"I would hate like all h--l to sell it to some clod who would think of it as just another gas pipe"
-Ned Kailing to Dr. William Wuester, August 1947
This is the story of an uncommon Winchester rifle, a rifle with just two owners since new. The first of these owners - a surgeon from New York named Dr. William Wuester - features prominently in the story below.
The rifle in question is serial number 56087, dating it to 1946 when it began life as a Super Grade .22 Hornet - Winchester catalog symbol G7051C. At the request of a client, a Winchester dealer in Milwaukee named Ned Kailing (owner of The Kailing Company) sent the rifle while still new in the box to Lysle Kilbourn in New York for rechambering into his new wildcat cartridge – the Kilbourn Hornet. The client had asked that the rifle be built to the highest standards and to be produced with the greatest possible accuracy. Kilbourn rechambered the rifle and returned it to Kailing for the balance of the work. Kailing bedded the action into the stock, test fired the rifle for accuracy, then re-bedded the action a second time before he was satisfied with the accuracy, which Kailing described as "exceptional" and "splendid". Kailing concluded the rifle was more accurate than the best of shooters, writing "It is our humble opinion that the gun will shoot better than the best holding". In the end, the accuracy of the rifle was no match for post-war economics: the original commissioning client fell on hard times and backed out of the rifle purchase, leaving Kailing holding an expensive and customized rifle with no buyer.
It is unknown how Kailing in Milwaukee made the availability of this rifle known, but Dr. Wuester of New York became aware of it and ultimately purchased it in September of 1947. All of the original correspondence between Kailing and Wuester has been preserved. It's an interesting story and one we hope our followers will enjoy.
First, the rifle as we received it, along with many of its original shooting and reloading supplies.
The story of this rifle is contained in the original correspondence between Kailing and Wuester, which has been miraculously retained with the rifle. As Kailing and Wuester worked through their questions and negotiations, the picture of a remarkable gunsmith and salesman comes to light, doing his thing to sell an expensive rifle to a well-heeled buyer.
It seems there is an original letter missing, which would be the inquiry Wuester sent to Kailing about the rifle. Perhaps the rifle had been listed for sale in a publication, which led to the original inquiry. Whatever the case, it appears the first thing Kailing sent to Wuester is a detailed breakdown of costs for the purchasing the rifle and associated accessories, as well as some history for the rifle and its modification. The letter is not dated, but presumably was sent in late summer of 1947. The notes added by hand belong to Dr Wuester for reasons which will make sense as you read on.
It seems we are likely missing an intervening note in reply to Kailing from Wuester, in which Wuester asks some clarifying questions about price, as well as questions about reloading for the wildcat Kilbourn chambering. Regardless, our dialogue picks up on August 22, 1947 when Kailing writes back to Wuester. The tone is different here. After answering Wuester's questions, the letter gets much warmer and Kailing shines through as a salesman of the highest order, going in for the kill on this sale. He praises the accuracy of the rifle, its weight, and almost anything else he can describe as truly perfect. His coup de grâce line is worthy of note:
"Like the Strad is to the fiddle business, this rifle is to the shooting fraternity. I would like to see someone own this gun who has a true appreciation; and I would hate like all h--l to sell it to some clod who would think of it has just another gas pipe"
Dr Wuester responds on August 27, 1947, and on hospital stationary. The letter is written via dictation to a secretary, which is likely how he retained a copy. His questions are around the price of the rifle and specifically about the retail price of catalog symbol G7051C and why Kailing is asking $156.00 for the original rifle when the retail price published by Winchester is $147.15. Based on a prior purchase of Wuester's, as well as knowledge of wholesale and retail pricing for the Winchester catalog, Wuester believes the price quoted is in error, stating "If you straighten this matter out, I will take the entire lot". Wuester also provides some interesting insight or at least a theory that Winchester distributers were cutting dealers out of the loop and selling directly to the end-user, capturing more margin for themselves - an explanation why dealers were having so much difficulty obtaining rifle inventory from Winchester.
Again, we seem to be missing a reply from Kailing, but the trajectory of the deal is sealed. In this final September 3 letter, Wuester and Kailing have settled on a price of $343.80 for the rifle and associated items and Wuester encloses a check for $347 (an extra $3.20 to cover shipping and insurance!). This sum is non-trivial, equal to $5,303.05 in 2023 dollars. Wuester finishes his letter with a concession his friends were already teasing him about his newest purchase…
"PS: I trust you won’t mind if I show that sales letter to my friends. One of them suggested I needed a good gun like this because now I won’t have to aim."
After the rifle purchase, Dr Wuester sent the rifle to well-known gunsmith Roy Vail who installed the Unertl target scope #802, and also tuned the trigger to Dr Wuester’s specs. The rifle remains in this Roy Vail configuration today.
Dr Wuester used the rifle intermittently from 1947 to 1957 for hunting small game. We do not have a record of how many rounds were put though the rifle, but we speculate it may have seen 400 rounds. We base this on both the excellent condition of the bore, as well as the fact there are 1200 S.P. Sisk 45 grain bullets remaining out of the original 1600 delivered with the rifle.
In 1963, Wuester gifted the K-Hornet to his then 26-year-old son-in-law, Mike Whitney of Pownal Maine. Mike put a few more rounds through the rifle, using it for the occasional woodchuck hunt, but mostly preserved it as the rifle's dutiful caretaker over the past 60 years. The world is better for people like Mike. In a world where so many 26-year olds would have jumped at the first opportunity to swap an expensive antique rifle for some fast cash, Mike managed to keep every part of this rifle package together, including what to most would have seemed like useless old paperwork. From Mike's diligence, we have the remarkable provenance of this rifle fully preserved. Because of this, when we took possession of the rifle, we received with it everything which Kailing originally delivered to Wuester, including the ammo, custom boxes, all the reloading equipment and what remains among the reloading supplies which came with the rifle.
In the end, perhaps Kailing's first words to Wuester say it all: "This rifle was built up by a gun crank for a gun crank". While we are always disappointed to see a scarce rifle rechambered or otherwise modified, this one has a story which helps give some meaning and make some sense to what usually seems like the senseless molesting of a rare rifle.
One closing thought: the documentation gives us a glimpse into post-war prices in the gun world. Kilbourne charged $10 to rechamber the rifle and the reloading dies, as well as restamp the barrel. In 2023 dollars, that's $152.83. By comparison, Ned Kailing charged $12 for 6 wooden ammo boxes with custom "K-Hornet" name plates - equivalent to $183.39. As cool as the boxes are, I can't help but wonder at the apparent injustice of Kilbourn's relatively low reward for the superb and skilled work he put into this rifle.