THE NEW BREED OF .44 MAGNUMS

TEXAS LONGHORN ARMS’ .44 MAGNUM

BY JOHN TAFFIN

            I first “met” Bill Grover in the pages of GUNS magazine 35 years ago and then followed this up by meeting him personally at the 2nd Annual Gathering of The Shootists in 1987. That early article told of his totally re-building a pair of 4 3/4” Colt Single Actions for noted speed shooter, Thell Reed. Shortly after that article appeared, Bill went from gunsmith to gunmaker as he opened the doors of Texas Longhorn Arms.

            Bill Grover was born in Kentucky, which explained his definite southern drawl, in 1944, however he was definitely a Texan just as those Southerners who migrated to Texas in nearly 1800s and also those who fought and died at the Alamo. Grover spoke in loving terms of “ma pistols”, his right-handed single action sixguns.  He always said Sam Colt was left-handed and built his single actions, beginning with the Paterson of 1836, for lefthanders. All of the percussion revolvers produced by Colt are most easily capped by switching the sixgun to the left hand and then capped with the right hand. Sam died in 1862 and did not see the advent of the cartridge revolvers, however all single actions from Colt, the Cartridge Conversions, the Open-Top, and the Single Action Army are all naturally handled by switching to the left hand which then operates the cylinder as the right hand ejects the spent cartridges and reloads the cylinder.

            Bill Grover says this obviously proves the Sam Colt was left-handed. If the guns had been built for a right-handed person the loading gate and ejector rod would be placed on the left side so the sixgun would never leave the hand of a right-handed shooter. It certainly makes sense to me as I always switch any Colt, Freedom Arms, or Ruger single action sixgun to my left hand for loading and unloading. To correct this Grover formed Texas Longhorn Arms to produce “right-handed” single action sixguns. On all of Grover's   single actions the loading gate and ejector rod are found on the left side and the cylinder rotates counterclockwise.

The "natural" way to load or unload a Texas Longhorn Arms single action sixgun is to keep it in the right hand as the left hand opens the loading gate, and ejects the cartridges as a right hand rotates the cylinder. The problem with all of this is the fact the "left-handed" way seems natural after being in use for nearly 150 years before the arrival of Texas Longhorn Arms. I've had to force myself to learn to operate a TLA sixgun correctly and I still find myself switching it to my left-hand for loading and unloading. The gate goes open, the hammer placed on half-cock, and my left-hand rotates the cylinder counterclockwise as I load and unload.

Grover and Texas Longhorn Arms offered three right-handed single action sixguns all chambered mostly in .44 Magnum and  .44 Special, and on the same basic platform. They all had several common attributes. Each sixgun was completely fabricated of 4140 steel with coil springs and a frame mounted firing pin. Grover maintained that a properly timed TLA sixgun would stay properly timed if it were handled correctly. This means no line around the cylinder from the drag of the locking bolt. TLA single actions were designed to be especially aesthetically pleasing. There are no blocky looking trigger guards, but are instead rounded with the trigger also rounded and set far back in the trigger guard and contoured like a shotgun trigger and the three frame screws do not protrude all the way through the frame, leaving the left side of the sixgun clean for engraving.

We have already looked at Grover's .44 Special TLA sixguns, the West Texas Flat-Top Target, a 7 1/2” single action with adjustable sights and a grip frame closer to that of the 1860 Army than the Colt Single Action, and the South Texas Army with the same grip frame, fixed sights, and a barrel length of 4 ¾”, in Chapter 18.  The grip frame of these two .44s being longer than that found on the Colt Single Action allows room for the little finger, which no longer has to either dangle in space or be wrapped under the butt. Texas Longhorn Arms grip frames are exceptionally comfortable when shooting heavy loads and both the Flat-Top and South Texas Army are fitted with beautifully shaped and fitted one-piece stocks of fancy walnut and mesquite respectively.

The third single action from Texas Longhorn Arms was the Texas Border Special fitted with a round-butted grip long before they became popular on Ruger Vaqueros and custom sixguns. This sixgun was designed for self defense and concealment use and the rounded butt made it easier to conceal and also did much to reduce felt recoil when shooting .44 Magnum loads. This traditionally-styled defensive single action sixgun packs very easily in a hip holster or even behind the belt and the specially designed wide hammer makes cocking for the first shot very fast and is easy to get to for repeat shots.

We have seen how in 1927, Elmer Keith set out to make the finest possible Single Action sixgun, writing about it in the April 1929 issue of The American Rifleman in an article entitled "The Last Word". This was Keith’s #5SAA.             Keith's Number 5 was basically a Colt Single Action with a Bisley backstrap and a Single Action Army front strap. Grips were ivory, barrel length was 5 1/2”, sights were fully adjustable, the base pin was over-size, and the cylinder pin catch was a masterful design that operated on the lever principle. The chambering was the best cartridge available in the 1920s, the .44 Special, and it was fully engraved. It was Keith’s number one sixgun until moving into town when he started packing a 4” S&W .44 Special followed six years later by its .44 Magnum counterpart.

In 1987, Bill Grover set out, not to copy the Keith #5SAA, but to really improve upon it and still keep the original flavor. He succeeded in producing a real salute to Elmer Keith as Dean of the Sixgunners. The grip straps, grip contour, base pin, and lever latch, are all identical to Elmer's original #5SAA. I have handled both sixguns at the same time and, when it comes to the grip frame, the original #5 and The Improved Number Five feel and look the same. The base pin lever, the enlarged base pin, and the grip are perfect duplicates of Keith Number Five. I have held both sixguns in my hand at the same time and the feel is identical. The Improved Number Five is fitted with all music wire coil springs and as with all sixguns from Texas Longhorn Arms, the loading gate and the ejector rod are on the left side of the sixgun to, as Grover said, be naturally used by a right-hander. The base pin lever latch, worked out by master machinist and gunsmith, Keith Dehart, other than being a mirror image on the Improved Number Five, is also identical.

As on Grover’s other single actions, the trigger is rounded with a shotgun style trigger that sits as far back in the trigger guard as possible and moves very little when the gun is cocked. The hammer is low and wide for easy cocking. There is plenty of room in front of the hammer checkering for natural rolling of the thumb as the gun is cocked. The rear sight is an old Micro-style adjustable fitted into a flat-top frame and is matched, as on the original, with a Patridge front sight.

            The cylinder of the Improved Number Five is double heat-treated and both the frame and cylinder are made larger than the original as Grover’s gun was intended for use with the .44 Magnum. Grover said Keith used the number one sixgun cartridge of his day, the .44 Special, and he, Grover did likewise in his day with the .44 Magnum. Although the Improved Number Five is larger than its predecessor it does not feel either large or heavy at 44 ounces, and isn’t that an appropriate weight, as the balance is perfect.      

            My personal Number Five sixgun is a real one of a kind as it has a cylinder with long flutes reminiscent of some of the Colt Single Actions that were put together after the turn of the century using New Service cylinders. A really nice touch is the cylinder being serially numbered to the sixgun with K-44 on the front of the cylinder and each chamber is also individually numbered on the back of the cylinder. Polishing and bluing are perfect and all metal-to-metal and wood-to-metal fit is excellent. The gun is timed perfectly and Grover cautioned that I handle the single action correctly when removing and replacing the cylinder to keep from raising a ring around it.

            The Number Five grip is quite small with the size being the same as a standard Colt Single Action grip and my little finger curls under the butt. One might feel it is inadequate for heavy loads but I have used it with 250 grain bullets at 1500 fps and 300 grain bullets at 1300 fps plus and it works fine. However, it is quite unforgiving in that a slight shift in grip will result in a companion shift in the bullet on target. It takes real concentration for me to always maintain the same grip on the Number Five. In the Number Five, my load with the RCBS #44-300 SWC over 21.5 grains of H110 clocks out at 1330 fps with five shots in 1 1/3” at 25 yards. Switching to factory loads finds Speer’s 270 Gold Dot FP at 1252 fps; Black Hills 300 XTP, 1201 fps; and Cor-Bon’s 300 XTP, 1262 fps with all loads right at one-inch at 25 yards.                        

            Grover's original plans were to build 1,200 Improved Number Fives in .44 Magnum with 5 ½” barrels. After testing the original I ordered serial number K44, which I now have; the plan of 1,200 .44 Magnums never materialized, nor did the 1,000 each of the West Texas Flat Top Target and South Texas Army.

Bill and I shared two dreams. The first, and largest, would see both of us hunting Africa extensively using TLA sixguns. This was to happen as soon as Texas Longhorn Arms became prosperous. The second dream was to see me designing what I considered the perfect single action sixgun and Bill would build it. Neither dream ever came true; instead Texas Longhorn Arms closed their doors in the late 1990s.  Grover was a master gunbuilder but a lousy businessman. He never expected such a demand for his Improved Number Fives he would be unable to keep up with production. That hurt his business tremendously; add to this trusting of the wrong people and the inevitable happened.

With the closing of Texas Longhorn Arms Bill formed Grover Arms, however he was only able to produce one sixgun before he had to quit altogether. In March 1999 Grover sent me a letter describing the sixgun: “This SS7 done is the first gun that carries the Grover Arms Inc. name, The gun was hand engraved by friend John Adams Sr. I laid out the type of engraving I wanted and John engraved it to perfection. The left side of the barrel says ‘Skeeter Skelton .44 Special’; the top strap, ‘Grover Arms Inc., Richmond Texas.’ Left recoil shield, cow skull; right recoil shield and loading gate, coiled rattlesnake; cylinder, Alamo, Texas Flag, State of Texas, and several New Mexico sunbursts. On the bottom of the trigger guard bow, New Mexico barbed wire; back of backstrap, some of Skeeter's work titles; and the bottom of the backstrap, the brand of the Turkey Track Ranch found in many of Skeeter's Stories.”

This is an all steel gun as Grover goes on: "The ejector housing is all steel made like the Colt with a small round knob on front and the angle slot for the ejector head to snug up to the barrel. The trigger guard and back strap are all steel of my design, trigger guard has a round guard bow like found on the early model Colts, and a trigger return spring unit has been added up inside of the trigger guard and is adjustable.  A one-piece grip has been hand cut by myself from a log of fine Northern California Walnut and finished in a satin oil finish.  The gun was antique nickel finished and the background of engraving was highlighted giving gun a very subtle appearance.  The three frame screws, base pin, ejector rod head, ejector housing screw, and hammer were done in a stovetop antique bluish finish."

This is the only gun Bill ever completed as Grover Arms. We were planning another project which was a Keith #5 even before Brian Pierce and Hamilton Bowen came together on their project. “Now for the Keith #5 gun.  I can duplicate it very close on the info and pictures that I have.  I need some Colt parts from you, the rest I will hand make.” I was going to supply Bill with a Colt New Frontier frame; Bisley backstrap, hammer, trigger and mainspring; ejector rod with half-moon head; ejector rod housing; Colt .44 Special barrel; hand and bolt along with the springs; and an old-style 44 Special cylinder and unfitted bushings. The gun was to be fully engraved, the barrel marked "RUSSIAN AND S&W SPECIAL 44", and the final touch, ivory grips with the Mexican Eagle and a snake on a cactus. Alas, it was not to be.

Bill was also working on a book "… on making a single action revolver from scratch. The book will not be about any gun company that I own or have owned, but about gunmaking by Bill Grover, a Texas gunmaker." The closing of Texas Longhorn Arms had affected Grover greatly both emotionally and physically. So much so he never really let any of us know just how sick he really was. Diabetes, kidney failure, and the amputation of both legs in September of 2004 was more than his body could handle. He went Home in October of the same year.

 

28-1) Bill Grover, here shown on his Texas property, was justifiably proud of

“ma pistols.” He is holding one of his deluxe grade Number Fives fully engraved

and stocked with ivory, and one of the last holsters to come out of the George Lawrence Co.

 

 

 

28-2) The “right way" to handle one of Texas Longhorn Arms’ right-handed

sixguns begins with the right thumb opening the loading gate.

 

 

 

28-3) Bill Grover offered the .44 Magnum or .44 Special on four basic sixguns,

the Flat-Top Target, the Improved Number Five, the South Texas Army,

and the Border Special.

 

 

 

28-4) The inspiration for the TLA Number Five came from the original Elmer

Keith #5SAA here shown in a Lawrence #120 Keith holster.

 

 

 

28-5) Taffin's Number Five shoots accurately and to point of aim.

 

 

 

28-6) Pictured is Grover's engraved and ivory stocked re-creation of the

Keith #5SAA and also a George Lawrence #120 Keith holster.

 

 

 

28-7) The #5 grip frame was a result of the blending of the Colt Bisley and

Single Action Army grip frames.

 

 

 

28-8) The TLA .44 Magnum Border Special bucks and roars, however fell recoil is not punishing.

 

 

 

28-9 and 28-10) A standard blued TLA Improved Number is shown with the original Keith #5SAA.

 

 

 

29-11) Master machinist and sixgunsmith Keith DeHart duplicated the #5SAA

locking lever in reverse for use on the Improved Number Five.

 

 

 

28-12) These deluxe engraved and custom stocked West Texas Flat-Top Targets

are unusual in they are mirror images of each other. The top gun has the loading

gate and ejector rod housing on the right side while they are found on the left side

on the bottom sixgun. Not only do the cylinders rotate in opposite directions

so do the barrel twists; a Unique pair to say the least.

 

 

 

28-13) Mr. Whitetail, John Wootters, harvested this management buck

(a Texas deer passed his prime for breeding) with Grover's Number Five.

 

 

 

28-14) Two beautiful examples of Perfect Packin’ Pistols from Texas Longhorns Arms

are shown with factory walnut grips and ram’s horn stocks by Roy Fishpaw.

 

 

 

28-15) Note the difference in the grip frames of the .44 Magnum Number Five

and two Colt .44 Specials, a Single Action Army and a converted Bisley Model.

 

 

Chapter 27      Chapter 29