The .44 Magnum Begins…

By Elmer Keith


Having wanted a .44 heavy load at the time I worked for Major Wesson in the ‘30s on the .357, I casted bullets for him to take down to Winchester, which was the start of the .357 Magnum. After I put 1000 rounds of 10 grains of No. 80 behind my 173-grain bullet through a heavy duty five-inch Smith & Wesson, I still wanted a heavier .44 Special load. I had been handloading 18 ½ grains of 2400 behind my 250-grain bullet for my .44 Special with excellent results, both on game, long range, target, anything I wanted to turn the gun on. I met a Mr. Peterson, who was then head ballistician at Remington. I put in all the available time with him that I could during the two weeks I was at Camp Perry, asking that he bring out my heavy load on the .44 Special. He and other Remington officials wanted me to come up to the Remington plant and spend a week with them after my assignment at Camp Perry. Also my friend, Carl Hellstrom, president of Smith & Wesson, wanted me to come up and spend a week at the Smith & Wesson plant with him. I asked General Edson’s permission after my two weeks assignment at Perry and he agreed for me to go on and tour the Remington and Smith & Wesson plants.

I wanted two things from Remington. I wanted them to factory load my heavy .44 Special load, and I also wanted an ounce-and-a-quarter magnum 16-bore load that I’d been loading successfully for years. There was no problem whatever on the 16-bore load. Peterson had called the boys all together, and they agreed on it right away.

But they were afraid of the old triple-lock Smith & Wesson with my heavy loads. I told them I’d been shooting it for 10 to 15 years in the old gun I’d got from McGivern with no problems whatever, fine accuracy, no undue pressure. But they were skeptical of the old gun holding hold it. So I told them why not make the case 1/10 inch longer and call it a .44 Magnum? They agreed that would be a good idea but on the other hand, they said, where are you going to get the guns? I told them I believed I could get Smith & Wesson to make the gun if they would make the ammunition. After a week of going through all the production of rifles, shotguns, and ammunition  at the Remington plants, I flew up to Springfield as a guest of Carl Hellstrom. I put in a week there going through their wonderful plant.

He had taken over Smith & Wesson when it was $13,000,000 in the red, and the government wanted to put in the men there to oversee it. Carl Hellstrom said, “I will have nothing to do with it if there is a single government man here. If you’ll turn me loose, I’ll have Smith & Wesson out of the red in a few years.” He showed me where he’d bulldozed a small hill into a swamp, leveled it up, and built the Smith & Wesson plant, one of the finest arms plants in the world today for its size. He could go underground if necessary, as complete facilities were both underground and above ground.

There I watched the building of Smith & Wesson handguns for a week, from the forgings through the shapers, trimmers, then rifling machines and finally the lapping of the barrels, then the Magnaflux checking of all parts before they finally went on to assembly, down through assembly, proof-firing and final inspection. It was a most enjoyable week for a man who had spent most of his life experimenting with arms of all types.

I also became acquainted with the heads of Smith & Wesson. The last day I was there Carl Hellstrom called me in his office and we put in the whole morning together. Several delegations came in from South America and Canada wanting to see him, and he would have his secretary tell them he was in conference with Keith and he would see them in the afternoon. I asked him to bring out a .44 Magnum and have Remington bring out the loads. He finally promised “I’ll wrap a gun around any legitimate load that Remington will bring out.”

I suggested he invite the heads of the Remington plant, the technical boys, up and have them work with Bill Gunn, his foreman, and see if we couldn’t produce a .44 Magnum and ammunition. This he agreed to do. He took me out to the old Smith & Wesson residence which had been turned into a club. There we had dinner, and a few drinks. Afterwards, he sent his car and his chauffeur to take me down to the Colt plant and see that I got in touch with the Colt people. That was September 19 and 53.

After a lapse of several months the advertising manager, whose name I cannot now recall, phoned me. He said, “Elmer, your dream has come true. The .44 Magnum is now a fact. Carl had the Remington boys up here and they are making the ammunition. The first .44 Magnum ever produced, the tool-room job, is on its way to you now by air parcel post. Remington will send you a supply of ammunition within a few weeks.” Which they did.

That was the start of the .44 Magnum. As I remember, it arrived in February. Emmett Steeples and I took it down to Wagonhammer Springs, and pulled off the road there to sight it in. About 60 yards from the parked car there was a little black stump of mahogany about four inches in diameter projecting out of the snow. And just six or seven yards to the left of it was a big old buck mule deer, bedded down. When he saw us, he pulled his down into the snow. His horns were long gone, but his old white face and the way his ears flopped out to the side, proved him to be an old buck. I believe I fired 16 shots at the little stump, adjusting the sights with a screwdriver, and resting both arms out the car window, until I hit the stump three times straight – or what was left of it. Emmett says, “That old buck thinks we don’t see him.” We pulled out and left him lying there in his bed with his head pulled down tight in the snow, thinking we hadn’t seen him. He well knew if h jumped up that we would see him. Out of season, we had no intention of bothering him whatever, but it was interesting to watch how he pulled his head down and thought he was hid. We left so he could stay hidden.

Next Pete White from the slaughter house phoned me. He said, “Elmer, I have ten big bulls out here I wish you would come out and shoot. You have some heavy sixguns and we don’t have anything out here but a .22 and it is inadequate.”

I drove out at seven in the morning, but I got there a bit early as the crew hadn’t arrived. While I was standing there by a fence, a big goshawk flew into the top of a cottonwood across a slough around 100 yards away. I rested both arms on the top of a fence post, pulled down on the old goshawk and I killed him. That was the first shot at game of any kind with a .44 Magnum to my knowledge.

The bulls were run into a chute by the side of the killing floor. There I put up a ladder so I could shoot them in the forehead and had no trouble killing the bulls with the big gun. They’d drop, and while the gun was still in recoil their noses would hit the concrete. One they had me shoot from behind, the back of the head. Both of his eyes popped out of their sockets when the big gun cracked. Many people tried to claim credit for the .44 Magnum, but those were the facts as I experienced them. I had been loading 18 ½ grains of 2400 behind my 250-grain bullet a good many years in the .44 Special, and testing it on game, target and long range.

Remington ammunition came in plain boxes. I still have a little of it. With a part jacket around over the base band and under the breach in the grease groove. The lead was quite soft, it expanded well, and was very accurate. The velocity was around 1400 feet per second. Pressures ran around 34-35,000 psi. I shot the big gun a good bit that spring and summer and worked out a load of 22 grains of 2400 behind my bullet as my favorite load. This developed 34,000 psi with less than three thousand pounds variation. It was also wonderfully accurate. Velocity ran around 1400 feet per second. That fall I went down to Kriley’s ranch on Clear Creek, intending to shoot a buck with a sixgun.

One day Judge Don Martin and I were shooting the gun over at the city dump. When we started back, I spotted a rock down the canyon below the dump at what looked like 500 yards from the road. We estimated the distance at that and I told Don to park the car and turn off the motor and let me see what I could do with it. The rock was about three feet long by about 18 inches high in the middle tapered a little bit at each end. Resting my arms out the window, my right arm on the back of the car seat as well, I tried it. The first shot was low. Holding up more front sight and perching the rock on top of it, I managed to put the next five on the rock. Don said, “Damn it, I seen it, but I still don’t believe it. Let’s go down there.”

We paced the distance down to the rock, both ways, and as near as we could figure, it was five hundred yards. There was five splashes of lead on the rock and one bullet that dug into the dirt short. This shooting, just before hunting season, had given  me a pretty good idea of just how much front sight to hold up at long range.

Paul Kriley and I hunted up Clear Creek on the right side where it is partly open bunch grass meadows and partly patches of timber. We hunted all day, and although we saw several does at 80-90 yards, one at 60, that I could have killed. We passed them up, as I wanted a buck. Toward evening we topped out on a ridge. There was swale between us and another small ridge on the side of the mountain slope about 300-400 yards away. Beyond that, out on the open sidehill, no doubt on account of the cougar, were about 20 mule deer feeding. Two big bucks were in the band, and some lesser ones, the rest were does and long fawns. As it was getting late and the last day of the season, I wanted one of those bucks for meat. Being a half-mile away, I told Paul, “Take the .300 Magnum and duck back out of sight here, go around through this swale to that next ridge and that should put you within about 500 yards of them. I’ll stay here (the deer had seen us), let them watch me for a decoy.” Paul said, “You take the rifle.”

I said, ‘How is it sighted?”

He said, “One inch high at a hundred yards.” I told him to go ahead because I wouldn’t know where to hold it. I always sighted a .300 Magnum 3 inches high at a hundred and I wouldn’t know where to hold it at 500.

I said, “You go ahead and kill the biggest buck in the bunch for me.” Paul took off, went across the swale and climbed the ridge, laid down and crawled up to the top. He shot. The lower of two bucks, which he later said the biggest one, dropped and rolled down the mountain. I then took off across the swale to join him. Just before I climbed up the ridge to where he lying, he started shooting again.

When I came up on top, the band of deer was pretty well long gone. They’d gone out to the next ridge top, turned up it slightly and went over. But the old buck was up following their trail, one front leg a-swinging. Paul had hit it. I asked Paul, “Is there any harm in me getting into this show?” He said, “No, go ahead.”

I had to lay down prone, because if I crawled over the hill to assume my old backside position, then the blast of his gun would be right in my ear. Shooting prone with a .44 Magnum is something I don’t like at all. The concussion is terrific. It will just about bust your ear drums every time. At any rate Paul shot and missed. I held all of the front sight up, or practically all of it, and perched the running deer on top of the front sight and squeezed on off. Paul said, “I saw it through my scope. It hit in the mud and snow right below him.” There was possibly six inches of wet snow, with muddy ground underneath. I told him, “I won’t be low the next shot.” Paul shot again and missed with his .300 Magnum. The next time I held all of the front sight up and a bit of the ramp, just perched the deer on top. After the shot the gun came down out of recoil and the bullet had evidently landed. The buck made a high buck-jump, swapped ends, and came back toward us, shaking his head. I told Paul I must have hat a horn. I asked him to let the buck come back until he was right on us if he would, let him come as close as he would and I’d jump up and kill him. When he came back to where Paul had first rolled him, out about 500 yards, Paul said, “I could hit him now, I think.”

“Well,” I said, “I don’t like to see a deer run on three legs. Go ahead.” He shot again and missed. The buck swapped ends and turned around and went back right over the same trail. Paul said, “I’m out of ammunition. Empty.” I told him to reload, duck back out of sight, go on around the hill and head the old buck off, and I’d chase him on around. Paul took off on a run to go around this bunch-grass hill and get up above the buck and on top. He was young, husky, and could run like a deer himself. I got on the buck again with all of the front sight and a trifle of the ramp up. Just as I was going to squeeze it off when he got to the ridge, he turned up it just as the band of deer had done. So I moved the sight picture in front of him and shot. After and interval he went down and out of sight. I didn’t think anything of it, thought he had just tipped over the ridge. It took me about half an hour to get across.

When I got over there to the ridge, I saw where he’d rolled down the hill about fifty yards, bleeding badly, and then he’d gotten up and walked from the tracks to the ridge in front of us. There were a few pine trees down below, so I cut across to intercept his tracks. I could see was bleeding both sides.

Just before I got to the top of the ridge I heard a shot up above me and then another shot, and I yelled asked if it was Paul. He answered. I asked, “Did you get him?” He said, “Yes, he’s down there by that big pine tree below you. Climb a little higher and you can see him.” Paul came down and we went down to the buck. Paul said the buck was walking along all humped up very slowly. He held back of the shoulders as he was quartering away. The first shot went between his forelegs and threw up snow. Then he said the buck turned a little more away from him and held higher and dropped. Finally we parted the hair in the right flank and found where the 180-grain needle-pointed Remington spitzer had gone in. later I determined it blew up and lodged in the left shoulder. At any rate I looked his horns over, trying to see where I’d hit a horn. No sign of it. Finally I found a bullet hole back of the right jaw and it came out the top of his nose. That was the shot I’d hit him with out at 600 yards. Then Paul said, “Who shot him through lungs broadside? I didn’t, never had that kind of shot at all.”

There was an entrance hole fairly high on the right side of the rib cage just under the spine and an exit just about three or four inches lower on the other side. The deer had been approximately the same elevation as I was when I fried that last shot at him. We dressed him, drug him down the trail on Clear Creek, hung him up, and went on down to the ranch. The next day a man named Posy and I came back with a pack horse, loaded him and took him in. I took a few pictures of him hanging in the woodshed along with the Smith & Wesson .44 Mag.

I took him home and hung him up in the garage. About ten days later my son Ted came home from college and I told him, “Ted, go out and skin that big buck and get us some chops. They should be well-ripened and about right for dinner tonight.” After awhile Ted came in and he laid the part jacket of a Remington bullet on the table beside me and said, “Dad, I found this right beside the exit hole on the left side of that buck’s ribs.” Then I knew that I had hit him at that long range two out of four times. I believe I missed the first shot, we didn’t see it at all, and it was on the second that Paul said he saw snow and mud fly up at his heels. I wrote up and I’ve been called a liar ever since, but Paul Kriley is still alive and able to vouch for the facts.

This first Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum has a 6 ½-inch barrel.

By the time Ted was eleven, he’d accompanied me on several hunts. Often times I’d let him take the saddle horse and the pack string on the trail while I hunted off to one side. He soon became very proficient with horses, and also a good shot for a kid. He hilled his first bear and deer when he was eleven and twelve years old with a .45-70 Model 86 lightweight Winchester , one shot for each animal.

After termination of my services of eight years with The American Rifleman, I also took on the job as gun editor of the little Western Sportsman in Denver for the four years that it lasted before it folded up. They, like the Outdoorsman magazine, left me holding the sack for my last two months’ wages.

Having guided for and killed most game in North America, I had long dreamed of hunting Africa. At 50 years of age, I decided to quit guiding. I’d served my time. I’d killed eight rams myself, and guided for 25 more – to say nothing of many elk, deer, and bear hunts. I decided to put in my time writing, so I rented out the ranch and bought a good home in Salmon a few months after Druzilla’s death. We moved to Salmon during some of the worst weather we have ever had here – the winter of 19 and 48. U.S. Highway 93 was being built and was simply a mud puddle all the way. I rented a truck and finally succeeded in moving everything to town and we had a good home there. During the winter of  ’48 we had two months of hard weather, but nothing to compare with what I’d seen in Montana in the winter of 19 and 19, and 19 and 20. We did have two months of 20 to 43 below. Lorraine, Ted and I enjoyed a good modern home in comparison to the ranch down on the North Fork.

General Hatcher is one the finest men I’ve ever known. He and his wife visited us for a couple of days here in Salmon on one of his trips to the West. My associations with the NRA were very good until a new editor took over in the latter part of the eight years I spent on that assignment. This man rewrote and changed some of my articles; changed a bull elk into a caribou from one paragraph to another; changed a 450-pound goat that I wrote up on that episode on the Cottonwood to 150-pounder. I had to buy a lot of whiskey for old timers here in Salmon who’d come along, put their arm around me and say, “Elmer, why didn’t you kick that little kid off the ledge?”

At that time was drawing $400 from The American Rifleman monthly. Bev Mann, who had been a former editor of The Rifleman, asked me if I wouldn’t do a column for him each month and take on the arms assignment for Guns magazine in Chicago. I had signed a contract with the NRA in July. It allowed me to write for any and all magazines I desired, so long as I answered the 300 to 500 letters The Rifleman sent me each month and furnished what articles they wanted for the magazine. This agreement I had kept to the letter. However they didn’t keep the contract with me. My nave was taken off the staff, off the masthead, and I was changed to a contributing editor in fine print at the very bottom of the page. Many people jumped me at various conventions wanting to know why I was writing the way I had. I told them that it was not my doings. The editor had changed my text. Then they went after him. He in turn jumped on me and I told him he would have to accept the blame for any changes he made in my material. Things went from bad to worse between us, and after eight years on the technical staff of The Rifleman, as contributing editor, I had accepted an assignment to write a column on guns each month for Guns magazine in Chicago for $150 a month. I received a call one morning from the editor wanting to know if I was quitting The Rifleman and going to write for Guns. I told him I had no intention of quitting The Rifleman and I told General Hatcher I wanted to make it my life work. However he said he and Mr. Lucas would take a very dim view of me writing for two magazines at once. I told him he’d better read the contract which allowed me to write for any and all magazines as long as I filled my assignment with The Rifleman. He said, “You write me a letter to that effect that I can show to Mr. Lucas.”

I said, “You have ears. I’m not going to write any letter.”

Some two weeks later he again phoned at seven in the morning and wanted to know if I’d sent that letter. I told him, “What letter?” He said, “The one telling me you are going to write for Guns.”

I said, “I told you at that time that I wasn’t going to write you a letter, and I haven’t.”

“Well,” he said, “Mr. Lucas and I would take a very dim view of you writing for two magazines at once.”

I said, “Mister, and you can tell Mr. Lucas, you can take any damn view you desire.” In 15 minutes I was terminated from my assignment with The American Rifleman magazine. Lorraine asked me, “What are you going to do now, Dad, on $150 a month from Guns magazine?”

I said, “I’m going to Africa.”


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