These 5" S&W .44 Magnums aren’t original but they are
still great sixguns. Top gun has been cut to 5" and tuned by Jim
Stroh; bottom sixgun has been re-barreled by Smith & Wesson.

It Can Be A Good Thing!

My dictionary has one definition of the word “compromise” as the settlement of a dispute by mutual concession. There are always compromises and trade-offs when it comes to firearms. A 10-pound rifle is much easier to shoot than a lightweight, however a 6-pounder is certainly much easier to carry all day. When it comes to sixguns I prefer Perfect Packin’ Pistols for carrying, but long barrels for shooting — a compromise in both situations.

Over the years I’ve found the easiest carrying big bore sixguns to be 43/4″ single actions and 4″ double actions. However, once in the hand, I find it much easier to shoot 71/2″ single actions and 61/2″ double actions. For me the easiest shooting sixguns of all are 10″ single actions and 83/8″ double actions. The longer barrels offer two things, a longer sight radius which normally results in more accurate shooting, and more weight to control recoil.

In between the long and the short of it we have the compromises. Too long to be short and too short to be long, they are not quite as easy to pack as the shorter barrels, and definitely not as easy to shoot as longer barrels, however they do an excellent job of providing a compromise between the two extremes. Especially for the man who has only one sixgun, the compromise barrel length can be the best choice. For me these barrel lengths are those from 5″ to 51/2″ in length; the same barrel lengths I had no use for in my earlier shooting experiences. I should have known better.

No matter what the barrel length or caliber no one ever compromises
by buying a Freedom Arms sixgun such as this 51/2" Model 97 .44 Special.

The Magic Barrel Length

Skeeter Skelton packed and wrote about a lot of sixguns during his law enforcement and writing career, however his favorite seemed to be a 5″ Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum. When I met John Linebaugh in the early 1980s I found he prescribed to Old School Sixgunning. He felt a sixgun’s attributes should be powerful and packable. It needed to be such it could be carried all day, relied upon in any situation, and be comfortably placed under a pillow or bedroll at night. His choice of barrel length was 51/2″. John made me such a sixgun chambered in .500 Linebaugh. As a companion sixgun to the Compromise Linebaugh .500, I had Jim Stroh do a 5-shot Ruger .45 Colt with a 51/2″ barrel and a Bisley grip frame.

All of these men can be described as accomplished sixgunners, so their compromises turn out to be very good choices. As we look back farther in history we also find the military started using 8″ barrels with the Colt 1860 Army, and carried this over to the 71/2″ Colt Single Action Army. However the Cavalry Model was soon sided by the 51/2″ Artillery Model. I do not have figures on the barrel lengths of the 1st Generation Colt Single Actions, however it seems I see more 51/2″ Colts than I do either the 43/4″ or 71/2″ versions. When enough 1911 Government Models could not be manufactured to supply the troops in WWI, both Colt and S&W produced 1917 revolvers chambered in .45 ACP with a standard barrel length of, you guessed it, 51/2″.

Compromise barrel lengths are found often among the pre-war Single Action and New Service models produced by Colt, however the 5″ barrel was always relatively rare at the Smith & Wesson factory. Ruger’s original Single-Six had a 51/2″ barrel, however when the Blackhawks arrived, the .357 was standardized at 45/8″ and 61/2″ with the 10″ being relatively rare. The .44 Magnum’s standard length was 61/2″ with only approximately 1,000 being offered in each of the 71/2″ and 10″ lengths. The Super Blackhawk followed with a 71/2″ barrel and it’s only in recent times the Super has been offered with a 51/2″ barrel.

Although the 5″ barrel length of the Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum was quite popular with shooters, it was never a standard length of the .44 Magnum. That first .44 Magnum had a 61/2″ barrel with the 4″ and 83/8″ lengths added quickly, however the 5″ length was never a catalog item. In 1958 the H.H. Harris Co. of Chicago placed a special order with Smith & Wesson for 500 revolvers with 5″ barrels. Today these sixguns are collector’s items demanding very high prices. The only one I’ve ever seen is the one that belonged to Elmer Keith which I had the privilege of placing alongside his other rare 5″ Smith & Wesson, a 1950 Target .44 Special, in the Elmer Keith Museum. The chance of my ever having an original 5″ .44 Magnum or .44 Special was practically nonexistent.

Compromise Colts: 51/2" New Frontiers in .44 Special and .45 Colt.

No compromise here! These three 51/2" Custom Ruger Bisleys,
a .45 Colt by Jim Stroh, a .500 Linebaugh by John Linebaugh and
.44 Magnum are superb go-anywhere, do-anything sixguns.

Creating Compromises

The 1950 Target .44 Special was dropped by Smith & Wesson in 1964, however barrels were still available. In the early 1970s I ordered a 61/2″ barrel from J&G Rifle Ranch and had gunsmith George Hoenig cut it to 5″ and install it on a 1950 Military .44 Special. He also masterfully installed a S&W adjustable rear sight, re-blued the entire sixgun, and I had a 5″ .44 Special just like Elmer Keith’s. Almost. What I did not know at the time is what a collectible item the 1950 Military .44 Special would become and certainly did not know what it would be worth now if I had left it alone. Such is life.

I also had a 5″ .44 Magnum made up by starting with an 83/8″ Model 629. However, it was not a blued 29 and I let my friend Paco Kelly talk me into trading it to him. Earlier this year I came up with a pinned and recessed Model 29-2 with an 83/8″ barrel which was pitted towards the muzzle end, making it the perfect candidate to be made into a 5″.

It was sent off to master gunsmith Jim Stroh at Alpha Precision to be touched by his creative genius. I asked him to cut the barrel and do whatever else he deemed necessary to turn this into a first-class sixgun of the highest order. The barrel was cut to 5″ and re-crowned, a custom ramp with a removable blade front sight was installed, Jim performed his Master Tune, the cylinder was bushed to remove end-shake, the front edge of the cylinder was given a Colt black powder-style chamfer, the rear sight blade was replaced, all scratches and pitting were removed and lettering recut where necessary, the entire gun was Alpha Precision Master blued, and the hammer and trigger were Turnbull-ized, that is recolor casehardened. The result, as expected, is one of the finest .44 Magnums in existence. The barrel length may be a compromise, however the quality certainly is not!

After waiting decades for a 5″ barreled .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson and only coming up with one by taking matters into my own hands, a very strange thing happened. While this 29-2 was off to Alpha Precision I was contacted by a reader, Eric Wood. He had been talking with one of the gunsmiths at Smith & Wesson who informed him they had found a couple of original 5″ barrels in the shop. These were not the full under lug heavy barrels of more recent times, but rather the same barrels which had been placed on the custom ordered .44 Magnums by H.H. Harris way back when. Not only did he contact me with the news he also told Smith & Wesson to put my name on one as he was sure I would want it. Smith & Wesson does not sell parts unless they are installed. So another 29-2 went off to Smith & Wesson and 2 weeks later I had my second 5″ .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson. It’s so strange how things work out; one could almost say something like truth is stranger than fiction.

Left, two by Ben Forkin using a Ruger .44 Magnum
Flat-Top barrel and a Colt .44 Special New Frontier barrel;
right, heavy barrel by Andy Horvath and #5 by David Clements.

Customizing Can-Do’s

Regular readers will know of my penchant for 3-screw Ruger .357 Blackhawks converted to .44 Special. Sixgunning compromising also works very well here. Ben Forkin has produced two 51/2″ Ruger .44 Specials, one with a Colt New Frontier .44 barrel and the other by cutting a 61/2″ .44 Magnum Flat-Top barrel back to 51/2″. On a different conversion note, Ben now has three of my Bisley Model Ruger Blackhawks in .45 Colt, .44 Magnum and .41 Magnum, all to be cut to 51/2″, tuned, and the frames and hammers Turnbull-ized.

David Clements also started with a 51/2″ Colt New Frontier .44 Special barrel. To make this custom somewhat out of the ordinary he also fitted it with a Bisley hammer, trigger and grip frame of his own manufacture. When Andy Horvath put together a custom 51/2″ .44 Special on a Ruger he used a S&W Model 29 barrel to provide another different touch.

One of my most prized possessions is my #5 Improved .44 Special. Diamond Dot commissioned this sixgun 3 years ago for my birthday. Built by Gary Reeder, it’s patterned after Elmer Keith’s original #5SAA, however it’s stainless steel with an octagon barrel and mastodon ivory grips. Dot did good when she ordered it — it has a 51/2″ barrel.

I still plan to pack the shorter barrels and shoot the longer barrels, however when I want the best of both worlds I’ll reach for one of my compromise sixguns.

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