THE COMPANION SIXGUNS—THE FRONTIER .44-40

BY JOHN TAFFIN

            The year 1873 was a banner year for firearms production. The .45-70 Springfield Trap-Door became the official rifle of the United States Army; the .45 Colt Single Action was also adopted by the United States Army; and Winchester introduced the Model 1873 in .44 WCF. It did not take long for someone at Colt to realize the cartridge case for the .44 WCF at a length of 1.300” was awfully close to the 1.285” of the .45 Colt and users of Winchester 1873s would probably be very interested in having a sixgun using the same ammunition. It appears the first .44 WCF chambered Colt Single Action arrived in 1878 however factory records are not always accurate or complete.

The beginning serial number in 1878 for the Colt SAA was 41,000, however approximately two dozen .44 WCF SAAs have been found in Colt records in the serial number range from 21,000 to 29,000. According to the monumental Colt Single Action book, A Study Of The Colt Single Action Army Revolver by Graham, Kopec, and Moore (Taylor Publishing, 1979), these were discovered in the Colt ledger and shipped in July 1880. It is believed they were actually .45s returned to the factory to be converted to .44 WCF and this certainly points to the early popularity of having rifle and sixgun chambered in the same cartridge.         

The standard barrel lengths of the Colt Single Action Army were 4 3/4”, 5 1/2”, and 7 1/2” often referred to as Civilian, Artillery, and Cavalry Models. Colt also offered longer than standard length barrels such as 10”, 12”, and 16”. These have come to be known as Buntline Specials and were produced in the late 1870s and 1880s. Some of these may have been returned to the factory to have shorter barrels installed. As of the writing of the above-mentioned book, just under two dozen Buntline Specials have been authenticated with three of these being chambered in .44 WCF.

In today's world with warning labels on everything including firearms it may be hard to believe that many firearms produced in the 19th century were not even labeled as to caliber. This is true of both Smith & Wesson and Colt sixguns. Apparently firearms manufacturers believed people were smart enough to know what caliber they had and also could handle it correctly without warning labels and the internal and external locks. I certainly do not blame firearms manufacturer for the current situation but rather the tone of society where responsibility for one's own actions seems to have disappeared. Those Colt Single Actions chambered in .44-40 or .44 WCF or .44 Winchester Centerfire, as preferred, were simply marked on the barrel with "COLT FRONTIER SIX SHOOTER”; when the Bisley Model of 1896 was so chambered “(BISLEY MODEL)” was added in front of the above inscription, and by 1923 .44-40 had been added behind the same inscription on the Single Action Army. Of the approximately 357,000 Colt Single Action Army sixguns produced from 1873 to 1941, approximately 150,000 were .45 Colts and about 71,000 were chambered in  .44-40.  

            In addition to the Single Action Army, Bisley Model, and the Flat-Top Target versions of each, Colt also chambered their Model of 1878 in .44-40. The 1878 was Colt’s first big bore double action sixgun and except for the double action mechanism and Smith & Wesson style grip frame the Model of 1878 operated the same as the Single Action for loading and unloading, that is, it had a loading gate and an ejector rod. Barrels were marked the same as on the Single Action Army. In the late 1890s Colt would introduce the swing-out cylinder, double action New Service revolver and this would also be chambered in .44-40.

            Three years after Colt introduced their double action Model of 1878, Smith & Wesson countered with their Double Action First Model and then followed with the .44 Double Action Frontier in 1886.  Chambered in .44-40 the Double Action Frontier would last until just over 15,000 were manufactured by 1913. As with all other Smith & Wesson frontier revolvers, these are black powder guns with the frames made before 1900. Remington introduced their big bore single action revolver as the Model 1875 chambered in .44 Remington and then in 1879 added the .44-40 chambering. When the Remington Model 1890 arrived with out the characteristic web under the barrel found on the 1875 it was chambered only in .44-40.

One other sixgun offered in .44-40 was the Merwin, Hulbert. Merwin, Hulbert & Co. sixguns were unique among firearms of the 1880s and 1890s in several ways. Colt, Remington, and Smith & Wesson each manufactured the revolvers that were marked Colt, Remington, and Smith & Wesson as we might well expect. However, Joseph Merwin along with William and M.H. Hulbert were not manufacturers but rather importers and exporters of firearms and related equipment and investors in other firms such as Hopkins & Allen. Today, we talk of Cimarron and Navy Arms firearms when both Cimarron and Navy Arms are not manufacturers but rather importers. The same situation existed with Merwin, Hulbert (sometimes referred to as Merwin & Hulbert, Merwin-Hulbert, Merwin/Hulbert, and Merwin and Hulbert). They sold many products from other companies such as Ballard, Colt, Ithaca, Marlin, Remington, and Winchester.

            What Merwin, Hulbert & Co. did do was to design and receive patents for a single action sixgun different from anything produced by Colt, Remington, and Smith & Wesson. Now they needed someone to manufacture it. Since they already owned one-half interest in Hopkins & Allen, a manufacturer known for relatively inexpensive firearms, H&A was chosen to produce the new revolver and in short order Joseph Merwin and the Hulbert Brothers owned all of Hopkins & Allen. Art Phelps, author of The Story of Merwin, Hulbert & Co. Firearms (Graphic Publishers, 1992), asserts if Merwin, Hulbert had refrained from using the Hopkins & Allen name, known mainly for less than high-quality firearms, on their products the Merwin, Hulbert may have taken its place in history alongside Colt and Winchester.

            Merwin, Hulbert & Co. had been very prosperous during the 1870s and then everything changed. They were unable to collect payment for three shiploads of revolvers sent to Russia, one of their other companies failed costing them $100,000, and on top of all this one of their associates fled with most of the company’s operating capital. By 1881 Merwin, Hulbert & Co. was in receivership, and would not survive into the 1890s.

            Merwin, Hulbert revolvers were offered as Frontier Army Models and Pocket Army Models chambered in .44-40; they were offered in open-top and solid-top versions as well as in single action and double action. The term Pocket Army can be misleading. Although these sixguns have rounded butts they are full-sized, six-shot, .44-40 revolvers.

My treasured .44-40 Merwin, Hulbert & Co. sixgun is a Third Model Pocket Army, one of approximately 2,500 specimens produced in the mid-1880s, nickel-plated as most MHs were, and wearing pearl stocks on its birdhead style grip frame complete with integral lanyard hole at the bottom. It is marked in three places, on the left side of the frame below the cylinder we find “Calibre Winchester 1873” in two lines; on the left side of the barrel is Hopkins & Allen as well as the address and patent dates; and on the right side of the frame below the cylinder is found “Merwin, Hulbert & Co. N.Y. Pocket Army.”

The Smith & Wesson 1st Model Hand Ejector, or Triple-Lock is often regarded by collectors as the finest revolver ever made, however it has nothing over the Merwin, Hulbert & Co. sixguns. Hopkins & Allen rose significantly above itself in producing these sixguns and they were definitely way ahead of their time. When I showed the Pocket Army to my engineer friend he looked at it over and over and over again and finally said, How in the world did they ever make all the required metalwork and cuts to produce this revolver with the equipment and technology they possessed?

Several unique engineering features make this Pocket Army a step above other single actions of the time.  To load, a button on the right side behind the cylinder is pushed downwards and the loading gate opens to allow cartridges to be inserted. On the bottom of the mainframe in front of the trigger guard is another small button. When this button is pushed towards the front of the trigger guard it releases the barrel and top of the frame allowing them to swing 90 degrees to the right.  Then the entire assembly including the cylinder is pulled forward moving only far enough to allow spent cartridges to fall out while unfired cartridges due to their greater length stay in the cylinder.  For cleaning, a latch on the left side of the barrel assembly is pressed in and the entire assembly and cylinder may be slid off the center pin. The cylinder then is easily removed from the recess into which the gas ring fits. One now has three easy to clean separate pieces taking about 10 seconds to bring back together. The mechanics involved in this revolver are absolutely fascinating.

This Merwin, Hulbert revolver is special not only for its workmanship but more importantly it was the last firearm I purchased from Mark Shapel. Mark was the third generation operator of Shapel's Gun Shop where I had searched for treasures and visited with friends for 40 years. Right after I purchased this .44-40, Mark died of cancer. He was in his early 40s. Shapel's is now closed after 60 years and things just don't seem the same anymore. He is missed and the gun shop is missed.

Mark was also responsible for two other .44-40s I have. I was busily at work hoping something would happen to interrupt me and give me a break. The phone rang and the little screen attached to the phone said “Shapel’s Gun Shop”, a call I am always happy to take and one I do not want to miss. “John, this is Mark at Shapel’s. We have some guns up here you may want to look at.” “Mark, I was planning to come over this afternoon anyway for some parts so I will be right over.” Five minutes later I entered the shop.  

A young fellow was standing there selling Grandpa's guns. Grandpa's guns! Sadness enveloped me as I heard those words. Many times I have been contacted by young fellows who have inherited one of Grandpa's guns and want to know something about it. My first advice is always “Don’t Ever Sell That Gun! You have a great gun there and most importantly someday this should go to your grandson or granddaughter. It is part of your family history.  Don't let it get away.” Now, here was this young fellow with  Grandpa's guns for sale. He had two pistol cases with him, and each case contained two 4 ¾” Colt Single Actions from around the turn-of-the-century. There was a pair of .32-20s and another pair each marked “COLT FRONTIER SIX-SHOOTER” which identified them as .44-40s. Now I was really hooked! All four of these were also obviously everyday working sixguns as the finish was virtually non-existent, however, the lettering was sharp and clear on all the guns and very few of the old screws showed any serious damage to their slots.

Looking at the serial numbers of the .44-40s, I found one to be in the black powder range and the other very early smokeless. Pulling the cylinders I found the oldest gun did have some pitting in the barrel while the smokeless barrel was in excellent shape. Both cylinders locked up tight with a minimum of end-play and side-to-side movement for sixguns that were over 100 years old. One had the traditional black eagle grips, while the other had been fitted, probably by Grandpa, with one-piece wooden stocks having a carved maple leaf on the right side. They were way too thick for my hand, Grandpa must have had really big hands, but I figured the stock could be easily slimmed. I asked the young man how much he wanted for the pair of Frontier Six-Shooters and he mentioned a price, which I felt was a little too high especially if I bought both of them. A counter offer was made in a more reasonable, to me, price range and accepted. I had two of Grandpa's sixguns.

When I got them home both were totally dismantled and I found a lot of crud in the action of the .44-40 from 1897. All the parts were soaked in carburetor cleaner to remove who knows how many years of accumulated dirt, and then everything given a coat of Tetra Gun Grease before reassembling. All end play was taken out of the cylinder with a couple of Power Custom end shims, the front trigger guard screw was replaced, and when put back together, I found I had a sixgun with a very smooth action. The second sixgun, from 1902, received the same treatment with the same results; very smooth. It was necessary to replace the mainspring on this gun as the one it had was way too heavy for my tastes. I got a surprise when I tried to take this gun apart as the one-piece stocks had been glued on the gun using the normal method of two panels plus a filler in the middle, however the grip pins were still in use so as I tried to remove the back strap the old glue gave up the ghost and the grips came apart. They were replaced with a pair of gutta percha grips to match the other sixgun.

We often hear the phrase “If only they could talk” and it is certainly apropos here. Who knows what their history is? How old was Grandpa when he acquired them? How were they used? Most importantly why would a young man sell Grandpa's guns? I hoped it was for a noble purpose such as going to school, or building house for a family, but I felt it was more likely that he wanted to buy something frivolous. I hoped I was wrong.

I also hope and pray the day never comes when any of my grandkids find it necessary or even acquire the mindset to sell Grandpa's guns. As I cleaned the guns and put them back together I somehow felt that Grandpa would rest easy this night even though his grandson was selling all his guns. I think he knew this pair of old Colt .44s had found a new home where they would be cared for, totally appreciated, and given regular feedings and exercise.  I later found out the young man was indeed selling Grandpa's guns for a noble purpose. His seven-year-old daughter was quite ill needing expensive treatment. He sacrificed Grandpa's guns for his daughter; one has to respect such a young fellow and Grandpa would be proud of him.

 Earlier the Smith & Wesson .44 Double Action Frontier Model was mentioned. One Saturday several years ago our local club decided to start lever action silhouette matches. So Dot and I went to the first match which was just to familiarize everyone with the procedures. We were supposed to spot for each other but every time I needed her she was off talking to someone and I was getting a little upset. I should not have. Turns out she was asking different folks if they knew of a .44 sixgun for sale somewhere in town unlike anything I already had. She hit the jackpot and so did I. That afternoon after the match she went out shopping and came back with a beautiful nickel-plated Smith & Wesson Double Action Frontier .44-40. She is one in a million! Now if I could only find a reasonably priced Remington .44-40 shooter all the bases would be covered. 

            We have traveled through the second half of the 19th century from the .44 round ball to the .44 Henry and on to the .44 American, .44 Russian, .44 Colt, and .44 WCF. It’s time to enter the 20th century. Before we look at the .44 cartridges of the 20th century we should also point out the fact the 19th century .44-40 has enjoyed a renaissance beginning in the last quarter of the 20th century. Colt offered the Frontier Six-Shooter Commemorative .44-40 in 1973 along with the Peacemaker Centennial .45 Colt and then chambered the .44-40 in both the Single Action Army and New Frontier in their Third Generation sixguns; in replica form it has been offered not only in the Single Action Army but also the Bisley Model, the S&W Schofield, the Remington 1890 and 1875 Models, and Ruger’s Vaquero. Even Smith & Wesson offered a .44-40 Commemorative on their N-frame and a special edition of Ruger Super Blackhawk Convertibles had a second cylinder chambered in .44-40. The .44-40 will also show up in an auxiliary cylinder in the chapter on custom .44 Specials.

 

7-1) "Grandpa's Guns”, a pair of 4 3/4” Colt Frontier Six-Shooters from

1897 and 1903. Leather is by Will Ghormley.

 

 

7-2) That is not a current stainless-steel double action held by Taffin,

but rather an original nickel-plated Merwin, Hulbert & Co. 44-40 Pocket Army.

 

 

7-3) The simultaneous ejection of shells found on the Smith & Wesson

single actions carried over to the Double Action Frontier .44-40.

 

 

7-4) Three generation's of Colt .44 WCFs: an 1879 Frontier Six-Shooter,

a 1973 Peacemaker Centennial Commemorative, and a 3rd Generation .44-40.

 

 

7-5) This Colt Single Action of 1879 is one of the first chambered in .44 WCF

 and the barrel is marked “COLT FRONTIER SIXSHOOTER"

 

 

7-6) This Colt Frontier Sixshooter from 1903 is safe with reasonable

smokeless powder loads.

 

 

7-7) Grandpa's Guns, a pair of 4 3/4” Frontier Sixshooters, are in the hands

of their second Grandpa. 

 

 

7-8) With the proper loads using black powder this .44-40 Colt from 1879

shoots as well, or better, that many modern guns.

 

 

7-9) Smith & Wesson's Double Action .44-40 can still get the job done

125 years later.

 

 

7-10) Perhaps the most well known .44-40 is one Theodore Roosevelt used

in the Dakotas; this is USFA’s version of a very beautiful and historical sixgun.

 

 

7-11) Colt offered their Model 1878 Double Action in .44-40 such as this

factory engraved and ivory stocked example.

Photo courtesy of Jim Suica’s ArmChairGunShow.com.

 

 

7-12) Perhaps the most sophisticated sixgun design of the 1870s was the

Merwin, Hulbert. This is a factory engraved and ivory stocked .44-40.

Photo courtesy of Jim Supica’s ArmChairGunShow.com.

 

 

7-13) Fit for a Texas Barbecue, or any other special event, is this factory

engraved and pearl stocked Merwin, Hulbert .44-40.

Photo courtesy of Jim Supica’s ArmChairGunShow.com.

 

 

 

7-14) The box may actually be worth more than the sixgun! An original box

is even harder to find than a Smith & Wesson Double Action Frontier .44-40.

Photo courtesy of Jim Supica’s ArmsBid.com.

 

Chapter 6      Chapter 8