BULLDOGS AND NUMBER FIVES

BY JOHN TAFFIN

Although I am not a betting man, if you are reading these pages about great sixguns I would wager the chances are very high that you also appreciate good dogs as much as you do fine firearms. For many years, every morning as I worked away typing, my two big malamutes, Red and Wolf, even though the morning hours would be waning and the sun was shining, would be outside sound asleep on the deck. They earned the right to sleep late. They were littermates and a most important part of my life from the time they were six weeks old. The reason they were so important, other than the fact that they were great company, is that they definitely filled a bodyguard role. Normally mellow and very friendly, everything changed when my wife was in the house. She was never alone as Red and Wolf were always with her. One was usually found on each side of her, or as we ate dinner, Red was always under the table in front of her and Wolf was on guard behind her chair. She was virtually surrounded by 240 pounds of guard dogs. Wolf lived to be 10 and Red made it to 12 and they were a real part of the family.

            There have been many other dogs in my life.  Spike, a great little beagle we had when I was a kid; Rusty, the Irish setter that came on board about the time our firstborn arrived, and who would later often be seen sharing a plate with the newly arrived redhead once she learned to crawl.  Perhaps since they had the same color hair they were soul mates! As the other kids arrived, K’Lev, a huge, black German shepherd-Labrador cross, became their constant companion.  They could maul him, sit on him, do just about anything they wanted to him, BUT any stranger that came near them had better walk on eggs.

            K’Lev was huge but his buddy Pudda was only a couple pounds of dynamite. K’Lev could sleep soundly knowing Pudda, a miniature Terrier of some kind, would wake him if trouble seemed imminent. Pudda was also my traveling companion, sitting beside me as I crossed the country several times in my ’68 Ford F250.

            Two other dogs have been a most vital part of this family.  They are not purebreds like Red and Wolf, they are not nearly as large as K’Lev, in fact they are quite tiny, in fact even smaller than Pudda.. However, these little Bulldogs definitely have a bite that is worse than their bark. The oldest one has been with us for more than 30 years now, is still as frisky as ever, and on more than one occasion has protected the family in what were situations that could have been very dangerous. Its younger brother has been my wife's constant companion on many fishing trips as it does not mind being wet. If you haven't guessed by now, these two “dogs”, these Bulldogs, are not dogs at all but rather five shot 44 Specials from Charter Arms.  

            In all my years of writing I've rarely ever mentioned these two .44 Specials although this chambering is one of my favorites. When discussing this cartridge with friends I do not hesitate to bring forth a Colt Single Action Army or Smith & Wesson chambered in .44 Special.  The Great Western Frontier, the TLA South Texas Army, even an old Bisley Colt all are proudly displayed.  Normally the only time the Bulldogs come forth is a time of trouble.  Neither the blue nor the stainless-steel version have been shot very much in their lifetime, they are not the kind of guns I would consider engraving or fitting with exotic custom grips, I don't have floral carved holsters nor matching belts for them, and in fact they are shot very little.

When our three kids were all in high school we decided we had better take a real family vacation while we could all be together. So we rented a motor home and the six of us, not five took a long trip; a Bulldog was number six. The Bulldogs have logged many miles, seen many camping trips, been carried in boot tops, pockets, and fanny packs and even today are still serving their family. They’ve even gone swimming when my wife fell in not once, but several times while fly-fishing. They never complained. Three times in my life I needed a gun for protection; two of those times the family was along and in both of those situations it was the Bulldog .44 that was there when needed.

            My original blued three-inch Bulldog now rests in my desk drawer. This little gun carries what is probably the best designed wooden wraparound grips to ever come forth from a factory for a small defensive revolver. Its stainless-steel brother, equipped with compact Pachmayrs, is in the bathroom medicine cabinet. Now before you laugh at this I would ask a question. If you maintain a gun for home protection, where is it? Can you get to it easily when trouble starts?  And what if you are in the shower when a problem arises? No matter where I am in the house a firearm is easily accessible including the stainless steel Bulldog in the medicine cabinet.

            In the early 1970s, at a time when it was nearly impossible to purchase a new .44 Special, Charter Arms increased the size of their Undercover .38 and brought forth the new five-shot Bulldog .44 Special. The new .44 was an immediate success for two reasons.  First it was chambered in a much sought after but hard to find caliber, and for the first time in many years shooters had a big bore pocket revolver. It probably got its name from the old English 19th century pocket pistols that were also known as Bulldogs.  I also believe it was responsible, along with other factors, for a renaissance in the .44 Special. This rebirth of interest was short-lived but it did give us a new production run of high quality, six shot .44 Specials from both Colt and Smith and Wesson in the 1980s.        

             The latest Bulldog .44 Special, the Pug has a 2 1/2” barrel, excellent easy too see square sights, and can be fired in either double action or single action mode. The action would benefit from a tuning, however it is quite serviceable as is. It is also fitted with finger groove rubber grips with a Charter Arms Medallion inlaid on each grip panel. With five .44 Special rounds in its cylinder this five shooter from Charter Arms weighs in at 25 ounces and carries easily.

            The Bulldog Pug is available in both blue and stainless with the latter also offered with a bobbed hammer. Shooting hide saving loads at a defensive shooting distance of 30 feet finds both 180 and 200 grain .44 Specials shooting about six inches low, however Winchesters Silvertip hollow points are only one inch below point of aim and will place all five shots in one hole from the .44 Special Bulldog. They may not look it but the Bulldogs are every bit the purebreds Red and Wolf were.

            The Bulldog currently is the Alpha Male, our oldest surviving .44 Special still in production so this is a good place to look at the newest factory produced .44 Special. In earlier chapters we have mentioned Elmer Keith’s connection to the .44 Special.  He also had a lot to do with the next two sixguns we are going to look at which are from Gary Reeder. To review quickly: In the late 1920s, a sixgun experimenter by the name of Harold Croft took a long train ride from Pennsylvania arriving at Keith’s small cow ranch in Durkee Oregon. Keith says Croft had a whole suitcase of custom sixguns including four very special Colts. The Colts were lightweight pocket pistols built on Single Action and Bisley Model frames with custom sights. Croft came up with a special grip frame by blending the backstrap of the Bisley Model with the trigger guard of the Single Action Army.

            Those four Colts were marked #1,2,3, & 4 and Keith incorporated the best features of Croft’s light weight sixguns to come up with a standard sixgun with a 5 1/2” barrel, flat-top frame, adjustable sights, and chambered in .44 Special. Keith called this his #5SAA since it was inspired by the original four Croft sixguns.  The #5 was fully engraved, fitted with ivory stocks, and used to develop the Keith load for the .44 Special using the Keith designed Lyman-Ideal #429421 bullet and first #80 powder and when it became available, Hercules #2400. Keith called his #5 “The Last Word” in an article in the April 1929 issue of The American Riflemen as he considered it the epitome of sixgun development up to that time. 

            Then in the 1980s, as we shall see in greater depth in Section 6, gunmaker Bill Grover, a long time fan of Elmer Keith, decided to build a special sixgun as a salute to the Old Master who passed on to his reward in 1984. Grover gathered the necessary craftsmen as well as pictures and blueprints and the result was the Texas Longhorn Arms Improved Number Five. Grover made a couple of changes in the original. The frame was made slightly larger to house the .44 Magnum and with his belief that all single actions were made for left-handers, Grover reversed everything. That is, the ejector rod and loading gate were placed on the left side and the cylinder rotated counterclockwise.

Grover's Improved Number Five was a beautifully made sixgun mainly offered in .44 Magnum but due to several reasons Texas Longhorn Arms closed their doors in the late 1990s and Bill Grover passed on in October 2004. Even though many had hoped for a resurrection of The Improved Number Five, there will obviously be no more "right-handed” sixguns from Bill Grover.          

            Elmer Keith, Bill Grover, and Texas Longhorn Arms may all be gone, however the #5SAA survives. Gary Reeder is now offering his #5 Improved based on Elmer’s #5 as it appeared in the 1929 American Riflemen. Reeder has made a few changes including better sights, a standard cross pin cylinder pin latch, and a transfer bar safety conversion combined with a standard single action style action. This simply means the loading gate is opened and the hammer put on half cock for loading and unloading even though it has a transfer bar safety. 

            The prototype #5 Improved is one most beautiful sixguns it has ever been my pure pleasure to see, hold, fondle, shoot, and just plain enjoy. This Deluxe Grade all steel prototype is highly polished stainless steel, fully engraved, with a deep muzzle crowned octagonal barrel, and chambered in .44 Special. The engraving alone required scores of man-hours to work out and looks very attractive on the bright stainless steel, which is highlighted with bright blue screws in the frame.

            Sights are fully adjustable with an interchangeable front sight feature, stocks are elephant ivory, and the grip frame is like no other.  When Grover produced his Improved Number Five he duplicated Keith’s Number Five grip frame. Elmer had very small hands, which is evident in his grip frame. Reeder has maintained the same basic grip frame making it more useable by adding three-eighths of an inch to the length. Another three-eighths would work fine for me with my stubby fat fingers.

              Two of the most attractive features found out the #5 Improved are the trigger guard and the hammer, which are both beautifully shaped. Quite often trigger guards on single actions have a square, blocky appearance. Not so here.  The trigger guard is smaller than standard and beautifully rounded, however it is overshadowed by the stylishness of the hammer.  The profile whether from the side with its very slim look or from the top with its beautifully shaped spur is a sixgunner sight to behold and when cocked the back of the hammer beautifully caresses the back strap.    The #5 Improved was designed around the .44 Special and as the standard Field Grade #5 with walnut stocks has a base price of $1295 with the extras available such as full engraving, octagon barrel, special serial number, and custom stocks. The prototype .44 Special #5 Improved shot awfully well.

Load                                                                MV                              5 Shots/20 Yards

Dry Creek #431244GC/7.5 gr. Unique 998 fps                         1 1/4”

NEI 260KT/7.7 gr. Unique                               974 fps                         3/4”

NEI 260KT/17.0 gr. H4227                             1052 fps                       1 1/2”

Oregon Trail 240 SWC/17.0 gr. H4227           958 fps                         1 1/4”

RCBS #44-250KT/ 7.5 gr. Unique                   976 fps                         1 1/8”

Speer 225JHP/7.5 gr. Unique                           1021 fps                       1”

Buffalo Bore Heavy .44 Special 255 WFN       997 fps                         1 1/4”

            Reeder’s #5 has the small button ejector rod head and I have suggested to Gary it should be replaced with a larger head for ease of ejection of fired cartridges and I expect he will do this. The prototype  #5 Improved had to be sent back with me fully intending to order a #5 .44 Special later. Before I could act, Diamond Dot got together with Gary Reeder and ordered a very special #5 Improved and I now have one of the first two production # 5 Improved .44 Specials. A few changes have been made. This first of what will probably be many #5 Improved sixguns has a 5 1/2” barrel, stocks are certificated 20,000 old year old wooly mammoth ivory out of Russia with a heart stopping creamy smooth texture, and the serial number has special significance being MPM66 (Mile Post Marker 66 and you can probably guess what that means). Even more special is the fact Diamond Dot plotted with Gary Reeder to have this first production #5 Improved .44 Special put together for my birthday. I don’t know which of the two of them made the decisions as to barrel length and caliber but they definitely did it right. The wooly mammoth ivory and engraving are just added icing on the cake; as expected the 5 1/2” Reeder #5 Improved  .44 Special is another fine shooting sixgun.

Load                                                                MV                  5 Shots/20 Yards

Oregon Trail 240 SWC/6.0 gr. Unique 803 fps             1 3/8”

Oregon Trail 240 SWC/17.0 gr. IMR4227       899 fps             1 1/4”

Dry Creek 255 KT/7.5 gr. Unique                    902 fps             1 1/8”

Lyman #429421/17.0 gr. IMR4227                  1003 fps           1 1/4”

Lyman #429421/17.0 gr. H4227                      1020 fps           1 3/4”

RCBS #44-250KT/7.3 gr. Unique                    838 fps             1 3/8”

RCBS #44-250KY/16.3 gr. H4227                 831 fps             1 1/2”

RCBS #44-250KT/17.5 gr. H4227                  960 fps             1 1/2”

RCBS #44-250KT/18.5 gr. H4227                  1090 fps           1 3/8”

 

From Croft to Keith to Grover to Reeder has been a path of 80 years. That is a long time in sixgun history. The legacy of the #5 and the greatness of the .44 Special live on; I’ve shot everything there is to shoot caliber and cartridge wise, however the .44 Special was my first love way back in the 1950s and I now find myself shooting it more and more. It just suits me fine. The .44 Special is fast approaching the century mark, in fact will be there by the time this is read, and at this stage of my life I find anything I would want to hunt in the lower 48 can be cleanly taken with the .44 Special. From the 1920s to the 1950s, Keith extolled the virtues of the .44 Special; Skeeter Skelton picked up the torch in the 1960s and carried it almost 30 years. I am now in special company spotlighting the .44 Special along with Clint Smith, Brian Pearce, and Mike Venturino. We will do our best to keep the legacy moving forward. The Reeder #5 Improved will play a large part of my role with the .44 Special. We have journeyed through the 100 years of the .44 Special; the next stop will allow us to look at a large sampling of custom .44 Specials from some of the greatest sixgunsmiths who ever lived.

Since we are at the end of our .44 Special journey, this is a good place to interject a few other rarely seen Specials. Both Cimarron and American Western Arms offer their traditional Single Action Model P and Ultimate in .44 Special, both excellent sixguns; Rossi, at one time provided a good shooting five-shot .44 Special in a revolver looking much like a Smith & Wesson L-frame; and Taurus has produced both steel and lightweight double action revolvers in .44 Special. In fact a custom version of their Model 431 will show up in the next chapter along with a pair of custom octagon barreled AWAs with dual cylinders in .44 Special and .44-40.      

           

 

 

 

 

19-1) The .44 Special Bulldog Pug offers a lot more self-defense confidence

than a .38 Special.

 

 

 

19-2)     Charter’s .44 Special Pug shoots exceptionally well with self-defense

ammunition.

 

 

 

19-3)     The Charter Arms stainless-steel .44 Bulldog is much more compact

than the Rossi .44 Special.

 

 

 

19-4)     Five-shot double action .44 Specials: the Charter Bulldog, the Rossi,

and the Taurus 431.

 

 

 

19-5)     Gary Reeder’s Improved .44s, both Magnum and Special, are excellent

shooters.

 

 

 

19-6)     Right-side view of Gary Reeder’s prototype stainless-steel, engraved,

and ivory stocked .44 Special #5.

 

 

 

19-7)     Left-side view

 

 

 

19-8)     Notice how the hammer spur on the Gary Reeder #5 caresses the backstrap.

 

 

 

19-9)     For the .44 Magnum a larger frame and cylinder is used and it is

known as the #6.

 

 

 

19-10)Two sixguns inspired by Elmer Keith, Gary Reeder’s #5 in .44 Special

and #6 in .44 Magnum.

 

 

 

19-11) Gary Reeder offers the #6 in stainless-steel with engraving and custom stocks.

 

 

 

19-11)Got dogs? The Taffin family has been protected by two beautiful

Malamutes,  Red and Wolf, as well as Bulldogs.

 

 

19-12)Gary Reeder .44 Special #5 Improved serial number MPM66 is a

stainless-steel with ivory stocks and shoots as good as it looks.

 

 

 

19-14) Ever wonder about the inspiration for the Charter Bulldog?  The bottom

engraved and ivory stocked revolver is marked on the top “The British Bulldog P. Webley & Son”

 

Chapter 18    Chapter 20