SIXGUNS AND LOADS
OF ELMER KEITH
by John Taffin
I freely admit to a whole lot of hero worship during my lifetime. But I think the men I looked up to were worth more than a glance. As a teenager, I was blessed with a librarian at our local high school that stocked the shelves with the right kind of books, at least it seemed so to me. I early discovered Teddy Roosevelt and devoured all the books the library contained. Every book on Africa was quickly consumed and growing up in the '50's I was fortunate in that the explorers and hunters of the early twentieth century were all to be found on the shelves.
Names like Roy Chapman Andrews, Martin and Osa Johnson, Frank Buck, Howard Hill, Sasha Siemel, Robert Ruark, Teddy Roosevelt, all became part of my daily life. It doesn't seem like there are any heroes for today's kids; we had them in overabundance.
It was about this time that I discovered Elmer Keith. Our librarian also subscribed to THE AMERICAN RIFLEMAN and Keith wrote regularly for the AMERICA RIFLEMAN. Also during my high school days, GUNS magazine started, again with articles by Keith, and Keith published his most famous work, SIXGUNS while I was a junior in high school. I literally devoured that book over and over.
Little did I realize that some day I would not only meet Elmer Keith, be privileged to examine all of his guns and be named to THE ELMER KEITH MUSEUM BOARD. The latter two events happened because of my good friend and brother in Christ, Hal Swiggett.
I had first met Elmer in 1968. He was directly responsible for my moving to Idaho two years earlier and so I took the trip to Salmon, knocked on his door with more than a little trepidation, and was more than little surprised when he answered the door to find him only lifesize. He immediate1y told me to bring in my wife who was sitting in the car and we spent the day with Elmer and Lorraine Keith. A day I will never forget.
After Elmer's death in 1984, The Elmer Keith Museum Foundation was formed to raise the money necessary to save all of his guns and trophies. The family could have sold everything and realized a small fortune. however, feeling it was more important that everything be saved for future generations. all of Elmer's guns, trophies, and memorabilia is now in the hands of the Elmer Keith Museum Foundation Board of Directors.
In 1987, Board Member, Hal Swiggett saw to it that I received an invitation to a meeting of the Board. I met everyone, joined in some refreshments, then journeyed into a side room and literally could not believe my eyes. There laid out before me were the Sixguns of Elmer Keith. All the guns that I had read about so may times in various magazines and in SIXGUNS. There they were! Many of them were still loaded and I took it upon myself to unload them before anyone happened along to handle them who did not treat every sixgun as a loaded gun.
It seemed as if I were stroking old friends as I lovingly removed the rounds of .44 specials. .45 Colts, and .44 Magnums from their place of residence. One .45 Colt, an ivory stocked 4 3/4" Single Action that I had seen pictured many times, had obviously been loaded a long time, as the cartridges in the gun itself were gathering patina.
This past year I was invited back to the Annual Board Meeting and this time I had the pleasure of seeing the priceless double rifles and Sharps rifles that Elmer loved so much. Double rifles that could not be duplicated today even if one had the money. To my surprise, I was named to the Board of The Elmer Keith Museum Foundation. That is quite an honor for me. I've read all of Elmer's books, corresponded with him, spent time in his home, examined and unloaded his sixguns, and now to be named to the Board that is trying to save all that was Elmer Keith is a special honor.
Elmer loved all guns but he had a special passion for sixguns because they were so convenient, always at hand riding in a good leather holster. Keith's preference was for a cartridge belt of 2 1/2" in width with a high-riding holster of his own design, the #120 Keith as produced by the George Lawrence Co. Keith also designed a holster/belt combination in the 1960's for the Edward H. Bohlin Company. This rig blended the best elements of the #120 Keith and the western drop loop style of holster. These are no longer available but there are numerous examples available in the collection for the Museum.
During the period from the l920's into the early 1950's most of Elmer's work with sixguns were with the Colt Single Action, most of them in .44 Special. Some of his favorites were the #5 Single Action, truly custom sixgun made up in 1927. This fantastic piece of custom work was designed as The Last Word in sixguns and appeared in the AMERICAN RIFLEMAN in an article of this title.
The #5 Single Action featured ivory grips and a special grip frame made with the blending of a Colt Bisley backstrap with a Single Action trigger guard. The frame was flat-topped and the barrel length was 5 1/2". The caliber? Forty-four Special of course. The influence of the #5 Single Action can be seen in Ruger Blackhawks and Bisleys and in the Freedom Arms .454 Casull.
Other favorite Single Action .44 Specials of. Elmer's were an original 7 1/2" Flat-top Target Model, a King customized 7 1/2". ivory stocked, adjustable sighted model that obviously from the wear was one of his favorite game guns, and a 4 3/4" .45 Colt. Both of the letter are fitted with S&W type rear sights.
Over the years, Keith had a number of Triple-Lock and 1926 Model Smith & Wesson .44 Special but these did not receive as much use as his Single Actions. This changed in the early 1950's when the Smith & Wesson 1950 Target .44 Special became THE sixgun. This was short-lived however as the .44 Magnum came along in 1956 and from there on, Elmer carried a .44 Magnum the ultimate sixgun.
I found four examples of Smith & Wesson double action packin' pistols in Keith's collection. Three of these were fully engraved and ivory stocked and fitted to flower carved holsters: A 4 1/2" .44 Magnum, a 4" .44 Magnum, and a 4" .44 Special. His everyday sixgun from the 1950's until his disabling stroke in 1981 was a 4" Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum, ivory stocked but plain blue and carried in a plain leather Milt Sparks holster.
I've never been able to handle the recoil of the .44 Magnum using the Magna or plainclothes stocks that Keith preferred. When I had the opportunity to examine the Keith sixguns, I found that all of his double action sixguns were fitted with ivory stocks that were expertly carved on the right side to fill in the hand perfectly and help control recoil. He definitely knew what it was all about!
Keith designed a series of bullets for the Lyman/Ideal Corporation that, with their distinctive semi-wadcutter shape, have come to be known simply as Keith bullets. Along with these bullets, Elmer came up with what have come to be known as the Keith loads. Some of these have been around for nearly sixty years and have still not been improved upon. The Keith loads are as follows:
.38 SPECIAL: For use in heavy-framed guns which today exist only as .357 Magnums, the Keith Lyman 173 grain bullet #358429 over 13.5 grains of #2400 with .38 Special brass. This load goes over 1400 fps. from my 8 3/8" Model 27 and is the most accurate load I have found for it. It will still go 1200+ fps. from a 3 1/2" Model 27 and makes an excellent small game load and defensive load.
.44 SPECIAL: Elmer's early load for his beloved Special was 18.5 grains of # 2400 with the 250 grain Keith bullet #429421 in balloon head cases. When solid cases came along, with less powder capacity, the charge was dropped to 17.0 grains. Both loads go over 1200+ fps. from a 7 1/2" Colt Single Action and are exceptionally accurate especially in a Smith & Wesson Model 24.
.45 COLT: Keith's early load was an extremely powerful 22.0 grains of #2400 again in balloon head cases. This was dropped to 20.0 grains and then to 18.5 grains in modern brass with all loads using the 260 grain #454424 Keith bullet. This is a 1150+ fps load and should be used only in modern .45 Colts. When the Ruger .45 Colt Blackhawk came along, Elmer upped the charge to 20.0 grains of #2400 again for nearly 1250 fps from a 7 1/2" barrel.
.45 AUTO RIM: Using the 238 grain #452423 Keith bullet or the #454424 .45 Colt Keith bullet over 7.5 grains of Unique in the stubby Auto Rim cases for use in Colt and Smith & Wesson revolvers gives 850 fps and 936 fps respectively and makes an excellent defensive six-gun/load combination when used in a Smith & Wesson 25-2 sixgun.
-44 MAGNUM: Keith early settled on 22.0 grains of #2400 with his #429421 bullet for 1225 fps. out of a 4" Smith, 1400+ fps out of a 6 1/2" Smith or 7 1/2" Ruger. These are hunting handloads pure and simple, with this load taking big game all over the world.
.41 MAGNUM: The .41 did not come along until the 1960's and Keith designed a new bullet #410459 for loading the Smith & Wesson and Ruger .41 Magnurns. His recommendation of 20.0 grains of #2400 clocks out at 1500 fps from either an 8 3/8" Smith or 7 1/2" Ruger Bisley. This is a very flat-shooting and accurate load and certainly adequate for any deer or black bear.
We live in a throw-away society. People are forgotten quickly, too quickly. Elmer Keith lived at a time we will never see again; it would be a shame if his guns and trophies are not saved for future generations.