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Big-bore with bite.


Have you ever just "known" by a gun's look that you wouldn't like it? Then found out you had been totally wrong about it?

After buying my first Colt SAA .45 in 1968 I became fanatical about owning each of the standard barrel lengths--4-3/4, 5-1/2 and 7-1/2 inches. My first one wore a 5-1/2-inch barrel. My next two had 4-3/4-inch barrels. Finally in 1976,1 got one of the very first 3rd Generation SAA's to appear, this time with a 7-1/2-inch barrel.

But for some reason, I did not want a 3-inch Sheriff's Model. It just seemed unattractive and impractical. In the 2nd Generation SAA era (1955 to 1974), Colt produced 503 .45 Colt Sheriff's Models, but I never actually saw one. Then in the 1980's they made a large run of them with .44 Special and/or .44-40 cylinders. For the uninitiated, besides the short barrel, Sheriff's Models have no ejector rods or housings, nor any provision for mounting them on the frame. Fired cases must be pushed out of chambers with a stick, pen or pencil. That was a large factor in my decision to ignore that particular model.

Evidently, there were other Colt SAA fans of a like mindset, because those 3rd Generation .44 Sheriff's Models did not sell well. At Montana gun shows in the late 1980's and early 1990's new-in-box ones were fairly common. As with so many things in my life, happenstance played a factor in changing my mind. In 1991 I was at a gun show with a bit of spare cash in my wallet, but I already owned most of what was on display, I didn't reach toward my hip pocket. Not at first, anyway. But then I ran into a fellow I knew who had one of those .44 Sheriff's Models in NIB condition. He must have needed funds because he offered it to me at a price that made it far more attractive than it would've been normally.

I still have it 23 years later and consider it one of my favorite single actions. It did not come with dual cylinders, being in .44-40 only. It's blued with a color casehardened frame. At first it wore those "too-thick" factory-issue hard rubber grips, but that changed as soon as I got a set of rosewood blanks from Eagle Grips and had them fitted when I had the action smoothed. I went to this extra trouble because upon shooting the gun for the first time, it hit right at point of aim at 50 feet with my favorite .44-40 handloads.

Then it dawned on me. This would be the perfect rattlesnake gun. In my drawer full of spare parts resided a 3rd Generation SAA .44 Special cylinder. It turned out to be a perfect fit for my new Sheriff's Model. Set up so, it has done for many rattlers in the ensuing 23 years. Usually it is loaded with either my homemade shot loads, carrying tiny No. 12 shot, or CCI's factory capsules with No. 7-1/2 shot. Mine are more effective, but factory ones are more convenient. I usually just carry the revolver in my hip pocket with five rounds loaded and the hammer down on the empty 6th chamber. Actually Yvonne packs it more often during warm months because she's frequently out on our property spraying weeds. She prefers a belt holster. You never know where a rattler is going to turn up around here, so shot cartridges are much safer than bullets.

With my bias against short-barreled single actions dissolved, I began acquiring more. In exchange for work, a gunsmith friend traded Hank Williams Jr. for a nifty .45 Colt SAA. The singer had had it custom built on an 1890's vintage frame with a specially altered 3-3/4-inch barrel complete with ejector rod and housing. Plus it had the flat, wide-style Bisley spur grafted to its hammer. I traded it from the gunsmith and everyone who saw "Shorty" wanted it too. After two decades of fending people off, I finally let a friend have it.

Likewise, with another abbreviated .45 Colt SAA. At a Las Vegas gun show I encountered a dealer who obviously had connections with someone in the Colt Custom Shop. That was because he had a table full of custom SAA's with 3-1/2 and 4-inch barrel lengths, and all of them were fitted with ejector rod assemblies. They were in a variety of blue/color case, full blue and full nickel finishes. After much reflection, I ended up buying a blued/case colored one with a 3-1/2-inch barrel and ivory grips. Again, this one too gained so many admirers in my circle, I eventually let one buy it.


This next one is my most exotic "Shorty." Long ago I had read of an 1880's El Paso City Marshall named Dallas Stoudenmire who packed a short-barreled Colt .44 Conversion in a leather-lined hip pocket. When I decided to have a .44 Conversion built upon an Italian cap-and-ball Model 1860, I mentioned Stoudenmire's .44 to the gunsmith. He replied that he had a spare Model 1860 barrel that was ruined near the muzzle. He asked me if I'd like him to cut it to 2-3/4 inches and have a second barrel to go with the standard 8-inch one. I agreed immediately.

This project came out beautifully. The gunsmith cut away the rear of the frame and mounted a "recoil plate" that contained a firing pin and loading gate (a rear sight sits atop the plate). The cylinder was built brand new, as were the ones Colt put in their factory conversions. The spare barrel was bobbed off and the loading rammer recess filled. A small blade front sight was dovetailed in the barrel. Then the frame and hammer were color casehardened and the rest of the revolver given a nice blue finish.

The gunsmith could have lined the barrels down to 0.429 inch making it possible to use standard bullets meant for .44 Special or .44 Magnum. However, I decided to stick with the original design, which meant using a heel-base type bullet, wherein a reduced diameter shank fits inside the cartridge case while the bullet's full diameter is the same as the outside of the cartridge case. If this sounds confusing just look at a round of .22 Long Rifle--you'll see it's still loaded with a heel-base bullet.

Rapine, a now-defunct custom bullet mold manufacturer, made a proper one for a 210-grain heel-base bullet, which I still use. Cases can be made by trimming .44 Special brass from 1.16-inch to 1.10-inch and narrowing the rim diameter from 0.514-inch to 0.483-inch. Firing a full case of 27 grains of Goex FFg black powder with bullets cast of 1:20 tin-to-lead alloy from gives good accuracy out to 25 yards. (I have not revealed the name of the gunsmith who produced this fine .44 conversion because he is no longer in the business.)

And that would likely have been the end of my shorty single action story if U.S. Firearms had not left the single-action world. For several years they made some of the nicest traditionally styled single-action revolvers I'd ever seen, and I bought several over the years.

But if there is any reliable truism about the gun business, it's that anything gone from production will jump in value. And USFA's single actions are doing just that.

Anyway, I recently had the opportunity to buy a friend's USFA .45 and it just so happened to be a "shorty"--a typical 3-inch Sheriff's Model with no ejector rod or housing. This particular one is USFA's "Rodeo" version, meaning it has a full matte blue finish and their standard hard-rubber grips (I don't mind them because they are much thinner than the Colt's).

Many times over the years since becoming a fan of "shorty" single actions I had lamented about never getting one of those 2nd Generation .45 Sheriff's Models. Now I have one as good or perhaps better. It shoots just a pinch high at 50 feet but is centered for windage with 250-grain lead bullets. However, it also serves as a back-up rattlesnake sixgun when stoked with CCI shotshells.

My change of heart on the Sheriff's Model concept proves not all preconceived notions are forever. Mine certainly took wing after learning a bit about shorty single actions.
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Author:Venturino, Mike "Duke"
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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