A Bit Of Touchable History

Hamilton Bowen's No. 5

The No. 5 Ruger Old Model with two cylinders in .41 Special and .41 Magnum.

As so many other things having to do with firearms it began with Elmer Keith. Keith was born in 1899 and during his growing up years quality sixguns as well as components were nowhere near as easy to access as they are today. As a teenager he mostly shot black-powder Colts. Celebrating the Fourth of July in 1925, he blew apart an old Colt .45 using black powder loads. These were not ordinary black-powder loads as he ground the powder granules to a consistency akin to flour looking for all possible muzzle velocity in his old Colt.

The top of the chamber as well as the top strap blew and he decided to go with a different cartridge. The .44 Special had arrived in late 1907 but as of 1925 he was yet to see one. This soon changed as he realized the .44 in a Colt Single Action cylinder resulted in more steel around the cartridge case, thus he shifted from the .45 Colt to the .44 Smith & Wesson Special. This was to have far-reaching effects, which are even felt today.

The .41 Special Bowen Ruger No. 5. Elegance from the Bowen shop.

In September 1928 in the American Rifleman Keith wrote of a visit from Harold Croft of Pennsylvania. Croft took the train all the way out to visit Keith at his ranch in Durkee, Ore. He brought with him, as Keith describes it, “a whole suitcase full of custom sixguns.” These were all chambered in .45 Colt, however Keith liked many of the modifications he saw. Each man was affected by the other. Croft had four main sixguns, two built on the Colt Single Action and the other two on the Colt Bisley. All four of these featured special sights, and one, which Croft called his Featherweight No. 3, had a modified grip frame combining the Bisley Colt backstrap with the Single Action triggerguard. Croft went back home and Keith went to work designing the perfect sixgun.

The .44 Special Bowen Ruger No. 5 for those who prefer this classic caliber.

The Last Word

In the April 1929 issue of the American Rifleman, Keith unveiled his perfect sixgun, or as he called it “The Last Word.” Taking the best ideas of Harold Croft and combining them with his own, he came up what is now the very famous No. 5 S.A.A. When I was on the board of the Elmer Keith Museum Foundation in the early 1990s, I was privileged to examine all of Elmer Keith’s sixguns including his No. 5, then later to place it in the center of the sixguns section in the Elmer Keith Museum residing inside Cabela’s in Boise, Idaho. I still visit it, along with Keith’s other sixguns, at least once a month.

The first two Bowen Ruger No. 5s rest on a copy of Hamilton’s book, The Custom Revolver — a must-read
for any revolver fan! Available from Bowen Classic Arms.

Taking The Reins

About 10 years ago, Hamilton Bowen built his first No. 5s on USFA mainframes with the first two examples being blued everyday working guns with walnut stocks, and the other the very image of Keith’s No. 5 complete with full engraving and carved ivory stocks. Now Bowen is offering the basic idea of the No. 5 on Rugers, both New Models and Old Models, and in a choice of chamberings.
Thanks to two friends, Bob Alford and Robb Barnes, who have waited a long time for their custom sixguns, I was granted the rare privilege of not only seeing them first but also being the first to shoot both of these exquisite sixguns. One is built on a New Model Ruger while the other started as an old Model, and one is chambered for the .44 Special while the other has two cylinders, one in .41 Special and the other .41 Magnum.

Today we are blessed to have the best sixgunsmiths of all time crafting the best custom guns ever offered, and Hamilton Bowen is in the rarified top portion of that list. There is seemingly nothing Bowen cannot do and he has the creative mind to come up with some pretty elegant projects. He has built some of the biggest most powerful revolvers possible while at the same time having a real soft spot in his heart for the .32-20, .25-20, and now especially the .327 Federal Magnum.

By anyone’s standards quality costs money and the first No. 5s built on the USFA frames were quite expensive. Hamilton says of his Ruger No. 5s: “This gun is our effort to produce a semi-reasonably affordable Keith No. 5 without going to the expense of an elaborate custom based on the USFA guns as we have done in the past. We can still do those but figure this is a lot more sensible gun for most of us and still captures the essential flavor of the original. We can use any Ruger medium-frame Flat-Top, whether Old or New Model, .357 or .44 Special. The caliber conversions won’t add much to the cost and right now the 50th Anniversary .357s are dirt cheap. My hope is to catalog this gun as a regular package. A variety of options will be available including fancy grips, nitred screws/pins, color-case hammer, etc. There is still a good bit of welding and fabricating that goes into these. Even the grip frame takes a good bit of time to fit, shape and polish properly. This may be an “econo-grade” No. 5 but we’re not taking any shortcuts — just not adding a lot of frills.

“We’ll make up 51/2″ barrels from either Ruger take-off parts or Douglas stock, depending on availability. The front sight will be a Flat-Top style base with a No. 5 style blade pinned in. The Ruger factory Flat-Top rear sight will be retained in the interest of economy. Rechambering factory .357 cylinders will also help keep costs down and still make for good shooters. Main thing is we’ll have a very nice high quality base pin and elaborate latch installation. Guns will be nicely hand polished and finished in all blue standard. Standard grips will probably be white micarta from Paul Persinger with ivory or fancy wood as optional upgrades.”

The .44 Special Bowen Ruger No. 5 and the .41 both proved to shoot around 1".
John feels with some more loading groups could easily shrink!

What’s So Special?

There are many unique features about the No. 5, not the least of which is the locking base pin. This requires the removal of the standard Ruger base pin latching system, welding of the frame, and then installing a pivoting lever locking the pin in place. By releasing a spring loaded plunger it can be swiveled 90 degrees to the left to allow removal of the base pin. Bowen Classic Arms does a masterful job recreating it.

The two Bowen Rugers I have for this article are the very first to be built, with Bob Alford’s being the first as well as the first on a New Model Flat-Top frame. Robb Barnes’ No. 5 is the first on an Old Model, and of course the first with two cylinders. The basic conversion consists of a Ron Power Custom Keith No. 5 grip frame, Bisley-spur hammer and wide trigger, action and trigger tune, Flat-Top Target-style front sight with pinned blade to match the factory Ruger Flat-Top rear sight, proper Keith No. 5 base pin and lever latch, and standard reblue.

Bob Alford’s No. 5 being built on the New Model Flat-Top frame is safe to carry fully loaded with six rounds of .44 Special. It has all the standard features mentioned, with the barrel being a proper pre-warning Ruger address barrel off a .44 Magnum. Cylinder throats measure .429″ and the trigger pull is 31/4 pounds. Bob went for the extra option of ivory grips. Paul Persinger used beautifully creamy mellow looking ivory with the Mexican eagle clutching a rattlesnake in talons and beak just as on the original Keith sixgun.

Robb Barnes added several options to his tribute to Elmer Keith. He also went with ivory grips from Persinger exhibiting the same beautiful creamy texture with a Scottish Highland bull head carved into the right grip panel. Instead of the standard blue for the finish Robb went with the old Colt-style rust blue finish accentuated with nitre blue screws, base pin latch, and trigger and set off with a case-colored hammer.

The barrel work on this one is absolutely stunning as it is an octagonal barrel with a special machined-in surface to accept the ejector rod housing. Instead of the traditional .44 Special chambering Robb went with the other Special, the .41 with a second cylinder chambered in .41 Magnum. Cylinder throats Mic-out at .410″ and the trigger pull on this No. 5 is set at 23/4 pounds. I have several custom Rugers and also two Colt Single Actions from Bowen done back in the early 1990s and they are beautiful sixguns, however these two No. 5 Bowen Rugers are as nice as a sixgun can be without mortgaging the homestead to pay for one.

Happy Guys

Bob and Robb are going to be two very excited and happy sixgunners once I deliver their No. 5s to them. Normally when testing any new factory firearm I want a minimum of 90 days with 180 days being better. For these two special friends I will cut that time to the bare minimum so they won’t have to wait any longer than absolutely necessary. As expected, both sixguns shot extremely well for me and I expect they will do even better for two younger fellows. With both the .44 Special and .41 special No. 5s groups averaged just over 1″ for five shots at 20 yards in my hands. After they have been shot awhile and each man settles on his favorite load I expect groups will be well under 1″. As I said earlier Hamilton Bowen is at the top of the list of custom sixgunsmiths and his No. 5 Rugers are simply superb sixguns.

For more info: Bowen Classic Arms (865) 984-3583, www.bowenclassicarms.com

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