Once Upon A Time

In a Not-So-Distant- Future, Duke Explains Some Things

By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Vetnurino

Dear younger readers, you may not be able to believe or even conceive of the following. It sounds like a fable, but I swear to you every word is true.

Once upon a time in America every handgun was made from steel. Oh sure some few had bits of brass here or there and of course all had stocks (today called grips) of some natural material. Usually that was wood, but sometimes ivory, horn, hardened rubber or even silver. And handguns all had a couple of factors men of the era also liked in females — curves and gracefulness. Nothing was square on handguns in the long-time gone past. There was symmetry and esthetics integral with most handgun design. Back then a handgun was not a mere tool — but a window into its owner’s true nature.

It is fact, handguns were completely made of steel. As far-fetched as it may sound every part of every handgun was cut from pieces of steel by machines that bored it, sliced it or threaded it. And every one of those machines had a man standing at it causing it to perform those intricate operations. That man didn’t just trip a lever or push a button. He had to know math and geometry and he had to be able to read blueprints. American handgun manufacturers employed these men by the thousands. They were called machinists and tool and die makers.

Once upon a time the people who designed handguns strove to make them
graceful and curvaceous. Here’s a Colt Model 1861 and Colt Conversion
based on a ’61.

Duke says, “My handguns look like an individual owns them, like my S&W .38 here. It
looks like it can tell a story or two. But alas, so many of today’s personal guns
are square and, at least to my eye — not as attractive.”

A Legion Of Talent

But the men cutting steel were not alone. Other men or women were necessary after the parts had been crafted. They actually fitted the parts together, in the process, smoothing them of burrs and culling out the rare piece on which the machinists might have made a mistake. These men were of another breed called “assemblers” and were so proud of their calling sometimes they were given a special mark to stamp on each handgun they put together so it could be traced back to them. When they got done with those steel pieces, a revolver’s cylinder would rotate the exact amount needed to align with the barrel or a semi-auto’s headspace would be perfect.

As strange as it may seem today a crew of handgun manufacturers was not complete without polishers and finishers. Being made of steel meant brand new unfinished handguns would start to rust immediately. And some steel usually needed hardening, but the process had to be specific to a part’s task and the steel’s composition. This required men who understood metallurgy. They performed magic on steel. Sometimes it changed color during the hardening process making it very pretty. That was called color case hardening. Other times, after a smooth hand polish, the metal was immersed in chemicals giving it a blue color. It may have looked black at a distance, but young people believe me — it was a deep blue.

For a certain percentage of handguns made by most manufacturers, a blue finish was not applied. Some people had to be out in the elements day-in and day-out, or they lived near salt water or resided in hot areas and sweated on their handguns as they worked. Those folks preferred handguns with a coating of nickel applied. And because nickel-plating was also pretty it caught on with folks desiring a bit of fancy in their lives. You call that bling today.

Lastly, all the handgun factories had a now nearly extinct species of humans called quality inspectors. Their sole purpose was to check on the jobs done by all the above workers so no handgun left those factories with blemishes, or the slightest hitch in their function. Even though I was but a young whippersnapper back then, I remember knowing for certain when I took a newly purchased handgun from its cardboard (not plastic) box it would actually work to perfection. It needed no aftermarket slicking, easing, or parts replacement to work well.

Once upon a time buyers had a choice of barrel lengths when they bought handguns —
at no extra cost! Colt SAA’s (left to right): 71/2″, 51/2″ and 43/4″.

Once upon a time, there were also other talented people who
worked with ivory or silver for special handgun grips.

Stocks

Let’s go back to that concept of stocks — or grips. There were actually people employed at large handgun manufacturers whose sole job was making those things. They had to be machine-savvy too, for some of those handgun stocks made by Colt Patent Firearms were cut from solid pieces of wood. Usually that was a type of wood called walnut, but sometimes more exotic woods came from places like South America. That wood was actually grooved all the way around so the two pieces of all Colt single action grip frames fit into it. Actual ivory from African elephants was treated in this manner too.

However, on other types of handguns by Colt and all other makers, most types of grips were wood and mostly they were two pieces fitted to the sides of a handgun’s grip frame, then held together with a screw. None were actually made as part of the handgun itself as is done today. Those stocks could be checkered or plain, fitted with medallions or not or made with just about any sort of embellishment the buyer wanted. Sometimes there were people so talented they could relief carve grips so one’s initials or special image stood “proud” or “above” the surface.

And speaking of talent, back in that era there were people at the larger gun manufacturers called engravers. They actually held little tools in their hands and cut the handgun metal with various designs. Even carved were little flowers or animals or insignias. And they made this art in steel by hand, not CNC or computer etching then, but with an artist’s eye and steady hand.

Once upon a time the people who built handguns also knew how to harden their steels
so they gave these attractive colors. It’s called “Color Case Hardening.”

Once upon a time handgun buyers could opt for special touches such
as extra wide triggers and hammers.

The Extras Too

In those days there existed a word nearly lost to handgun manufacturers today. It was the word “options.” You could buy your Smith & Wesson revolvers with such things as extra-wide hammers and triggers called “target type.” Then there were barrel length options. A long time gone there was a Smith & Wesson revolver called the “.357 Magnum” and later “Model 27.” Over a 60-year period it was offered with 31/2″, 4″, 5″, 6″, 61/2″, 83/8″ and 83/4″ inches as barrel length options. Finishes were also options.

As standard catalog items, Colt made their Single Action Army revolvers blued, with color case-hardened frame or full nickel-plated. And right off the shelf you could get them with 43/4″, 51/2″ and 71/2″ barrel lengths. If you have heard of cowboys, those were the types of guns they carried. Speaking of SAA’s and options, during a 75-year manufacturing period they could have been bought chambered for over 30 cartridges!

Once a guy or gal settled on his handgun preference in regards to options such as caliber, finish, barrel length and grip material, almost everyone then wanted a holster for it. Back in that era they were made of leather — the same type of stuff belts, shoes and boots were once made of. It was tough and durable and at this point I’m feeling a little maudlin — it actually smelled good. And there were also artists who could cut beautiful patterns and images into it.

Once upon a time handgun buyers could fancy-up their handguns with things
called custom grips, usually crafted from natural materials. From top-center:
Buffalo horn, bison bone, stag, hard rubber, ivory and walnut.

And So?

I can hear you thinking, “What good was all that work and thought back in your day. Our handguns work fine today.” Well, the answer is, “Your handguns are often ugly. They are mostly black and square-shaped. They look all the same to me. Put 10 of them in a barrel and the only way you could find your own is by the serial number.” I can spot my handguns from across the room.to find reloading components (just like today!) and .357 Magnum brass was virtually impossible to find. However, .38 Special brass was easily found and very inexpensive too. Most of the loads fired in that early Blackhawk consisted of Keith’s Heavy .38 Special loading of a 168-gr. cast bullet over 13.5 grains of #2400. This load is not to be approached lightly and is in fact hotter than many .357 Magnum loads today.

My first .357 Magnum was everything I could want in a sixgun. I made a black holster and belt, buscadero-style but with the holster more like the Tom Threepersons design. I spent hours in front of the mirror drawing the Blackhawk from that holster until I could almost beat the reflection. Somehow I let that leather rig get away — oh how I wish I still had it today. However, I’m sure the belt has shrunk by now.

The Flat-Top Blackhawk only lasted until 1962 and then it was “improved” to what we now know as the Old Model. The rear sight received protective ears on both sides, probably a good move, while the grip frame was changed, allowing more room for the fingers behind the trigger guard. At least in my hands, this has proven to be a bad move.

Once upon a time gun factories hired very special people who knew how to cut artwork
(engraving) into the steel of handguns. A Colt SAA .45 and Colt 1877DA .41 are shown.

Conversions

Mostly Flat-Top and Old Model .357 Blackhawks have been used by many gunsmiths for conversions to larger calibers, with the most popular being the .44 Special. I have had several gunsmiths convert these early Blackhawks to not only .44 Special, but also .41 Special, .45 Colt, .38-40 and .44-40. With one Flat-Top .357 Blackhawk I took a different path, maintaining the original chambering. However it has been fitted with a 101/2″ .357 Ruger Maximum barrel and an original Ruger Super Blackhawk brass grip frame. Gary Reeder finished it in high polish bright blue. It’s not only beautiful, it’s superbly accurate and an excellent long-range sixgun.

The Old Model would last until 1972 when it was replaced by the New Model Blackhawk. The .357 Blackhawk was given a transfer bar safety making it the first single action to be carried safely fully loaded. It was also made larger and now built on a .44 Magnum frame. I’ve never cared for the size of the New Model .357 Blackhawk, but a pair of 45/8″ stainless steel New Models are favorites of Diamond Dot. I guess she isn’t tied to the past as much as I am.

When Ruger chambered the stainless steel Vaquero in .357 I had Gary Reeder cover a pair of these into “cattle brands” for her and finished the package with Eagle Grips Gunfighter Grips of buffalo horn.

One New Model I do like is the Bisley Model. Mine has been tuned and expertly finished in bright blue by Gary Reeder who also fitted it with an extra cylinder in .356 GNR. This wildcat is a .41 Magnum necked down the .357 giving the power of the .357 Maximum in a standard-sized cylinder.

In recent years Ruger has combined the past with the present by resurrecting the original .357 Blackhawk with the 50th Anniversary Model of 2005. While this .357 is a New Model, in size it’s the same as the original, including the Colt-style/sized grip frame, which is now steel. I really like this new version of the .357 Blackhawk and have had it fitted with checkered rosewood grips complete with the black eagle medallion. These are available from Ruger for less than $60. I was not happy with the New Model action that arrived in 1972, however I have learned to appreciate it in my later years.

Once upon a time there was only one material for holsters. It was called
leather and some people were actually artistic in its craftsmanship.

New Things

Ruger eventually dropped their .44 Magnum-sized Vaquero replacing it with the Colt SAA-sized New Vaquero. Available in .357 Magnum, it makes a dandy Perfect Packin’ Pistol with a few modifications. I did away with the original barrel replacing it with a properly marked Flat-Top barrel cut to 45/8″ and fitted with one of Hamilton Bowen’s windage-adjustable front sights, a Bisley-style hammer and trigger from Ron Power and exotic wood grips from Larry Caudill. The front sight will be filed to allow point-of-aim shooting of heavy cast bullets.

In 1983 Freedom Arms began producing the finest single actions to ever come from a factory. Those first guns were chambered in .454 Casull, followed by .44 Magnum and then .357 Magnum. The full-sized Model 83 is a 5-shooter and when fitted with a scope makes an excellent hunting sixgun, especially for head shooting Texas turkeys.

In 1997 Freedom Arms scaled down the Model 83 to come up with the Model 97 which is slightly smaller than a Colt Single Action while still being a bona fide 6-shooter. The Model 97 is offered in both adjustable-sighted and fixed-sighted versions. Just like its older and heavier brother it’s superbly accurate.

With less models to choose from than found among double-action .357 Magnums, it’s easier, but only slightly so, to choose a favorite .357 Magnum single action. My heart says pick the original .357 Blackhawk, while my head says Freedom Arms. I’m glad I have both of them!

For more info: www.americanhandgunner.com/index

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One thought on “Once Upon A Time

  1. Frank Mason

    outstanding article. And so very true.
    would like to know who makes the holster in the accompanying picture, if possible. Its a work of art.

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