WHILE OUTDOOR LIFE COVERS can stand alone as works of art (and make great wall decor), it’s more interesting to compare them. From one month to the next, copies of OL looked similar. The subject on the cover might change—a whitetail fawn, a jumping trout—but the style didn’t change much. But flip through the decades and you’ll begin to see how Outdoor Life covers evolved along with hunting and fishing, and our national attitude toward them.
Once the editors figured out that the cover should help sell the magazine, they started commissioning unique illustrations for each. The last of the Wild West and its mountain men appear on our earliest covers, while midcentury issues were cheerful and relatable to most readers. In the 1960s and ’70s, the illustrations began to depict more far-flung adventures before leaning into big bucks and bass around the millennium. In recent years, we’ve begun revisiting the ever-popular illustrated cover.
Choosing a cover is more art than science. OL has had its fair share of duds but, more often than not, the editors knew a good cover when they saw it. The following pages include just a few of the more than 1,300 that have appeared on OL in the past 125 years.
1902: An otherwise undated cover of a Canada goose hunt. Look closely to find the hunter. Outdoor Life
November 1903: Early OL covers briefly featured photographs before the editors turned to color illustrations. Outdoor Life
November 1905: An early turkey hunt. Outdoor Life
February 1907: The covers from this decade were often simple yet striking, like this one depicting a howling wolf. Outdoor Life
September 1909: Women appeared regularly on early OL covers. Outdoor Life
April 1911: One of readers’ all-time favorites. Outdoor Life
September 1911: A cowboy rides up on a rattler. Outdoor Life
October 1918: Caribou were a frequent cover subject in OL’s early years. Outdoor Life
September 1928: The 1920s featured border-framed paintings like this one of flushing ruffed grouse. Outdoor Life
June 1933: While trout covers were common in OL’s infancy, bass quickly took over. Outdoor Life
September 1938: OL has always had a soft spot for good gun dogs. Outdoor Life
October 1942: This theme—flushing a covey while crossing a fence—appears often through the decades. Outdoor Life
September 1943: Covers during the World War II era were usually cheerful and always patriotic. Outdoor Life
November 1943: One of OL’s most prolific artists, J.F. Kernan often used himself as a cover model. He appears here, and in the cover directly below. Outdoor Life
January 1944: OL never took itself too seriously, making sure to mix in mishaps with heroic covers. Outdoor Life
February 1946: Raccoon hunting and hound covers were common in the ’40s and ’50s. Outdoor Life
October 1949: Of all the bird dog breeds, setters appeared most often in the first 50 years of OL covers. Outdoor Life
November 1951: Another favorite reader cover, popular for its relatability. It’s also one of the rare covers that features a Lab. Outdoor Life
January 1953: Offshore fishing stories were a staple of the 1950s. Outdoor Life
January 1960: This era’s covers were full of aspirational Western adventures, like this desert sheep hunt. Outdoor Life
December 1965: Charging predator covers—bears, bucks, lions—were big hits in the ’60s. Outdoor Life
January 1967: OL often ran rabbit covers in the ’50s and ’60s, a nod to the heyday of small-game hunting. Outdoor Life
July 1967: OL’s best fishing covers focused on the fish rather than the angler. Outdoor Life
November 1967: If OL has an iconic cover scene, this is it: a trophy critter with a hunter in the background. Outdoor Life
January 1970: Many of Jack O’Connor’s stories were illustrated for the covers. Outdoor Life
February 1970: A modern tribute to a common early cover subject—a bayed lion and loyal hounds. Outdoor Life
September 1971: Despite their ubiquity on the prairie, pronghorn were rare cover subjects. Outdoor Life
December 1977: A classic wall-tent scene with (look closely) a good buck on the meatpole. Outdoor Life
August 1983: Illustrated covers became the exception rather than the norm in the 1980s. Outdoor Life
May 1994: OL published regional editions with custom covers. Subscribers in the East received this one. Outdoor Life
August 2014: A photograph ran on almost every cover of OL in the 2010s. Outdoor Life
Winter 2018: OL resurrected illustrated covers with an annual painting by wildlife artist Ryan Kirby. Outdoor Life
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