Just A .44 Special?
It's A Fitz Special!

176

It was a rare privilege that had been accorded me, as I was about to receive a personally guided tour through the private museum of Col. Rex Applegate. Actually there were three of us being hosted by the Colonel. I had traveled to the Oregon Coast with fellow writer Pat Cascio and we had stopped on the way to pick up another comrade, Chuck Karwan. All of us were personally acquainted with Col. Applegate and I had presented him with the coveted bronze as “Outstanding American Handgunner” in 1996.

I knew his private museum held sixguns, which had formerly belonged to special friends of the Colonel such as Col. Doug Wesson, Col. Charles Askins, Elmer Keith and Bill Jordan. There in front of me were the first two Smith & Wesson .357 Magnums, one a 6.5″ and the other an 83⁄8″, which had been used by Col. Wesson to promote the first Magnum as a hunting handgun; Keith’s custom heavy barreled 4″ .44 Magnum; two of Askins’ target pistols, and the three 83⁄8″ Smith & Wesson Magnums that had been especially engraved to commemorate Bill Jordan’s varied career.

All of these handguns were special and a treat to see and hold, however the Colonel’s favorite possession, as far as firearms go, was found immediately inside the door of the museum and the first item viewed. Actually it was one of two first-items, as this sixgun was resting upon the base of the Outstanding American Handgunner Awards Foundation bronze. The highly modified revolver had started life as a standard Colt New Service .45 Colt, probably with the same 5.5″ barrel as found on the well-known Colt revolvers of World War I, the Model 1917 .45ACP. Then again, considering Col. Applegate’s many contacts, this revolver could be one of the very few that were specially manufactured as it now appeared. On the side plate was the words “To Rex From Fitz.”

Colt Detective Special .38.

The wrong end of the .44 Special “Fitz.”

Walking Legends

Newer shooters may not know anything about Col. Applegate and it certainly would be a rare shooter, unless he was a very dedicated sixgunner, who would know who in the world “Fitz” was! I asked several shooters both at the range and at a Cowboy Action Shoot if they knew of Applegate and/or Fitz, and not surprisingly, not a single one of them had the slightest idea. Which proves, once again, the fact we live in a throwaway world in which, for some, history only goes back as far as yesterday — maybe only as far back as breakfast.

Col. Rex Applegate was one of the original members of the O.S.S. during World War II. The Colonel was an expert on riot control, and a colonel in the United States Army, however, he also held the rank of general in the Mexican Army, spending much of his time south of the border. It was during one of these excursions after World War II when his old S&W “Lemon Squeezer” chambered in .38 Smith & Wesson, which he always carried in a shoulder holster, nearly failed him, requiring all five shots to stop his attacker. After this experience, he was highly responsible for the advent of five-shot Smith & Wessons chambered in .38 Special, especially the hammerless versions.

That’s a little about Col. Applegate, but what about Fitz? John Henry Fitzgerald was “Mr. Colt” between the two World Wars, traveling to all the large pistol matches, shooting and fixing Colts, and being a genuinely good ambassador for Colt. Fitz was considered a firearms expert, and spent much time lecturing and instructing both target and defensive shooting. Before Clint Smith; before Mas Ayoob; before Jeff Cooper; even before Col. Applegate there was Fitzgerald teaching principles and practices of quick shooting with a revolver. Not only was he a top shooter, he was also the designer of the Fitz Special.

Before: A less than perfect 51⁄2" Colt New Service .44 Special.

A Special Design

I first encountered the Fitz Special as a teenager in Col. Askins book printed in 1939 (And no, I wasn’t around to read it at that time!) Askins said, “The grandest defense gun I have ever had was a Colt .45 New Service with the barrel cut down to two inches. The hammer had been dehorned … the trigger guard was cut entirely away in the front … the grip was shortened … it was a whiz for the purpose intended.”

Actually the Fitz Special started more than 40 years earlier as Fitz started experimenting with the then-new Colt New Service. “Perhaps some would like to ask why I cut up a good revolver and here is the answer: The trigger guard is cut away to allow more finger room and for use when gloves are worn. The hammer spur is cut away to allow drawing from the pocket or from under the coat without catching or snagging in the cloth and eliminates the use of thumb over hammer when drawing. The butt is rounded to allow the revolver to easily slide into firing position in the hand. The top of the cut-away hammer may be lightly checked to assist in cocking for a long-range shot.” It was common knowledge among his contemporaries Fitz always carried a pair of .45 Colt Fitz Specials in his two front pockets. He definitely knew how to use them.

I’ve wanted to have a Fitz Special ever since I was the kid learning to shoot big bore sixguns of the 1950s. No, I didn’t want an original, which would be very rare and very expensive, and definitely a collectors’ item. I would be happy simply to have a top gunsmith build one for me on a Colt New Service.

A late model New Service surfaced, chambered in .44 Special. Although it had some problems, it came at a very good price. I promptly sent it off to one of the premier gunsmiths in the country, Andy Horvath. Horvath has built more than a half-dozen single action sixguns for me, and when I featured him in an article several years ago, I received a call from Hollywood wanting to use my custom sixguns from Andy Horvath in a movie. Of course, I refused to let them out of my hands, however I did put them in touch with Andy who wound up making several guns for the movie as well as personal guns for the two stars.

The .44 Special Fitz Special by Andy Horvath handles easily with Speer’s 200 grain Gold Dot HPs.

John’s ‘Fitz’

Horvath said of this New Service: “It’s got a few miles on it and somebody got a little carried away with the buffing wheel. I bushed the cylinder to get out most of the endplay, and installed a ball lock on the crane to help with the lock-up. Instead of cutting the old barrel I just made a new one using up a piece of Douglas barrel blank too short for anything else. The side plate screws are made from a Ruger base pin, as the old screws were polished until they were ugly. The grip frame has been shortened and rounded and fitted with fancy walnut grip panels, and the top the hammer serrated for shooting single action by starting the hammer back with the trigger and then grabbing the hammer with your thumb.”

Andy polished and re-blued the little .44 Special, with the result being that I now have what has to be one the finest Fitz Specials in existence built by one of the finest gunsmiths ever. Andy Horvath can do it all. It shoots like the proverbial dream, and is very easy to handle using Speer’s 200 grain Gold Dot HP .44 Specials. These clock out at just under 750 fps in the 2″ Fitz Special, while my most used every day working load for .44 Special sixguns, the 250 grain Keith bullet over 7.5 gr of Unique, registers 830 fps, or just about the perfect equivalent of Fitz’ .45 Colt loads. Whether it’s a single action or double action sixgun, or whether you want a pocket pistol like a Fitz Special or a heavy-duty hunting handgun, Andy knows how to do it.

With all the choices we have for defensive handguns today, some might feel this was a waste of time, money, effort and a good sixgun. Going back in history to commemorate a special sixgun and special sixgunner is never a waste. For those who understand, no explanation is necessary; for those who don’t, none is possible.

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