Great Scott!

Thoe Original Great Westerns!
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The Great Westerns and the first issue of GUNS. How was John to know when he read
that first issue that he’d be able to fire those original sixguns 50 years later.

1955, that wonderful year! Ike was in the White House and it was a time of prosperity as the Greatest Generation was working at raising families. Sandwiched in between World War II/Korea and Vietnam, it was a time of peace and growth, and yes, it really was a kinder, gentler time. Little did we know of the upheaval, terrible turmoil and destruction of lives to soon arrive in the 1960s. The 1950s really were the happy days we have seen on television.

A Real Gun Magazine!

I was a junior in high school in 1954 and had gone to town to see a movie, Western of course. As was my custom, I always stopped at the downtown newsstand hoping to find something about guns. There were no gun magazines in those days, however every once in awhile a paperback gun book selling for 75 cents such as those produced by Fawcett would appear. I remember, mainly because I still have them, books by such writers of the time as Larry Koller, Lucian Cary, Ted Trueblood, and before the decade ended, a young Jeff Cooper with Fighting Handguns in 1958. As I was looking for one of these I spotted it! There on the rack was a magazine entitled GUNS!! Was I dreaming?A real gun magazine?

The first issue of GUNS dated January 1955 had appeared that winter day and would be the forerunner of other gun magazines and, is now, with this issue celebrating a Golden Anniversary as we begin our second 50 years. Little did I know as I lovingly held that first issue someday I would be listed as one of the staff members and actually be writing for the premier gun magazine. As I looked at the cover featuring a cased set of a pair of Great Western sixguns, not even in my wildest imagination could I ever conjure up a vision of someday not only handling but actually shooting these very same sixguns. That premier issue featured the Great Westerns on the cover but a feature article on Great Western, “A Six-Shooter For TV Cowboys,” would not appear until the May issue.

That first issue of GUNS featured such articles as “Shootin’ Irons of the Old West,” “Hickok — Hell’s Own Marshall,” “Guns For Hunting,” “Fire On Full Automatic” and “Restoring An Old Muzzle Loader.” Most of the author’s names were unfamiliar to me then and still are, so I suspect they were pen names for the Technical Editor, William B. Edwards. Over the years the legends of shooting would appear in GUNS. Elmer Keith, Skeeter Skelton, Col. Charles Askins, George Nonte, Kent Bellah, Bill Jordan, all were featured in those early issues. Bellah taught me much about handloading, Skeeter’s first article was for GUNS, and some of the best stuff Keith ever did, including his African hunts, were also within those pages.

Magazine covers were quite different in the early days also. How often do we see people or the Colt Single Action on magazine covers today? Early covers of GUNS featured Theodore Roosevelt, Elmer Keith, Chuck “The Rifleman” Connors, John Wayne and even Dirty Harry himself, Clint Eastwood. Beautiful custom Colts showed up on July 1960, April 1962, September 1965, June 1971, and July 1975. That last issue also introduced Bill Jordan as Shooting Editor.

It doesn’t take much imagination to say 1955 could probably be hailed as the greatest year of the 20th century for sixgunners. From Colt came the .357 Python soon to be followed by the resurrection of the Single Action Army. Smith & Wesson introduced the Combat Magnum, the 1955 Target, and the .44 Magnum, while that relatively new company, Sturm, Ruger, brought forth the .357 Blackhawk

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Famous folks from president Theodore Roosevelt to actors John Wayne, Chuck Connors
and Clint Eastwood adorned many early covers of GUNS.

Not So Great Great Westerns

But what of those sixguns on our first cover? Great Western had just begun production in 1954 of the Frontier Six-Shooter in Los Angeles, California. 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.

Television, with re-runs of old “B” Western movies, had spawned a desire among shooters for 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. The Great Westerns pictured on the first cover of GUNS were chambered in .45 Colt with 43􀀁4″ barrels. Unlike most Great Westerns with frame-mounted firing pins and no caliber markings on the barrels, these 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 not case-colored and their frames and ejector rod housings have the same plum-purple color found on many early Ruger loading gates.

Elmer Keith in the first chapter of his book, Sixguns by Keith (1955), said the Great Western Single Action 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.” 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.”

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Correcting Past Mistakes

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 long-time single action gunsmith, fast-draw expert, trick shooter, and instructor to movie cowboys, Jim Martin. Great Western not only offered completed sixguns, but kits as well. As a young man, Martin purchased kits, assembled them and sold them, using the money to buy more kits. You can bet his guns had much better actions than the originals.

Sixgun No. 184 was as it left the factory except nearly all the screw heads were buggered (as were those on the No. 183) and it simply needed the screws replaced and the touch of a master tune-smith. Companion No. 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 No. 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 Martin.

I quote from Martin: “Serial No. 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 No. 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 No. 184 and a Wolff spring in No. 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.”

That was an understatement if there ever was one! Had Jim Martin been head gun-smith for Great Western 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 one another. Jim went several extra miles to get these guns finished and back to me in time to meet my deadline. Thanks also go to Jim Cornwall of Kingman Arizona for turning the welded hammer around so quickly.

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-grain RNFP loads at 775 fps resulted in No. 183 placing six shots into 1 1/8″ at 50 feet and No. 184 going 1 3/8″ at the same distance. With short-bar-reled sixguns having tiny little sights, V-notch rear and very slim blade front, I would settle for that anytime.

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If a shooter wanted a .45 Colt single action in 1955, Great Western was the only choice.
Original Great Westerns are flanked by today’s most popular choice in a traditionally styled .45 Colt single action, Ruger’s Vaquero.

Alas And Farewell

Great Western sixguns are not to be confused with the Hawes Single Actions, which came later. Hy Hunter was an early distributor of Great Westerns, in fact the backstrap of both these Great Westerns are inscribed “George von Rosen from Hy Hunter.” Von Rosen was the founder and publisher of GUNS. Great Westerns, which were totally American made, lasted less than 10 years and Hunter would later import German-made J.P. Sauer & Sohn Hawes versions. Great Westerns were made in 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 frame. I have heard rumors of a .44-40 being offered and I know they made some examples in .22 Hornet.

Great Western made several mistakes. First, they believed Colt would never again produce the Single Action Army. When Colt did come back with the 2nd Generation run of Single Actions in 1956, Great Western’s days were numbered. Secondly, as too often happens, they did not have the best-qualified people producing the product. Those early sixguns should have had the touch of a master single-action sixgun ’smith before they ever left the factory. That all-important first impression is very effective. They did fix the problems, but then had to overcome a reputation for poor quality. Finally, Great Western had a chance to really improve the single action. They even had a model with Ruger’s .22 Single-Six arriving in 1953, however instead of using a nearly indestructible coil spring operated action as did Ruger, Great Western chose to basically duplicate the old Colt Single Action. Ruger capitalized one year later by bringing out the .357 Blackhawk, which not only had the vastly improved coil spring action, but a flat-topped frame with an adjustable rear sight. While Ruger looked to the future, Great Western was stuck in the past.

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he early Great Westerns used on the cover of the first issue of GUNS were fitted with Colt-style hammers.

Ruger Sixguns Dominate

Fifty years is a longtime in the evolution of firearms and much has happened with single actions. However, it has not been a straight path to the future but one of much doubling back on the path mainly due to the great popularity of cowboy action shooting, which emphasizes traditional single actions. Today Great Western would probably be highly successful while competing with replicas of the Single Action Army imported from Italy. One has to wonder what would have been if Great Western had modernized the single action in 1954. Would they be where Ruger and Freedom Arms are today?

These old Great Western .45s do shoot and can easily be brought to point of aim with a little careful filing.

Change In Single Actions

For 20 years, Ruger enjoyed excellent sales of their single actions because they were virtually indestructible and the fact prices were always reasonable. However, the country was changing rapidly and the loss of individual responsibility was replaced by a feeling that stupid and irresponsible acts should be rewarded with large sums of money through lawsuits. In 1972, to help counteract this, Ruger further modernized their single actions by going to the New Model version with a transfer bar safety. All traditionally styled single actions, including Colts, all Flat-Top and Old Model Rugers, and all current replicas should be — no change that to MUST be carried — with the hammer resting on an empty chamber.

The New Model Rugers were designed to allow the carrying of a fully loaded cylinder as the transfer bar prevented the hammer from contacting the firing pin when it was in the forward position unless it had been cocked and the trigger deliberately pulled to fire the sixgun. At the time it appeared I was not at all happy with the New Model design and its transfer bar. However, I can now see many accidents, which are really the result of negligence, have been prevented with this improvement. This is especially true when one considers many entering cowboy action shooting have no background at all when it comes to handling single actions. With the entrance of the New Model, the medium frame of the .357 Magnum Flat-Tops and Old Models was dropped and all chamberings be they .357, .41, and .44 Magnum, .45 Colt, or .30 Carbine are on the large Super Blackhawk sized frame.

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Shooting and enjoying the Great Western .45s.

Ruger Embraces Traditional

Ruger did not fail to notice cowboy action shooting and in 1993 took a giant step backwards by producing their first traditionally-styled single-action sixgun. Gone was the heavy top strap, adjustable rear sight, and ramp style front sight all of which had been found on all Ruger centerfire Blackhawks since 1955. The heavy top strap was rounded, the rear sight removed and replaced by the hog-wallow sight found on the Colt Single Action, while the front sight was replaced with the traditional single action blade.

First offered in a blue/case colored version in .45 Colt, the Vaquero was an imme-diate hit and even Ruger was unprepared for it selling 10 times more than was expected that first year. Now the number one choice for cowboy action shooters, the Vaquero is also extremely popular with outdoorsman as it maintains the ruggedness Ruger are known for traditional looks. Those first .45 Colt Vaqueros have now been joined by .44 Magnum and .357 Magnum versions, and for a while were also offered in .44-40. Stainless steel Vaqueros are now available along with the original blued versions and in three standard barrel lengths of 45⁄8″, 51⁄2″, and 71⁄2″ as well as a Bisley Model version and a short-barreled 31⁄2″ Sheriff’s Model complete with a round-butt grip.

Ruger remains number one when it comes to single action production and it is easy to see why. Fifty years from now some youngster reading this issue as I did that first issue 50 years ago may very well be writing about the 100th anniversary of GUNS along with the 100th anniversary of Ruger’s centerfire Single Actions. At least we can hope so.

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