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Roy Weatherby and the Illustrious Mark V – #016 of the Gun Room Podcast

Roy Weatherby and the Illustrious Mark V – #016 of the Gun Room Podcast

Two Weatheryby rifle rounds lie next to each other on a table.

Weatherby’s iconic rifle is an example of top-tier craftsmanship and American ingenuity

Necessity is the mother of invention. 

For Roy Weatherby, wounding an animal on a hunt sparked a flame of innovation that would revolutionize the world of fast-moving rifle rounds. His story is one of wildcat cartridge development that pushed the envelope of what was thought possible at the time. His rifles had a ‘California in the 50s’ flare with a high gloss finish and distinct stock lines. His quest to build the strongest rifle action ever produced would give rise to one of America’s iconic rifles:  the Weatherby Mark V.

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The Weatherby story is actually a fitting follow-up to our focus on Sporterized rifles, but we will get to that later. 

The creation of Weatherby, Inc. 

The story begins with the opening of a sporting goods store in South Gate, California. Roy’s resignation from his regular job was a result of his love for shooting and desire to own and operate a high-end sporting goods store. He took the plunge in September of 1945, opening Weatherby Sporting Goods.

The original store housed sporting goods but had a section devoted to his love of firearms manufacturing. In the early days, Weatherby’s became known in Los Angeles for having a gunsmith on staff. This early claim to fame and Roy’s involvement in the industry helped the Weatherby name grow. You see, Roy had been experimenting with firearms and dove headfirst into the fray in the early days, writing articles about his feelings on high-velocity cartridges. During a hunting trip, Roy had wounded a deer and the experience forever changed the course of his life. He began developing cartridges that would move bullets faster, believing that faster moving bullets would increase the shock and killing power of the round. 

Roy spent considerable resources building the firearm side of his business, including advertising on a National Scale, and it slowly began to grow. Early on, barrel and stock manufacturing were part of the Weatherby business, upgrading rifles to shoot the wildcat rounds he was developing. The early years were not easy, but Roy’s tenacity and business acumen kept the company moving forward. Not to mention that their proximity to Hollywood would lend itself to Roy making friends with a who’s-who list of celebrities, dignitaries, generals, and politicians.

Throughout the early years, Weatherby was making custom rifles, (sporterizing if you will) and like other gunmakers in the United States, he was utilizing the actions that were available to him. During the first 10 years or so of Weatherby rifle production, guns were built on Winchester Model 70, Remington 700, and Springfield actions. Weatherby was buying barrels from Ackley and Buhmiller and assembling his guns in his store. When supplies of those actions dwindled, Weatherby turned to Fabrique Nationale (FN) of Belgium to produce suitable rifle actions, which were imported to be finished by Weatherby employees. 

Costs were tremendous because the process could not be streamlined, and Weatherby was a businessman. He began early on to look for a production facility that could produce a complete rifle at a reduced cost. During a 1954 trip to Europe, Weatherby searched at length for a manufacturer that could make his vision possible. He visited Husqvarna in Sweden, BSA in Birmingham, Schultz and Larsen in Denmark, and Sako in Finland. It was during this trip that he commissioned Sako to build a number of his FN-Weatherby rifles. In addition, Schultz and Larsen was commissioned to build a number of .378 Weatherby rifles, for which Roy had already taken orders.

His next trip in 1956 was met with disappointment, delays, and added costs that only served to push his pet project at home. Weatherby had been working on his own rifle action during this time. He was convinced that he needed an action that would be the absolute strongest possible. Weatherby and other wildcatters were hand-loading and creating their own rounds, playing with pressures above what the standard rifles calibers of the day produced. Roy believed he needed a rifle that would far exceed the 70,000 CUP (copper units of pressure) that was accepted for other actions. It was during these years that he produced several iterations of his own rifle action. Roy reached out to a number of key people during this time, finally obtaining the help of an engineer, Fred Jennie, and subsequently produced the fifth and final iteration of his rifle. With a bit of naming help from his friend Elgin Gates, the gun was named the Mark V. 

The early life of the Mark V and the first successful partnership 

Early tests of the Mark V action proved Roy’s theories. Though America doesn’t have any standard proofing process, Weatherby conducted pressure tests in excess of 100,000 psi. Additionally, Weatherby lodged bullets in the bore of the rifle and shot rounds down the barrels behind these stuck rounds – essentially the most dangerous scenario of backing up a round with another round. The Weatherby rifles passed all tests with flying colors.

The first Mark V actions were produced in California, at Precision Founders, Inc., through a process of lost wax casting or investment casting. An order of 10,000 actions was placed in 1957, though production costs would quickly require Roy to again search for a new manufacturer abroad. The casting process, though of high quality and strength, could not produce an action free of small voids that showed clearly in the high gloss, high luster finishes that Weatherby had come to be known for. The rejection rate of 50 percent or more was not sustainable. 

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Later in that year, Roy again traveled abroad, this time to J.P. Sauer in Germany, bringing with him his new Mark V rifle. This meeting and a subsequent two months of negotiations would solidify an agreement between the two firms. Though it took almost two years, by 1959 J.P. Sauer would have manufacturing up and running, regularly shipping out Weatherby rifles. This was the partnership that Roy had been searching for all along, and with manufacturing solidified, he could focus on the business at home.

Production of the Mark V remained in Germany for 13 years until rising costs necessitated another move, this time to Howa in Japan. 

Rifles were made there until 1994 when production was brought back to the states. Despite shifts in manufacturing, the Weatherby MK V action remained essentially the same throughout production, a testament to its design. 

Features of the Mark V

The MK V rifle is distinct. Its lines are rather different from many other sporting rifles, starting with the forward sloping Monte Carlo on the stock and the large accentuated cheekpiece. The forends are capped, depending on the model, with darker color wood, set off by a white line spacer, as are the grip cap and recoil pad. This gives the gun a distinct two-tone feel reminiscent of those old two-tone cars of the 1950s and 60s. The stock finish matches the action as both are high gloss.

When you pick one up and operate the bolt, the next most obvious thing you notice is the bolt throw. Unlike most other rifles with a two-lug locking system, the MK V has an interrupted thread locking mechanism. There are three “primary lugs” as I would call them, which reduces the rotary motion required to free the lugs from their respective locking threads. With two lugs, a minimum of 90 degrees is required to turn free like on a Winchester Model 12 shotgun or other interrupted thread take-down guns. On the MK V bolt, with three primary lugs, only one has to travel 60 degrees to clear. In actuality, the MK V only requires 54 degrees, because of the way the three primary lugs are cut into three pieces each, resulting in nine different locking contact surfaces. 

As the bolt is rotated it closes its cams forward, locking the bolt face into battery. Once locked the round is captured by the bolt face, surrounded by the breech end of the barrel, which is in turn encased by the action. This three-ring configuration was touted by Weatherby and resulted in an incredibly strong rifle action.

Aside from quick cycling times, the short bolt throw lends itself to additional scope clearance. Because the bolt does not need to rotate so far, scopes can be mounted low and close to the bore of a Mark V – an added benefit to shooters.

The Mark V is a push feed rifle, much like the Remington 700. The bolt face is recessed and captures the entire case head, and contains the ejector and extractor. The fluted bolt body and locking lugs are the same diameters, lending themselves to smoother feeding, and the flutes allowing for less contact – i.e. less friction during a bolt cycle. In addition, there are three noticeable gas exit ports located on the bolt body, which in the case of a malfunction would allow gasses to escape from the side of the bolt and away from the shooter’s face. The safety is a simple rocker mechanism located at the rear of the bolt on a rounded and tapered shroud that mirrors the lines of the stock. 

Of note, J.P. Sauer was producing hammer-forged barrels, a relatively new process at the time, and Weatherby MK V rifles were the first on the American market to utilize these very accurate barrels.

As I mentioned, the nine-lug Mark V has changed very little over the years. There are several iterations of the rifle:  the German/Sauer, Japan/Howa, and finally the U.S.-made. As for models, the guns were offered in a few flavors depending on the intended use. Most had no sights, except for a few of the dangerous game calibers. All models have the characteristic Monte Carlo stock, wood or synthetic. A six-lug version of the Mark V was introduced in the 1960s and is now offered in non-magnum calibers. The magnum calibers remain in the original nine-lug design. 

Today there are 18 different Mark V options on the Weatherby site, and custom shop options to boot, meaning that you can have a hand in the design of your rifle if you choose.

Roy Weatherby was a hands-on guy, spending his life devoted to his business and to the development of his fast and flat rifle cartridges. Through tough times and prosperity, the Weatherby name has endured and Roy’s Mark V remains a benchmark against which other rifles can be compared.

If you want to know more about the Weatherby Story – pick up a copy of Weatherby: The Man, the Gun, the Legend. The Weatherby story is a good one, and worth a read.

Did you miss the last episode? Check it out here.

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