Full Circle

 

By Jim Taylor

photography by Jim Taylor

November 3rd, 2004

 

 

 

My first handgun was a really cool H&R .22 break-open that Dad gave me on my 13th birthday.  I loved that old gun and toted it everywhere.  It was on my side during the many pack trips Dad and I made into the Superstition Wilderness, panning gold and prospecting.  I carried it for several years and when I was 15 Dad gave me a big-bore sixgun- a Ruger .357 Magnum Blackhawk. 

 

This was back in 1961 and Ruger was THE premier single action.  I shot that gun every day, casting my own bullets and reloading the ammo with a Lyman 310 Tool.  One summer Dad bought over 150 pounds of lead and I cast bullets of it and shot it all by winter!  By the time I was 17 I had become - without bragging - a pretty decent shot.  I shot that pistol at ranges from several feet to hundreds of yards.  The old Keith 173 gr. semi-wadcutter when pushed by a heavy load of 2400 powder lit off by a small rifle primer would go through a car rim at 200 yards.

 

A few years into my shooting and troubles in Southeast Asia and a summons from Uncle Sam interrupted my sixgun work.  I carried a single action as much as I could while I was State-side, but I sent it home when we shipped out.  I did not make it back to the States for 2 1/2 years which coincided with the end of my enlistment.   Returning home I picked up the 357 and went back to work.  I also picked up a Second Generation Colt SAA .45 and began shooting it a lot. 

 

The first 3 shots I fired with that .45 Colt were on my Grandpa's ranch in eastern Washington State. I lined the sights up on an old 41 Ford that had been scrapped years before.  It was on the section line about 1/2 mile from the house. I was using Winchester factory ammo - the copper "plated" bullet.  My first shot was over the car and in the loose dust created a huge cloud just beyond the old car body.  My second shot was low and for the 3rd shot I held in between and touched it off.  There was no dust cloud this time and on the wind a solid THUNK drifted back to me.  I was hooked!

 

I graduated to heavy bullets in the Colt fairly quickly.  The Keith #454424 260 gr. semi-wadcutter was THE heavy bullet in those days. I soon had loads using Keith's recommended 18.5 gr. of 2400 running through the gun.  These had some real steam and reached out to very long distances quite easily.  Shooting 400 yards to 800 yards in country where you could see the bullet strike was not a big problem.  In those days we felt that a heavy loaded .45 Colt like that was just the ticket for most anything and while it did not approach the top loads of the .44 Magnum, it was more than respectable.

 

Then Ruger went and did something unusual. They chambered the large-frame Blackhawk in .45 Colt! 

 

By the early 1970's I had been writing to Elmer Keith and picking his brain for anything I could get on his .45 Colt handloads.  His use of the .45-90 rifle bullet intrigued me and I pestered him about it.  He was kind enough to write and tell me his experiences with it in the old Colt Single Action Army.  He had used the bullet with black powder and also with 2400 behind it.  He even killed a large Mule Deer with it and while it held some fascination for him, the guns of the day were not up to its use.

 

The new Ruger .45 Colt changed all that.

 

I began experimenting with the bullet - #457191- in my 7 1/2" Ruger.  My Lyman mold cast a perfectly round bullet of 305 gr. when using wheelweights.  I tried sizing the bullets and found that you could absolutely ruin them when trying to size them in one step.  The method I developed in those days was to run the bullets nose-first into a .457" die, then nose first into a .454" die and finally size and lube them in a .452" die.  This turned out good, accurate bullets without distorting them or wiping out the grease grooves.

 

The only powder I was familiar with was 2400 and I began testing with it.  H110 and WW296 were on the market but there was no data for the .45 Colt and nothing with heavy bullets.  Being unfamiliar with it I stayed away from it. I knew just enough about internal ballistics to tread carefully.

 

I ran various loads of 2400 through the Ruger and settled on 18.5 gr. 2400.  This gave me pretty good velocity, shot very accurately and penetrated well.  (this was in pre-chronograph days)  Measuring case head expansion I figured I was in a safe pressure range and estimated the velocity at 1200 fps.  Some years later I had these loads pressure-tested at Hodgdon's and found they averaged 1188 fps and gave an average pressure of 29,400 CUP. This became my standard load in the Ruger.  I shot deer and pigs with it and it worked pretty well. It was a great bullet for long range shooting.  The penetration was excellent and retained velocity and energy at long distances were just great.  Shooting 3/8 of a mile at an old cabin up on the Gray's River in Wyoming the slugs penetrated the log cabin wall and had enough energy left to seriously dent the angle iron of an old bed frame inside.  I found the bullet where it bounced back against the cabin wall when we drove over to check the damage.

 

On my "long" range I had a 16" truck rim hung on a tripod at a little over 400 yards.  This target was a tough one, but if conditions were right and I was on top of my game, I could ring it 3 out of 5 shots.  I shot at this target for several months and one day decided to go out and see what it looked like.  To my amazement, many of the slugs had cracked the rim!

 

One day my phone rang and the caller identified himself as a "John Linebaugh" from Cody, Wyoming.  He had heard that I was experimenting with heavy loads in the .45 Colt and as this was an area he was interested in, he wanted to talk.

He asked me about my gun and loads and what I had found out.  I shared what little knowledge I had and then he began to talk about what he was doing.  When he mentioned 1500 fps in a single action with a specially-built 5-shot cylinder I mentally said to myself "hoo boy .. this guy has got to be nuts" but I kept my mouth shut and listened.  He asked if I had ever tried H110 and I told him I had not.  In fact, I told him I was kind of afraid of it since there was no data anyplace relating to it's use with heavy bullets in the .45 Colt.  He said he would send me some data he had and that I should try it out and see.

 

Well, he not only sent the data - which when I tried, I found that he knew what he was talking about - eventually he also sent a stainless Seville .45 single action that he had made a 5-shot cylinder for.  He included loading data for that gun for me to try.  With fear and trembling I made up some of the ammo and when the time was right, touched off the first one.   And ..........

 

The earth shook!

 

I had never had a pistol in my hands that produced that kind of power! 

 

From that I began a quest for handgun power in a packable revolver.  I kept in touch with John Linebaugh, visited him when ever I could,  and tried to encourage him in his work. In those days he was holding down a job and trying to make a name as a gunsmith and raise a family.  No easy task.

Another problem was, in those days anyone playing with heavy loads in the .45 Colt or in custom-built 5 shots were considered to be dabbling in voodoo.  No one wanted to write about it  or allow it to be published, No one that is, except J.D. Jones in his monthly paper "The Sixgunner".   J.D. proved that you could load 300 to 320 gr. bullets in the .44 Magnum to 1400 fps and still stay within SAAMI specs.  As that idea gained acceptance the work with the heavy bullets in the .45 Colt followed right behind. 

Where once we had only .45 caliber rifle bullets to work over and shoot in the .45 Colt, mold makers began to produce heavy bullets for the .45 Colt.  One by one they began appearing and within a few years there was quite a choice available.

 

During this time I began lobbying ammunition makers for heavy loads in the .45 Colt.  All were polite but treated me more or less like I had a social disease.  Some returned my letters.  None returned my calls.  Some would listen politely and then explain that they were not about to venture into an area with so many dangers liability-wise.  Especially since there were no SAAMI specs for these kinds of loads.

 

A few years before this the Bakers came on the scene and working with Dick Casull made his ideas for a big-bore .45 caliber handgun a viable, marketable reality.  Freedom Arms was born and the 454 Casull began to get into the hands of serious big-bore shooters and hunters.  Freedom Arms is still THE premier big-bore single action.  There are other guns produced in 454 Casull and while they are good guns, none have come close the quality found in the Freedom Arms guns.

 

In many ways it was the Freedom Arms 454 Casull that opened the door for the custom 5-shot .45 Colts to begin to be recognized by the "gun press".  Once that happened thing progressed rather rapidly.

In the course of a few years John Linebaugh developed the now-famous .500 Linebaugh and then the .475 Linebaugh (and the Long versions of each) and since that time the firearms world has gone crazy with various heavy-loaded big-bore cartridges being produced for revolvers, the latest being the .500 Magnum produced by Smith & Wesson.  Gary Reeder has a number of big-bore cartridges available as does Jack Huntington.  Ammo companies such as Cor-Bon have marketed various heavy loads for the .45 Colt and the .454 as has Buffalo Bore.  In fact, Buffalo Bore brought the Linebaugh cartridges to production long before anyone else.

 

We have come a long way since those years when those of us who liked big bullets in the .45 Colt were treated like the weird uncle in the basement.

For the record, my time-line for the "big bullet phenomenon" is not exact, but a general retelling of how it came to be. 

 

Also for the record, I was not the only person experimenting with heavy bullets in the .45 Colt. And I was not the first to do so by any means.  Nor was I the only one trying to get someone to produce them.  There were men who were doing the same things and more,  years before I started. There were many who were much more knowledgeable than I AND who had much more experience than I.  Most likely their names would not be recognized except by a handful of people alive today.  This is partly because they did not get any public recognition of their work.  Most everyone who experimented in these areas in the early years were isolated and little word of their work got out. 

 

Also, to be truthful, credit for a lot of the work with heavy bullets would have to go to many unsung shooters in IHMSA.  A lot of these guys were shooting heavy bullets in sixguns years before anyone else got up the nerve to try it. Not only were they shooting them, they were shooting them a LOT!  And shooting them in competition that demands accuracy.  If you can find a copy of SHOOTING STEEL by John Taffin (published 1986) you will find record of heavy bullet loads in sixguns going back to the early days of shooting silhouettes. 

 

I was simply one of many who were working along the same lines as others.

 

Today things are much different today as I have said.  I have watched the work with heavy bullets progress.  We have gone from efforts to get the guns to perform more efficiently to the ridiculous.  I saw early warning signs of this in the early 1980's.  A commercial cast bullet dealer in Tucson saw me running some heavy bullets in the 454 as well as the .45 Colt.  I was not driving them hard...850 to 900 fps.  But I was using a 380 gr. bullet in the 454 and a 340 gr. in the .45 Colt. 

He figured that if 340 in the .45 Colt worked so well at 850 fps a 400 gr. bullet would be better.  The first one that was fired took the top off the cylinder.

 

I have seen this kind of thinking over and over again. 

"If a bullet of "X" weight works great, then lets make one heavier" is the thinking. Apparently the idea is that it will have to work better.  Many of the experimenters have no concept of how pressures in a cartridge behave, the Law of Diminishing Returns, or a myriad of other issues.  Quite a few guns have been broken in the process.  Very little thought seems to have been given to the practical side of things or of learning rudimentary ballistics.

 

When I obtained my first 454 I went through the "how fast will go" and "how big of a bullet can we shoot" phase.  It did not last long.  Reality set in after awhile. Elephant stomping power is not needed for deer. It isn't needed for long-range rock shooting either.

Later I ran heavy bullets and  heavy loads in the .475 that John Linebaugh built me...for awhile.  I soon settled on a 400 cast LBT at 1225 fps for my hunting load.  It shot clean through anything I hit with it (full length shots included) and dropped them right now.  What more did I need?

 

But even that changed. Awhile back I traded the .475 off.  I had spent 3 days shooting it and came to the conclusion I did not want to do that anymore.  While I could reach out and tag stuff at 400 yards with it, I could do the same with my .45 Colt using a 300 gr. bullet at 1200 fps and it is much more pleasant to shoot.  I am no spring chicken any more and my wrists still work without pain or discomfort.  I decided to keep it that way.

 

Lately I have been experimenting with a big-bore gun but it is a pussycat. Max velocities are under 900 fps and bullet weights are not heavy. 

 

These days fully 90% of the loads I shoot in the .45 Colt are 255 gr. bullets at 800 to 850 fps.  

My last deer hunt with the 454 was with 225 gr. JHP's.  They don't have to run full-bore to be devastating on our Whitetail Deer.  Accuracy is much more important to me than speed. 

 

I find I like the .41 Magnum with 200 gr. bullets at around 1300 fps for Deer and Javelina.  Not much recoil, plenty of power for the job, and VERY accurate. 

 

My everyday carry gun is a .357 Magnum Old Model Ruger single action.  

 

And I shoot hundreds of .22's every month.

 

It seems I have come full circle.

 

Jim Taylor

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Click pictures for a larger version.

 

Left- Lyman #454190 255 gr.
Right - the Keith #454424 260 gr. SWC

 

 

 

 

My original heavy .45 Colt bullet and load... the Lyman #457191 .45-90 rifle bullet. Loaded in the .45 Colt cartridge for the Ruger Blackhawk. Crimp into the front grease groove. This makes the OAL too long to get into a Colt SAA and other shorter-cylinder guns like the S&W.