Before The .44 Magnum

Part I: Elmer Keith and the .44

Elmer Keith had a real thing for short-barreled, ivory-stocked .44 Magnums.
Here we have his .44 Special 1950 Target and three Smith & Wesson .44 Magnums.

Smith & Wesson changed the face of sixgunning with the introduction of the .357 Magnum in 1935. Twenty years later in the closing days of December 1955 the .44 Magnum was unveiled. In between these landmark events much experimenting went on by three individuals we will look at in these next three “Campfire Tales.” Even today, we are reaping the benefits of their pioneering efforts. Those men are Elmer Keith, Dick Casull and John Lachuk.

I was relaxing watching gun shows on TV and heard some amazing statements on a show about Magnum handguns. Three things were stated: (1) Elmer Keith invented the .357 Magnum, (2) Then he wanted something more powerful for law-enforcement, so he invented the .41 Magnum, and (3) And then, after the .41 Magnum, he invented the .44 Magnum.

New “Myths” Busted

Besides the fact all three of these “inventions” did not come from Elmer Keith, the chronology is also wrong. Elmer Keith had more influence on sixgunners during the 20th century than any other man alive. He did not need to invent any of these to add to his fame. The .357 Magnum was a joint effort between Phil Sharpe, a noted handloading expert at the time, and Col. Doug Wesson of Smith & Wesson. The .41 Magnum is directly tied to Elmer Keith as he and Border Patrol Inspector Bill Jordan lobbied the industry in the early 1960’s for a more powerful cartridge for law-enforcement. So Elmer Keith did not invent either one of the cartridges. What about the .44 Magnum? Keith is directly responsible for its coming about, however, he did not invent the cartridge.

I have a letter in my file from Elmer Keith dated July 27, 1975. In this letter he states: “Chauncey Thomas published a letter I had written him in 1924 in the American Rifleman, don’t remember date … I had the following article, 1925 Aug 15 issue Wrecking the S.A. Colt….” It was this last mentioned piece, which really started Elmer on his writing career which was to last more than 50 years. Keith wrote in this article:

“I started to celebrate the morning of the Fourth. Picked up an old .45 S.A. Army 5-1/2 inch loaded with 40 grains bulk by my Ideal measure and 250 grain Ideal bullet, stepped out on an upstairs porch and turned the old gun up at a 45° angle and started shooting. When the gun rose from the recoil of the first cartridge I unconsciously hooked my thumb over the hammer spur and thus cocked gun as it recovered from the recoil. When I turned the next one loose I was almost deafened by the report and saw a little flash of flame. My hand automatically cocked gun and snapped again but no report. I stopped then knowing that something was wrong. The upper half of three chambers was gone. Also one cartridge and half of another case. Also the top strap over cylinder. My ears were ringing otherwise I was all O.K.

“After a careful search I found one section of cylinder about 30-35 yards away by smokehouse on my left side. Then I found where the other section had cut through the wood on the side of screen door and entered my room. Finally found it in a corner. I next found one cartridge case busted wide open and minus its primer about 30 yards behind me. The top strap is going yet. Don’t know where extra bullet went… Have photographed gun in two positions and will send it to Chauncey Thomas for his examination and report. He will know the cause after h

Keith relaxes on the back porch of his home in Salmon, Idaho, with his King Custom Colt .44 Special and No. 120 Keith Lawrence holster.

“The Last Word”

Along with this article Editor Chauncey Thomas wrote “The Autopsy” in which he said: “This is a plain case of an over-size bullet being driven out of an undersized cylinder hole by an over charge of powder, and all due to heap bad reloading and all Mr. Keith’s own fault. Also the bullet is very soft, far too soft for any revolver.” It is obvious from this statement Elmer Keith was not born sixgun savvy but like the rest of us spent much of his life learning. And that is exactly what he did for the next four years especially. Harold Croft of Philadelphia who Keith describes as being “a gun crank and collector” visited him in the small ranch he then had outside Durkee, Oregon. The result of this visit appeared in two articles, the first one talking of the highly customized .45 Colt Featherweight Single Actions which Croft had built, and then in the April 1929 issue of American Rifleman Keith wrote of “The Last Word.”

In this very famous article Keith wrote of incorporating Croft’s designs and his own together to build what at the time was “The Last Word” in sixguns. Keith was not interested in a featherweight but rather a standard, every day working gun. This gun, now known by every real sixgun connoisseur was the No. 5 SAA. The barrel length is 5-1/2 inches, sights are fully adjustable, the grip frame came about by mating a Bisley Model backstrap to a Colt Single Action triggerguard.

The gun is fully engraved with ivory stocks. Keith would say before this gun was built up he was done with the .45 Colt, so the chambering was .44 Special. Keith felt he could safely load much heavier loads with the .44 Special and resulting thicker chamber walls in the Colt Single Action. It is interesting to note that of the four .45 Colt featherweights of Harold Croft those which have surfaced have been converted to .44 Special and are dated commemorating his visit to Elmer Keith.

For nearly 30 years Keith wrote of his .44 Special sixguns and loads. He designed a special bullet, Lyman-Ideal 429421 which everyone recognizes today as “The Keith Bullet” and came up with a load using the older balloon-head brass, which had greater case capacity than modern brass, of 18.5 grains of 2400. When the newer solid-head brass arrived in the 1950’s, Keith cut this charge to 17.0 grains of 2400. Both of these are very hot loads.

Keith also used a King/Colt Custom 7-1/2-inch .44 Special, the only known Colt Flat-Top Target .44 Special, and a 5-1/2 Colt Single Action .44 Special with folding leaf rear sight. Keith was also a fan of the S&W double-action .44 Special and with the advent of the 1950 Target Model and Keith’s move into Salmon, Idaho, from his place on the Salmon River, he began carrying a 4-inch 1950 Target Model .44 Special on a daily basis. He continued writing of his load and bullet in the .44 Special as the best available sixgun/cartridge combination. He wrote of this throughout the pages of his book, Sixguns, published in 1955.

Between the 1st and 2nd edition of 1961, something very important happened. Keith wrote of spending time with ammunition and firearms manufacturers, “I asked for a commercial version of my heavy .44 Special with Keith 250-grain bullet backed by 18.5 grains of 2400 Hercules powder. I have been urging in many articles and in my books for the past 30 years that such a commercial load be brought out … The Remington people were very much interested, but were also afraid of the old, time-tried Smith & Wesson triple-lock revolver, with such a load in spite of the fact I have been using this load in one of these guns for 20 years. Finally I asked if they would produce such a load but in a longer case, like the .357 S.&W. Magnum, and they said they would be interested if a new gun was produced to handle it … My good friend Carl Hellstrom president of Smith & Wesson… told me the last time I was with him at the plant, that he could wrap a fine gun around any load Remington would produce and promised to see what could be done. No one promised anything further on the project and I went home doubting it would ever be produced.”

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Elmer Keith, both Remington and S&W were at work. Modified 1950 Target .44 Specials were used for testing. Finally, Keith received a call in late December 1955: “Elmer, your .44 Magnum dream has come true. The first one produced is largely a tool-room job and has been shipped to you and the second gun produced will be sent to General Hatcher. Remington will be sending you a supply of ammunition in a short time for the purpose of testing. Production of new gun is well underway and they will soon be coming off the assembly line, but only as fine, hand-fitted, super-grade guns.”

Elmer Keith then says: “Thus the .44 Magnum gun and load were produced. In a short time Remington shipped me some of the first lot of .44 Magnum ammunition in plain white, unmarked boxes. Both gun and load proved to be all I had dreamed …Velocities averaged out at around 1400 feet, instead of the 1570 claimed velocity and it was and is a wonderful sixguns load … I next worked out a handload with my 250-grain bullet, cast 1 to 16, tin and lead, and size .429 inch to duplicate the original Remington load with a charge of 22 grains of Hercules 2400. Over the years this load has proven the most accurate of all .44 Magnum sixgun loads.”

And thus was the .44 Magnum inspired by Elmer Keith with the first sixgun by S&W and the ammunition by Remington. Elmer Keith did not invent the .44 Magnum but he is directly responsible for it. He had asked only for the duplication of his heavy .44 Special load and he got so much more.

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