The Sixguns Of John Gallagher


A pair of Perfect Packin’ Pistols— .44 Specials by John Gallagher.

Sometimes things really work out the way they are supposed to! One of my greatest pleasures in the 40 years I have been writing for this magazine has been to be able to shine the spotlight on deserving craftsmen, those skilled artisans who work with steel to create truly custom sixguns and semiautos.

We’ve never operated on a me first policy here of trying to be the first to write about every new firearm that comes along — we rarely do. There is a very good reason for this as it takes time to test a new product. We try very hard to use actual experience not manufacturer’s hype in reporting new handguns. Sometimes this means we are six months to a year behind other publications however, readers can know we don’t bring something to print until it has been thoroughly tested.

We may not be first to introduce new products but we have been, and continue to be at the forefront when it comes to introducing talented custom sixgun smiths to shooters. I can count several custom sixgunsmiths who were relatively unknown to the rest of the country until their work appeared in these pages. We have been able to turn them from part-time to full-time and then some in custom gun building. Some of these ‘smiths have been backlogged ever since we introduced them to sixgunners 10, 15 or even more years ago.

All this leads to another extremely competent and imaginative sixgunsmith who built guns until his death — John Gallagher passed away on April 14th 2020.

** The following first appeared in the November/December 2008 issue of American Handgunner **

Since this John Gallagher custom .44 Special is built on the 50th Anniversary
New Model action it is safe to carry with six rounds.

Big Little Sixgun

The first sixgun John ever built for me was several years ago and it’s my Big Little Sixgun — actually a big sixgun shooting a small cartridge. The .32-20 dates all way back to the last quarter of the 19th century and was first chambered in the Model 1873 Winchester and shortly thereafter in the Colt Single Action.

Over the past century plus it has been chambered in the 1892 Winchester, the Colt Bisley Model, the Smith & Wesson M&P, and in recent years, the Marlin 1894CL and the Freedom Arms Model 97. To build a premier custom .32-20 Gallagher started with a Ruger New Model Blackhawk which is built on the same frame as the Super Blackhawk. For this conversion John basically used only the frame and grip frame.

The cylinder is a custom built, eight shot .32-20, which is made oversize to completely fill the frame window. It matches up with a slightly tapered 61⁄2″ barrel with a deeply crowned muzzle. The front sight is a serrated ramp style which is mated up with a Hamilton Bowen rear sight.

Instead of the conventional hammer, this custom Blackhawk has a Super Blackhawk hammer and a creep free trigger pull set at 31⁄2 pounds. The mainframe is color case hardened and the balance of the gun is beautifully blued. I have added a pair of stag grips with a black eagle Ruger medallion and the combination is quite attractive.

For the handloader the .32-20 is a most versatile cartridge. It must not be loaded above the level of the firearm for which it is being used. The Winchester 1892, the Marlin 1894CL, and the Freedom Arms Model 97 are very strong guns capable of handling heavy loads but the Smith & Wesson M&P isn’t. This Gallagher/Ruger can handle some pretty potent loads. Hornady’s 100 XTP-JHP over 11.0 grains of #2400 clocks out at 1,405 fps, Speer’s 100 JHP over the same load has a muzzle velocity of 1,372 fps, and this same Speer bullet over 13.0 grains of H110 hits 1,300 fps. All three place eight shots in less than 1″ at 25 yards.

Properly head-stamped .41 Magnum brass is available from Quality
Cartridge for use in the John Gallagher Little Big Gun.

A Special .41

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Gallagher’s Little Big Sixgun shooting a relatively big cartridge from a small frame. I don’t know who first came up with the idea of the .41 Special however, when I met with Hamilton Bowen at the Shootists Holiday in 1987, and he had one built on a Ruger GP-100 — shortly thereafter I had him do one for me on a Colt Single Action. The .41 Special is nothing more than the .41 Magnum trimmed to .44 Special length. This mild wildcat has become popular enough that properly head stamped brass, though expensive, is available through Quality Cartridge. The whole idea of the .41 Special is just what it says, a .41 much milder than the excellent .41 Magnum.

In my larger .41 Special sixguns I normally load a 215 grain bullet at muzzle velocities in the 900 to 1,100 fps range, or about where I load 250 grain bullets in .44 Special. Gallagher came up with the idea of making a really little gun to shoot the .41 Special by starting with a Ruger Three-Screw Single-Six. A New Model will not work as the enlarging of the loading port area to accept larger cartridges cuts into the transfer bar safety.

For this mildcat conversion Gallagher reset the rimfire firing pin to centerfire, built a custom five-shot cylinder which fills out the frame window and matched it up with a 4″ .41 barrel. The top of the frame has been “melted” or rounded off on both sides as well as the front, the rear sight in a dovetail is maintained and matched up with slightly sloping and serrated front sight.

The steel grip frame is from a Ruger Old Army, the trigger pull is set at 21⁄2 pounds, and the base pin is one of Belt Mountain’s knurled head pins with a locking set screw. This entire little sixgun has been finished in high polished blue, except the top of the frame which is matte blue to reduce glare. Gallagher not only works in steel he also does an excellent job with wood and this .41 Special wears perfectly shaped and fitted exotic wood grips. With the Oregon Trail 215 grain SWC over 5.0 to 6.0 grains of Unique muzzle velocity is from 680 to 800 fps with mild recoil and excellent accuracy.

Typical groups fired with the John Gallagher 50th Anniversary Flat-Top .44 Special.

Perfect Packin’ Pistols

Two things most readers will connect me with is great affection for the .44 Special and an unending quest for what has come to be known as a Perfect Packin’ Pistol. The quest must never end as the joy is in the searching not the finding as we just get closer and closer without ever really getting there.

Basically, a Perfect Packin’ Pistol is an easy to carry single action or double action sixgun, or even a semi-automatic, in a caliber which can be counted upon to handle any situation likely to be encountered. The parameters are quite broad and totally subjective. For me most, but certainly not all, PPPs are chambered in .44 Special.

John Gallagher has entered not one but two Perfect Packin’ Pistols in this sixgunner’s contest and both come out right at the top. In some ways these two sixguns are quite similar. They are both chambered in .44 Special and they both have 4″ barrels, and needless to say since they come from John Gallagher they’re both excellent little sixguns however, they are definitely not twins. For the basic platform John starts with a Ruger Blackhawk, however he does not use the same platform for both .44s.

The first Gallagher custom .44 Special started life as an Old Model .357 Blackhawk. The Three-Screw Ruger .357 Magnum Blackhawks, the Flat-Top from 1955-1962, and the Old Model from 1963 to 1972, were built using the same sized frame and cylinder as a Colt Single Action which makes them about perfect for building a custom .44 Special. With most of these conversions the original cylinder is rechambered to .44 Special. Gallagher took a different route using a custom over-sized cylinder to completely fill out the frame window and also allow for a recessed case heads — a very nice special custom touch.

The barrel is 4″ in length, the rear sight is a custom Bowen with an extra touch as the top of the frame is serrated on both sides of the sight assembly. The front sight is a ramp style with a serrated blade and the ramp is nicely contoured and blended into the barrel. The hammer is from a Super Blackhawk and both the ejector rod housing and grip frame are steel making this an all steel .44.

Boy does this custom .45 Colt by John Gallagher shoot!


Other custom touches include scalloping out of the reloading gate and the corresponding recoil shield on the left side as well as removing of metal, or stepping down the frame on both sides in front of the trigger guard. Because of the short barrel, and correspondingly shorter ejector rod housing, the head of the cylinder pin is abbreviated to allow the fullest possible stroke of the ejector rod to positively extract empty cartridge cases.

The entire sixgun is nicely polished blue and John also made the custom fancy walnut stocks. The trigger pull is set at 21⁄4 pounds and with my standard .44 Special load of a 260 grain Keith Bullet over 7.5 grains of Unique the muzzle velocity is right at 900 fps with a group of 11⁄4″ for five shots at 20 yards. You might think it couldn’t get any better as far as a custom .44 Special sixgun is concerned, and maybe it can’t, however the next Gallagher .44 makes it a real contest.

This second entry into the Perfect Packin’ Pistol category started life as a Ruger 50th Anniversary .357 Flat-Top. When Ruger switched over to the New Model Blackhawks, the .357 was no longer built on the smaller frame but rather on the Super Blackhawk-sized frame, but when Ruger celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the .357 Blackhawk in 2005 by building a Flap-Top on the New Model action they reverted back to the original size and thankfully they didn’t stop there.

The grip frame on the 50th Anniversary .357 is the same size and shape as the original which had been changed in 1962. For whatever the reason, the original grip frame feels better and handles recoil much easier for me than the Old Model grip frame. I even noticed quite a difference in these two sixguns when shooting my standard .44 Special loads. It is my understanding that Ruger is switching over to the 50th Anniversary grip frame on all of their Blackhawks. For this I say a hearty Thank You!

For this .44 Special, Gallagher rechambered the original cylinder, fitted a Bisley Model hammer and melted the corners of the rear sight as well as the top strap and except for the maintaining of the original width of the frame in front of the trigger guard, the rest of this .44 Special has the same touches as the Old Model version. And like its brother it is also an excellent shooter. Using the CPBC 275 grain LBT WFN bullet over 17.5 grains of IMR4227, muzzle velocity is just under 1,000 fps and five shots group into 1″ at 20 yards.

John Gallagher’s Big Little Gun is an eight-shot .32-20.

Rear sight and Super Blackhawk hammer found on Gallagher’s
Old Model .44 Special.

The Someday Gun

Several years ago my friend Paco Kelly gave me a 61⁄2″ S&W 1950 Target barrel which was originally made for a .45 ACP revolver. I tucked this barrel way with the idea of someday, and you surely know how difficult it is for “somedays” to arrive, building a .45 Colt on a Smith & Wesson Highway Patrolman. There are two problems inherent in such a conversion. Some of the .357 Magnum cylinders have bolt notches to deep to safely allow conversion to .45 Colt, and secondly the 1950 Target barrels were rifled to handle jacketed bullets not necessarily cast bullets.

Well someday really did arrive and a Highway Patrolman and the 1950 barrel were sent off to John Gallagher to build a 5″ Perfect Packin’ Pistol in .45 Colt fully realizing even if the cylinder worked the barrel may never shoot very well. John re-chambered the cylinder, cut the barrel to 5″, re-set the front sight while doing a beautiful job of tapering the rib on top of the barrel to match up with the narrower ramp of the front sight, totally tuned the action, set the trigger pull at a beautiful creep free 3 lbs pounds, and refinished the barrel to match the matte blue finish of the original Highway Patrolman. I added an old pair of Skeeter Skelton Bearhug stocks to complete the package.

Would it really shoot? Because of the specifications of the original barrel I would’ve been happy with an average shooting sixgun. A good shooting sixgun would fill me with a sixgunner’s joy. I don’t understand why it performs so well but I’m ecstatic over the way this gun shoots!

Using hard cast bullets or even soft swaged lead bullets makes no difference to this .45, it simply puts them all in one hole. Not only do my carefully tailored homebrewed loads do this, Buffalo Bore’s factory load with a 255 grain commercial cast SWC Keith-style bullet cuts one ragged hole with a muzzle velocity right at 1,000 fps; another great shooting sixgun from Gallagher.

Subscribe To American Handgunner

Get More Revolver Content Every Week!

Sign up for the Wheelgun Wednesday newsletter here: