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.
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:  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
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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.