Elmer Keith’s influence on handgun design was substantial, his influence on handgun cartridge design truly revolutionary. The big-bore hunting handgun as we know it today -– whether a direct descendent of a Keith concept or a totally different gun made possible only after Keith knocked down the doors -– would not exist were it not for that one man’s pioneering efforts. There would be little or no big-game hunting with handguns, because no timid corporate CEO or board of directors would ever have had the courage to manufacture appropriate guns and ammo to prove the viability of the sport. Not without Elmer’s front sight pressed between their ribs. One strong man supplied the guts and the vision, and the world followed, which is the way things usually work in real life.
Elmer Keith was 29 years old in 1928, when he and his collaborators -– Harold Croft, J.D. O'Meara, and R.F. Sedgley -– reworked and strengthened a single-action Colt into what is surely the most widely recognized custom revolver ever made. The sixgun embodied many of Keith’s ideas of handgun perfection and featured a flat, welded-up top strap, a sturdier base pin design, adjustable sights and a grip frame that combined a Colt Bisley backstrap with the standard Colt single-action trigger guard. The gun was introduced to shooters in the April 1929 issue of the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine, and it was called the Keith No. 5.
The distinctive-looking custom Colt was chambered in .44 Special, because that was the cartridge Keith considered best suited to his incessant experimentation with heavy handloads. The cylinder walls of the .44 Special were thicker than those of the .45 Colt so better able to withstand the high pressures he was creating. The Keith No. 5 was the primary platform on which he developed the loads, bullets and long-range/high-impact capabilities that, in the mid-1950s, would raise the level of big-game hunting with a handgun to a height never before imagined. At first, many in the firearms establishment doubted Keith’s exploits with his hand-loaded .44 Specials, his 700-yard accuracy, his long-range big-game kills, but as undeniable evidence accumulated, many took Elmer’s accomplishments to heart.
Gunmaker Smith & Wesson and ammo manufacturer Remington stood on the sidelines watching for 30 years before they got on board Keith’s .44 program, but the day the first S&W .44 Magnum revolver (soon to be designated the Model 29) shipped out, the Big Pistol Revolution began in earnest. Keith didn’t do it alone, but he provided the vision, the direction, the concept, the relentless prodding that made it possible, just as he had done earlier with the development of the .357 Magnum cartridge, the Winchester Model 70 rifle and, later, the .41 Magnum.
Thanks to what has been described with a variety of flourishes as a highly successful case of industrial espionage, when Smith’s double-action .44 Magnum made it to dealers’ shelves, Bill Ruger’s single-action .44 Magnum Blackhawk was already sitting there. Shooters had an instant choice, and Remington couldn’t turn out ammo fast enough.
That first Ruger .44 Magnum Blackhawk, a stronger version of the Ruger .357 Magnum gun and known as the Flat-Top model, more closely resembled the Keith No. 5 than any of the “improved” models to come afterwards, though it wasn’t until 1985 that Ruger offered its single-action with the Bisley-style grip frame, a modified version of which was one of the most distinctive features of the No. 5. But by that time the Flat-Top had been improved to death, and any sixgun sporting the lines of the No. 5 was a custom proposition.
Keith’s ultimate development of the .44 Special cartridge, the .44 Magnum, has held up well. Its sheer power, considered awesome beyond belief at the time of its introduction, has since been surpassed by a handful of wildcats like the Casulls and the Linebaughs, and the new factory .500 S&W, but it’s still the .44 Magnum that’s the standard. The Elmer Keith cartridge that was 30 years in the birthing process is enough gun to take down Alaskan brown and grizzly bear and African elephant, lion and Cape buffalo, having done so many times, and is still perfectly controllable in experienced hands and a pleasure rather than a pain to shoot.
Still, there’s not much anybody would want to do with a handgun that Elmer Keith wasn’t doing with his handloaded .44 Specials and his Keith No. 5 single-action long before the dawn of modern history. At first it makes you wonder why none of the big factories ever produced a revolver replete with all of the No. 5’s features, but then it occurs to you that many of those features are expensive to implement on an assembly line and that factory quality-control measures are not up to the standards of an essentially hand-made gun. No, the only people who looked at the Keith No. 5 with an eye toward building one were highly experienced custom gunmakers.
Custom gunsmith Hamilton Bowen once built a very fancy one-off No. 5 that stirred up a lot of interest. Perhaps the best-known variation was the one built and put into limited production by Texan Bill Grover, which he called Grover’s Improved No. 5. Grover considered it “improved” because it worked backward from Keith’s original, as well as all the Colts and Rugers and most every other single-action every built, all of which Grover said were built for left-handed shooters one of which he was not. He built the Grover’s Improved No. 5 with the loading gate and ejector rod and housing on the left side instead of the right, so the gun could be loaded and unloaded without switching it from the firing (right) hand over to the non-firing (left) hand. The concept actually made a lot of sense, but habits as deeply entrenched as the loading routine for a single-action revolver are not easily overcome by anything as simple as a rational argument. Grover’s gun is no longer made, but when it was it was expensive as hell and worth every penny. Another sensible thing Bill Grover liked to say is that you can never pay too much for a good hat, a good pair of boots, a good watch and a good gun.
If anybody on the scene today might be up to building a Keith No. 5 that does justice to Elmer’s original, you would think it might be a guy like Gary Reeder, who just celebrated his 25th anniversary as one of the country’s top custom pistolmakers and who also happens to be one of the highest ranked handgun hunters in the world. And you would be dead right. The only question is, What took him so long?
“I didn’t think there was that much call for it,” Reeder said, “until people started getting on my website (www.reedercustomguns.com) and asking, ‘When are you going to build a No. 5?’”
Reeder’s No. 5 is no reworked Colt or Ruger, it’s a total custom gun from the ground up, including the frame, the barrel, the internal parts, even the hammer and trigger. Reeder says, “We have the flat-top frame cast for us down in Houston, it’s much smaller than current Rugers. The dimensions of the gun are the same as the first generation Colt. We ran the old Keith No. 5 grip frame through a computer, and had ours made to its specifications with one exception. Keith had real small hands, so we added 3/8-inch to the bottom of the grip for length so you can get your whole hand around it. We use the same type lockwork as the Ruger three-screw but we make all the parts ourselves. We make the hammer –- wire-cut out of solid steel, same with triggers. We use a Keith-style base pin to preclude any excess play in the cylinder and make sure the base pin stays in place under heavy recoil. Options are full engraving in the style of the Keith guns, round or octagonal barrels, real elephant ivory grips, or Mongolian stag grips -– we’re importing Mongolian stag into the States now. You can have the serial number of your choice and, besides .44 Special, we’ll make the gun in .45 Long Colt and 38-40 as well.”
Besides the flat-tops, Reeder also had some round-top frames cast at the same time, and he’s making these into what he calls the Frontier Classic and describes as “a copy of the first generation Colt but with the inner workings of the early three-screw Ruger Blackhawk plus several of my own changes.”
Reeder’s No. 5 Improved is designed to take the hottest .44 Special load Elmer Keith ever developed, which propelled a 250-grain hard-cast bullet at 1200 feet-per-second. This load, which was well beyond what most knowledgeable people considered the maximum performance safely obtainable in the shorter, thinner .44 Special case, gives up nothing to most of today’s factory .44 Magnum ammo and is still perfectly suitable for almost any handgun hunting scenario imaginable.
Reeder has also developed what he’s calling the Improved No. 6, with all the same features as the No. 5 but built on an even beefier frame and chambered in .44 Magnum on up to anything the customer wants. Reeder figures if Elmer Keith were alive today, this big-frame single-action is what he would be shooting. But then, if Elmer Keith were alive today, the handgun shooting sports might be full of all kinds of pleasant surprises.