Past Masters Of The Double-Action Sixgun

Part II: Col Rex Applegate
& Col. Charles Askins

By John Taffin

There is no doubt we are living in the age of the semi-automatic pistol. However, this was not always the case, and during the last century—especially from the 1920’s to the 1970’s—the double-action sixgun was definitely King.

There were many men who raised the use of the double action to both a high art and science. These men need to be remembered for their contributions, and with that in mind we go back in history to when six shots were the norm and all that was needed. All of these men are now gone. As a kid never did I ever imagine I would actually know many of these sixgunners.

Col. Applegate received the Outstanding American Handgunner
Award bronze in 1996.

John Taffin was honored to visit with Col. Applegate at his home in Oregon.

Col. Rex Applegate

Col. Rex Applegate was one of the original members of the OSS during WWII, and after I got to know him, he sent me taped copies of the original footage of the training the men went through. During this training, Col. Applegate wedded himself to a style of self-defense shooting known as point shooting. Until the day he died he stayed with his original theory and always joked about butting heads with those who espoused using the sights in close range defensive situations. Applegate stated point shooting was definitely not hip shooting, but rather with the handgun brought up, arm straight, and the handgun pointed at the target.

Col. Applegate was not only a colonel in the United States Army, he also held the rank of general in the Mexican Army, spending much of his time south of the border. During one of these excursions he used an old S&W “Lemon Squeezer” chambered in .38 S&W. It was necessary to empty the little 5-shooter on his assailant. After this experience he was highly responsible for the advent of the 5-shot S&W chambered in the more powerful .38 Special cartridge, the hammerless versions in particular. You would expect the man who owned both of Col. Doug Wesson’s original .357 Magnums to have some pull with Smith & Wesson.

I first met the Col. Applegate when he was one of the nominees for the Outstanding American Handgunner Award. When I later visited him at his home and private museum on the Oregon coast, the first two things I found as we (me, Pat Cascio and Chuck Karwan) entered the museum were his OAH bronze trophy with a .45 Colt New Service Fitz Special leaning against one leg of the bronze. The .45 was engraved “To Rex From Fitz.” His two most prized possessions were the first encountered by anyone accorded an invitation into the museum.

Col. Applegate was an authority on riot control and self-defense, and he was in his late 80’s the last time he found it necessary to employ his methods. Three young would-be toughs tried to mug him outside his hotel. When the police arrived, all 3 had been knocked silly by the cane in his able hands. It will be a long time before these 3 try to attack another “defenseless old man.”

Never in my wildest dreams as a kid did I ever envision not only meeting Col. Applegate but also being able to call him a friend. His regular phone calls, “This is Rex,” are cherished in my memory.

In the pre-WWII era, Col. Charles Askins was on the Border Patrol,
and here is shooting his .357 Magnum Smith & Wesson.

Col. Askins favored the 4-inch .357 Magnum Smith & Wesson and a Berns-Martin
holster. He was expert at drawing and shooting it in a wide variety of ways.

Col. Charles Askins

Col. Charles Askins Jr. not only served his country from WWII through the early days of Vietnam, he was also with the Border Patrol in the 1930’s at the time when, as he described it, there was a gunfight every 10 days. He also hunted big game all over the world and was without a doubt the most controversial gun writer of the 20th century. I am sure in my mind much of what he wrote was simply designed to be controversial. I also believe he did many things that perhaps needed to be done but shouldn’t have been talked about.

In spite of his rough exterior and often combative personality, I found him to be quite the gentleman. My first encounter with the Colonel was in my early days of writing when I was hardly known by anyone let alone other gun writers. During one of the NRA Conventions I found myself with a busload of famous gun writers taking a factory tour. I wound up paired with Col. Askins who had not the slightest idea who I was. However, he treated me as if I were a longtime member of the in-crowd of the gun writing fraternity. I’ve never forgotten it, and have always appreciated it to the extent I try to do the same any time I encounter someone who is trying to become a gun writer.

Col. Charles Askins certainly knew something about double-action sixguns: “My partner, Parker, one time made up one of the most poisonous speed guns that I have ever seen. He was a Border Patrolman at the time and wanted something that would be handy in the car and for undercoat carry when he was working in civilian clothes. He took the Colt New Service .45 and chopped the barrel off to 2 inches, then he rounded off the stock and shortened it somewhat. After that, he dehorned the hammer leaving only enough on the hammer to give the needed weight to the firing pin. He cut out the front of the triggerguard so it would not impede a quick draw, and attached a ramp-type front sight. The gun was chambered for the old .45 Colt cartridge not the .45 ACP and so had lots of stopping power despite the short barrel length. This weapon was remarkably fast out of a holster and was sufficiently shortened so that it could be carried in a coat pocket or front trousers pocket with comfort. There was nothing on it anywhere that would catch in the clothing, Parker had gotten the idea for this gun from Henry FitzGerald, Grand Old Man of the Colt Co., who always had a matched pair in his pants somewhere.

“After I tried that Parker belly gun I made a somewhat similar shooting iron for myself. I started with a .44-40 Colt New Service and made all the alterations George had accomplished except I left the barrel at 4 inches. I attached a huge King gold bead and outlined rear notch, the outline containing radium paint. This gun wasn’t quite as fast as the Parker Cannon, due to the longer barrel, but it made a whale of a fine belt weapon out of the Threepersons or Berns-Martin holster. I afterwards altered still another Colt New Service .38 Special to the belly gun type and this latter weapon I used during the European campaigns across France, Belgium and Germany.”

Askins believed in shooting double-action sixguns double action, saying, “For the peace officer, double-action practice is very probably all that he should ever do; that is, once he has gotten a rudimentary knowledge of gun-pointing by deliberate and painstaking slow-fire practice. The officer who can slam six shots into a cardboard man-silhouette in the space of three seconds is an exceedingly dangerous gunner and it is to be regretted that more of our officers aren’t trained along these lines… I have done a great deal of double-action shooting with our biggest handguns.” (1939)

Speaking of the Colt Official Police he said, “This revolver is a real peach! The gun is used by more police departments than any other Colt and the splendid reputation which it enjoys ’mongst law-enforcement people is well-deserved. Despite the fact that it is made as a service arm and not as a highly refined model for target panning, the Official Police will be found to have a clean quick-breaking trigger pull and a double action which is smooth and fast.”

However, he also said, “To my way of thinking the Smith & Wesson revolver has the smoothest, most easily operated double-action mechanism of any American-made revolver. I like the principle by which the S&W operates and I am particularly appreciative of the velvet-smooth action and the effortless rise and fall of the hammer.” (1939)

Col. Askins suffered the same fate as Elmer Keith, winding up flat on his back in a care center. He is known for writing a book called Unrepentant Sinner. However, my good friend, the late Hal Swiggett who was an ordained Baptist minister and a friend of Col. Askins, visited him in the care center and told me he became a repentant sinner in his last days.

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