A Sixgunners 4th Of July


The celebration of this year’s Independence Day is but a memory of picnics, family reunions, shooting guns, and of course firework displays. All of it reminding us how fortunate we are to be celebrating our freedoms.

But July 4th also holds a special meaning among sixgunners.

95 Years In The Making

Back in 1924, a young cowboy with an infatuation for sixguns started experimenting making .45 Colt cartridges more powerful, shooting them in a 5 ½” Colt SAA. He tells his fateful tale in the form of a letter addressed to The American Rifleman magazine seeking advice.

A young Elmer, shooting in the reclined shooting position.

The Big Kaboom!

“I started to celebrate the morning of the Fourth. Picked up an old .45 S.A. Army 5 1/2 inch loaded with 40 grains bulk by my Ideal measure and 258 grain Ideal bullet, stepped out on an upstairs porch and turned the old gun at a 45 degree angle and started shooting. When the gun rose from recoil of my first cartridge I unconsciously hooked my thumb over the hammer spur and thus cocked gun as it recovered from the recoil. When I turned the next one loose I was almost deafened by the report and saw a little flash of flame. My hand automatically cocked gun and snapped again but no report. I stopped then knowing that something was wrong. The upper half of three chambers was gone. Also one cartridge and half of another case. Also the top strap over cylinder. My ears were ringing otherwise I was all O.K.” (American Rifleman Aug. 1925)

Many laugh, scoff or shake their heads ruefully at the experiments of this impetuous young cowpoke named Elmer Keith, but it was this innovation leading to the development of several different cartridges.

Much thanks to Ian McCollum of Forgotten Weapons,
for allowing me to share Elmer’s blown cylinder pictures.

The Story Unravels

The next issue of the American Rifleman follows-up with more of the story of the exploding cylinder incident on July 4th, the previous year. In it, a young, naïve Elmer explains…

“Don’t know cause unless bullets oversize. I need a .45 Colt .454 bullet sizer. Know of one? The regular one on tool no good, makes them oval. Need a separate one or a base first die for No. three tool.” (American Rifleman, September 1,1925.)

This statement is loaded with information, as Keith innocently confesses to loading un-sized bullets designed for the .45-90 in his hotly loaded .45 Colt cartridges. He also used crushed black powder, having the consistency of flour, resulting in a much faster burn rate, similar to using a hefty charge of today’s fast pistol powders.

All these facts were revealed when Elmer had the good sense of sending his blown-up gun and remaining handloads to gun writer/editor, Chauncey Thomas, for examination.

Sights On The .44 Special

Elmer quickly ditched the thin-walled cylinder of the .45 Colt and began experimenting with the Colt SAA in .44 Special, knowing the cylinder walls were thicker and stronger. With time, he developed his own cast bullet for the .44 Special, known as the Lyman/Ideal 429421. His hotly loaded .44 Specials drove his bullet 1,200 FPS. It’s all Elmer ever wanted, velocity wise, from this cartridge, and he used it for years.

Elmer tried convincing Remington to make his hot loaded .44 Special loads in factory form. Remington, rightfully worried about the hot loads in weaker sixguns, remedied the situation by making the .44 Magnum case 1/10 longer than the .44 Special and partnered with Smith & Wesson to make a .44 Magnum sixgun.

The .44 Magnum was released in 1956 and Elmer was as surprised as anyone with the unveiling.

Hot, Damn Hot!

Elmer got more than he recommended. Instead of his Lyman cast 429421 slug pushed to 1,200 FPS, Remington’s soft-lead swaged bullet, with gas check, was going in excess of 1,400 FPS. Elmer stated he only shot 600 rounds of the hotly loaded ammo that first year, showing good common sense in his wiser years.

Wash, Rinse, Repeat

While Elmer is errantly given credit with “inventing” the .44 Magnum, as our own John Taffin rightfully states, he was responsible with planting the seed from which the mighty .44 Magnum was sown.

Far from original, I’m just repeating what has already been said in Elmer’s own words, from his writings. One thing’s for certain, Elmer will always be associated with the .44, in both Magnum and Special monikers.

Sixgun Salute!

Elmer was bold enough, maybe even bordering on brash, to experiment with the .44 Special, turbo-charging the humble cartridge. All because one fateful Independence Day, 95 years ago, he let loose on some hotly loaded .45 Colt handloads, rendering his Colt SAA to a pile of parts, with a blown cylinder and top strap.

For sixgunners, we can all be humbly grateful for Elmer’s mishap, on that fateful 4th of July.

The rest they say, is history.