Ray Burden: Champion Long-Range Shooter, Industrial Park Pioneer, Builder of Paul Bunyan’s Rifle

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The walls of the Canby Rod and Gun Club are lined with photos, trophies, ribbons, medals and other paraphernalia from decades of serving gun owners, trap shooters and other firearms enthusiasts from the local area.

But if you spend some time, and look closely at the inscriptions on many of the accolades, you might start to see a familiar name: Ray Burden. He was the president of the Club for a number of years, but he was also much more than that, as you’ll soon see.

His most striking contributions to the Club, though, don’t bear his name at all. He helped build the lodge at its present location south of town, and designed pit and target pulling system. (He did the same thing for the Douglas Ridge Rifle Club in Barton.)

Finally, if you walk into the Canby gun club and look up, you will see a massive rifle mounted in the ceiling’s wooden beams. “Paul Bunyan‘s Rifle,” the placard reads.

It was actually built by Ray Burden and Dean Enstead, a gunsmithing friend of his from Oregon City. They fired it one time. I can only imagine how many people were asking, “What was that boom??” that day.

Ray was a shooting star — literally — in an international career that spanned well over three decades. But he got his start in athletics in a much more close-contact sport: wrestling.

He wrestled at Canby High School, and later in college, but though all four of his brothers were state champs in their weight classes, Ray never got that chance.

He qualified for state, but had to miss the meet. The year was 1945, and his draft notice had come in as soon as he had enough credits to graduate. The No. 2 guy on the team, behind Ray, went on to win the state title that year.

He reported to Navy basic training in San Diego. He completed training, then was immediately assigned commander to run the next group of recruits through boot camp. He later became coxswain of the admiral’s barge and trained for Operation Downfall — the planned Allied invasion that was rendered no long necessary when Hirohito surrendered, ending the war.

His enlistment was not over, but he received a hardship discharge to return home and help his ailing father on the family farm. He married his high school sweetheart, Irene Cutler, and became manager of Hazel Dell Gardens in southwest Canby, which was owned by his in-laws but which he and Irene would soon purchase and greatly expand.

In 1959, the expansion of Highway 99E into a four-lane highway presented opportunities to purchase several new parcels, growing Hazel Dell from 14 acres to 104.

They grew 400 different varieties of ornamental nursery stock, recalls Ray’s son, Allen Burden, and handled everything from “itty bitty garden pots” to the time they moved a 38,000-pound beech tree from one side of the Waverley Country Club to the other.

It was in the early 1960s that Ray — always a shooting and hunting enthusiast — dove into the world of high-powered rifle competitions. His introduction was a Civilian Marksmanship Program event at the Canby gun club.

His first national match was in either ’62 or ’63 (Allen can’t exactly remember), and for the next 35 years, he would be a staple in competitive long-range shooting, finishing as high as third overall in the nation and winning the national senior championship in 1985.

For more than a decade, he was a member of the U.S. Rifle Team — often called the “Palma team,” — an uber-elite group of shooters that competes in the Palma Trophy Match, one of the world’s preeminent long-range international shooting events that originated in 1876.

The Palma match involves shooters aiming at a 20-inch bullseye at 800, 900 and 1,000 yards. At that distance — and especially, without the computer assistance and other advanced technology available to modern long-distance shooters — competitors had to rely on their eyes, their instincts and their experience.

“Wind reading” was a big part of it, and Allen says his dad was one of the best.

“It’s a learned art form,” said the retired Navy reservist, who also competed in international shooting competitions. “It takes hours of staring through glass and seeing how the wind affects bullets. They didn’t have the technology we have today.”

Ray Burden was a “phenomenal shot,” his son recalled. He can’t remember the amount of times he watched his father take 10 shots at long range, rapid fire, grouping all of them within a 1-inch circumference.

He customized his own firearms and knew how to “squeeze every little bit of accuracy out of the rifle that he could,” Allen said. He custom-built rifles for SWAT snipers and helped train Clackamas County deputies on the ins and outs of long-range shooting.

In the later years of his competitive career, he was known to bring Allen and even his grandson to participate in national matches along with him.

Ray Burden was a man of great skill — but also, strong principles. He once declined to attend an international shooting event in South Africa because it was during apartheid — a system of institutionalized racial segregation that was in place until the 1990s, and which Ray strongly opposed.

He was on the board of directors for the National Rifle Association for 24 years, from 1969 to 1993, and served several terms as president and vice president of the Oregon State Rifle and Pistol Association. Though he made his reputation with the long rifle, he was also known to defend the Second Amendment rights of handgun owners — in his trademark, colorful style.

In a 1975 debate with Portland Police Chief Bruce Baker over a proposed ban on national handgun manufacture, Ray scoffed, saying, “guns don’t cause crime any more than prostitutes cause sex.”

He went on to argue that gun control would “disarm” the populace and could lead to the eventual confiscation of all firearms. The problem is not guns but habitual criminals who commit 90 percent of all crimes but are still loose on the streets, he said.

Throughout his competitive shooting career, and after he retired, Ray and Irene Burden were involved in the decades-long effort to establish the Canby industrial park. They helped set up an industrial park association in the 1970s when the idea was first put into motion, and they remained active in many aspects of the park for the rest of their lives.

Ray Burden was the first person to propose the north outlet road that is just now gaining momentum, and which the city hopes to bring to fruition in the next five years.

At the industrial park’s groundbreaking, he took then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski on a private tour of the properties in his pickup. His passion for the community made an impression on the governor, who would later remark on it in a personal letter to Ray’s family after his death.

Ray Burden died of a sudden and unexpected heart attack on Oct. 17, 2003, while moose hunting with Allen in Canada. He was 77. Allen packed him out of the wilderness on a makeshift stretcher fashioned out of his and his father’s coats.

The NRA passed a resolution recognizing him for a lifetime of service in February 2004. Hazel Dell Gardens would later inspire the name of one of the park’s main access roads, Hazel Dell Way.

No discussion of Canby’s sports heroes could be complete without mentioning Irv Garrison, the legendary coach known perhaps as much for his colorful anecdotes as for helping establish the Cougars as a hard-nosed, perennial playoff contender throughout the 1980s. His story, next time, on Canby Then.

Photos and documents courtesy the Burden family:

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