The .44 Special Begins Its Second Century – Part III

Second Generation Colt SAA .44Specials with Galco leather.

Second Generation Colt SAA .44 Specials with Galco leather.

In 1913 Colt began chambering the Single Action Army in .44 Special. From then until 1941, only 506 Single Action Army Models would be so chambered, and only one Flat-Top Target, which belonged to Elmer Keith. In the beginning these sixguns were marked on the left side, “RUSSIAN AND S&W SPECIAL 44”. One of the most beautiful examples of an engraved .44 Special so inscribed was the 7-1/2″ personal sixgun of Ed McGivern shipped to him by Colt in 1919; it is pictured in A Study Of

The Colt Single Action Army Revolver by Graham, Kopec, and Moore. In 1929, barrel markings were changed to “COLT SINGLE ACTION ARMY .44 SPECIAL”.

I had one of these 7-1/2″ .44 Special Colts marked the same as the McGivern Colt as related in my book Big Bore Sixguns (Krause Publications 1997).

As I relate in that book:

My new wife solidly entrenched herself in my heart forever our first Christmas together as she presented me with a brand new 6-1/2″ .44 Special Smith & Wesson Model 1950 Target. I had begun a lifelong love affair with the .44 Special. Not only did my wife present me with my first .44 Special, she also combined with a very special .44 Special to make it possible for me to meet another vocal proponent of the .44 Special. It has always been my regular habit to read section 640 GUNS every day in the morning paper’s want ads expecting to find maybe one special sixgun per year. In the early 1970’s the ad read Colt Single Action .44 and old belt and holster.

Andy Horvath built this .44 Special “Fitz Special” on a Colt New Service.

Andy Horvath built this .44 Special “Fitz Special” on a Colt New Service.

The address was a trailer park just outside of town and I hustled over to find a 1st Generation 7-1/2″ Colt Single Action with cartridge belt and holster. The owner explained the .44 had belonged to his uncle and he wore it regularly as a sheriff in Colorado, and the pitting on the top strap were from his blood when he was shot and was more concerned about having himself patched up than cleaning the Colt. As I handled the Colt I could scarcely contain myself. Except for the minor pitting on the top strap, the old Colt .44 Single Action was in excellent shape mechanically and the case coloring had turned a beautifully aged gray. The left side of the barrel was marked “RUSSIAN AND S&W SPECIAL 44”. A very rare single action!

How much? I asked as I contemplated my budget. $450. I was sorely tempted but with paying for three kids to attend private school, I felt it was out of the question. I reluctantly thanked the man for his time and left. My excitement stayed high all the way home and it was impossible to contain my disappointment as I told my wife all about the Colt .44 Special. She was more than a little surprised I was able to resist buying that beautiful sixgun.

Later that day she headed out to do some shopping and I asked her to stop at the local boot repair shop. I had been so stirred up by the .44 Colt I had forgotten to pick up my finished boots. When she returned home she handed me the boots with a slight smile on her face. As I took the boots I realized they felt a few pounds heavier than normal. In the left boot was the Colt! She had gone out on her own and purchased the .44 Special! You hold on tightly to a wife such as this one!

Great .44 Special sixguns from the middle part of the twentieth century: Great Western SA, 2nd Generation Colt SAA, and a pair of 3rd Generation Colts.

Great .44 Special sixguns from the middle part of the twentieth century: Great Western SA, 2nd Generation Colt SAA, and a pair of 3rd Generation Colts.

After doing a little research on the Colt and finding out how really rare it was, we decided it belonged to a collector not a shooter as I was. So we traded it for the $450 we paid for it plus two shooting Colt sixguns, a 2nd Generation Colt Single Action Army 5-1/2″.44 Special and a 7-1/2″ New Frontier chambered in .45 Colt. But that isn’t the end of the story as this Colt .44 Special and Russian was my ticket to meeting someone very special.

Later that year I attended the NRA Show in Salt Lake City and carried pictures of the old Colt, especially a close-up of the barrel inscription, all for a purpose. I was looking for one particular individual. When I found him dressed in a dark suit, wearing colored shooting glasses and a white Stetson, I simply handed him the picture of the barrel close up. He grabbed me by the arm and said: “Son, let’s go find a place to talk.” The man was Skeeter Skelton and I had found the way to his heart. Skeeter was second only to Elmer Keith in praising the virtues of the .44 Special during his writing career. Keith retired his .44 Specials after the .44 Magnum arrived; Skelton tried the .44 Magnum, found the Special better for most purposes, and went back to his first love.

The 1st Generation Colt Single Action Army was dropped from production in 1941, never to be seen again. After the war, Colt made it very clear they had no intention of ever resuming production. Television changed all that! A whole new generation of shooters and would be shooters discovered the Colt Single Action Army through all the B Western movies that filled the screens in the early days of television and then were followed by the made-for-TV westerns. Shooters wanted Colt Single Actions and in 1956 the 2nd Generation Single Actions appeared.

The .44 Special arrived in the Single Action Army one year later in 1957 with both 5-1/2″ and 7-1/2″ barrel lengths.  For some unknown reason the 2nd Generation .44 Specials were never offered with 4-3/4″ barrels. While not as rare as the 1st Generation .44 Specials, just over 2,300 were offered before they were removed from production in 1966. A companion sixgun to the Single Action Army was the New Frontier, a modernized version of the old Flat-Top Target Model of the 1890s. These are very rare with only 255 total being made with 5-1/2″ and 7-1/2″ barrels from 1963 to 1967. They are also some the finest single actions ever produced by Colt.

By 1974, the Colt machinery was wearing out and the decision was made to drop the Colt Single Action Army once again. This time instead of 15 years it only took two years to resurrect the Single Action, as the 3rd Generation began production in 1976.  This time around the .44 Special would be produced from 1978 to 1984 in all three barrel lengths: 4-3/4″, 5-1/2″, and 7-1/2″ and a total production of about 15,000 with about 375 Buntline Specials with 12″ barrels. Colt just recently announced the return of the .44 Special Single Action Army to their catalog.

The .44 Special was also offered as the New Frontier from 1980 through 1984 when all New Frontier production ceased. Something over 3,500 3rd Generation .44 Special New Frontiers were produced and only with 5-1/2″ and 7-1/2″ barrels. Most shooters hold 2nd Generation .44 Specials in much higher esteem than their counterparts among 3rd Generation examples and the prices demanded reflect this.

USFA offers the barrel marking as found on the original Colt Single Action .44 Special.

USFA offers the barrel marking as found on the original Colt Single Action .44 Special.

Colt not only produced the first big-bore double-action revolvers a few years before Smith & Wesson – the Model 1878 in .45 Colt – but they would also be the first to produce what we consider a modern double-action revolver., i.e., one with a swing-out cylinder.

These Army and Navy Models on the .41 frame would evolve into the larger New Service in 1898. Immensely popular, the New Service overtook the Single Action Army in total production numbers due to the fact that more than 150,000 New Services chambered in .45ACP with 5-1/2″ barrels and known as the Model 1917 were ordered for the use of the troops in World War I.

The .44 Special, as with the Single Action Army, first appeared in the Colt New Service in 1913. Before it was dropped, the .44 Special New Service was offered as a standard model with barrel lengths of 4-1/2″, 5 1/2″, and 7-1/2″ with either blue or nickel finish, or the beautifully shooting New Service Target Revolver with a choice of either a 6″ or 7-1/2″ barrel.

Stocks were checkered walnut and the trigger was checkered, as were the front and back straps; the finish was a deep blue; sights were adjustable, with a choice of a Patridge or bead front sight.

Colt’s ultimate .44 Special New Service was the deluxe target revolver, the Shooting Master. This 6″-barreled revolver featured a hand-finished action, sights and a top strap that were finished to eliminate glare. It represented the highest-quality revolver that Colt could build until the Python arrived in 1955. Along with the Colt Single Action Army, the New Service was dropped in 1941.

New Services chambered in .44 Special are very hard to find, at least at my price level. A few years ago a reader came to the rescue with a late-model New Service in .44 Special, which he offered to send to me for inspection. It had several problems: it was out of time, its lanyard ring was missing, and someone had installed a Smith & Wesson adjustable rear sight while leaving the front sight intact. This, of course, resulted in a sixgun that shot way high.

But it had possibilities and it came for very reasonable price. The 4-1/2″ New Service .44 Special was sent off to Milt Morrison of QPR (Qualite Pistol & Revolver), one of the few gunsmiths qualified to work on the old New Service. He totally tuned and tightened it, fitted a ramp front sight and re-blued it. A lanyard ring was found and installed, and stag grips were located and fitted to the frame. The final result is one of the finest New Service .44 Specials around.

In the time between the two World Wars, John Henry FitzGerald (“Fitz”) was Colt’s representative, traveling to all the shooting matches, working on shooters’ Colts and generally sharing shooting information. He is best known for his Fitz Special built on the Colt New Service: “Perhaps some would like to ask why I cut up a good revolver and here is the answer: The trigger guard is cut away to allow more finger room and for use when gloves are worn…. The hammer spur is cut away to allow drawing from the pocket or from under the coat without catching or snagging in the cloth and eliminates the use of thumb over hammer when drawing….The butt is rounded to allow the revolver to easily slide into firing position in the hand…. The top of the cut-away hammer may be lightly checked to assist in cocking for a long-range shot.”

It was common knowledge among his contemporaries that Fitz always carried a pair of .45 Colt Fitz Specials in his two front pockets. He definitely knew how to use them.

I’ve wanted to have a Fitz Special ever since I was the kid learning to shoot big-bore sixguns in the 1950s, and just recently decided to have one made up on a Colt New Service. I found what I thought would be the perfect candidate for a Fitz Special, a 5-1/2″ Late Model New Service in .45 Colt.

Although having considerable pitting on the right side of the barrel and part of the cylinder, it was mechanically perfect and the interiors of both barrel and cylinder were like new. Instead of sending it off to be converted, I shot it first and found it shot much too well to touch as it placed five shots, fired double-action standing at 50 feet, in
less than 1-1/2″. By now I have learned not to fix what ain’t broke, so it remains untouched.

Thanks to a reader I came up with a Late Model New Service chambered in .44 Special. It needed some help and made a perfect candidate for a Fitz Special, so off it went to one of the premier gunsmiths in the country, Andy Horvath.

Horvath said of this New Service: “It’s got a few miles on it and somebody got a little carried away with the buffing wheel. I bushed the cylinder to get out most of the endplay, and installed a ball lock on the crane to help with the lock-up. Instead of cutting the old barrel I just made a new one using up a piece of Douglas barrel blank too short for anything else.

The grip frame has been shortened and rounded and fitted with fancy walnut grip panels, and the top of the hammer serrated for shooting single action by starting the hammer back with the trigger and then grabbing the hammer with your thumb.”

The end result is a .44 Special Fitz Special that is one of the finest in existence. built by one of the finest gunsmiths ever. My everyday working load for .44 Special sixguns, the 250-gr. Keith bullet over 7.5 gr of Unique in the short barrel of the “Fitz” registers 830 fps, or just about the perfect equivalent of Fitz’s .45 Colt loads.


Gun Digest 2015

Gun Digest 2015, 69th Annual Edition

For nearly 7 decades, Gun Digest has been regarded by the shooting industry, hunters, competitive shooters, collectors, and hobbyists everywhere as the shooter’s No. 1 resource. In our 2015 69th Edition, Jerry Lee again helps us carry on the tradition of being the gun book every firearms lover turns to.

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