Single-Action Sixguns

Playin’ Favorites: .357 Magnum

By John Taffin

The Colt Single Action Army which was produced from 1873 until the end of 1940 is now known to collectors as the 1st Generation. During this time nearly 356,000 were produced, with one of the rarest options being the .357 Magnum with approximately 525 being made. Many of these went to Great Britain under Lend Lease during WWII.

Before Colt resurrected the Single Action Army in the closing days of 1955, even before the Ruger .357 Blackhawk of 1955, there was the Great Western. Great Western sixguns, the first replicas of the Colt Single Action, were manufactured in Los Angeles beginning in 1954. The first guns were chambered in .45 Colt, however the .357 Magnum was not only soon added, a special version, the .357 Atomic was soon available. This cartridge was nothing more than a .357 Magnum +P+. Loaded with 16 grains of #2400 under a 158-gr. bullet, the Atomic must have been too much of a good thing as Great Western soon went back to marketing their sixguns as plain old .357 Magnums.

While I was in high school the walls of my bedroom were covered with pin-ups. No not that kind! I had maps of all the Canadian provinces, 8×10 photos of each of the Cleveland Indians, all kinds of animal pictures and right above my bed where it would be the last thing seen at night and the first thing to catch my eye in the morning, was a full-sized picture of the then new .357 Magnum Ruger Blackhawk.

Someday I would have one just like it. Usually somedays take forever, however this was only two years in coming. Once I was out of high school and working I started buying firearms. My first single action was a .22 Ruger Flatgate Single-Six which was soon followed by a 1900’s-era Colt .38-40 SAA, and then my first new centerfire single action, Ruger’s 45/8″ Flat-Top Blackhawk. I have since learned
external things do not necessarily make us happy, however I was certainly tickled to have that .357 Magnum.

Taffin has been shooting the .38 Keith Load in Flat-Top
Rugers for over half a century.

Before the .44 Magnum emerged, Great Western offered the “.357 Atomic”
which was simply a hot-loaded .357 Magnum.

Colt-Like

It was just about the perfect single-action sixgun. It had the same virtually indestructible coil-powered action as the Single-Six, however it was basically the same size as a Colt Single Action. The shape of the grip frame was identical to the Colt, but the mainframe was flat-topped and fitted with an adjustable sight. If there was a downside it was the fact the grip frame was alloy instead of steel.
In those days it was very difficult deal with: the KFC establishment itself, which apparently had a “no guns at the franchise” policy even then. “The company asked me not to have a gun in the store after the shooting,” Wayne remembers. He acknowledged being advised of the company policy, but somehow a WWII-vintage Ithaca 1911A1 .45 auto found its way into his office for the duration of his time there. It was his perception the parent company might care more about liability than the safety of an owner/manager and his employees. By the following September, Wayne had sold his franchise and made a career change. He still has the Ithaca .45.

Classy .357 Magnum Single Actions don’t come any better than these
from Freedom Arms: the 5-shot Model 83 and the 6-shot Model 97.

Top: Flat-Top Blackhawk with 101/2″ barrel and brass grip frame. Larry
Caudill-stocked 45/8″New Vaquero with Ron Power hammer and trigger.
Middle: 71/2″ Bisley Model with an extra cylinder chambered in .356 GNR.
Bottom: The top and bottom sixguns have been embellished and refinished
in high polish blue by Gary Reeder.

Lessons

We’ve already discussed the effects of intermediate barriers on bullets, stopping five of Wayne’s six, and noted he finished the encounter with only one round left if the exchange of shots had continued. Less than impressed with the effectiveness of the .380 he switched to a .45. Today, almost four decades later, Wayne’s everyday carry gun is a compact Elite ’98 series Kahr, chambered for .40 S&W, loaded with 180-grain Winchester PDX-1 bonded jacketed hollow point, and carried with two spare magazines.

Should he have engaged at all, since it appeared the robber had obtained what he came for, and was leaving? Remember, Wayne was acutely conscious of the fairly recent case of another KFC robbery in which the perpetrator had finished with the execution murder of the manager. Arming himself at the first safe opportunity and particularly knowing that his 13-year old daughter was among the employees and customers he felt a duty to protect, I cannot fault him for placing himself between those potential victims and the bad guy, should the latter decide to double back. Once the suspect turned on him with the .38, it was the perpetrator whose actions were the proximate cause of the shooting.

Wayne experienced not only tunnel vision and tachypsychia, the sense of things happening in slow motion, but also auditory exclusion on that “two-way range.” The short hallway where the shootout took place was only five feet wide and the gunfire should have reverberated deafeningly, but he only heard the shots as dull thuds. Wayne’s Walther was at eye level, dialed in by thousands of competition shots fired with careful aim, and while he wasn’t consciously aiming his alignment was true. Had it not been for the money bag the robber was carrying and the spring-loaded steel door that rapidly closed between them, all six shots the good guy fired would have hit the bad guy in the chest area.

With almost four decades to think about it, knowing what he knows now, what would Wayne have done differently? “I would have taken cover,” he answers. “I was one sliding step from the corner of the wall. I had been shooting bullseye matches since 1967, and seriously for about five years. My bullseye competition had given me good trigger control, and I’m glad that stayed with me in the fight, but I’d had zero tactics training at that time and cover simply didn’t occur to me.”

Why didn’t he avail himself of the pistol before he first stepped out of his office? “I knew if I faced him then, customers would be behind him and employees might be between us; he’d be able to shoot at me but I couldn’t return fire without hitting others,” Wayne explains. “But once he went out my office door heading for the rear exit, I knew I’d have a safe backdrop if it came to shooting.”

Top: New Model .357 50th Anniversary Ruger Blackhawk. Original Flat-Top Blackhawk.
Bottom: Both sixguns are separated by half a century. Custom checkered rosewood
grips are available from Ruger.

Moving On

I met Wayne and learned of his incident long after it happened. He told me about the training odyssey to which it led him. He said, “After my incident, I dedicated myself to self-defense knowledge and not just NRA bullseye target shooting. I took many schools from Gabe Suarez, Jeff Gonzales (Trident Concepts), Benny Cooley, Max Joseph, Larry Vickers, Blackwater International, and now you. I also took classes from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman … Each class I took was similar in the shooting techniques but what I really learned was the teaching skills and nuggets of information I passed along to my students in IDPA.”

 Wayne continued, “I took all these classes to learn and finetune my shooting skills, mindset and also to learn teaching skills from all my instructors because when I got into IDPA (International Defensive Pistol Association) in 1999, I soon became a Safety Officer (SO) and then a Safety Officer Instructor (SOI) and then did a stint as the IDPA Area Coordinator for California and Nevada. I was President of my Sacramento IDPA club from 2001 to 2011. Because of my incident, I had a better understanding of what real life shooting scenarios were like and had studied many incidents and the lessons learned. I would always stress to my IDPA students that IDPA teaches you only three things: gun handling, marksmanship and the use of cover and to then take as many other self-defense classes (as possible) to develop mind-set and a broader sense of self-defense shooting situations and techniques.”

Traveling that long path, Wayne Johnson won many titles and awards in IDPA shooting, but his focus was always on teaching others to survive the sort of encounter in which he himself had prevailed. It was in that spirit he shared his incident with us, and we here at American Handgunner appreciate that very much.

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