In the 1920's, a young cowpoke decided to celebrate the Fourth of July by firing his .45 Colt 5 1/2" SA.: "When the gun rose from recoil of the first cartridge I unconsciously hooked my thumb over the hammer spur and thus cocked gun as it recovered from recoil. When I turned the next one loose I was almost deafened by the report and saw a little flash of flame. My hand automatically cocked gun and snapped again but no report. I stopped then knowing something was wrong. The upper half of three chambers was gone. Also one cartridge and half of another case. Also the top strap over cylinder. My ears were ringing otherwise I was all O.K." (American Rifleman, August 15, 1925)
This was the beginning of Elmer Keith's long and colorful career as a gun-writer. Before that first article was written, Keith had been using heavy .45 Colt loads in the Colt Single Action made up with 300 grain bullets with a diameter of .458" originally intended for use in the .45- 90 lever action Winchester. The old blackpowder Colt finally gave up and Elmer Keith switched to the .44 Special and the rest is history. It is hard to believe that Keith was using .458" diameter bullets until one reads in his next article: "Don't know cause unless bullets oversize. I need a .45 Colt 454 bullet sizer. Know of one? The regular one on tool no good, makes them oval. Need a seperate one or a base first die for No. three tool." (American Rifleman, September 1,1925.)
We take a lot for granted these days. It is interesting to see that reloading was really in its infancy in 1925 with Keith loading his ammunition with the Lyman hand tool, and he had not even seen a .44 Special yet. Anybody want to go back to the "good old days"?
It is also quite significant to see how much Keith did not know in 1925 and how much he subsequently learned. If that old Colt had not blown its top strap and cylinder, Keith may have spent most of his life ranching and shooting his old .45 with no one ever hearing from him.
Instead, Elmer Keith was the premiere influence on sixgunners and sixgunning for nearly fifty years. From the time his first letter to the editor was published in 1924, until well into the 1970's, Keith was the foremost voice on big bore sixguns, handgun hunting, and long range shooting.
Over the years Keith worked for numerous magazines, most notably The American Rifleman, Guns, and Guns & Ammo. He also wrote a dozen books covering rifles, shotguns, sixguns, hunting, and his interesting life. Of most interest to sixgunners are his Sixgun Cartridges and Loads (1936, now available as a reprint), Sixguns (1955), and "Hell, I Was There" (1979).
From the late 1920's until 1955, Keith continually promoted the .44 Special as the ideal sixgun cartridge using his designed "Keith" bullet weighing 250 grains and pushed at a full 1200 fps using first #80 powder and then, when it became available, Hercules #2400. As a result of Keith's many articles, books, and letters on the .44 Special, Remington and Smith & Wesson combined forces in 1955 to produce the first .44 Magnum loading and the Smith & Wesson which is now known as The Model 29. Elmer had been beating the drum for a sixgun and load combination of a 250 grain bullet at 1200 fps. He got even more than he had hoped for, a 240 grain bullet at a full 1400 fps. His dream had come true.
Over the years Keith always featured his sixguns in his articles, and as a teenager I purchased a copy of Sixguns, subsequently spending many hours carefully studying the pictures of his many custom sixguns. My habit had been to haunt the newstands looking for magazines that had anything about handguns. Now everything important, at least to me, was available in one book. Other teenagers were interested in the new rock and roll music, movies, and fast cars. My passion was sixguns.
Keith covered everything: longe range shooting, gun fighting, DA shooting, quick draw, holsters, trick shooting, and reloading. I read and re-read Sixguns until my first copy was dog-eared and had to be replaced. The pictures of the beautiful sixguns were referred to over and over again with the impossible hope that someday I too would own such guns. After I met Keith for the first time, he supplied me with a list of all of his old sixgun articles from The American Rifleman and I was able to add all of those to my file.
Keith was not satisfied with stock factory sixguns and enlisted the help of some of the top gunsmiths and engravers in the country to customize his sixguns. Little did I realize that someday I would have the pleasure of handling all of his famous sixguns.
I have had the pleasure of handling all of Elmer Keith's sixguns, and in fact, unloading many that had been loaded since before his stroke.
At the time I could scarcely believe it! There before me were all the famous sixguns that I had read about and seen pictured over the last thirty years. All of the famous single action Colts and Rugers, and the double action Smith & Wessons, they were all there, plus the leather he had also made famous, the Lawrence #34 DA holster, and the #120 Keith SA holster, and even the Bohlin quick draw rig that he designed in the '60's.
On page 103 of Keith's classic Sixguns, one finds a picture of four beautiful Colt Single Actions. All four of these are still part of the Keith Collection and I noticed two things: the obvious quality of the custom work that had been done on three of them, and the varying stages of use that each had received.
The four Colts, all .44 Specials are: 1) a King short action job, 7 1/2 " barrel; 2) an original, one of a kind 7 1/2" flat-top target; 3) the Number 5 SA Colt, an extensively customized 5 1/2" flat-top target model with a special grip made by combining a Bisley backstrap and Colt SA trigger guard; 4) a 5 1/2" flat-top target with Keith designed folding three leaf rear sight.
Colt #1 was an obvious favorite as it showed the most use. This short action 7 1/2" .44 Special has ivory grips with a steer head carved on the right grip, a wide hammer, a Smith & Wesson type rear sight, a front sight held on by a barrel band, and even though it shows extensive blue wear it is still quite tight. Since the ivory grips have a Colt medallion inset in them, I assume that they are original Colt manufactured stocks.
Colt #2 has been kept as original since it is the only .44 Special Colt SA Target model to ever leave the Hartford factory. Its finish is all blue with "eagle-style" hard rubber grips. It also shows much use.
Colt #3 was written up as "The Last Word" in the April 1929 issue of The American Rifleman. The title for the article comes from the fact that this revolver was designed as the epitome of the single action sixgun. Every possible improvement was incorporated in The Last Word sixgun and Keith tried to interest Colt in making it a factory offered single action but to no avail.
Keith, along with gunsmiths of the time, Harold Croft, Neal Houchins, R.F. Sedgley, and J.D. O'Meara, welded up the top strap of a standard Colt Single Action to make a heavy flat-top target design. The old flat mainspring was replaced by a U-type spring, and the hammer was made by welding a Bisley wide hammer on a standard hammer.
The rear sight is adjustable and the front sight is high Patridge type. The base pin latch was changed to eliminate any chance of the pin jumping forward under recoil and the grip frame was made by mating a standard Colt SA trigger guard and a Bisley backstrap. The grip of the Number 5 SA Colt is the most comfortable I have ever encountered on a single action and its influence is found in the grip of todays' Freedom Arm's .454 Casull and Ruger's Bisley.
Colt #4 is another 5 1/2" flat-top target single action made up by Neal Houchins with special one piece rosewood grips made by Pachmayr. This was Keith's long range sixgun as it has a folding rear sight with three different blades for different ranges and it also has a dull blue finish so as not reflect sunlight. I was particulary struck by the quality of the workmanship on this sixgun especially when I considered that it was put together sixty years ago. Such craftsmanship is hard to find today.
Although Elmer adopted the .44 Special in 1927, he did not completely abandon the .45 Colt Single Action. I found that the Colt pictured on page 102 of Sixguns, a 4 3/4" barrelled model, with S&W type adjustable rear sight, and barrel band front sight was still well enough regarded by Keith that it was loaded with five rounds of factory ammo. Before the advent of the .44 Magnum, Keith always said that if he had to depend on factory ammunition his choice would be the .45 Colt.
This .45 Colt, with a wide hammer spur, is also interesting in that it has a special stud on the left side of the gun that replaced the hammer screw. The stud fitted on a clip fastened to the belt and the Colt swung on the clip without a holster, ready for instant use. Keith is pictured using this .45 Colt on page 167 of Sixguns. This sixgun shows extensive blue wear and I am guessing that Keith carried it a lot on the quick-draw belt clip.
These five single actions were obvious favorites and were probably used heavily for about thirty years, that is, until the advent of the .44 Magnum. In the 1950's, Keith carried a 1950 4" Smith & Wesson .44 Special as his favorite sixgun, soon to be replaced by the same basic gun but chambered for the .44 Magnum.
In the working part of the Keith Collection, I found four short-barreled double action .44's, all Smith & Wessons, that were particular favorites as they were so easy to pack. The oldest is the aforementioned .44 Special 4" 1950 Target Model. This gun is fully engraved, with a blue finish and fitted with ivory stocks that have a steer head carved on the right grip. The steer head carved grip was an obvious favorite as it is found on three of the four .44 DA's. I've never been able to handle the standard Smith & Wesson grip with heavy .44 or .45 loads. After handling Keith's sixguns I can see why he liked the carved steerhead on the right grip. It filled in the hand perfectly and helped control recoil.
Keith's first .44 Magnum was a 6 1/2" Smith and Wesson that was soon cut to 4 1/2", and engraved and stocked by the now defunct Gun Reblue Co. This sixgun was featured in the 1958 Gun Digest. It too is a beautiful specimen with its full engraving and steerhead grips and like all of the .44's, has Keith's signature on the sideplate.
Carl Hellstrom, then president of Smith & Wesson, presented Elmer Keith with one of the first factory 4" .44 Magnums. It is part of Keith's working collection and is also fully engraved, and ivory stocked with an eagle carved on the right grip, and a brass presentation medallion on the right grip.
The last short barrelled .44 Magnum is obviously the favorite as it was carried daily and shows extensive blue wear. Strangely enough, this is a plain-jane .44 Magnum except for the ivory stocks and the name engraved on the sideplate. While all of the rest of the .44's were carried in flower carved holsters, this no frills working gun was carried in a plain no-nonsense holster, one of Milt Sparks' FBI style with a hammer extension to protect the inside lining of Keith's coat. In a conversation with Ted Keith, verification was given that this was the sixgun that Keith packed everyday.
I found many other examples of big bore sixguns in the Keith Collection. A pair of Blue 4" .41 Magnums, that were featured in Guns & Ammo in the '60's and used by Keith to take caribou in Alaska, are now fitted with ivory stocks with his name carved into the grips. Also numerous examples of mint Triple-Lock .44 Special Smith & Wessons, obviously a favorite sixgun of Keith's.
Three single action Rugers stood out. A standard 7 1/2" Super Blackhawk with beautiful custom fancy grained wood stocks, and two Old Model Ruger Blackhawks, one in .45 Colt and the other chambered for .41 Magnum, and both fitted with brass Super Blackhawk grip frames and custom wood stocks. The Dragoon-styled Super Blackhawk was a favorite of Keith's.
There are many other pieces in the collection from an original cased Colt Dragoon to a Century Manufacturing .45-70 sixgun. Virtually every model of modern Rugers can be found but these were samples and test guns, not everyday working pieces. Two pieces that date back to WWI are both .45's, a 19ll .45 ACP that had an enviable record in the war, and a Smith & Wesson 1917 revolver with special custom sights. Over the fifty plus years of his writing career, Elmer Keith tested virtually every sixgun available and many are still in the Keith Collection.
It was a real thrill for me to handle and photograph the Sixguns of Elmer Keith. I felt like a kid again. I could easily be accused of making Elmer Keith bigger than life. To this I plead guilty. To me he is a hero; I grew up reading everything he wrote. Unfortunately today's kids don't have heroes to follow. I had three heroes at various stages of my life, with some overlapping: John Wayne, Teddy Roosevelt, and Elmer Keith. They gave me something to hold onto, and goals to pursue. We need some heroes today.