Elmer Keith: 1899-1984
By John Taffin
An era has passed. Elmer Keith, the Grand Old Man is dead. Elmer, who seemed bigger than life, should have died in a gunfight, or have been mauled by a grizzly, or simply rode off into the sunset. Instead, the big Stetson and the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum were set aside in December of 1981 when he suffered the de-habilitating stroke. His strength showed as he fought the stroke for over two years, passing away on February 12, 1984 in a Boise nursing home.
Elmer was born right at the end of the frontier period on March 8, 1899 in Hardin, Missouri, and consequently knew many Civil War veterans and gunfighters in his early years. In fact, he recounted learning to shoot a handgun from a former gunfighter turned barber, shooting at the patterns in the linoleum in the back of the barber shop.
In 1911, Elmer was burned terribly in a hotel fire in Missoula, Montana, and carried scars for the rest of his life. An ordinary man would have died from the fire. His entire body was covered with burns and his chin was “welded” to his right shoulder with his left hand turned upside down on the back of his left wrist.
Elmer recounted this: "When we moved from Missoula back to Helena I was considerable of a wreck. My left hand was just turned upside down and back on my wrist, just a claw extended from the top of my wrist. I used to wrap a towel around it when Father sent me to school so the girls wouldn’t cringe at the sight of it. The right side of my face was all drawn down towards my shoulder, also. I was a horrible looking sight.
I told Father I had to have a left hand so I could hold a rifle and do normal things. Father contacted every doctor in Helena to try to get them to operate on the hand and break it over and straighten it out. None of them would tackle the job. They all said I would never live to be 21 anyway and they were not going to torture me any further.
Finally, I had had enough of going with only one hand, so I asked Dad if he would break it. Mother said, “Can you stand it?” I said, “I don’t know, but you can go ahead and do it anyway.”
So mother got a bunch of cotton bats and gauze, soaked them in melted deer tallow, and had a lot of bandages ready. Father went down to Goodkind’s wholesale liquor store and bought a gallon of Old Granddad, 100 proof, and came home with it.
He said, “Son, do you still want to go through with it?” I said, “I do.” I said “Regardless of how much I howl or pass our or whatever, get the job done. I want this hand straight whether I’ll ever be able to use it or not.”
After Elmer’s Dad got him good and drunk, Elmer went on the say: “Dad put my arm on a heavy table and sat down on it with my hand between his legs. When he picked up those fingers that were doubled back of my wrist and broke them, the pain was terrific and I passed out. Father took a board he used for stretching mink and sanded it until it was smooth and slick as glass and would reach from my elbow out past my fingers. When I came to, my hand was straight. It was all laced down solid to the mink board.”
Elmer’s dad had a dozed buckskin gloves made to fit his left hand, and for the next two years, Elmer wore a glove with melted deer tallow in it and forced himself to use that hand.
“In this way, I finally made a new left hand, but it was a long struggle. At first, I could hold it up to the light and see daylight between the bones right down to the palm of my hand. After a couple of years working with it every time I could and also riding broncs and pulling on the rope with that hand, I finally wound up with a pretty good hand. Even today, it’s a sorry looking hand, but it’s useful, and for a time, I even did two gun demonstrations with sixguns.”
Elmer Keith had a tremendous effect on my life. While in high school, I “discovered” him and from reading his writings, I knew I had to move to Idaho. After college, I applied for and received a teaching job in Boise, Idaho, packing up the wife and three kids and headed for “Keith Country.”
Two years later, in 1968, I met Elmer for the first time. Driving over to Salmon, we found his house, and with some trepidation, I knocked on the door, and was greeted by Elmer, taken in as though he had known me all his life, and my wife and I spent the day with him and his wife, Lorraine.
As expected, Elmer was packing a 4" Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum, and we spent the looking at guns, big game trophies, and I was generally enthralled. When we left, my thought was “What a grand gentleman.”
What really made Elmer special was not his skill with or knowledge of guns, but his commonness. Even though he was to be the most famous gun writer of all, he always had time to talk to the ordinary guy and often answered, personally, without a secretary, 300 to 500 letters per month. His home was always open to visitors. My file contains almost every thing Elmer ever wrote about handguns. Ten years ago after he provided me with a list of all of his articles of sixguns ever published in The American Rifleman, I began collecting them and have everything from 1928 to 1953 clipped and laminated. All I need to complete my collection are the August 15th and September 1, 1925 issues, and the July 1, 1926 issue. If anyone has these, I would surely like to purchase them. Those articles from 1928 to 1953 still make fascinating reading.
A .32-20 Colt SA was the first sixgun Elmer used, soon graduating to the big bores. When he blew the loading gate of a Colt SA .45 using 300 grain bullets and black powder, he made the switch to the .44 Special. Always favoring “sixguns” over autoloaders, his favorites were the Colt Sa, the Smith & Wesson and Ruger .44 Magnums. Much of his experimentation with remodeling the Colt SA was incorporated into Bill Ruger’s Blackhawk line of SA sixguns. Elmer’s influence or direct experimentation may be seen in the development of the trio of sixgun magnums: .357, .41, and .44.
Mention Elmer Keith and a number of things pertaining to handgunning come to mind:
(1) The .44 Magnum – Elmer began experimenting with heavy loads in the .44 Special in the 1920’s and his load of 18.5 gr. of No. 2400 in the old balloon head cases of 17.5 gr. of No. 2400 in modern solid head cases with the 250 gr. Keith bullet is still an excellent load. Just last Saturday, I shot some through a new Smith & Wesson Model 24, 6-1/2" .44 Special, getting 1" groups at 25 yards with velocity over 1200 fps. Hid experiments led to the introductionof the .44 Magnum in 1956 bringing handgunning into the modern era.
(2) The Keith Bullet – The 250 gr. .44 Special bullet was designed in 1926 and became No. 429421 for the Lyman-Ideal Company. Later .38 (No. 358429) and .45 (No. 454421) designs were introduced. Every bullet mould company offers “Keith” Bullets which are semi-wadcutter in design. The closest to his original design is offered by North East Industrial (N.E.I.).
(3) Keith Holster – Catalogued by Lawrence as their No. 120 Keith, this is a modification of the Tom Threepersons design and is offered by every holster maker. Simplicity in itself, just enough leather to cover the sixgun and leave the hammer, butt, and trigger exposed with a heavy safety strap for security.
(4) Long Range Handgunning – Keith was the original advocate of handguns useful for more than short range work and he was ridiculed by detractors for many years. The Silhouetters have proven how right he was.
(5) Handguns for hunting – Again he was ahead of his time, he led the way
During the 1920’s and 1930’s, Elmer was a rancher and big game guide in Oregon and Idaho with his first articles starting to appear at this time. His first published work was in the American Rifleman in 1924, and 60 years later, his works are still being published in Guns and Ammo. In World War II, he served as an inspector at the Ogden Arsenal and went full time as a writer in the ‘50’s. During his career, he served on the staff of The Outdoorsman, The American Rifleman, Western Sportsman, Guns, and Guns and Ammo.
When the Outstanding American handgunner Awards Foundation was established to recognize outstanding contributions to handgunning, it was a foregone conclusion that Elmer would be the first recipient. The original award was given to him in 1973.
Elmer also wrote 10 books, beginning with Sixgun Cartridges and Loads in 1936 and ending with his autobiography, Hell, I was there! In 1979. Two of his books are absolute musts for handgunners, those are his last one, his autobiography, and, of course his Sixguns, first published in 1955.
To some, Elmer Keith was a throwback out of touch with modern times. After all, he’sd choose a .45 Colt SA over a modern DA 9mm, but then anyone who knows handguns and had to bet his life would certainly feel safer with the old .45. I know I would.
Last fall, I had a display at Boise State University for the State Conference of Teachers of Reading and Writing. My display had to do with writing and handguns, with a section devoted to Elmer Keith. Elmer’s son, Ted, heard about it and came to visit me and we talked at length about two things…
One is the plan to offer an Elmer Keith Commemorative. This would be a 4" .44 magnum Smith & Wesson with plainclothes stocks and a few simple inscriptions. Hopefully this will come to pass and will not be like the Colt John Wayne Commemorative ($3000!!). It should be a gun that Elmer’s real fans, the ordinary sigunner, can afford.
The other is the hope of an Elmer Keith Museum in Salmon, Idaho. Contributions for this can be made to Elmer Keith Museum Foundation, Idaho First National Bank, Salmon, Idaho.
(webmaster’s note - this article was written in 1984 - the Elmer Keith Museum idea died a long time ago)
We as handgunners owe much to Elmer Keith. As long as there are big bore sixgunners, his spirit will live on. I’ll miss him.