Sports A Field

Boots for the Long Haul

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For 125 years, Russell Moccasin boots have been the choice of world-traveling adventurers.

Photo above: These well-worn Russell Bird Shooter boots worn by Earl Shaffer, the first man through-hike the Appalachian Trail, are housed at the Smithsonian.

In 1948, World War II army veteran Earl Shaffer became the first person to hike the Appalachian Trail from end to end. A single pair of boots carried him the entire 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine—a pair of “Birdshooters” from the Russell Moccasin Company. Shaffer’s motto was, “Carry as little as possible, but choose that little with care.” Modern AT through-hikers usually go through two or three pairs of modern boots on their trek, but Shaffer made his Birdshooters last, patching and repairing them often, and stopping twice along the route to have them resoled.

Shaffer’s battered boots are now in the National Museum of American History (where a curator confirmed they are still smelly from the long trek 75 years ago). Interestingly, Shaffer’s Birdshooters aren’t the only Russell Moccasin Company boots that ended up in the Smithsonian. Over at the National Air and Space Museum you’ll find another pair of Russells—this one worn by pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh on his record-breaking flights to the Orient in 1931 and while surveying commercial air transport routes across the Atlantic in 1933.

Charles Lindbergh wore these Russell boots in the cockpit of at least two of his pioneering flights.

Over the years, Russell boots have kept many other famous feet in the game. Edward, Prince of Wales, wore them on safari with Denis Finch-Hatton. Saxton Pope and Arthur Young, the fathers of modern archery, were wearing Russell boots on their hunting trips as early as 1915. More recently, they’ve been spotted on the feet of Harrison Ford and Robert Redford.

No wonder fans of the 125-year-old W.C. Russell Moccasin Company feel that the boots on their feet are a piece of history. They also know the brand stands for craftsmanship, legacy, and quality—which is why it’s been around for well over a century.

Russell has focused on making boots to order for serious hunters and anglers since its early days.

The W.C. Russell Moccasin Company got its start on the banks of the Fox River in Berlin, Wisconsin—where the company is still headquartered to this day. William Russell, for whom the business is named, was a second-generation leather craftsman alongside his brother, Frank, and father, Charles. When the opportunity arose for his own venture, Will purchased the Wright Shoe Company from Stillman Wright and used its equipment to start the W.C. Russell Moccasin Company in 1898.

Originally he made boots for the booming Wisconsin logging industry, but soon outdoorsmen began to recognize the unique benefits of the moccasin construction for hunting, fishing, and hiking. This shift would serve to shift the focus of Russell’s efforts toward a clientele that it has dutifully served for well over a century.

In 1928, following William’s passing, one of Russell’s traveling salesmen, Bill Gustin, purchased the company. Gustin was a competitive trap and skeet shooter, hunter, and fisherman, so he had a firsthand understanding of the needs of outdoor sportsmen and began building boots specifically to meet them. In the early 1930s he introduced the now-famous Russell Bird Shooter—the boot Earl Shaffer wore on his famous trek–plus a line of oxfords, loafers and casual shoes.

The Russell legacy was carried on by Gustin’s son-in-law, Lefty Fabricius, starting in the early 1980s when Bill retired at age 92. Lefty ran the company for many decades, and was eventually joined by his daughter, Suzie Fabricius. In 2022, Lefty, Suzie, and their family sold the company to current owners Joe Julian, Luke Kolbie, and longtime Russell production manager Joe Gonyo.

Mindful of the company’s historic legacy, the new owners have restocked some longtime customer favorites, including the Safari PH and the Thula Thula PH. Countless safari hunters (including me) have worn these boots on African adventures over the years, appreciating the style, comfort, and, particularly in the case of the Thula Thula PH, the ability to stalk game almost silently.

A limited edition 125th Anniversary Boot (only 125 pairs were made), the Nochaway Cavalier, is based on Russell’s original Cavalier Model, which debuted in the 1940s. The Cavalier, designed for quail hunting in the south, is one of Russell’s best-known models and was the forerunner of the very popular Russell Zephyr model. The Anniversary Boot builds on the history of the original model, combining classic style with modern techniques and materials.

Russell is making only 125 pairs of the stylish Nochaway Cavalier boots to celebrate its 125thanniversary.

As the Russell ads say, “Yes, this is your grandfather’s boot.” Russell boots are still durable, dependable, practical, and stylish, and they are still made to order in Berlin, Wisconsin. True to their history and tradition, Russell boots are still a great choice for hunting birds, deer, and dangerous game, embarking on a transatlantic adventure, or hiking 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine.

A vintage ad for Russell emphasizes the company’s focus on boots made for the outdoorsman.

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