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How America’s hunting culture shaped masculinity, environmentalism, and the NRA

A historian explains the legacy of hunting in American culture.

American hunting
An American hunting family in camouflage and orange beanies aim their hunting rifles on forest ridge.
Getty Images/Hero Images

From Davy Crockett to Teddy Roosevelt to today’s camouflaged men silently traipsing through forests, hunters remain absolutely central to the stories America tells about itself. In his book The Fair Chase: The Epic Story of Hunting in America, historian Philip Dray traces the origin of hunting culture from frontiersmen to Revolutionary War fighters all the way to the creation of the National Rifle Association and the modern conservation movement.

Though the sport has diminished in the culture and participation continues to dwindle, hunting still causes great controversy in America — intersecting with issues including gun control, animal rights, and environmentalism. “Hunting is a very divisive subject,” said Dray. “I came to appreciate the people who do it. … [They] are very sincere, very earnest in their love of nature and their love of the experience of being out in nature. What a dedicated thing to do.”

I spoke to Dray about hunting’s legacy in America, how the NRA shaped hunting culture, and the historical socioeconomic differences within the hunting community.

Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

Em Steck

My father is a licensed hunter, so I’m familiar with hunting culture. But I was surprised to learn only about 5 percent of Americans are licensed hunters. Given that fairly low number, why does hunting still loom so large in American culture?

Philip Dray

It’s down now to about 11 million licensed hunters today from 40 million in about 1970 or so. It has a large heritage, I think that’s why — Native Americans hunted for centuries here. When whites came, they, of course, also hunted for subsistence.

But either as subsistence hunting or later as sport hunting, it’s always been a very powerful narrative in American life. Obviously, the presence of the frontier, the birth of kind of the outdoor tourism industry, a lot of these things were connected to hunting.

Later, during the Teddy Roosevelt era, the idea of hunting became linked to this idea of preparing America to become an imperial power — mankind shaping up for the military and preparing to be conquerors. This kind of thing was sort of his vision.

Em Steck

In your book, Roosevelt feels like the elephant in the room. What was hunting like before Teddy Roosevelt?

Philip Dray

In the 17th century in America, early 18th century, there was some concern about hunters because they tended to be people who lived apart from civilization. They lived in the woods, they showed up occasionally to sell pelts or meat or whatever. There was kind of a sense that they would maybe become obsolete or something as civilization moved ahead and so on.

That all changed during the Revolutionary War when suddenly the frontiersmen, the hunter, suddenly showed his value. Somebody like Daniel Boone was in a way like a founding father — a founding hunter, basically. He was a militia leader during the war, an immensely skilled hunter, and, of course, later a pathfinder into Kentucky. [There were also] people like Davy Crockett a few decades later. And, of course, you had Buffalo Bill Cody.

After that, that persona was welcomed much more into the American family.

Em Steck

And then after Roosevelt?

Philip Dray

In the early years of the republic, a lot of the hunting had been subsistence-related hunting in America, but suddenly you had a birth of a leisure class. People like Teddy Roosevelt came along then. They were very much of that elite. These were gentleman hunters.

They were the first to notice and become concerned that wildlife was being depleted, whether it was passenger pigeons, water birds in the Everglades, buffalo on the Great Plains, white-tailed deer in the Northeast. [They realized] you could not hunt in a sort of unlimited way. That there had to be game regulations and there had to be seasons for hunting.

This is where the term “fair chase” comes in — the idea that the animal should have a chance to evade the hunter. And that certain types of hunting should be out of bounds because they were unethical. That was an important turning point. Hunters like Roosevelt brought that kind of fair chase ethos to the hunt that nurtured the conservation movement.

Em Steck

Speaking of the conservation movement, you make the case that hunters can be passionate environmentalists. To some people, that might sound contradictory.

Philip Dray

Historically, but even to this day, hunters are very much involved with wildlife preservation and the preservation of habitat.

They tend to be people who very much love the immersion in the outdoors and have a special kind of connection to wildlife. Hunters are not just going for a walk in the woods — they’re tracking, they’re looking at the scat of an animal to see what it ate. They’re intimately involved in the outdoors in a way that a person maybe just strolling through would not [be].

Generally, almost every state has a hunter conservation organization that’s involved in activities like, say, building a tunnel under a highway so that deer don’t have to run across the road [and] go under it. Or simply preserving habitats so that animals will have a place to browse or graze.

I think hunters are finding a little more pushback nowadays from environmental, post-’70s environmental groups and wildlife protection groups because there are always disagreements on how best to protect wildlife and how to control predator populations.

Do we reintroduce the grizzly bear? Do we allow mountain lions to roam? Some people would argue yes — what a beautiful idea to have grizzly bears and mountain lions still with us. They don’t see them as a threat or a nuisance, even. But if you have to live among them, people often have a different point of view.

Em Steck

Let’s talk about the NRA. How did the NRA shape hunting culture and policy in America in its early days?

Philip Dray

The NRA started in 1871. It was originally started by two men who were concerned that the marksmanship displayed by both sides in the Civil War had been pretty terrible. They were concerned that Americans should know how to shoot accurately.

The first version of the NRA was more of a gun safety and marksmanship organization. The big change came in 1977 when a group of Second Amendment hardliners, so to speak, within the NRA more or less took over and purged the gun safety marksmanship folks. They’ve never really relinquished their hold on the organization, as we know very well.

The NRA we have with us today was born in the late ’70s. It was partly in reaction to both the perceived and the real threat of gun control that the NRA kind of dug in, and that’s where it turned toward this kind of absolutism about the Second Amendment.

I think the hunting community has begun distancing themselves a bit from the NRA today. Hunting is a single-shot sport — you get up early in the morning, you walk stealthily through the woods.

You’re not interested in owning a semiautomatic weapon that will spray, you know, 30 bullets and a magazine. Hunters may agree with gun rights in principle, but I think there is a difference. I think that’s grown up more over the past 10 or 15 years as gun politics have become more prevalent and gun atrocities become daily headlines.

Em Steck

Your discussion of class diversity in American hunting was fascinating, I thought.

Philip Dray

America’s hunting culture was considered far more democratic than hunting in Britain, where a lot of hunting tradition comes from.

When certain areas became deemed off-limits to certain local hunters, suddenly they became poachers. People became very indignant. There usually was a socioeconomic factor. These were people living close to the land, living in rural areas as opposed to the gentlemanly weekend hunter who just came out and wanted to find a pristine environment to hunt on. So that was a tension.

Take a place like Yellowstone National Park. The US Army had to enforce the hunting regulations there because local police couldn’t do it; the poaching interests were so strong.

When you have large-scale immigration in this country, at the end of the 19th century, early 20th century, the elite hunters reacted very negatively to immigrant hunters. Hunters like Teddy Roosevelt thought Italian immigrants didn’t take regulations seriously. Conservationists suggested measures like no Italian should be allowed a gun until he’s lived here for 10 years and understands our laws, that kind of thing.

Elites eventually moved away from hunting. By the mid-20th century or so, hunting was no longer seen as an elite recreation.

Em Steck

What was the biggest misconception you had about American hunting culture before you wrote the book?

Philip Dray

Hunting is a very divisive subject. But I remembered growing up in Minnesota that it was a very popular sport and it was very widely accepted. But here in Brooklyn, people say hunting is so shocking.

I came to appreciate the people who do it, however much one may disagree with the sport itself. It’s an arduous pursuit, and, yes, it’s recreational. But it’s not like picking up a ping-pong paddle. You have to get up at the crack of dawn, put on a camouflage suit, go out in the cold, sit somewhere, and wait for animals to come. Meanwhile, you are trying to track a prey that’s elusive.

I understood that the people who hunt are very sincere and very earnest in their love of nature and their love of the experience of being out in nature. What a dedicated thing to do.