by John Taffin
The past ten years or so has seen a new trend in handguns, namely sixguns with very long barrels of l0" or more as well as specialty single-shot pistols with barrels of 14" or more. All of the long barreled sixguns and single-shots that I have been acquainted with have been wonderfully accurate and a real pleasure to shoot. However we have strayed somewhat from the original intent of a handgun and that is an easily carried, quick to get into action, defensive, weapon.
I spend much of my time "packing" the long barreled handguns, but they are not real PACKIN' PISTOLS. To fit my definition of a "packin" pistol a handgun must be a revolver or semi-automatic that is relatively light in weight; have a barrel with a minimum of 4" and a maximum of 5 1/2" easy to holster; and especially be chambered in a caliber that can be depended on to do the job. The caliber will, of course, change according to the locale of each shooter.
Viable factory calibers for packin pistols are .38 Super and .45 ACP in semi-autos; probably the 10mm should also be included but I have not seen one yet and it is too new to tell if it is really as good as it should be. Nine em-ems need not apply. In sixguns we can choose from .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, .44 Special, .44 Magnum, .45 Colt, and .454 Casull. I would also include the .44-40 and .45 Auto Rim for those who are so inclined and willing to reload both of these old timers with 200-250 grain semi-wadcutter Keith-type bullets at 900 fps. or more.
I have some definite ideas on the best packin' pistols for each of the above calibers and share my preferences with the hope of hearing from other Shootists as to what they consider the best sidearms. Let's look at these by caliber:
.357 MAGNUM I have a number of superbly accurate long barreled .357 sixguns, namely the 8" Python, the 8 3/8" Smith & Wesson Model 27, and the 10" Dan Wesson. These can only be packed in shoulder holsters. In shorter barrels, my preference leans to a 3 1/2" Model 27 that is superbly accurate, but is so heavy that I could just as easy pack a larger bore with less weight; and a Ruger 4 5/8" flat-top that is also an excellent sixgun.
But for all around use as a .357 packin' pistol I think the nod must go to the first, and still finest, of the lightweight 357's, the Smith & Wesson originally known as the Combat Magnum and now better known as the Model 19. The Combat Magnum was built by Smith & Wesson with a lot of input from the Border Patrolman Bill Jordan. The result was basically a .38 Special-sized .357 Magnum with a heavy barrel and fully enclosed ejector rod. Plus the Model 19 has a full length cylinder that allow the use of the Keith 173 grain SWC bullet in .357 cases. The Model 27 and Python cylinders are to short. They did it right! A 4" Model 19 nestles around my waist quite often with a cartridge belt that holds 40+ heavily loaded .38 specials and .357 Magnums.
Favorite loads for the Model 19 are easy to come up with. First there is the old standby, Elmer Keith's Original heavy .38 special load of his 173 grain SWC over 13.5 grains of #2400 in .38 special cases. This load gives 1250 fps in my 4" Combat Magnum. For full house loads, I go to 15.0 grains of #2400 with Lyman's excellent gas check bullet, Ray Thompson designed #358156GC. This favorite bullet goes 1409 from the 4" 19.
When I don't like to mess with gas checks, I substitute the RCBS #38-150 SWC over 16.0 grains of #2400 for 1400 fps. For a really heavy bullet load in the 19, I go with Lyman's relatively new #358627. which is a 210 grain Keith SWC gas check bullet that gives excellent penetration and superb long range accuracy. This bullet gives around 1150 fps with 13.0 grains of WW296.
If I had to choose just one load to use with the 4" Model 19 it would I.definitely be the Thompson gas check over 15.0 grains of #2400. This is a good defensive load and would do the job, at least at close range, on deer and black bear. I would feel better with more caliber, but in a pinch the .357 would do it.
.41 MAGNUM This is probably the perfect caliber for building the perfect packin' pistol and I don't even own a .41 sixgun that can be called a packin' pistol. All of my work with the .41 is confined to a 7 1/2" Bisley and an 8 3/8 " Smith Model 57. I will be building up a .41PP in the future with my preference being a custom sixgun using a Colt Single Action .357 rechambered to .41 and fitted with a heavy 5 1/2" barrel. I'm sure the Colt will handle the .41, since gunsmith Pop Eimer used the Colt for his .401 Eimer in the '20's and gunsmith -writer Gordon Boser also used the Single Action Army for his .401 Special in the late '30's. And if it doesn't work out, the next choice will be a Ruger Bisley with the barrel cut back to around 5" and the trigger straightened. Plus there is always the possibility of having Bill Grover make up one of his West Texas Flat-top Target Models with a 5 1/2" barrel in .41 Magnum.
My favorite loads for the .41 Magnum are made up with the Lyman Keith 220 grain SWC #410459 and SSK's 295 grain #275.410. Using 19.5 grains of #2400 with the 220 grain Keith bullet will give right around 1400 fps from a packin' pistol length barrel, while the 295 SSK bullet with 19.5 grains of WW296 or H-110 can be expected to hit right around 1300 fps. Both loads are adequately powerful for packin' pistol pursuits.
.44 SPECIAL Now we get to the big bores and start to really get serious. The .44 Special was the packin' pistol choice for Elmer Keith from around 1927 to 1956. First he chose the Colt single Action Army with extensive modifications to turn it into what he considered the ideal packin' pistol and in 1929 an article, "The Last Word" appeared in THE AMERICAN RIFLEMAN. Keith's much modified Number 5 SA 5 1/2" .44 Special was Elmer's idea of the ultimate packin' pistol.
The .44 special is hard to beat as a practical defensive sixgun. Elmer's favorite in the 1950's was a S&W Model 1950 Target .44 Special cut to 4". I have such a .44 Special that I had made up in the late sixties complete with ivory grips. Just recently I had the grips scrimshawed with my initials J.A.T. an the left grip and a banner proclaiming "The Shootists" on the right grip. Twyla Taylor, wife of SHOOTIST Field Editor Jim Taylor did an excellent job of scrimshawing for me.
I like to carry this 4" .44 high on the right hip in a flower carved holster of my own making. I usually carry both of my favorite .44 Special loads, three of each in my Smith .44 Special. The first three up the spout consist of the Keith 250 grain bullet over 7.5 grains of Unique @ 900 fps; these three are backed up by three rounds using the same bullet over 17.0 grains of #2400 @ 1100 fps from the short 4" barrel.
Two other favorite .44 special Packin pistols are the Colt Single Action 4 3/4" and a custom Ruger 4 5/8" I had converted from an old Model .357 Magnum to a .44 Special and finished in Bright Blue with ivories and wide Super Blackhawk Hammer and trigger. The only problem with this sixgun is that it is almost too pretty to carry.
My latest .44 Special packin' pistol was made up by Andy Horvath and is also an Old Model .357 Ruger made better. Andy fitted it with a .44 Super Blackhawk barrel that he first cut to 4" barrel. Andy then round-butted the grip frame and the result is one of the slickest little packin' pistols to be found anywhere.
.44 MAGNUM There are a lot of double action .44 Magnums around but only one of them really qualifies as a real packin' pistol and that is the original .44 Magnum, the Smith & Wesson now known as the Model 29. Elmer Keith's everyday packin' pistol until he had his stroke was a Model 29, plain blue with ivories. The grips had his favorite carved steerhead design to fill in the hollow of his shooting hand.
I too like the 4" .44 Magnum Smith but, I cannot handle the recoil with the small grips and have my 29's fitted with Skeeter Skelton design grips by BearHug Grips. Deacon Deason did a fine job on these grips and they really tame the recoil for me with full house .44 loads.
For the S&W .44 Magnum, I prefer to drop a little below the normal standard load of 22.0 grains of #2400 and instead go for 20.0 - 21.0 grains for a little less recoil, and more importantly, longer sixgun life. The lighter loads will speed a 250 grain cast bullet along at around 1200 fps and that is plenty for the lightweight Smith.
I had a Ruger Super Blackhawk made into a packin' pistol a few years back, starting with a New Model .44 and fitting it with a 'Liberty" barrel I found in a gun shop parts box. The barrel was cut to 5 1/2" and replaced the 10 1/2" Super barrel. The first five shots out of that sixgun were loads that utilized the 295 grain NEI Keith bullet over 22.5 grains of WW296 for 1330 fps and they cut a cloverleaf at 25 yards and I knew I had a winner!
I just recently changed another 10 1/2" Super Blackhawk, which had been my wife's silhouette gun, into a packin' pistol by fitting it with a 4 5/8" bull barrel salvaged from an Abilene. I have not had the chance to shoot this one yet. but it balances beautifully and I expect it to shoot the same way.
.45 COLT This old warhorse is still going strong (stronger?) after more than 110 years of faithful service to Shootists. There are more genuine packin' pistols available for the .45 Colt than any other caliber. Consider these: the Smith & Wesson Model 25-5 4"; the Colt Single Action in 4 3/4' and 5 1/2" barrels; the Ruger Blackhawk in 4 5/8" length; plus any number of Sevilles and Abilenes that are floating around.
The Smith & Wesson Model 25-5 4" .45 Colt is the perfect defensive sixgun and factory ammunition is available with plenty of punch and yet still controllable in double action shooting. If I did not handload and had to depend on factory ammunition in a DA sixgun, the .45 Colt would be my first choice as a personal defensive sixgun. For handloads, it is hard to beat the Lyrnan #454424 260 grain Keith over 10.0 grains of Unique which will give right around 1000 fps from the 4" Smith.
I have two single action packin1 pistols that have been converted to .45 Colt by John Linebaugh, both of which qualify as near perfect packin' pistols. The first is, or was a 7 1/2" .44 Abilene that John rechambered tightly to .45 Colt and fitted with a 5 1/2" heavy barrel. This gun subsists on reloads of Keith 310 grain bullets over 23.0 grains of WW296 for 1200 fps.
The other .45 sixgun is the very lightweight and portable New Frontier John made up for me by starting with a .357 Magnum, rechambering it to .45 Colt and fitting it with a Colt 4 3/4" New Frontier barrel. I was really disappointed with this sixgun at first as I simply could not get it to shoot well. Then I tried the 260 grain #454424 bullet over 20 grains of H4227 and bingo! One holers at 25 yards! This load chronographs at 1100 fps and is plenty potent for such a small package.
.454 CASULL There is only one packin' pistol made in .454 and that is the excellent Freedom Arms single action five shot revolver with adjustable sights and the 4 3/4" barrel (note: this article was written in 1995, before the introduction of the Taurus Raging Bull and Ruger Super Blackhawk in .454 Casull). My favorite loads for the Casull PP are made up with NEI's 310 grain Keith bullet over 26.0 grains of WW296 for 1400 fps, and the NEI 325 grain Keith bullet over 23.5 grains of W4296 for 1280 fps. Both of these are excellent long range loads and maintain their speed very well at long range.
Those are my thoughts and choices for packin' pistols: What are yours?
Good Shootin' and God Bless.