Category Archives: Sixgunner

“Slow & Easy” .44 Magnum

Target Loads.

There were so many Westerns on TV when I was a kid, with every hero carrying virtually the same sixgun, producers, writers and directors started looking for gimmicks. There was Josh Randall the bounty hunter with his sawed-off Winchester, Johnny Ringo with a cartridge-firing LeMat, even Vint Bonner with a Colt .45 with interchangeable barrels allowing him to switch back and forth, by hand in the field no less, between a standard barrel length and a Buntline Special. However, the one that captured my sixgunning soul, heart and spirit was Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman who carried something unique — a Smith & Wesson .44 Russian. I secretly pledged to myself I would someday own such a sixgun.

As I grew and learned more I discovered the .44 Russian became the .44 Special and after I had been shooting a very short time, the .44 Special became the .44 Magnum. Now for some history. The S&W .44 Special 1950 Target revolver was rarely ever used for target shooting but was an excellent choice for an outdoor sixgun. This same basic sixgun was also chambered in .38 Special as the .38/44 Outdoorsman and .45 Auto Rim as the .45 1950 Target.

The latter sixgun was improved to become the .45 1955 Target and this is a gun we need to take a very special look at. It was upgraded with a heavy bull barrel, target hammer and trigger and targets stocks. Put this gun together with the .44 Special 1950 Target, drop them in the pot and stir ’em up, and out came the magnificent Target Grade .44 Magnum from Smith & Wesson in December of 1955.

LOAD-2

The longer sight radius of the 83/8″ barrels can help to deliver
amazing accuracy with these easy-shooting loads!

Easing Off

The only obvious differences between the original .44 Magnum and the 1955 Target, other than the chambering, is the fact the .44 Magnum has a full-length cylinder filling out the cylinder window frame, white outline rear sight, red ramp front sight and the target stocks were of exotic and Goncala Alves wood. It was without a doubt the most beautiful double-action sixgun ever to come from the mind of man and with its historical background, even though it’s suited for full house loads, it’s also a prime candidate for what Mike Venturino calls “Slow & Easy” loads, or what the rest of us might probably call target loads.

There was a time when all my .44 Magnum loads were just that — Magnum. However, the older I’ve become, the smarter I’ve become and those loads are now reserved to be used only when absolutely necessary. In fact the boxes are labeled: “In case of emergency break tape.” Today the vast majority of my cartridge boxes hold target loads, or at the very most what we often call mid-range loads.

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Velocities from 750 to 850 fps means fun, accurate shooting in the .44 Magnum.

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A few of the excellent powders for .44 Magnum Target
Loads are Universal, 231 and Bullseye.

Building The Loads

Assembling target loads for the .44 Magnum is as easy as it comes. Nothing changes except the powder charge. I still full-length size all the brass, I still crimp the same way. The one major difference is the fact #2400, H110 and WW296 don’t even get close to my loading bench. For these wonderful shooting loads I use WW231, Unique, Universal, Red Dot and Bullseye. I also work from my stash of WW452AA, which I don’t believe is available anymore, however it was an excellent powder for target loads with the .44 Magnum.

I also use the Oregon Trail bullets, 200, 225 and 240 RNFP (Round Nose Flat Points) as well as the 240 SWC. Favorite loads for the latter are 6.0 grains of Universal crimped over the front band for 870 fps and a 1″ group, 7.0 grains of the same powder in the crimping groove for just over 800 fps and an even tighter 3/4″ group, 6.0 grains of WW231 for 825 fps and just over 1″ and 5.0 grains of Bullseye for 780 fps for a 1″ group.

All loads are clocked in an 83/8″ Model 29 and they also do exceptionally well in a 61/2″ pre-29. These guns are well over 50 years old, and I’m a lot older, so we both appreciate these wonderfully easy shooting .44 non-Magnum loads. Even though they are exceptionally pleasant to shoot it doesn’t take much to realize they are the equivalent or more so of a standard .45 Hardball load. They may be fun, however, they can also be serious if the need arises.

For more info: www.americanhandgunner.com/index

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By John Taffin

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Two New Ruger Sixguns:

Adjustable Sights Bearcat / .327 Single-Seven

All Ruger Single-Sixes (.22’s) since 1964, with a few exceptions, have been offered only with adjustable sights. Unfortunately the little Bearcat had traditional fixed Colt Single Action-style sights which is the only negative attribute I could assign to it. Even its very small grip frame seemed to fit small hands of young kids learning to shoot as well as large hands such as mine. The problem was every Bearcat didn’t always shoot to point of aim and there was no easy way to adjust the sights. That did not stop the Taffin family from buying Bearcats. My son’s first gun in 1973 was a Bearcat. At the age of 10 he saved up enough money to pay for half and I kicked in the rest. Diamond Dot has an all-steel Super Bearcat, I gave my youngest granddaughter one of the special run of Lipsey’s/Ruger Shopkeeper Bearcats and my old original Bearcat is well-worn but still shoots very well. The only thing missing with all of these is the fact none have adjustable sights.

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John found the Lipsey’s/Ruger .327 Single-Seven displayed gilt-edged accuracy.

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The adjustable sights allow you to sight in perfectly, taking advantage
of the great accuracy of these little guns.

Wish List

This past summer Ruger’s Ken Jorgensen was here visiting and he asked what I would most like to see Ruger offer. Without hesitation I said an adjustable-sighted Bearcat. He said, with confidence, “It’s coming!” Three months later he personally presented me with the first adjustable-sighted Bearcat.

Two of my friends had worked for nearly a year contacting others in the industry and the result was an elk and buffalo hunt for me followed up by an appreciation dinner two weeks later. I was stunned and humbled when over 250 people, both local and from around the country, showed up for the dinner. Ken Jorgensen of Ruger went to the podium, looked down at me sitting with all my family, and asked: “Do you remember what Ruger you said you’d like to see when you were interviewed a few months ago?”
“An adjustable-sighted Bearcat,” I replied.

And with that Ken left the podium, came down to my table, and presented me with the very first adjustable-sighted Ruger Bearcat. I was stunned. After nearly 60 years we now have the finest little .22 Single Action Kit Gun, which is now a Petite Perfect Packin’ Pistol.

Ruger didn’t just adapt the regular Bearcat frame to accept an adjustable rear sight as many of the gunsmiths do, removing metal from the top back of the frame to accommodate the sight. Instead Ruger redesigned the frame to incorporate the same ears on both sides of the rear sight as found on all of their Blackhawk Models. The sight is fully adjustable for both windage and elevation and mates up nicely with the ramp front sight. The little sixgun not only shoots as well as all the other regular Bearcats, but it can now be easily adjusted to hit point of aim. With most loads tried, it places five shots at 1″ or less at 20 yards, and especially prefers CCI Mini-Mag +Vs, clocking out at over 1,060 fps and placing five shots in 5″!

This newest Bearcat is blued steel, but since I wrote this, they are offering them in stainless also. They have laminated grips and a transfer bar safety. However, unlike other such Rugers, this one has a half-cock notch and to load and unload the loading gate must be opened and the wide hammer put on half-cock to allow the cylinder to rotate. It is safe to carry with a fully loaded six rounds, and not with a hammer down on an empty chamber as with the earlier non-transfer bar equipped Bearcats.

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The new adjustable-sighted Bearcats (blued and stainless) from Ruger are
Perfect .22 LR Packing Pistols and they shoot any sort of .22 ammo!

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The cylinder of the .327 Magnum Single-Seven completely fills in the
frame window in order to accept the longer .327 ammo.

Pocket Power

The second new sixgun to arrive from Ruger comes through Lipsey’s. Ten years ago when Ruger brought out the 50th Anniversary Ruger .357 Blackhawk they used the New Model action, however instead of making it the same size as the current .357 Blackhawks which have a frame the same size as the Super Blackhawk, they went back to the original Colt Single Action-sized frame. At the time I asked the then president of Ruger if we could now have a .44 Special version. He didn’t say no.

However, it remained for Ruger distributor Lipsey’s to get the ball rolling by placing a large order for .44 Special New Model Flat-Tops. They sold well enough to become a standard Ruger catalog item. Now Lipsey’s has led the way again. With the arrival of the .327 Federal Magnum, Ruger offered the Pocket Pistol GP100 and also chambered it in both the full-sized Blackhawk and GP100. I wanted a trimmer, varmint hunting version.

Now we have what is going to be about as close as possible to get to a Ruger perfect .327 Magnum and it is the Single-Seven. Using the Single-Six frame size, Ruger has built — to Lipsey’s specifications — a stainless steel, 7-shot .327 Magnum. It’s offered in the three standard barrel lengths of 45/8″, 51/2″ and my favorite choice for this type of sixgun, 71/2″.

With a small-bore cartridge like this I wanted the longest barrel for maximum velocity as well as maximum sight radius. Sights consist of an adjustable Ruger rear sight matched up with a ramp front sight, both of which are black as they should be even on stainless steel sixguns. I haven’t been disappointed as this gun shoots exceptionally well with not just the .327 Magnum but also three other cartridges which are applicable for use in the factory cylinder, the .32 S&W, .32 S&W Long and .32 Magnum. With the ability to accept four different .32 cartridges, the Single-Seven is exceptionally versatile.

With the .32 Long the NEI 100 SWC over 3.5 grains of Unique clocks out at over a 1,100 fps and places five shots in 7/8″. Moving up to the .32 Magnum Buffalo Bore’s 100-gr. JHP clocks out at nearly 1,400 fps while grouping into 11/4″. Hornady’s 85-gr. XTP over 11.0 grains of #2400 in .327 Magnum brass is also right at 1,400 fps with an amazing 1/2″ group. Other noticeable handloads, all grouping into a tight 1″, are Hornady’s 85-gr. XTP over 12.5 grains of H110 and 1,525 fps; Sierra’s 90-gr. JHC, 11.0 grains of #2400 at 1,400 fps and Speer’s 100-gr. JHP over 5.0 grains of Universal at just over 1,225 fps.

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The adjustable sights are a leap forward helping to make these the
best Bearcats ever. Original fixed sighted version on right.

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The Ruger Single-Seven accepts (left to right) .32 S&W, .32 Long,
.32 Magnum and .327 Federal Magnum loads.

Some Differences

To shoehorn seven rounds of .327 Magnum into the Single-Six cylinder requires some judicious measuring and chambering. The cylinder is longer than that found on the standard Single-Six, filling out the frame window to allow for the longer length of the .327 Magnum.

I ran into one problem with loading and unloading the cylinder. If the cylinder is rotated until you hear the “click” of the bolt locking, it has gone too far to accept a loaded round or to eject an empty case. You have to instead rotate the cylinder almost to the click and then load or unload. It’s not too difficult to get a feel for this, however I wanted something easier so I had my gunsmith, Tom at Buckhorn, modify the action to give me a free-spinning cylinder — one rotating forward and backward. Now it’s a simple matter to rotate the cylinder until the chamber is centered in the loading gate. Loading and unloading is totally simplified.

We’ve come a long way since Bill Ruger decided there was a market among shooters for a single action. The two latest Rugers are welcome additions to my accumulation of single-action sixguns. If you are interested in the .327 Magnum Single-Seven contact Lipsey’s directly.

For more info: www.americanhandgunner.com/index, Ph: (225) 755-1333

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By John Taffin

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Fact Or Fiction: Earp’s Buntline Special

Ned Buntline was an author of dime novels in the last quarter of the 19th century, creating long-standing myths about Western heroes. He claims to have presented five “Buntline Specials” to lawmen in Dodge City in the late 1870’s. Those men were Charlie Bassett, Neal Brown, Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman and Wyatt Earp. Researchers have found long-barreled Colt SA’s — which weren’t labeled as Buntline Specials — from the years 1876 to 1884.

In the second generation run of Colts from 1955 to 1975, nearly 4,000 long-barreled sixguns marked “Buntline Specials” were made. The third generation Buntline Specials were in .45 Colt, .44-40 and .44 Special — as well as some New Frontier Buntline Specials. Great Western also offered Buntline Specials with 12½” barrels, but they’re harder to find than a public servant who lives up to the name; so I’ve made my own. Arizona SA sixgunsmith Jim Martin gave me a Colt .44 Special Buntline barrel and it’s now installed on a Great Western — and it shoots great!

So, are the five Buntline Specials reality or myth? There are no factory records to confirm the shipping of five long-barreled revolvers to E.C.Z. Judson, alias Ned Buntline. But factory records aren’t always complete. However, records of eight .45 Colt SAA’s ordered by and shipped to Bat Masterson in Dodge City from 1882 to 1885 are found; one was 7½”, two were 5½” and five were the Perfect Packin’ Pistol 4¾” length.

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John’s classy pair of USFA 10″.45 Colt Buntline Specials have consecutive
serial numbers — these two custom guns were never catalogued by USFA.

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It’s not easy finding leather for 10” sixguns, but John found Simply
Rugged’s workmanship a worthy match for the Buntline Specials.

Buntline Special Folklore

Most of us know of the Buntline Special from the 1950’s-1960’s T.V. series “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp”, starring Hugh O’Brian. I know of 12 movies made from the 1930’s to the 1990’s with Wyatt Earp as the main character; I can only recall seeing the Buntline Special once — in the hands of Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp in Tombstone.

In the 1931 book Wyatt Earp Frontier Marshall by Stuart Lake we may or may not have an authentic life of Wyatt Earp. Many contend Earp told Lake more lies than truth. According to Lake, “Buntline was so grateful to the Dodge City peace officers for the color they supplied he set about arming them as befitted their accomplishments. He sent to the Colt factory for five special .45-caliber sixguns of regulation SA style, but with barrels 4″ longer than standard, a foot in length, making them 18″ overall.”

Lake records Wyatt saying: “There was a lot of talk in Dodge about the specials slowing us on the draw. Bat and Bill Tilghman cut off the barrels to make them standard length. But Bassett, Brown and I kept ours as they came. Mine was my favorite over any other gun. I could jerk it as fast as I could my old one and I carried it at my right hip throughout my career as marshal. With it, I did most of the sixgun work I had to do.”

Is Wyatt being truthful here or is he pulling Stuart Lake’s leg? Holsters in those days were mainly the Mexican loop style, which rode high on the belt — drawing a 12″ Colt couldn’t have been easy. None of the original Ned Buntline Presentation Colts have ever been found. Wyatt said his was lost as it was on the front seat of his Model T, which was on an Alaskan ferryboat that sunk.

Back in the 1950’s, I put together a Buntline Special, which was a first generation Colt with a .38 Special cylinder and a 12″ barrel. I spent a lot of time doing fast draw and found I could do fairly well by dropping my knee significantly as I drew to be able to clear leather. After practicing with this gun it seemed like my 7½” .45 literally jumped out of the holster. The .38 really had no practical value, but I certainly wish I still had it today.

Up until the Great Western .44 Special turned into a Buntline Special, my experience with Buntline Specials came from a second generation Colt .45 with a 12″ barrel and a Cimarron Firearms 10″ Buntline Special .45. I’ve added not one, but two .45 Buntlines from USFA, with consecutive serial numbers. These are custom guns and weren’t catalogued by USFA, which has now closed its doors. Let’s back up a little and see how they came to be.

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The 12″ second generation Colt Buntline Special performed quite admirably
in John’s testing — these three groups averaged just over 1″.

Introduced To USPFA

In the early 1990’s I encountered a new company, United States Patented Firearms Co. (USPFA) at the SHOT Show. These were replica firearms with a twist, meaning they were Uberti-made but the Uberti parts were imported into the US and then assembled into finished sixguns. It was easy to notice they were nicely fitted and finished, well above the typical replicas of the time. I discovered USPFA wanted to eventually produce a completely American-made SA.

They later became United States Firearms Co. and slowly began to replace Italian parts with American ones. Unfortunately, the high-quality, all-American-made SA’s from USFA never made money and the doors of the factory were closed.

Despite USFA’s closing, there were many parts still available — one of them being the frame. We’re not just talking American-made frames, but some very special Uberti frames going back to the earlier days. These were not standard SA frames, but rather frames styled after the real Buntline Specials. The top of the frame was milled out to hold a long-range rear sight, which could be raised out of its mortise, raising up and down on a ladder for long-range shooting. When the sight is all the way down in its mortise, a standard rear sight can be used for normal shooting.

I’ve been shooting a pair of these nearly all-American-made sixguns quite often. This pair has been made into a long-range duo with a tall front sight to compensate for the taller rear sight assembly. Barrel lengths are 10″ instead of the traditional 12″ length. Frames and hammers have been beautifully case color hardened by Turnbull, while the balance of the sixguns is finished in deep blue. Lockup is exceptionally tight, fitting has been carried out to perfection — no oversize chambers here — and stocks are 1-piece walnut. Chambering is, of course, .45 Colt.

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John’s pair of 10″ USFA .45 Colt Buntline Specials deliver results
in close quarters too.

How’d They Shoot?

This pair of 10″ USFA .45 SA’s was test-fired along with the second generation 12″ Colt Buntline Special and the Cimarron Firearms 10″ Buntline Special, which they call the Wyatt Earp Special. All of these performed exceptionally well, aided by the long sight radius. Cast bullets were sized to 0.451″ for use in the USFA .45 Colt 10″ sixguns. In USFA number one, my most used .45 Colt load — consisting of the Lyman #452424 Keith bullet, over 8.0 grains of Unique — clocks out at 953 fps and puts five shots in 1″ at 20 yards. Upping the powder charge to 9.0 grains of Unique with the same bullet gives a muzzle velocity of 1,058 fps and a 0.75″ group.

USFA number two, for some reason, shot approximately 100 fps slower while grouping the first load even tighter but doubling the size of the second load. In one of the mysteries of sixgunning, we have two guns built at the same time with identical materials and tolerances and yet they performed quite differently.

The Cimarron Wyatt Earp Special preferred bullets sized to 0.454″ with the Lyman #454424 Keith over 9.0 grains of Unique — clocking out at 956 fps and grouping at 11/8″. The RCBS #45-270SAA over 7.5 grains of Universal clocks out at 819 fps with a group of 7/8″. This bullet weighs 281 grains with my alloy, so even at 820 fps it’s still a potent load.

My old second generation Colt Buntline Special performs very well using 0.454″ bullets. The Lyman #454424 Keith over 8.0 grains of Unique clocks out at 901 fps while 9.0 grains adds another 80 fps muzzle velocity with both loads grouping in 11/8″. Switching to the RCBS #45-270SAA bullet over 8.0 grains Universal results in 907 fps and 1″.

For nearly 60 years, I’ve been long-range shooting at distances from 100 yards and beyond. I do this by raising the front sight — while still keeping it lined up in the rear — and placing the target on top. Long-range shooting becomes much simpler with the USFA Buntline Specials as the rear sight itself is just raised on the elevated special sight. Once the proper setting is found for any distance, it’s just a matter of keeping the proper sight picture.

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Targets shot with the Cimarron Wyatt Earp Special, using a cross-section of loads.
It preferred bullets sized at .454″.

Holsters

It’s not easy to find holsters for 10″-barreled sixguns. I don’t believe any of the old-line holster makers catalog leather for Buntline Specials. However, a call to Rob Leahy at Simply Rugged took care of the problem immediately. Rob crafted a beautiful pair of Buntline Special holsters, which ride high on the belt either straight draw or reverse draw. They’re a fitting addition to a fine pair of sixguns.

Rob can build about anything when it comes to leather and he also specializes in sixgun hunting rigs. He’s a master at the three-legged stool of making holsters: quality design, craftsmanship and material.

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By John Taffin

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Uberti .44 Magnum

More Popular.

Several things happened to make the .44 Magnum more acceptable. Many reloaders learned to start low and work up to full-house magnum loads. Gripmakers offered custom stocks to help minimize felt recoil. Ruger took a look at their .44 Blackhawk and added more weight in the form of a longer barrel, un-fluted cylinder and an all-steel Dragoon-sized grip frame. Dan Wesson and Ruger brought out double-action sixguns larger and heavier than the original Smith & Wesson and Smith & Wesson also started adding heavy under lugged barrels to their .44 Magnum, all of which help minimize felt recoil.

All of these things helped, however, the greatest selling aid for the .44 Magnum occurred in the early 1970’s, which brings us to the test .44 Magnum sixgun at hand. Uberti is now producing the Callahan .44 Magnum. Now why in the world would an Italian maker of single-action sixguns be producing one with an Irish name?

The .44 Magnum from several manufacturers has always been an accurate and powerful sixgun and capable of taking any four-legged creature on the planet. However, what really sold the public on the .44 Magnum was Callahan — San Francisco Detective Harry Callahan, better known as Dirty Harry. Yes, it was actually Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of Dirty Harry which caused an unreal demand for .44 Magnums, to the point those who really wanted them for shooting had to pay black-market prices all through the 1970’s.

Now we have Uberti offering their Callahan Target Model .44 Magnum. It may be a stretch to attach the Callahan name to a single-action sixgun when Dirty Harry carried a double-action Smith & Wesson; however, it’s no stretch to say this latest .44 Magnum is an excellent sixgun no matter what the name.

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John found the Callahan shot .44 Specials exceptionally well.

Callahan Target Model

The .44 Magnum cartridge chambered in sixguns is one of the all-time great success stories. However, it did not begin that way. Elmer Keith was ecstatic about the new Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum and said the recoil “would not bother a seasoned sixgunner.” Meanwhile General Hatcher of the NRA said shooting it was like getting hit in the palm of the hand with a baseball bat. For most shooters the actual feeling was somewhere in between. It was not unusual in those early days to find very slightly used .44 Magnum sixguns for sale along with a box of cartridges with six, or less, rounds being fired. I bought such a Ruger Flat-Top Blackhawk and a box of .44 Magnum rounds with six empties and 44 rounds still loaded.

The .44 Magnum was not an immediate success for several reasons. One of the major reasons, of course, was the tremendous recoil offered at a time when the heaviest handguns available fired the .357 Magnum, the .45 ACP and the .45 Colt. Add to this the price tag, which for me was four weeks take-home pay. The Smith & Wesson sold for almost double the price of a brand-new Colt Government Model .45 ACP, which everyone knew then was all the recoil any mere mortal could really handle.

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The heavy top strap of the .44 Magnum Callahan
is fitted with an adjustable rear sight, mated
to an excellent ramped front.

Big Differences

My first experience with an Uberti Target Model sixgun was a 71/2″ .357 Magnum which was imported by Iver Johnson 40 years ago. At the time, I wanted a Colt New Frontier badly, however I could not afford it so I went with a sixgun costing less — much less. In the process I learned cheap is almost always too expensive and I didn’t keep that imitation New Frontier very long.

The latest Target Model from Uberti is as far removed from my first example as politicians are from “I cannot tell a lie.” That long-ago example was mediocre as it’s finish, with its dull blue and supposedly case-colored mainframe. The Callahan is beautifully finished in a very deep blue, including the mainframe. The top of the frame is flat-topped with the sides and front edges slightly rounded to prevent holster wear. The flat-top frame is fitted with a fully adjustable rear sight for both elevation and windage.

The top of the frame is also drilled and tapped, which I assume is for scope mounting. The front sight is on a ramp with both the back edge of the ramp and the back of the sight serrated to cut down glare. The ramp is held to the heavy barrel with a screw and the front blade enters from the front of the ramp and can be replaced with a taller or shorter sight. The barrel length is 6″ and although I had requested a 71/2″ barrel I like the way this one looks, balances and shoots.

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The Callahan is no slouch with
full-power .44 Magnum loads!

Classic Function

The 6-shot cylinder is heavy and unfluted, and the Callahan works like a traditional single-action. There is no transfer bar and the hammer is placed in the half-cock position, releasing the cylinder to rotate. The loading gate is opened and cartridges may be inserted into the cylinder or removed with the ejector rod. One of my pet peeves with sixguns which have a transfer bar safety is the fact the loading gate is often hard to open, but the Callahan’s loading gate works smoothly and easily.
There has to be a safety for such a revolver to be imported and the Callahan has a “Swiss Safety.”
This consists of a longer than normal cylinder pin with two notches at the front end. When the back notch is locked in place this sixgun works in the normal way, however with the front notch engaged the pin sticks back far enough to prevent the firing pin on the hammer going far enough forward to contact the primer. With the Swiss Safety so engaged the Callahan is safe to carry with six rounds. For my use I will carry it with only five rounds and the hammer down on an empty. I cannot see trying to move the cylinder pin forward in an emergency so one less round seems a lot more appealing.

Recoil from the Colt Single Action Army-style grip frame in a .44 Magnum is not very pleasant. Ruger addressed this with their Super Blackhawk Dragoon-style grip frame in 1959. With its square back triggerguard most shooters find felt recoil is reduced significantly — most shooters, not me. As bad as recoil was and is with the Colt Single Action Army-style I get nailed worse with the square back triggerguard. For me it would have been better if Ruger had skipped past the Colt 1848 square-backed Dragoon triggerguard and instead used the grip frame found on the 1860 Army. This grip frame is longer and straighter along the back than the 1851 Navy grip frame which was incorporated into the 1873 Colt Single Action. Uberti is on my side and they equipped the .44 Magnum Callahan Target with an 1860 grip frame. This not only helps to minimize felt recoil for me, but I can also wrap all three fingers around the front strap.

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Although equipped with a “Swiss Safety” using the
cylinder base pin, John was most comfortable
using it as a 5-shooter.

Improvements

As it came to me this .44 Magnum single-action had a trigger pull just over 5 pounds. By placing a rubber washer between the mainspring and the grip frame it came down to a more easily manageable 31/2 pounds. Before I started testing the action was quite gritty, however it has smoothed out with use.
There are two things which need to be fixed, both of which are so simple even I can do it. The front sight is taller than it needs to be causing the point of impact to be several inches below the point of aim unless the rear sight is raised significantly. I do not like to do this is as there is always a chance the elevation screw will take off for parts unknown. The easy fix is to take a little off the top of the front sight blade with a few file strokes so it is sighted in with the rear sight all the way down and which can then be raised if desired.

The grips on the 1860-style grip frame are one piece walnut and fairly well fitted. Quite often 1-piece grips, or 2-piece for that matter, are not fitted very well to the back of the frame; these are done quite well. The front of the grips at the bottom front edge of the grip frame overlap ever so slightly and it will not take too much work with a piece of sand paper to remove that sharp edge.

I tested the Uberti Callahan with both handloads and factory loads, with the latter including .44 Russian, .44 Colt, .44 Special and .44 Magnum. I had planned to use several .44 Magnum loads assembled with the true Keith bullet not a so-called Keith-style SWC bullet. However, the cylinder of the Callahan is too short to accept .44 Magnum loads with true Keith bullets. For the real Keith bullet to be used requires it to be crimped over the front band in .44 Magnum cases or loaded normally in .44 Special cases. Neither of these options are any handicap.

SIX-5

Taffin sees his main use of the Callahan as a heavy
.44 Special, although it handles magnum loads just fine.

A Shooter

This .44 sixgun shot exceptionally well, with most groups being around 1″, some even less, for five shots at 20 yards. The Black Hills .44 Colt and .44 Russian loads are extremely pleasant shooting in this relatively heavy 42-ounce sixgun, with their muzzle velocities just over 600 fps. Buffalo Bore’s Heavy .44 Special with a 255-gr. LBT bullet clocks out at well over 1,100 fps and groups in just slightly over 1″. My most-used whitetail deer load is the Black Hills .44 Magnum 240 JHP clocking out at just under 1,250 and grouping five shots in 13/8″. The fastest shooting load tried, the Hornady 180-gr. XTP-JHP clocked out at 1,600 fps and grouped it shots into close to 1″ too. This is also an excellent hunting load four deer-size game.

Overall I was very impressed with the shootability of the Callahan. The cylinder chamber mouths miked out at a uniform 0.429″ and I was surprised to find the Callahan shot bullets sized to 0.429″, 0.430″ and 0.431″ all very well. Shooters often ask if shorter cartridges such as the .38 Special in the .357 Magnum and .44 Special in the .44 Magnum will shoot accurately. The answer is always the same: “You won’t know until you try.” I tried, and this .44 Magnum shot all four .44 cartridges accurately in spite of their differing lengths.

The Uberti Callahan Target Model .44 Magnum is typical of currently produced sixguns from this well-established Italian manufacturer. It’s well fitted, the cylinder locks up very tightly, and well finished with its deep blue and walnut stocks. Three screws in the side of the frame identify this as a traditionally operated single-action sixgun.

For those who for would prefer fixed sights over adjustable sights, the Callahan is also offered with Colt Single Action-style sights. Whichever iteration is chosen the grip frame remains the 1860-style.
I’ve never understood why this grip frame has not been optional on more single-actions, especially from domestic manufacturers. Uberti did it right. These days I rarely need the power of full house .44 Magnum loads, however that’s no loss, as my favored .44 Special loads shoot just fine in the Callahan.
By John Taffin

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The .41 Magnum Turns Gold

Instead of being offered in between the .357 and .44 Magnums as one would expect, S&W waited eight years after the .44 Magnum before introducing its “little” brother, the .41 Magnum. You can well imagine how it was accepted in 1964. One group said it was the best thing ever, while another group said there was no need for it. Actually it’s an excellent sixgun cartridge in its own right. While not quite as prevalent as the “9mm vs. .45” articles, there were quite a few of the .41 Magnum vs. .44 Magnum type. The truth is there is not a deer in the world which would know the difference between being hit by a .41 Magnum or .44 Magnum, while the latter has it all over the former for really large nasty dangerous crittters due to its ability to handle 300-gr. bullets.

Smith & Wesson was the first company, naturally, to market a .41 Magnum sixgun. Although both the .357 Magnum and the .44 Magnum pre-dated model numbers, the .41 Magnum began life as the Model 57, available in both bright blue or nickel, having barrel lengths of 4″, 6″ and 83/8″, with each gun packaged in a presentation case. Although the Model 57 is a popular handgun with collectors and handgun hunters, it never has had the reputation or fame of the Model 29/.44 Magnum. It was a cartridge needed to fill a gap, but for some unknown reason, this model never received the recognition it deserves.

In addition to the adjustable-sighted Model 57, the fixed-sight Model 58 .41 Military and Police was introduced by Smith & Wesson to replace the discontinued .44 Special Military Model of 1950. The production of this handgun had been urged by such famous handgunners as Bill Jordan, Elmer Keith and Skeeter Skelton, all of whom assured Smith & Wesson it was the ideal handgun for law enforcement agencies.
Elmer Keith, in his autobiography Hell, I Was There, shares his part in bringing the .41 Magnum to fruition: “… While we were attending the NRA convention in Washington, DC, Bill Jordan, the old border patrolman, came to me and says, ‘Elmer, you’ve got the .44 Magnum. How about getting a .41 Magnum for the police and sheriffs departments over the country that don’t care for the recoil of the big .44?’ I told him, Bill, there never was a better time. All the arms company heads are here as well as ammunition company heads. So if you side me, we’ll get them all together and get the job done right now.

“I asked them for a .41 Magnum, case length to be the same as the .44 Magnum, bullet diameter to be 0.410″ so that no old .38-40’s or .41 Long Colts could ever be revamped to handle the larger bullet, as they go around 0.403″. I wanted a 220-gr. bullet. Doug Hellstrom also insisted on the 0.410″ diameter to preclude the possibility of a cartridge ever being used in the old .41 guns which would not take its pressures. Earl Larsen of Remington could make the ammunition if the other boys would make the guns. Doug Hellstrom and Bill Gunn of Smith & Wesson agreed to bring out the gun…”

SIX-1

Taffin’s .41 Magnum Smith & Wesson Model 57 with an 83/8″
barrel wears stocks of bloodwood by BearHug.

Skeeter & Jordan

In his book No Second Place Winner, Bill Jordan shares about the .41 Magnum: “I do not intend to write much of this load because I’m sure that before this book is printed, reams will have appeared about the ‘new’.41 Magnum in the gun magazines. However, regarding all the writers who have climbed on the bandwagon and, I am sure, will now make load claims to have been the Pappy or Mammy of this load, I wish to make a statement! I tagged along with Elmer Keith and said amen while Elmer cornered the firearms and ammunition people, individually and collectively, at that 1963 NRA members meeting in Washington and got commitments which actually started the ball rolling… So, regardless of who set the actual dimensions and specifications, it was that grand old man of the shooting game who did the work that made this load a reality. I had hoped that one of the loads would be named the .41 Keith. It would have been fitting recognition to a man who has given much to shooting.”

That brings us down to Skeeter Skelton’s part in all this: “… the fact is I did little to promote the idea of a .41 Magnum-besides bombarding F.H. Miller, a Smith & Wesson executive, with letters suggesting such a revolver. This took place in the early ’60’s, just after I completed 10 years as a Border Patrolman and Sheriff. While working in those jobs, I had tried about everything in the way of a sidearm, and I believe there was a glaring need for a police revolver with more stopping power than the .357 and less recoil than the .44 Magnum. I felt then and still feel that if the ammo makers had given us .44 special ammunition loaded with a 250-gr. lead semi-wadcutter bullet at 1,000 fps, the result would be the ideal police round. Knowing this wasn’t going to happen, I got on the .41 Magnum kick. However, Elmer and Bill really got the ball rolling when they conferred with S&W and Remington brass at Camp Perry in 1963 and extracted promises from both companies to develop the gun and load.”

Bill Jordan, Elmer Keith and Skeeter Skelton all saw the .41 as a better choice for law officers over what was then available. The idea of a powerful cartridge larger than .38 though smaller than .44 was not a new one. Even Colt had toyed with the idea of a modernized .41 much more powerful than their .41 Long Colt, however they never brought it to production.

In between the two world wars such experimenters as Pop Eimer of Joplin, Mo., and Gordon Boser of New York State both experimented with heavy .40 caliber cartridges using shortened .401 Winchester rifle brass and .41 Long Colt and .38-40 Colt Single Actions with new cylinders to accept their wildcat cartridges. Using 180-gr. bullets they were getting velocities of 1,100 fps, which made them the most powerful sixgun cartridges, other than custom loaded .44 Specials, until the arrival of the .357 Magnum.

SIX-3

Smith & Wesson 4″ .41 Magnum shown, and some of the factory loads available.
There’s plenty of factory loads available if you’re not a reloader.

Cops Say No

The standard S&W .41 Magnum would last just under 30 years. During this time Smith & Wesson offered two basic models. The Model 57 was simply the .44 Magnum Model 29 with smaller holes in barrel and cylinder and in the mentioned barrel lengths. I never did understand the 6″ since the .44 Magnum came with a 61/2″ barrel. Once again things worked backwards and instead of offering the .41 with a 61/2″ barrel the .44 Magnum was standardized at 6″ in 1979. I much prefer the looks and balance that extra 1/2″ adds. In 1986 the stainless steel counterpart of the Model 57, the Model 657, arrived in the same three standard barrel lengths. Later models would have full under-lugged barrels and before the end of the century the .41 Magnum would be offered in the Mountain Gun configuration.

The second Smith & Wesson .41 Magnum was that 4″ Model 58 which looked much like a slightly larger Military & Police. This one came with fixed sights, standard Magna stocks and the ejector rod housing was not enclosed. It was designed as a police duty weapon using a 210-gr. bullet at around 900 fps. I wished they had stayed with the basic .38/44 Heavy Duty sixgun with its enclosed ejector rod as used for the prototype when they produced the Model 58 instead of using the profile of the Military & Police which did not have the enclosed ejector rod housing.

I believe only two departments ever adopted the Model 58, as most deemed it too big and heavy for everyday carry and also had too much recoil even with the 900 fps load. The Model 57 received a greater reception from a small group of connoisseurs who saw it as an excellent outdoorsman’s revolver with its 210-gr. bullet at 1,400 fps plus. Two attributes of the .41 Magnum over the .44 Magnum were quickly discovered — it recoiled slightly less and also shot much flatter at long distances.

SIX-5

Custom Ruger .41 Magnums by Ben Forkin and Alan Harton both
have case-hardening frames and shoot exceptionally well.

John Discovers The .41

It took me a while to adopt the .41 Magnum. When Diamond Dot and I visited Elmer Keith in the summer of 1968 he was packing an ivory stocked 4″ .41 Magnum; that same sixgun, along with the other member of the pair presented to him by Smith & Wesson, is now on display in the Elmer Keith Museum. Although I came to know the .41 Magnum late, about 15 years after it first arrived, I finally fell for the Smith & Wesson .41 Magnum and eventually wound up with a pair of 4″ Model 57’s stocked with exotic wood, Skeeter Skelton Kingwood grips by BearHug. These were followed by an 83/8″ version which also wears BearHug grips of very deep red bloodwood. I only just recently added a 6″ nickel-plated .41 sixgun, currently gripped with Herrett’s Jordan Trooper stocks of walnut.

To know the .41 Magnum is to appreciate it. It really does not need to be compared to any other cartridge as it can stand on its own merits. One of these is the fact it can deliver substantial muzzle energy without punishing recoil. Any sixgunner spending much time with the cartridge soon develops some favorite loads. Shortly after the .41 Magnum was introduced in 1964, a standard heavy loading consisting of a 220-gr. Keith bullet over 20 grains of #2400 was developed.

As with the .44 Magnum, I also use a lot of #2400 with the .41 Magnum, however rather than zeroing in at 20 grains, I experiment by using anywhere from 18 to 20 grains looking for the best load for a particular sixgun and situation. While 20 grains of #2400 has been perfectly safe in every .41 Magnum tested, giving velocities from 1,450-1,550 fps depending upon barrel length, I really feel most S&W sixguns will last a lot longer if the load is cut back to around 19 grains. This loading with the 220-gr. Keith bullet will give about 1,400 fps again depending upon barrel length.

SIX-6

The most accurate sixgun Taffin has ever experienced is
this Freedom Arms .41 Magnum. Those are 100-yard groups!

SIX-4

Classic Special and Magnum Cartridges: .38 Special and .357
Magnum, .41 Special and .41 Magnum, .44 Special and .44 Magnum.

Easy To Load

This 220-gr. bullet, cast hard, makes an excellent high-performance load whether the targets be live game, steel critters or an elusive tin can on the side of the yonder hill. One of the reasons this bullet is such an excellent performer is its long nose fills out the cylinder to the end. The longer a bullet is, all other things being equal, the more accurate it should be at long-range. I have used my standard 220-gr. Keith bullet/19 grains #2400 on both whitetail deer and one very upset, large feral hog. It has never failed.

While #2400 is an excellent powder for 1,400 fps loads in the .41 Magnum, it’s by no means the only powder to be used though. The same results can be had by employing either 22 grains of WW296, 22 grains of H110 or 22 grains of #4227. The latter powder is a real favorite of those who have found it develops top accuracy in Magnum sixguns, without heavy recoil or bore leading problems.

As with all Magnums, full-house loads are not always necessary or even desirable for the .41. Defensive situations, whether for practice or for real, call for high-performance loads having reduced muzzle velocities. The same is true of the loads which make pleasant Sunday afternoon plinking sessions or for teaching beginners how to shoot.

Loads in the 900-1,000 fps class are needed here. I prefer a #220 .411 bullet from an NEI mold which drops a semi-wadcutter weighing about 200 grains. This bullet has a flat nose which is almost .41 caliber itself. Loaded over 9.0 grains of HS-6 or 7.5 grains of Unique, this bullet at 900+ fps is perfect for these situations. This same NEI bullet over 21.0 grains of #2400 will deliver 1,600 fps from an 83/8″ Smith & Wesson giving a very flat shooting load. At maximum velocities, its large frontal area delivers maximum shocking power whatever the target may be. Its wide flat nose also makes for a defensive choice in short-barreled sixguns even though the velocities are at a very manageable 900 fps.

There are several jacketed bullets available for the .41 Magnum. For a flat- shooting, high-velocity load, Sierra’s 170-gr. JHC can be safely driven to 1,600 fps in a long-barreled .41 Magnum using either 22 grains of #2400, or 25 grains of either H110 or WW296. This is an excellent bullet for thin-skinned game. Sierra, Hornady and Speer all make jacketed bullets in the 210- to 220-gr. range which are top performers in the .41 Magnum at 1,300-1,400 fps in 83/8″ .41 Magnum Smith & Wesson sixguns. These velocities, along with excellent accuracy, can be obtained with 20-21 grains of either H110 or WW296.

Had the .41 Magnum arrived in between the .357 Magnum and the .44 Magnum it would’ve probably received greater respect as a natural step in the evolution of sixgun cartridges. Coming nearly 10 years after the .44 Magnum it instead remains the Sixgun Connoisseurs Cartridge. It’s difficult to not compare the .41 Magnum with the .44 Magnum. However, while the .41 Magnum cannot be made into a .44 — nor should it be — it’s an excellent performer in its own right. Any sixgun capable of delivering 220-gr. bullets at 1,500 fps can easily stand on its own merits. Those who take up the Smith & Wesson .41 Magnum must hold on to them, as while it’s relatively easy to find both Smith & Wesson .357 Magnums and .44 Magnums on the used gun market, one has to do a little searching to come up with a .41 Magnum.

SIX-2

Other Guns

Although Smith & Wesson was the first to introduce the .41 Magnum they were not the only company to do so. Ruger chambered their Blackhawk for the .41 Magnum very early on and would later offer both the Bisley Model and the Redhawk in .41. Dan Wesson chambered their large frame double-action revolver in .41 Magnum and I cherish my stainless steel Dan Wesson .41 as it came from my late good friend Hal Swiggett. One of the earlier offerings in .41 Magnum, from Italy through Intercontinental Arms, is a single-action sixgun looking much like a Ruger Super Blackhawk except for the brass grip frame and 1-piece Walnut stocks.

The most accurate .41 Magnum I have ever fired, in fact the most accurate sixgun I have ever encountered is the Freedom Arms Model 83 chambered in the Middle Magnum. Using my 101/2″ scope-sighted Model 83 and handloads using Hornady’s 210-gr.XTP-JHP bullets over AA#9 powder groups well under 1″ at 100 yards are easily attained. In fact I have one 4-shot group fired at 100 yards with three shots touching. I have yet to find a .357 Magnum or .44 Magnum sixgun/load combination which can equal this. So Happy Golden Anniversary to the .41 Magnum!
By John Taffin

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Old Man Guns

Recently, an 87-year-old man worked his wheelchair into the local gun shop to show my friend Cactus behind the counter his new self-defense purchase. The old man had just come from one of the franchise stores in town and they sold him about the worst possible self-defense revolver an old fragile person could get. His new gun was a lightweight titanium/scandium/un-obtanium 2″.357 Magnum 5-shot revolver.

Now this wouldn’t be a terribly bad choice if it was matched up with the proper ammunition, which I see being nothing more than .38 Special target wadcutters. Although designed for cutting nice round holes in paper targets, their full frontal area also qualifies them for self-defense use — especially when matched up with low recoil.

However, the old man’s ammunition — which was sold to him by the same person who placed the exceptionally lightweight .357 Magnum in his hand — was a box of high dollar +P+ heavy-bulleted .357 Magnum loads. As Cactus told me, if the old boy had fired this combination he probably would’ve broken something in his hand.

Cactus then made sure the old man had ammunition that wouldn’t do as much damage at the backend as the front. Personally, I almost always recommend a properly loaded, quality double-action .38 Special — which is easily obtainable in new and used sixguns.

SIX-1

John had the original springs in this Colt 1911 Lightweight .45 replaced.
The shortened version enables him to work the slide without cocking the hammer.

Age Brings Change

When we’re young, we can’t see ourselves getting old. We may wish for the day we’re of legal age, but it seems like something way, way, way off in the future. Then there comes a day when we realize our bodies are changing and it isn’t too long until we feel the effects of getting older.

I used to be able to shoot hundreds upon hundreds of heavy loads — really heavy sixguns loads. I’m now more careful; my wrists are banded and I’ve started wearing gloves. There was a time when the .44 Magnum was the least powerful big-bore cartridge I shot; now it’s at the top of the heap and I only shoot bigger stuff when absolutely necessary.

I also had to change my approach while shooting semi-autos. With the .45 ACP, recoil isn’t normally the problem — I find the grip frame of a standard 1911 to be very user-friendly. The problem is my fingers have a tendency to go numb, which makes it difficult to pick up small things. Sometimes I have difficulty working the slide on a semi-auto.

I watch the guys on the shooting shows work their slides and they seem to be on ball bearings. I often have to cock the hammer to release pressure before I can easily work the slide. So, I decided to make an Old Man 1911.

SIX-3

This old Webley .455 has been converted to handle .45 ACP
loads in full moon clips. This “modernized” sixgun is
perfect for those with tender hands thanks to its
top-break design.

SIX-5

A butchered 1950 Military .44 Special.It’s been
rescued from the bone pile with a new hammer
and custom grips.

Semi-Auto Candidate

Shooters have many choices when it comes to 1911’s, such as a full-sized, all-steel Government Model or a shorter-barreled, lightweight Commander. I like them both and I shoot them both. Colt recently came out with a combination of the two with their 1911 Lightweight .45 ACP. This is a full-sized Government Model with a Commander-type alloy frame. To me, it’s the best of both worlds as we have the easy-to-pack weight of the Commander matched up with the full-sized sight radius of the Government Model. This would be my candidate for a semi-auto Old Man Gun.

I went to my local gunsmith, Tom at Buckhorn and his 1911 specialist Randy, and asked them to do some polishing
on the rails, so the slide would work a little easier and I wouldn’t have to cock the hammer first. Mainly, I wanted them to change the springs, so I asked them to pull the recoil spring and mainspring, putting them away if I ever want to go back to the original and start with two new ones — removing coils makes everything work easier. Once you start this process, you better know which ammunition you’re going to use to ensure it’s 100 percent reliable.

Since this is a lightweight 1911 and it’ll be an old man behind it, I certainly didn’t want to use +P or even standard loads. Earlier, I reported in this magazine on the Low Recoil Loads being offered by Buffalo Bore (Handloading, July/Aug 2013). The idea came from a reader whose Commander was more than he could handle as he had gotten older, so I passed this on to Buffalo Bore and they came up with an excellent solution. Buffalo Bore has a 185-gr. load with a muzzle velocity of standard 230-gr. loads. It still gives plenty of power for self-defense while at the same time reducing felt recoil.

I took a box of Buffalo Bore’s 185-gr. Low Recoil Loads to my gunsmiths and they began the work of lightening up the springs. When they finished they ran three full magazines through the 1911 — everything worked perfectly. The polishing of the rails added to the lightening of the springs, making it possible for me to easily work the slide without cocking the hammer first. For the intended use, this Colt Lightweight 1911 definitely falls into the category of Perfect Packin’ Pistol.

SIX-2

Using Buffalo Bore Low Recoil loads, the OMG 1911
is a worthy travel partner and perfect packin’ pistol.

What About Sixguns?

How about big-bore sixguns as Old Man Guns? Cartridges such as .22, .32 and .38 Special are a given, but I wanted to stay with big bores and there’s no better big bore for this than the .44 Special. It does more with less recoil than any cartridge I know. The original loading was an approximately 250-gr. roundnose bullet at 750 fps. A better choice today for self-defense is the CCI 200-gr. JHP using the “flying ashtray” bullet. These are low recoil loads, especially in full-sized sixguns.

Smith & Wesson has been making N-frame .44’s since late 1907. Their first was the Triple-Lock, an absolutely beautiful sixgun, which can’t always be protected against gun butchers. A few years ago I picked up two Triple-Lock .44 Specials … and they were prime examples of butchery. So much so you’d really have to wonder what in the world their former owner was thinking.

To make it worse, one of the guns was the very rare Triple-Lock Target. Both guns had been cut to 4″ and had a poorly-shaped front sight fitted, they were then buffed and nickel-plated. The Target Model still had the original rear sight while the other had a channel cut for a new sight across the top of the frame, which was still bare.
I took these two guns, with apologies to my gunsmiths at Buckhorn, along with new sights. The front sights had blades while I had two rear sights. One was a D&L fixed sight, which filled in the channel in the standard Triple-Lock, and we went with a new-style Smith & Wesson adjustable rear sight for the Target Model. Both guns are now usable and shoot to point of aim and also qualify quite nicely as OMG’s (Old Man Guns) with the above-mentioned 200-gr. JHP load.

Not too long after putting these two .44 Specials back into shooting shape, I was on the Internet and found another S&W .44 Special which someone nearly destroyed. This was a very rare 1950 Military, a gun worth well over $1,000 in excellent shape. I got it for hardly anything simply because someone had bobbed the hammer, which was easily fixed by replacing it with a new hammer.

A very coarse file set about reshaping the grip frame and the original grips to a round-butt version. This wasn’t easily fixed, however the aforementioned Cactus not only came up with the replacement hammer, but also worked over a pair of custom grips to fit and cover up what had been done to the grip frame. Loaded up with the 200-gr. JHP’s once again makes this an excellent double-action OMG.

SIX-4

John’s S&W Model 329PD .44 Magnum makes for a superb and easy-shooting sixgun …
… especially when equipped with Crimson Trace laser grips. Not bad
for an “unintended consequence.”

More Worthy Options

Another sixgun option, which is very popular in Alaska, doesn’t even come close to being an OMG when loaded with .44 Magnum rounds. This sixgun is the S&W ultra-lightweight Model 329PD, a sixgun Hamilton Bowen believes you’d have to be somewhat crazy to shoot with full-house loads. I shot it with them and I have to say I totally agree with him. However when loaded with 200-gr. JHP .44 Specials it’s very easy to shoot.

To make it even more so, I’ve equipped mine with Crimson Trace laser sight grips. This isn’t the way engineers at S&W intended it to be used, but I’ll call it an “Unintended Consequence,” which really turned out positively.
One final Old Man Gun choice is a sixgun going back 100 years or more. In the 1870’s and 1880’s, Smith & Wesson pioneered the big-bore top-break revolver. Before the outbreak of World War II, both S&W and Colt were offering swing-out, solid top-frame double-action revolvers. The British and Canadians adopted the new Smith & Wessons and Colts, but they also had the top-break Enfield and Webley revolvers.

I especially like the Webley and I found one at a very reasonable price, which had been converted from .455 to .45 ACP, using full moon clips. When unlatching, all cartridges automatically eject and it’s very easy to reload. Matched up with the same Low Recoil loads from Buffalo Bore, it’s a very easy shooting “modernized” old sixgun.
By John Taffin

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Grandpa’s Top-Breaks

Carrying concealed is not a recent idea. All the “B” Western movies would have us believe everyone went around carrying openly; this was especially not true in cities. Yes, folks were armed, however they did it discreetly. The first viable cartridge firing revolver was the Smith & Wesson Tip-Up, 7-shot, single action chambered in .22 Short. Before this little pistol arrived both Colt and Remington produced .31 single action percussion pistols. All of these were fairly anemic by today’s standards but were certainly well above having nothing. Henry Deringer’s single shot percussion pistol became infamous when used by John Wilkes Booth.

The first successful center-fire cartridge firing revolver was the Smith & Wesson #3 American, which was chambered in .44 Smith & Wesson as well as .44 Rimfire to mate up with the Henry rifle. From the 1880’s well into the 20th century several firearms companies produced Top-Break pocket pistols. Top-break pistols are called that because they are hinged at the bottom-front of the frame and unlatch at the back-top of the frame, swinging down for loading and unloading.

Notable names include Iver Johnson, Harrington & Richardson and most assuredly Smith & Wesson. With today’s emphasis on safety triggers, internal locks and even padlocks, one might think this is a somewhat recent phenomenon. Not so, as the pocket pistols my grandfather had to choose from were often fitted with safety devices. My own grandfather had a .32 Iver Johnson Top-Break which eventually came to me.

Roy Jinks in his book History of Smith & Wesson traces the history of the Smith & Wesson early pocket pistols: “Within the Double Action group of revolvers, there is a series of pocket pistols that are unique in that they do not have an exposed hammer. They are truly just double-action revolvers rather than a combination of single and double action models like those previously discussed.”

SIX-2

Shooters had several choices when it came
to top-breaks chambered in .32 S&W.

SIX-1

Here’s a few less familiar makers: Forehand & Wadsworth,
Harrington & Richardson and Hopkins & Allen.

Development

Legend has it D.B. Wesson developed the Safety Hammerless model in a night-long session after hearing that a child had accidentally been hurt by cocking and pulling the trigger on one of the Smith & Wesson Double Action Revolvers. This legend cannot be substantiated, since factory records show a methodical development of the revolver. D.B. Wesson was a sensitive person and perhaps after hearing of this accident was inspired to work very closely with his son Joe to develop a revolver with the safety on the handle and a strong trigger requiring a long pull, making it impractical for a child to pull through and fire.

The development of this style also stems from the law enforcement officer’s requirement to draw his revolver from his coat pocket without the exterior hammer catching in the pocket lining. The development of the handgun was given to Joe Wesson as one of his first projects while working at the draft board. Joe Wesson had much of his father’s inventiveness, and on February 15, 1882, he completed his first drawings for a .38 Hammerless revolver. This revolver is strictly a double-action revolver in which the hammer was completely enclosed by frame. The design also included a floating firing pin rather than a firing pin located on the hammer.

That first revolver design was not accepted by D.B. Wesson and subsequently, in 1884, Joe Wesson designed the .38 Safety Hammerless revolver which had a lever along the back of the grip strap. Unless this lever was pressed positively by the gripping hand, the hammer was blocked from moving. This design was finalized in 1886.

Roy Jinks says: “When the revolver was developed in 1886, plans were made to produce it in three calibers: .32 S&W, .38 S&W and .44 S&W Russian. In fact, the first advertisement stated the revolver was soon be produced in all of these calibers. After producing a prototype of the No. 3 Hammerless, as the .44 caliber model was called, all production plans were stopped and it was only produced in the other two calibers.”

The .38 Safety Hammerless would go through five models and over 250,000 revolvers from 1886 until 1940, with models available in barrel lengths from 2″ to 6″ as well as blue and nickel finishes. Two years after the arrival of the .38 Safety Hammerless, Smith & Wesson introduced a slightly smaller .32 Safety Hammerless and just under 250,000 were produced by 1937.

All of these revolvers are not only known as the Safety Hammerless Model but also as the New Departure. In addition to the Safety Hammerless version, Smith & Wesson also produced over 500,000 .38 Double Action Models with an exposed hammer, and nearly one-third of a million .32 Double Action Models. Adding up all the production figures of the Top-Break revolvers from Smith & Wesson shows just how prevalent Smith & Wesson revolvers actually were. And remember this was in the day before CCW permits, so it’s obvious thousands of people carried in grandfather’s time.

SIX-6

Iver Johnson’s “Hammer The Hammer” touted the revolvers transfer bar safety.

SIX-3

Smith & Wesson produced millions of pocket pistols
beginning with a tip-up, spur-triggered version.

Iver Johnson

Smith & Wesson produced a lot of top-break revolvers, as did Iver Johnson. The Norwegian-born Johnson combined with a fellow by the name of Bye to form a company, however Johnson eventually bought his partner out and the Iver Johnson Arms & Cycle Works based in Massachusetts produced both bicycles and firearms. The original Johnson died in 1895 shortly after the arrival of the revolver with the strange name of “Safety Automatic.”

There was no safety and it certainly wasn’t a semi-auto. What it did have was an internal transfer bar safety. This was nearly 80 years before Ruger pioneered the modern transfer bar. Just as with the Ruger of today the transfer bar on the Iver Johnson rode between the hammer and the cartridge and prevented the gun from discharging unless the trigger was depressed all the way, at which time the transfer bar would retreat. If the trigger was not pressed there was no way the gun could fire.

Iver Johnson used this in their advertising to great effect. Large letters proclaimed “Hammer the Hammer” and the advertising pictured an Iver Johnson held in one hand and a carpenter’s hammer being used in the other hand to smack the hammer soundly. I can guarantee if this is tried with traditional Single Actions, such as the original Colt or early Rugers, the gun will definitely fire if there is a round under the hammer.

By the time Iver Johnson brought out their Safety Automatic Revolvers more than a few shooters had probably shot themselves or others because they dropped Colt Single Actions which were fully loaded with a round under the chamber. Elmer Keith wrote of one cowboy who hit the hammer of his holstered Colt Single Action with his stirrup and the gun fired.

Iver Johnson also proclaimed their “Safety Automatic Revolver is not a revolver for you to make temporarily safe by throwing on or off some lever, but a revolver that we have made permanently and automatically safe by the patented exclusive Iver Johnson construction.” The Iver Johnson Safety Automatic sold for $6-$7 depending upon the finish.

SIX-5

Taffin uses .38 swaged bullets for use in top-breaks
loaded with black powder.

Trigger Safety

Just as with the Smith & Wesson Top-Breaks, the Iver Johnsons were chambered in 5-shot versions of .32 S&W and .38 S&W as well as a 7-shot .22 Long Rifle. Just as with Henry Deringer’s pocket pistol, Iver Johnson’s version became infamous when it was used by Leon Czolgosz to assassinate President William McKinley, causing Theodore Roosevelt to become president.

Okay, so the transfer bar is not a new design, having been pioneered by Iver Johnson so long ago. At least the safety trigger as first found on the Glock is new, right? Nope, no new design here either. Long before Gaston Glock was born or even thought about producing firearms, Iver Johnson’s top-break pocket pistol was being produced with that funny little bar in the center the trigger. These were hammerless models so there was no hammer to hammer, however the safety trigger precluded it being fired unless positively pressed. Iver Johnson did not stop there. Some of the revolvers will have what appears to be a trigger stop behind the trigger in the trigger guard. This is not a trigger stop but rather another safety and the revolver will not fire unless the back of the trigger presses this little bar positively.

Smith & Wesson and Iver Johnson produced millions of these small pocket revolvers so you can bet a lot of folks went around armed. However, they are not the only manufacturers filling the pockets of numerous grandpas and grandmothers’ purses.

SIX-4

Top-break revolvers still work fine with .38 S&W black powder loads.

Other Makers

Beginning in 1880 Harrington & Richardson started producing top-break revolvers. Just as with the other makers, they chambered them in the two predominant pocket pistol cartridges of the time, the .32 S&W and .38 S&W. One thing we haven’t mentioned is how quickly top-break revolvers can be unloaded and reloaded. When the lock is opened and the barrel turned 90 degrees down, cartridges, whether fired are not, automatically eject, and it’s very easy to then reload. Harrington & Richardson took advantage of this by calling their revolvers “Premier Auto Ejecting” and “Automatic Ejecting.”

Another company producing top-breaks was Forehand & Wadsworth. Diamond Dot has one in her collection of top breaks and it seems to be a quality revolver all the way around. A company that did not have a reputation for producing the best quality was Hopkins & Allen. What is most interesting about this company is they were hired to produce the Merwin & Hulbert revolvers, which were some of the best revolvers ever produced. Hopkins & Allen also produced many of the Forehand & Wadsworth revolvers.

All of the above-mentioned top-break revolvers are antiques, with some being nearly 125 years old. They were mostly chambered in two low-pressure cartridges like the .32 S&W and .38 S&W. Currently Buffalo Bore produces these two cartridges, and very emphatically states neither one of these is to be used in any top-break revolvers for several simple reasons. These guns were originally produced in the black powder era, of an inherently weak design. Buffalo Bore’s .32 and .38 S&W cartridges are for use only in solid frame Colts, such as the Bankers Special, and Smith & Wesson’s Terrier.

Top-break .32 and .38 S&W revolvers are currently being used in many side matches in Cowboy Action Shooting. If you happen to have one in excellent shape and wish to use it, please have a gunsmith check it first. You might also consider locating a chart of serial numbers which will shed light on which guns are black powder and which are intended for smokeless powder. I pretty much stay safe, using black powder loads in these old revolvers.
By John Taffin

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Playin’ Favorites:

More .38 Special Sixguns.

Just as the vast majority of those sixgunners from my era, I started most of my reloading chores in the mid-1950’s with the .38 Special. I did not own a .38 Special at the time but rather a pair of .357 Magnums consisting of a 45/8″ Ruger Blackhawk and a 4″ S&W Highway Patrolman. While it was difficult to find .357 Magnum brass and quite expensive when achieved (I cherished 50 rounds of Norma .357 brass for several years!), .38 Special brass was not only readily available but also quite inexpensive.

I obtained a single cavity Lyman #358429 Keith bullet mold, molded bullets over my mother’s kitchen stove and loaded hundreds upon hundreds of .38/44 loads in .38 Special brass for shooting in my Magnum sixguns. They were all loaded with 13.5 grs. of #2400, which is an extremely hot loading with pressures exceeding most of today’s .357 Magnum factory rounds. After all these years, I still load this round a lot for .357 Magnum sixguns and use it very sparingly in heavy-framed .38 Specials, but mostly use around 12.0 grs. in the latter these days.

The Smith & Wesson Military & Police arrived in 1899 and was destined to be very popular as a law enforcement sidearm for more than half a century. It did not take long for Smith & Wesson to add adjustable target sights to what is now known as the K-Frame platform. The K-38 with a 6″ barrel was destined to become one of the most popular target revolvers of the 20th century. Not only was it used for target shooting, it also became a police sidearm and was soon offered with a 4″ barrel and adjustable sights for police use.

These are superbly shooting medium-framed revolvers for target and standard loaded .38 Specials. For target shooting, the .38 wadcutter was widely used, and shooters found the same sixgun and load also made an excellent close range small game, varmint and pest load. The 148-gr. wadcutter does not move very fast but hits with authority due to its full caliber flat nose. The late Jack Weaver of Weaver Stance fame did most of his shooting, keeping up with or exceeding those with 1911’s, with a 6″ K-38.

SIX-1

This USFA .38 Special 51/2″ is the Single Action version
of a .38 Heavy Duty, an all-around, handy .38 Special.

SIX-2

During the heyday of Bullseye competition the two top .38’s were
the S&W K-38 Masterpiece (L) and the Colt Match Target.

Modernizing

In the 1920’s, crime was rampant in this country and police were often outgunned and needed help with more powerful sidearms. Especially needed were loads that would penetrate car bodies as criminals had long since left horses behind and traveled in Ford V-8’s.

Colt’s answer in 1929 was the upgrading of the .38 ACP to the .38 Super chambered in the 1911 using a 130-gr. FMJ at 1,300 fps. Smith & Wesson stayed with a revolver and the .38 Special, however they moved up to a larger frame sixgun using a more powerful .38 Special. The platform was the N-Frame Model 1926 .44 Special fitted with a .38 barrel and cylinder and the result was the .38/44 Heavy Duty, one of the finest double action sixguns of all time. The .38/44 ammunition was approximately 300 fps faster than the standard round-nosed lead .38 Special and was offered in a metal piercing round.

Just as they had done with the original fixed-sighted M&P, Smith & Wesson added target sights to the .38/44 and the result was the 61/2″-barreled .38/44 Outdoorsman. With the arrival of the original .38/44, both Elmer Keith and Phil Sharpe went to work with even heavier loadings. The standard Keith .38/44 load was his 168-gr. cast SWC bullet over 13.5 grs. of #2400. This is an extremely powerful loading and should be used with due caution. Pressures are above some of today’s .357 Magnum rounds, and while I have used this load extensively for my older .38/44’s, I have pretty much dropped back to 12.0 grs., saving the heavier load for use in .357 Magnum sixguns.

The .44 Special Triple-Lock gets all the publicity as the finest sixgun produced by Smith & Wesson, however the .38/44 Outdoorsman was not all that far behind. S&W’s Col. Doug Wesson and Phil Sharpe went to work seriously with the .38/44 and the result in 1935 was the .357 Magnum, which was virtually a hand-built version of the Outdoorsman.

The .38/44 has been out of production since the 1960’s, however, it remains an excellent sixgun whether for double-action shooting or outdoor use. With the Keith bullet over 12.5 grs. of #2400, my circa 1948 Outdoorsman does over 1,200 fps. Switching to the lighter hollowpoint version of #358429 results in 1,350 fps and groups well under 1″. As long as I have a .38/44 Outdoorsman I can get along quite well without a .357 Magnum (not that I want to!).

SIX-3

John’s pair of 1950’s Great Westerns in .38
Special still shoot great.

SIX-4

Before the .357 Magnum there was the .38/44 Outdoorsman.

Colt

Even more popular than the S&W K-38 as a target revolver was the Colt Officers Model Match. Built on the Official Police .41 frame, these sixguns were known for their fine fitting and accuracy. Anyone who has ever cocked a finely tuned Colt realizes how smooth a double action revolver can be. Mine is shot regularly and exclusively with .38 wadcutters and after more than 50 years of service is still capable of match accuracy.

While Smith & Wesson went to a larger frame to come up with a more powerful .38 Special, Colt stayed with their Official Police frame bringing out an adjustable sighted 4″ for police and self defense use. The same frame eventually evolved in the 1950’s to the Colt .357 Magnum and then the magnificent .357 Magnum Python.

Colt’s large-frame, double-action, swing-out cylinder revolver dated back to the 1890’s and was known as the New Service. During WWI this large sixgun was chambered in .45 ACP requiring the use of half-moon clips and was known as the Model 1917. In all the years I’ve been shooting I have been privileged to experience the Colt New Service in .45 ACP, .45 Colt, .44 Special, .44-40 and .38-40.

However, in this time I had never come onto a .38 Special New Service. Prior to WWII these were the issue guns of the Border Patrol but I had never found one at any kind of reasonable price until now. This past spring I walked into the Cabela’s Gun Library and what should I find but an extremely reasonably priced .38 Special New Service. Standard barrel lengths of the other chamberings were 41/2″, 51/2″ and 71/2″, however for some reason this .38 Special not only has a 6″ barrel, but the grip frame is slightly modified from the other standard versions.

Although I’ve mostly shot Smith & Wessons, when it comes to Heavy Duty .38 Specials, this New Service is fast becoming a favored sixgun. It’s every bit as strong as a Smith & Wesson .38/44, and possibly stronger. However, it’s also even older than I am so I approach it with the same caution with handloads as I do the vintage Smith & Wessons. It has been fashionable for many years to consider the .38 Special as not all that much, but being realistic, short of big game hunting, there’s not a whole lot needing to be done with a sixgun that can’t be accomplished with a 158-gr. bullet at 1,200 fps.

SIX-5

Targets shot with the largest double-action .38 Special ever produced,
the Colt New Service. John found this one at a Cabela’s!

Single Actions

Colt Single Action .38 Specials have only been rarely found, and especially so in their 1st Generation run. Several years ago I came up with a 2nd Generation .38 Special, however since it had already been modified I took the next step and turned it into a .44 Special. What has been lacking in personally found Colt SAAs has been filled by .38 Specials from two other single action manufacturers. Colt had stopped manufacturing the Single Action Army in 1940 with a statement it would never return.

Great Western began producing replicas of the Colt in 1954 and these were entirely American-made sixguns from their factory in Los Angeles. They lasted less than 10 years. Today Great Westerns have attained collector status, however 15 years ago I bought two of them for less than the price of one today. One of those was a matte finished 71/2″ .38 Special.

A friend of mine, now gone to his reward, found another GW .38 Special for me with a buggered-up barrel which has since been replaced by the 51/2″ barrel originally on the Colt .38 Special mentioned above. They may not be Colts but I consider them Single Action .38/44 Heavy Duties and I certainly enjoy shooting them, feeding them mostly with loads consisting of the 158-gr. Lyman #358156 Thompson Gas Check cast bullet or the 168 gr. Keith bullet over 12.0 grs. of #2400 for 1,200-1,300 fps.

Several years ago the now gone Shoot Magazine received a 51/2″ USFA Single Action in payment for advertising. No one on the staff wanted it because it was “just a .38 Special.” USFA Single Actions are dead ringers for Colt 1st Generation sixguns and Ed McGivern’s favorite Colt Single Action was a 51/2″ .38 Special. This was the single action sixgun he did all of his speed shooting with in that style. If it was good enough for Ed McGivern it was certainly good enough for me. It’s such a beautiful sixgun it now wears flame-grained exotic wood stocks by Roy Fishpaw. Just as with the Great Western .38 Special, this one exists on the same diet and rides in a vintage S.D. Myers holster when I am out and about.

I can’t fault those who look down their nose at the .38 Special too much, since I did the same thing at one time. As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten wiser, at least in some aspects.

Want to comment on this article? Drop me a note at editor@nullamericanhandgunner.com and let us know what you think! For more info: www.americanhandgunner.com/index and click on a company name.
By John Taffin

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Belly Guns And Self-Defense

There’s always been a certain segment of the shooting population who have considered the .38 Special to be a poor man stopper. This may have been true with the original round-nosed lead bulleted versions, but today we have a long list of .38 Special rounds available. From target wadcutters and jacketed hollowpoints, to +P loadings and the latest from Buffalo Bore — a 158-gr. “Outdoorsman Load” with a velocity of 1,200 fps — the field is full of choices. Even today, with all the available polymer pocket pistols, my recommendation for a first handgun for concealment and self-defense use is a .38 Special with a 2″ barrel. If you’re recoil shy, such a revolver loaded with .38 Target Wadcutters is relatively pleasant to shoot while still being effective. Anyone who has ever shot any kind of varmint with one of these loads remembers the authoritative “thwack” sound when they hit.

SIX-4

A S&W .38 Military & Police and early advertising
proclaiming “A Small Friend You Can Really Trust.”

SIX-5

Shooting rapid-fire, double-action at 10 yards with the S&W .38
Chiefs Special and Colt .38 Detective Special shows they
certainly can deliver the goods!

Colts

In 1926 Colt introduced the first Detective Special simply by fitting the Police Positive with a 2″ barrel. Then, seven years later it was further improved by rounding off the front and back corners of the grip frame. A Classic sixgun was born. In 1936, soon-to-be Col. Charles Askins said of the Detective Special: “There has always been a constant need for a type of pistol which is even smaller and more compact than any of the various Colt models previously described. This third class of arm is the pocket handgun invaluable to the plainclothes officer or civilian in need of a weapon combining knockdown power and compactness. Pocket guns, or as they are familiarly called, ‘belly guns’, enjoy a large sale because of their great utility.”

The Colt Detective Special was the first of the modern “Belly Guns” and is still one of the best. Even after all these years, the Colt Detective Special is still an excellent choice for concealed and self-defense use. My lust for the Colt Detective Special began with an article by the late Skeeter Skelton in our sister publication GUNS in the late 1950’s. Skeeter had a pair of nickel-plated, ivory-stocked Detective Specials with bobbed-off hammers. The closest I came in the early 1960’s was a nickel-plated Colt Cobra, which is nothing more than a Detective Special with a lightweight alloy frame. Somehow in my youth I let it get away, but about 10 years ago I found another one new in the box. It didn’t stay that way very long.

Most double-action sixguns I shoot are shot single-action. However, with the Detective Special and the Cobra I make a concentrated effort to fire them double-action only. They are not target revolvers, they are not plinking pistols, they are not hunting handguns, they are made for self-defense and that normally means quick action. With this in mind, I always practice with both my Detective Specials and Cobras shooting double action at 7-10 yards. If I ever need them seriously that’s where the action will be.

SIX-2

The Smith & Wesson’s J-frame Chiefs Special, right, holds five
rounds while the K-frame M&P is a true six-shooter.
Custom stocks are by BluMagnum.

S&W

Smith & Wesson’s offering of Belly Guns goes back to the early days of the top-break pocket pistols. With the arrival of the M&P in 1899, the stage was set for a really fine double-action pocket pistol. However, as far as I know, Smith & Wesson did not offer a 2″ M&P until after WWII. Early advertising said of S&W’s M&P: “There is a warm spot in the hearts of thousands of detectives and plain-clothes operatives all over the country for this little gun, which has proven itself a fine companion in a tight spot many and many a time. A short-barreled version of the world’s largest-selling revolver, the 2″ M&P’s small size makes it easy to conceal and gives you lightning-fast handling qualities. Yet its 281/2 ounce weight and hand-filling Magna grips absorb the recoil of the powerful full-charge .38 S&W Special cartridge with comfort.”

Both the Colt Detective Special/Cobra and the S&W M&P are 6-shot .38 Specials, and each has their advantages. The smaller Colts are probably easier to conceal and carry, however, the M&P is built on what we now call the K-frame with a larger grip frame. In fact, of all the double-action revolvers I have ever handled, with standard factory stocks the K-frame fits my hand the best. This makes the M&P much more comfortable and easier to shoot for me, although I do feel well armed with either manufacturer’s offerings.

Prior to WWII, Smith & Wesson offered their smallest revolvers as the I-Frame. Considered too small for the .38 Special, they were mostly offered in .32 Long and .38 S&W. In 1950, a major change occurred with the introduction of S&W’s Chiefs Special.

SIX-3

Useful for both self-defense and the trail, S&W’s “Trail
Masterpiece” Model 60 is a 5-shooter. Custom stocks are by BluMagnum.

Game-Changer

The unveiling took place at the International Association of Chief’s of Police Meeting in Colorado Springs. A vote was held among the law enforcement officers to name the new gun and the Chiefs chose Chiefs Special. It did not take long for this little 5-shot revolver to become the epitome of Perfect Pocket Pistols.

My own first Chiefs Special was the square butt version, many decades ago. About 20 years ago I decided to make it into a truly custom pocket piece. It was totally tuned by Teddy Jacobsen, and I also had him bob the hammer, as it would be mostly used for double-action shooting. It was coated with a wear-resistant stainless steel type finish by Metalife, and just recently fitted with custom stocks by BluMagnum. I have extreme confidence in it after all these years.

In 1965, Smith & Wesson introduced the stainless steel Model 60 version of the Chiefs Special. Everything good said about the blued Chiefs Special applies even more so to the Model 60, as the stainless steel construction makes it a good choice for constant use. One of the variations of the Model 60 is what my friend Terry Murbach has dubbed the “Trail Masterpiece.” It’s simply a Model 60 fitted with a heavy underlugged 3″ barrel enclosing the ejector rod. It’s definitely an excellent companion for the trail. It’s certainly not suitable for big game, but for camp meat, or varmints with two or four legs, it will do the job when properly loaded.

SIX-1

Colt’s “Belly Guns”: Detective Specials top, and Cobras, bottom, all have 6-shot cylinders.

Affordable And Reliable

For much of the 20th century, every police officer on duty carried either a Smith & Wesson M&P or a Colt Official Police, both chambered in .38 Special. These guns have been mostly forgotten by the masses, however they’re still viable self-defense sixguns. One of my favorites is a relatively late Model 10 with a heavy barrel and round butt, while another goes all the way back to the 1940’s. The latter has been refinished in the military style and has the original slim pencil-shaped barrel. Both of these M&Ps have only been fired double action and I intend to keep it that way. Ed McGivern’s favored speed shooting double action was the M&P, and although I’ll never even be close to his speed or accuracy, I still use these sixguns the way they were intended.

When it comes to most of my sixguns I am a handloader, not a reloader. The former experiments with different powders, charges and bullets while the latter finds one load and sticks to it. For practice loads with the .38 Special Belly Guns I’m in the latter category, reloading 158-gr. SWC’s over 4.0-5.0 grs. of Unique and switching to factory loads for daily carry.

In spite of my affection for .38 Special Belly Guns, I do also like plastic polymer pistols for several reasons. They are lightweight, and every one I have tried — and I’ve tried most of them — are totally reliable. And, an unintended consequence of their widespread proliferation is the fact it’s now possible to find .38 Specials at very reasonable prices!
For decades, sixgunners grouped into two camps, either Colt or Smith & Wesson. I’m much more bipartisan and when it comes to Belly Guns I’m an equal opportunity user and advocate. They are both excellent choices, even in the second decade of the 21st century.
By John Taffin

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The New Breed

There are a number of excellent reasons causing me to take pride in being connected with this magazine, not the least of which is the desire to introduce readers to some of the talented craftsmen plying their trade today. We are fortunate to be living in an age with the greatest sixgunsmiths who have ever existed, and many have been spotlighted in these pages. In addition to these talented metalsmiths, we also enjoy the works of superb leathermakers, gripmakers and engravers.

Rowen very classy Claro Walnut stocks on a Smith & Wesson.

One-piece stocks of stunning French Walnut by Rob Rowen on a USFA .45 Colt.

The Best Of

Even though we’re theoretically in the age of polymer pistols with matching plastic holsters, there’s no shortage of beautifully crafted holsters of real leather. We have everything from very large companies, to 1-man shops — and everything in-between. Mike Barranti is a 1-man shop operating as Barranti Leather Co. I first met Mike at a Shootists Holiday a few years ago when he was doing leather part time. Since then he’s given up his regular day job and is now devoting all his working hours to building the best possible leather goods.

Mike specializes in providing what he calls Classic Gunleather: holsters patterned after vintage designs offered by George Lawrence, H.H. Heiser and S.D. Myres. Over the past few years, I have been able to provide Mike with pictures of some of the older designs, especially those used by Elmer Keith. Using these pictures as guidelines Mike has been able to come up with faithful reproductions of various classic holsters, especially Elmer Keith’s favored #120 Lawrence. Mike now offers this in a full floral carved pattern as on the original, with the extra bonus of being of better quality.

One of the favorite holster designs used by the Texas Rangers was that of Lee Trimble as built by A.W. Brill. Mike offers this holster, which is often seen in older pictures of Texas Rangers housing their .45 ACP 1911s. My Commander is carried in a Barranti/Brill, which is black, basket-stamped with a matching pants belt. The solid holster just barely covers the front of the triggerguard on a 1911.

Followers of Skeeter Skelton will remember his special holster complete with his old cattle brand. Mike duplicated this for me to house my Skeeter Skelton Special .44. It’s a great field holster. Mike not only offers traditional designs but also just about anything a customer could want, including holsters specially designed for handgun hunters. He follows the three necessary ingredients in making a quality holster — quality of design, material and craftsmanship.

Any connoisseur of great sixguns knows the name Roy Fishpaw. Roy is the gripmaker’s-gripmaker, that is the absolute best when it comes to providing custom grips. Roy recently introduced me to a fellow by the name of Rob Rowen. In 2005, Rob started making handgun stocks (after making rifle stocks since the 1990s) and a few years later decided to have a pair of grips made by Roy Fishpaw — what he said would be a “real set of grips.” Instead of shipping a gun to Roy, he made the 4-hour drive to meet Roy personally. He also took along some of his efforts at grip making to share with Roy.

Rob said: “Since those visits, Roy has welcomed me back numerous times, and for many hours. He has helped by critiquing my work, and offering thoughts of all aspects of grip making. He has shown me many of the tricks and techniques he had learned over many years. Roy has really been my mentor. With guidance from him I’ve been able see many more possibilities, and strive for a level of work I was unaware of before. Roy is the best there is at grip making.”

I sent Rob a 6″, nickel-plated, .357 Mag S&W Model 586 and a 43/4″, full blue, .45 Colt USFA Single Action. We discussed the general path to be taken with grips, including no cut-out on the left grip of the S&W to accommodate cartridge ejection, as I think this is unnecessary and also ruins the classic look of the grips.

The USFA was to be fitted with 1-piece stocks. I left the choice of wood up to him but specified no sharp edges on the Single Action stocks.

For the Smith, Rob chose Claro Walnut. The design of the grips falls into the Roper/Skeeter Skelton/early S&W Target-style, with an open backstrap fully filled in behind the triggerguard and frontstrap and an extension below the butt. Many people have offered this style of stock, however they’re all not equal, and everyone who works with wood does not necessarily understand what a set of stocks should feel like. Rob came up with a pair, which fit me perfectly, both physically and emotionally. They are also beautifully fitted to the sixgun itself. I see no way they could be improved.

For the USFA .45, Rob chose beautifully striped French Walnut. Single-action stocks are often tapered wrong and also not fitted properly where the top of the stock meets the mainframe. Rob understands what single-action stocks should feel like and they are also perfectly fitted to the frame. I don’t know if Rob learned all this understanding of the way stocks should feel from Roy Fishpaw or if he just has a natural feeling himself. I would guess it’s a combination of the two.

Fully engraved Ruger .44 Special Flat-Top, engraved by Gouse.

S&W .44 Special by Michael Gouse, with ivory stocks.

Engraving/Pistolsmithing

In 2005, Ruger brought out their 50th Anniversary .357 Blackhawk Model and I thought it would make a perfect .44 Special as it was the same size as the original, rather than the .44 Magnum frame-sized .357 New Model Blackhawk. Jason Cloessner of Lipsey’s also thought so, and the .357 Magnum Flat-Top Blackhawk Anniversary Model was chambered in .44 Special and offered by Lipsey’s, a major distributor to the firearms trade.

Ruger liked the idea so well the New Model Flat-Top .44 Special became a standard catalog item for them. The blue versions sold well for Lipsey’s, the natural next step would be a stainless steel .44 Special Flat-Top. I liked mine so well it was fully hand engraved by Michael Gouse even before I shot it.

Michael had already done a 4″ stainless steel S&W .44 Special Model 624 for me earlier, so I knew what to expect. When I got the Ruger back and actually fired the first rounds I was not disappointed as it is capable of 1-hole groups. Michael’s engraving was exceptionally well carried out and also priced very reasonably. I completed it by fitting it with ivory grips. All in all it is a beautiful sixgun, which performs as well as it looks.

Last year Lipsey’s began offering what is definitely a direct inspiration from Keith’s #5 SA. It’s not called a #5, but it is a .44 Special with a Flat-Top frame, adjustable sights, wide hammer and 51/2″ barrel. Keith’s original #5 grip frame was made by blending the backstrap of a Bisley and the triggerguard of a Single Action. However, Lipsey’s uses the Ruger Bisley Model grip frame, which fits most sixgunner’s hands much better than the smallish Keith-style. I know felt recoil is quite subjective, but at least in my hand the standard Bisley grip is also just about the best factory single-action grip for reducing felt recoil.

I liked this .44 Special Bisley Model so well I decided to make it something very special after confirming this sixgun was an excellent shooter. The next step was to send it off to Roy Fishpaw to be fitted with ivory stocks. Roy did his normal job of beautifully fitting and finishing elephant ivory to the Ruger Bisley .44 Special.

It was then turned over to Mike and Tom at Buckhorn with instructions to remove the safety warning on the bottom of the barrel, completely polish for re-finishing, and also tune the action. With its return to me it then went to Michael Gouse in Montana (Ph: [406] 363-0254) to be fully engraved. Michael did his usual excellent job of engraving. When he did my first Ruger .44 Special he asked if I had a particular brand I would like placed on the top of the backstrap. I showed him how I wanted “JAT” done and he accomplished it perfectly. When I got the Bisley .44 Special back I found my brand on the top strap — another very nice personal touch. Check out his website for other pictures and also some engraved guns he has for sale from time to time.

Originally I had planned to re-finish this Ruger .44 Special with a case-hardened frame and hammer and then I realized Elmer’s original #5 was completely blue. So, the Bisley Model went back to Buckhorn to be blued, including the hammer and trigger. Buckhorn uses a local fellow, Rocky York, who does an excellent job of bluing. With the bluing accomplished and the ivory stocks in place this Perfect Packin’ Pistol is totally reliable, exceptionally accurate, virtually indestructible and capable of stirring the mind, heart, soul, and spirit of any true sixgunner.

Elmer Keith used his #5 SA extensively, to the point it needing to be re-blued twice. I’m certainly not as active these days as I once was, however, someday one of my grandsons will inherit this .44 Special — and he will find it’s been used.
By John Taffin

For more info: www.americanhandgunner.com/product-index and click on the company name.

Mike Barranti’s recreation of the A.W. Brill Texas Ranger holster.

Ruger Bisley Model .44 Special, also engraved by Michael Gouse,
ivory-stocked by Roy Fishpaw and with leather by Mike Barranti.

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