Belly Guns

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Berns Martin upside-down "Lightning" holster is handy for speedy draw of belly gun when needed quickly.

** This was reproduced from GUNS Magazine, May 1955. **


Belly Guns are not advertised, you seldom see them pictured in the shooting magazines, but there is nothing new about the gun or the idea behind it. Famed quick draw expert Luke Short killed Jim Courtright in Fort Worth with a belly gun and Dallas Stoudenmire, while city marshal of Old El Paso, packed a pair. One fine, bright morning he knocked off three men in as many seconds with these guns and short months afterward was himself gunned to death by a belly howitzer in the determined hand of Jim Manning. Nope, this type of stinger is not new. But the breed that use them do not go around advertising either the hardware or how it is handled. This is the kind of a shooting iron you do not see on pistol ranges. The target-shoot boys would not know what to do with it. Because this particular kind of a chopper has no sights, most of the paper-punchers would turn up their noses. The arms manufacturers make stabs at turning out a belly gun but none of them have really produced anything save a fringe item.

What exactly is a belly gun?

It is just what the word implies? A kind of hardware you jam against the other man’s navel and trigger off a burst. It has to be done in a twinkling or else he is apt to take the gun away from you and that could be bad. Since the trick of the thing depends on speed, the pistol must be short and handy-short so that it comes out fast and lines up lethally and handy so that a man points it like he does his finger.

The belly gun looks like an abortion. Actually is is the very embodiment of all the one-hand gun stands for. It is a defensive tool par excellence, ugly and unpretentious. It more nearly achieves that for which the pistol was designed than any of its brothers-the defense of the user.

A one-hand gun to earn the distinction “belly gun” had better be a six-gun. The automatics of U.S. vintage do not measure up. For in purest interpretation the title implies a lot that at first blush does not meet the eye. Maybe most of all it implies a kind of hardware that can be swung with flashing speed. No auto-loader can be handled that pronto. The self-loaders must be cocked for the first blast and that is godawful slow, finding and earing back a tiny hammer. Autos have grips of bad shape, wrist must pitch at an awkward angle and the fingers find the stock in a strained manner. Beyond that the grip-to-barrel relationship is so sad the first slug will bury into the opponent’s calf. That is not exactly lethal. The automatic pistol is not a worth-its-salt belly job and despite the fact that Mausers and Walthers do have a double action, they still run second fiddle.


Gun fighter's crouch brings pistol from holster into
a straight line with forearm. Pressed against side,
shooter's whole body takes part in motion of aiming.

What is a belly gun for? It is a simple tool meant for a single purpose. It is built solely to defend its owner.

A belly gun is a good deal like the F-86 jet we used in the fairly-recent last war we fought. A lot of good brains and power of thinking went into this high flying gun carriage. The belly gun maybe did not command quite the degree of gray matter but no one can deny that the succession of gun twisters who evolved this very special little cannon were not just as ardently dedicated. The belly ripper was going to keep them alive and when a man considers ways and means of staying above ground, it is commendable what he can whamp up.

No one man can lay claim to having been the originator of this highly efficient defensive tool. It is the result of a long growth. Belly guns were first made from the SA models of the 70s and 80s. King Fisher in company with the notorious Ben Thompson died with a sawed-off in his hand one hectic eve in the old Vaudeville Saloon in San Antonio. The year was ’84 and the gun was a ’73 Model Peacemaker .45, with the extractor rod and spring removed and the barrel whittled to a length of 3.25 inches.

Double action revolvers. when they topped the horizon. were promptly converted to belly jobs. As a matter of fact the DA makes up into a more efficient packet than any of the old single action weapons. It is the most deadly one-hand gun in the world. that is, if hung in the proper kind of leather.

Colt New Service in -357 Magnum iakes fine belly gun with
guard cut away and sighting rib added.

Left: Smooth action of Colt Officers Model Match revolver
is eased up still more by bending spring. Middle: Sharp corners
of butt frame should be cut off and rounded with a file. This reduces
bulk of gun in shoulder holster under coat. Right: Trigger guard is cut
away at frame to allow immediate grasping of the trigger as gun is put into action.

Suppose we take a long hard look at a six gun of this breed and consider what kind of a scabbard to use.

A belly gun is not intended to be shot at distances of more than 8 or 10 hefty steps, generally a heap less. So it does not need any sights. A sight is a device which lends itself to a feeling of false security. It makes the user believe he is going to place a bullet with more precision. Instead of hitting an adversary anywhere in the big middle, he is going to drill him fair between the eyes. This is dangerous thinking and will get a man killed.

The idea is to get off the first shot and make it tell. Eliminate the sights and shoot the gun from below eye level. That makes for speed, the flash and movement of split hundredths of a second. At 25 feet the sights add nothing; they are definitely not for a belly gun.

The barrel should be short: something between 2 and 4 inches, with a strong preference for the more choppy tube. The greater the length of the barrel, the more time is lost in whipping the business end into line with the target. Keep it to a minimum and time is gained. The extractor on a belly gun is excess baggage. However, if the weapon is a Smith and Wesson, the extractor can hardly be eliminated. If, on the other hand, the weapon is a Colt, this unit can be whacked off to a mere stub.

Old time western gunfighters proficient with belly guns included: (left to
right, top) W. H. Harris, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, (bottom) Charley Bassett,
Wyatt Earp, M. C. Clark and Neal Brown, who sat together for portrait.

Personally I like to build a belly gun around the best and smoothest double action that money can buy. Start with the finest of the target revolvers and you will come away with a friction-free, fast-breaking action. The gun is going to be used solely as a DA. Therefore the trigger pull for single action powder burning is of little import. The strength of the hammer spring should be adjusted so that a cap invariably fires but be careful that this tension is not too great. A double action pull will vary; ordinarily the force needed against the trigger will range between 8 and 16 pounds. It goes without saying that if we can raise the hammer and fire the gun with a trigger pressure of only 8 pounds, it is going to be a more simple chore than if 16 pounds must be applied.

The S&W double action is smoother, faster and less disturbing to the aim than the Colt. The margin between the two six shooters is small and this is not to be construed as a blanket denial of the Hartford gun. I have a number of Colt belly models and have owned a raft of them. However, in any affray apt to be marginal, the S&W holds a definite edge.

Chop the forward end of the trigger guard out. When you need the gun in a hurry, the trigger guard serves no better purpose than to get in the way. It is argued that a sawed-off with the front of the guard whittled out is dangerous — so is the other man when he is intent on pumping lead at you. I have carried six shooters without a whole trigger guard for 20 years and have yet to have an accident. A belly gun out of a pocket, or from a holster, or snatched from any convenient spot goes into action eons quicker if the trigger guard is open in front.

Dehorn the hammer. A revolver with a hammer spur will hang in the coat, catch in the shirt, cannot be carried in either a front trousers pocket nor in a hip pocket, and serves no useful purpose. Whack that same spur off and the gun is at once improved a dozen fold. It then has no projection that will catch.

It may be toted in a coat or jacket pocket and will come into action smoothly and quickly. It may be packed in any type of holster, either in the open or under a coat and the quick draw is not slowed by the infernal hammer hanging in the garment. Better than all this the mere fact that the gun cannot be handled single action is a psychological thing that assures the gunner when he is man-handling the piece, he must go all out double action so he triggers that way.


Left: Berns Martin holster gets gun hidden up under loose coat.
Middle: With pistol grip sitting high, side belt holster is right for
fast cross-draw.
Right: Same holster in hip pocket allows fast wrist-twist draw with right hand.

If when making up a belly gun, you start with one of our finest target revolvers — and well you should — you are confronted with the square butt target type grip. This huge stock does not lend itself to easy stowage. The gun handle wants to be re-fashioned and in so doing all the corners must be rounded, the stock flattened and unless your hand is very large, it may well be shortened. A belly model thus altered will have less tendency to hang in the clothing, will lie flat and snug to the body, is reduced in size, weight and from every consideration is a modification much preferred.

I have made up and packed belly guns in every caliber from .22 to .45. The best gun is the biggest. I put my money on the .45 Colt, the .44 Special, the old 44-40 and the .357 Magnum. The .38 Special with some of these hot new Remington Hiway Master loadings is also okay. I have small faith in calibers smaller than .38. The oomph simply isn’t there when the chips are down.

A leaden bullet seated ahead of a hell of a load of Bulleye or DuPont #6, home-brewed, is more effective than anything to’ be had over the counter. The slug should be flat-nosed and then it should be hollow-pointed. This latter chore can be done with a drill and reamer or may be accomplished with a pocket knife and a little time. Make the side walls of this counter-sunk point quite thin. Even with a hefty charge of powder, the bullet will have a comparatively modest velocity. Despite this lack of speed the hollow point with its paper thin front portion achieves a desirable mushrooming effect on man hide.

The best scabbard makers for the belly gun are Myres of El Paso, Lawrence of Portland and Jack Martin of Calhoun City, Mississippi. Because the belly gun has no barrel to speak of, has the front end of the trigger guard cut away and many shoulders ordinarily used to support the gun are gone, it is a difficult chore to anchor it in a run-of-mill holster. The gents I have enumerated can do a bang-up job of fashioning leather about the freak, however. The gun by reason of its ancestry is not intended for carry in an outside holster, openly displayed. The belly gun, essentially, is a hideout. It is the ace in the hole aimed to be sprung when time is of the essence and as a surprise packet. For these reasons it ought to be toted under a coat or jacket, or if the weather is hot under the shirt.

The cross-draw holster is a mighty practical rig for the iron; so is a hip-pocket holster but a mite slower. Both Myres and Lawrence sew handsome rigs for either position. The conventional shoulder or half-breed is a good spot for the weapon. Unquestionably along these lines, Jack Martin has an outfit that is best. This is a scabbard that drapes the gun below the left shoulder and just ahead of the arm pit. It is good only for 2 or 3 inch models. The six-gun hangs upside down and is retained in the holster by spring tension. This holster may he the fastest in tile world. If it isn’t the most speedy, it misses the honor by a split thousandth. This Martin upside-down jobs works best under coat or jacket. It isn’t too hot under a shirt. I highly recommend it for the discerning.

Of all handguns probably none of them are harder to master than the belly model. To begin with it is short and it is light. This coupled with a walloping big caliber spells a punishing recoil. Only a plentitude of firing will accustom the user to the buck and rear of the sawed-off.

A hard-kicking gun can be controlled in only one way: it must he gripped with a powerful hand pressure. Practice a grip on the belly gun that will crush granite. Such a heavy hand will bring the weapon under control and keep it there. Practice on man targets and do not fire at them more than 30 feet. Do not fire single shots, trigger off bursts of 2 or 3. Extend the arm full length in the beginning and simply look over the barrel. Later on commence to break the elbow and hold the gun below eye level. Shots come faster. Accuracy is just as good from this lower position — it is just a matter of practice.

** This was reproduced from GUNS Magazine, May 1955. **

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