USFA’S .44 SPECIALS

BY JOHN TAFFIN

            We've covered a lot of .44 history thus far along with a fair number of both famous and personal .44 sixguns. Some may have surmised I have quite a few .44s myself, however putting it into perspective I have been accumulating them for half a century now and even if I only acquired one per year it would be a sizable collection. Many of those years were pretty lean, especially when the kids were in school; however at this stage of my life I have four grandkids in college, so my kids have been on their own for a long time, Diamond Dot and I both have a fair amount of disposable income, and she buys nearly as many guns as I do. In fact for the year she is ahead of me. I have been truly blessed in many ways.

            Over the past few years especially I've been able to come up with some relatively rare .44 sixguns such as the Smith & Wesson 4” 1950 Target and corresponding 4” Military .44 Specials and even the Money Pit Great Western .44 Special. But suppose I wanted a really rare, I mean really rare .44 Special such as the one-of-a-kind 7 1/2” Flat-Top Target Model, or the very rare Single Action Army .44 Special 7 1/2” with the barrel marked "RUSSIAN AND S&W SPECIAL 44" made from 1913 to 1931 with probably less than 100 being made in this configuration? Or if I really want to dream, perhaps I could have one of the pair of .44-40s use by Theodore Roosevelt during his Dakota Territory ranching days? These two sixguns were fully engraved, gold and nickel-plated, and fitted with ivory grips specially carved with his initials.

            I would have a better chance of winning the Idaho Lottery without buying a ticket than coming up with Elmer Keith’s .44 Special Flat-Top Target or Theodore Roosevelt’s .44-40. Well maybe not! In fact it is now possible to have just about any First Generation .44 Special Single Action or Flat-Top Target, even TR’s .44-40. These guns are not coming from private collections or museums at high dollar prices but rather through USFA (United States Firearms). They are not only reasonably priced but also of the same quality, or even higher found on the original Single Action Army Models made from 1873 to 1941. All of the original calibers are offered; all of the original markings as far as caliber; and even choices of sights, V-notch rear or square are to be had. They can be ordered with the old black powder style frame with the screw from the front holding the base pin or the spring-loaded catch found on most Single Actions after serial number 160,000.

The old-style Colt Single Action Army with its special barrel marking has been gone for three-fourths of a century. There were only 506 .44 Special Colt Single Actions made from 1913 to 1941 and even less with the special marked barrels. However, thanks to USFA it is possible to turn back the clock. USPFA (United States Patent Firearms Co.), as they were called before they began producing all-American-made sixguns, started offering Italian imports in the early 1990s, and arrangements were made to do a test and evaluation of their single actions, and one of those sixguns ordered was a blued and case colored 7 1/2” version with the barrel marked “RUSSIAN AND S&W SPECIAL 44”. It is an excellent sixgun as to fit and finish and also a good shooter. For my use I have replaced the standard Single Action grip frame with one from an 1860 Army replica. The latter grip frame is longer and more comfortable for shooting a long string of 250 grain .44 Specials at 900-1,000 fps.

USFA was not importing Uberti sixguns but rather parts and assembling and finishing the revolvers in this country, and doing an excellent job. The USPFA/Uberti .44 is beautifully finished and fitted up tightly with very little cylinder movement either fore, aft, or side-to-side, and my only complaint was the one-piece stocks looked too Italian. From the start the goal of USFA was to eventually provide an All-American made sixgun. They have now arrived at that point, and are offering beautifully made, totally American Single Actions.   

USFA offers several models such as The Rodeo, Sheriff’s Model, Snubnose, and Omnipotent, however for me the two basic historical models beckoned, the Single Action Army and the Flat-Top Target both made the old way as Single Actions were before World War II. The Flat-Top Target was offered by Colt in the 1890s as a true target pistol with the rear sight movable in a dovetail and a locking screw to hold it in place while the front sight is a post, which can be adjusted up and down and locked in place with a screw also; crude, but the best to be had a century ago. Since my original Colt Single Action Army with its 7 1/2” barrel marked with both .44 Special and .44 Russian was sold, and since the chances of finding another one is so remote, and since if I did locate one the price would be in either four or five figures, I decided to take a good, hard look at the USFA version.

With that in mind, I ordered two USFA .44 Specials for testing and evaluating (and subsequent purchasing), a Single Action reminiscent of the old Colt with identical markings and a full blue Flat-Top Target also with a 7 1/2” barrel. If the .44 Single Actions are rare, the Flat-Top is virtually non-existent with only one being made and that one, as stated above, belonged to Elmer Keith and is still in the Keith collection soon to be displayed in the Elmer Keith Museum. The Flat-Tops were taken from production even before the .44 Special arrived and since it was not chambered by Colt until 1913, this Flat-Top must have been specially built from parts on hand.   USFAs are beautiful .44 Special sixguns, made as well or better as any of the 1st Generation Colts, finely finished, tight with no cylinder play either front to back or side to side, and they shoot as good as they look. These are sixguns built right.

Most single actions need some work to either tune them or fit them enough to satisfy someone who has been shooting single actions as long as I have. That does not mean to say they are not usable out of the box but rather they often need such work performed as trigger pulls reduced, cylinders tightened, and grips fitted properly. Not so with these sixguns. The main frame and the hammer are beautifully case colored while the balance of the sixgun is finished in a deep, dark Dome Blue color. Grips furnished as standard are checkered hard rubber with a “US” molded into the top part of the grip. If one looks at the grips on most single action sixguns the fitting leaves a lot to be desired; not so here, these grips have been fitted to the grip frame on a factory built revolver as carefully as custom grips by a master grip makers.

A sure way to see how carefully a single action has been assembled is to look at the radiusing of the lower part of the back of the hammer and the two ears formed by the back strap where it screws into the mainframe on both sides of the hammer.  On most single actions these do not mate up well; a well-made single action will exhibit a smooth mating of the contours of all three. USFA sixguns are very nearly perfect in this area and the same careful fitting can also be found where the top of the face of the hammer meets the top strap. The fit of the trigger guard to the bottom of the mainframe is so perfectly done one can run a finger over the area and not feel where one part begins and the other ends. The same is true where the back strap meets the mainframe.

A nice extra touch is the beveling of the front of ejector rod housing as well as the cylinder, again as the old sixguns were made. This looks good, feels good, and also prevents gouging the inside of a holster. Serial numbers are found in three places, just as with the pre-War Single Actions, on the butt, in front of the trigger guard, and on the mainframe in front of the trigger guard screw. The normal three patent dates are found on the left side of the frame; the caliber markings, are found on the left side of the barrel; while the top the barrel is marked  “U.S.F.A. MFG. Co HARTFORD. CT. U.S.A.

            Now comes two measurements that are too often out of spec in single actions. Those two are chamber mouth diameters and trigger pulls. Both USFA sixguns receive a passing plus grade of 100%. The throats of the Single Action measure .431” and the Flat-Top Target, .4305”-.431”, or just about perfect for today’s bullets and factory loaded .44 Special ammunition. Trigger pulls on both .44 Specials come in at 3 3/8 pounds, which is plenty light for a single action sixgun. Another important measurement is the cylinder diameter and these sixguns are slightly larger than original 1st Generation Single Actions with the cylinder diameter being right at .020” larger. Whether judged by looks, feel, fit, finish, or performance, these are simply grand sixguns.

            Special sixguns deserve special stocks. The .44 Russian and Special was sent off to the Master himself, Roy Fishpaw who did his usual masterful job of perfect shaping, fitting, and finishing of a pair of grips worthy of this USFA .44 sixgun. Roy chose desert bighorn sheep horn as the material and the results are stunning. These grips are somewhat straw colored with striking black streaks. It almost looks as if the streaks of the grips blend right into the case coloring of the frame, or vice versa. Original Flat-Top Targets were often fitted with larger checkered walnut stocks extending below the grip frame. USFA also offers this option and the plan is to someday return the Target Model back to USFA to have such target stocks fitted.

            These sixguns, as expected, will shoot. My standard load for the .44 Special for several decades now has been 7.5 grains of Unique under a 250 grain cast bullet. With Lyman’s #429421, RCBS’s 44-250KT, or NEI’s #429.260KT, and this powder charge muzzle velocity is 950+ fps with groups shot at 25 yards running right at one-inch. I also shoot a lot (thousands) of Oregon Trail Bullet Co.’s 240 grain SWC, and these bullets shoot a whole lot better than machine cast, hard, commercial cast bullets have a right to do. Over 6.0 grains of Unique, they duplicate the original .44 Special load of 1908. The most accurate .44 Special load with this bullet was stumbled onto several years ago, that being 5.5 grains of WW452AA for 870 fps and tiny little groups.

            In 1986 I started a group known as The Shootists. Originally twelve men were invited to join me for an informal week of shooting and sharing hosted by Freedom Arms in Wyoming. Over the years we have continued to meet every year and have also grown considerably. We have met in Freedom Wyoming, Cody Wyoming, Buena Vista Colorado, and are now permanently settled into the Whittington Center in Raton New Mexico. For the 10th anniversary of our group Ruger provided 53 very special stainless-steel Bisley Single-Six .22s with the top strap marked "IN MEMORY OF TOM RUGER"; fifty of these went to Shootist members and three to the Ruger family.

For our 20th Anniversary a committee was formed to find a suitable sixgun and knowing my affection for the .44 Special arrangements were made to have special serial numbered USFA sixguns provided. As founder and first chairman I was accorded the privilege of serial numbers SH001 and SH002 of the 5 1/2” USFA .44 Special sixguns. As far as fit and finish are concerned this pair of .44 Specials fit into the same excellent category as the previous two USFA sixguns mentioned. One did shoot slightly to the left, however this was an easy fix. I simply shot a target, took it along with the .44 Special USFA Single Action to Paul Cooper at B&B Gun Shop here locally. Paul pretty much knows exactly how much to tweak a barrel the first time to line up the point of aim with point of impact, and that is exactly what he did with this sixgun. I also had him hone the actions and set the trigger pulls to three-pounds. Now it was time for custom stocks.

Bob Leskovec of Precision Pro Grips is an artist of the highest order. I always admired Elmer Keith’s ivory stocked single actions and even more so after I got to see, feel, touch, and experience them in person.  Leskovec was commissioned to carry out a pair of Keith's favorite ivory grips with a carved steerhead in ivory polymer for two Ruger Vaqueros, a Colt New Frontier and for heavy duty use on a 4” Smith & Wesson  .44 Magnum. Bob works with several media including exotic woods, the same with silver inlays, stag, when available, and acrylics offered in carved motifs. Leskovec also works in genuine ivory producing plain, carved, scrimshawed, or fancy inlaid grips. He can also copy any of the old style carved ivory stocks in genuine ivory or reproduce them in a tougher acrylic that looks much like ivory.

Precision Pro has their version of the B Western imitation stag grip carried out in ivory acrylic with the stag lines carved into the material. They are more eye-pleasing than the plastic imitation stag, less expensive than genuine stag, and they are available now. With these Shootists 20th Anniversary Special Edition USFA .44 Special single action sixguns I looked to Leskovec for special grips. One of my favorite B Western movie stars was Wild Bill Elliott who usually carried a pair of Colt Single Actions butts to the front in a buscadero rig. Leskovec just happens to have the original pattern of the imitation stag grips used by Wild Bill so it seemed fitting to have the .44 Specials outfitted with Elliott’s stocks. They feel good, look great, and really set off these USFA .44 Specials, and Walt Ostin is working on a pair of Wild Bill Elliott holsters for them.

I try to be the same peaceable man Wild Bill was but I doubt if I will ever learn to throw the bullets like he seemed to do. I'm satisfied just to shoot the normal way and both of these sixguns shoot great the normal way. With 17.5 grains of either H4227 or IMR 4227 under a Lyman #429421 Keith bullet, muzzle velocities are right at 950-1,000 fps and will group very close to one-inch at 20 yards. 

             

 

 

 

 

16-1) Theodore Roosevelt purchased a pair of extra fancy .44-40 Frontier

Six-shooters before going to the Dakota Territory as a rancher; USFA offers

this beautiful re-creation of TR’s gold and silver plated and ivory stocked

7 1/2” Single Action..

 

 

16-2) USFA offers the three standard barrel lengths of 4 3/4”, 5 1/2”, and 7 1/2”

on their .44-40 Frontier Six-shooters just as were available 125 years ago.

Photo courtesy of Mike Venturino.

 

 

16-3) USFA builds them right to shoot right; 4 3/4” and 5 1/2” .44-40s perform.

Photo courtesy of Mike Venturino.

 

 

16-4) At 800 fps this .44 Special load shoots superbly through a USFA Russian

and S&W Special .44; ram’s horn stocks are by Roy Fishpaw.

 

 

16-5) USFA’s Flat-Top Target is available in .44 Special with ivory stocks.

 

 

16-6) There is only one original .44 Special Flat-Top Target in existence as

shown in Elmer Keith’s Sixguns; the USFA version is an excellent re-creation.

 

 

16-7) More than 100 years ago this rear sight was state-of-the-art. It still works.

 

 

16-8) Target loads and the USFA Flat-Top Target .44 Special add up to a

pleasant afternoon.

 

 

16-9) Note the beautiful case colors on frame and hammer and also the special

marked barrel on this USFA .44 Special.

 

 

16-10) This 7 1/2” USFA .44 Special shoot well with a variety of loads.

 

 

16-11) A great sixgun such as this 7 1/2” .44 Special deserves great stocks,

Roy Fishpaw ram’s horn, and great leather from El Paso Saddlery.

 

 

16-12) This barrel marking has not been available since before World War II;

now thanks to USFA, Single Actions are once again marked thusly.

 

 

16-13) A pair of 5 1/2” USFA Shootists 20th Anniversary .44 Specials fitted

with Wild Bill Elliott B-movie stags by Bob Leskovec.

 

 

16-14) A sixgun to stir the soul, heart, mind, and spirit of any true sixgunner:

USFA’s Flat-Target Russian and S&W Special 44 with a 4 3/4” barrel.

Photo courtesy of Glen Fryxell.

 

Chapter 15      Chapter 17