A Special No. 5
For Elmer, Skeeter & Bill.
In the March 2012 Campfire Tales, I spoke of the Ruger Flat-Top Bisley Model .44 Special that was offered exclusively by Lipsey’s and the plans I had for my 5.5-inch version… someday. I quote the final paragraph: “Keith’s No. 5 was fully engraved and ivory stocked. The Lipsey’s version is standard blue. However mine shoots so well, groups of 0.875 and 1 inch are not uncommon, it is going to be carried farther down the path of the No. 5. That means full engraving, carved ivory grips with a Mexican Eagle, and refinished with a case-hardened frame and hammer by Turnbull Manufacturing.” After writing this I heard from many readers who wanted to be sure to be able to see pictures of the finished project.
“Someday” often takes a long time to occur, if it happens at all. And sometimes even when someday does happen, it is not the same as originally planned. Well, this someday took just over a year to bring to fruition, with only a few minor changes. As I made my plans for customizing the Bisley Model .44 Special, I conceived it as a remembrance of Elmer Keith, Skeeter Skelton and Bill Ruger (more on this shortly). My Lipsey’s Ruger Flat-Top Bisley .44 Special has now been totally upgraded and refinished to provide me with a modernized version of the No. 5 SAA. For those who may not know of the famous No. 5, a little review is in order, so what follows is a condensed version of that March 2012 Campfire Tales.
“In 2006 I was given the rare privilege of placing and labeling all the firearms of Elmer Keith in the Elmer Keith Museum and so was able to position his No. 5 SA in the spot where it could be seen immediately as one entered the museum; it is the centerpiece of the sixgun display. I ‘visit’ the No. 5 at least once a month.”
From the late 1920’s until 1955, Keith continually promoted the .44 Special as the ideal sixgun cartridge using his designed “Keith” bullet, weighing 250 grains and pushed at a full 1,200 fps using first No. 80 powder and then, when it became available, Hercules No. 2400. Keith was not satisfied with factory stock sixguns and enlisted the help of some of the top gunsmiths and engravers in the country to customize his sixguns. His No. 5 SA Colt was an extensively customized 5.5-inch Flat-Top Target Model with a special grip made by combining a Bisley backstrap and Colt SA triggerguard. This now-famous Keith Colt was featured as “The Last Word” in the April 1929 issue of the American Rifleman. The title for the article comes from the fact that this revolver was designed as the epitome of the single-action sixgun. Every possible improvement was incorporated in “The Last Word” sixgun and Keith tried to interest Colt in making it a factory-offered single action, but to no avail.
The Bisley Model Flat-Top .44 Special was completely polished and then engraved
by Michael Gouse. It was then given a full blue, just like original No. 5 of Elmer Keith.
Keith, along with the ideas of Harold Croft and gunsmiths of the time, Neal Houchins, R.F. Sedgley and J.D. O’Meara, worked together and welded up the top strap of a standard Colt Single Action to make a heavy Flat-Top Target design. The old flat mainspring was replaced by a U-type spring, and the hammer was made by welding a Bisley wide spur to a standard hammer. The rear sight is adjustable and the front sight is the high Patridge type. The base pin latch was changed to eliminate any chance of the pin jumping forward under recoil and the grip frame was made by mating a standard Colt SA triggerguard and a Bisley backstrap.
Keith called this sixgun his No. 5 SA. In the late 1920’s, Harold Croft of Pennsylvania had packed a suitcase full of sixguns and took the train all the way across the country to Elmer Keith’s small ranch in Durkee, Ore. Keith called his new sixgun the No. 5 SA as it had been patterned after Croft’s numbers M1 to M4.”
For nearly 30 years, Elmer Keith would champion the .44 Special as the ultimate sixgun cartridge and call for ammunition companies to duplicate his Keith Load. The result in late 1955 was even more than Keith had hoped for with the arrival of the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum. With this new .44 in hand, Keith retired his .44 Specials and basically carried a .44 Magnum until his debilitating stroke in 1981. Meanwhile, a young fellow by the name of Skeeter Skelton (who was destined to become a gunwriter of stature nearly equaling Elmer Keith) found the .44 Magnum was more than he needed except for hunting, and went back to the .44 Special, as his everyday working sixgun. He wrote many articles on the .44 Special, including converting both Smith & Wesson and Ruger .357 Magnums to .44 Special.
Bill Ruger had modernized the Single Action by offering his .22 Single-Six in 1953 with coil springs instead of the traditional flat springs that had been used in Colt’s Single Action since 1836. In 1955 Bill offered the .357 Magnum Blackhawk complete with the virtually indestructible coil spring-powered action along with a flattop frame with adjustable sights. At the time, Elmer Keith said this sixgun was to be offered in .44 Special, however the arrival of the .44 Magnum changed all that and instead Ruger enlarged the frame and cylinder of his .357 Blackhawk to accommodate the .44 Magnum. Keith and Ruger now had .44 Magnums, however Skeeter continued to tell us everything he could about the wonders of the .44 Special.
Skeeter passed from us in 1988 and I have tried to do everything I can to continue to carry the torch for the .44 Special. In 2005, Ruger brought out the 50th Anniversary Model of the .357 Blackhawk. This New Model version featured the transfer bar safety, however it was the same size and shape as the original .357 Blackhawk. I talked to the president of Ruger at the time and asked for a .44 Special, however it remained for Lipsey’s to actually bring the .44 Special to reality by placing a custom order for New Model .44 Specials. Both blue and stainless steel versions were offered and Jason Cloessner of Lipsey’s thanked me for being the inspiration for resurrecting the .44 Special Blackhawk. Lipsey’s then offered what is definitely a direct inspiration from Keith’s No. 5 SA, namely a .44 Special Bisley New Model Flat-Top, which brings us to the sixgun at hand.
Step one—make sure it shoots!
I had already confirmed this .44 Special sixgun was an excellent shooter, so the next step was to sent it off to Roy Fishpaw to be fitted with ivory stocks as the first step on the path to my Elmer/Skeeter/Bill Sixgun. Roy, who is of course the gripmaker’s gripmaker, did his normal job of beautifully fitting and finishing elephant ivory to the Ruger Bisley .44 Special. When it returned from Virginia I placed the ivories in a safe haven and turned the .44 Special over to Mike and Tom at Buckhorn with instructions to remove the safety warning on the bottom of the barrel, completely polish for refinishing and also tune the action. With its return to me, it then went to Michael Gouse in Montana to be fully engraved. Michael had already engraved two stainless steel .44 Specials for me, a Smith & Wesson 4-inch Model 624 and a 4.625-inch Ruger .44 Special Blackhawk, so I knew he would do an excellent job on this project, and that’s exactly what transpired.
When the Bisley Model came back from the engraver, one additional operation was necessary to protect the excellent job Michael had done. In between the bolt slots on the cylinder Michael had accomplished beautifully carried out engraving. Unfortunately, most Ruger Single Actions are not timed perfectly and the bolt often comes up and hits the cylinder before it should. With proper timing, this bolt does not come up until it hits the lead-ins to the bolt slots. Tom at Buckhorn pointed this out to me and he made the necessary adjustments for proper timing. Normally I wouldn’t be too concerned, however this especially engraved sixgun was different.
Originally I had planned to refinish this Ruger .44 Special with a case-hardened frame and hammer and then I realized Elmer’s original No. 5 was completely blue. We are blessed to have a local artisan, Rocky York, who specializes in re-bluing, so the modernized .44 Special No. 5 was turned over to him to be refinished. When Buckhorn called to let me know my new No. 5 was back from Rocky, the ivory stocks were retrieved from their safe haven and went with me so they could be immediately put in place. Everything in this project turned out the way it should and the result is an exceptionally beautiful .44 Special Bisley Model.
Keith used his No. 5 SA on a daily basis for many years. In fact it has been re-blued twice. I am certainly not as active as I used to be, however this Bisley Model will be used and whichever grandson inherits it will find evidence of this fact. Every traditional sixgunner owes a huge debt of gratitude to Elmer Keith, Skeeter Skelton and Bill Ruger. I will think of them every time I shoot this magnificent .44 Special sixgun.
By John Taffin
Michael Gouse Freelance
P.O. Box 83280
Baton Rouge, LA 70884