The Twentieth Century
The Keith Revolution
Elmer Keith’s contributions to the development of the modern revolver/cartridge combination cannot be overstated.
Born in 1899 in Missouri but raised in Montana, Keith cut his teeth on the single-action Colt but early on became a proponent of the swing-out cylinder double-action revolver. His advocacy of double-action sixguns began with the 1908 introduction of the Smith & Wesson First Model New Century, the “Triple Lock” and its .44 Special cartridge, but his impact on the handgun world didn’t stop there.
A eulogy of Elmer Keith could easily take up a six-part series unto itself, but we can summarize. His work with heavy revolver loads led to the Keith-type semi-wadcutter with its characteristic convex shoulder and 70% emplat; the Keith SWC cuts a clean hole in paper while its hard alloy composition allows the bullet to be driven at high enough velocities to give good penetration on big game. This I can vouch for from personal experience.
Keith’s heavy loads were the basis for the modern magnum revolver cartridges we know so well. In the late Twenties and early Thirties, Keith, dissatisfied with the anemic performance of the standard 158-grain RNL .38 Special load, experimented with heavy .38 loads with 180 and 200-grain SWC bullets in the big Smith & Wesson N-frame “38-44” revolvers. These loads, after discussion with Remington and Smith & Wesson, led to the .357 Magnum cartridge. Likewise, Keith’s heavy .44 Special loads in the Triple Lock and 1950 Target revolvers led him to pester Smith & Wesson and Remington until, in 1955, they introduced the .44 Remington Magnum and the Smith & Wesson Model 29 to handle it. Keith was also instrumental in the development of the excellent but less successful .41 Magnum.
While Remington and Smith & Wesson were listening to Keith, the folks at Colt were a little less prescient. Colt had discontinued the famous Single Action Army revolver in 1941 and re-introduced it in 1955, but the latest SAA guns were built to pretty much the same pattern as the original black-powder Colts; Keith advised Colt to update their fine old gun’s lockwork and sights, but Colt left the SAA as was – which didn’t stop Keith from collecting and using many examples of this fine old gun.
Smith & Wesson historian Roy Jinks referred to Keith as the father of big-bore handgunning, and that’s a title that is well deserved. And speaking of Smith & Wesson:
Smith & Wesson Ascendant
Smith & Wesson’s 20th century successes began with the Triple Lock, but they sure didn’t end there. A string of revolver and cartridge designs were about to make Smith & Wesson the gun builder to watch.
The constraints of the format here won’t allow me to describe all the revolvers Smith & Wesson brought out in the 20th century. So, instead of attempting that, I’ll describe a few of Smith & Wesson’s standouts.
The K-22 Masterpiece. Later relabeled the Model 17 Masterpiece, the K-frame .22 is one of the best double-action revolvers available for folks just learning the art. It’s the same frame and much the same weight as many of Smith’s .38 and .357 offerings while retaining the low recoil and economy of a .22 – it’s also a great sidearm for taking the occasional squirrel, rabbit or mountain grouse. It was also offered in stainless steel as the Model 617.
The Combat Magnum/Model 19. Developed at the request of gun writer and lawman Bill Jordan for a medium-frame .357, the Combat Magnum was a lighter, handier version of Smith & Wesson’s original N-frame .357, the Registered Magnum/Model 27. While no less than George Patton favored the Registered Magnum – he often carried a pair of them he referred to as his “killing guns” – may highway patrolmen, Border Patrol officers and local cops preferred the lighter version. The Model 19 also has a stainless-steel version, the Model 66.
We already mentioned the Model 29, developed at the urging of Elmer Keith and made an icon of popular culture by Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry features. While Detective Callahan described the .44 Magnum as “the most powerful handgun in the world,” the .44 Magnum only nominally held that title, as the 1957 .454 Casull outstripped it but was only available (then) in custom-shop jobs, and later developments far outweighed the .44 Magnum. But for quite a few years it was the most powerful handgun cartridge offered in mass-produced revolvers suitable for all-day holster carry, and that’s what made the .44 Magnum as popular as it remains today.
Any discussion of Smith & Wesson revolvers should not neglect the .38 Hand Ejector/Military and Police/Victory Model/Model 10, not necessarily because if was groundbreaking or iconic in design – it wasn’t – but because it was damn near ubiquitous in police departments for much of the century. For some years I had a pre-war .38 Hand Ejector that still carried markings for the Lake County, Colorado Sheriff’s Department; it had the thin 6” barrel, and I referred to it as my “Barney Fife revolver.” It was an unremarkable piece but, like most mid-century Smiths, solid and reliable.
My very favorite holster gun for outdoors is a late 20th century Smith & Wesson. The 25-5 uses the same N frame as the .44 Magnum Model 29, but is chambered for the grand old .45 Colt, which cartridge I have been loading since the early Eighties. My example was made in the mid-Seventies, has a target hammer and trigger and the rather rare 4” barrel. It’s a fine piece, easy to handle and accurate.
Throughout the Depression, WW2 and the post-war years, Smith & Wesson largely dominated the sixgun market, but that doesn’t mean Colt was just sitting around.
Colt still managed to hit a home run in the 20th century: The Python.
Colt’s 20th century story is dominated by one sidearm, although not a revolver: The Colt/Browning 1911 automatic. But Colt still was in the revolver business, not only with the famed single actions but also with their double -action guns based on the original 1889 design. While Colt brought out such fine pieces as the Official Police, the Police Positive and the Officer’s Target on that basic frame, the Python was the culmination. A hand-fitted, polished gun, you won’t find a more beautiful revolver than an original Python in the Colt Royal Blue finish.
Back in the Eighties my friend Dave had a 6” blue Python he used to compete in bowling pin shoots. I tried it a few times myself at the pin shoots. The Python’s slick, smooth double-action pull made it almost ridiculously easy to wipe five bowling pins off a table in a big hurry; a lot of those pin shooters used Pythons for that very reason. Like the 1851 Navy before it, the Python is one of the best-handling sixguns around.
The “Snake” family of Colt revolvers also included include the .38 and .22 caliber Diamondback and the .44 Magnum Anaconda. Colt also offered a lower-priced .357 in the form of the Trooper. Like the reintroduced Single Action Army, all these double-action guns save the Anaconda shared an old frame design and much of their lockwork, which had not changed a great deal since the M1889 model; this led to an opening by one of America’s new generation of gun designers.
The New Guy – Bill Ruger
While Colt wasn’t listening to Elmer Keith’s calls for a modern single-action, someone else was.
Bill Ruger’s entry into the handgun market was the Ruger Standard, a neat, trim semi-auto vaguely resembling the Luger in form and grip configuration. It was a nice-handling gun, and unlike some autos it had its barrel and receiver attached in a single unit, and the sights firmly mounted on each. It was good enough to attract the attention of my notoriously frugal father, who bought one mail-order (!) around 1955; I still have that old 6” Standard in my handgun safe.
We aren’t here to discuss the Standard, though.
A funny thing happened in the early Fifties. The post-war years led to a return to traditional entertainments; also, the rise of television gave an outlet for that most favored of post-war American entertainments, the Western. The popularity of Westerns led to a quick-draw craze, which led to an increase in demand for traditionally styled single-action revolvers.
During these years Colt’s Single Action Army was a custom shop piece, pricey enough to be out of the reach of plenty of folks. Some replicas were made by Great American and a few other companies, but quality was iffy and the design different little from the 19th century Colt pattern. While Elmer Keith was unable to convince Colt of the need to modernize the single-action revolver, in Bill Ruger he found a more receptive audience. In 1953 Ruger brought out the Single-Six, a .22 caliber single-action revolver, followed in 1955 by the Blackhawk, offered in .357 Magnum and .45 Colt – later in a wider variety of chamberings from .32 H&R to the .480 Ruger. In 1957 a Ruger employee found some discarded .44 Magnum cases on a range frequented by Smith & Wesson engineers, deduced that S&W was bringing out a new cartridge; this resulted in Ruger’s introduction of their single-action .44 Magnum, the Super Blackhawk, right on the heels of Smith & Wesson’s announcement of the Model 29 and the .44 Magnum cartridge.
Ruger’s revolvers were something new: Solid, with a slightly beefier frame than the traditional Colt, and using modern coil springs in the lockwork rather than the more fragile leaf springs used by other makers. They very quickly gained a solid reputation with shooters. While Ruger didn’t introduce a double action revolver until 1977, those guns quickly gained a following as well, but it was the Single-Six, the Blackhawk and the Super Blackhawk that brought the single-action revolver into the modern era. The final variation on that theme was the Ruger Vaquero, which took the strong frame and modern guts of the Blackhawk and outfitted it with the traditional style (including fixed sights) of the traditional Colts; thus, the single-action came full circle, with a traditional style and modern hardware. I have one, a 4 5/8” barreled stainless steel model with ivory polymer grips, and it’s a joy; it handles my heavy .45 Colt loads with aplomb and is light enough at 38 ounces to carry around all day.
And Then This Happened
In 1987 the state of Florida did something unprecedented; they changed their laws on the issue of carrying concealed handguns. Previously, like every other state at that time, Florida’s laws left the issuance of concealed-carry permits up to the discretion of local law enforcement, which meant that in many jurisdictions it was impossible to get such a permit unless you were wealthy, well-connected or both. Under the new law, assuming you passed a background check and a class, law enforcement was prohibited from denying one a permit; this was to lead to an explosion of such new laws changing the process from “may-issue” to “shall-issue.”
The dawn of the 21st century saw most states with liberalized concealed-carry laws, and this had changed the emphasis of gun designers. Where the bulk of the 20th century’s target markets for handgun builders were hunters, ranchers and outdoorsmen of every stripe, the new focus was on the concealed-carry market. The demand was for smaller, lighter revolvers that still packed enough punch for self-defense use.
But there was another, contradictory trend that began in the late 20th century, and that was the advent of the “monster” revolver. These two trends, along with the remaining traditional holster gun market, would finalize the present state of the six-gun; we’ll look at that in Part 6, when we wrap up the History of The Six-gun.