A Very Special Van Orden Model 70 and Family History

4
1620

I told you a week or so ago I contacted George Van Orden, the Grandson of General George Van Orden and owner, operator of Evaluators LTD. We had a long talk on the phone and I learned a lot of things. Mr. Van Orden is recently back from vacation and has said he will round up more photos and documents for me to share. Today though I have some pictures of a very special Van Orden Rifle he shared yesterday. This one was made up by General Van Orden for his son, who used it in the national matches and won a championship with it.

Above: George Mason Van Orden stands next to a match winning target in 1976 fired from the 1000-yard line.

This rifle is a Pre 64 model 70 Winchester with a stainless match barrel and chambered in .30-06 Springfield. The stock I am pretty sure was made by Dunlap.

Amazing. This rifle probably hasn’t been seen publicly since the last time George M. Van Orden shot it at a competition.

In 1941, then Capt. Van Orden and Chief Gunner Calvin Lloyd were members of the USMC Equipment Board. In their 1942 paper “Equipment for the American Sniper” different rifle scopes and sniper related equipment are discussed in detail.

Van Orden and Lloyd recommended the Winchester Model 70 with a Lyman optic to the President of the Equipment Board. Due in part to wartime production delays, the Corps decided to use the M1903A1 Springfield with Unertl8X scope. Concurrently the US Army was also a proponent of the Model 70 with bull barrel ( heavy barrel), but had their own problems with procurement.

After WW2 Van Orden and his wife Flora opened Evaluators Gunshop. Located in Triangle, Virginia outside the Quantico Marine Base, the Evaluators store sold only equipment that met their strict requirements. They evaluated all gear available and sold it at very low prices to police and military. Their retail prices for everyone were also fair and reasonable. Evaluators was a well respected company. No order was over looked no order too small, They would ship anywhere in the world.

Sometime after the Korean War, the company began selling the “Van Orden Sniper.” Van Orden special ordered model 70 rifles from Winchester in configurations that pleased him and his customers. Dubbed the Van Orden Sniper, the rifle was NEVER purchased by the Marine Corps but shows up everywhere else.

Colonel Walter Walsh, one of the Corps famous shooters, won the national rifle matches in 1952 at Camp Perry with a Van Orden Sniper. The scope was removed and iron sights added.

this is most likely the rifle he used. a real Van Orden, post WW2, Model 70. A smooth non-checkered sporter stock on heavy barrel is the configuration favored by Van Orden for the “van Orden Sniper”. USMC rebuild guns used in Vietnam will have checkered sporter stocks or the heavy ,bulky marksman stock. Unertl pictured on gun is indeed a real USMC contract Unertl Sniper 8x

In the years following the Korean War, high power rifle competition was increasing in popularity. Van Orden was still convinced that the Marine Corps should switch over to the Model 70 sniper rifles and give up the smattering of different rifles used by the USMC snipers. He was partially successful.

The Springfield rifle was becoming obsolete and match parts were running out. The decision was to rebuild all M70 Winchesters in the Marine Corps supply system. The rebuild occurred in the late 50s and early 60s. Some sources claim that some rifles were returned to Winchester while other authorities who were stationed at Albany, GA recall working on rifles during that rebuild. They maintain that the Match Rebuild Shop at Albany, GA did a lot of the work. The rifles were converted to heavy barrel target rifles. The few that were not converted were presented as trophies to Marines who shot the highest score for annual requalification. These rebuilt guns are the ones sent to South Vietnam for sniper operations. Guns that the USMC already had purchased for various uses like for the rifle teams in the national matches and special services to be checked out for hunting etc.

Van Orden died in 1967. The Winchester Repeating Arms Company ceased production of the pre 64 model 70 in 1964. With vintage parts hard to come by, the M70’s chances of being adopted as sniper standard was doomed. Col. Walsh, who won the National Matches in 1952 with a Model 70, recommended to HQMC in 1965 that the Marines Corps purchase the M700 Remington/M40. Mrs. Van Orden closed Evaluators in 1986.

Van Orden “Sniper” Rifles specifications

M70, Clip slotted receiver

24 inch medium heavy Winchester barrel 30.06

Uncheckered sporter stock- a special order from Winchester

Steel buttplate

1 1/4″ Sling swivels

Redfield International match sights and scope blocks

8x Unertl Sniper scope on request otherwise a Lyman Super Target was recommended

Glass bedded action

You can also read more about the Van Orden “Sniper” at this link .

Mister Van Orden also directed me to this article done about his family several years ago. I have excerpted some of it, but you can read the rest at the link at bottom.

Van Orden retired as a Brigadier General in 1949. Establishing a gun shop near Quantico, his reputation in the firearms industry continued to grow. His innovation in sniping and marksmanship would be referenced in future generations, both by Marines and by his family.

Given his heritage, it isn’t surprising that George Mason Van Orden also followed in his fathers’ footsteps. “I remember having a CO rather than a father,” he wrote. It was expected and understood he would be a Marine.

One family trait he inherited, even more so than his father, was shooting. At age 15, George Mason won the Junior National Rifle Championship. Sports Illustrated named him an Olympic hopeful. “Part of his blood contained gun powder,” said a fellow shooter, Col. David Willis, who was “double distinguished” in rifle and pistol shooting and at one time served as CO of Weapons Training Battalion at Quantico. After retiring from the Marine Corps, George Owen opened his gun store, Evaluators Limited, near Quantico. Here he continued testing and designing firearms, in addition to selling them to military and law enforcement.

After graduating from Virginia Military Institute, The Basic School, and Engineer Officer Course, Second Lieutenant Van Orden received a peculiar set of orders. His fellow engineer graduates headed to their new units, but he was staying in Quantico. A General there cancelled his original orders, instead detailing him to the range detachment. He wanted the newly commissioned but already reputable shooter to help his rifle team win the 1962 eastern division matches. Van Orden stayed, and the General got his trophy. This experience became a recurring theme throughout his career. He attempted to “retire” from competition shooting several times, but found difficulty being allowed the opportunity to focus on his specialty. Even so, Van Orden dedicated several years to engineering, including two combat tours in Vietnam where he earned a combat action ribbon and Navy Commendation Medal with valor.

Van Orden greatly enhanced the USMC’s reputation of premier marksmanship. He returned to Camp Perry, Ohio for the prestigious national shooting matches several times after winning the junior title as a teenager. In 1967, Marines won first place in the National Team Trophy event. Van Orden fired as team Officer in Charge. His final visit as a competitor occurred in 1979. Winning four trophies in four days, he was dubbed the National Service Rifle Champion. He later wrote that this accomplishment, “was without question the highlight of my shooting career.”

For all his skills, the Marine Corps utilized Van Orden’s knowledge to help change and enhance the marksmanship program. Twice he was assigned to the Marksmanship Training Unit (MTU) in Quantico. Here formed the center of rifleman philosophy and practice. Members were handpicked, regardless of rank or occupation, for their shooting abilities and weapons expertise. At a pivotal time in Marine rifleman training, men like Van Orden were needed.

By the late 1960’s, the USMC began developing its own marksmanship publications. Until that time, it had relied on US Army doctrine. As the Army moved more and more toward training that suited mass volumes of trainees, Marines opted instead to develop quality, precision training, consistent with the reputation that had become the hallmark of Marine riflemen. MTU was put to the task. In 1967, Van Orden authored Fleet Marine Force Manual (FMFM) 1-3 Basic Rifle Marksmanship. He received commendation for “producing the well-written initial manuscript draft,” which “represents the first formal Marine Corps doctrinal publication on the subject.” This manual, along with Van Orden’s second publication, FMFM 1-3A Field Firing Techniques, formed a foundation from which the program could build. George Kelley, standing in front center, pictured with his Engineer Reconnaissance Team, having rifle and Kabar in hand.

In addition to general marksmanship training, Van Orden significantly impacted the Marine Corps sniper community. Just as his father was instrumental in the beginnings of a formal sniper program, he was instrumental in its development and shaping after Vietnam. With MTU from 1977 to 1979, he incorporated his father’s guidance and lessons learned on the modern battlefield into sniper courseware and manuals. Called an “original thinker of the sniper business,” Van Orden offered valuable opinions on sniper operating procedures and integration into infantry units. During this time, he co-authored a revision of FMFM 1-3B Sniping, the primary manual and guidebook for Marine snipers.

Van Orden remained active in the shooting community giving speeches and presentations after retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1983. Tragically, his influence and life were abruptly ended in 2013. Following dinner out with family, Van Orden’s car was struck by a driver fleeing police. He passed away the following day at age 73. Though devastated by the loss, his family and the marksmanship community continue to celebrate his life and recount his accomplishments.

Unlike the previous three generations, George Kelley Van Orden did not grow up dreaming of becoming a Marine. Ten-year-old George moved with his mother to Virginia after his parents divorced. Not until age 20, as a laid off concrete truck driver, did George decide to enlist. In 1982, he was sworn in by his father and began boot camp.

Private First Class Van Orden entered the “high speed” world with 9th Engineer Battalion’s newly formed Engineer Reconnaissance Team. Here he received advanced training in demolition, jungle warfare, and route recon.

He transferred stateside one year later to Mountain Warfare School. Initially assigned to the maintenance section, Van Orden volunteered for an instructor billet. The staff turned him down, given that he was only a Lance Corporal, but eventually conceded. He instructed company size units on topics such as demolition, rock climbing, navigation, digging snow caves, and making survival kits. Holding a position typically occupied by a Sergeant or higher, Mountain Warfare staff dubbed him “LCpl of the Marine Corps.” George Kelley shakes his father’s hand at Drill Instructor School graduation, where he finished as honor graduate.

Following another fleet tour and over two years on the drill field, Van Orden again volunteered, this time for a position typically filled through the “voluntold.” The Minefield Maintenance section of Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba was a little known and little loved duty. Conditions were arduous, the work tedious, all of it dangerous.

Assigned the task of, “locating, disarming, removing, replacing, and rearming” live mines in one of the largest minefields in the world, these Marines required acute presence of mind and extreme attention to detail. Even in a peacetime environment, Marines working the minefields still rated a combat fitness report. “I always described it as the only job I ever had where you could do everything right and still get killed,” said Van Orden. A stray animal or even roots of the dense vegetation growing around the mines could cause just enough pressure to set one off.

Mistakes counted for many of the deaths and close calls. A Marine died the year Van Orden arrived. The mine detonated when a pocket knife fell from the Sergeant’s flak jacket. For all the incidents involving a mine that should have blown but didn’t, the surviving Marines were inducted into the “ghost club.”

Hunting was an essential part of the job. Deer constantly worked their way into the minefields, causing accidental detonations and posing a serious threat. Once, after receiving word of a detonation at night, Van Orden’s team responded. Spotlighting the area yielded no information, so the following morning they went in. Van Orden and another Marine carefully made their way through waist high grass into the section where the detonation occurred. Suddenly, right beside them something moved. A startled deer, with hind legs paralyzed from the previous night’s blast, crawled away through a mine cluster three paces from their safe zone. Knowing they were dead, purely out of instinct, the men dropped, backs to the blast, arms shielding their heads. They waited with resignation. One antipersonnel mine was plenty to do the trick. This deer was crawling through four of them, surrounding an antitank mine. They waited, but nothing happened. When the deer stopped before entering the next distant group of mines, the Marines rose and moved back to safety faster than they had ever previously dared in a live minefield.

The Marines tried to understand why the mines had not detonated. Checking records from a few months earlier, the last time the mines were replaced, they made an astonishing discovery. Sitting in a depression on the landscape, pooling water had rusted the antipersonnel mines rendering them useless. It was determined for that cluster, and only that one, the antitank mine should be replaced, but the antipersonnel mines be removed and not replaced. It was a lifesaving decision, and an unbelievable break for Van Orden. He had become a member of the ghost club.

Van Orden completed his minefield tour in 1991, entering again into the special operations community. As an instructor at Amphibious Recon School in Coronado, CA, Van Orden taught demolition, survival, and land navigation to new Recon Marines. He rewrote all his own course curriculum. He was, “unparalleled as a demolitions instructor” wrote one reporting senior. “Could teach a blind man to see.” Wearing flak and diaper, the only protection Minefield Maintenance Marines had, George Kelley stands holding a deer skull found in the minefields at GTMO.

Van Orden’s enlisted career highlighted the best of what the Marine Corps has to offer. He lived the things that recruits in boot camp dream they will do. He earned meritorious promotion to multiple ranks and maxed physical fitness tests. He jumped from helicopters and airplanes, scuba dived with dolphins and Navy Seals. He was trained to shoot, survive, and blow things up. He endured incredible stress, even facing death, and proved his mental and physical toughness. He was a Marine’s Marine. Everything about his career was enviable and influential, but it was not over.

In 1996, Van Orden was promoted to Warrant Officer, assuming much of the same responsibilities as his grandfather as a Range Officer. Called a “Marine Corps legend,” “master of combat firearms,” and “marksmanship expert,” these are a fraction of the praise George Kelley garnered.

Like his grandfather, Van Orden acquired the responsibility of weapons testing. His role was key in testing and fielding weapons such as the Joint Service Shotgun, second generation Designated Marksman Rifle (DMR), and M16A4. He also evaluated the Squad Advanced Marksman Rifle (SAMR), helping form the SAMR currently used in Afghanistan.
In 2003 CWO3 Van Orden retired, but was still not finished. Through years of teaching survival and experimenting with all the gear for himself, Van Orden developed his own survival kit. Founded in 2002, Pro Survival Kit Company has become one of Van Orden’s lasting contributions to the U.S. military. The Navy currently purchases his kits for standard issue to Navy Seals. The Special Forces community is his principle customer and has carried them around the world.

Many accomplishments adorn the careers of these men, but one remains unique. Their family boasts three generations of Marine Distinguished Marksman. This is the high honor coveted by all competition shooters. “The Distinguished Badge is probably the most important thing he shoots for,” said George Mason. “He’s a professional. For that reason, Marines achieving that award never have to qualify again.”

The first George, though an expert rifleman with multiple awards, did not achieve distinguished. George Owen, a competition shooter from the beginning, earned the badge over a five-year period. George Mason, always known for his marksmanship exploits, earned it in three.

George Kelley displayed the same attitude towards competition shooting as he had towards the Marine Corps in early life—not interested. Not until he became a Warrant Officer did Van Orden return to competition shooting. In 2001 he earned the distinguished badge, thus completing the legacy of his family and name. Three generations of George Van Orden in section 30 of Arlington National Cemetery.

George Kelley Van Orden’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather are buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Climbing the hill to their graves in section 30, far away from the crowds moving towards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or Arlington House, is a humbling experience. At the top standing near their graves, a spectacular view of countless rows of headstones can be seen and silently considered. It is striking to think this view contains a mere fraction of the 400,000 veterans buried there. Even more striking to consider each one has a story. Many of those stories, including the Van Ordens’, are still inspiring people today.

This article was originally published in Leatherneck magazine.

And below is a link to all of my previous articles about Van Orden Model 70s and related .

Mister Van Orden has two excellent product lines you can learn more about below.

4 COMMENTS

    • Thanks. I don’t know if thats true though. I guess it depends on what interests you. I would have thought some of my civil war stuff or the history of Unertl or Fecker optics would have been up there.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here