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Big Sandy master engraver inducted into Cowboy Hall of Fame


Aaron "Duke" Pursley

Big Sandy gunsmith, knife maker, rancher and engraver Aaron "Duke" Pursley has been inducted into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Pursley was inducted last year and attended the honorary ceremony Feb. 4 in Great Falls.

"It was pretty nice," he said. "I thought it was pretty good honor to be recognized."

The nominating process is open to and depends on the public.

"In order to identify those in Montana's communities who are most deserving of inclusion in the Hall of Fame, we need people across the state to get involved in our nomination process," MCHF Executive Director Christy Stensland said. "We encourage all to reflect on those that have made notable contributions to our western heritage here in the great state of Montana."

Pursley said he rodeod and travelled the country when he was young, a time he refered to as a "perpetual vacation," adding that it was all for 10 seconds of riding.

Now in his 80s, he said he has stopped riding, but he still engraves. He and a partner have a rifle business, and Pursley's part is the meticulous engraving that goes into each rifle.

"It's something that keeps us occupied," he said.

Pursley was born in 1935 and his father established a ranch in 1940 off Big Sandy's Coal Mine Road.

"Duke and his older brother, Allan, grew up with a respect for the land, the people, and the Code of the West," his biography says.

Pursley had a passion for breaking horses and entered his first rodeo in 1954 after graduating from Big Sandy High school. Rodeo became his way of life for the next 14 years, the bio says.

"A flamboyant, stylish rider, he scored high on the rough stock of the day," it adds.

After gaining a Professional Rodeo Circuit Association card, Pursley rode every night at West Yellowstone in the summer of 1955. He also won the Alberta, Canada, circuit  in 1961 and was on his way to qualifying for the National Finals Rodeo when a saddle bronc in Sidney, Iowa, fell on him and crushed his femur.

"He never exactly regained his carefree riding style but went down the road with the best of them for another seven years," his bio says.

Pursley married Dolly McNeill, who also graduated from Big Sandy High School, during his years in the rodeo circuit. Together they traveled  to shows in a pickup truck and camper. They started their family and now have three sons, Mike, Kip and Ted, and daughter, Julie.

The Pursleys built a log cabin in 1970 which they still live in today. Retired from the rodeo life, Pursley needed to add to the family income so he started beaver trapping, building fur caps and raising mink.

Pursley also had been engraving knives and pistols since he was 20 and by the 1970s he had developed his own style and had become a good artist. He appeared in events like the New York Knife Show, Anaheim Knife Show and the Las Vegas Gun and Knife Show. Peter Fonda and Priscilla Presley were among some of his most famous customers. Pursley was mentioned in a 1991 issue of "Gentleman's Quarterly."

Pursley and partner, Ron Otto, founded Little Sharps Rifle Company in 1996. The rifles created are 20 percent smaller than the original Sharps rifle. Little Sharps created the Lil' Reliable, which is manufactured in 11 calibers.

Pursley earned master engraver status in the Firearms Engravers Guild of America in the early 1990s, and he is still engraving to this day. The guild recognizes Pursley as one of only 45 master engravers in the country.

Nominees, the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame websites says, can be men, women, ranches, stage coach lines, animals, hotels - anyone or anything that has made a notable contribution to Montana western heritage. Anyone who would like to make a nomination can contact the the hall of fame at Christy@montanacowboyfame.org or call 406-932-5444. All nomination documents must be in electronic format and emailed.


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