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Trying it on for Size: The Tom Beckbe Tensaw Jacket

Trying it on for Size: The Tom Beckbe Tensaw Jacket

Tom Beckbe Tensaw jacket worn by an upland bird hunter with a Brittany

This classic, waxed cotton jacket evokes more than just upland fashion

The first time I laid eyes on the Tom Beckbe Tensaw Jacket, I was nervously awaiting my party’s field assignment for Ledbury’s Annual Quail Hunt at what would become my regular bird dog training ground, Orapax Hunting Preserve in Goochland, Virginia. But I didn’t know all that lay ahead of me then. Having recently brought home a Brittany pup with a casual, indeterminate interest in seeing him do the thing for which generations of careful breeding had primed him, I wanted to see if the realities of upland hunting in any way might match the fantasies I had while watching my little pup eagerly retrieve toys and flash point squirrels. I’d never so much as pulled a trigger to bring down a bird, so I’d talked a couple of friends and a Brittany mentor into joining me as I tried bird hunting on for size.

Ledbury’s annual affair was tailor-made, in fact, to match any fantasies I had of upland hunting: the day’s bird dogs cooling their paws on a line, a morning’s hunt on Orapax’s picture-perfect grounds, and finally a field party on a crisp autumn afternoon under canvas tents. The event was accompanied by a band, a whiskey and cocktail trailer, local craft beer and barbecue, and at least a few professional models mingling in the crowd sporting some of the custom clothier’s latest wares, including a shooting shirt crafted for the occasion. Tom Beckbe (named for the Tombigbee River in the company’s home state of Alabama) had been invited as a partner vendor; staffers arrived early to entice some among the hunting parties to try their Tensaw jackets and wear them through the morning hunt. Immediately attracted to the old school elegance of the sturdy waxed cotton, I took them up on the offer and slipped into the jacket. Already a little nervous about the hunt itself, I couldn’t quite imagine soiling such a nice jacket that I didn’t own with bird blood, so I demurred on putting it through its paces that morning. Instead, I made a mental note: if this upland hunting stuff took, I’d get this jacket. It just felt perfect, like so much else about that first day stalking quail and shooting over well-trained and supremely talented bird dogs.

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In many ways, that day set me on a course for what has become the obsession of my middle years. The Tensaw jacket lodged itself in my mind as a symbol of the old school appeal of all things upland, mingled with vague memories of my grandfathers’ hunting attire, and was a reminder of the joy of that first day at the quail hunt—trying things on for size, both figuratively and literally.

But as a new upland hunter and bird dog owner, there was so much else competing for investment. First and foremost was the king’s ransom a gainfully employed dude in his middle years might be tempted to sink into his hunting buddy. Then there were a decent pair of boots, briar pants, a good game bag, not to mention a scatter blaster and shot shells. The list of course goes on and on. I never quite made it around to the Tensaw jacket, which felt at the time more like a luxury and less like a necessity. It went on the short Christmas list I trade with my wife, Heather, of “wants,” even “wants badly,” but still the acquisition evaded me in favor of a whole bunch of other bird dog-related goods (Heather is mostly a sucker for anything on my list that directly benefits Lincoln, a weakness I’ve deftly learned to exploit). 

Imagine my glee, then, when a Tom Beckbe rep reached out about sending me a jacket in exchange for an honest review. An early Christmas finally came in late summer of last year as I unboxed the stately wonder that is the Tensaw jacket. I slipped it on and was instantly transported back to that first hunt. It felt like a full-circle moment.

First impressions of the Tensaw jacket

What is immediately apparent about this jacket is that it looks damn good at an after-hunt field party filled with well-heeled folks attired in what I think of as “American tweed”—not quite the across-the-pond pageantry of tweed and knickers at a driven shoot on some Lord’s sprawling English estate, but something more befitting an American ambivalence and tendency to display and signal “classy” while ostensibly eschewing “Class.” On that front, this waxed cotton beauty holds up every bit as well as anything from Barbour or any other London-based outfitter.

Some of its thoughtful features belie the fact that actual bird hunters had a hand in its design, from its hardy outer shell to its bi-swing back and gusseted underarms that allow for a more full range of motion when swinging a shotgun. There is thoughtfulness in the mid-chest hand warmer pockets and the hidden Napoleon pocket to tuck in a cellphone or perhaps a flask of whiskey for a post-hunt toast, accessible without having to unzip or unbutton the jacket and permit an intrusion of cold. Others, like its Bedford cord-lined standup collar and the pop of color of its cotton inner lining, meant to evoke the muted red of Alabama clay, add just the right amount of sophistication and fashion sense to such an otherwise functional garment. The combined result is a jacket that truly is as at home at a hunt afterparty or a football tailgate as it might be in the field. But what about the field over the course of a full season of wear?

Evaluating the Tensaw jacket after a year in the field

Answering that crucial question felt like one I could answer honestly this year, having received the Tensaw just before the start of the season. Lincoln and I spend a fair amount of time in tight covers at home in soggy Virginia lowlands for woodcock, and in the greenbriar-infested new growth forests high in the Virginia and West Virginia mountains for ruffed grouse. We also had a return trip to Kansas and Nebraska to stalk bobwhite quail and rooster pheasants. While I didn’t have any doubt that the jacket might increase my cool factor in the trip pics, I admit I was just a little dubious that this traditional garment would hold up to the range of temperatures along with varied amounts of sun, wind, and rain, not to mention the punishing covers I knew we’d encounter again this year.

Upland hunters are generally aware of the benefits of waxed cotton, as briar pants typically have reinforced panels of material to protect against thorny cover. Many are familiar with Filson’s tin cloth, that company’s take on what is an ancient textile technology designed to both waterproof and increase the durability of cotton fabric. The technique is believed to have been originally used on ship sails, first with fish oil and grease, then linseed oil, and finally contemporary paraffin wax.

Tom Beckbe’s application of this ancient nautical technology incorporates 8 oz. waxed shelter cloth for the Tensaw jacket’s outer layer, listed by the company as comfortable at 50°F or below. An identically priced Tensaw ES version has a 6 oz. shell for more moderate temperatures, and they list it as best between 30°F and 60°F. Over this past year, I’ve found that temperature demarcation to be generally on point. Paired with one of their waxed cotton caps, I found myself sweating profusely while hiking in the steep West Virginia mountains in temperatures in the 50s or above. Below that, it was entirely comfortable and I was able to easily adjust to the temperature fluctuations in a winter day’s hunt by layering in long underwear and a sweater, etc., and then shedding the inner layers as the day warmed up. Below 45°F or so, I found I could hike fairly comfortably with the jacket on. Temps above that required a trip back to the truck to shed the jacket to finish the hunt in shirt sleeves, and replace the hat with a breathable trucker.

But the jacket proved its worth in the harsh cold and wind of the Midwestern prairie. Paired with the inner layers and their waxed cotton cap, I was surprised at how much warmth the jacket allowed me to maintain, even through mornings in the upper teens and twenties. The wind did not penetrate the waxed cotton outer layer and the standup Bedford cord-lined collar and a fully engaged zipper kept my neck warm. Walking/hiking/hunting supplied enough interior warmth without a bothersome build up of sweat.

More surprising to me, the Tensaw held up equally well in the tight, thorny cover of the grouse woods and in the wet, soggy woodcock bottoms, even in the rain. The waxed cotton easily shed the water, though I have to assume it will require periodic reapplications to bead as well as it has this year. While I’m sure it will eventually require maintenance and repair, I’ve yet to get a pick in its outer shell despite pushing through stands of sapling and twisting under, over, and through plenty of cursed greenbriar this year. Perhaps my only complaint in the wear department is endemic to all waxed cotton garments: they tend to be magnets for a little discoloration when brushing up against paint over metal, etc., and they are difficult to clean without ruining the wax—no machine wash and no dry cleaning—and you even have to be careful with seat warmers in your car or truck as any applied warmth will cause the wax to melt. And forget about hanging it by the fire to dry after a long day in the wet and cold. But, such are the costs of sporting this traditional textile technology over some other form of modern technical fabric meant to address the same needs, spun out of so much plastic confection.

Final thoughts on the Tensaw

So, knowing what I now know after a full season of use, would I have sprung for this jacket with my own coin? Without a doubt, yes. If the conditions are right and not too warm, it will always be the first jacket for which I will reach. In fact, I don’t think it has any competition as my all-time favorite outer garment. It fits like a second skin, and even now in the warmth of late spring, I long for autumn days cold enough to slip my arms into its richly-lined sleeves and tuck my hands into its hand warmer pockets, evoking the clear memory of my very first bird hunt. But now, when I feel the protective weight of its waxed cotton hang on my frame, I can appreciate each scuff and mark of character mapped out across its shelter cloth shell as Lincoln and I have replaced my upland dreams born in that first hunt with the earned memories of so many miles hiked, so many vistas achieved, and so many gorgeous birds—some taken and bagged and many others released by errant shot to be stalked again another day. I hope to have this jacket for a lifetime as it, like our upland life together, ages into deeper shades in ways only such a living relic of a traditional art can.

View Comments (2)
  • Robb – is the Ledbury event at Orapax being held this year (fall 2021)? My Eng Str Patch and
    i would love to participate!

    • Hi Charles, great to know of you and Patch – Virginia birddog-dom is a rich niche, particularly for training, within the larger upland community. Glad also to know of your interest in an event like the Ledbury Quail Hunt. The last one Ledbury offered was in 2017 (6th annual I think that year – here’s a video montage of the 2015 event: https://vimeo.com/145907579), and has sadly been on hiatus since – I’m hopeful they’ll revive it if enough us who patronize them suggest that we hope they bring it back. It really was an ideal way to expose new folks to upland hunting. Even those not involved with the hunt itself and only attended the after party got to see the incredible bird dogs and the grounds and so much else that presents newcomers and/or the casually interested with upland in the light it deserves. Particularly since it served as an important doorway for me, I’ve always kept that whole event in mind as a highly effective R3 offering.

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