For the past twenty-five years I have experimented extensively with all of our available revolver and automatic pistol cartridges which are suitable for game shooting, defense or target work. Most of my early shooting was done with the old cap-and-ball Colts single action revolvers, or as we in the West are apt to term them “Sixguns.” I have seldom heard a revolver called anything but a Sixgun” or “Sixshooter” except during my two years of School of Instruction and participation in the National Matches at Camp Perry, Ohio. For this reason, I will probably term the revolver a “sixgun” more often than I will use its theoretical name throughout the following pages.

During most of my life I have had a good sixgun within easy reach at practically all time. Until 1929 I rode saddle broncs, packed, punched cows and ran trap lines most of the time; during much of this work a rifle would have been an encumbrance, so the sixgun was taken along instead. While punching cows, that sixgun usually fed my cow dog and very often myself as well. On some few occasions it undoubtedly saved my life, as well as furnished needed food for the table. Sometimes it was necessary to put a three legged horse out of misery, or to end the suffering of a hopelessly bogged cow critter. At other times, I occasionally encountered a coyote out in good open country, and when my cow horse could carry me within range of the little sage wolf, my sixgun ended his days. At other times it furnished the needed bait for lynx, bobcat and badger sets. Many times I have found little calves starved to death on the range because they had tried to sniff at a porcupine whereupon the quill pig had given them a rap across the face with his tail, filling their noses so full of the barbed quills that their mothers would not allow them to suckle and starvation followed. Several of my ponies have also had their noses filled with quills because they became too curious for their own good; so I always take time out to end quill pig’s existence with a sixgun slug.

Each year during grouse season, I killed a great many of these fine birds while hunting cattle. When a kid in Montana, I kept a record of the grouse killed with my old .32/20 S. A. Colt, which ran 42, 41 and 43 birds for the three successive years. The great horned owls were also often encountered, especially in the winter when riding along the little stream beds which were lined with leafless cottonwood and willow trees. During one single winter while at Durkee, Oregon I killed 32 of these birds with a .44 Special S. A. Colt, thereby saving the lives of a great many grouse, quail and rabbits.

I do not believe in hunting or shooting big game with a sixgun when it is possible to use the rifle; nevertheless, I have often encountered big game while out riding with no rifle along, or where a rifle would have been in the way and out of the question. On these occasions I have used the sixgun, killing seven mule deer, three elk, one mountain goat and one cougar with it. My early cow-punching days showed conclusively that while a sixgun was not needed for defense very often, when such did crop up suddenly, it was needed damn bad and the most powerful loads available were none too heavy then. Many times I have been wound up while roping off a green colt. At other times, I have been in equally bad positions by my horse sticking a foot in a badger or dog hole and turning a flip flop. On some of these occasions I have been pinned under the horse, at others I have been dragged for some distance.

Many time I have roped and dragged bogged cows out of the mud, then gotten down off my nag and “tailed ‘em up,” only to have the ungrateful critters ram their tongues out a foot, let out a beller and give me the race of my life if my horse was not within easy reach. Sometimes they were so weak they could make only a few short jumps and then pile up again, causing me to repeat the tailing up performance. Any old cow poke knows all about this, and the danger in it at times from half-wild range cattle. Cattle are run and worked today in much rougher country than in former years, being forced back onto the rough Forest Reserves by lack of the open ranges where they were formerly run.

My early sixgun shooting showed conclusively the need for better shaped bullets having more stopping and killing power, so early in the game I began my experimenting, trying to improve the then existing revolver cartridges by hand-loading them with various shapes or types of bullets and powder charges that were usually maximum. I occasionally tried out some weird combinations, and have had three sixguns blow up in my hand while learning what they would stand and still hang together. In all these experiments, I always tried those loads out on some sort of game or stock to find out their limitations. Finally I went so far as to design some sixgun bullets for the firm of Belding & Mull. Later I worked out some still further improvements in bullet design for the Lyman Gun Sight Corporation. These last bullets have proved so perfectly adapted my needs that I have been unable to develop any further improvements in their design. My bullets were not the result of a little catalogue reading, but the result of many years of study and actual use on the range on game and stock. I have spent a great deal of money trying out every new gun and load that appeared over the horizon, as well as considerable time in reloading and experimenting for each sixgun or auto pistol in order to find the best cartridge.

Owing to the fact that I have written a good many magazine articles on these subjects, my mail each month contains a great many inquiries on various handgun cartridges, guns, or their reloading and shows conclusively the need for a book devoted exclusively to sixgun reloading. In the following pages I will endeavor to give an account of as much of my experiments with different handgun cartridges as possible, and what I found to be the best cartridges for different purposes. I will endeavor to cover the reloading of such cartridges step by step so that the beginner will have a good working knowledge to start out with. This book will be devoted to the cartridges themselves and their reloading, while the different types of guns, their sights, holsters and use will be covered to the extent of my own experience in a companion book to follow later. The subject is too big to be completely covered in any one small volume.

My own experience has shown the advisability of beginners adhering strictly to light or normal loads until they have had plenty of actual experience in reloading. There are so many minute details that can cause excessive pressure, and so many things that will have to be actually learned by experience alone, that I consider it best for all beginners to start out with moderate loads. A considerable amount of my early experimenting was done by the cut and try method. With little to guide me, it is a wonder that I did not have some serious accidents. Later, I had expert coaching and I wish to take this opportunity of thanking the following good friends who gave unselfishly of their knowledge and experience to help me: Chauncy Thomas, the late J. D. O’Meara, the late John (Packer Jack) Newman, Ashley A. Haines, S. Harold Croft, John Emmett Berns, Ed McGivern, Pink Simms and Major D. B. Wesson. I also wish to give our splendid cartridge an powder companies due credit for much valuable data that would otherwise be impossible for any individual to obtain, as well as all the firms now making reloading tools. And I better also give Mr. J. R. Mattern a vote of thanks for his most excellent book, “Handloading Ammunition,” from which I have derived a great deal of help.


Elmer Keith

North Fork, Idaho

December, 1936





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