by Lynn Halstead
The year was 1974. Shooting Times was at it's hey day. One of their best was Charles "Skeeter" Skelton. The man had a way with words. His articles on the 5" Model 27 Smith & Wesson and .44 Magnum Ruger handguns kept me in dreamland. I waited each month for his stuff and loved it all. Being a young shooter at the time, he had a lot of influence on me. My first new centerfire handgun was the Model 28 S&W. Later a Ruger SBH followed me home, both because of him.
I read his articles on the .44 Special. He stated, if I recall correctly, that the .44 Special was the most accurate revolver round he had fired. He showed pictures of the Colts, both the SSA and new Frontier, beautiful guns, leaving me breathless. He told of the shots he made with his favorite load, the Lyman 429421 and 7.5 grains of Unique, and what it would do. Like I said, he had a way with words. I sure wanted one, BAD.
Skeeter wrote a piece on converting the "N" frame S&W from .357 Magnum to .44 Special. He told of boring the cylinder and rebarreling. The guns felt and shot like the out of production Smith's. He praised the work of Bob Sconce, the owner of Miniature Machine Company (MMC) in Deming, New Mexico. This man could build you a .44. It sounded so good. Was it possible for me to have one?
More sleepless nights for me and endless hours of day dreaming. My Uncle was a fine gunsmith and we talked a lot about the conversion. He seemed to think it would work and should make a fine sixgun. I began looking through Shotgun News' adds for a .44 Special barrel. J&G Rifle Ranch in Turner, Montana had a few of them for $29.50 each. Why didn't I buy two? They were 1950 S&W Target barrels at 6 1/2 inches. I ordered one and received it after a couple of weeks. I called MMC and spoke with Bob Sconce at length. He explained the entire process and we set a date for him to do the work. I packaged the barrel and my Model 28 for shipping and carried the box to my Uncle for the trip to New Mexico. I wondered if my heart could stand the wait.
After the gun was gone I began making mounds of bullets with my Lyman 429421 mould. They were lubed and boxed in neat piles. I used them to assemble loads with 7.5 grains of Unique and CCI 300 primers. I had five boxes ready to go and could wait no longer. I began shooting them in my Super Blackhawk for testing. I got tight groups and very little recoil in the heavy sixgun.
I was looking for an all around sixgun.
Something for defense and targets of opportunity. It would be carried mostly in my pickup for use on varmints, rocks, and such. It would be my everyday gun to replace the SBH. The .44 Special would have no peers. The Rugers couldn't compete, the Colts would fall short. My Special would be the greatest. Would I ever shoot anything else? I had high expectations and was going crazy.
When the gun was shipped, I was assured by Mr. Sconce the turn around time would be 90 days. This time passed plus another month. I tried to be patient. I loaded more Keith's in the Special brass for my Ruger and waited. After 6 months I called MMC. He was having equipment problems and was behind. I was 25 at the time and believe my hair loss started then. My Uncle was sure MMC had wrecked the Smith and was stalling. I called a couple times over the next 6 months. Bob assured me the gun was fine and the equipment was the problem. He offered to return my gun and barrel. I considered it but Skeeter's praise for the sixgun and cartridge wouldn't leave my head. There was nothing to do but wait.
During the early part of 1977 I could stand it no longer. I was depressed and my Uncle was reminding me that I would probably never see my Smith & Wesson again, let alone a a custom .44. I had a thought, why not call Mr. Skelton? After all he was the one that got me in this mess. He knew Bob Sconce and lived close enough to check on things. I called Directory Assistance and sure enough Skeeter was in the book. I got cold feet, what would I say, how would I ask, would he even talk to me? Skeeter was my hero and I an underground coal miner. It took several days for the courage to come to even dial the phone.
Hello came the voice on the other end. I cleared my throat.
Hello again was ringing in my ear. Mr. Skelton I squeaked, "Yes" came the reply, he coughed followed by "pardon me". He sounded friendly enough. I relaxed somewhat and told him of my problem. He assured me of Bob's integrity. It seemed Mr. Sconce's shop was the target of a dishonest employee who left with a lot of the equipment. He was having problems alright. As our conversation came to an end he assured me he would check on my gun and to call him back in a couple weeks.
Another delay, would I make it 2 weeks? They passed and I called again. MMC was expecting new equipment any day and work would commence shortly. I was hopeful again.
As May came with flowers and warmer weather, so did the call. The wait was over and the gun was ready. I mailed a check and on the 12th day of May 1977 the gun was shipped. A few days latter my Uncle called. My sixgun was back. Man was it a looker. The Smith had a nice even bead blast blue. All the corners were sharp and straight. The lettering and emblems were still sharp after the buffing and blasting. The front sight was changed to a red ramp and the standard rear blade to a white outline. An action job was included with the single action pull set at 3 pounds and the double action at 9 1/2, both glassy smooth.
I was working in the mines at the time for Armco Steel Corp. so I couldn't shoot till the next day. After work I stopped on the way home at my favorite shooting spot. I placed a target at 25 yards and sent 5 Keith 250's down range. I walked to the target and there were no hits. I moved the target closer and tried again. I was hitting high. I moved the rear sight to the bottom and the returned the target to 25 yards. Five more of the handloads were fired and again I walked to the target. There it was, a 5 shot group measuring 3 inches and about 3 inches high. I put the gun in my truck and drove home disgusted.
The next day I called MMC. The front sight had a white substance around the base. I asked about this and was informed it was blueing salts and a little oil would kill it. I then complained about the gun shooting high. Mr. Sconce assured me it was test fired with the same Lyman bullet and 7.0 grains of Unique. He said it printed to point of aim for him and his gunsmith. He also claimed Skeeter came by the shop before the gun was shipped and shot it some. I hope this is true, but I must shoot a lot higher than the three of them.
On Saturday I went to the reloading bench and prepared some more ammo. I knew I must move the bullet faster to lower the impact. The strength of these conversions was questioned by many so caution was the word. I opened a can of 2400 and started at 12.5 grains with the 250 Keith. put up 20 loads at that level and 20 more with 13 grains and so on at 1/2 grain increments till I stopped at Elmer's load of 17.5. Off to my range I went with my hat full of shells. I was a little high still with 12.5 grains but the groups were at 2 inches. Things were looking up. As the velocities got faster the bullet impact lowered and the group sizes became tighter. When I fired the 20 rounds with 15.0 grains I hit pay dirt. The little gun was shooting to point of aim and the groups were running just over an inch. I was feeling a whole lot better. As I got to 16 grains the group sizes began to open up. When I reached 17.5 they were running around 2 inches. This sixgun tips the scales at 42 ounces unloaded and the recoil with the top loads is starting to get your attention.
I tried other loads over the next month. I used jacketed bullets from Sierra, the 180 and 240 grain. With the 180 hollow point I used 20.5 grains of 2400 and a CCI 350 primer. Groups ran just over 2 inches. The 240 grain Sierra was also a hollow point. For some reason I don't recall, I switched to H-110 for this bullet. I used both 18 and 18.5 grains with the same CCI 350 primer. Either load would stay at 1 1/4 inches. After several boxes of jacketed bullets I went back to the Lyman 429421. There were a couple boxes of loads left with the Keith bullet and 7.5 grains of Unique. I decided to shoot these to free up some brass. After some plinking I put this load on paper again. I still don't know why but this load now printed nice 1 1/2 inch groups. It's a nice easy shooting load but was still 3 inches high at 25 yards. When the testing was done I loaded all brass with Elmer's load and shot this only for quite awhile. I found I could back off Mr. Keith's load a 1/2 grain and use a magnum primer for the same elevation and the groups stayed at 2". This was my standard till I dropped to 15 grains which is my best grouping load with 2400 powder. Now days I hardly shoot anything else in the gun. After 1000's of these loads the Smith is still tight as ever.
I've never killed big game with the Special. I used it on ground hogs and such for a couple years and placed a slug in a coyote while living in Montana at 226 steps. My load moves just over 1000 fps and I would feel fine about hunting our small deer with it. She's also a nice long range plinker. In a word, it's a good all around handgun.
Now days the Special spends a lot of time at rest. Occasionally someone prints another story on the little 44 and I bring the gun out and shoot it for a week or so. It brings back memories of days gone by. I think of Skeeter and his old articles. I haven't carried the gun daily for several years now but back when I did and shot it a lot I could hit very well with it. The .44 Special is "Special" and easy shooting. The 6 1/2 inch barrel is accurate and the big Keith slugs will do most things I need done. Is this sixgun as good as I dreamed? No, at least not in my hands, but I dreamed some tall ones back in the 70's.