Elmer Keith

Past Masters Of The
Double-Action Sixgun, Part I

By John Taffin

There’s no doubt we’re living in the age of the semi-automatic pistol. But from the 1920’s to the 1970’s, the double-action sixgun was definitely The King. There were many men who raised the use of the DA sixgun to both a high art and a science. These men should be remembered for their contributions. All of them are now gone. As a kid, never did I ever imagine I would actually know many of these sixgunners. With this in mind, let’s go back in time, to when six shots were the norm and all you needed.

The real pioneers of sixgunning were men who dedicated their lives to developing bullet designs, experimenting with special loads, influencing gun design, promoting handgun usage, pioneering handgun hunting, and sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm with us.

Such men as Elmer Keith, Skeeter Skelton, Jim Harvey, Al Goerg, Ray Thompson and Phil Sharpe are all gone now but their legacy lives on. Although here we’re only considering Past Masters, there are many masterful DA pistoleros working today. Three I have the pleasure of knowing are Mas Ayoob, Brian Pearce and Jerry Miculek, all of whom rank right up there with the Past Masters. But let’s begin with a look at the men from the past who have influenced us all.

What better place to start a tour through the Double-Action Hall of Fame than with the legendary Elmer Keith. Keith was born in 1899, which made him an immediate heir to the end of the frontier period. While I grew up learning from WWII and Korea vets, Keith grew up learning from many of the Civil War veterans and gunfighters from the last part of the 19th Century.

In 1911 Keith was burned terribly in a hotel fire in Missoula, Montana, and carried the scars for the rest of his life. An ordinary person would have died from the fire, as his entire body was covered with burns and his chin was welded to his right shoulder with his left hand turned upside down on the back of his arm. But Keith was no ordinary man and did not give up. With the help of his parents and home remedies such as breaking his hand and soaking it in tallow within a leather glove nailed to a board, Keith regained full use of his hand.

During my high school years I read his articles and became enraptured to say the least. At the time, Keith was writing for the only gun magazine available, GUNS. When I purchased a copy of Sixguns by Keith I knew I had to move to Idaho. So in 1966 my wife and I packed up the kids and the sixguns and went.

Two years later we made the trip across the state to Salmon, found his home, knocked on the door with some trepidation, and were warmly greeted by Elmer himself. He took us in and we talked like he’d known me all my life. My wife and I spent the day with Elmer and his wife, Lorraine. My story was not unique, as Elmer treated everyone this way. You can find plenty of folks everywhere who’ve made the trip to “Sixgunner’s Mecca” in Salmon to visit with Elmer Keith.

Elmer was packing a sixgun at the time as I expected. It was not his beloved .44 Magnum at the time, but rather an ivory stocked, 4-inch .41 Magnum was on his hip. One reader told me they hit Elmer’s place early in the morning and he opened the door wearing long johns, boots, hat and his .44 Magnum. Yes, that was the Elmer Keith we knew and loved.

Elmer’s first published work was a letter in the American Rifleman in the mid-1920’s. His last original manuscript was published nearly 60 years later. During his prolific career, he not only wrote 11 books on sixguns, rifles, shotguns and hunting, he also managed to personally answer an average of 300 letters per month. Many sixgunners around the world have these as cherished mementos from the legend himself.

Keith’s four S&W .44’s (left to right): a custom 4-1/2-inch .44 Magnum,
a fully engraved .44 Special, a plain blue .44 Magnum and a .44 Magnum
given to him by Smith & Wesson.

Keith was not really an experimenter in the way so many of us are today. He found a few good loads for his .44 Specials and .44 Magnums and stuck with them for decades. Some things just seem to have been meant to happen, such as Keith’s marriage to the .44 Special.

In 1925 he blew up a .45 Colt SAA and then switched to the .44 Special, which, up to that point, he’d never seen. But the rest, as they say, is history. Keith designed a special bullet for the Special in 1926 and every sixgunner knows exactly what the numbers 429421 are, as this was the number assigned to the bullet design by the Ideal Company (now Lyman).

The 429421 bullet has become known as the Keith bullet even though the current Keith bullet has become somewhat generic and seems to apply to any semi-wadcutter. Keith was very specific about his design:

“The greatest strain on a sixgun bullet is when it hits the lands in the barrel throat after upsetting to fill the chamber throats and driving straight ahead into the rest of the rifling. This is the reason I designed my line of sixgun bullets with three bands of equal width and equal diameter and one large square cornered grease groove to hold a maximum amount of lubricant. The forward band outside the crimp helps true up the round in the cylinder before firing, and also reduces the jump to the rifling. Any recovered revolver bullet plainly shows how it has skidded when it first hit the rifling, but my wide band reduces or eliminates this effect.”

Keith’s recommended loads have become standard and are still accepted and used by thousands of sixgunners everywhere. It’s as if they were part of the Holy Scripture. When he began experimenting with the .44 Special using balloon-head cases, he used No. 80 powder and then went to 2400 when it became available. Using the old-style balloon-head case, his load was 18.5 grains of 2400 and this was cut back to 17.0 grains when the newer solid-head brass came along. In either case, this load clocks out at 1,200 fps from a 6-1/2-inch S&W .44 Special.

When the .44 Magnum came along, Keith was ecstatic to say the least. He had spent 30 years trying to get his 250-grain/1,200 fps load, but instead received a 240-grain/1,500 fps one. Most of his shooting in the game fields until 1950 was accomplished with Colt SAA .44 Specials, however with the coming of the S&W 1950 Target .44 Special he began to carry a 4-inch double-action Special. With the advent of the .44 Magnum he retired his .44 Specials and virtually carried the 4-inch magnum daily until his stroke in 1981. He came up with what he considered a much better load for the .44 Magnum—his bullet over 22.0 grains of 2400 for 1,400 fps.

Keith’s holsters (above) consisted of his plain Milt Sparks and carved rigs from
Lawrence, Bohlin and S.D. Myers. Two-gun double-action shooting was all in a day’s
work for Keith (below).

When Keith was in his 60’s he spent some time with the then-very young Thell Reed who was doing amazing shooting with Colt SAA’s. The man who filmed both of them said Elmer’s speed and accuracy with his .44 Magnum was simply phenomenal. This is not surprising. When Elmer was in his 20’s and 30’s, he spent a lot of time shooting the S&W 1917 .45, the .38/44 Heavy Duty and the .38/44 Outdoorsman.

As mentioned, Keith suffered a debilitating stroke in 1981. We lived at opposite ends of the state, however, after his stroke he spent the next three years just about a mile down the road from me in a care center; this is something I would not wish on anyone. After his passing the Elmer Keith Museum Foundation was formed and I was appointed to the board and as such was given the rare privilege of examining and photographing his sixguns. The collection was fascinating.

Elmer started with DA shooting in the early days, first with a Triple-Lock .44 Special and a .38/44 Outdoorsman which he carried in a double Berns-Martin rig. In 1935 he added the Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum in the mix. In the last 30 years of his sixgunning life he basically used four .44’s, consisting of a fully engraved 4-inch Model 1950 Target .44 Special and three .44 Magnums. The three magnums included a fully engraved 4 inch presented to him by Carl Hellstrom of S&W. All four were stocked with ivory.

I always wondered how he handled the heavy recoil of the short-barreled .44’s and I found the answer when I examined them. All of his ivory grips were carved on the right side to fit into the palm of his hand and keep those beautiful revolvers from twisting under recoil.

Elmer Keith definitely understood DA sixguns.

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