Sow’s Ear Becomes A Silk Purse!

By John Taffin

            Even outside of Disneyland the world is a magical place. King Midas had the golden touch and Merlin mystified the court of King Arthur with his magical feats; the Starship Enterprise routinely beamed crewmembers up and down; and the magicians of Pharaoh’s court could turn water into blood and conjure up plagues of frogs, gnats, flies, and boils. Midas and Merlin are only legends, I've never been able to say “Beam me up Scotty” with any result, and it has been thousands of years since the time of the pharaohs. However, magic still exists and Alan Harton of Single Action Service has literally transformed a sow's ear into a silk purse.

            Alan Harton is my latest sixgunsmith "discovery" thanks to friends Bob Baer of the Houston area and Sergeant Fermi Garza of the Corpus Christi Police Department. Both found Alan, looked at the genius entailed in his work, and contacted me immediately. Now there are many sixgunsmiths out there; in fact the greatest sixgunsmiths who ever lived are with us now. I have had custom single action sixgun built on .357 Three-Screw Rugers by Bob Baer, Hamilton Bowen, Brian Cosby, David Clements, Ben Forkin, John Gallagher, Bill Grover, Andy Horvath, and Jim Stroh. All are perfect examples of what sixgunsmithing and should be.

            To these men I sent a fairly good specimen to use as a basis for building a custom sixgun; Alan Harton was not treated so kindly. In fact I sent him a real dog of a sixgun. We often use the term “ridden hard and put up wet”; this one looked like it was never put up, it was just left out in the wet. Just as with the other sixgunsmiths we started with a Three-Screw Ruger .357 Blackhawk. Today to get a decent specimen a Flat-Top from 1955 to 1962 will run $600 or more, while Old Models originally offered from 1963 to 1972 command prices in excess of $400.

The 4-5/8” Old Model sent to Harton cost me $100. It was originally purchased as a beater sixgun, that is, one to be used without any fear of harming the finish no matter what task it was put to. The action was loose and the finish was basically gone; actually the finish could be called early pitting. Except for the pitting the rest of the condition did not make any difference as Alan would basically discard everything except the frame and the cylinder. Even so, it would be a challenge. Alan was up to the challenge in spades and the result is one of most beautiful sixguns I now own. If you're a regular reader you don't have to guess at the caliber; it is a .44 Special, inspired and loosely based on Elmer Keith's #5SAA which he had built up in the 1920s. No, it is not a copy of Elmer's #5, not even close. However it is a .44 Special just as his was, and also has a 5-1/2” barrel, adjustable sights, #5-styled grip frame, a #5 locking base pin, case colored frame and hammer, and ivory stocks.

Let's see how the work progressed from start to finish, and in this case the pictures will do a better job than I can in explaining just what is entailed in building a custom sixgun. The pictures will also explain why custom sixguns are expensive. Many sixgunners, in fact most sixgunners, are perfectly happy with a factory Ruger single action. Rugers are exceptionally strong sixguns and well worth the price. Anyone can buy a Ruger, load it up, strap it on with a good holster and belt, and unless it is thoroughly abused it can be passed on to future generations. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this thinking. However, some of us are a little more creative and always looking for more than just the ordinary sixgun; what we really desire is a sixgun which is truly a piece of artwork. Custom sixguns are highly subjective, and chances are pretty good one will spend more carrying out personal wishes and desires than will be realized if they are ever sold. There are, of course, exceptions. I can't imagine what Elmer Keith's #5SAA, which now resides in the Elmer Keith Museum, would sell for but I would expect it would be in the high five figures and more likely command a six-figure price.     

Starting with the sow’s ear/beater Ruger Old Model .357 Blackhawk, Harton completely stripped the sixgun to its component parts, and, as mentioned, for this project basically discarded everything except the cylinder and mainframe; everything else would be replaced or greatly altered. The original cylinder was re-chambered to .44 Special and re-fitted to the frame with absolutely no play either front to back or side to side. The octagon barrel was meticulously machined with an integral front sight base and then fitted to the frame so the barrel/cylinder gap is barely discernible; in fact a .002” gauge will not enter the gap. This 5-1/2” octagonal barrel sets this particular .44 aside as one very special Special.  To come up with the barrel, Harton started with a Douglas barrel blank and machined it to shape himself. The left side is marked “.44 SPECIAL” and top is inscribed “SINGLE ACTION SERVICE”.  Harton learned his craft by spending 34 years as a machinst before switching to custom gunsmithing; his background has been proper training for him to be a true artist working in steel.

Since this .44 Special was inspired by Keith's #5SAA it has been fitted with a #5 base pin, consisting of a head with smaller and smaller concentric circles meeting in the middle, and then the base pin latch designed by Elmer Keith and Harold Croft was re-created. Instead of the traditional spring-loaded cross latch, Keith’s design is a solid vertical lever in the front of the frame which makes it impossible for the cylinder pin to move forward under recoil and yet can easily be rotated 90° to remove the base pin. This is such a great idea one would think the design would have been picked up by major manufacturers of single action sixguns a long time ago. The now long gone Texas Longhorn Arms was the only company to ever use it.

Keith said of this ingenious device in the April 1929 Rifleman article The Last Word which was about his #5SAA: “The new type based pin has a large head that is easily grasped to remove the pin, instead of the regular head that one usually had to use the head of a shell on to pull it out.  Unless the regular S.A. is fitted with an extra strong spraying in the base-pin catch, the recoil will drive the pin forward, and in some cases tie up the gun.  This new catch is the lever that swings into a square cut in the base pin, and no amount of firing can loosen the pin.  At the same time it is very easy to remove the pin for cleaning.  A spring plunger locks the lever.” When this lever is unlocked hand moved 90 degrees the base pin can be removed; a most ingenious solution to a common problem.  

            The grip frame, hammer and trigger have all been replaced with Bisley-style parts with the trigger coming from Dave Clements. The original hammer was used however it was greatly altered. The standard hammer spur was removed and a Bisley style spur expertly welded into place and polished; Keith said of the Bisley hammer: “All 6-gun cranks that have ever use day Bisley-topped hammer on their S.A.s prefer it to the regular hammer.” The back of the hammer was also built up to match the opening in the Bisley Model grip frame. The Bisley trigger from Dave Clements has been fitted and set at a very smooth two pounds. The grip frame was then trued up to be perfectly square before fitting beautifully creamy milky grips of elephant ivory which fit my hand perfectly.

            Keith’s #5SAA grip frame was arrived at by cutting and welding the backstrap of a Colt Bisley Model with the trigger guard of a Colt Single Action. The original Bisley grip frame was designed for target shooting and comes up high in the back as well as behind the trigger guard so the grip frame nestles securely in the hand. Keith’s rendition works best for those with small hands as he had. When Ruger came up with the Bisley Model in the 1980s they wisely made it longer than the #5SAA grip frame. For me it is absolutely essential for heavy loads and handles .44 Special loads exceptionally well and makes for extremely comfortable shooting. This grip frame matched up with the beautifully fitted, smooth ivory stocks which Alan Harton shaped to perfection removes all “hotspots”; that is, even when shooting 250-260 grain.44 Special and .45 Colt loads at 900-1100 fps using the standard Colt Single Action grip frame my hand will fatigue after 300 or so are loads. This grip frame solves that minor problem.

            The factory rear sight was replaced by a Bowen adjustable rear sight, a special fixture was used to grind the cylinder perfectly round using finer and finer grinding wheels, the frame, loading gate, and hammer were all case hardened by Doug Turnbull, and the balance of the sixgun has been blued. It has taken a lot of time, however the "sows ear" has now literally been transformed into a "silk purse". It didn't take magic but rather a lot of skill and knowledge on the part of a true artist carrying out a masterpiece working with steel and ivory.  

            The .44 Special #5SAA was Elmer Keith's every day working gun from around 1928 until he moved from the homestead on the Salmon River into the town of Salmon Idaho in the early 1950s. It was then replaced by a much easier to carry and conceal 4” Smith & Wesson 1950 Target. He may have changed the style of the sixgun he was carrying from a single action to a double action, however he stayed with the .44 Special until 1956 when the ivory-stocked 1950 Target was replaced as his everyday carrying gun by a 4” .44 Magnum in the same configuration.

            Keith not only worked with the top gunsmiths of the time in the 1920s to come up with the #5SAA, he also designed what is now universally known as the .44 Keith bullet. Ideal, now Lyman, offered the bullet mold as #429421 and it is still available almost the same as it was designed by Keith. (The same cannot be said for his #454424 as it has been changed dramatically and offered today as #452424!). I have shot thousands of the Lyman .44s and also the .44 Keith bullet from molds by Hensley & Gibbs, RCBS and NEI. I prefer the latter as it is nearly identical to Keith's original design and I also have a very easy to use four-cavity mold for casting.

            I started out shooting the Harton .44 by using jacketed bullet loads to smooth out the barrel; it wasn't necessary. The first five shots with Sierra’s 240 grain JHPs over 17.0 grains of IMR4227 resulted in a five-shot, one-inch group. My standard cast bullet load for the .44 Special using the 260 grain Keith bullet over 7.5 grains of Unique performs the same. This is in my hands and with my eyes and believe me I am nowhere near as steady as I was in days past. This sixgun is definitely a shooter!

Not only did Elmer Keith design the #5SAA and the #429421 bullet, he also designed the George Lawrence #120 holster to carry his .44 Special. The George Lawrence Co. is long gone, however the #120 holster has been beautifully re-created by Mike Barranti of Barranti Leatherworks. Just as with Elmer's #120 holster this one is floral carved and whip stitched with contrasting lacing along the edge. My Alan Harton .44 Special will mostly be used with Keith bullets and carried in this new version of Keith's #120 holster. I am not a betting man nor do I like to play the “What would Keith think?” game. But I would be willing to bet the Old Master would like this sixgun and compare it very favorably to his #5SAA.  



Test-Fire Single Action Service Custom Ruger .44 Special x 5-1/2”

.44 Special Handloaded Ammo Performance

Bullet                                        Powder            Charge             Velocity            Group Size

NEI #260.429KT                    Unique             7.5 gr.              1,011 fps          1-1/8”

NEI #260.429KT                    Power Pistol     8.0 gr.             1,010 fps          1-3/8”

RCBS #44-250KT                  Universal          7.5 gr.              1,038 fps          1-3/8”

Lyman #431244GC                 Unique             7.5 gr.              1,024 fps          1-3/8”

Lyman #431244GC                 H4227             17.5 gr.            1,199 fps          1-1/4”

Lyman #429215GC                 Unique             8.5 gr.              1,125 fps          1-3/8”

Lyman #429215GC HP           Unique             9.0 gr.             1,199 fps          1”

LBT 260KT                             H4227             17.5 gr.            1,169 fps          1-3/8”

Speer 240 JHP                         H4227             17.0 gr.            960 fps             1-3/8”

Speer 225 JHP                         #2400              15.0 gr.            1,075 fps          1-1/8”

Notes: Groups product of 5 shots at 20 yards. Chronograph screens set at 10’ from muzzle. CCI #300 primers in Starline brass.