SKEETER RESURRECTS THE .44 SPECIAL—CARRYING THE TORCH

BY JOHN TAFFIN

From the very beginning the .44 Special, both cartridge and sixgun, has been for the true connoisseur; the man who really appreciates great sixguns, whether they be double action or single action, and a cartridge with the ability to do about 99% of the things we wish to do with a sixgun. For nearly thirty years, thanks to such experimenters as the .44 Associates, the .44 Special, properly loaded, was most powerful handgun available. It was certainly adequate for hunting anything found in the continental United States. The .357 Magnum traveled faster with its 158 grain bullet and even looked better on paper, however, the handloaded .44 Special with its 250 grain Keith bullet at 1200 fps left the .357 Magnum choking dust.

            What the .357 Magnum could not do, the .44 Magnum did do. The .44 Magnum is nothing but the .44 Special with a 250 grain bullet traveling at the muzzle velocity of the original .357 Magnum. Once the .44 Magnum arrived, the .44 Special appeared to be doomed. Elmer Keith who had relied upon the .44 Special for three decades retired his Specials, took up the Magnum, and never looked back. The Smith & Wesson 4” .44 Magnum even fit the same holster as his 4” 1950 Target Model .44 Special. Keith was not the only one pushing the .44 Special aside. In 1966, along with several other great sixguns, Smith & Wesson dropped the 1950 Target .44 Special from its catalog.

            Another devotee of the .44 Special was Skeeter Skelton, and just as Keith he dropped the .44 Special in favor of the .44 Magnum. He swapped off his 5” 1950 Target .44 Special and took up the 4” .44 Magnum. However, Skeeter did look back and he longed for his .44 Specials realizing there was room for both .44s. He wrote in the March 1975 issue of Shooting Times, "With full loads the muzzle blast and recoil of the four-inch Model 29, while not as fierce as sometimes described, brought me to the conclusion that the .44 Magnum was not the optimum choice as a law-enforcement gun.  While it is certainly true that one well-placed shot from it will anchor any man, there are other considerations… For law-enforcement use I returned a favored 1950 Target .44 Special with four-inch barrel to my holster.  After reflecting on my experiences with the .44 Magnum, I even loaded the .44 Special down to a manageable 250-grain 900 fps rate that gave me good DA control and retained more than adequate stopping power.  If you're thinking that I quit the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum, you're wrong.  It simply switched roles in my cast of handgun characters.  The Model 29, in my mind, became an outdoorsman's gun--perhaps the finest ever made for the handgun hunter.  I soon learned that the 6 1/2-inch and 8 3/8-inch models performed better than the four-inch gun." It would not be long until Skeeter would begin a campaign to resurrect the .44 Special.

            Charles Alan Skelton was born in Hereford Texas in 1928. This of course means he grew up during the Depression years and much of his young life is chronicled in his Me and Joe stories. He got the nickname Skeeter from his high school football coach and it stuck. After high school Skeeter was just barely old enough to join the Marines towards the end of WWII. In 1949 he joined the Amarillo Police Department and then received an assignment to the United States Border Patrol in 1950. This was one of the last horseback stations and when it closed in 1954 Skeeter left the Border Patrol and went back to Deaf Smith County Texas as a deputy sheriff.

            Skeeter served one term as sheriff and then opened an ill-fated feed lot and 1963 found him back in law enforcement as a customs inspector; he then transferred to the DEA until he retired in 1974. During this time he began his writing career and the first article I ever saw by Charles A. Skelton appeared in GUNS magazine in the late 1950s. He continued to freelance and by the time he joined the staff of Shooting Times in 1966 he was known everywhere as Skeeter. It was my good fortune to first meet him at the NRA Convention in Salt Lake City in 1978 when he was awarded the Outstanding American Handgunner Award. I had taken along a picture of a First Generation Colt Single Action Army with the barrel marked “RUSSIAN AND S&W SPECIAL 44”; all I had to do was show him that picture without a word and he grabbed my arm and said, “Let's go talk.” I had found the way to his heart.

            It has never been easy to find .44 Specials. They are the primary sixgun I look for at any gun show and in any trade paper. It is not unusual to attend several local 400-table gun shows without ever seeing a .44 Special. Writing in Shooting Times in September 1971, Skeeter said, "For some unfathomable cause .44 Specials have been hard to come by during all my thirty-plus years of shooting.  The Colt SA in this caliber was an expensive collector’s item because of its limited pre-World War II production, although a number of .44-40 Colt SAs were converted by the simple insertion of a .44 Special cylinder.  Bore dimensions of Colt guns in .44 40 and .44 special are the same.  The 1926 Military Smiths were scarce where I lived, and I never saw a new one after the war, although they were cataloged until 1950. In that year Smith & Wesson changed its nomenclature, updating the 1926 Model to the 1950 Model.  The later gun incorporated the new S&W short action, and the target version with fitted with the ribbed barrel and the improved S&W micrometer sights.  The latter was offered only in 6 1/2-inch length.  As a practical matter the 1950 Model .44 didn't become available until 1954 in my part of the country.  Thad Crossett, an Amarillo gun seller, received two target models that year, and I bought both of them.  I swapped one to my old Border Patrol partner, Bobby Jarratt, for two Colt single actions, which points up the desirability of a .44 Special in those days. I shipped the other target model back to the factory, and Smith did a beautiful job of cutting the barrel to five inches and installing a ramp front sight.  I carried this gun while performing my duties as sheriff for a couple years and foolishly sold it when the .44 Magnum came out."

            When Skeeter went on staff of Shooting Times I was fresh out of college, had moved my wife and three pre-school age kids 2,000 miles across country and settled in Idaho. During my college years I had worked full-time in a factory to support the five of us and then entered teaching taking a 35% pay cut. The following year I moved to Idaho and took another pay cut. To put it mildly we were broke and there was no money for firearms, however shooting magazines were always part of the grocery list. Skeeter had a wonderful knack for drawing readers into his articles and fueling dreams. For several years I existed on those dreams. In August 1966 Skeeter did an article on the .44 Special and pictured a 5 1/2” Colt New Frontier .44 Special with an extra cylinder chambered in .44-40. I dreamed over that picture many times wondering if I would ever have such a beautiful sixgun myself. Skeeter kept me going until I actually could have such a .44 Special.

            The same year this article appeared Smith & Wesson dropped the 1950 Model Target .44 Special and then Colt followed by removing the .44 Special as a Single Action Army chambering. The Colt New Frontier, which had been introduced in 1962, now disappeared as a 5 1/2” .44 Special and then one year later, 1967, the 7 1/2” .44 Special New Frontier was dropped. In one short brief span of time all full-size .44 Special sixguns disappeared; the only .44 Special left was the five-shot Charter Arms Bulldog. This is a fine little revolver, however it is more for concealed carry use than as an every day working gun. The .44 Special for all intents and purposes was dead. Buried. Forgotten except by the dedicated few.

            Many older sixgunners missed being able to buy a new .44 Special, and newer sixgunners would never have the chance. Something had to be done; someone had to speak out. The only man who really appreciated the .44 Special and was in the position to speak out was Skeeter; and speak out he did. In the April 1972 issue of Shooting Times Skeeter said, "The .44 S&W Special is the finest all-around handgun cartridge ever loaded, and in my experience, it is a bit more accurate than the ballyhooed .38 Special.” He talked of the many letters he received from sixgunners looking for .44 Specials and also shared correspondence with both Colt and Smith & Wesson saying they were basically too busy filling orders for their more popular models to offer the .44 Special.

            There is an old saying, “When life give you lemons, make lemonade” and that certainly applied to the situation. If there weren’t any .44 Specials to be had from Colt and Smith & Wesson than the only solution was make your own; and that is exactly what Skeeter did. Starting with a Ruger .357 Blackhawk, the Three-Screw Old Model as it is now referred to and which is the same size as the Colt Single Action, and a Smith & Wesson Model 28 Highway Patrolman .357 Magnum, Skeeter set about to have both converted to .44 Special. The .44 Special was back among the living.

            At the time Skeeter had the Ruger and Smith & Wesson .357 Magnums converted to .44 Special one could still find 1950 Target Model .44 Special barrels. Those are long gone, however such sixgunsmiths as Hamilton Bowen and David Clements can convert the S&W .38-44 Heavy Duty or .357 Magnum Models 27 and 28 to .44 Special by re-chambering the cylinder and re-boring the barrel. The Ruger is much easier as it only requires re-chambering the cylinder and fitting either a Ruger .44 barrel or a .44 barrel blank and cutting it to the desired length.

            This conversion article was another one of my dream-fillers until I could afford to have a Ruger .357 Blackhawk converted to .44 Special. In the late 1970s a fellow back east was offering .44 Special conversions on the Ruger by re-chambering the cylinder and re-lining the barrel. I had the .357 Magnum  cylinder re-chambered, the 6 1/2” barrel cut back to 5 1/2” and re-lined. He apparently was using a lining meant for the .444 Marlin as the twist was so slow the only loads which even came close to shooting accurately where those assembled with the 250 grain Keith bullet over 17.0 grains of #2400 in Winchester-Western .44 Special brass. This is a grand load but much heavier that I wanted to use on an everyday basis; I wanted 900 fps not 1175! To solve the problem, the cut down 4 5/8” barrel was removed from my Ruger .44 Magnum Flat-Top Blackhawk and sent to Trapper Gun along with the Ruger .44 Special. The Magnum barrel was installed along with a Super Blackhawk hammer, a bright blue finish was applied to all but the grip frame, I added ivory stocks and I had a beautiful .44 Special Ruger Blackhawk which I still have today.

            That was only beginning of my .44 Special conversions on Ruger Blackhawks. Today I have samples from sixgunsmiths Bob Baer, Hamilton Bowen, David Clements, Ben Forkin, Bill Grover, Andy Horvath, and John Gallagher on Ruger Flat-Tops, Ruger Old Models, Ruger New Vaqueros, and even the 50th Anniversary Model .357 Magnum. A man can never have too many .44 Specials and he always needs just one more. We'll talk more about these in the chapter on custom .44 Specials.

            Skeeter died in 1988 after spending a great deal of time in the hospital in Houston Texas. Two of his friends, John Wootters and Bob Baer spent a lot of time visiting with him and they plotted the creation of another .44 Special Ruger. The Three-Screw .357 was found, however as John Wootters told me, "Sadly, Skeeter had to fold his hand before the last deal, and the project never went further, until recently.” In memory of Skeeter that .44 Special was finished. A 4 5/8” Premium Douglas barrel was installed; the late Bill Grover of Texas Longhorn Arms did the forcing cone, muzzle crown, installed one of his #5 front sights and base pins, and set the cylinder gap of .002”. Bob Baer then took over and flat filed the frame, hand tuned the action, and performed the trigger job. Wootters and Skeeter had brought back Stone sheep horns from a trip to British Columbia and Baer now bright polished the grip frame and installed the ram’s horn grips.

            The .44 Special Ruger was then returned to Texas Longhorn Arms for re-marking and bluing; as a manufacturer Grover could re-mark and re-number. The Serial number is now S.S.1 with the S.S. standing for Skeeter Skelton. This is John Wootters personal sixgun, however six more S.S. Specials were made by Grover, who kept one for himself, and the other five went to Bob Baer, Terry Murbach, Bart Skelton, Jim Wilson, and myself. These are not duplicate sixguns as we each incorporated our own ideas into our particular Skeeter Gun. Mine has a 4 5/8” barrel and a Colt Single Action grip frame with one-piece ivory stocks.

            There is another single action .44 Special serial numbered S.S.1 and this one is a Colt. In 1977 Colt made a very special Colt Single Action Army for Skeeter. The barrel length is 4 3/4”, the finish is blue with a case hardened frame, grips are ivory with silver Colt medallions, and the entire sixgun has been D- engraved in the scroll pattern by then Master Colt engraver Robert Burt. “Skeeter Skelton” is found in script along the backstrap and Skeeter's U.S Customs badge is duplicated in gold on the recoil shield while his Deaf Smith County Sheriff’s band is given similar treatment on the loading gate. All in all this is one most beautiful Colt Single Actions in existence.

            Skeeter did not stop with .44 Special conversions but rather began to lobby both Colt and Smith & Wesson to return the .44 Special to their catalogs. The Colt Single Action Army had been produced in what we now know as the First Generation run from 1873 to 1941, was brought back as the Second Generation in 1956 and then removed from production in 1974. In 1976 the Colt Single Action Army returned as the Third Generation with four ill-conceived changes. The barrel threads were changed, the full-length cylinder bushing was dropped, and both the hand and the ratchet were redesigned. Recently Colt went back to the full-length cylinder bushing.

            Skeeter not only wrote about the return of the .44 Special, he also instigated a letter writing campaign and was able to announce Victory At Last in a Shooting Times article with the return of the .44 Special to the Colt Single Action Army lineup and this was followed up by the return of the .44 Special New Frontier. Four years later Smith & Wesson came out with that Model 24-3 .44 Special in both 4” and 6 1/2” lengths and this was then followed with the Model 624, the stainless steel version, in the same barrel lengths. Special runs were also offered in both blue and steel with 3” barrels. Sadly all of these are now gone. Since that time Smith & Wesson has offered two five-shot L-frame .44 Specials, the Model 296 and 696, however these are also now gone.

            At this writing the only newly manufactured .44 Specials revolvers available are the previously mentioned Charter Bulldog, the Freedom Arms Model 97, the Single Action and Flat-Top Target Model from United States Firearms, Gary Reeder’s #5, and various replicas of the Single Action Army from several importers, but no Colts. I hold out hope Ruger will keep the 50th Anniversary Model .357 Blackhawk in both .357 and .44 Special.   The .44 Special has not been forgotten and Skeeter has not been forgotten and four of us, call us the Four Horsemen of the .44 Special are doing all we can to keep the .44 Special alive. In 2005 Clint Smith of Thunder Ranch was able to convince Smith & Wesson to offer a special limited run of 4”, fixed sighted Model 21-4 .44 Specials, which are now also a regular production sixgun; and writers Brian Pearce, Mike Venturino, and myself have formed an alliance and are doing everything we can to write about the .44 Special anytime we can. They say Tombstone was the town to tough to die; the .44 Special is the sixgun too good to die.

 

10-1) Skeeter's 1972 article on converting the .357 Ruger Three Screw and

the Smith & Wesson Highway Patrolman to .44 Special renewed sixgunners’

interest in the .44.

 

 

10-2) Two of Skeeter's favorite .44 Specials were the 5 1/2” Colt New Frontier

and the 4” Smith & Wesson 1950 Target.

 

 

10-3) Skeeter Skelton was directly responsible for Smith & Wesson bringing

out the Model 24-3 and Model 624.44 Specials in the early 1980s.

 

 

10-4) With his writings and urging of readers to contact Colt, Skeeter was

able to resurrect the Colt Single Action Army .44 Special in the late 1970s.

 

 

10-5) An excellent read is Sally Jim Skelton’s salute to her husband with the

compilation of the book I Remember Skeeter.

 

 

10-6) Taffin found the way the Skeeter Skelton's sixgunnin’ heart with an

inscription like this on a 1st Generation Colt Single Action.

 

 

10-7) John Wootters, Bob Baer, and Skeeter Skelton planned this .44 Special

Ruger Three-Screw while Skeeter was in the hospital; it was finished by

Wootters and Baer after Skeeter's death.

 

 

10-8) A young Skeeter Skelton with another of his favorite 44s, the Ruger

Blackhawk .44 Magnum.

 

 

10-9 & 10-10) Skeeter Skelton inspired many sixgunners including Bill Grover

of Texas Longhorn Arms. Details of this one of seven Skeeter Skelton .

44 Specials will be found in  Chapter 20

 

10-11) “Skeeter Skelton” 44 Special barrel marking on S.S.4 by Bill Grover.

10-12) The Skeeter Skelton Special is marked S.S. 4 and as the early Colt

Single Actions from the were; Note the TLA #5 base pin which is now available

from Belt Mountain.

 

 

10-13) Tedd Adamovich of BluMagnum crafted these one-piece creamy ivory

stocks to fit the Colt Single Action grip frame of Skeeter Skelton Special #4.

 

Chapter 9     Chapter 11