LIFE IS TOO SHORT TO SPEND IT WITH AN UGLY GUN!
Theodore Roosevelt had one. General George S. Patton had one. Even Pancho Villa had one. All of these men had one thing in common. The sixguns preferred for fighting were also fancy. With Roosevelt it was a 7 1/2" Colt Single Action Army .44-40 with full engraving, nickel plating, and ivory grips with TR carved into them. Carried in an equally fancy carved cross draw holster, the .44-40 was his constant companion on his ranch in the Dakota Badlands in the 1880’s.
Young Lieutenant Patton chose a special sixgun before he joined Black Jack Pershing to pursue Pancho Villa in 1916. That sixgun was a Colt Single Action Army .45 with the ‘Gunfighter’ length 4 3/4" barrel also fully engraved carrying ivory grips with the initials GSP etched into them. This sixgun, carried in a Myres Border Patrol holster, became his authority symbol in World War II. Contrary to popular belief, Patton did not have a pair of Colts. His second sixgun, also packed in a Myres holster and sometimes packed in tandem with the Colt, was an ivory stocked Smith & Wesson 4" .357 Magnum, one of the first out of the factory as Patton bought his in Hawaii in 1935.
Pancho Villa? What else but a Colt Single Action .45 again with the 4 3/4" barrel length and full nickel plating with extra fancy ivory grips that carried a carved steer head with gold horns and ruby eyes.
Texas Rangers routinely carried fancy sixguns and semi-automatics. The early years of GUNS magazine often featured articles highlighting such Rangers as Clint Peoples and Bob Crowder both of whom packed a pair of engraved and ivory stocked 1911 .45’s. Rangers Charlie Miller and Lone Wolf Gonzaullas both preferred fancy sidearms as badges of authority. Gonzaullas’ engraved and ivory stocked 1911 .45 also had the trigger guard cut away for speed handlin’.
Frank Hamer, the Ranger who came out of retirement to stop Bonnie and Clyde, is most known for his carrying of a plain vanilla .45 Colt Single Action that he called ‘Old Lucky’. But Hamer also had his fancy sixgun, a fully engraved and ivory stocked Colt Single Action .45. Tom Threepersons, who designed the famous holster that still bears his name, packed a nickel plated Colt Single Action .45 with pearl grips bearing the Colt factory medallion and a carved steerhead.
A look through any museum or book of Colt firearms will reveal dozens of fancy firearms carried by peace officers and outlaws alike especially in the Southwestern part of the country. It goes without saying that the stars of the ‘B’ movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s such as Tom Mix, Buck Jones, and Tim McCoy, all packed fancy sixguns across the silver screen. Even John Wayne, who also starred in ‘B’ movies at the beginning of his long career, died in his final movie, “The Shootist”, packing a fully engraved .45 Single Action.
My good friend and fellow writer, Jim Wilson just retired as Sheriff of the largest county in Texas, Crockett County. As a modern peace officer, Wilson never carried an ugly gun. Two of his favorites, both engraved and ivory stocked, are .45’s, one a Colt Single Action .45 Colt and the other a .45 ACP 1911.
We have seemingly entered the period of the ugly gun with the most revered fighting handguns also vying to see which can have the least aesthetic and soul stirring qualities. Plastic and rubber abound instead of the steel and ivory preferred by these fighting men of a bygone age.
Most of today’s semi-automatics are highly efficient like computers and claw hammers and just about as exciting. It hasn’t always been so. Even the U.S. Military, until very recently, adopted good lookin’ guns that were also efficient at least for each particular time period.
Consider the 1851 Navy Colt, the 1860 Army, the Colt Single Action Army, the S&W Schofield, the 1911 Government Model, the 1917 Smith & Wesson and Colt .45 ACP sixguns, all with classic lines to go with their performance as first class fightin’ handguns. With rifles, the soldiers of yesteryear, went through the .45-70 Trap Door Springfield, the .30-40 Krag, the 1903 Springfield and M-1 Garand, all of steel and walnut and good looks. Today both the handguns and rifles of the military are highly efficient tools but that is all they are. Tools. There is nothing good looking about them. There is nothing there to stir the soul or make the heart beat faster.
Call me a throwback if you will, but I for one am fighting the ugly gun syndrome. Not only am I fighting it, I have had three very special handguns made up that will go to three very special people when I no longer use them. Those three special to be men are my grandsons John Christopher, age 10; Jason Michael, age 9; and Brian John, age 5. As they grow older, they will be shooting these sixguns and know that each of them will eventually receive one for their own. That it is, in fact, their gun and I am just using it for awhile. I pray to God that they will all grow to be the kind of men that will appreciate fine guns and also know how to use them and when to use them. As fathers, and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers for that matter, we all have a great deal of hard work to do to counteract the many negative aspects of society that bombards kids daily. I work full time at being a grandfather, much harder than I did the first time around. The times require it.
When I began to really become interested in sixguns as a teenager in the 1950’s, Elmer Keith was the handgun writer. His book “Sixguns” was published in 1955, and my dog eared copy opens almost automatically to the page with his #5, a completely custom Colt Single Action .44 Special that Keith had built up in the 1920’s. This was a sixgun! Chambered in the top caliber of the day, it was fully engraved and ivory stocked. I located an old copy of the American Rifleman from April 1929 and read the firsthand account of the building of the #5 SA, as Keith called it. The picture of the fully engraved sixgun in the article was even better than that found in the book and I dreamed of the day when I might have such a sixgun.
In the back pages of “Sixguns”, Keith devoted an entire chapter to fancy guns, engraved and specially stocked sixguns and semi-automatics. I studied that chapter over and over and over again. Some day…
In 1956, Smith & Wesson brought forth the first .44 Magnum with a barrel length of 6 1/2" on the original guns. Keith almost immediately had one cut to 4 1/2" and engraved and ivory stocked by the Gun Reblue Company. This magnificent sixgun was pictured in the 1958 “Gun Digest” as Keith wrote of the .44 Magnum one year later. I dreamed again of an engraved sixgun. Sometime between the assembling of “Sixguns” and the advent of the .44 Magnum, Keith had his favorite sixgun of the time, a 4" 1950 Target .44 Special also engraved and ivory stocked by the Gun Reblue Company. Little did I know at the time that someday I would actually get to handle all of these fancy sixguns of Keith’s; for then I was happy just to see the pictures.
Shortly after the 1958 “Gun Digest” hit the stands in the early fall of 1957, I came very close to having my first engraved sixgun. The local gun shop had a fully engraved Colt Single Action .45 with adjustable sights added for only $150. Now that seems like a pittance and, of course, I wished I had bought it. But that was over three weeks pay in those days. So I passed, much to my eternal regret. Marriage came, then kids, and the decision to go to college. Putting myself through college while raising a family of three kids and a wife who stayed home with them left little money for anything so frivolous as an engraved sixgun.
As it so often happens, time passed ever so quickly. The kids grew and were soon out on their own and I dreamed of that engraved sixgun once again. Finally my wife said enough is enough, do it and stop talking about it. So, finally, 30 years after the dream started, I contacted Jim Riggs about engraving a sixgun. Now the problem was which sixgun to choose. It did not stay a problem very long as the most natural thing was to do a sixgun that Keith would like–a Smith & Wesson 4" .44 Magnum.
My 4" Model 29 from the early 1960’s was sent off to Riggs and he was given carte blanche to “make me a fancy sixgun”. When it came back I could not have been more pleased. Riggs had executed scrollwork on more than 75% of the .44 Magnum and then had it satin nickeled to better show off the engraving. I recommend this subtle finish highly for both protection and good looks.
To complement Riggs’ work I commissioned the late Deacon Deason to make a pair of his Skeeter Skelton Style BearHug Grips worthy of the fancy forty-four. Deason delivered a pair of beautifully grained rosewood stocks but I wanted something just a mite more special for the special sixgun. Up to this point all of Deason’s work had been with wood; I wanted ivory micarta. He finally relented and came up with a pair of Skeeter Skelton stocks of ivory micarta that blend exceptionally well with the engraved satin nickel finish.
At the time Deason said he would never make another pair of stocks from micarta, which I believe is a compressed paper product from the electrical industry that looks like ivory, ages like ivory, and is infinitely tougher and about one-fourth the cost. He did make one more pair for me before his untimely death and I am proud and pleased to have the only two pair of ivory micarta Skeeter Skelton style stocks from Bear Hug in existence.
I was so pleased with the first engraved sixgun that I wanted to do another one. Again time got away. Finally this past year it was decided to have a second sixgun done to picture on the cover of my book “Big Bore Sixguns” along with the original engraved Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum by Jim Riggs.
This time a Colt Single Action Army, also from the 1960’s, was chosen. I already had a 4 3/4" .45 Colt with ivory grips by Charles Able that I had selected years earlier for engraving. This sixgun, as the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum, would be a shooter not a piece to hide away, so I made sure it shot to point of aim with a favorite .45 Colt load. It took a slight bit of filing on the front sight to get the point of impact to point of aim and then the blued Colt with a case hardened frame was also sent south to Boerne Texas to be engraved by Jim Riggs. On this sixgun Riggs used a style that looks very much like pictures I have seen of sixguns that were engraved in the frontier period. The Scroll work is more subdued than that found on the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum and a sunburst effect graces the loading gate and recoil shield.
My name is also engraved on the backstrap so this sixgun will, in all probability, eventually go to the oldest grandson who also bears my name. With its satin nickel finish and ivory stocks the overall effect of this Colt Single Action Army is one that either Buck Jones, Hopalong Cassidy or even General Patton would approve of.
There are three truly classic handguns: the Colt Single Action Army, the Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum, and the Colt 1911 Government Model. A single action. A double action. A semi-automatic. Two bases were covered. Two of the three grandsons were provided for. It was time to do provide the third leg of the tripod.
Enter Ed Delorge. Ed is both a full blown gunsmith and gun engraver from Louisiana. We first made contact early this year and I asked him to send some pictures of his work. He went one step further. Not only did I get pictures of several handguns he had engraved, he also sent a picture of himself with his family. A man who is proud of his family immediately gains points with me! The decision was made to send him a Colt MK IV Series '70 .45 ACP to be given the fancy treatment. This is not just an ordinary run of the mill .45 as it shoots extra ordinarily well. With target loads it will cut a cloverleaf at 25 yards one-handed, standing on my two legs, shooting off-hand, or I should say it would 25 years ago when my hold was steadier and my eye was keener. I can’t do it quite as well anymore but the .45 still will in the right hands.
Over the years this .45 was fitted with an ambidextrous safety, beavertail grip safety, Colt Commander hammer, and high visibility fixed sights consisting of a blade notch rear and a post front sight. The beavertail and Commander hammer solved the problem of the fleshy part of my hand getting bit by the standard hammer as the Colt cocked itself upon firing. This was definitely a gun worthy of engraving.
Off this gun went to Delorge who was also given carte blanche as the expert with only one stipulation. I wanted the finish to be satin nickel to match the Smith .44 and Colt .45 Single Action. The contours of the Government Model are quite different than either the Smith & Wesson or Colt Single Action revolver. Working with flat surfaces for the most part, Delorge executed a smaller scrollwork and leaf pattern than found on the two sixguns. The result is stunning to say the least. The scrolls and leaves are perfectly executed and set off by a very subtle stippled background. Delorge covered the slide, frame, even both sides of the ambidextrous thumb safety with his pattern.
Finish is satin nickel as requested and was carried out by Encoat International. It sets off and displays the engraving much better than a blue finish would plus the .45 is protected as it is carried in a holster and used. When these engraved handguns are all passed on to my grandsons, the finish will still be intact. Finally, a pair of Sambar stag grips from Ajax Custom Grips were added to complete this third special handgun. The mottled brown and bone look of the stag stocks set off the engraving and satin nickel finish perfectly.
Do not make the mistake of thinking the cost of engraving is out of reach. Of course we are not talking museum high-grade presentation pieces here. I see no practical use for a sixgun that has taken hundreds, perhaps even thousands of hours to complete and is replete with 100% coverage of very intricate patterns. A sixgun such as this is highly valuable, strictly for show, and only for the rich.
My fancy guns are working guns. Fancy working guns, but working guns nevertheless. They are carried in quality leather, they are used, they are shot routinely. A gun that isn’t for shooting has no value for me. I do have two very limited run sixguns that are collector’s items not for shooting. However, these have been given to my wife to put away as an investment for her golden years.
Both Jim Riggs and Ed Delorge are very reasonable and will provide an engraved piece worthy of great pride of ownership. For less than the cost of a new sixgun, one can have a truly personal engraved firearm. It will look great and also still be a true working sidearm.
My paternal grandfather was killed three months before my father was born. Grandma continued with the plans to come to America and made the trip on her own carrying my father with four other youngsters in tow. Twenty-seven years later, my father was killed before I was a year old. I have nothing that belonged to my grandfather and precious little, other than a broken pocket watch and a belt buckle that belonged to my father. When he was killed his brothers confiscated his .22 rifle and 12 gauge shotgun for their own. They weren’t worth much but they should have been put away for me. They were not.
For the past two decades I have been putting ‘things’ away for my grandsons. Interesting books, special pictures, copies of my articles, … These sixguns are more than fancy firearms that fulfill a whim. They are my legacy to the future generations. What is yours?
…Courtesy of AMERICAN HANDGUNNER