ABILENE, EL DORADO, SEVILLE, AND VIRGINIAN DRAGOON .44 MAGNUMS

BY JOHN TAFFIN        

            Just as Cowboy Action Shooting was, and continues to be responsible for a long list of replica firearms from the 19th-century, long-range silhouetting had the same effect on revolvers in the 1970s and 1980s. Silhouetting was the number one game and manufacturers such as Ruger, Dan Wesson, Smith & Wesson, and Freedom Arms all produced revolvers for shooting long-range. Ruger and Dan Wesson vied for the number one spot early, Smith & Wesson was a case of too little too late, and once Freedom Arms revolvers began to appear on the firing line they became a runaway first choice with the top shooters.

            The Ruger Super Blackhawk was not the only .44 Magnum single action in those early days as there were also .44 single action sixguns from United Sporting Arms, United States Arms, A.I.G./Mossberg, and Interarms. Everything really began in 1972 with Sig Himmelmann’s founding of United States Arms and designing the basic revolver.  United Sporting Arms and United States Arms were originally one company, however there was a split with the former producing the Seville and El Dorado and the latter the Abilene. All of my .44 experience with the Abilene/El Dorado/Seville line of single action .44 Magnums was confined to the Abilene, however I did have one of the USA .375s from the Post Falls operation and it was a first class sixgun in every way.  Sometime around 1980 A.I.G., a division of Mossberg, began producing the Abilene from parts on hand. As expected once the parts ran out the Abilene disappeared.

            In early 1981 I received three test guns from A.I.G. The first example was a 7 1/2” .44 Magnum beautifully blued and packed in a box with a heavy wooden lid. I immediately disassembled this Abilene, cleaned all the interior parts, re-oiled everything with Tri-Flon, and when it was reassembled it had a smooth action with a four pound  trigger pull. Basically the Abilene was an exceptionally good-looking revolver with a blue finish equal to or better than anything then being produced.  The wood to metal fit of the grips was excellent, the hammer spur was wide and easy to reach making for easy cocking, and the trigger was wide and smooth. One distraction was the front sight, which was not squared off on the back like the Ruger Blackhawk or the Colt New Frontier; so aesthetically speaking, it did not blend into the barrel in an eye pleasing fashion.

            Instead of the spring-loaded base pin latch found on most single actions, the Abilene went back to the 1870s and used the black powder Colt-style retainer with a screw entering from the front of the frame to secure the base pin. Sometimes with heavy loads the spring-loaded latch would allow the base pin to move forward even to the point of leaving the sixgun; if this screw from the front of the frame was kept tight this could not happen on an Abilene.

            The action on the Abilene was traditional with no transfer bar and a half cock notch for loading and unloading. Although they did not have a transfer bar it did have an anvil mounted in the hammer, which contacted the firing pin. I always carried the Abilene with only five rounds and an empty chamber under the hammer. This Abilene proved to have two problems, the hand was too short to rotate the cylinder around completely so it would not lock up; also the front sight was not properly silver soldered. After about 50 rounds of .44 Magnum loads, the front sight started to peel away from the barrel so it was sent back to A.I.G. and repaired properly and in a very short time. When it came back it was perfect and there were no further problems.

            While that first Abilene was on its way back to A.I.G. two more test Abilenes showed up. One was basically the twin to the first Abilene, however it was finished in a bead blasted nickel looking much like stainless-steel. Along with it came a blued 4 5/8” Packin’ Pistol with a heavy bull barrel and this one proved to be one of the best looking, best balanced .44 Magnums I had ever encountered up to that point and the heavy bull barrel did a lot to help dampen felt recoil. The barrels on the two 7 1/2” sixguns had a tapered shape of .794” to .714” back to front, while the short-barreled .44 was a straight .845” all the way. The short-barreled .44 proved to be extremely accurate and I made 15 straight hits on a swinging ram target at 200 meters using three different loads and the same sight setting.

When I tried to cock the nickel-plated .44 the cylinder bolt would not release. It was dismantled and the spring plunger on the hammer, which releases the bolt, was not functioning. I worked it up-and-down manually several times to smooth out the rough spots, greased it, and put it back together. After that it worked perfectly and the cylinder lock up was as tight as possible with no end shake or side-to-side movement. After 25 rounds or so the 4 5/8” Abilene also exhibited a silver solder problem as the stud on the barrel which accepted the ejector rod housing screw worked loose and the ejector housing came off. This was also returned to A.I.G. and was back in a couple weeks again in perfect shape. No further problems where encountered with any of these Abilenes.

Several months later a fourth .44 Magnum Abilene arrived in a 10 1/2” long-range silhouette model and this one was really set up right.  It was finished in a bright blue reminiscent of the Smith & Wessons of the 1950s, the action was very smooth, it cocked very easily, the trigger pull was just over three pounds, and the trigger was wide and smooth. As on the 4 5/8” Abilene this one also had a full .845” diameter bull barrel, however instead of being totally round the top was flattened off and serrated. Sights were near perfect with an Eliason rear sight matched up with a Patridge front sight.

My first loads through this long barreled Abilene where the standard Keith .44 Magnum load. On the 23rd shot I felt something hit the top of my hat; it was the ejector rod assembly and for the third time poor silver soldering proved to be the culprit. This gun was then returned and again came back repaired and has been functioning ever since. On my son’s 21st birthday in 1984 he had the choice of several .44 Magnums. By then the 10 1/2” Abilene wore genuine stag stocks provided by A.I.G. and this .44 was his first choice. He still has that sixgun more than 20 years later.

With the split in the partnership in 1977 United Sporting Arms began producing the Seville. Jeff Munnell is the reigning expert on these revolvers and I quote the following from him which is just a small portion of that which appears yearly in the Standard Catalog of Firearms. “By late in that year, this company had accomplished several firearms firsts with production of the stainless steel El Dorado revolver.  This was the first use of 17-4 pH stainless for a revolver frame, pre-dating Freedom Arms, and was made at a time when Sturm Ruger engineering department was sending lengthy letters explaining why stainless steel was totally unsuitable for guns chambered for the .44 Magnum cartridge.  It would be years until the rest of the firearms industry caught up to this fledgling company.

In 1979, one of the remaining partners established a second production facility in Tombstone, Arizona, under the name of United Sporting Arms of Arizona, Inc. Guns made in this plant still utilized frames made in New York, and therefore bore the Hauppauge, N.Y. frame inscription.  However, Tombstone-built guns will contain the letter “T” as a suffix to the serial number.  In Tombstone, the Silver Seville was born, having a highly polished stainless grip frame on an otherwise blued gun.  This is a striking combination, has become quite popular on custom guns as well as some limited production runs from other makers.  (Neither the guns themselves, nor the official company records reflect this designation, only the boxes for the guns do.)… Later in 1979, the Arizona facility was relocated to the town of Bisbee, Arizona. Less Than 200 guns were made with the Bisbee address….and late 1979, the company moved once again, this time to Tucson, Arizona.  By now, the split from the New York concern was completed legally as well as physically, new guns were in blue and stainless, but all were called Sevilles.”

After this USA concentrated on the silhouette market with guns chambered in .357 SuperMag, .375 USA, and even .454 Casull. In 1985 the company moved to Post Falls Idaho however very few guns were made there and in the meantime the New York-based El Dorado Arms moved to North Carolina. Confusing isn’t it? Munnell says only somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 were produced by all of the United Sporting Arms/El Dorado Arms companies. Again quoting Jeff Munnell: “Quality, except for the very few noted instances, was always very high, and an informal United Sporting Arms slogan was that a Seville was what a Super Blackhawk could be if Ruger had a custom shop.  Given the truth of this statement, it must be admitted that an El Dorado Arms gun was what a custom Seville could have been.”  

These single action revolvers were produced in several calibers from .22 on up. For our focus they were not only produced in .44 Magnum but also in .44-40, with 60 being offered as the Tombstone Commemorative with a blued frame and the balance of the guns stainless steel, and even .44 Special. Munnell also shares the fact at least prototypes were produced in .44 Super Magnum before the .445 SuperMag arrived from Dan Wesson.

In 1982 I need to present a gift to a friend for keeping the snow off of my roof during the previous winter before I could put up a snow roof. At that time I had yet to fire one of the then brand-new Virginian Dragoon stainless steel .44 Magnums from Interarms. My young friend was elated at the prospect of a new .44 and was more than willing to have me put it to the test first; to make the deal even better Interarms had a special onetime deal of Dragoons at half-price. The longest barrel length being offered was 8 3/8” and that was our choice.

The stainless Dragoon had the basic Colt-style traditional action, however it was a much larger sixgun built to handle the .44 Magnum with ease. The stainless-steel finish was equal to or better than any other stainless I had encountered up to that point. The action was smooth with a three pound trigger pull, and although it had the basic Colt-style action the hand, locking bolt, and trigger were all large and strong. It was, of course, a five shooter with one chamber to be left empty under the hammer. To help accomplish this Interarms placed small dimples on the outside of the cylinder on each side of one chamber as a reference point. I still preferred the old load one, skip one, load four routine.

Even though this was an adjustable sighted revolver the top strap was not flattened as on the Colt New Frontier but rather the rear sight was melted nicely into the frame.  The front sight was also grey stainless on a ramp with a red dot insert. For my use I blacked both sights. The cylinder chambers were not polished as they should have been so extraction was difficult for the first couple hundred rounds after that there was no problem. I do believe the Swiss-safe style of base pin originated with the Swiss- made Hammerli Virginian and was then carried over to the American-made Virginian Dragoons. This type of base pin has two recesses for the cylinder latch with the farthest one from the front used for normal use and the closest one used for “safety.” When it was engaged the base then stuck out the back preventing the hammer from falling all the way and firing a cartridge. Apparently this type of safety was necessary to be able to import the Swiss guns. It is still found on many Italian single action replicas

The Virginian Dragoon proved to be both accurate and reliable with no malfunctions whatsoever. It did not shoot well with light loads, however with full power loads using both 250 and 300 grain bullets it was no problem whatsoever placing five shots right at one-inch shooting at 25 yards. My friend is not so young anymore, however his Dragoon is still in-service. Interarms also provided a Silhouette Model of the Dragoon with this version having a post front sight, Eliason rear sight, 10 1/2” barrel, and also constructed of stainless-steel.

At this point we might mention two other single action .44 Magnums, the Uberti Buckhorn with a Colt New Frontier style flat-top frame, adjustable sights, and an 1860 Army grip frame. These sixguns were built on a larger frame than Uberti uses for their replica single actions and the grip frame did much to reduce felt recoil of .44 Magnum loads. Another single action .44 Magnum , the Mikkenger Grizzly, came out of Texas and looked much like a Ruger Super Blackhawk, however there were no screws or pins in the side of the frame and the grip frame was part of the mainframe as found on the old Remington percussion revolvers and Models 1875 and 1890. To access the innards the Grizzly had a removable sideplate. Elmer Keith writing in the November 1978 issue of Guns & Ammo gave it high praise: "With the elimination of its few bugs, priced at $295, it could well become the finest single action yet evolved… I for one hope it takes its proper place among modern guns."  Unfortunately the Mikkenger Grizzly did not last very long. Hawes, with its Marshall series, and Herter’s, with the .44 Magnum PowerMag, also fell by the wayside in the 1970s.

We’re about to make the switch to double action .44 Magnums and so will mention three other double actions. One he is the very, very rare High Standard Crusader with less than 500 being made, which I have been able to handle though not fire and it seemed to be a very well built and certainly is a good-looking sixgun. It also had some radical features such as both single action and double action cocking were driven by gears instead of pawls or hands.  It also had a locking safety incorporated into the cylinder release latch. It never made it out of the 1970s.

Two foreign double action .44 Magnums were the Llama and the Astra. The Astra .44 Magnum was imported by Interarms and had a number of desirable features and a couple of poor ones that could have been fixed quite easily. On the plus side, the Astra, which resembled the Smith & Wesson 629, at least externally, had stocks that were much more comfortable than the Smith & Wesson stocks. They were smaller and smoother and thus delivered less felt recoil. The hammer and trigger, which appeared to be nickel plated, were beautifully carried out. The trigger was no wider than the trigger guard and smooth with no rough edges anywhere. The hammer continued this theme, with again no sharp edges, subdued checkering and was in size, somewhere between the standard Smith & Wesson and target style.

The cylinder was full length, with very little of the barrel projecting into the frame window, and the case heads were recessed into the cylinder, and the cylinder looked like it completely filled the frame window. The mainspring was of the coil type and easily adjusted for each individual's preference. Both double action and single action pull were quite good with a little creep evident in the single action pull.

Then we come to the sights. For some unknown reason, the front sight, which was a Baughman type ramp, and not machined as part of the barrel, but pinned on, was of stainless finish instead of blue. This made it very difficult to see in bright sunlight. The rear sight, which was nicely rounded with no sharp edges, was also stainless with a notch that had not been cut square. By the addition of blue rear sight with a proper notch, and a blue front sight, neither of which would have cost anything extra, the desirablity of the Astra could have been greatly enhanced.

The Llama from Spain was known as the Super Comanche and was available with both a 6 1/2” and 8 3/8” barrel. It arrived at about the same time it was nearly impossible to find Smith & Wesson Model 29 at a palatable price and looked like an excellent alternative. Unfortunately for the Super Comanche, both Dan Wesson and Ruger also introduced double action .44 Magnums in this same time frame, and like all the rest of the .44 Magnums in this chapter, it was also very short-lived. Success in the sixgun business is not something easily achieved.

            Life is not only full of trade-offs in often takes some very interesting twists and turns. While in the process of working on this section the Fort Boise Gun Show arrived and I took a break on Saturday morning to take a few of my books down to the show and sit at a table with a good friend. I wasn't sure I was even going to take the time to go to the show until he called me early Saturday morning to let me know he would leave an exhibitor’s pass at the front door for me. I was sitting at the table autographing a few books when a fellow who already had a copy of my latest book walked up to the table just to chat. He just happened to have a pistol rug under his arm and what should it contain but a 7 1/2” United Sporting Arms .44 Magnum Seville. I do not believe there is such a thing as coincidence so it was obviously meant to be.

            The deal was struck and I can now say I have first-hand experience with a Seville not just Abilenes. It is a beautifully-blued, well-fitted .44 with a smooth action. The cylinder throats are a uniform .431”  and the cylinder locks up tightly. Aesthetically speaking I don't care much for the shape of the front sight as it is the same as that found on the Abilene, and the trigger guard is very square instead of nicely rounded. On the plus side it has a superb rear sight with a nicely serrated flat shape and a true square notch. The hammer is one of the most beautifully shaped ever found on a single action with a nice curve from the side and a tear drop shape when viewed from the top.

      Very few things in this life are ever perfect and the exception to the .44 Magnum Seville is the stocks. One is slightly cracked and someone did a very poor job replacing the medallions with case heads. No problem thought I as I had a pair of Abilene stocks in my parts box. They didn't even come close to fitting. So I contacted Scott Kolar and the grips pictured are the result. Scott crafted a beautiful pair of epoxy stabilized walnut stocks for the Seville. The grain pattern is absolutely unbelievable and with the epoxy treatment they are as hard as micarta. Now the Seville is not only complete, it handles my 260 Keith/10.0 grains of Unique load at 1150 fps very well so we are at least close to perfection. Could there possibly someone out there waiting to walk up to my table with a Grizzly or Crusader in hand?

 

29-1) This .44 Magnum Abilene was built by Mossberg from United Sporting Arms parts in 1982.

Photo courtesy of Lee Martin.

 

 

29-2) The Interarms Virginian Dragoon .44 Magnum was built in Midland

Virginia in the early 1980s. 

Photo courtesy of Lee Martin.

 

 

29-3) Two very rare stainless steel .44 Magnum El Dorados with consecutive

serial numbers produced by the original company headed up by Sig Himmelmann

and Forrest Smith in 1977.

Photo courtesy of Lee Martin.

 

 

29-4) This is a 9 1/2” El Dorado .44 Magnum from United Sporting Arms in

New York circa 1979. 

Photo courtesy of Lee Martin.

 

 

29-5) Another 1979 issued El Dorado .44 Magnum with a 7 1/2” barrel. 

Photo courtesy of Lee Martin.

 

 

29-6) USA was on the cutting edge of silhouette revolver development; this

 El Dorado Silhouette Model, which was also drilled and tapped for scope mounts,

dates back to 1981.

Photo courtesy of Lee Martin

 

 

29-7) This late, 1992, 7 1/2” El Dorado .44 Magnum came from the North Carolina plant.

 

 

29-8 & 29-9) The "Gun Show Seville”, a blued 7 1/2” .44 Magnum, now wears

custom stocks by Scott Kolar.

 

 

29-11) Beautiful epoxied stabilized walnut stocks crafted by Scott Kolar now

reside on the Seville .44 Magnum.

 

 

29-11) Note the beautifully shaped hammer and angled to the rear target sight of the Seville.

 

 

29-12) Elmer Keith used this illustration as he wrote of the Mikkenger Grizzly

.44 Magnum Single Action in the November 1978 issue of Guns & Ammo.

 

Chapter 28      Chapter 30