNTING. Ken Elliott, a shooting buddy of Pete’s, and an avid hunter—but with no magazine experience—was our first editor. Those were still the days of the “general outdoor magazine,” covering fishing, hunting, shooting and more in one title. Petersen’s HUNTING was the first American newsstand magazine that was all hunting, all types of hunting and nothing else.
I wasn’t around when the first issues were developed, but I’m sure Pete drove the show in his way. Pete Petersen was a leader, the kind his troops wanted to please. It was his company, absolutely, but he was a master at picking his team, and then delegating. My greatest life lesson from Pete: He was a great general. He established intent, suggested framework, issued orders. He never micro-managed, but he expected results. Since it was Pete, he almost always got them.
Although I’ve been part of Petersen’s HUNTING for 40 years, I was an actual employee for just 15 (1979—2004). During those years I worked at Petersen Publishing, Pete himself was almost invisible at my level. As editor, I reported to publisher Ken Elliott, not always an easy guy to work for, but we became, and remained friends until Ken’s passing. Through Ken, I (and my job and paycheck) answered to Fred Waingrow, longtime president. Waingrow was neither a shooter nor a car guy, so he was pure business. I never feared Pete, but I was terrified of Mr. Waingrow. Which, I suppose, was the way Pete wanted it. Smart.
Don’t get the idea that Pete didn’t pay attention. In my time as an employee and editor, Petersen Publishing had a lot of magazines. Pete read them all, cover to cover, as soon as they came out. According to legend, if there was a mistake, the Chairman was likely to be the first to catch it, and the phone would ring. I never got a call like that—and worked my tail off to make sure I didn’t—but now and again he’d call down. “Craig, this is Pete. I liked Wootters’ story this month, I want to go on that hunt.” Or, “What do you know about that new cartridge?” Pete studied his magazines and knew his stuff.
Pete was a shrewd and tough businessman. There were company legends, but I never saw him visibly angry, nor anything other than a consummate gentleman to all of us who worked for him, from bottom to top. When gunwriter Bob Milek (under contract, but not an employee) was diagnosed with cancer, Pete sent his plane and got him to the best specialists known. Sadly, to no avail, but not for lack of effort and expense.
I owe Pete a personal debt, too. I was involved with the Marine Corps Reserves the whole time I was an employee, five years as a company commander, three years as a battalion commander. It required lots of time, but no deadlines were missed. There were various business events I just couldn’t do, but Pete never balked. Then the unimaginable happened: I got activated for the first Gulf War. I was the only employee tagged, and there was no company policy. Pete created one: My job would be waiting for me, and they’d make up the pay difference while I was gone.
Pete threw a luncheon to see me off, took me aside, and told me something I didn’t know. Turns out he was still in the Air Force Reserve in 1950. “Hot Rod was just taking off when I got orders for Korea. I reported in, scared to death, and for whatever reason the orders were cancelled.” He motioned back to the crowded room: “If I’d gone off to Korea, none of this would have happened. See you when you get back. Keep safe.”
Pete was a helluva shot with rifle, shotgun and handgun. Pete loved his bird hunting, but hunted the world with rifles and, following Elmer Keith’s lead, took some awesome animals with early M29s in .44 Magnum. Pete’s life-size polar bear held sway just outside his office on the top floor.
Seems to me that Pete always had fun, was always in good humor. This legend was repeated so often, I have to believe it. At a car event at the old Petersen Ranch north of L.A., there were a couple of Texans, potential ad clients, that Pete just couldn’t impress. To get his message across, he patterned a shotgun on the door of his Bentley.
His longtime ranch manager, Gary Williams, worshipped Pete, as did we all. At the ranch on range days, it was generally okay to shoot a few ground squirrels, the occasional quail. Maybe I went beyond “occasional” now and again. Waterfowl were royal game, and there were only enough deer for Pete and Margie to take bucks. One year there was an exceptional buck, seen several times, but incredibly elusive. During another car event, Gary Williams was out on the ranch and glassed the buck bedded up a little canyon. He snuck away, broke into the meeting, and announced gravely, “Mr. Petersen, your deer is ready.”
As Chairman (and owner), Pete was multiple levels above me, with limited contact and no free access. In any properly managed hierarchy, that’s the way it should be, and the way it was, so I won’t imply a close friendship. Ken and Tom (both gone) certainly had that, but at the editorial level I did not, and should not. I shot with Pete at the ranch, and we chased quail and shot ducks over the ponds. Pete loved to shoot ground squirrels, sometimes scurrying through chaparral with a fine English double in .22 Hornet. He also loved prairie dogs, so we shot together at the annual shoot at Medicine Bow in Wyoming.
Otherwise, I didn’t do much hunting with him, but there was another corporate legend I was always conscious of. Oft cited by both Tom Siatos and Ken Elliott: “Craig, if you ever have a chance to hunt with Pete, for God’s sake, don’t ever shoot an animal larger than his. Do so, and your career is over.” It sounded a little weird, but I heard it enough that I took it as Gospel.
When the company sold for the first time, in the late 90s, I hadn’t been an employee for several years, but rather writing under contract for the titles. It was big surprise when Pete bundled me, Ken Elliott, Gary Williams and his friend, famed wildlife artist Douglas van Howd, into his Gulfstream and took us all to Zambia, where we celebrated Pete’s 70th birthday on safari. It was quite a trip: Refueling in Puerto Rico and Recife in Brazil, across to Senegal, onward to Lusaka. Then we took a light plane up to Bangweulu and arrived just in time to throw our stuff in our tents, check zero on the way out for a quick hunt.
Pete had put a bunch of licenses on the table, and we’d divvied them up. Pete and I had the two sitatunga licenses, so we headed to the papyrus swamps. Later in life, Pete had chronic knee problems. One knee was swollen like a grapefruit, so he opted for the closest machan, while I hiked to another some distance out in the swamp. Once in place, I could see Petersen in his stand, maybe a quarter mile away. I’d been there an hour when a monstrous sitatunga stepped out. The bull started to run, and I thought it would stop. Almost too late, I realized I’d best be shooting. I missed once. Okay, twice, then flattened it before it reached the next papyrus. It was a big sitatunga, my best. I won’t beat it. Then, a hot flash: Nor will anyone else, on this safari.
Oh, Lord, what have I done? Light going, mosquitoes swarming, the Chairman waiting, only to see an animal that he can’t possibly beat. Career flashing in front of my eyes, sitatunga on a pole, we made it back to the vehicle at dusk. And there was Pete, waiting in the growing dark, swatting mossies, camera in hand with a huge smile, wanting to see this animal. And there was the Chairman, the man who created the first pure-hunting magazine, down on his belly (and bad knee), in cold mud, wielding his camera like the self-trained journalist we’d all long forgotten he was: “That’s good, but turn it this way a bit. Yeah, better, now get the nose down.” It was a great animal, and all the photos I have of it were taken by Robert E. Petersen.
That particular legend about besting Bob was pure B.S. Pete Petersen was a real hunter, generous and kind. He didn’t get a sitatunga on that safari, but my life at HUNTING didn’t come to an end. We went on to the Kafue area, celebrated his 70th there. Pete also didn’t get the lion he hoped for, but he shot a monstrous sable, and rolled a big buffalo with the famous .460 G&A rifle George Hoenig built for him. On the last day, while the rest of us were packing, he went out for one last time and shot a fine roan antelope.
Pete’s first safari, with Tom Siatos, was in Uganda in the Sixties, an Africa that will never be seen again. He also hunted in Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, hunting several times with Elmer Keith. In years to come, Pete and I reminisced about how perfect that hunt in Zambia had been, even without a lion and the sitatunga I stole from him. Maybe we could do it again? I wish we could have. Sadly, health and time had other ideas.
Pete did some great North American hunting and took big elk and amazing sheep, but Zambia was his last safari. As we get older, there are many places and people that we miss, but in our so-small industry, I miss the wise, understated leadership of Pete Petersen most of all. Here’s to you, Chief, the best General I ever worked for.