I’ve said it often but it still bears repeating. The 1950s had to be just about the greatest time ever for growing up. We were not disadvantaged with 150 channel TVs, cellphones, VCRs, computers, electronic games, or adults who thought they had to show us how to organize and then coach us so we could play football and baseball. Drugs were prescriptions from Doc Reeder’s Drug Store. Outside was for continuous activity; inside was for eating and sleeping. Mom still stayed home and cooked three meals a day, seven days a week. We never had to go out to eat; couldn’t have afforded it if we had wanted to do so. Until McDonalds started to show up, I don't know of anyone who ever "went out to eat" except for gathering at the local drive-in during high school days.
We did have one great disadvantage, and it is the only one I can think of, and that was a relative lack of information available on firearms, especially handguns. There were no gun magazines yet in the early 1950s. The outdoor magazines rarely published anything about handguns, in fact the only magazine that did, and certainly not often enough, was the American Riflemen. Paperback books had started to show up from some such publishers as Trend and for 75 cents one could have "The Complete Book of Handguns”; even though it was complete, a new copy came out just about every year.
Then it happened. It was the dead of winter, late December 1954 and I had gone downtown to see a movie, western of course, and stopped in at the newsstand. There it was. I had to blink to make sure it was real. I know my heart skipped a beat. Maybe two. There on the rack was a new magazine called GUNS and it was dated January 1955. I was a junior in high school and reading every book I could find about guns and hunting, we had a great school librarian in the pre-PC days, and I made frequent trips to town just to check out the newsstands for any gun publications. My search for knowledge had been rewarded. GUNS was only the first and over the next few years would be followed by GUNS & AMMO, beginning as a quarterly in 1958; GUN WORLD, 1960; and SHOOTING TIMES, which started life as a newspaper also in the early 1960s.
Now we had real gun magazines with articles about handguns in general and single action sixguns in particular. During the first year of publication, GUNS carried an article entitled "A Six-Shooter For TV Cowboys.” Just about every B western movie made saw the good guys and bad guys alike packin’ Colt Single Actions. But this six-shooter for TV Cowboys was not a Colt. The Colt Single Action had been manufactured from 1873 to 1941 with no major design changes, however, production ceased in 1941 after nearly 360,000 Model P’s had been made in something over 30 different chamberings with the most popular being .45 Colt, .44-40, .38-40, and .32-20. Colt's official stance was that the Colt Single Action Army was dead and buried never to be seen again. Sales had been going down for years and they saw no need to resurrect the Single Action Army after the war.
Then a strange phenomenon occurred. In the late 1940s television began to appear around the country. There wasn't much to fill the TV time in those days and all I vividly remember are old B Westerns and wrestling. There were so many western movies that they soon spawned western TV shows on a regular weekly basis. Viewers wanted single action revolvers like those they saw on television, and two companies answered the call. A young gunmaker had introduced a .22 semi-automatic pistol in 1949 that was reliable, accurate, and relatively low-priced. This was Bill Ruger’s first production arm, and four years later, in 1953, one of the all-time great successes in revolverdom arrived with the Ruger .22 Single-Six. Ruger's .22 is basically a copy of a Colt Single Action Army with a smaller frame and coil springs, however, the grip frame remained Colt-sized. It was an immediate success and remains tremendously popular more than a half-century later.
Meanwhile at the other end of the country, another gun company was founded, Great Western Arms Co. of Los Angeles. Bill Wilson, president and one of three founders, had contacted Colt in 1953 and was assured they had no plans to resurrect the Colt Single Action Army. Shooters wanted real Colts and they couldn't get them, so Great Western stepped into the void. The Great Western looked so much like a Colt Single Action Army that they actually used real Colts in the early advertising. In fact, some of the Great Western parts came from Colt. Great Western became the “Six-Shooter For TV Cowboys.”
Great Western began in 1954 and I saw the first ads when I was a junior in high school, which was also 1954. I do recall keeping a Great Western catalog in my English book to help me get through that last period of the day as the clock hands moved oh so slowly headed for 3:15 and dismissal. Great Western presented John Wayne with an early matched pair, fully engraved with ivory grips. It is believed The Duke used these Great Westerns in his last, and what many say is his best movie, The Shootist. The picture of the Duke with his Great Westerns was in my history book. It got me through to lunch.
In the late 1950s I bought my first Great Western Single Action. I had great luck with the Ruger Single-Six .22 so I purchased a used Great Western .22. That turned out to be a mistake. The 5 1/2” .22 proved to be a really poor shooting sixgun and was definitely out of time. I can’t say if it came from the factory that way or if it had been abused. Thirty-five years later I picked up two more 5 1/2” Great Western .22’s which have proven to be excellent shooters and they are also favorites with the grandkids. Elmer Keith in the first chapter of his book, Sixguns by Keith (1955), commented that the test Great Western Single Action that he had received was "very poorly timed, fitted, and showed a total lack of final inspection. The hand was a trifle short, the bolt spring did not have enough bend to lock the bolt with any certainty, the mainspring was twice as strong as necessary and the trigger pull about three times as heavy as needed." Maybe the same guy made his test gun and my .22. Later in his book Elmer was able to report: "We are happy to report that Great Western has really gotten on the ball and is now cooking on all four burners. They overhauled their design and inspection departments, put in some gunsmiths who knew the score and are now turning out first-class single action copies. We have one in 4 3/4” .44 Special and it is a very fine single action in every way, perfectly timed, sighted, and very accurate. It has performed perfectly with factory loads and our heavy handloads and is very accurate at extreme ranges, the real test of any sixgun."
Great Western sixguns were totally American-made and are not to be confused with the Hawes Single Actions, which came later. Hy Hunter was an early distributor of Great Westerns, as was EMF, and Hunter also later brought in the German made J.P.Sauer & Sohn Hawes versions. I have no idea how many Great Western Single Actions were manufactured in the less than ten years they were in business. It was not unusual to find them at bargain prices 10 years ago, however the prices have tripled and quadrupled since then. They are also not all that commonly found at gun shows anymore.
At first glance, Great Western Single Actions look identical to Colt Single Actions with subtle differences in the hammer profile and shape of the trigger guard. They show up on many TV Westerns and are easy to spot when the hammer is cocked. Colts have the firing pin on the hammer, while Great Westerns have a frame mounted firing pin such as that introduced by the old Christy Gun Works and picked up by Bill Ruger for used in all of his single actions. Unlike Rugers, the Great Westerns have sort of an upside down L-shaped hammer. However, Great Western could be ordered with Colt hammers.
Great Westerns were made in the three standard barrel lengths of 4 3/4”, 5 1/2”, and 7 1/2” plus a 12 1/2” Buntline Special. The standard model was a 5 1/2” .45 Colt that sold for $99.50 in 1960 at a time when the resurrected Colt Single Action Army .45 had a price tag of $125. There was a slight additional charge for other calibers and barrel lengths. In addition to .45 Colt and .22, the Great Western was offered in .38 Special, .44 Special, .357 Magnum, .357 Atomic, and .44 Magnum. The "Atomic" was simply a heavily loaded .357 Magnum, and believe it or not, the .44 Magnum was on the standard Colt-sized mainframe. I have heard rumors to the effect that a .44-40 was also offered and I do know they did make some examples chambered in .22 Hornet.
Great Western also offered both pearl and ivory grips, engraving, nickel plating, and even the installation of adjustable target sights. The Deputy Model was a 4” barreled version with a full-length barrel rib, adjustable sights, deluxe blue finish, and walnut stocks instead of the standard issue B-Western type imitation stags. The Deputy was offered in a .22, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, and at least rumored in .44 Special.
The Great Western not only arrived at the time the TV Western was King, it also profited by the Fast Draw sport that arose. For those that participated, Great Western offered a specially tuned 4 3/4” .45 with a brass backstrap and trigger guard. It was popular enough they soon offered a “Professional Fast Draw Model” in all calibers and barrel lengths. A copy of the Remington Double Barrel Derringer was also offered chambered in either .38 S&W or .38 Special. The Great Western Cap and Ball Revolver looked much like the Old Army that came from Ruger in the early 70’s but without the top strap.
Most of the parts of the Great Western Single Action are interchangeable with the Colt Single Action Army except for the hammer, and the hammer, trigger, and bolt screws. The threads on these three screws were changed to help prevent them from loosening as the gun was fired. Two years after the Great Western was introduced, Colt brought back the Single Action Army and, no matter how good the quality had become, Great Western’s fate was sealed. In their advertising Great Western gave a whole list of reasons for selecting their single action instead of another, which by this time was Colt.
The reason offered were: Great Westerns are made of 4130 Chrome Molybdenum steel, the same as used for stress parts in aircraft and guided missiles. Barrels are made of medium carbon steel of the finest quality overseen by the man formerly in charge of manufacturing Weatherby barrels. Cylinders are made of SAE 4140 Chrome Molybdenum steel heat-treated to a tensile strength of 185,000 pounds per square inch. Overloads in the .45 Colt have been run at 100,000 pounds per square inch. Both the bolt and trigger have been improved over the original and are guaranteed for 20 years (unfortunately the company did not last half that length of time!) and a frame-mounted firing pin is used. Stocks are imitation stag designed to resist warpage. Late model actions are carefully fitted and assembled with the smoothest and softest actions ever incorporated into a single action revolver. Mainsprings have been designed for easier cocking. The sear and bolt spring, which often failed in original guns, has been specially heat-treated and guaranteed for 50,000 movements. There are no aluminum cast parts. We offer a larger variety of finish including mirror blue, case hardened frame, chrome, nickel, gold, silver, or combinations thereof. Great Westerns are the only single actions offered in a variety of barrel lengths. Great Westerns are the only single actions offered in all popular calibers. Front sights are purposely tall to allow for individual sighting in, and adjustable sights are also available. The hammer is made of SAE 6150 Chrome Vanadium steel giving greater strength and wear resistance than any other.
Of course, much of this is advertising hype however I have experienced approximately one dozen Great Westerns over the past 40 years and I have never had a spring fail or a part break. I cannot say that about Colt Single Actions or current replicas. I have purchased Great Westerns with broken parts, whether from use or abuse I do not know, but one .44 Magnum had a broken firing pin (cost $7.50 to fix) and a chrome-plated 4 3/4”.45 Colt was found with a split forcing cone. I replaced the barrel with a nickel-plated Colt barrel and its been doing service now for another 10 years.
An attempt has been made to write a book about Great Western, however the author gave up after running into too many dead ends. Noted fast draw shooter, technical director, and gun spinning expert, Jim Martin shared with me the fact he used to buy Great Westerns in kit form. These were offered substantially lower than the finished product, and Martin would pick up a kit, fit and finish it, sell it, and then do it all over again for pocket money. About six months ago I got a letter from one David Davis who was in the Air Force in 1955 and was able to order Great Westerns through the PX. His original requisition dated December 1955 saw him purchase three great Westerns, a .38 Derringer, a 7 1/2” .22 Long Rifle, and a 7 1/2” .357 Atomic all for the grand total of $181.50. That figure makes us long for those days, however when Davis got out of the Air Force he went to work for Great Western as a machinist for $1.25 per hour; while gunsmiths received $2.00. To put this into perspective I went to work unloading freight in 1956 for 90 cents an hour. Davis also remembers when they tested the first .44 Magnum, the bullet went through the backstop and headed who knows where. I have never seen one of the Great Western cap and ball revolvers, however Davis did, and purchased one of the prototypes.
My last Great Western purchased was just a couple years ago at one of our local gun shows. I had only been inside for a few minutes when I spotted it on the first table, in the second aisle. The first sixgun to really catch my eye, it was a 7 1/2” Great Western, in relatively poor shape. What really caught my eye was the fact the 7 1/2” barrel was marked .44 SPECIAL, and these are very rare. The original grips were long gone and replaced by a set of ill-fitting Flat-Top Ruger Blackhawk stocks. Even though the finish was well worn, the $125 price tag was very attractive for a sixgun to be used in a rebuild project. The cylinder pin would not budge when the spring loaded catch was pressed and my fingers grasped the head of the base pin. So I asked the two men manning the table to please pull the base pin while I looked around a few more aisles.
Returning a half-hour later I found the gun was no longer on the table as it had been set aside so they could work on getting the base pin out. I assured the sellers I would buy the gun and be back again shortly. Returning later I found they had sold the gun even though I had told them I would take it because the other guy was willing to take it without pulling the pin. Now there were hundreds of people in the gun show but I realized there was only one other person in that entire gun show beside myself who would be interested in such a project gun. I found friend and fellow writer Brian Pearce several aisles over; he smiled and opened his coat to show me the Great Western stuffed in his belt.
They had told him I had decided not to take the Great Western, so when he heard the real story he offered to sell it to me on the spot. He was caught in the middle but it certainly wasn’t his fault I offered it was not his fault and he had purchased it fair and square. There was a reason the pin was never pulled, and Brian spent several hours working on getting the cylinder pin out by dismantling the gun and driving in out from the rear. When he got it out, removed the cylinder and looked at the barrel, he found it was totally destroyed by the use of black powder with out proper cleaning, and although was barrel marked .44 Special, the cylinder would accept a .45 Colt. What we had here was a movie prop gun that would accept blackpowder “5-in-1” blanks. Who knows but what some famous TV or movie Western star had used it extensively.
Now that we knew what we really had, Pearce offered to sell it to me again if I wanted to use it as a project gun. I did as I had some special plans for that particular Great Western. In September 1955 during my last year in high school a new type of TV Western arrived with a relatively unknown actor in the lead. John Wayne was originally picked for the part but turned it down and instead introduced that first episode with James Arness as Marshall Matt Dillon. Virtually everyone watched Matt, Kitty, Chester, and Doc and various other characters from Dodge City every Saturday night.
Matt used a 7 1/2” .45 Colt Single Action and eventually one of the new Arvo Ojala Hollywood Fast Draw holsters. In fact, he gunned down Arvo Ojala in the opening of each episode for several years. In 1957 I purchased my first 7 1/2” Colt Single Action .45 Colt, and then one year later custom ordered an Arvo Ojala rig. Matt went for plain brown, I decided on black basket weave. Gunsmoke ran for several decades and now thanks to videotapes and cable TV is still seen virtually every day in virtually every part of the country. Since this Great Western had been a movie gun, I decided to rebuild this old single action to honor Marshall Dillon and all the other characters of Gunsmoke.
All-new internal parts were ordered from Brownells. A search through my parts box revealed a Colt Single Action cylinder chambered in .45 Colt along with the real treasure needed to complete the project. More than 30 years ago I spent $5 at a gun show for a used 7 1/2” .45 Colt Great Western barrel. It is a most unusual barrel as it is tapered somewhat and lighter than most .45 barrels, but it is properly marked, and has been in my shop for three decades ever since waiting for the right project. The right project had finally arrived.
What was left of the Great Western sixgun along with new parts was taken to Mike Rainey, then resident gunsmith at Shapel’s. He put everything together, tuned the action, and even shimmed under the back of the collar button base pin bushing of the 3rd Generation Colt cylinder to adapt it to the slightly longer frame of the Great Western. The resulting sixgun turned out to be more than could have been hoped for. Not only does it function smoothly it also shoots! Using 8.0 grains of Unique under a Oregon Trail 255 grain bullet or RCBS’s #45-270 grain bullet over 17.0 grains of XMR 5744, or just about any other combination results in five-shot groups right at one-inch.
Only one thing was needed to complete this project and that was the proper grips. I was contacted at just the right time by a reader who knew that I semi-collected plastic stag grips such as those found on the original Great Westerns and also made by both Fitz and Franzite for virtually every other revolver well into the 1950s.I threw these grips away in the 50s but go even as high as $5 for a pair now, and have installed some on Italian replicas to make them resemble B movie sixguns. I never pay more than $5 for a pair of these grips, free is even better, however, he said he had a beautiful pair in perfect shape that I could have for $15 postpaid. So I relented and I am happy I did so as what I got was not the typical hollow plastic stag grips, but rather solid, heavy-duty, plastic stag grips as found on many movie guns prior to World War II, in fact, Tom Mix had such a pair on his 7 1/2” .38-40 Colt Single Action. These stags now reside on my real Saturday Night Special.
Gone, long gone, are the days when network TV entertained us with the likes of Gunsmoke; Have Gun, Will Travel; Bonanza; Maverick; Cheyenne; and dozens of other bits of Western Americana. Network TV really has become the Vast Wasteland of Newton Minow, however, my Real Saturday Night Special continues to bring back many pleasant memories of a most enjoyable time of my life.
The first issue of GUNS in January 1955 featured a cased set of a pair of Great Westerns chambered d in .45 Colt with 4 3/4” barrels and unlike most Great Westerns with frame mounted firing pins, these guns, which have no caliber markings on the barrels, have Colt-style hammers with the firing pin on the hammer. Since they are very early production sixguns, their serial numbers are GW183 and GW184. They are also not case-colored and their frames and ejector rod housings have the same plum purple color found on many early Ruger loading gates. Thanks to publisher Tom von Rosen and editor Jeff John of GUNS, it was my recent pleasure to be able to actually hold and shoot these historic sixguns. The 50-year old Great Westerns were not as bad as the one described by Keith, but close! It was time to correct this situation and I received permission from GUNS to have these sixguns brought to perfection by the previously mentioned long-time single action gunsmith, fast draw shooter, trick shooter, and instructor of movie cowboys on the use of the single action sixgun, Jim Martin. Great Western not only offered completed sixguns but kits as well.
Sixgun #184 was as it left the factory except for the fact nearly all the screw heads were buggered, as were those on the #183, and it simply needed the screws replaced and the touch of a master tunesmith. Companion #183 was an entirely different matter. Who knows how many people had handled this sixgun over the past half century? Those that did apparently knew nothing about how a single action works and #183 had paid the price. It would not cock. I dismantled it and to see what the problem was and found someone had filed through the full cock notch on the hammer resulting in the hole for the stud on the hand being filed through also. No wonder it wouldn't cock! Both Great Westerns were shipped off to Jim Martin. Little did he know what be would really getting into as #183 turned out to be a major challenge.
I quote from Martin: “Serial #183 is the one I had all the problems with…. Most of the parts that were in it were wrong, and the top radius of the bolt was out of line with the approaches and the locking slot on both guns. That's why the scratches are where they are. The parts I used in #183 range from an AWA hand, Colt bolt and sear and bolt spring, the trigger is a Colt but had to be extended and a half cock notch was moved down to allow the bolt to clear the cylinder in the half cock position. The full cock notch was repaired, the hammer can was repaired so that the bolt would fall at the start of the approach instead of where it was falling before. Trying to get all these modified parts to time together is where I ran into all the problems. The area in the front of frame under where the sear and bolt spring is screwed in had to be reduced so that the bolt side of the spring would have enough pressure to make the bolt fall. I tried every make of spring I had here and none of them would work without modification. Evidently it wasn't right from the beginning, which would explain some of the damage that was done to the gun. I used an AWA pre-lightened mainspring in #184 and a Wolff spring in #183. This was easier and less expensive than using two Colt springs plus the grinding and polishing on them to make them lighter. Anyway, they are a whole lot better than they were.”
If Jim Martin had been the head gunsmith for Great Western way back when perhaps they would still be in business. These two early sixguns are now tuned and slicked the way a single action should be. As the hammer is cocked the parts all work together instead of fighting each other. Fifty years after I first saw those Great Western cover sixguns, I actually got to shoot them and shoot they do! Using Black Hills .45 Colt 250 RNFP loads at 775 fps resulted in #183 placing six shots into 1 1/8” at 50 feet and #184 going 1 3/8” at the same distance. With short-barreled sixguns having tiny little sights, V-notch rear and very slim blade front, I would settle for that anytime.
If Great Western had started with the proper gunsmithing, and if they had modernized instead of copying the Colt Single Action, and if Colt had not resumed production of the Single Action Army and if Ruger had not introduced the adjustable- sighted coil-spring operated .357 Blackhawk, and if…..maybe Great Western would still be around. Maybe.