Terry Murbach's Last Gun

by Boge Quinn

photography by Boge Quinn

October 18th, 2019

YouTube Video Link

 

Click pictures for a larger version.

 

 

 

 

Terry Murbach's Last Gun, as received from John Gallagher, with Ruger factory grips.

 

 

Scrimshawed ivory polymer grips by William Lett III. Terry Murbach's Shootists badge was a wonderful gift from Terry's daughter Angie.

 

 

 

 

Ruger's "Flattop" Single-Six frame, as used on Old Model, and some New Model, Single-Sixes.

 

 

Drift-adjustable dovetailed rear sight (top), and Bowen drift-adjustable dovetailed front sight (center & bottom).

 

 

Bowen custom-fit locking base pin.

In late December of 2018, I lost one of my dearest friends: Terry Murbach passed away suddenly as the result of injuries sustained from a fall at his home earlier that month. Terry was a wonderful man, a misunderstood genius, a Shootist, a philosopher, a lover of music, a renowned ballistician (having served in that capacity for a couple of ammunition companies, as well as personally loading for over 150 different cartridges), a gun collector, a cranky old curmudgeon, and one of the best friends I have ever had. His passing leaves a void in my heart that will never be filled (at least, not on this side of The River); I miss him every day, and our daily contacts (whether by phone, text, or email) were at the same time wondrously humorous and deeply serious. As my friend Mark Roberts observed at Terry's Memorial Service, "there is a giant hole in the Universe where he used to stand."

Some years ago, Terry decided that his life would be measurably enriched if he owned a custom Old Model Ruger Single-Six chambered for 380 ACP (or, as he liked to call it, 9mm Kurz). He did not enter into this decision lightly, as he never entered into any decisions lightly. He also did not allow himself to be dissuaded by the fact that there are many similarly-bored but more-powerful cartridges which have been successfully mated to the Ruger Single-Six, such as the 9mm Parabellum, the 38 Special, or even the 357 Magnum (although he was, and I remain, dubious about the wisdom of running 357 Magnum in a Single-Six). Terry was a man who appreciated each caliber for what it could do, and did not allow himself to fall prey to conventional wisdom and fads, so he was convinced that the 380 ACP and a single-action sixgun would be a very desirable combination. Plus, he would have something unique!

The first problem Terry encountered was that he lacked a suitable Old Model Single-Six "project gun". He owned a few Old Model Single-Sixes, but he hated to alter one of his own, so I sent him a nice, but not pristine, example with my blessings. After enjoying the sixgun for a while as a 22, he packed it up and sent it to our friend and brother Shootist, Hamilton Bowen of Bowen Classic Arms, for conversion.

Converting a six-shot Rimfire revolver into a five-shot Centerfire revolver is no simple or easy task; before any custom work can be done, the basic geometry of the lock work must be reconfigured, and the firing mechanism must be re-aligned and re-positioned. Custom revolver makers have been doing five-shot conversions for decades (indeed, Hamilton Bowen literally "wrote the book" on such exacting work), but coupling the five-shot and Centerfire conversions into one revolver only exacerbated the difficulties involved. I imagine there existed very few individuals for whom Hamilton would have taken the project, but fortunately, Terry was one of them.

Unfortunately, however, such projects take a great deal of time to work into a busy schedule and accomplish, and neither Terry nor Hamilton imagined that a great deal of time was exactly what Terry did not have. Hamilton Bowen no longer offers Rimfire-to-Centerfire conversions, so he farmed-out the lock conversion to another of America's most respected custom gun makers, John Gallagher of Jasper, AL. Gallagher was to perform the action work, while Bowen custom-made the five-shot 380 ACP cylinder, rebarrelled, and finished the project. Because of the collaborative nature of the project, the amount of time it would take to create the revolver would be at least doubled; especially since Gallagher has been dealing with some serious heath issues of his own for quite some time. The project would require Bowen to first work-out the geometry, fabrication, and fitting of the five-shot cylinder; then the revolver would be shipped to Gallagher for conversion, timing, and action work; then the revolver would be shipped back to Bowen for fitting, finishing, sight installation and regulation; then finally the revolver would be shipped back to Gallagher for final action tuning before it could be sent to the ever-more-anxious (and ever-more-impatient) Murbach. Before all was said and done, the project took several years to complete; in fact, Terry did not live to see the finished revolver "in the ferrous flesh", as he liked to say. When Terry passed away, it would be a matter of only a few months before the project saw completion. Had Terry suffered from a long illness, I am sure Hamilton and John would have expedited the project, but the unexpected nature of Terry's death could not be foreseen. I have several very special custom revolvers, from Bowen as well as other fine and respected makers, and I always advise friends who are contemplating such projects to not begin if they are unable to ship the base gun, pay whatever deposit was required, and then forget about it. The level of craftsmanship displayed in things such as these cannot be rushed, especially when the participants in such a collaboration are each very busy craftsmen.

After the conversion was complete, Bowen installed one of his beautiful dovetail front sights onto the 5-1/2" match-grade barrel. Bowen's dovetail front sight is superbly crafted and perfectly fit, the blade is just the right width, and the blade's face is nearly vertical as well as heavily serrated for maximum visibility in any light conditions in which the revolver is likely to be used. Finally, the dovetail makes the front sight easily windage-adjustable, which is far superior to the windage adjustment methods available to the Colt-style rounded-blade Single-Six front sight: either bending the sight or slightly turning the barrel, which induces problems of its own. The dovetail front sight also allows for the sight blade to be easily replaced if a taller front sight is needed, while the methods for making the front sight taller on the Colt-style rounded  blade are both impractical and problematic. Ruger's Old Model Single-Six rear sight was a windage-adjustable dovetail sight in the flattop frame, and is far superior to those typically found on the fixed-sighted New Model Single-Six. In my opinion, the flattop frame of the Old Model Single-Six is more elegant in appearance than the more familiar Colt-style rounded top strap of the fixed-sight New Model Single-Six, and more functional as it features the windage-adjustable dovetail rear sight instead of the Colt-style fixed sight groove (Ruger did use the flattop frame on a few New Model Single-Sixes, but these examples are quite collectible, and priced accordingly).

Finally, Bowen set about the task of making the revolver look the part. The frame, hammer, and trigger were color case-hardened; the grip frame was given a Wheeler Engineering Cerama-Coat™ finish; barrel and unfluted five-shot cylinder were finished in a beautiful charcoal blue; and finally, as a very nice finishing touch, the frame screws and base pin latch were finished in Nitre blue.

After Bowen had completed his work, the revolver went back to Gallagher for final action & timing tuning, and it was while the nearly-finished 380 was in John's possession that Terry Murbach passed away. Terry had made it clear that, in the event of his passing, the 380 would go to me, both because of my appreciation of the project and because I had given Terry the original Single-Six; as a result, some months after Terry's passing, his "Last Gun" arrived at my FFL dealer. Terry and I had talked many times about the 380 project; he would enthusiastically keep me updated at every turn of the gun's progress, and now I was to receive the custom revolver he had eagerly awaited for so long. I picked-up the gun with very mixed emotions: while I was certainly pleased to have it, both because of what it was and because of its connection to Terry, I would much rather Terry were still around to tell me how wonderfully his Bowen/Gallagher Single-Six 380 shot, and how much he was enjoying it. I would much rather shoot it with Terry at the 2020 Shootist's Holiday...but that is not to be.

As received, the revolver was simply beautiful; the fit and finish was impeccable, as one would expect from such a great maker as Hamilton Bowen. But there was one thing wrong: the gun still wore the factory walnut grips. Not that there is anything wrong with the factory grips, but such a special sixgun deserves better. So, before I even Christened the 380 by firing it, I packed it off to my friend Scott Kolar at SK Custom Grips for a nice set of grips commensurate with the revolver's quality. Scott never disappoints, and I eagerly accepted his recommendation of a nice set of Stag grips. In short order, Scott returned the revolver to me with a beautiful set of Stags; very nicely fit and profiled, with just the right amount of "bark" visible, and no unsightly pith when viewed from the butt. This was some of the nicest Stag I had ever seen. Perfect.

At last, it was time to see how the gun would shoot in the hands of its end user...even if the end user was not the person for whom the gun was made.

But first, as I was getting stuff together for testing, I saw another set of grips nestled in the gun safe. This set of grips had belonged to Terry, had been gifted to me a few weeks earlier by my friend Rob Leahy of Simply Rugged Holsters, and they had been found by Bobby Tyler of Tyler Gun Works during Bobby's handling of Terry's estate (Bobby offers the service of buying/selling or consigning gun collections, and I intend for Bobby to handle mine when I cross the River). Bobby had found this set of grips among Terry's things, and offered them as a prize to the Shootist who could correctly guess what was the last caliber Terry had reloaded, based on what Terry's press was set-up for at the time of his death. Rob won the grips by correctly guessing 327 Federal, and then sent the grips to me because of how close Terry and I were. I had greatly appreciated this before, but now as I looked at the grips and wondered if they would fit Terry's Last Gun, my appreciation peaked as I discovered that they were a perfect fit! Much tighter and closer fit than Ruger factory grips, as though they had been custom-made for this very revolver. The grips are ivory polymer, scrimshawed and signed by William Lett III. As Terry was a Southpaw, the left panel bears Terry's "TM" monogram which Terry had designed many years ago, and used on everything from custom leather to a silver pocket watch Terry had gifted me in the early 'oughts. The right panel bears the legend "The Shootist - South Dakota" and an upright prairie dog along with Lett's signature. Lett was the long-time grip supplier to Ruger; he was a friend of Terry's, and Terry had used Lett's exhibition-grade walnut grips on several sixguns in the past, a couple of which now reside with me. These Lett grips were perfectly fit, were personalized to Terry, and were laying among Terry's things uninstalled, just as if Terry had acquired them just for this revolver. Needless to say, they have now found a permanent home on Terry's Last Gun, and the SK Stag grips will soon find a home on another special sixgun.

Finally, it was time to shoot Terry's Last Gun, and it certainly did not disappoint. Using several different factory loadings from Winchester, Remington, and Lehigh Defense, the revolver shot very well. The 380 shot very close to the sights, both for semi-target work as the pictures show, and for informal plinking. I am sure I would have shot Terry's Last Gun better if I hadn't had something in my eyes. As often as I shoot or fondle this revolver, I will do so in remembrance of Terry Murbach.

Godspeed, my good friend, until we meet again. 

Ruger: www.ruger.com
Bowen Classic Arms: www.bowenclassicarms.com
Gallagher Custom Guns: Phone (205) 384-5229 (No Web Site)
SK Custom Grips: www.skgrips.com
Simply Rugged Holsters by Rob Leahy: www.simplyrugged.com
Barranti Leather by Mike "Doc" Barranti: www.barrantileather.com
Kel Tec: www.keltecweapons.com
Winchester Ammo: www.winchester.com
Remington Ammo: www.remington.com/ammunition
Lehigh Defense ammo: www.lehighdefense.com
Tyler Gun Works: www.tylergunworks.com
The Shootists: www.shootists.org

Boge Quinn

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Click pictures for a larger version.

 

 

Boge with Terry Murbach (right) at the 2011 Shootists Holiday, held at the NRA Whittington Center near Raton, NM. Terry is holding a VERY rare Colt New Frontier chambered for 38 Special.

 

 

Bowen/Gallagher Custom 380 Single-Six with custom Stag grips by Scott Kolar of SK Grips.

 

 

Ammo used for initial testing.

 

 

Informal target shooting, done standing offhand at a distance of ten feet.