CUSTOM .44 SPECIAL SINGLE ACTIONS
Like so many other teenagers of the 1950's that were budding sixgunners my first sixgun was the relatively new Ruger Single-Six .22 patterned after the late but great Colt Single Action Army. Colt had dropped production in 1941 with the outbreak of World War Two and did not resume production after the war. This was unfortunate for Colt as the coming of T.V. and a whole new generation of viewers for Grade B Westerns from the 1930's and 1940's resulted in a demand for single action sixguns.
Ruger stepped in with a most sensible answer, a Single Action, a Single-Six that is, scaled down and chambered for the .22 but with a full-sized grip frame. After my initial purchase of the Single-Six, I still remember those wonderful Saturday afternoons shooting the .22 with my friends, single actions came in rapid succession. A pre-World War One .38-40 x 4 3/4", a Ruger .357 Blackhawk x 4 5/8", a Ruger .44 Magnum Blackhawk x 6 1/2". By now Colt had re-tooled and I had to have one of the first of the `new' Colt Single Actions, a .45 Colt with a seven and one-half inch barrel. Every penny I made seemingly went for Single Actions.
Something was about to happen that was to change my direction slightly. First I got married. Then a copy of SIXGUNS BY KEITH was acquired and my wife gave me a Smith & Wesson 1950 Target .44 Special for our first Christmas together. I don't believe in coincidence so I must believe this was meant to be. SIXGUNS was full of the joy of sixgunnin' with the .44 Special as it had been published one year before the advent of the .44 Magnum. Even though the .44 Magnum had been out for a number of years by the time I got my copy of Keith's book, my spirit was grabbed by the .44 Special. My wife could have given me a .45 Colt or .44 Magnum for Christmas but at $80 the .44 Special was much less than the $125 Colt in .45 chambering or the $140 Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum. She made the least expensive choice which turned out to be the wisest choice and I am convinced it surely was meant to be.
That began a long love affair with the .44 Special that continues to this day, a time when none of the major American manufacturers offers a full-sized .44 Special sixgun. Gone are 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.
Forty-four Special sixguns may not be offered by Colt, Ruger or Smith & Wesson but they are easy to acquire via the custom route. 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 that 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 1970's. 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 rechambered the cylinder to .44 Special and relined the original barrel. The lining would have worked fine but I believe he used a section of .444 Marlin barrel 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 feet per second was used and I did not build this gun up to shoot only Magnum-type loads.
The barrel was discarded and replaced with a four and five-eighth's inch tube stolen from my .44 Blackhawk which made it shoot fine and the whole gun was then finished in bright blue and fitted with ivory grips. Now this .44 Special wears a mouth-watering pair of Circassian walnut stocks by Roy Fishpaw. A stainless steel grip frame as found on the Ruger Old Army has also been added to give the Special Forty-four a little more weight. Several years ago while Bob Munden was in town doing his Fast Draw show he took the time to do an action job on this .44 Special and it now is super smooooth and slick due to his spring, stone and file work. Munden is a real genius when it comes to slickin' up single actions be they Colts, Rugers, or replicas.
That .44 Special Ruger was to be my favorite for a number of years at least until I met Andy Horvath. I saw his ad simply labeled ".44 SPECIAL CONVERSIONS" and contacted Diagonal Rd. Gun Shop. In talking with Horvath I soon learned that this was a man who loved sixguns in general and particularly single action .44 Specials.
Wanting a very special .44 Special, Horvath was asked if he could do a round-butted, four-inch barreled .44 built on a Ruger .357 Three Screw Blackhawk. A real .44 Special packin' pistol. The answer came back affirmative and off went a like new six and one-half inch .357 Three Screw Blackhawk, a seven and one-half inch 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 1960's wide Super Blackhawk hammer. For grips I sent a pair of Rosewood Ruger grips that were from an over-run of .22 Single-Six Colorado Centennial stocks in the 1970's.
The .44 Special Ruger is a superb little Ruger. The bluing is deep and matches well with the round butted stocks. Horvath had polished the standard aluminum grip frame and round-butted it so it slipped into my hand perfectly. Horvath also 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. At the present time my Horvath L'il Ruger has been engraved by grip-maker Tedd Adamovich and wears the standard grip frame and ivory grips from my original .44 Special Ruger. My passion for .44 Specials on Ruger .357's had been so inflamed my these two fine .44's that I began squirreling away both Flat-Top and Old Model, or Three Screw, Blackhawk .357's for conversion to .44 Special at a future time. Old Model and the original Flat-Top Blackhawks are built on a smaller frame than the .357 New Model Blackhawks available since 1973. The latter, as all Blackhawks, are now all built on the Super Blackhawk .44 frame size.
Ten years ago I saw a very special .44 Special on a Ruger Old Model. 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. The gun was showed to me by Bart Skelton and it had been commissioned by his dad Skeeter before he died and now belonged to gunwriter John Wootters. That sixgun made my heart pound even further for other .44 Specials and so over the past several years, six .357 Magnum Rugers have been sent off to two top gunsmiths for conversion to .44 Special. 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. Apparently Bowen's fire has also been lit by the bug as he began experimenting with Old Model Rugers himself and I had the pleasure of shooting his latest creation, a fixed-sighted .32-20 on the Old Model frame. A sweet shootin' and handlin' sixgun to be sure.
Six nearly identical Rugers went off to these master 'smiths but they would all take a different turn except for the two destined to be a matched pair. We look at the sixguns from Bill Grover first with the understanding that Grover no longer accepts custom work at this time.
Grover had been instrumental, along with Bob Baer, in building the Skeeter Gun as they call it, the .44 Special sixgun that Skeeter Skelton had commissioned. Its serial number is SS1. 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 has 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 1950's. Lest any collectors out there take me to task, it was not a collector's item and had been re-blued at the factory. None of the other .357 Blackhawks that were used for conversions to .44 Special were anywhere near the collectors item status either.
Grover and I put our heads together on this one so a double influence can be seen. The cylinder has been re-chamberd 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 along with a Bullseye headed ejector rod.
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. Grover says he made the one-piece walnut stocks "...to the likeness of Taffin. Thin, gives better control and fast handling, they make the gun point like your finger plus gives the gun better looks. Not only do you want your sixshooter to shoot good but look good also." Amen to that Brother Bill!
For sighting equipment, Grover installed a Number Five front sight, bold, flat, and black and a Number Five base pin with a large easy to grasp head was also installed. Now it was time for Grover to turn the gun over to the man that does the final polishing and bluing and Robert Luna did the match polishing to a mirror finish resulting in a very beautiful sixgun to say the least. Grover trained Luna himself and holds him in high esteem as one of the best in the business today. I agree wholeheartedly.
The front of the cylinder was beveled as on the old Colt Single Action Armies and the gun was engraved by Rod Ford to read "SKEETER SKELTON .44 SPECIAL" on the left side of the barrel and "TEXAS LONGHORN ARMS INC, RICHMOND TEXAS" on the top of the topstrap. Serial number is marked S.S.4 in the same three places as the original Colts. Namely on the front bottom of the backstrap, in the front of the trigger guard and on the frame in front of the trigger guard screw.
Grover is justly proud of his work and thinks this is one of the finest sixguns in existence and I again wholeheartedly agree. I expect to enjoy it the rest of my life and then pass it on to one of my grandsons. This is truly a classic single action. It now wears mouth-watering one-piece ivory stocks by BluMagnum.
The second sixgun .44 Special style from Grover was built with a seven and one-half inch barrel using a ten-inch 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 again Robert Luna has done his polishing and bluing magic.
The top of the frame reads "TEXAS LONGHORN ARMS, INC. RICHMOND TEXAS" and the left side of the 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 under a 240 grain Bull-X bullet superbly. Bull-X not only makes fine bullets, they are also now in the leather business and my seven and one-half inch Grover .44 Special now rides in one of their Chaparral rigs. This is an 1880's style rig and one of the best I have seen. It fits my .44 perfectly, the workmanship is superb, and the design is excellent.
Hamilton Bowen is well known to the readers as we have show-cased his work numerous times. He is not only a top gunsmith and president of the American Pistolsmith's Guild, he also is one of the handful of gunsmiths in the country, along with such men as John Linebaugh, Bob Baer, Bill Grover, Dick Casull, Bob Munden, Brian Cosby, Dave Clements, and Andy Horvath, that really understand single action sixguns.
Three Flat-Top Ruger Blackhawks and one Old Model Blackhawk .357 have been sent off to Bowen over the past several few years. Spelling my JT1 .44 Special x 7 1/2" sixgun from Grover is a Bowen built seven and one-half inch .44 Special. Both fit the Chaparral rig perfectly. The sixgun done by Bowen also has a post front sight, polished grip frame with black micarta grips by Charles Able and blued, rather than polished hammer. The left side of the barrel is marked ".44 SPECIAL CAL." The barrel is from a Ruger Super Blackhawk and the bluing is a little more subdued than the Grover sixgun as this was designed more as a working gun than a highly polished presentation sixgun. The blue finish matches quite nicely with the dull black micarta stocks.
Bowen, of course, did all his niceties on this sixgun as on all the others, namely remove any excess endshake, smooth out the action and tighten where necessary. I really do like seven and one-half inch single actions for long-range shooting and this one now proudly joins my Flat-Top Blackhawk .44 Magnum, Colt New Frontier .44 Special, Texas Longhorn Arms West Texas Flat-Top Target .44, and JT1 as some of the finest long range forty-fours extant.
One of the Flat-Top .357's sent to Bowen was fine mechanically but had been ridden hard and put up wet so to speak and the finish was pitted as a result. Our 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 nickled by a previous owner and along with standard Ruger walnut stocks from the 1950's mates up fine with the subdued blue finish. This is the gun that will go in the holster when the going is likely to be anything but easy.
The final pair of sixguns from Bowen are all blue and wear perfectly executed and fitted stag stocks again from Charles Able. At first glance they look like standard .357 Magnum 1950'ish Flat-Top Blackhawks. Close examination reveals the Texas Longhorn Arms Number Five front sight, the larger holes in the cylinder and barrel, and ".44 SPECIAL CAL." marked on the left side of the frame. Some long cold winter I will be carving a special set of leather for this gun and its mate. I haven't quite decided to go totally traditional and make a double set 1880's style with a wide belt with a double row of cartridge loops or perhaps a 1940's type Hollywood rig such as worn by Tim Holt or Wild Bill Elliot or....If the Idaho winter is long enough perhaps I will come up with several outfits. That is part of the great pleasure of sixgunning.
I do believe I have all the .44 Specials on Ruger .357 Blackhawks a man needs. Lest the .357 Blackhawks in existence think they are finally safe, remember I did shoot Bowen's proto-type .32-20 on a Ruger frame. A new chapter is about to start!
CUSTOM .44 SPECIALS ON RUGER .357 BLACKHAWKS
.44 SPECIALS BY TEXAS LONGHORN ARMS:
4 5/8" #SS4
7 1/2" 3-SCREW
|Bull-X 240/6.5 GR. 452AA||964||1.857"||1012||2.073"|
|Bull-X 240/7.5 GR. Unique||961||1.641"||1004||1.317"|
|RCBS KT 250/17.0 GR. H4227*||997||2.345"||1072||1.598"|
|NEI KT 250/7.5 GR. Unique*||942||3.958"||989||1.422"|
|BRP KT 245/7.7 GR Unique**||1049||1.852"||1089||1.820"|
|Speer 225 HP/7.7 GR. Uniq***||989||2.182"||1053||1.863"|
|Speer 225 HP/17.0 GR. H4227||1024||.958"||1105||1.688"|
|Blazer 200 Gold Dot HP||848||2.104"||990||2.263"|
|Black Hills 240 SWC||804||2.522"||852||1.809"|
|Winchester 246 RN||737||3.842"||791||1.998"|
|* Bullets sized to .428" ** Bullet seated over front band|
.44 SPECIALS BY BOWEN CLASSIC ARMS
4 5/8" FLAT-TOP
7 1/2" 3-SCREW
|Bull-X 240/6.5 GR. 452AA||958||3.037"||999||1.975"|
|Bull-X 240/7.5 GR. Unique||940||1.898"||980||1.238"|
|RCBS KT 250/17.0 GR. H4227*||996||1.501"||1050||2.189"|
|NEI KT 250/7.5 GR. Unique*||932||2.107"||946||1.836"|
|BRP KT 245/7.7 GR Unique**||1051||1.206"||1091||2.579"|
|Speer 225 HP/7.7 GR. Uniq***||995||2.172"||1036||2.046"|
|Speer 225 HP/17.0 GR. H4227||1020||1.138"||1064||2.027"|
|Blazer 200 Gold Dot HP||979||1.889"||919||2.378"|
|Black Hills 240 SWC||797||1.690"||834||1.578"|
|Winchester 246 RN||745||1.711"||766||1.393"|
|* Bullets sized to .428" ** Bullet seated over front band|