On the Trail of The Last Word

by Fermin C. "2 Dogs" Garza

Photography by Fermin C. Garza and Boge Quinn

December 22nd, 2021

(Video Originally Posted March 31st, 2011)


lick pictures for a larger version.





Perfectly-fit genuine elephant ivory grips.



"In-Progress" pictures of Boge Quinn's scrimshaw work.



Boge Quinn's completed "Mexican Eagle" scrimshaw.



Superbly-crafted adjustable sights are comparable to the original No. 5.



Beautiful and functional No. 5 style base pin latch and large-headed base pin.



It was 1929 when in the American Rifleman, Elmer Keith wrote an article describing what was then and even now one of the most famous custom sixguns in history. Keith worked with Harold Croft to design a Colt SAA into a state of the art revolver. The result was a much modified Colt that stands even today among the finest examples of the Gunmakers Art. In 1955 Keith wrote his book "Sixguns". This is still today a "must read" for all those who study the sixgun. The preface to "Sixguns" was written by Judge Don Martin, a decades long friend to Elmer Keith. The Judge wrote that Keith's book was "scented with the pungence of sage brush campfires, cold for more than half a century". It is those old trails we aspire to seek out here. To walk in the footprints of a sixgun legend. 

It has been almost 20 years since I met a fellow student of Elmer Keith, Brian Pearce. As we sat together and talked, we discovered that we both wished to "recreate" a No. 5 revolver in our time. After our discussion that warm Raton summer, Pearce and I parted ways to chase our dreams until they became reality. As you will see, our end results were very different. Pearce sought out Hamilton Bowen, clearly one of the most magnificent sixgun builders to ever ply the trade. Bowen, painstakingly worked to build a No. 5 as closely to the original as possible. The Bowen rendition, probably priceless today, is indeed a faithful and beautiful example of the Keith No. 5.

My own path to the No. 5 was a bit different. My idea was to honor The Grand Old Man and dean of sixgunners, Elmer Keith. There will ever only be one Elmer Keith. No other man will fill his boots. I certainly had no such ideas. But I dreamed of the opportunity to explore that trail long cold Judge Don Martin described that Keith traveled so long ago. To seek out the very finest craftsman and challenge him to build from scratch the very finest sixgun in the land. A sixgun to last a lifetime, to answer any call, and to prove that even decades after the time of Elmer Keith old world craftmanship and the Keith legacy live on. 

In chapter XV of Sixguns, Repairs, Remodeling, Resighting, Keith wrote of falsified copies of the great sixguns of old. The Walkers, Dragoons, and others being counterfeited by frauds with "dishonest intent". Keith wrote that he and Croft modified and remodeled sixguns with the "idea of improving the guns." Keith further wrote, "Our guns were so different as to leave no doubt that they were made up to improve them and not to, in any way, imitate a factory model." In his writings Keith also described coiled springs and the durability they added to the Colt SAA. Thus, I set out to build an "Improved" No. 5 that could in no way be mistaken for the original. 

The master craftsman I chose for my project was Alan Harton of Houston, Texas. Harton by now is clearly recognized as among the absolute best of the best Gunmakers. My friend and writer Jeff Quinn quipped, "You could take Harton a screw from a Colt, and he could build you the rest of it" Harton had already built several custom sixguns for me each time answering my call for fine function and accuracy. My Harton .475 Linebaugh displayed exceptional quality and unbelievable accuracy. Harton showed me a Colt Single Action that had been damaged so severely by detonation that the top strap was completely gone and the frame was bent like an open book. It was an absolute wreck. The restoration of that sixgun was just incredible. Harton, with a display of mastery of metalwork, bent the frame back to original dimensions and welded a block of steel and rebuilt the top strap and the result was better than new. 

My actual No. 5 build began on April 16, 2007 with a prototype "one of" flattop stainless steel blank frame that would accept Ruger Old Model internals with the all important coil springs, but had the screw heads on the Colt side. There would be no mistaking the Harton version of the Keith No. 5 for the original. It would be built to stand on its own, in the spirit of the grand Gunmakers of old, to be an improvement but not a copy. Harton began by building a stainless steel cylinder blank from scratch to be both longer and heavier than the original Colt for strength he refers to as "Tank Tough". A Powers Custom stainless steel Colt style front strap was married to a Ruger Bisley stainless backstrap to recreate the No. 5 grip frame. Since we had no way to examine the original sixgun or backstrap contours and unlock the mysteries of the Keith sixgun, we had to rely on photographs to duplicate the grip frame. While this took a couple of tries to "get right", I believe Harton nailed it. Besides "blacksmithing" the grip frame by hand, Harton added a smidge of length to arrive at a sweet symphony of exceptional refinement. 

Harton tackled the screw adjustable front sight next followed by welding the topstrap to extend back over the hammer and built the dovetail adjustable for windage rear sight. The base pin latch work was next. In order to keep the balance of proportion correct, Harton added and shaped some weld to the toe of the mainframe. The base pin lever and related parts were sculpted and carefully fitted to perfection. 

Harton was on a roll and was clearly pleased that this most challenging project was coming together so nicely. After a trial assembly for a function check, the process of addressing the smaller details began. At this point, we must thank David Clements, a fine sixgun maker in his own right, as Clements designed and provided the EDM custom Old Model style Bisley hammer and wide trigger. Since the Clements parts were not made from stainless steel, it was decided we would leave them blue along with some latch components to accent the detail work.

Harton not only makes magic with metal, his sixgun stocks are exceptional as well. Ivory was a natural selection and since the right side panel was to be scrimshawed a blind screw was fitted. It had been seven days short of a year since this No. 5 project had been taken from raw parts to the final version. The result was a warm balance of grace, precision, and strength I had never experienced in any sixgun before or since. The Harton No. 5 proved to be exceptionally accurate. One of the first groups I fired at 50 yards was so small I stopped after 3 shots to walk downrange to be sure my eyes weren't lying to me! I was definitely on the long cold trail described by Elmer Keith. I had a sixgun with the spirits of the grand masters of old sixgun craft in hand. But there were other matters to tend to.

Again, with the eye bent to recreate the No. 5, but not in any way build it so that it may be mistaken for the original, I reluctantly handed my prized No. 5 over to my long time friend Boge Quinn. Boge carefully and artfully scrimshawed the Mexican Eagle clutching a Rattlesnake with the Cacti in the background. In the meantime, another master was at work creating the leather for the No. 5. Mike Barranti built me one of his beautiful signature rigs in black to contrast with the stainless. With the No. 5 back in hand, It was time to "blood" it. 

I worked up a quite powerful load with a 250 grain bullet at 1225 fps. The exact recipe used 17.5 grains of 2400 on a Keith bullet sized .431" and lit by a WW large pistol primer. I took it to West Texas to visit my friend and master sixgunner Mark Hargrove. My goal was to take a "cull" out of his herd of deer. This would insure the stunted genes would not hold back future trophy deer. Mark allowed he knew exactly where such a "cull" could be found. Sure enough, almost like we had an appointment, the "cull" arrived not 60 yards from my stand. Here, I almost dropped the ball in the big game. You see, the afternoon sun shone directly over my right shoulder onto the fine sight picture of the No. 5. I could see the glare, knew I didn't have a correct sight picture, but "knew" there was no way I could miss this shot. But I did. That 250 Keith went right over the top of his back. Naturally, the deer scattered in all directions with the intended target getting a thicket of brush between us. As he moved to my right I saw a window in the brush that might allow a second chance. I turned 45 degrees to my right and fixed the fine No. 5 sight picture on the window and waited for the undersize buck to trot into the intersection. I marshalled all my focus on my now clear sight picture and squeezed off a second shot into the center of the brush window as soon as the front edge of the little bucks chest appeared as he trotted to my right. I heard the dull "plunk" of a hit as the No. 5 recoiled in my hands but I could no longer see the little buck. I carefully marked the spot of the shot and climbing down from the stand counted 84 nervous steps to look for blood. About the time I arrived at the spot of the shot, Mark had also arrived. As I looked at the ground for blood, Mark spotted the little buck and pointed. Some 25 or 30 yards away, the buck was trying to make good his escape on wobbly legs and just collapsed. Dressing him out, I could see the Keith bullet had cut his very last rib and left a .44 caliber full diameter hole in his liver. His body cavity was full of blood. No great rack of horns this, but no less a trophy and a triumph for the No. 5 and thank goodness for second chances.

This was quite a journey for me. Finding sign on the trail of the past masters of sixgunnery and their skills as well as a discovery of the new masters of fine sixgun building . The built almost from scratch Harton No. 5 stands among the best sixguns ever created and certainly takes a backseat to none. A sixgun created to celebrate the ideals of the past masters and to carry on the traditions of old in honor of Elmer Keith. The task of engraving the piece still remains. There is yet another trail to seek out. 

Now Ronnie Wells of RW Grip Frames offers a number of variations on the No. 5 grip frame, currently in brass and aluminum, and soon to come in carbon and stainless steel. MUCH easier, smarter, and more cost-effective than having one welded from scratch! Visit RW Grip Frames' web site or call Ronnie Wells at (713) 417-4740, and tell him The Dawgs sent ya!

A Ronnie Wells brass Keith No. 5 with a Bisley trigger guard.

Fermin C. Garza

NOTE: All load data posted on this web site are for educational purposes only. Neither the author nor GunBlast.com assume any responsibility for the use or misuse of this data. The data indicated were arrived at using specialized equipment under conditions not necessarily comparable to those encountered by the potential user of this data.  Always use data from respected loading manuals and begin working up loads at least 10% below the loads indicated in the source manual.

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Click pictures for a larger version.



The "Grand Old Man's" sixgun: Elmer Keith's original No. 5.



Alan Harton.



Fermin with his cull deer.