Alan Harton Custom Keith Number Five 44 Special Revolver from Single Action Service

 

by Jeff Quinn

photography by Jeff Quinn & Boge Quinn

March 31st, 2011

 

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Alan Harton custom Keith "Number Five" 44 Special revolver.

 

 

Beautifully functional and elegant Number Five base pin latch.

 

 

Elephant ivory grips, custom-fitted by Alan Harton, feature a scrimshaw rendition of the classic Mexican eagle by Boge Quinn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eighty-two years ago, Elmer Keith wrote an article titled “The Last Word” for the American Rifleman magazine. Mr. Keith had a lot of experience with Colt Single Action revolvers, and this piece was the culmination of his years of experience, using the gunsmithing skills of R.F. Sedgley, Neil Houchins, J.D. O’Meara, and Harold Croft to design and build “The Last Word” in single action revolvers. Mr. Keith was a proponent of a heavily-loaded 44 Special. His work with that cartridge led to the ultimate development of the 44 magnum cartridge. Mssrs. Keith, Croft, Houchins, Sedgley, and O’Meara spared no detail in the creation of what has come to be known as Keith’s Number Five.

The Number Five started as a Colt Single Action Army. From there, everything that could be improved was improved. The top strap of the frame was welded up into a flattop configuration, with an adjustable rear sight added. The front sight was changed to a Patridge style. To eliminate the possibility of the base pin moving forward under recoil, an ingenious design was created that uses a swinging lever to retain the pin positively in its place. The head of the base pin is enlarged for an easy grasp to aid in removal. The hammer was modified with a Bisley-type spur, and the trigger was curved and moved closer to the back of the trigger guard. The unique grip of the Number Five was created by marrying a modified Bisley backstrap to a Single Action Army trigger guard, resulting in what is probably the most comfortable-to-shoot revolver grip ever designed.

Since Mr. Keith’s Number Five was built, custom gunsmiths have tried to replicate the sixgun with varying degrees of success. Bill Grover built a few Improved Number Five revolvers under his Texas Longhorn Arms brand, but those were all mirror-image sixguns, built for right-handed shooters. This Harton sixgun is closer in detail to the original than were those built by Mr. Grover. The revolver shown here is a beautifully-executed Number Five built primarily out of stainless steel by Alan Harton of Single Action Service of Houston, Texas. It uses better springs and stronger steel than the original. The original was fully engraved, and this Harton gun is not yet embellished, but it is a beautiful sixgun, displaying superb fit and finish, and will be sent to an engraver later.

Alan Harton is a master at his craft. I have viewed, handled, and fired some of his weapons before, but this Number Five is a superb work of firearms art, and the level of craftsmanship exceeded my high expectations. The barrel measures five and one-half inches in length, with a diameter of .774 inch at the frame, tapering slightly to .722 inch just aft of the muzzle, where it steps down to .676 inch. The ejector rod is standard length, with the housing stopping just under an inch short of the muzzle. The frame is of flattop configuration, and is absolutely flat and smooth, as it should be. The rear sight is adjustable for windage correction, and the front is adjustable for elevation, with a Patridge style black blade. The rear sight blade is also black, with a one-tenth inch wide square notch. The screws through the side of the frame are blued steel. The fluted cylinder measures 1.7 inches in length, 1.695 in diameter, and the front is perfectly radiused. The cylinder is machined to fully recess the cartridge case heads.

Alan Harton beautifully replicated the cylinder base pin catch of the Keith Number Five, which is a work of art in itself. The head of the base pin is large, as it should be for ease of use, and has the classic hourglass shape of the Keith Number Five. The base pin and latch are blued steel, as are the Bisley-style hammer and the wide trigger. The barrel/cylinder gap measures a very consistent .003 inch, and the cylinder lockup is perfect, with no discernable endplay nor rotational play, as expected on such a high-grade custom sixgun.

The grip frame of the Harton Number Five faithfully replicates the feel of the Keith sixgun, as best as I can determine. I have never held the original, but from what I have been able to determine, Mr. Harton got it right. John Taffin has handled the Keith revolver, as well as Grover’s Improved Number Five, and can be a better judge of this than I when he receives this sixgun for evaluation, but the Harton grip frame certainly feels like the grip frame of the Grover guns that I have handled. The design of this grip frame handles recoil very well, and shooting this sixgun with heavy 44 Special loads is a delight. I fired mostly a handload using Lynn Halstead’s Dry Creek Bullet Works 258 grain premium Keith bullets. These are not Lynn’s excellent and inexpensive "blasting bullets", but are very high quality hand-cast bullets, and are very consistent and have a flat base. Loaded with a stout load of Hodgdon Titegroup powder into Starline cases with a WLP primer, these will group into well-under one inch at twenty-five yards from my Ransom Rest, using a grip insert that I modified to fit the unique grip frame of the Number Five. These bullets leave the muzzle of the Number Five at around 950 feet-per-second, and this is an excellent working load in the 44 Special. The Harton Number Five weighs in at two pounds, eleven ounces, and balances perfectly, with just a slight favor to the muzzle end.

The ivory grips on this Number Five were fitted by Alan Harton, and the scrimshaw work was done by my little brother, Boge. The detail is very good, and depicts Boge's interpretation of the classic Mexican Eagle design.

This fine sixgun shown here belongs to my friend, Fermin Garza, and Fermin’s ownership is reflected in the revolver’s special serial number. Alan Harton has done lots of work for Fermin prior to this, but this Number Five is, to me, the pinnacle of sixgun craftsmanship, and is the finest sixgun that I have seen to come out of Mr. Harton’s shop. It is the kind of handgun that can be fully appreciated only by dedicated sixgun fans, especially those who study and appreciate the pioneering work of Elmer Keith; a self-educated firearms enthusiast who took the time to write of his work, which is still enjoyed today, almost three decades after his passing. This fine sixgun by Alan Harton is not only an excellent example of the gun maker’s art, but an homage to the man who designed The Last Word in sixgun perfection.

To contact Alan Harton’s Single Action Service, call 713-722-8314 or 713-907-6301 or email aharton@hotmail.com.

To order the excellent Dry Creek cast bullets, go to www.drycreekbullets.com.

Jeff Quinn

 

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The Number Five grip shape is ideal for a single-action revolver, and the Bisley-style hammer is easy to reach.

 

 

Elevation-adjustable front sight and windage-adjustable rear sight.

 

 

 

 

The stainless revolver features blued steel accents (top to bottom): hammer, trigger, base pin and action screws.

 

 

 

 

Keith-style semi-wadcutter bullets from Dry Creek Bullet Works proved to be just the ticket for the Harton Number Five sixgun.

 

 

Special run of Starline brass made for the Shootists.