The Croft Connection
By John Taffin
Four decades ago Newton Minow called television the vast wasteland. At that time we had three or four networks; now we have cable and satellite dishes and hundreds of channels to choose from, however very little has changed. The vast has just become more vast. There are a few bright examples in the darkness with the History Channel being one of the best. Much of the history related refers to firearms and I especially enjoy seeing the guns of the famous and infamous as well as re-enactments such as then Lt. George Patton’s gunfight with the revolutionaries in 1917 Mexico.
There are many museums housing famous firearms with two of my favorites being the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody Wyoming and the Texas Ranger Museum in Waco Texas. My spirit definitely went back in time as I looked at Theodore Roosevelt’s Big Medicine in Cody and the sixguns and semi-automatics of many famous Texas Rangers in Waco. I was also accorded the pleasure of being invited to the late Col. Rex Applegate’s private museum in which resided firearms of many famous people such as Ad Topperwein, Gus Peret, John Henry Fitzgerald, Ed McGivern, Col. Doug Wesson, Bill Jordan, Charles Askins, and Elmer Keith.
Most museums understandably have their firearms displays under glass, however I was allowed to handle all the sixguns in Col. Applegate’s Museum and have also handled all of Elmer Keith’s sixguns. A further pleasure was afforded when I was allowed to shoot a pair of .44 Special Colt Single Actions once belonging to Keith and write them up in the March/April 1997 issue of American Handgunner. This week I held another piece of history in my hand and was actually allowed to shoot it also.
Enter Harold Croft
In the late 1920s, Harold Croft of Pennsylvania packed a suitcase full of sixguns and took the train all the way across the country to Elmer Keith’s small ranch in Durkee Oregon. At the time Croft was having lightweight pocket pistols built on Single Action and Bisley platforms while Keith was more interested in full-sized single actions for long-range shooting and everyday packing. Croft’s ideas for perfect sixguns had been turned into reality by gunsmiths Sedgley and Houchins, with the former doing all the frame work and the latter doing sights, stocks, and action work. Croft took four Featherweight .45 Colts, with numbers M1 and M3 on Single Action frames while M2 and M4 started out as Bisley models. To produce the Featherweights, the recoil shield was hollowed out, the ejector rod was removed, the frame narrowed down in front of the trigger guard, and the loading gate hollowed out. The frames were also flat-topped and fitted with adjustable sights. All of the Croft Featherweights weighed between 30 and 32 ounces and were written up in the American Rifleman in 1928.
One year after the Croft visit Keith unveiled his idea of the perfect sixgun in an article entitled The Last Word in the American Rifleman in April 1929. He incorporated many of Croft's ideas including the flat-topped frame, adjustable sights, and the modified grip frame. Gunsmithing work on this new sixgun was performed by Sedgley, Houchins and J.D.O’Meara with Keith calling his new sixgun the #5 SAA as it had been patterned after Croft's numbers M1 to M4. When Croft visited Keith all his sixguns, numbers M1 toM4, were .45s, while Keith's #5 was a .44 Special
A Reader Connects
Earlier this year I made contact with a reader who had a custom sixgun that had been in his family for about 30 years. He mentioned Sedgley and Croft. It turned out to be Croft’s M1. I had earlier seen and handled the M2 and both share several things in common. Both sixguns have been converted from .45 Colt to Keith’s special caliber, the .44 Special. Both guns are also dated the same. On the left side of the frame we find “May 13 1925” and on the right side is “April 5 1927.” I'm guessing the newer date on the sixguns reflects the visit to Keith or possibly their conversion to .44 Special, while the older date is the original completion date.
Keith’s #5SAA has the grip frame that is now known as the Number Five. This idea of combining a Bisley back strap with a Single Action Army trigger guard was originated by Harold Croft, slightly modified by Keith, and is found on the Texas Longhorn Arms Improved Number Five, which is, unfortunately, no longer in production. Neither the Colt Bisley or Ruger Bisley grip frames are the same as the #5, however gunsmith David Clements is now duplicating the #5 grip frame for Ruger single actions.
The reader contacting me about Croft’s M1 also sent me many excellent photographs. In addition to being changed from .45 Colt to .44 Special by Harold Croft after his visit to Elmer Keith, M1 has also had a grip change made either by Croft or some subsequent owner. The wooden grip panels have been replaced by checkered ivory, which shows much aging cracks and color mellowing. Removing those grip panels we find whoever made these stocks had practiced checkering on one of the insides of the panels and the price is also still written on the inside of one of these grips. The figure 7.25 should also help to date them.
In addition to all the great photographs provided by the current owner, Sam Reed, I also had a very nice surprise earlier this month as he informed me arrangements had been made with several of his friends to take a weeklong float trip down the Salmon River, and, if it would work into my schedule, he would like to stop and see me and bring M1 along. The scheduling was perfect. I picked him up the airport, stored M1 securely in the gun safe while he was gone, and then last Monday we went shooting together.
I don't know if it's because of the historical connection to both Elmer Keith and Harold Croft, or to the beautiful craftsmanship of M1, or both, but that .44 Special felt awfully special in my hand! We shot it on paper; we busted rocks at 50 yards; and we shot it long-range out to 250 yards. It was and is a beautifully balanced, beautifully shooting sixgun. It was one of the most pleasant mornings I have ever spent shooting.
Many of the ideas of Harold Croft and Elmer Keith have been incorporated into single action sixguns by manufacturers as well as custom gunsmiths over the past seven decades, however nothing beats shooting the original. I felt as if Croft and Keith were smiling while we were shooting. Along with the M1 .44 Special, we also took along a 6 1/2” S&W Model 1950 Target and a Texas Longhorn Arms West Texas Flat-Top Target also chambered in .44 Special. It may be a heavily overworked phrase, however it really doesn’t get any better than this. That is until someone contacts me about M3 and M4.