CUSTOM SIXGUNSMITHS AND THE .44 SPECIAL

BY JOHN TAFFIN

(note: there are about 50 images that need to load, might as well read the article before you jump down to the pretty pictures!)

            Many times I have mentioned the fact I grew up with sixguns by reading, and learning from Elmer Keith and others such as Kent Bellah, Gordon Boser, John LaChuk, Walter Rogers, Phil Sharpe, Skeeter Skelton, and John Zlatich. Keith’s book, Sixguns By Keith, was published when I was 16 and came at a time there was very little information easily found, and once it was read I knew sixguns would be a major part of my life. Keith lived at a time we will never see again and was able to do things we will never be able to do again. However some of the things he and others wrote about are really possible today and even more so. Once I had a copy of Sixguns By Keith coupled with the Smith & Wesson 1950 Target .44 Special my wife gave me for our first Christmas together my future path was set.  Sixguns By Keith, published one year before the advent of the .44 Magnum, was full of the joy of sixgunnin' with the .44 Special and my spirit was grabbed by it and began a long love affair with the .44 Special that continues to this day, a time when the Colt Single Action Army .44 Special, the Colt New Frontier .44 Special, and the Smith & Wesson .44 Special in both blue and stainless offered as the Model 24 and Model 624 are all gone.

            Colt or Smith & Wesson may not offer the old style .44 Specials, however they are easy to acquire via the custom route. “Easy” as in being able to find quality gunsmiths and project guns, not in the expenditure of time and money. Ruger brought out their .357 Magnum Blackhawk in 1955 with a promise to offer it later in .44 Special and .45 Colt which were the reigning big bores of the day. It was not to be as by the end of 1955, the .44 Magnum was a reality. Ruger chambered three test Blackhawks for the .44 Magnum and when they blew one during proof testing, came out with the larger framed .44 Blackhawk that would evolve into the Super Blackhawk and New Model Blackhawks of today. It is a pity the .44 Magnum came along so soon upstaging the .44 Special and denying sixgunners a fine .44 Special; but, alas it was meant to be. Not to be thwarted by an unkind fate, I decided to have a .44 Special Ruger made to my specifications after reading of such a conversion by Skeeter Skelton in the 1970s.

A number of mistakes were made with my first custom Ruger. I opted for a red insert front sight instead of an easier to see black front sight; at least black is much easier to see these days and a black post sight is the best of all. The Ruger Old Model or Three Screw .357 was sent of to a gunsmith back East who re-chambered the cylinder to .44 Special and re-lined the original barrel. The lining would have worked fine but I believe he used a section of .444 Marlin barrel liner as the twist was very slow and the dream .44 Special would not shoot for the proverbial sour apples unless a full house load of a 250 grain bullet at 1200 fps was used and I did not build this gun up to shoot only Magnum-type loads. That barrel was discarded and replaced with a 4 5/8” barrel stolen from my .44 Magnum Blackhawk, which made it shoot fine and the whole gun was then finished in bright blue by Trapper Gun and fitted with ivory grips. 

Keith wrote often of custom pistolsmiths and a prime example of this, found in both his book and in his many articles for the American Rifleman is his #5SAA; this gun was the work of the top sixgun cranks and sixgunsmiths of the 1920s, namely Harold Croft, J.D. O'Meara, and R.F. Sedgely. These three combined their ideas with Elmer's and the result was a sixgun that Keith called the Last Word. It was the finest sixgun in existence. Number Five was fully engraved and fitted with ivory stocks. The caliber was of course the best then available, the .44 Special. 

            I have handled, fondled, and examined this beautiful old sixgun that was built in 1927 and will agree with Keith. In the 1920s it was the last word in a fine sixgun, but it has rivals today. That is what this chapter is about; the Crofts, Sedgleys, and O'Mearas of the present age. It has been my good pleasure to know the men and their work that belong in this category. Many pistolsmiths, perhaps hundreds, can build a grand semi-automatic and make it literally sing; but only a relatively few really understand either double action and/or single action .44 sixguns. I feel really privileged to know the top men in the country when it comes to building and customizing and modifying single action and double action sixguns.

            Not just any sixgun will do for converting to .44 Special or .44-40 or a dual cylindered project. New Model .357 Rugers are too big and bulky and that is why the most popular sixguns for conversion are the Three Screw .357 Blackhawks, the Flat-Top made from 1955 to 1963 and the Old Model from 1963-1972. Colt Single Actions or replicas thereof also work just fine as do any of the N-frame six-shot .38/44 or .357 Smith & Wesson sixguns. A Ruger New Model .357 converted to .44 Special will be the same size as a .44 Magnum Blackhawk without the versatility so why not just buy the .44 Magnum and fancy it up a bit? It will cost less and handle heavier loads if needed. There are New Models that are exceptions, namely the 50th Anniversary .357 Blackhawk and New Vaquero. Both of these have the New Model transfer bar safety and yet are the same size as the original Three Screw .357s.

Barrels for single action conversions on Rugers can be found several ways. Custom barrels or Ruger .44 Magnum barrels from any model Ruger .44 Magnum can be utilized; or any Third Generation Colt Single Action or New Frontier barrel has the same thread size, 24 tpi, as the Ruger main frames.  New Frontier barrels look particularly good on Flat-Top or Old Model Rugers and it appears to be the only way to get a new “New Frontier.” Firearms in general, and the classic sixguns in particular, have experienced a tremendous increase in price the past decade. The suitable-for-conversion sixguns are still easy to find but will cost two-three times the price of just a few years ago. The days of $125 Ruger Three Screws and S&W .38/44 Heavy Duties are long gone. Even Great Westerns, which were also around $125 just a few short years ago are closer to $500 or more now.

            Nearly 20 years ago I saw a very special .44 Special on a Ruger Old Model shown to me by Bart Skelton. The barrel was 4 5/8" in length, the grip frame was polished bright, and the grips were made from the horns of a bighorn sheep. This gun had been planned by Bart’s dad Skeeter along with Bob Baer and John Wootters as they visited him in the hospital. Skeeter died before the project was finished, however Baer and Wootters carried it to fruition and it now belongs to gunwriter Wootters. That sixgun made my heart pound even further for other .44 Specials and it took a couple years to gather six .357 Magnum Rugers and send off to two top gunsmiths for conversion to .44 Special. As we shall see two of these went to master gunmaker and gunsmith, Bill Grover of Texas Longhorn Arms and the other four went to top gunsmith Hamilton Bowen. Let’s look at custom .44 Special sixguns.

 

American Western Arms: AWA is the home of the Ultimate, a beautifully fitted and finished replica traditional single action built in this country using parts made by Pietta in Italy. It is available in both .44 Special and .44-40 as well as with special touches from the Custom Shop such as full engraving and finished by Doug Turnbull. The engraved and custom stocked .44 shown was beautifully accomplished by Jerry Harper, who not only does beautiful engraving, but fitting and checkering of stocks as well.

            AWA also offers a custom option rarely seen on traditional single actions, which is octagon barrels. The two long-barreled single actions pictured have 7 1/2” and 10” octagon barrels and both are fitted with two cylinders, .44-40 and .44 Special. They are beautifully blued and case hardened all of which is set off to perfection with one-piece mesquite stocks by Jim Martin, who is one of the top men in the country when it comes to single action tuning and single actions stocks. Mesquite is a very hard wood with beautiful grain patterns which literally burst forth in bright sunlight.

 

With the 7 1/2” Ultimate and the .44 Special cylinder, Lyman’s #429421 Keith bullet over 7.5 grains of Unique gives just over 1,000 fps and a one-inch group at twenty yards; switching to the .44-40 cylinder and using Oregon Trail’s 225 RNFP over 8.0 grains of Universal gives the same tight group at 940 fps. As might be expected with its longer sight radius, the 10” Ultimate puts the same .44 Special load in less than one-inch and clocks out at 1035 fps, while 7.5 grains of Power Pistol clocks out at 950 fps with groups just over one-half inch. Switching to the .44-40 cylinder and Oregon Trail’s 200 RNFP over 8.0 grains of Unique also gives excellent results with one-inch groups at 965 fps.

The final custom sixgun from AWA is as unique as it is possible to get. This "six-shooter" is known as the Lightning Bolt and is quite unconventional as it is built on a Colt Lightning-style slide action. Remember the Mare’s Leg of Steve McQueen as Josh Randall in the TV series Wanted Dead or Alive? McQueen used a cut down Model 92, actually an El Tigre, not a Winchester. AWA accomplishes the same thing with the pump action, which can actually be worked faster than a lever gun in this configuration. The Lightning Bolt is also available with a full line of options including fancy wood, checkering, and engraving.

 

R.G. (Bob) Baer: Bob Baer is not a professional gunsmith; he does turn out professional work, however it is simply for his own pleasure and he had been working with Rugers long before I met him some 20+ years ago. Many of the ideas he carried out again, for his own pleasure on his own sixguns, are now routinely used by many custom sixgunsmiths. Some of the most notable of his ideas showing up in many custom sixguns are light weight, rounded butts, and lanyard rings. The latter makes a whole lot of sense on an outdoorsman’s sixgun to prevent loss under any circumstances. Pictured are four of Bob’s .44 Specials, two with short barrels, one with a 5 1/2” and another with a 6 1/2” barrel and all have lanyard rings with two of them having slightly rounded grip frames.

Several years ago an Old Model Three Screw .357 Ruger Blackhawk of mine was turned over to Bob with instructions to simply build me a special gun, his choice of style and caliber. Since he already knew of my fondness for the .44 Special that is the direction he went. The front and rear edge of the grip frame are both tapered to make it more comfortable in the hand with no sharp edges to emphasize recoil. Tedd Adamovich of BluMagnum made the fancy walnut grip blanks, which Baer then expertly fitted to the bright polished aluminum grip frame. The aluminum ejector rod housing is also polished bright while the rest of this sixgun is finished in a very hard nickel plating. To aid in the project, gunsmith Keith DeHart expertly re-chambered the cylinder and furnished the 3 ¼” barrel. The total package is a very easy to pack 30 ounces.

Other special custom touches include a shortened base pin head, a thinned ejector rod head with an offset recess in the bottom of the ejector housing so the housing does not have to be removed to remove the base pin. The hammer spur has been slightly lowered, broadened, and checkered, the top strap has been tapered on both sides, and the front edges of the cylinder have been beveled. One of the really special custom touches is a very slight offset placed at the back edge of each chamber so that one may remove fired cartridges with a thumbnail if so desired. Of course the entire action has been smoothed.

Sixguns are very personal and to identify this as my very personal sixgun, special markings on this .44 Special include my initials, “JAT” on the front of the frame, and in front of the trigger guard on the bottom of the frame, we find  “RGB”, “01 SS SPL.” The RGB is for Robert G. Baer, and the SS is for Skeeter Skelton who inspired us all so many ways.

 

            Hamilton Bowen/Bowen Classic Arms: The first time I met Bowen he had a dandy little custom .44 Special with him. At the 1987 Shootists gathering I first fired this little five-gun built on a 4" Speed-Six with a new five shot cylinder and the original barrel re-bored by Cliff LaBounty. It shot very accurately and right to point of aim with factory .44 Specials and with its round butt, and fixed sights was a no-nonsense personal defense weapon. Of course the cylinder of the Speed-Six is too small to allow anything but standard low pressure .44 Special loads.      As an aside I believe Bowen was the first to offer a .41 Special and he built both a Security Six and GP-100 converted to five shot .41 Specials, which as its name implies is the .41 Magnum cut to Special length. The idea of the .41 Special was a 200 grain bullet at around 900 fps to be used as a personal defense weapon.

            Hamilton Bowen is not only a top gunsmith and a past president of the American Pistolsmith's Guild, he also is one of the handful of gunsmiths in the country who really understand single action sixguns. Pictured are four Three Screw Rugers, three Flat-Tops and one Old Model built by Bowen. The Old Model was transformed into a 7 1/2” .44 Special sixgun with a post front sight, polished grip frame with black micarta grips by Charles Able. Designed as a working sixgun, instead of a high polish blue, the balance of this .44 has a standard blue finish including the sides of the hammer.  Bowen performed all the things that make up the custom in custom sixguns, such as removing all excess cylinder play both side to side and endshake as well as smoothing out the action and tightening where necessary.

            One of the Flat-Top .357's sent to Bowen was fine mechanically but the finish had been abused and was pitted as a result. The choice was to either do major surgery in the form of much polishing and filing before bluing or take the easier and more practical route of a bead blast finish. The latter choice made a whole lot of sense to me and this fine little Packin' Pistol wears a real working finish. The XR3 grip frame used on this sixgun was bead blasted and nickel plated by a previous owner and this is a sixgun that will go in the holster when the going is likely to be anything but easy and is also a sixgun I can turn over to the grandkids and they don’t have to worry about being extra careful to protect the finish. The final pair of sixguns from Bowen are all blue 4 5/8” .44 Special sixguns wearing perfectly executed and fitted stag stocks again from Charles Able. At first glance they look like standard .357 Magnum 1950-ish Flat-Top Blackhawks but they are oh so Special.

            Throughout our look at the .44 Special we have mentioned Elmer Keith's #5SAA not only for its superb craftsmanship but also because it basically became the beginning of Keith's thirty-year celebration of the .44 Special which ended with the appearance of the .44 Magnum in late 1955.      There is only one #5SAA and it resides in the Keith Collection, however thanks to the creativity of Hamilton Bowen, the #5 is being produced again. Gun writer Brian Pearce commissioned Bowen to re-create the #5SAA a few years ago by starting with two in the white frames and cylinders from USFA. It took not only Hamilton Bowen but several other artisans as well to come up with a duplicate of the original #5. In addition to the work by Bowen, Dan Love replicated the engraving, Paul Persinger, the carved ivory stocks, and Doug Turnbull properly roll marked the barrel and finished the entire sixgun. Along with the fully engraved #5 Bowen also offers an everyday working gun version, a blued model with walnut stocks. Custom sixguns simply do not come any better than this.      

           

            David Clements/Clements Custom Guns: As mentioned earlier Third Generation Colt New Frontier barrels have the same thread pattern has Ruger Three Screw .357 Magnum Blackhawks so they are perfectly suited for conversions to .44 Special and .44-40. Colt did not make any 4 3/4” .44 Special New Frontiers so barrels in this length are not to be found, however the .44-40 was available as a 4 3/4” New Frontier and barrels can be found along with extra .357 Ruger or 9mm cylinders.  Both the New Frontier barrel and the extra cylinder along with an Old Model Blackhawk were used by David Clements for building a .44 Specials/.44-40 Convertible. David did the super job he is well known for with both the barrel and two cylinders expertly fitted and this sixgun was finished in high polish blue and then stocked in fancy walnut by Larry Caudill making it a prime candidate for the title of Perfect Packin’ Pistol.

            For something a little different David started with a 5 1/2” .44 Special New Frontier barrel and a 357 Old Model Blackhawk. The difference is found in the grip frame. For a short while David offered his version of the #5SAA grip frame for use on Rugers. One of these was fitted to the converted Ruger and Larry Caudill again did the stock work not only fitting a pair of beautiful walnut grips but also a second pair made of holly looking much like ivory. The whole package was finished in deep blue with a case hardened frames and hammer resulting in a most beautiful .44 Special and another prime candidate for Perfect Packin’ Pistol.

            David also specializes in .44 Special conversions on Smith & Wesson revolvers. Pictured is a Model 624 from Smith & Wesson which was already a .44 Special, however this one has been fitted with a 5” heavier .44 Magnum barrel from a Model 629. It is no easy task to fit the short-shanked Model 629 barrel to the shorter cylinder Model 624. David accomplished it beautifully. The second conversion shown is a nickel-plated 5” Model 27, which has been re-chambered to .44 Special with the original barrel re-bored. Whatever one wishes concerning the .44 Special David can carry it out in either single action or double action mode.

 

            Brian Cosby/Cosby Custom Gunsmithing: Brian Cosby is a do it all custom gunsmith who especially appreciates single action sixguns and leverguns. He can take some of the worst possibly abused old firearms and restore them to perfection. My old .44-40 Winchester 1873 was totally re-worked by Cosby and the barrel, with over 100 years of wear and black powder corrosion, was lined to bring in back to perfection. He also does a lot of custom work on leverguns including caliber conversions and takedown models. I've seen a pair of well worn .32-20 Colt Single Actions Brian was able to bring back by lining the barrels and totally refinishing the exterior in blue and case hardening resulting in two virtually worn out single actions being brought back from the grave to be used for another 100 years. It isn't always possible to find replacement barrels properly marked however by lining the original barrel and the markings are maintained with basically a new bore.

            The sixgun pictured was converted using a Colt New Frontier barrel, this time a 7 1/2” .44-40, and a Ruger Old Model .357 Blackhawk for building a .44-40 this time. The cylinder was re-chambered, action smoothed, tuned, and tightened, and the entire sixgun re-finished. The result is an easy handling, good shooting .44 WCF, and since the barrel dimensions of Colt New Frontier barrels for the .44 Special and .44-40 are the same, a second cylinder converted to .44 Special can someday be added to this sixgun.

 

            Ben Forkin/Forkin Custom Classics:  As we have said Ruger has never chambered any of their sixguns for the .44 Special even though the Flat-Top and the Old Model would have made grand sixguns in this excellent chambering. With the coming of the Colt Single Action-sized New Vaquero, offered only in .357 Magnum and .45 Colt, we now have another Ruger frame size perfect for the .44 Special. Custom  sixgunsmith Ben Forkin converted one of the first .357 New Vaqueros out of the factory to .44 Special and it was my good pleasure to be the first to shoot a .44 New Vaquero. Ben started his gunsmithing career working for Hamilton Bowen and that should tell everyone of the quality of his work. After leaving Bowen Classic Arms, Forkin opened up Forkin Arms in Montana.

            For this current project Ben started with a standard .357 Magnum New Vaquero, the factory cylinder has been re-chambered to .44 Special, a custom .44 barrel marked “Forkin Custom Classics” has been fitted, the side of the frame marked “Ruger .44 Spl. Cal.”, the action totally tuned and tightened, and for a classic look, this .44 Special has been fitted with a Belt Mountain #5 Keith-style base pin.

            Although the New Vaquero has a traditional look, the case coloring does not look anywhere as near as good as the case hardening found on the current USFA, Colt Single Action, or replica sixguns. So for this all-steel working revolver Forkin went with an all blue finish resulting in a most practical looking, and easy shooting, .44 Special sixgun. It has the look and feel of a pre-war single action mated up with the virtually indestructible, and safe, transfer bar action of New Model Rugers, and it shoots and shoots well with Oregon Trail 225 RNFP over 5.5 grains of WW452AA for 860 fps and five shots in 3/4” at 20 yards.

            Pictured is a semi-matched pair of custom .44 Special Rugers by Ben Forkin. The first one started with a like new Ruger .44 Magnum Blackhawk Flat-Top barrel removed so the Flat-Top could be made into .45 Colt. This .44 barrel, a Ruger Old Model .357 Blackhawk and an XR3 grip frame were all used by Ben for the building of a Packin’ Pistol. The cylinder was re-chambered to .44 Special, the 6 1/2” barrel was cut to 5 1/2” and installed along with a Forkin Arms post front sight and a Hamilton Bowen rear sight. The grip frame was re-anodized and fitted with black eagle walnut stocks, a Belt Mountain #5 base pin was installed, and the mainframe and hammer were case hardened with the balance of the sixgun finished in high polish blue.

            The second  Forkin .44 Special is almost the same except for two things. This time the barrel is a 5 1/2” Colt New Frontier .44 Special barrel fitted along with a Colt ejector rod housing and ejector. The Colt ejector housing and ejector rod work better with the Colt New Frontier barrel and these parts are available from Brownells. The grip frame on this .44 has also been re-anodized, however the grips are beautifully fashioned extra  fancy walnut by BluMagnum. Both of these 5 1/2” Rugers have, of course, been totally tuned and smoothed with virtually all endshake and cylinder movement removed.

            A prime candidate for a .44 Special conversions is Ruger’s 50th Anniversary Model .357 Magnum. Even though it has the New Model lock work it is the same size as the original Blackhawk of 1955 and also has the same grip shape and size. When friend Fermin Garza of that Corpus Christie Texas Police Department gave me a 7 1/2” New Frontier .44 Special barrel it did not take long for me to send it to Ben along with one of the 50th Anniversary Rugers. It will be finished the same as the two 5 1/2” .44 Special Rugers, however the barrel length will be kept at 7 1/2”; Ben is working on this one even as this is written. Somehow I never lose my enthusiasm for a .44 Specials in general, and conversions in particular, so I eagerly await the return of this new project.      

 

            John Gallagher: Every gunsmith undertaking a conversion projects has his own special flair for creating a work of art. Some of these touches include specially shaped hammers, heavy barrels, special sights, Colt-style grip frames, and a long list of other custom features. With a little study it becomes possible to identify a custom sixgun by its artist even without a signature. Such is the Gallagher .44 Special pictured.     John’s basic platform is a Ruger Old Model .357 Black Hawk. However, instead of re-chambering the existing cylinder Gallagher has chosen to instead fabricate a slightly larger cylinder completely occupying the frame window and enclosing the cartridge heads.  A new 4” .44 barrel is fitted along with a cut down steel ejector rod housing and matching ejector rod, and a button head cylinder base pin allows for maximum travel of the ejector rod when removing empty cases.

            The rear sight is a Bowen adjustable, the front sight is a beautifully shaped, one-piece, sloping, serrated blade on a ramp, and the hammer is from an Old Model Super Blackhawk., the front of the frame of the .44 Special has been stepped down like the early Croft sixguns, and the recoil shield and loading gate have been dished out and reshaped.  Even though weight is removed from the front of the frame, recoil shield, and loading gate, it is put back in the form of the  Ruger Old Army grip frame, making this an all steel gun, and one which has been fitted with perfectly shaped, at least for my hand, stocks of fancy walnut. Total weight on this high up on the list of Perfect Packin’ Pistols is 36 ounces and the trigger pull is set at 2 1/2 pounds. This .44 Special is on loan for testing from John Gallagher; he may never see it again! 

            John Gallagher is a trusting soul so I have a second .44 Special conversion on loan. This time the starting platform is one of Ruger’s 50th Anniversary Models. The barrel is only slightly shorter at 3 7/8”, the Flat-Top frame has been rounded as have the corners of the rear sight removing all sharp edges.  The front sight is a serrated sloping blade on a ramp with the top rounded at the front to protect any leather holster being used.  The hammer is from a Bisley Model, and the base pin, as on the Old Model conversion, has a very small button head to allow the ejector rod to move as far backwards as possible. The stocks on this one were left as the factory checkered rubber black eagle grips. Both .44 Specials have been tightened, tuned and smoothed, and make two very compact and easy to pack single action sixguns.

 

            Bill Grover/Texas Longhorn Arms: Grover had been instrumental, along with Bob Baer, in building the Skeeter Gun as they call it, the .44 Special sixgun that Skeeter Skelton, Baer, and John Wootters had planned. Its serial number is SS1 and as related earlier John Wootters now has this sixgun. I now have SS4. The second Skeeter Gun, SS2 in the series, is now in Bart Skelton's hands, Bob Baer has SS3, Bill Grover, who has now gone Home had SS5, friend and fellow writer Terry Murbach has SS6, and Sheriff Jim Wilson also a good friend and fellow writer has the last gun SS7. The Shootists held a special seven-gun salute and memorial service to Skeeter in 1992 and there will be no more .44 Specials built in this series.

            Although all seven of us have SS sixguns they are all quite different revealing the individual tastes of the owners. My particular SS4 started life as a .357 Magnum Ruger Flat-Top Blackhawk from the 1950s that had been re-blued by Ruger. Grover and I worked out this project out together. The cylinder was re-chambered to .44 Special tightly to allow the use of .429 inch diameter bullets but kept to minimum dimensions for long case life, barrel/cylinder gap was set at .0025 inches, the Ruger XR3 grip frame and steel ejector housing were not discarded but put back for use on the other .44 Special Grover was building. In their place Grover fitted steel Colt parts, a Colt backstrap and trigger guard and a Colt ejector rod housing along with a Bullseye ejector rod head.

            With the installation of the Colt backstrap and trigger guard, it was necessary to machine a special hanger to accept the Ruger mainspring and strut and Grover also replaced the trigger return spring with a new coil spring. The stocks are now heart-stopping, creamy one-piece ivories by Tedd Adamovich of BluMagnum. The front sight is a TLA Number Five front sight, bold, flat, and black and a Number Five base pin with a large easy to grasp head was also installed. The finish is high polish blue and the gun is marked "SKEETER SKELTON .44 SPECIAL" on the left side of the barrel and "TEXAS LONGHORN ARMS INC, RICHMOND TEXAS" on the top strap. The serial number, SS4, is marked in the same three places as the original Colts.      

The second sixgun .44 Special style from Grover was built with a 7 1/2” barrel using a 10” Ruger Super Blackhawk barrel. The XR3 grip frame of SS4 now resides on this sixgun along with rosewood stocks by Charles Able. This long-range sixgun to compliment the SS4 packin' pistol also wears a Number Five front sight and a Number Five base pin. The cylinder has also been beveled with the barrel/cylinder gap set at .0025 inches and the top of the frame reads "TEXAS LONGHORN ARMS, INC. RICHMOND TEXAS" and the left side of this barrel is marked "44 SPECIAL". Serial number is JT1 and it is also marked in three places as with the SS4 sixgun. Both of these .44 Special sixguns shoot my everyday working load of 7.5 grains and a 250 grain Keith bullet as well as any sixgun made. There will be no more sixguns from Bill Grover as he died of complications from an operation and diabetes in 2004.

 

            Andy Horvath: More than 20 years ago as I leafed through the gun trade paper, a small 1” x 2” add in the top corner immediately caught my eye. It simply read: .44 Special Conversions and I contacted Andy Horvath. He knew of me through my writings and I found a kindred spirit who also had enjoyed the sixgun articles of Elmer Keith and Skeeter Skelton. His specialty is custom sixguns and I can attest to the fact that he does excellent work and his re-bluing is especially beautiful.

            At the time I told Andy I would like a real special .44 Special, a slightly  round-butted, 4” barreled .44 built on a Ruger .357 Three Screw Blackhawk.; a real .44 Special Packin' Pistol. Andy also had a soft spot in his heart, soul, and spirit for a good .44 Special and related that he had converted both Smith & Wesson and Ruger sixguns to .44 Special and also an old Winchester '92 that he had bought for parts that turned out to be so good internally that he lined the barrel to .44 Special. Andy said he could round the butt of the .357 Blackhawk and cut the barrel and ejector rod housing to 4” with no problem. So off went a like new 6 1/2” Three Screw Blackhawk. I also sent a 7 1/2” Super Blackhawk barrel, and some special items I had been saving for just such a project. From my parts box, I pulled my last Ruger blued steel ejector rod housing and my last 1960s wide Super Blackhawk hammer. I also sent a pair of Rosewood Ruger grips that I had picked up somewhere, I believe when Ruger had an over-run of .22 Single-Six Colorado Centennial stocks a number of years earlier. Andy came up with a beauty of a Special sixgun.

The bluing is deep and perfect and Andy had polished the standard aluminum grip frame and round-butted it so it slipped into my hand perfectly. The grips were also rounded and tapered just right. Most single action grips are tapered the reverse of what they should be namely big at the bottom and small at the top. Horvath does it right. In addition, Horvath had jeweled the sides of the hammer and trigger and made a cylinder pin with a flat face to allow maximum ejector rod travel to fully extract empties.     This round-butted Li’l Ruger, as these conversions have come to be named, re-defined the shooting of relatively small big bore single action sixguns. The simple act of round butting the grip frame changed the perceived recoil significantly and the heaviest loads could be shot in relative comfort. The 4” barrrel also make it particularly fast out of a properly designed holster, and no gun is any faster for the first shot than a single action sixgun.

            Just as Hamilton Bowen takes us back into sixgun history with the re-creation of Elmer Keith's #5SAA, Andy Horvath does the same thing with the Fitz Special as we saw in Chapter 14. The Fitz is normally performed on the Colt New Service, however it can also be done on a Smith & Wesson or Andy can convert any N-frame Smith to .44 Special. Recently Andy combined a Ruger and Smith & Wesson to come up with a unique .44 Special conversion. Using an S&W Model 29 .44 Magnum barrel with a full-length rib, Andy cut it to 5 1/2”, removed the enclosed ejector rod housing and re-contoured it single action style, beautifully blended in an undercut post front sight on a ramp base, and shaped and scalloped the leading edges of the Flat-Top frame to mate perfectly with the ribbed barrel.

            The ejector rod head is full-size and checkered to keep the finger from slipping off when ejecting spent cases, the base pin is #5 style, and the hammer is an absolute work of art. Looking from the top we see an elongated checkered oval and from the side a very narrow and perfectly contoured shape blending beautifully with the rest of the sixgun. The finish is high polished bright blue matched up with a case hardened mainframe and hammer. Originally this creation had a round butted, but square backed Super Blackhawk grip frame with beautiful rosewood stocks, however my hand just does not mate up well the Super Blackhawk grip frame as for me it has both the wrong angle and the square backed trigger guard nails my highly abused knuckle with every shot. So to shoot this .44 Special I installed a stainless-steel Old Army Grip frame fitted with a pair of circassian walnut stocks by Roy Fishpaw.

            With its heavy ribbed barrel, steel ejector rod housing, and stainless-steel grip frame, this Ruger .44 Special is a little heavier than most built on Three Screw Rugers, however this is an excellent asset when shooting as it handles oh so gently and shoots extremely well. Oregon Trail’s 240 grain SWC over 8.0 grains of Hodgdon’s  Universal clocks out at 1021fps and puts five shots in ¾” at 20 yards. There's no doubt the gun and the load shoot a whole lot better than I can.

           

Gary Reeder/Reeder Custom Guns: Gary Reeder, he of the truly big bore, high power, heavy recoiling sixguns, also likes the easy shooting Specials. Since he has to test-fire every sixgun he produces, he finds the .44 Special at the top of the Enjoyable Shooting list, and with my beat up wrists they are also definitely favorites of mine. Reeder likes them so well, he not only offers conversions on customer’s Old Model .357 Rugers, he is also building truly custom sixguns from scratch. Reeder starts with his own mainframes, which he uses as the basic platform for his custom sixguns.        

            In 1957 I sat on the end of my bed with a relatively new Ruger .357 Blackhawk in one hand and a well used 1st Generation Colt Single Action in the other and said “Why?”  The Why was prompted by the fact either a bolt spring or hand spring, I cannot remember which at this late date, in the Colt had broken again, while the Ruger with its coil springs was virtually indestructible. Why couldn’t Colt build a Single Action with coil springs? Prior to World War II several experimenters and sixgunsmiths had improved the old Single Action Army with custom springs. Why didn’t the factory do it? Perhaps someday, just perhaps, someone would make a Single Action Army with Ruger lock work. It took a long time, nearly 50 years, however someday has finally arrived thanks to Gary Reeder. His Arizona Classic blends Three Screw Ruger-style lock work and the look and feel of the Single Action Army.

The stainless steel Arizona Classic is built on Reeder's own small frame, which he characterizes as "sort of a half breed between the 1st Generation Colt and the early 1st generation Ruger Three Screw. It's a small frame, not meant for the big Magnums.  Internal parts are early Three-Screw Ruger for strength with coil springs and such.” So finally we have a sixgun with the best features of early Colt Single Actions and Ruger Blackhawks, however, we are living in the 21st century, which means the Arizona Classic has a transfer bar safety, however it operates with the standard half cock position to rotate the cylinder for loading and unloading. In the Arizona Classic my load assembled with Lyman’s #431244 Thompson gas check designed bullet over 7.5 grains of Unique breaks 1,000 fps and puts five shots in one-inch. This is an excellent everyday working load. Oregon Trail’s 240 grain SWC over 5.0 grains of Bullseye is an easy shooting 825 fps and stays under one-inch.

            One of the most attractive .44 Special conversions to be found is Gary's El Diablo. This conversion requires a customer supplied Old Model .357 Blackhawk.  A new cylinder in .44 Special is matched up with a premium quality 3 1/2” barrel with a Deep Dish muzzle crown and a custom MaxiThroat. The barrel/cylinder gap in set at minimum clearance and an interchangeable front sight ramp base is installed with a gold bead front sight matched up with a V-notch adjustable rear sight.  Instead of the aluminum alloy grip frame, Gary uses a steel grip frame in the slightly round-butted Gunfighter Grip style. The entire sixgun is highly polished, decorated with scroll engraving, finished in Black Chromex and fitted with Corian ivory grips.

            Gary also offers the .44 Special Wichita Classic, starting with a Flat-Top or an Old Model Blackhawk. It is re-barreled to the length of choice, fitted with a new .44 Special cylinder, steel ejector rod housing, all steel grip frame with Gunfighter grips of ivory micarta with other grips also available. A new adjustable rear sight is fitted along with an interchangeable blade front sight on a ramp base. The action is fully tuned, the entire gun, except for the stainless-steel screws, is finished in Black Chromex, the sides of the mainframe are embellished with engraving as is the cylinder and barrel. The left side of the mainframe, as on the El Diablo, is marked in script with "44 Special" resulting in a rugged, reliable sixgun and a fitting home for the .44 Special.

            Several years ago at a local gun show I found a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum Highway Patrolman which had been converted to .44 Special and fitted with a 4” 1950 Target barrel. The barrel was bright blue and the rest of the gun was the standard matte finished Model 28. Hamilton Bowen finished the entire gun to a matching matte finish and it is one of the finest everyday packet sixguns possible. I was very leery of it at first because of its low $200 price tag, however it has turned out to be an exceptional shooter.

Another custom .44 Special double action worthy of note is one built by gunsmith and exhibition shooter Bill Oglesby. Starting with a Taurus Model 431 five-shot .44 Special, Oglesby tuned the action, de-horned the hammer, added high visibility sights, and polished the stainless-steel finish in contrasting bright and matte areas, and the result is another very easy packing and easy to shoot .44 Special.  

            We’ve seen a lot of .44 Specials and .44-40s, both custom and factory produced. It is now time to switch to a long look at the .44 Special’s younger and more powerful offspring, the .44 Magnum.          

20-1) The threads on Colt 3rd Generation New Frontier barrels match up with

Ruger frames. Brian Cosby created this “New Frontier Ruger”

.44-40 using a 7 1/2” Colt barrel.

 

 

20-2, 20-4, and 20-5) Engraver Mike Dubber inscribed the custom finishing

touches to the Brian Cosby Ruger .44-40.

 

 

20-3) The Brian Cosby .357 to .44-40 conversion nicely finished in blue with a

polished grip frame is basically the same size as a Colt New Frontier with a

much stronger action.

 

 

 

20-6) With his 1972 article in Shooting Times, Skeeter Skelton inspired Taffin

to have this first .44 Special built on a Ruger .357 Magnum Three-Screw Blackhawk.

 

 

20-7) Two great .44 Magnum sixguns for the outdoors are shown, a 5 1/2”

Super Blackhawk fitted with Bisley grip frame, hammer, and trigger by David Clements;

and Bear Buster II, a Ruger Flat-Top Blackhawk with the barrel shortened to 4 5/8”.

 

 

20-8) Beautiful Bowens: Three Special sixguns with three different finishes

available from Hamilton Bowen, matte blue, polished blue, and blue with case

hardened frame and hammer.

 

 

20-9 and 20-10) David Clements used a Colt 3rd Generation 4 3/4” New Frontier

barrel and a .357 Ruger Convertible to build this Special .44 with cylinders

chambered in .44 Special and .44-40; beautiful walnut stocks are by Larry Caudill.

 

 

 

20-11 & 20-12) This Ruger .44-40 conversion by Brian Cosby wears a 7 1/2”

Colt New Frontier barrel; note the Belt Mountain #5 base pin.

 

 

20-13) Fabulous Forkins: Two .44 Special conversions on Ruger Old Model

.357 Blackhawks; top sixgun uses a .44 Ruger Flat-Top barrel with a Forkin

front sight, while the bottom .44 is fitted with a Colt New Frontier .44 Special barrel.

 

 

 

20-14) Custom Ruger conversions are every bit as beautiful, maybe even more so,

than the original Colts; color case hardening on the frame and hammer of this

Ben Forkin .44 Special is by Doug Turnbull.

 

 

20-15) Great Guns by Gallagher: top gun is built on a Ruger 50th Anniversary

.357 Flat-Top, while the bottom gun is on a Ruger Old Model Blackhawk frame;

both guns feature short barrels for easy packing.

 

 

 

20-16) Five great New Frontier-style custom Blackhawks: on the left are two

.44 Specials by Hamilton Bowen and Bill Grover and a .44-40 by Brian Cosby;

sixguns on the right are a .45 Colt by Jim Stroh and a .38-40 by Larry Crow.

 

(20-17 to 20-18)     A custom sixgun should be really special and personal;

noticed the engraved barrel on this Larry Crow custom Ruger.

 

 

 

20-20) Two more easy packing .44s: the top sixgun is a lightweight .44 Special

by Bob Baer, while the bottom Bisley Model .44-40 has been customized by

Milt Morrison including a bull barrel and brass QPR grip frame with black micarta stocks.

 

 

 

20-21 & 20-22) Handsome Horvaths: Two .44 Specials exhibit the talents of sixgunsmith

Andy Horvath: top gun uses a Smith & Wesson heavy 5 1/2” .44 barrel,

a custom hammer, and case hardened frame while the bottom gun, the first of

many Li’l Guns by Andy, has a round butt and 4” barrel.

Stocks and engraving by BluMagnum.

 

 

 

20-23) The Ruger .44-40 Vaquero is worthy of customizing. Stainless-steel sixgun

has had the barrel shortened, action tuned, and a grip frame ever so slightly

rounded by Dave Lauck; while the bottom Vaquero features a shortened barrel,

tuned action, Bisley hammer, and fitted QPR grip frame all by David Clements.

 

 

 

20-24) Texan Bob Baer was a friend of Skeeter Skelton's and also has the same

feeling for .44 Specials as did Skeeter. These three custom Ruger's feature

abbreviated grip frames and lanyard loops.

 

 

 

20-25) Two more lightweight .44 Specials built by Bob Baer on Old Model .357

Blackhawks; they are most easy to carry and also very secure with the attached lanyard loops.

 

 

 

20-26) Brian Pearce commissioned this re-creation of Elmer Keith’s #5SAA

using a USFA Flat-Top frame with the work done by Hamilton Bowen.

 

 

 

20-27) A second version of Elmer Keith's #5SAA is an everyday working gun

finished in blue and case colors and fitted with walnut stocks.

 

 

 

20-28) Four versions of Elmer Keith's #5SAA are pictured from top left, TLA’s

Number Five Improved .44 Magnum, Gary Reeder’s #5 Improved .44 Special,

and a pair of duplicates of the #5SAA in blue and case colored as well as fully

engraved and ivory stocked by Hamilton Bowen.

 

 

20-29) In the 1980s Pin Guns were quite popular for knocking bowling pins

off the table. Most of them are in .38 Special, however this one is a .44 Special

on a Smith & Wesson Model 24-3 built by Dick Linderer.

 

 

20-31) David Clements fitted an S&W Model 629 .44 Magnum barrel to this

Model 624 in .44 Special to add little more weight out front; grips are BluMagnum maple.

Photo courtesy of Gary Godwin.

 

 

 

20-32) Sixguns don't get much more beautiful than this! Marsh Dozier’s .44

Special Ruger by Hamilton Bowen.

 

 

 

20-33) This Bowen .44 Special not only looks beautiful it shoots the same way.

Photo courtesy of Marsh Dozier.

 

 

 

20-34) Custom .44 Specials with 7 1/2” barrels by Bill Grover and Hamilton

Bowen shoot both medium and heavy .44 Special loads well.

 

 

20-35) This Ben Forkin .44 Special Ruger shoots well with NEI’s 260 grain

Keith Bullet loaded at both medium and heavy levels.

 

 

 

20-36) Typical loads fired with 5 1/2” custom .44 Specials by Andy Horvath and Ben Forkin.

 

 

 

20-37) A good sixgun such as Taffin's first .44 Special Ruger, a good bullet,

NEI’s 260 Keith, and Skeeter's load all came together to produce this excellent group.

 

 

 

20-38) David Clements custom .44 Special with Skeeter’s load keep them all in the black.

 

 

 

20-39) The latest custom .44 Special offered by Gary Reeder is the short-barreled

El Diablo with a Gunfighter grip.

 

 

20-41) Jim Stroh shortened the barrel to 5” and tuned this Model 629 stainless-steel

.44 Magnum to perfection.

 

 

 

20-42) Hamilton Bowen in the 1980s with one of its first .44 Special conversions.

 

 

20-44) John Gallagher's little .44 Special built on the Ruger .357 Blackhawk

50th Anniversary Model shoots the Sierra 180 JHCs exceptionally well.

 

 

20-46) Work in progress: Larry Caudill crafted grips of holly and fancy walnut

on a David Clements #5 grip frame.

 

 

20-47) It looks like Elmer Keith’s #5SAA; it is, in fact Hamilton Bowen’s re-creation.

 

 

 

20-48) Hamilton Bowen's re-creation of Elmer Keith’s #5SAA is correct

down to the front sight.

 

 

20-49) This custom Ultimate from AWA/USA features a 10” octagon barrel

and two cylinders in .44-40 and .44 Special; one-piece mesquite grips are by Jim Martin.

 

 

 

20-50) This is about as good as it gets with a .44 Special! AWA’s Ultimate using

Black Hills factory load, that NEI 260 Keith over 7.5 grains of Unique, and the

 Lyman #429421 over 7.5 grains of Power Pistol. 

 

 

           

20-51) This beautifully customized Ruger .44 Special conversion by David Clements

features a case hardened frame and Bisley-style hammer, #5 grip frame,

Belt Mountain #5 base pin, Colt New Frontier barrel, and custom stocks of

fancy walnut and holly by Larry Caudill.

 

Chapter 19   Chapter 21