Duke and a friend had these Ruger Super Blackhawk .44 Magnum barrels shortened to 51/2"
for comfortable carrying in the saddle. After being separated and thought lost, Duke was able
to reunite them briefly after almost 50 years.

Back in 1973 a friend and I got it in our heads we should take a couple saddle horses and my trusty steed “Duke” as a pack horse and head south. As in south from our normal stomping grounds around the Livingston/Bozeman area of southern Montana. We didn’t have a specific goal; we would ride until our money or our enthusiasm ran out.

Coincidentally, both happened a little past Jackson, Wyoming. We won’t go into detail about a couple of blondes met along the way of whom we didn’t want to lose track.

For people who live in the area under discussion, it will be no surprise to hear the weather in this high country can be fierce in June. So, rather stupidly, we started our adventure on the first day of June. It rained and snowed much of the trip, and then the sky cleared. Temperatures rose instantly into the comfort zone for mosquitoes, which was another factor in our quitting.

People living in this area also are aware it’s the best grizzly bear habitat left in the continental United States. Admittedly much of our journey was poorly planned, but one factor given considerable thought was the handguns we would pack. Up front we decided they should be chambered for the same cartridge. We figured robust Ruger Super Blackhawk .44 Magnums would be best except for the long 71/2″ barrel which can be uncomfortable in a belt holster while riding. Thus we got the idea of having our Rugers’ barrels shortened to 51/2″. Although those two handgun barrels were cut by different gunsmiths far apart they both came out nicely. His got a matte blue in the process but mine got a less attractive but functional touch up around where the front sight was silver-soldered in place.

Besides shortening their Super Blackhawk’s barrels Duke and his friend had
them fitted with more hand-filling grips — one of fancy walnut and one of rosewood.

Horse Sense?

One factor about the Rugers we both disliked was their factory grips. They were homely and too thin. On a side trip before our trail excursion started we roamed through Twin Falls, Idaho, where we had heard of a small custom grip maker named Cloyce’s Gun Stocks. Anyway they fitted us up with fancy walnut for my buddy and rosewood for me. They were more hand-filling than factory stocks and far more attractive.

We also needed leather gear for the big Rugers. My friend was a talented leather worker and made his own beautiful belt and holster. I turned to S.D. Myres of El Paso for a Threepersons style single-action holster with my initials “MLV” hand carved, and a matching belt with only 10 cartridge loops. We figured 10 on belts and five in .44’s was enough.

Only once on the trip was one of the Rugers unholstered. Our packhorse, Duke, was big and intelligent, which was why I was nicknamed after him — or at least it’s what I say about it. Unfortunately his smarts sometimes got him in trouble, just like me. Toward the end of the ride he learned he could pull his lead rope free just by laying back on it. I remember my palm sizzling as the rope burned through.

I’m ashamed to admit it but in my fatigued, irritable state, the sixth time this happened I dismounted and gave him a good whack up the side of his head. Not so smart on my part; after the seventh time when I dismounted he ran from me. As he rounded a curve in the trail I pulled my .44 and put a bullet in the ground about 10 feet ahead of him. When the plume of dust rose he froze in his tracks until I walked up and retrieved the lead rope. Like I said he was smart.

Lost Partners

My riding partner on that trip and I have now been friends for 48 years. Although he’s been living “Down Under” for the last 24 we have always kept in touch. These last five years he has come to Montana for summers. A few years ago we were reminiscing about that ride and our .44’s. He said his Ruger and holster had been stolen from his mother’s home in California where he left it when going abroad. I had no memory whatsoever of where my Ruger had gone.

Then surprise, surprise. My friend found his Ruger (sans belt and holster) in storage along with some of his other property. About the same time another long-time friend mentioned in passing, “For 12 years in Alaska I had that Ruger .44 I bought from you back in the ’70s. I never fired it.”

For this column I borrowed it from him for photography. Those two fine old Ruger .44’s were reunited after almost 50 years.

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