GREAT WESTERN’S .44 SPECIALS

BY JOHN TAFFIN

            It was December 1954. I had gone to town to see a movie, Western of course, and as always I then stopped at the newsstand. Pickings were pretty lean in those days when it came to gun magazines; in fact, a fellow could starve to death as there were none. Then I saw it. With so many forms of information at our fingertips today, although much of it on the internet is worthless, posted anonymously and unsubstantiated, it may be hard for some of the younger shooters to understand what a wonderful occasion this was. There peeking out above the other magazines I saw the word GUNS. I thought I was dreaming!  Finally, a real gun magazine; that first issue of GUNS was dated January 1955 and had a cased pair of what I thought were Colt Single Actions on the cover but have turned out to be Great Westerns.

            Colt had ceased production of their Single Action Army in 1941 with no thought of ever bringing it back; at least that was what everyone thought. William Wilson was so convinced, even had a letter from Colt to that effect, he began manufacturing replicas of the Colt Single Action from the Great Western factory in Los Angeles. For early advertising he actually used a picture of a 7 1/2” Colt Single Action fitted with the plastic B Western-style stag grips that would come standard on the Great Western, and on some Great Westerns he even used Colt parts purchased from the Colt factory. Early Great Westerns had Colt style, in some cases actual Colt, hammers with the integral firing pin. Later Great Westerns used a frame mounted firing with the end of the hammer looking like an upside-down L where it contacted the firing pin.

            TV Westerns, actually old B-movies, in the early 1950s did the same thing for Single Actions that Clint Eastwood did for the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum in the 1970s, that is, created an almost insatiable demand. Virtually every shooter wanted a single action sixgun. The first company to fill the void was headed up by young man by the name of Bill Ruger. Ruger took a good look at the Colt Single Action Army, reduced it slightly in size, about 15%, fitted it with virtually unbreakable coil springs, maintained the standard SAA grip shape, size, and feel, flat-topped the frame enough to add a rear sight in a dovetail adjustable for windage, chambered it in .22 Long Rifle, and the Single-Six was born in 1953. One year later Wilson opened the Great Western plant in Los Angeles. While Ruger had modernized the Single Action, Wilson chose to replicate it. I often read Great Westerns were made in Germany and in Italy; not so, they were totally American-made sixguns.

            Standard chamberings for the Great Western were .22, .38 Special, .44 Special,  .45 Colt, and the .357 Atomic. The latter was simply a heavy loaded .357 Magnum introduced just before the .44 Magnum arrived. My first Great Western was a .22 purchased around 1958. It turned out to be a poor shooter; it spit lead and the timing was way off. I didn't keep it very long. In his beginning of his book Sixguns by Keith in 1955 Elmer Keith stated the test Great Western he had received was, "… very poorly timed, fitted, and showed a total lack of final inspection.  The hand was a trifle short, the bolt spring did not have enough bend to lock the bolt with any certainty, the mainspring was twice as strong as necessary and the trigger pull about three times as heavy as needed." He was later able to report, "We are happy to report that Great Western has really gotten on the ball and is now cooking on all four burners.  They overhauled their design and inspection departments, put in some gunsmiths who really know the score and are now turning out first-class single action copies… We have one in 4-3/4 inch .44 Special and it is a very fine single action in every way, perfectly timed, sighted and is very accurate.  It has performed perfectly with factory and my heavy handloads and is very accurate at extreme range which is the real test of any sixgun."

            Other than my own writings I have only seen one feature length article on Great Western sixguns in the last 50 years. That article was found in the May 1955 issue of GUNS and titled A Six Shooter For TV Cowboys by William B. Edwards. He had this to say about the Great Westerns, "Wilson's idea was to offer a gun exactly like the Colt, with several small but important improvements.  Trigger and bolt screws in the Great Western Frontier are of a different thread from the original; they stay put more securely under the shock of firing and do not shake loose. Instead of making a forging for the frame, he uses an invested chrome-molybdenum casting of aircraft quality steel.  The straps, trigger guard and hammer are all of chrome-moly, while the cylinders are of high-carbon SAE 4140 chrome-moly treated to 36 Rockwell on the C scale.  This alloy steel is much more difficult to machine easily but results in cylinders of great strength. Pressures of 52,000 psi have been fired in Great Western’s .357 Atomic with no difficulty, while handloads of 30 grains of Hercules #2400 have failed to do any damage in the .45s. However 27 grains bulged a comparable Colt cylinder. The trigger and cylinder bolt are coined from beryllium bronze alloy, a metal well adapted to spring purposes."

            Even before this article appeared I had a Great Western catalog stuffed in one of my high school textbooks to dream over during those long spring afternoons in the classroom. I remember reading the claim about the 30 grains of #2400 and the .45 Colt. I didn't it believe then and I still don’t. Edwards encountered the same problems as Keith with those early Great Westerns as he spoke of the two guns on that first GUNS magazine cover. "Two .45 caliber Great Westerns in the GUNS magazine collection, numbered below #200, show very poor fitting and an ordinary buff-the-ell-out-of-it bluing job. The first two guns of the Frontier ever made had Colt hammers in them; these, also, seem to have scrapped Colt hammers with the notches welded up and poorly re-cut.  Trigger pulls are bad, and the fired cases stuck in the chamber, showing scratch marks after finally punching them out."  I was able to fire the two Great Westerns for the 50th Anniversary of GUNS after having them first totally rebuilt by sixgunsmith Jim Martin. It took 50 years but they were finally first-class sixguns.

            I have no idea how many Great Western Single Actions were produced, some say 50,000 but probably less than half that, before the company disappeared less than ten years after it began. Colt had basically promised Wilson they had no interest in ever building the Colt Single Action again, then two years after Great Western started Colt resurrected the Single Action Army and even though the GW sold for $99.50 when the Colt was tagged at $125, Great Western’s fate was sealed. Twenty-five years ago they were hard to find; now it is even more difficult. The .44 Special Great Western is especially elusive. I have found four GW .44s, three Specials and one Magnum, for sale in the last half-century. The first one had a 7 1/2” barrel purchased in the early 1980s. My records from back then show I used a 240 grain copper-coated SWC .429” bullet over 14 grains of HS-7 for 1159 fps; 18 grains of AA#9, 1202 fps; and the standard Keith load of 17.0 grains of #2400 also gave 1202 fps. This was an excellent shooting sixgun; so what did I do? I modified it! I had not yet learned “Don't fix what ain't broke!"

            First I had Charles Able fit some beautiful walnut stocks, a real plus; then it was sent to Hamilton Bowen, another plus, but I had the barrel back to 4 3/4”. He did his usual masterful work on this Great Western but if I had thought about it for more than a few minutes I would have had him fit a Colt Single Action barrel and put the 7 1/2” away until such a time as now when I wished it was a 7 1/2” again. Remember the first Great Western Elmer Keith tested? This one was just the opposite and Hamilton said it was as finally fitted as any Second Generation Colt so Great Western eventually learned how to build single action sixguns. I still enjoy the .44 Special with the short barrel, however I just wished I had left it alone.

            Walking into a local pawn shop about 20 years ago I found the second .44 Great Western only this time it was a .44 Magnum. Since the frame mounted firing pin was broken the price was only $100; I just happened to have a firing pin in my parts box and my gunsmith charged me  $7.50 to repair it. Now the Great Western was basically the same size as the Colt Single Action, in fact I have Great Western Single Actions fitted with Colt barrels and cylinders. Over the years Colt has maintained the frame was too small for the .44 Magnum and when Ruger converted one of their .357 Flat-Top Blackhawks to .44 Magnum in 1956 it blew with a proof load. On the other side of the coin I have shot Dick Casull’s .44 Magnum Colt Single Action with a specially heat treated frame and cylinder and it worked fine even though the recoil was brutal. Earlier mention was made of John LaChuk’s .44 Specials, also with special heat treated cylinders using his custom .44 Lancer wildcat, which was a dead ringer for the .44 Magnum, also in Colt Single Actions.

            With today's metallurgy it is probably possible to build a Colt-sized .44 Magnum, however I don't know that Great Western really knew what they were doing by chambering their Frontier Model for the big .44. I do know from one of the early gunsmiths at the plant when they tested their first .44 Magnum the bullet went through the bullet trap, through the wall, and out into Los Angeles. I used this .44 Magnum, which showed a lot of carry wear as a .44 Special until I traded it for a .357 Blackhawk which was used to make another .44 Special.

            Just a few years ago I found a 7 1/2” Great Western .44 Special at one of the local gun shows. It turned out to be a movie prop gun and although the barrel said .44 Special the cylinder was reamed out to accept 5-in-1 black powder blanks. Both the cylinder and barrel were a total loss and this Great Western was re-built with a Colt cylinder and a $5 Great Western .45 Colt barrel which had been in my parts box for over thirty years. That makes two 7 1/2” .44 Specials which no longer exist as originally manufactured. Sigh!

            Now we come to the .44 Money Pit. Remember Great Western has been gone for well over 40 years. I recently acquired, for top dollar, a 5 1/2” nickel-plated .44 Special Great Western with factory pearl grips; an absolutely beautiful looking sixgun. It was unfired and the reason it was unfired is the fact it didn't have sufficient headspace to allow the cylinder to rotate with cartridges in place. However Great Western made up for this by taking the space they didn't use behind the cylinder and adding it to the front of the cylinder behind the barrel which of course made an excessive barrel cylinder gap. In addition to these dimensional problems one chamber of the cylinder had not been reamed deep enough to accept a .44 Special round. I took it to my local sixgunsmith, Glen Kyser at Buckhorn Gun Shop with instructions to “make it perfect.” The headspacing was sufficiently opened; the barrel was set back one turn, the gap set properly, and the forcing cone was re-cut. The base pin bushing had a wobble and the base pin was undersized so Glen made a new bushing and pin for a perfect fit. That hand was too short and the trigger was too soft so those two parts were replaced with Colt parts. Glen said of this Great Western, "This had to be a gun they just put together with parts. Even the screw holding the bolt spring was crooked.”

            Since we were going all the way to perfection and the grips had a little play to them they were also custom fitted to the grip straps. I knew I was in trouble when the boys at Buckhorn asked me to sit down before they told me what the repair bill was; in fact they felt so bad about all the machine time they gave me a great discount; after all Dot and I are their best customers and she also keeps them supplied with baked goods. By the time we were finished I had more money in sixgunsmithing work than in the price of the Great Western itself. However, it is a .44 Special and it is a nickel-plated Great Western with factory pearl grips. One doesn't find this combination more than once-in-a-lifetime and in a few months I won't miss the money at all. (But it sure hurts now!) The upside is it actually shoots fine now.

            Great Western sixguns should not be confused with the Great Western IIs now being offered by EMF. The original Great Westerns were manufactured in the United States; the GW IIs are Italian-made by Pieta and imported by EMF. They are available in both nickel-plated and blue/case hardened finishes in .44-40 but not .44 Special. The ones I have tested have been of excellent quality and they also maintain a very good reputation among shooters.

15-1 & 15-2) The Money Pit! This nickel-plated 5 1/2” pearl gripped

Great Western .44 Special was unfired for 50 years until sixgunsmith

Glen Keyser brought it to first-class condition.

 

 

15-3) The very first issue of GUNS Magazine in January 1955 featured

Great Westerns on the cover.

 

 

15-4) This Great Western .44 Special, top, is every bit as good as the 2nd

Generation Colt .44 Special.

 

 

 

15-6) Great Western marked the company name on the top of their barrels.

 

15-7) Great Westerns were the first replicas of the Colt Single Action as

represented by  4 3/4” and 5 1/2” .44 Specials compared to the .44 Special

Colt on the right.

 

 

15-8 & 15-9) One of the rarest Great Westerns is the 7 1/2” .44 Magnum. 

Photo courtesy of Lou Sicola.

 

 

15-10) Great Western made very few .44-40s; notice the shape of the hammer

which was used on most Great Westerns.

 

 

15-11) Great Western chambered their standard sized Frontier Model in .44 Magnum.

 

 

15-12) 50 years later Taffin still enjoys that first issue of GUNS, especially

now that he is Sr. Field Editor.

 

15-13) It has been around long enough now to be considered a Classic

Sixgun—the Great Western .44 Special.

Photo courtesy of Rick Talacek and Jim Martin.

 

 

15-14) A truly rare sixgun is the Great Western .44 Special all blue and still in

the original box.

 

 

Chapter 14    Chapter 16