He lived a life most of us can only dream of. Born in Missouri in 1899, his family moved to Montana six years later and he grew up around former outlaws, lawmen, buffalo hunters, and Indian fighters as his life spanned the time from the Civil War veterans and gunfighters of the Frontier to the more modern age of handgunning. His teachers had survived the bloodiest war in our nation's history and had seen the great herds of buffaloes and the cow towns that helped build the West. He was Elmer Keith and there will never be another like him when it comes to one man’s influence on firearms in general; and single action sixguns, the .44 Special, and the .44 Magnum in particular.
As a young boy Keith was in a terrible fire that left him scarred and crippled and diagnosed by the doctor as doomed to die an early life. Neither his parents nor he would think of such a possibility. Mom and Dad filled him with Old Granddad to dull the pain, broke his useless fire-grafted hands away from his arms, spread his fingers, and using tallow filled gloves nailed to a board with his hands in a normal position, proved the doctor wrong. Not only would Keith live four score and more years, he would gain complete use of his hands and become an expert shot with rifle, shotgun, and his beloved sixgun. As a young cowboy he was described as a "snake with a sixgun". He himself said that he buckled on his single action sixgun every day as natural as one pulled on one's pants. That good habit would serve to save his life more than once.
Keith's was a great life but also one that was laced with tragedy. He survived not one, but two terrible fires. He admitted later searching for the man that started the hotel fire that crippled him as a child. With his ever-present sixgun on hip, his search proved unsuccessful and he would later admit that he was glad he had not found the lowly coward.
In his early years in Montana and Idaho, Keith was a bronc buster and cowboy. He never made it past the eighth grade but he was smart enough to marry a school marm and he and his beloved Lorraine spent much of their life on the Salmon River in Idaho far from town living on a ranch with no conveniences of any kind. What we call “roughing it” a few days each year was his daily life. His life was not easy and his wife had to be tough as she had to spend many months alone in the backcountry with the young kids as Keith was off guiding hunters. To supplement the hard times of the depression on the little ranch, Keith outfitted and guided hunting clients from Canada to Mexico. One of the great tragedies of Keith's life occurred at this time as an outbreak of flu took his young daughter and left him so sick he could not even get out of bed to attend the funeral.
In the 1950s, Elmer and Lorraine Keith moved into the town of Salmon Idaho and Keith continued to fill out his life writing for Guns, Guns & Ammo, and The American Rifleman, as well as authoring more books, and answering hundreds of letter per month from readers all over the world. His writing career began quite by accident, that is, if you believe in accidents. In 1925, an event occurred that would change the course of Keith's life completely. It was the Fourth of July and like most young cowboys, Keith decided to celebrate the birth of this great country by firing his sixgun into the air: "I started to celebrate the morning of the Fourth. Picked up an old .45 S.A. Army 5 1/2 inch loaded with 40 grains bulk by my Ideal measure and 258 grain Ideal bullet, stepped out on an upstairs porch and turned the old gun at a 45 degree angle and started shooting. When the gun rose from recoil of my first cartridge I unconsciously hooked my thumb over the hammer spur and thus cocked gun as it recovered from the recoil. When I turned the next one loose I was almost deafened by the report and saw a little flash of flame. My hand automatically cocked gun and snapped again but no report. I stopped then knowing that something was wrong. The upper half of three chambers was gone. Also one cartridge and half of another case. Also the top strap over cylinder. My ears were ringing otherwise I was all O.K." (American Rifleman Aug. 1925)
As far as I know this quote is from the first article written by Elmer Keith. He would go on to a gun writing career lasting nearly sixty years publishing hundreds of articles on sixguns, rifles, and shotguns, as well as ten major books, including Sixgun Cartridges and Loads (1936), Sixguns by Keith (1955), and his autobiography, Hell, I Was There! (1979). The first gives major insights into Keith's early experiments with sixguns, the second is the sixgunner's bible, and the latter is definitely a fascinating account of an outdoor life in the early part of this century. Be warned! It is one of those can't put down books and once started will push all other activity to the background.
Keith was born intellegent, but like the rest of us, not knowledgeable; he learned as he lived. The .45 sixgun he blew up was not the first as an earlier .45 let go that had been loaded with 300 grain .45-70 rifle bullets. This one carried over-sized 260 grain .458" bullets and the combination of oversize bullets that were too soft for use in powerful loads in a sixgun, plus crushed by hand black powder that had the consistency of flour resulted in an explosion not unlike what would have occurred with a like charge of Bullseye. All this is known simply because Keith sent the gun and remaining shells to Chauncey Thomas for an autopsy. Thomas was a well-known gunwriter and editor of the time, and also the one who first began general use of the term sixgun over 100 years ago.
This time Keith learned! In these days of nearly instant communication and rapid- fire spreading of knowledge, it may be hard for us to believe but in 1925, Keith had never even seen a .44 Special! The .44 Special first saw the light of day in the 1908 Smith & Wesson New Century or Triple-Lock. Colt followed a few years later, 1913, with Single Action Army Models that carried the barrel inscription "RUSSIAN AND S&W SPECIAL .44", the .44 Special being simply an elongated .44 Russian. More than 10 years later Keith had still not come upon what would become his beloved .44 Special, and all of Keith's early experimentations were probably with well-worn black powder Colt .45s and it is not surprising that the above-mentioned .45s blew. It was time for Keith to look for a cartridge that would give him the power he wanted in a sixgun with a greater safety factor. That cartridge would prove to be the .44 Special.
It was now time for the paths of two sixgunners to cross: "Even in 1928 when Harold Croft of Philadelphia visited me for a month at my little ranch in Durkee Oregon, he told me frankly, when I met him at the station, that everyone he knew in the revolver clubs in the East had asked him to find out if the long range sixgun work I had written of was true; all firmly believing it was not. Croft witnessed my hitting a four-foot square target at 700 yards with every sixgun save one of the suitcase-full he brought along, before said gun was empty. The one exception was a 2" barreled .45 Colt "slip" gun, which due to its extremely high trajectory, required eleven shots before I finally dropped one through the target--and that was finally accomplished by aiming at a small sage brush on top of the mountain behind the target over 3/4 mile away. Croft also witnessed my killing several jack rabbits at from 125 to 150 yards, as well as hitting one eagle (definitely a different time!) at 200 yards, with .44 Special S.A. Colts." (American Rifleman May 1939)
Croft, described by Keith as a gun crank and collector, hit it off with the cowboy famously. Croft was a dedicated sixgunner and designer and brought four special lightweight sixguns along to show to and shoot with Keith. These were all built on Colt Single Actions and Bisleys and basically designed primarily as lightweight self-defense single actions. These four sixguns were numbered 1,2,3, and 4; more on these shortly.
Keith liked the sixguns that Croft had designed and saw real possibiities with Croft's designs, not in a lightweight pocket sixgun but as a full size single action .44 Special sixgun: "Needless to say, after playing with Croft's guns awhile I decided to have one of my S.A.A. guns worked over to incorporate some of Croft's improvements, with few ideas of my own thrown in." The result was the famous Number 5 Single Action pictured in many of Keith's articles over the next thirty years as well as in Sixguns.
Keith wrote about The Number 5 .44 Special in the April 1929 issue of The American Rifleman in an article entitled "The Last Word". The Number 5 was truly The Last Word in sixguns for nearly sixty years until the coming of the Freedom Arms Casull, the Texas Longhorn Arms Improved Number Five, and the custom revolvers of such masters of the sixgun as Hamilton Bowen, John Linebaugh, Jim Stroh, and Andy Horvath.
Keith's Number 5 was basically a Colt Single Action with a Bisley backstrap and a Single Action Army front strap. Grips were ivory, barrel length was 5 1/2”, sights were fully adjustable, the base pin was over-size, and the cylinder pin catch was a masterful design that operated on the lever principle; more on this special sixgun shortly.
Keith had learned his lesson well concerning heavy loads in the .45 Colt and the paper thin cylinder walls of the Colt Single Action Army and that is why the Last Word in caliber selection was the .44 Special. "It has been quite recently that I have changed from .45 Colt to .44 Special caliber for my 6-guns, for a number of reasons. For one thing, I have found it much easier to obtain good, reliable, accurate reloading tools for the .44 than for the .45 Colt. The bore diameter of the Colt's .44 Special guns does not vary to anything like the extent of the .45 Colt. I have seen .45 Colt guns with groove and cylinder diameters measuring only .450, which with a heavy load is very apt to scrap the old Peacemaker. Remember, the .45 Colt has been built for over half a century, and several different generations have bored the various guns; so it is it any wonder that guns of various ages vary in bore diameter?
If a man wishes the most powerful handgun, and still wishes to use only factory ammunition, then the .45 Colt is the one best bet, with Remington black-power loads. However, if he wishes to reload, then the .44 Special is the best of them all. The walls of the cylinder in the .44 are thicker than in the .45, also the rear end of the barrel; and the .44 will stand more pressure with safety than the .45. The .44 Special is more accurate and can be safely loaded to give equal or often better velocity that the .45 Colt with the same weight bullets. I am all through with heavy smokeless loads in the .45 Colt."
For the next thirty years the .44 Special would be Keith's caliber. His favorite load was a 250 grain hard cast bullet of his design over a heavy dose of #80 powder which was soon replaced by the then new #2400. His load with the latter powder was 18.5 grains in balloon head brass. When the modern solid brass appeared in the 1950's, Keith's standard load was lowered to 17.0 grains of #2400. Both of these loads are HEAVY and should be used with caution and only in heavy-framed modern .44 Special sixguns such as the Colt Single Action Army, New Frontier, or Smith & Wesson Model 24. Velocity is around 1,200 feet per second.
Not only did Keith design the Last Word in sixguns with his Single Action .44 Special, he also designed a new bullet to wring out the best accuracy and greatest power from his new found caliber: "After fooling with different bullets in the 6-gun for years, and carefully noting their effects on game and their grouping on target, I have finally designed what I honestly believe to be the best all around bullet in existence. I drafted this bullet for the .44 Special to go with my No. 5 gun. I found that to suit the target shooter a bullet must be long and heavy, with correct balance; and must be extremely accurate. Last, but not least, it must cut a clean hole in the target. To be extremely accurate at long range it must have some taper at the point and have a long bearing surface on the lands. It must provide space for plenty of lubricant. The base band must be wide to insure accuracy. There must be a wide band of groove diameter in front of the crimping groove to snugly ride the throat of the cylinder and insure perfect lining up of the cartridge in the chamber. The bullet must have a good crimping groove to properly hold it in the case against recoil."
Keith's bullet was, and is, as famous as his love for the .44 Special. His loads with the Keith bullet were used all over the world by the forerunners of today's handgun hunters. Today, every semi-wadcutter bullet is automatically referred to as a Keith bullet. They are not! Keith was very disappointed to see the mould makers change the design of his bullet to allow for easier casting. To be a true Keith bullet a semi-wadcutter must have a long flat nose and have three equal sized bands of full caliber, one at the base, one between the lube groove and crimping groove, and one ahead of the crimping groove. The lube groove must be square cornered and hold plenty of lube, and the crimping groove must be cut at the right angle. The closest designs I know of today are those molds offered by RCBS and NEI.
From 1929 until the early 1950's, Keith considered the .44 Special the King of Sixguns. He asked ammunition manufacturers to bring out his load with a 250 grain bullet at 1,200 feet per second. All of them were afraid of liability problems and the possibility of blowing up an old sixgun. Keith suggested a .44 Special Magnum chambered in a new sixgun with the cartridge longer in length such as the .357 Magnum compared to the .38 Special. His pleas seemed to fall on deaf ears. Then in 1953, Keith visited both the Smith & Wesson and Remington factories and received somewhat of a promise that Remington would develop the ammunition for any sixgun Smith & Wesson would manufacture and Smith & Wesson would build a sixgun to handle any load that Remington would load.
Keith returned to Salmon Idaho and heard no more, until the end of 1955. He then received a call that told him his dream had come true and he would soon receive one of the first of the new Smith & Wesson .44 Magnums along with Remington ammunition. Keith asked for a powerful loading of the .44 Special at 1,200 feet per second. He received a .44 Magnum loading of over 1,500 feet per second. His .44 Special sixguns were retired, and Keith would spend the rest of his sixgun shooting life, until his stroke in 1981, with his beloved .44 Magnum. For most of his remaining years his sixgun of choice would be 4” S&W .44 Magnum, however he also had great regard for Ruger’s single action Super Blackhawk .44 Magnum as the ideal hunting sixgun.
Keith died in 1984 after spending his last years confined to bed in a nursing home with a dehabilitating stroke. It was a terrible way for a man who lived the life he lived to leave this earth. All of us that love big bore sixguns and both the great sixguns and cartridges we have today owe a great debt of gratitude to the grand old man of sixgunning. I'm somewhat of a romantic and I often send a few rounds down range for Elmer Keith or Skeeter Skelton and a few other lesser known sixgunners that have been part of my life.
Being a cowboy, it was only natural the Colt Single Action in .44 Special would be Elmer Keith's favorite sixgun from the 1920's until the 1950's. Over the years Keith always featured his sixguns in his articles, and as a teenager I purchased a copy of Sixguns, which was published in 1955, subsequently spending many hours carefully studying the pictures of his many custom sixguns. My habit had been to haunt the newstands looking for magazines having anything about handguns. Now everything important, at least to me, was available in one book. Other teenagers were interested in the new rock and roll music, movies, and fast cars. My passion was sixguns.
Keith covered everything: long range shooting, gun fighting, DA shooting, quick draw, holsters, trick shooting, and reloading. I read and re-read Sixguns until my first copy was dog-eared and needed replacing. The pictures of the beautiful sixguns were referred to over and over again with the impossible hope that someday I too would own such guns. After I met Keith for the first time, he supplied me with a list of all of his old sixgun articles from The American Rifleman and I was able to add all of those to my file.
Keith was not satisfied with stock factory sixguns and enlisted the help of some of the top gunsmiths and engravers in the country to customize his sixguns. Little did I realize that someday I would have the pleasure of handling all of his famous sixguns, and in fact, unloading many that had been loaded since before his stroke. I could scarcely believe it! There before me were all the famous sixguns I had read about and seen pictured over the last thirty years. All of the famous single action Colts and Rugers, and the double action Smith & Wessons, they were all there, plus the leather he had also made famous, the Lawrence #34 DA holster, and the #120 Keith SA holster, and even the Bohlin quick draw rig that he designed in the '60's.
On page 103 of Keith's classic Sixguns, one finds a picture of four beautiful Colt Single Actions. All four of these are still part of the Keith Collection and I noticed two things: the obvious quality of the custom work performed on three of them, and the varying stages of use each had received. The four Single Actions Colts, all .44 Specials are: 1) a King short action job, 7 1/2 " barrel; 2) an original, one of a kind 7 1/2" Flat-Top Target; 3) the Number 5 SA Colt, an extensively customized 5 1/2" Flat-Top Target Model with a special grip made by combining a Bisley backstrap and Colt SA trigger guard; 4) a 5 1/2" Flat-Top Target with Keith designed folding three leaf rear sight.
Colt #1 was an obvious favorite as it showed the most use. This short action 7 1/2" .44 Special has ivory grips with a steer head carved on the right grip, a wide hammer, a Smith & Wesson type rear sight, a front sight held on by a barrel band, and even though it shows extensive blue wear it is still quite tight. Since the ivory grips have a Colt medallion inset in them, I assume that they are original Colt manufactured stocks. Colt #2 has been kept as original since it is the only known .44 Special Colt SA Target Model to ever leave the Hartford factory. Its finish is all blue with "eagle-style" hard rubber grips. It also shows much use. Keith’s fourth Colt was another 5 1/2" Flat-Top Target Single Action made up by Neal Houchins with special one-piece rosewood grips made by Pachmayr. This was Keith's long-range sixgun as it has a folding rear sight with three different blades for different ranges. With its a dull blue it is certainly an everyday workin' sixgun. Except for the long-range rear sight, this Colt looks an great deal like the original Ruger Flat-Top Blackhawks. As mentioned earlier, Colt #3 was written up as "The Last Word" in the April 1929 issue of American Rifleman. The title for the article comes from the fact that this revolver was designed as the epitome of the single action sixgun. This sixgun is so special it deserves some further explanation.
Modern examples of single action sixgun customizing really began with the aforementioned Harold Croft of Pennsylvania. Croft had read the early articles of a very young Elmer Keith writing in the American Rifleman in the mid-1920s. He was so fascinated by Keith’s first efforts he packed the suitcase full of sixguns referred to by Keith in his American Rifleman article and took the train all the way across the continent winding up at Keith’s little cow ranch in Durkee Oregon. At the time Keith and Croft were definitely not on the same page with Croft stressing 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. They came together in a remarkable way.
Croft was an idea man not a gunsmith with his thoughts carried out by M.R.F. Sedgley and Neal Houchins. Sedgley did all the radical framework and Houchins the sights, stocks, and action work. Croft showed up at Keith's ranch with four Featherweight .45s all especially numbered. Numbers M1 and M3 were on the Single Action frame 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. At the same time all of this was accomplished, the frames were also flat-topped and fitted with adjustable sights making these dual-purpose sixguns. All of the Croft Featherweights weighed between 30 and 32 ounces and were written up in the American Rifleman in 1928.
Croft obviously had a tremendous effect on Keith. One year later Keith unveiled his idea of the perfect sixgun in the article entitled The Last Word. Although this was a full-sized sixgun he obviously incorporated many of Croft's ideas including the flat-topped frame, adjustable sights, and the modified grip frame, with the custom work on his sixgun being carried out by Sedgley, Houchins and J.D.O’Meara. Keith called his new sixgun the #5 SAA as it had been patterned after Croft's numbers 1 to 4. On the reverse side of the coin, Keith also had a special effect on Croft. Remember, Croft’s sixguns were all .45s, while Keith's #5 was a .44 Special. I've been able to handle Keith’s #5SAA, but wouldn’t it also be something to find the Croft sixguns?
A few years ago I received a call from a widow in Montana who was looking for some information about a revolver belonging to her husband. She said it had been purchased by her husband from a classified add in The American Rifleman in 1948 from a man named Croft. That revolver turned out to be M2. I was recently contacted by Sam Reed with a custom sixgun that had been in his family for about 30 years. He mentioned Sedgley and Croft and I really got interested. M1 has now been found. There are two things, besides the wonderful custom work, very interesting about these revolvers. Remember we said Keith also had a special effect on Croft. 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.”
In his book Sixguns Keith says Croft visited him in 1928, however he must be off a year as the article on the Croft sixguns appeared in a 1928 issue of the Rifleman meaning Croft must have visited in 1927. You don't do any comfortable sixgun shooting in Eastern Oregon/Western Idaho in January and February. I'm guessing the newer date on the sixguns reflects the visit to Keith, while the older date is the original completion date. This, however is only a calculated guess. There is something else very noticeable about M1. The cylinder has 12 bolt notches. Why 12 notches with only six chambers? There is no safety on a Colt Single Action Army except that of letting the hammer down on an empty chamber. Croft solved this by placing extra notches on the cylinder allowing it to be locked in place with the hammer down between two loaded rounds making it perfectly safe to carry with six rounds. All of these custom improvements were passed along to Colt, however none of them were followed except the flat-topping of the frame and adjustable sights found on the New Frontier more than three decades later.
Keith was highly interested in Croft’s sixguns except his desire was for a greatly improved full-sized revolver that would eventually become his favorite single action and one he carried for nearly 30 years. Keith says of his revolver, which became No. 5, "My friend O'Meara is now working over a Bisley, and fitting S.A.A. guard and front strap. He is also bending the Bisley back strap to the S.A. Army angle. His grip will extend about one-eighth inch higher at base of hammer, due to the difference in the frames of the Bisley and S.A. Army; but it should be very similar to the grip of this No. 3 Featherweight. No. 3 has a hammer with something similar to that of No. 1 and I believe made from a regular S.A. hammer, with piece attached to conform with the Bisley in shape and to fill the large cut in the Bisley back strap. The mainspring is like that of the regular S.A. Army, and does not engage a stirrup as in the case of the Bisley…. For the ideal heavy belt 6-gun I believe that a 5 ½-inch Bisley or S.A. Army, fitted with flat-top frame and sights like those of No. 1 or No. 4, with Bisley backstrap and S.A. Army front strap and guard, Bisley hammer and trigger, ejector left on, and with Croft’s base-pin catch and a tool-steel pin with a large head similar to, though shorter than, the one on No. 4, and with the frame left full weight, would be the ideal gun for this country and for the hills in general.” (The American Rifleman, Sept 1928)
Six months later in the April 1929 issue of The American Riflemen Keith unveiled “The Last Word.” As the title indicates he felt the No. 5 was the finest single action sixgun it was possible to build. All three gunsmiths, Sedgley, Houchins, and O’Meara contributed to his new 5 ½” No. 5 .44 Special. This highly customized Colt featured adjustable sights with interchangeable front blades, special base pin and base pin catch, flat-topped frame, fully engraved and fitted with ivory stocks, and the No. 5 grip frame. Croft’s ideas had a great influence on Elmer Keith, however, it also worked the other way as the aforementioned No. 2 was converted from .45 Colt to .44 Special right after Croft visited Keith. There are the same two 1920s dates inscribed on this special sixgun with the first date indicating its original completion, while the second date signifies its upgrading to .44 Special.
The No. 5 sixgun began Keith’s three-decade promotion of heavy loads in the .44 Special that would eventually result in the advent of the .44 Magnum. This was also the sixgun for which Keith designed the #429421 bullet, which was unveiled in this same article. At the same time his call for an improvement in sixgun powders would soon be followed with the introduction of Hercules #2400. That bullet and that powder would be associated with Keith from 1929 on with the .44 Special and then the .44 Magnum. Keith died in 1984 however it is a rare sixgunner who cannot identify the Keith Load when it comes to both the .44 Special and the .44 Magnum.
Although Elmer adopted the .44 Special in 1927, he did not completely abandon the .45 Colt Single Action. I found the Colt pictured on page 102 of Sixguns, a 4 3/4" barrelled model, with S&W type adjustable rear sight, and barrel band front sight was still well enough regarded by Keith it was loaded with five rounds of factory ammo. Before the advent of the .44 Magnum, Keith always said that if he had to depend on factory ammunition his choice would be the .45 Colt.
This .45 Colt, with a wide hammer spur, is also interesting in that it has a special stud on the left side of the gun that replaced the hammer screw. The stud fitted on a clip fastened to the belt and the Colt swung on the clip without a holster, ready for instant use. Keith is pictured using this .45 Colt on page 167 of Sixguns. This sixgun shows extensive blue wear and I am guessing that Keith carried it a lot on the quick-draw belt clip.
These five single actions were obvious favorites and were probably used heavily for about thirty years, that is, until the advent of the .44 Magnum. In the 1950's, Keith carried a 4” 1950 Target Smith & Wesson .44 Special as his favorite sixgun, soon to be replaced by the same basic gun but chambered for the .44 Magnum. Three single action Rugers were also favorites of Keith. A standard 7 1/2" Super Blackhawk with beautiful custom fancy grained wood stocks, and two Old Model Ruger Blackhawks, one in .45 Colt and the other chambered for .41 Magnum, and both fitted with brass Super Blackhawk grip frames and custom wood stocks. The Dragoon styled Super Blackhawk was Keith's top choice for a .44 Magnum single action sixgun.
On the 60th Anniversary of the Keith No. 5SAA, a new sixgun emerged, the Improved Number Five as we shall see in the next chapter.