THE ROAD TO THE .44 MAGNUM—IMPROVING THE .44 SPECIAL
BY JOHN TAFFIN
Several years ago I walked into a
local bookstore looking for Christmas presents and asked the clerk behind the
counter if she had any books by Elmer Keith in the back room storage. She
looked at me and said: "Who's Elmer Keith?" Another clerk overheard
her, pushed her aside and said: "I know who Elmer Keith is. I will take
care of this gentleman." I could not believe that anyone working in a
Elmer Keith was born in
Before Elmer was ten, his family
By now Keith had managed to tear his
chin away from his right shoulder and could hold his head up once again. Dad
Keith filled Elmer with Old Grandad and when he was feeling little pain, broke
the fingers on his left hand, straightened the hand out and laced it to a
smooth board. Weeks were spent bandaging and re-bandaging and Mom Keith used
buckskin gloves filled with mule deer tallow to aid in the healing of Elmer's
left hand. It is a tribute to them that he regained full use of his hand and
the doctor's prophecy of an early death did not come to fruition. Keith did
carry numerous scars of the fire until his death at the age of eighty-five. As
the young Elmer grew older, he went looking, with a sixgun, for the man who had
deliberately set the
Keith never cared much for school and dropped out in the eighth grade and the outdoors became his natural teacher. He became a cowboy, a bronc buster, and ran a pack string taking supplies to survey crews and firefighting crews. About this time Keith had managed to save up $25 and went to town to buy a real sixgun to replace his 1851 Navy .36 cap-and-ball Colt. With that grand sum, Elmer bought a brand new Colt Single Action Army .32-20 with a 7 1/2” barrel, had the local saddlemaker stitch up a holster and money belt with 50 cartridge loops, and even managed to purchase three boxes of .32-20 ammunition. He was now well on his way to becoming a lifetime devotee of the sixgun.
Keith would spend his early adult years hunting, ranching, and learning. The local town barber had been a former Southwestern gunfighter and Keith learned gun-handling skills from him as the gunfighter turned barber often took young Keith into the backroom of the shop and had him shoot squib loads into the patterned linoleum. Keith later said of his teacher: "...one of the fastest men I've ever seen with a Single Action Colt."
Guns were in abundance in the Keith home and Elmer soon traded off the .32-20, which he found lacking in game-killing power, for his first big bore sixgun, a .45 Colt Single Action. In 1925, Keith blew the cylinder and top strap on a heavily loaded .45 Colt Single Action, perhaps the same one, and a new career was launched. That incident became Keith's first handgun article for The American Rifleman. Keith says, of firing the Fourth of July salute with his .45 Colt 5 1/2" SA, "When the gun rose from recoil of the first cartridge I unconsciously hooked my thumb over the hammer spur and thus cocked gun as it recovered from 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 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, August 15, 1925). This was the beginning of Elmer Keith's long and colorful career as a gun-writer.
Before that first article was written, Keith had been using heavy .45 Colt loads in the Colt Single Action made up with 300 grain bullets with a diameter of .458" originally intended for use in the .45-90 lever action Winchester and with black powder he had ground to the consistency of flour. With the use of an oversized bullet and modified black powder, the old Colt finally gave up and Elmer Keith switched to the .44 Special and the rest is history. It is hard to believe that Keith was using .458" diameter bullets until one reads in his next article: "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). If that old Colt had not blown its top strap and cylinder, Keith may have spent most of his life ranching and shooting his old .45 with no one ever hearing from him.
From the late 1920s until 1955, Keith continually promoted the .44 Special as the ideal sixgun cartridge using his designed "Keith" bullet weighing 250 grains and pushed at a full 1200 fps using first #80 powder and then, when it became available, Hercules #2400. Over the years Keith featured his sixguns in his articles, and as a teenager I purchased a copy of Sixguns By Keith, subsequently spending many hours carefully studying the pictures of his many custom sixguns. My habit had been to haunt the newstands looking for magazines that had anything about handguns. Now everything important, at least to me, was available in one book. Other teenagers were interested in the new rock and roll music, movies, and fast cars. I soon lost interest in all three but developed a passion for sixguns.
Keith covered everything: long range shooting, gun fighting, DA shooting, quick draw, holsters, trick shooting, and reloading. I read and re-read Sixguns until my first copy was dog-eared and had to be replaced. The pictures of the beautiful sixguns were referred to over and over again with the impossible hope that someday I too would own such guns. After I met Keith for the first time, he supplied me with a list of all of his old sixgun articles from the American Rifleman and I was able to add all of those to my file.
Keith was not satisfied with stock factory sixguns and enlisted the help of some of the top gunsmiths and engravers in the country to customize his sixguns. On page 103 of Keith's classic Sixguns, one finds a picture of four beautiful Colt Single Actions, all of which I have been privileged to handle. All four of these are still part of the Keith Collection and by the time you read this those sixguns should be on permanent display along with all the rest of his guns and his game trophies.
Keith’s four Colt Single Action .44 Specials were a King short action job, 7 1/2 " barrel; an original, one of a kind 7 1/2" Flat-Top Target; the No. 5 S.A. Colt, an extensively customized 5 1/2" Flat-Top Target Model with a special grip made by combining a Bisley backstrap and Colt SA trigger guard; and a 5 1/2" flat-top target with Keith designed folding three leaf rear sight. Colt #1 was an obvious favorite as it shows much use. This short action 7 1/2" .44 Special has ivory grips with a steer head carved on the right grip, a wide hammer, a Smith & Wesson type rear sight, a front sight held on by a barrel band, and even though it shows extensive blue wear it is still quite tight. Since the ivory grips have a Colt medallion inset in them, I assume they are original Colt manufactured stocks.
Colt #2 has been kept as original
since it is the only .44 Special Colt SA Flat-Top Target Model to ever leave
Keith, along with the ideas of Harold Croft and gunsmiths of the time, Neal Houchins, R.F. Sedgley, and J.D. O'Meara, worked together and welded up the top strap of a standard Colt Single Action to make a heavy Flat-Top Target design. The old flat mainspring was replaced by a U-type spring, and the hammer was made by welding a Bisley wide hammer on a standard hammer. The rear sight is adjustable and the front sight is the high Patridge type. The base pin latch was changed to eliminate any chance of the pin jumping forward under recoil and the grip frame was made by mating a standard Colt SA trigger guard and a Bisley backstrap.
called this sixgun his No. 5 S.A. In the late 1920s, Harold Croft of
One year after the Croft visit Keith unveiled his idea of the perfect sixgun in an article entitled The Last Word in the American Rifleman in April 1929. He incorporated many of Croft's ideas including the flat-topped frame, adjustable sights, and the modified grip frame. Keith called his new sixgun the No. 5 S.A. as it had been patterned after Croft's numbers M1 to M4. When Croft visited Keith all his sixguns, numbers M1 to M4, were .45s, while Keith's #5 was a .44 Special. So Croft had a great influence on Keith and Keith also had a great influence on Croft as of the two Croft sixguns that have surfaced lately, both have been converted from .45 Colt to .44 Special. Both sixguns have two dates on them and I am assuming one date is for the original completion to .45 Colt and the other represents the changeover to .44 Special.
addition to Colt Single Action .44 Specials, Keith also used double action
Smith & Wessons such as the Triple-Lock and Model 1926 mentioned in
previous chapters. For much of his adult life Keith lived on the
his book Sixguns Keith talks of the Smith & Wesson 4” 1950 Target .44
of my other favorite writers was Bob Hagel also of
Bob Hagel wrote of the Versatile .44 Special in the January-February 1967 issue of Handloader, "I've fired thousands of rounds through several guns chambered for the cartridge--from old Colt Frontier sixguns to 1926 and 1950 Smith & Wessons--and I have yet to have the 250-18.5-2400 load give any trouble. Many cases have been fired at least 20 times and showed no sign of giving up. This is the most accurate combination of any of the heavy hunting loads I have ever used… At one time or another, I've killed most of the big game the West provides with the 250-grain Keith bullet backed by the 18.5 charge of 2400, with both hard and soft bullets. I put the big, flat bullets through big buck mule deer and left holes in both sides, and the same thing goes for the average black bear. While not my idea of a top-drawer elk cartridge, there have been some that didn't make many more tracks after one of the big slugs splashed through. Enough mountain lions have made been to topple from high fir trees to make one helluva long rug. This old load in the old .44 special cartridge has done a good job if I did my part"
From the 1920s until the 1950s Keith preached big bore rifles and big bore sixguns. Nothing under .33 caliber was adequate for elk and he had the stories to back it up. The .44 Special was his pet sixgun in both Colt Single Action and Smith & Wesson Triple-Lock persuasion. With the old balloon head .44 Special brass, Keith worked up a heavy load of 18.5 grains of #2400 powder and his design for the perfect bullet, Ideal's # 429421. This was the first of many bullets to be labeled Keith bullets. Keith as well as many others killed many head of big game with the .44 Special; Keith was not a handgun hunter per se but he just always packed a sixgun and thus had one any time the opportunity presented itself.
In the August 1955 issue of American Rifleman, M. D.Waite of the NRA Technical Staff had an article entitled Loads For The .44 S&W Special using a S&W Model 1950 Target. Twenty-two loads are listed including the Keith #429421 in solid head brass over 7.5 grains of Unique for 950 fps and 11,250 psi; and 16.0 grains of #2400 for 1,140 fps and 19,000 psi. Using Keith’s standard loading of 18.5 grains of #2400 in balloon head brass resulted in 1,235 fps and 21,000 psi.
When solid head .44 Special brass became available, Keith's .44 Special load became 17.0 grains of #2400 and this is still universally known as the Keith load. This load was the basis for Elmer urging ammunition manufacturers to bring out a real .44 Special load. They were afraid of liabiity even back then so Keith called for a new cartridge, a .44 Special Magnum with brass the same length as the .357 Magnum and a new gun to house the new cartridge. Keith had spent much of life living relatively primitive in the Salmon River Wilderness then at the age of fifty Keith gave up guiding and deciding his wife deserved some modern conveniences, moved into the town that would become the Sixgunner's Mecca, Salmon Idaho. For the next thirty years, Keith would write articles, receive a countless stream of visitors, and answer 300 to 500 letters per month.
Keith was the most local proponent of the .44 Special, however he was certainly not the only one. In the 1940s a group known as the .44 Associates and headed up by one Lawrence Newton of Massachusetts shared .44 Special reloading information and even published a booklet in 1945 with over 1,000 .44 Special loads. Only 200 copies were printed and I am fortunate to have a copy of one of those copies. Elmer Keith was a member of the .44 Associates and traded information with other members. Even before this we find information going back to 1928 in a book by A.L.A. Himmelwright entitled Pistol and Revolver Shooting. Himmelwright includes much loading data in his book and we not only find numerous loads for the .44 Special but some relatively heavy loads also including those assembled with the same #80 powder mentioned by Elmer Keith. Of special note is a load giving the 246 grain bullet a muzzle velocity of 1070 fps. Keith had started with the #80 powder but then dropped it in favor of Hercules #2400 as he found he could get more velocity with less pressure using #2400 compared to #80.
The noted ballistician Phil Sharpe, who did much of the experimental work for Smith & Wesson leading up to the .357 Magnum in 1935 also had a special fondness for the .44 Special. In his book Complete Guide To Handloading (Funk & Wagnalls, 1948) Sharpe says, “The .44 Smith & Wesson Special cartridge is probably the most desirable of the entire run of big bore handgun cartridges particularly from the standpoint of the reloader… The cartridge case was particularly designed for target shooting and for proper combustion of powder. It was originally a black-powder cartridge, but it seems to perform about as well with smokeless powder as one might desire. A wide range of bullets is available in this caliber, and a great many shooters who like to play with a .44 Special and a .44-40 make a practice of having a spare cylinder to enable them to change from one to the other… Of the group of big bores, there is perhaps the widest variety of handloads available in this caliber, due to the fact that it's been so highly specialized over a long period of years.” Sharpe lists well over 100 reloads for the .44 Special including 18.4 grains of #2400 with a 246 grain bullet for 1100 fps and a breech pressure of 15,000 and 20.0 grains with a 242 grain bullet at 1200 fps with a listed breech pressure of 19,700. So Keith was not the only one to be pushing the .44 Special to the peak of performance! I might also add that I believe Sharpe’s pressure figures to be much lower than actual, and Keith said his loads were more in the 25,000 to 28,000 range pressure wise. Also remember all of these loads were assembled in the old balloon head .44 Special brass which had a higher volume of case capacity than modern solid head brass.
Keith was not an experimenter in the true sense of the word. He found the loads he wanted and stayed with them for three decades. Once he had his #429421 bullet be loaded it over the heaviest charges of #80 and then #2400, which he felt were safe and also gave him the muzzle velocity he wanted. One who really did a lot of experimenting was John LaChuk. He started out with heavy loaded .38 Specials in the 1940s, switched to the .44-40 and then when he read Elmer Keith's Sixgun Cartridges & Loads (Samworth, 1936) he found Keith favored the .44 Special because of the thicker cylinder walls compared to the .45 Colt and .44-40, and he swapped his .44-40 cylinder for a .44 Special cylinder for his Colt. In the First Generation Single Actions, Colt used the same .427” groove diameter barrel in both .44s so it was simply a matter of swapping cylinders.
LaChuk shot that 5 1/2” Colt so much he eventually had to set the barrel back one full turn. LaChuk says, “During the ‘40s and ‘50s, the .44 Special boasted to a relatively small but religiously fervent following, even inspired a fan club. ‘The .44 Associates’ was founded by Lawrence I. Newton, a Worcester, Massachusetts, insurance adviser, solely for the free exchange of loads and experimental data concerning the potent .44, we seldom met, but kept in touch by mail when a first-class letter whisked coast-to-coast for just three cents. Larry compiled 1,001 .44 Special loads, submitted by members, and printed 200 copies. My treasured copy is numbered 103. In going over it today, I note that little actual chronograph or pressure data is included, only commercial ammo makers could afford such equipment then. Most loads evolved by rule of thumb, but they're still proven valid in the light of today's laboratory figures.” (Petersen’s Handguns, March 1990).
LaChuk did all of his early experimenting with Colt Single Actions and later acquired Smith & Wesson Sixguns, a Triple-Lock and a Model 1926. It was about this time that he made the acquaintance of Ray Thompson who was a pure bullet genius. Thompson took the basic semi-wadcutter, redesigned it to fit his idea of what a bullet should be including the fitting of a gas check, which is nothing more than a copper cup that goes over the base. Thompson's two .44 (he also came up with a .45 bullet, #452490, and perhaps the greatest .357 Magnum bullet, #358156) bullet molds for the Lyman were #431215 at 215 grains and #431244 at 245 grains. Lyman also offered hollowpoint versions of all Thompson bullets. Now LaChuk had the bullets to really allow him to move forward.
again shares, “During World War II, components were hard to come by, building
up a great thirst among shooters. When
ammo became available again after the war, I bought a case of primed Remington
.44 Special brass and about half a case of factory ammo. All of it was balloon-head. A favorite
subject among .44 fans of the day was getting the factories to make solid-head
cases in the belief that they would be stronger. My correspondence with
for stronger brass, I miked a number of rifle rounds and discovered that just
ahead of the rim, straight-sided .405
In 1949, I submitted a manuscript about my wildcat .44 magnum, along with some sample cartridges and cases, to the American Rifleman. I received a polite letter of rejection… I wrote to Hercules, and they replied that they could pressure test .44 Special cartridges, but had no test chamber to accept my longer case. The cost of the new test barrel was prohibitive. I wrote Colt Firearms, attempting to interest them in chambering the Frontier for my round. No dice. My friend Bill Wilson, founder of Great Western Arms Corp., was planning to offer his single-action Colt clones in my new caliber, but financial problems shelved the project.”
What is extremely interesting about LaChuk’s wildcat “.44 Lancer” is the fact that cases were 1.280” in length and he used 22.5 grains of #2400 under the Thompson bullet. Muzzle velocities had to be in the 1,500 fps range and recoil in the Colt Single Action would have been brutal.
Three articles appeared in the 1953 American Rifleman by one John W. Zlatich who did considerable experimenting with the .44 Special in the Smith & Wesson Model 1926 and 1950 Target. Those articles are .44 Dynamite, February issue; Expanding Bullets For The .44, May; and .44 Special vs. .357 Magnum, October. Zlatich said, "The .44 Smith & Wesson Special, properly loaded, can be the deadliest handgun cartridge in the world. Modern smokeless rifle powders like Hercules Unique and 2400 boost the killing powder and long-range accuracy of this cartridge into the low-powered rifle class and make the big .44 almost twice as deadly as its nearest competitor, the highly-praised .357 Smith & Wesson Magnum… Pressures of .44 high-power handloads range higher than normal, and extreme care must be taken to avoid going over the safety limit of one's revolver. Colt and Smith & Wesson recommend their .44 revolvers only with factory loads, making them comfortably safe with ammunition which is loaded to around 12,000 pounds per square inch or less. Actually, both makes of these revolvers are safe with pressures well in excess of 16,000 pounds, but neither manufacturer will state how much higher… Higher velocity handloads will develop pressure approaching 20,000 pounds. Many thousands of rounds at this level have been fired in both makes of revolver without the least difficulty-- provided all conditions were perfectly under control! But slip in a variable like an oversize bullet and the revolver will wind up with no cylinder or top strap on it and the shooter minus a finger or two.”
Zlatich provides a lot of information on the .44 Special and especially when using hollowpoint cast bullets. These articles are worth finding for the handloader who is especially devoted to the .44 Special. Zlatich takes the opposite side from Keith and Hagel when it comes to balloon head brass saying the weak link in the chain is definitely the brass which is not particularly suited to heavy the loads and will fail under continued firing with such loads. Different experimenters with the same cartridge, same brass, same bullets; different conclusion.
All of these men mentioned provided valuable information to .44 Special shooters from the 1920s to the 1950s. The .44 Special, properly loaded, is still a great cartridge and as far as I am concerned it is the Cartridge of the Century, 20th-century that is. With the advent of the .44 Magnum in 1956 the .44 Special almost died, but not quite. Next we will look at the man most directly responsible for resurrecting the .44 Special.
9-1) Elmer Keith relaxes on the back porch of this Salmon Idaho home with
his 7 1/2” King Short Action .44 Special Colt SAA and the Lawrence #120
Keith holster he designed.
9-2) The standard round nosed factory .44 Special ammunition clocked out
at about 750 fps; Keith's heavy load with his #429421 bullet was in the 1200 fps range.
9-3) From 1950 until the arrival of the .44 Magnum Keith's every day carry
gun was this 4” engraved and ivory stocked 1950 Target Model .44 Special
shown on the right.
9-4) A pair of Keith’s custom Colt SAAs ride in #120 Lawrence holsters.
The top sixgun is a 4 3/4” .45 while the bottom revolver is a 7 1/2” .44 Special.
9-5) Keith’s .45 Colt, center is surrounded by his pair of custom .44 Specials:
King Short Action 7 1/2” and the #5SAA.
9-6) Close-up of the beautiful engraving on Keith’s #5SAA .44 Special.
9-7) Keith experimented with many .44 Specials including these 5 1/2” Colt SAAs
equipped with adjustable sights and carried in a pair of Berns-Martin holsters.
9-8) Keith's favorite long-range .44 Special was this 7 1/2” Colt customized
by King Gun Works with an adjustable rear sight, front sight on a barrel band,
wide hammer, short action, and ivory stocks.
9-9) Keith with a pair of his favorite .44s, a 4 1/2” .44 Magnum and a
4” .44 Special.
9-10) The famous hat, pipe, and .44 in a Lawrence holster, are all well-known
trademarks of Elmer Keith.
9-11) Son Ted Keith shows his famous father’s famous .44 Special, the #5SAA.
9-12) Keith’s #5SAA .44 Special rests upon Keith’s last Stetson.
9-13) This article, written by John LaChuk nearly 50 years ago, served to
provide further and greater enthusiasm about the .44 Special for Taffin.
9-14) Examples of two of the finest .44 Specials ever offered to sixgunners:
the S&W 1950 Target Model with 6 1/2” and 4” barrels.
Custom stocks are of Australian lacewood handcrafted by Roy Fishpaw.
9-15) In the early 1950s John Zlatich wrote several articles for the American
Rifleman on the .44 Special using the Smith & Wesson Model 1926.
9-16) Lyman’s #429421 Keith bullet is shown with Ray Thompson’s gas
check versions, Lyman’s #431244 and 429215.