After Elmer Keith had his completed #5SAA .44 Special, he commented at the time that "To my notion this is the finest and best Colt in existence...and the gun is quickly aimed and fired. The gun is a natural pointer to anyone used to the SAA...For general excellence of grip, balance, sights, trigger and hammer, I do not think this gun can be improved upon." Everything Keith mentioned, grip, balance, sights, trigger, and hammer would definitely be very difficult to improve. This sixgun sets in the hand so sweetly and points and shoots equally well. It was as Keith called it The Last Word when it came to single action sixgun perfection.
After spending a year shooting his new sixgun, Keith felt that the #5SAA was fine enough to be worthy of being fully engraved, and the walrus ivory stocks, which had shrunk were replaced with carved elephant ivory. Elmer's son Ted, informed me the #5SAA sixgun was used so much by his father it had been re-blued twice.
That was in the late 1920's. Keith went on to become probably the most respected and most read gun writer of all times. His influence can be seen not only in the .44 Magnum which came about as a direct result of his thirty years of shooting and writing about the .44 Special, but also in the Keith bullet, a term which has wrongly become synomous with semi-wadcutter sixgun bullets; Keith loads for .44 Special, .45 Colt, .38/44, .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum and .44 Magnum; and also in the Keith holster, cataloged by Lawrence as #120, but again a term that has become synonomous with a high-riding, no-nonsense, western-style holster.
It is now the 1960s and Bill Grover enters the single action scene. In 1964, Keith sent young gunsmith Bill Grover an autographed copy of Sixguns. Grover, as so many of us young sixgunners then, held Keith in high esteem at the hero level. Grover was fascinated by the #5SAA pictured and described in Keith's book and spent as much time studying the pictures of Keith’s Single Action sixguns as I did. In 1981, Grover moved from gunsmith to gunmaker as his company, Texas Longhorn Arms, began producing right-handed single actions; that is, the loading gate and ejector rod were on the left side of TLA Single Actions, allowing a right-handed sixgunner to keep the gun in his right hand as it is loaded and unloaded with the left hand. Grover claims that Sam Colt was obviously left-handed or he would not have made his single actions backwards. Of course Sam Colt died more than 10 years before the advent of the Colt Single Action Army; however, all of his percussion pistols were set up for left handers, that is switch to the left hand for capping with percussion caps. If you are from Texas, as Grover is, you can call sixguns pistols, or ‘Ma Pistols’, as he calls his sixguns with his Texas accent.
In 1927, Elmer Keith set out to make the finest possible Single Action sixgun. In 1987, Bill Grover set out, not to copy the Keith #5SAA, but to really improve upon it and still keep the original flavor. He succeeded in producing a real salute to Elmer Keith as Dean of the Sixgunners. The grip straps, grip contour, base pin, and lever latch, are all identical to Elmer's original #5SAA. I have handled both sixguns at the same time and, when it comes to the grip frame, the original #5 and The Improved Number Five feel and look the same. The lever latch, other than being a mirror image on the Improved Number Five, is also identical.
Grover was so captivated by the #5SAA pictured and described in Keith's book he tried numerous times to duplicate the old gun without success. In 1986, at the SHOT Show, Grover met Dan Love of Arthur, Iowa. Love had the detailed pattern for the grip of the #5SAA as drawn for him by Keith himself when Love visited Keith in 1971. Love contacted Ted Keith and received numerous black and white photos of the #5SAA and, along with the photos, the Keith family gave permission for Grover to build the Improved Number Five as long as it did not contain Elmer Keith's name as that belonged to Smith & Wesson and their Elmer Keith Commemorative.
In the summer of '86, Grover, using the black & white photos and the patterns from Dan Love, began in earnest to try once again to build the #5SAA as The Improved Number Five. It was obvious he would need more help to perform all the operations that had been done by several gunsmiths in the 1920s on the original #5. I met with Grover in 1987, at the SHOT Show, as a number of like-minded individuals gathered at the Texas Longhorn Arms booth to discuss the Improved Number Five. The result was a trek to the Texas Longhorn Arms factory to work on the Improved Number Five.
Grover relates that in two weeks time, they had the first complete Improved Number Five gun made. Starting with a block of steel, machining parts, making workable patterns, spring, sights, and screws, and countless other items took all the men's time. Those present and working on the project were Bill Oakes from Lancaster, Kentucky; Dan Love from Arthur, Iowa; Bill Konig, a renowned grip maker from Centerville, Tennessee; and Robert Luna from Pleak, Texas, a very fine hand polisher. Grover headed up the operation planning what each would be doing, with all work and design being done in the Texas Longhorn Arms factory. They started with ideas only and had a prototype from paper to steel to finished product in two weeks, as Bill says that is quite an accomplishment. It took the entire crew working together to get it out in such short order.
Grover himself machined the frame and cylinder. While they were being fitted and polished, Glenn Foley of Alice Texas made the barrel. Grip maker, Bill Konig, worked with Dan Love and Grover to come up with a two-piece grip that actually appeared to be of one piece as on the original Colt Single Actions. This newest one-piece type grip was ingeniously fitted to the Improved Number Five with no screw holes going through either side. This one-piece look gives the gun a very clean, uncluttered look. While accomplishing all this, Grover sought out Master Machinist and Designer, Keith DeHart for assistance with the base pin and lever latch. DeHart was shown what was needed along with the drawings from Dan Love, and the pictures that Ted Keith had sent. It was pointed out they had to make this in reverse as the new right-handed single actions were the opposite of the Colts and the original #5SAA is was a Colt. DeHart matched the #5 base pin locking lever to perfection in mirror image.
What then are the improvements that make up the Improved Number Five? Keith said his #5SAA could not be improved upon when he wrote it up as the Last Word; however things change over a 60-year period. Some things Grover kept the same; others he definitely improved. The new lockwork consists of all music wire coil springs. A round trigger guard as found on the pre-War Colt's is used and the trigger itself is rounded like a shotgun trigger and sets back in the uttermost rear of the trigger guard, moving only very slightly when the gun is cocked. The low, wide hammer spur is designed for easy reach and is checkered with plenty of room in front of the checkering so the thumb can "roll" with the hammer as it is being cocked. This allows for fast and easy cocking both from the leather and when deliberate shooting at targets or game.
Since the loading gate and ejector rod are on the left side, a right-handed shooter can load, shoot, empty, and reload without ever taking the gun out of his right hand. As a single action sixgunner for nearly 50 years, I’ve always placed the sixgun in my left hand for loading and unloading. This is unnecessary with the Improved Number Five, but I find myself still doing it. A half-century of habit is hard to overcome.
The three-tiered front sight on the Improved Number Five was designed by Grover to provide two distinct sighting points allowing the sixgunner (who still has good eyes) to hold at different points for short and long range shooting. To match the front sight, the rear sight is fully adjustable and of the old Micro Sight style with the rounded front found on the early Flat-Top Ruger Blackhawks. The top strap is a heavy, wide flat-top style also. The firing pin is of the rebounding style, frame mounted rather than on the hammer itself to better handle heavy loads; a style first used on production single actions by Ruger and Great Western in the 1950's.
The entire Improved Number Five is made of #4140 Certified Aircraft Steel. The cylinder is double heat-treated to ensure strength, and both the cylinder and the frame are larger and stronger than the original #5SAA. Keith chose the best cartridge for his #5SAA, the .44 Special. If Keith were alive today, Grover is sure he would go for the .44 Magnum, so the Improved Number Five is chambered thusly.
The first Improved Number Five was serial number K1. Subsequent sixguns were to be serial numbered through K1200. The K stands for Keith and only 1200 of these were planned. Mine is K44. Grover's original idea was to make the Improved Number Five in .44 Magnum only. When he asked my advice as to caliber, I responded that I did not think Elmer would mind at all if the new Number Five were available to sixgunners in .44 Magnum, .45 Colt, .44 Special, and even .41 Magnum. The TLA Number Five is found mostly in .44 Magnum and .45 Colt and very rarely in .41 Magnum.
When shooting that first Improved Number Five, I was able to get groups in the one-inch neighborhood, both with 20.0 grains of #2400 and the Keith bullet at 1300 fps+, and also with 22.0 grains of #2400 and the Lyman #429244 Thompson gas check bullet clocking out at 1500 fps+. The Improved Number Five is an extremely well built sixgun and should give a lifetime of service. Keith knew what he was doing when he incorporated the ideas of Harold Croft and the skills of J.D. O'Meara to come up with the #5 single action grip. Although on the small side, Keith had very small hands, it is definitely quite comfortable keeping felt recoil to a minimum and although originally designed to handle the recoil of 250 grain bullets at 1100-1200 fps, it also does a creditable job in handling 250s at a full 1500 fps.
Like the original Keith #5SAA, the Improved Number Five by Texas Longhorn Arms had a standard 5 1/2" barrel with a very few being made with 7 1/2” barrels. The 5 1/2” barrel length is a good compromise between the easy packin' 4 3/4” and the easier shootin' 7 1/2” length. Keith felt he had the best possible Single Action in his original #5SAA; I think he would have liked Grover's Improved Model.
Grover sent me the original Improved Number Five serial number 1 for testing in 1988. Not only was I able to test this Number Five I also compared it to the original. Keith died in 1984 however, I was able to meet with Elmer's son Ted and photograph the two sixguns side-by-side and also hold one in each hand. As expected the grips felt the same. There's no doubt that the grip frame of the No. 5 inspired Bill Ruger to build the Bisley Model Ruger. However, the Ruger Bisley grip frame is much larger than the Keith design as Elmer had smaller than normal hands. Because of the size of the No. 5 grip frame I have found one’s grip must remain very consistent to acquire the best results accuracy wise.
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. In comparing the Keith No. 5 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. I certainly call all of this improvement.
As mentioned, Grover's original plans were to build 1200 Improved Number Fives in .44 Magnum with 5 ½” barrels. After testing the original I ordered serial number K44, which I now have, and also purchased an identical Improved Number Five chambered in .45 Colt. The plan of 1200 .44 Magnums never materialized, nor did the 1,000 each of the West Texas Flat Top Target and South Texas Army. In addition to the standard guns there were a few fully factory engraved models and a few stainless-steel Number Fives built by Grover. On several hunting trips together he also showed me special guns with folding leaf express style sights. Texas Longhorn Arms offered a unique product in an uphill battle. They were never able to keep up with orders nor have enough working capital and finally closed their doors in 1998. Today all TLA sixguns can be viewed as collectors items, however, mine remain working collectibles.
Test-Firing the Texas Longhorn Arms Improved Number Five 5 ½” .44 Magnum
Bullet/Load MV 5 Shots at 25Yds
H&G 250 Keith/19.0 gr. #2400 1,273 1 5/8”
H&G 250 Keith/19.5 gr. H4227 1,109 1 1/2”
Lyman #431244GC/24.0 gr. H4227 1,395 1 5/8”
Lyman #431244GC/21.5 gr. AA#9 1,403 1 1/2”
Lyman #431244GC/25.0 gr. WW296 1,434 1 5/8”
RCBS #44-300FN/21.5 gr. WW296 1,365 1 7/8”
Hornady 240 XTP/25.0 gr. WW296 1,543 1 1/4”
BRP #295.429/21.5 GR. WW296 1,378 1 1/2"
RCBS #44-300/21.5 GR. WW296 1,365 1 7/8"
Black Hills 240 JHP 1,293 1 3/4"
Bill Grover commissioned several Number Fives with engraving and custom stocks, however one of the finest custom Number Fives in existence was finished after TLA closed their doors. Al DiPrima of Impact Custom Arms wanted to do something to pay back the firearms industry for all the pleasure he has derived in his shooting life. It would take eight years of work and planning on the part of several individuals, however the results were well worth the time and effort involved. Bill Grover donated a .44 Magnum Improved Number Five to start the project. This sixgun was then sent to Ken Kelly at Mag-Na-Port for porting and a custom inverted muzzle crown. DiPrima then contacted Terry Wallace of Vallejo California, who is well-known for engraving work on high-grade rifles and shotguns, to do the engraving. Working in between the projects that paid his bills, it took five years to complete the engraving. The engraved Improved Number Five was then sent to The Gold Line Co. in Wolcott Connecticut for a finish of nickel with gold accents. Master Gripmaker Roy Fishpaw of Lynchburg Virginia supplied the ivory stocks and Don Brown of Ted Blocker Holsters supplied a beautifully carved Texas Hi Ride holster. For anyone looking for the best in sixgun stocks or quality leather, both of these men are highly recommended. A high-quality classic sixgun deserves a special resting place and Gordon Marts of Santa Fe New Mexico crafted a 19th century style fitted case of Madagascar Mahogany. In addition to providing security for the Improved Number Five, this locking case also holds the custom holster and 24 rounds of .44 Magnum ammunition.
Elmer Keith’s original #5SAA was fully engraved and fitted with the ivory stocks. This current one of a kind Number Five is a fitting tribute to the Old Master. The original purpose was not only to build a superb sixgun but also to raise money for a worthy project. It was sold for $9,000 and the money placed in The Shootists Building Fund for a future building at the Whittington Center in Raton New Mexico.
Bill Grover never got over the closing of Texas Longhorn Arms; it broke him physically to the point he went Home in October 2004. He is missed.