Single action sixguns have many uses; plinking, fast draw, cowboy action shooting, hunting, long-range shooting, self-defense, silhouette shooting, and most assuredly as a Packin’ Pistol. Regular readers of my articles and columns in American Handgunner and Guns Magazine know immediately what I mean by a Packin’ Pistol as I have written several times of the search for the Perfect Packin’ Pistol. Here is my definition of what a Packin’ Pistol should be: “Packin’ Pistol (pack-in pis-tol) a revolver, normally a big bore sixgun, relatively light in weight, having a barrel length of not less than 4” nor more than 5 1/2", easy to holster, and chambered in a caliber which can be depended upon to do any job or task encountered. It may operate single action or double action, and be chambered in any caliber from .32 Magnum to .500 Linebaugh, however most Packin’ Pistols fall into the .44-.45 category.” Taffin Unabridged Dictionary of Big Bore Sixguns.
Notice the definition includes both single action and double action sixguns, however in this book we're concerned only with single actions. The best double action Packin’ Pistols do definitely come from Smith and Wesson going back to the .357 Magnum of 1935, through a long line of K-and N-frames, and right up to today’s Mountain Guns. There are numerous best quality Single Action Packin Pistols available both new and used, as well as many custom offerings. Most single action sixguns will fit in several categories of use, and the same is true of Packin, Pistols. They can be used for hunting, self-defense, plinking, and long-range shooting, however their number one asset is that of a go-almost-anywhere and do- almost-anything sixgun. They are the best answer for the largest number of situations, not necessarily the best choice for hunting, nor for long-range shooting, nor for self-defense but rather the jack-of-all-trades of the single action scene. They are most usually packed openly in a high riding, sturdy but compact holster threaded on a cartridge belt, and they also slide easily under a pillow or beside one's bedroll at night. If a man could have only one single action sixgun, and I can't imagine such a dreary situation, the most useful sixgun would be a Packin’ Pistol.
I have previously mentioned the first Packin’ Pistol I ever encountered found in an old American Riflemen dated April 1929. In this piece Elmer Keith unveiled his idea of the perfect sixgun in an article entitled The Last Word as he described his #5SAA which turns out definitely fits the definition of Perfect Packin’ Pistol. This custom sixgun, incorporating the ideas of Elmer Keith and his friend Harold Croft, started as a standard fixed-sighted Single Action Army or perhaps a Bisley Model, the grip frame was made by mating a cut down Bisley backstrap with a Single Action trigger guard, the mainframe was flat-topped, adjustable sights were added, the barrel length was an easy packin’ 5 1/2”, the caliber was .44 Special, and the entire sixgun was fully engraved and fitted with carved ivory stocks.
Keith offered his design to Colt as he tried to interest them in improving the standard Single Action Army; no one in Hartford would listen to him. A little over a quarter-century later, a much improved single action sixgun would surface, not from Colt, but from the new company known as Sturm, Ruger. That first factory produced single action sixgun vying for the title of Perfect Packin Pistol was the 4 5/8” .357 Magnum Blackhawk in 1955. At the time it was chambered for the most powerful sixgun cartridge available, and with its adjustable sights, Colt Single Action Army grip frame, and virtually indestructible coil spring action, it was the perfect outdoorsman's sixgun.
One year after the introduction of the .357 Flat-Top, Ruger brought out the .44 Magnum Blackhawk, however it was never offered in either a 4 5/8” or 5 1/2” barrel length; and when the .44 Magnum Super Blackhawk came forth in 1959 it was offered only with a 7 1/2” barrel. A whole lot of sixgunners, myself included, turned both models into Perfect Packin’ Pistols by having the barrels cut to 4 5/8”
The first big bore Packin’ Pistol to come from Ruger would be the 4 5/8” barreled .41 Magnum in 1965. With the coming of the Old Model Rugers in 1963, Ruger not only added the .41 Magnum chambering into their catalog, they also introduced the .45 Colt Blackhawk in 1971 as an easy packin’ 4 5/8” heavy duty sixgun. Today, Ruger offers short barreled stainless-steel New Model Perfect Packin’ Pistols single action-style in .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, and .45 Colt. With the barrel shortened to 4 5/8”, the Bisley Model also makes an excellent Packin’ Pistol.
Colt did not listen to Elmer Keith but they did bring out a fine Packin’ Pistol in 1962 with the introduction of the adjustable sighted, flat-topped New Frontier. They would be made through the 2nd Generation production, and they are probably some of the best single action sixguns ever to be offered by Colt, and also in the 3rd Generation version. The earlier guns were offered in .44 Special and .45 Colt and are very hard to find and quite pricey when they are located. The 3rd Generation New Frontiers are much more numerous and can usually be picked up for less than the price of a standard Single Action Army. These can be found in .44 Special, .45 Colt, and also .44-40 in both 4 3/4” and 5 1/2” barrel lengths.
The last New Frontiers came off the assembly line in 1984. I cannot understand why Colt has not resurrected this beautiful sixgun; it simply makes no sense to me. A Colt New Frontier with an expert tune-up and trigger job and a pair of custom stocks of ivory, staghorn, or fancy walnut is right at the top of the list of Perfect Packin Pistols.
Freedom Arms makes the finest single action sixguns ever to come from a factory, so it is obvious they qualify as Perfect Packin Pistols. The Model 83 with a 4 3/4” barrel in .454 Casull, with an extra cylinder chambered in .45 Colt; the same sixgun in .475 Linebaugh with an extra cylinder for the .480 Ruger; or simply chambered in .44 Magnum, is tough to beat as the Perfect Packin Pistol. For those whose idea of big bore is a little smaller, it even comes in .357 Magnum and .41 Magnum.
The easiest to pack Perfect Packin’ Pistols are the Freedom Arms Model 97s. These little sixguns, slightly smaller than a standard size Colt Single Action Army, with a 5 1/2” barrel are available as five-shooters in .45 Colt, .44 Special, .41 Magnum, and as a six-shot .357 Magnum. If one wishes they can be special ordered with a 4 1/4” barrel, however I find the 5 1/2” length suits me just fine.
Texas Longhorn Arms’ Improved Number Five was a salute to Elmer Keith and his original #5SAA. The Improved Number Five from Texas Longhorn Arms managed to maintain the flavor of the original while being stronger and replacing Keith’s favorite cartridge of the 1920s-1950s with his choice from 1955 on, the .44 Magnum. Even with its larger frame and cylinder, the TLA Number Five still maintains Colt-style balance rather than seeming overly large.
All TLA sixguns have the ejector rod housing and loading gate on the left side for natural use by right-handed shooters, meaning a right-handed shooter did not have to switch hands to unload or load as the ejector rod and loading gate were on the left side. Other features of the Improved Number Five include a rounded trigger guard with a shotgun style trigger sitting as far back in the trigger guard as possible and also one that moves very little as the hammer is cocked. The hammer spur rides low and is wide for easy cocking, and the top strap is of the flat-top style fitted with a Micro-style adjustable rear sight that is matched up with a Patridge front sight.
In comparing the Keith #5SAA with the Grover Improved Number Five we find both identical features and improved features. The former includes the grip frame, the cylinder base pin latch release, and a 5 ½” barrel. Differences are the right hand/left hand features already described, the one-piece style grip, a larger frame with a double heat treated cylinder, chambered in .44 Magnum, crafted of #4140 aircraft steel, coil springs, rounded trigger guard, frame mounted firing pin, improved adjustable sights, a larger ejector rod head, and the fact no frame screws protruded to the left side of the sixgun.
Grover's original plans were to build 1,200 Improved Number Fives in .44 Magnum with 5 ½” barrels as well as some in .45 Colt. The plan of 1,200 .44 Magnums never materialized, very few .45 Colts were ever produced, and Texas Longhorn Arms closed their doors in the late 1990s, however they remain excellent candidates for the Triple P title and are well worth searching for at gun shows, in gun shops, and even 21st Century style over the internet.
If I am going to shoot long-range, I will chose a 10 1/2” single action sixgun; for hunting it is normally a 7 1/2” big bore single action with iron sights or a scope; and for self-defense single action style, the choice would normally be a fixed sighted Colt Single Action Army. But for an everyday sixgun capable of doing anything I ask of it no matter where, no matter what, I’ll take a Packin’ Pistol.