John Linebaugh turned the big bore revolver world upside down in 1986 when he introduced his .500 Linebaugh five-shot revolver and the .500 Linebaugh cartridge.
At a time when handgun and ammunition makers were loading brass to the max, trying to see just how fast and far they could push a bullet, Linebaugh went old school. He built a revolver around the concept that a large bullet pushed at considerably less than “magnum” velocities would actually be a better hunting round, with less recoil and therefore better accuracy, with equal or better penetration. Now 57, Linebaugh shows no signs of slowing down. Working from his home-based shop outside of Cody, Wyoming, he runs a one-man operation making various handguns for hunters, collectors and all-around handgun shooters. Recently, he finished big bore revolver Number 1,000.
So what sparked your interest in big-bore handguns and creating your own?
I moved to Wyoming in 1976. In the early 1980s, they legalized handgun hunting for big game. We couldn’t get the .454 Casull—it wasn’t in production yet—but I knew about it and the cartridge. So I started building my own guns on Dick Casull’s round. We used Abilene and Seville .45 Colt frames and some Rugers. I think we built 20 to 30 of those. We made our own .454 ammunition, too. From there, I began tinkering with bigger caliber bullets, an effort that eventually became the .500 Linebaugh.
But why create a new handgun at all? The .44 Remington Magnum had been around since the 1950’s. Why not just use that?
The .44 Magnum is like a small V-8. What’s wrong with it? Nothing. It’s a small block Chevy. Going up and down the road, it’s fine. But you put a trailer on it? It can’t do it.
Can’t do what?
From the shooting and testing I did, I found the .45 Colt, even though it has a lot less velocity, would outperform the .44 Magnum. Now, you plug the numbers in from the ballistics tables and mathematical models, and it all comes out in favor of the .44 Mag. But we just couldn’t get it to work on the range or in the field. The problem is, the faster you push a bullet, the faster it decelerates. It builds up a block of air in front of the bullet. Ultimately, less speed creates less resistance, creates more penetration. So with the .45 Colt and the .500 Linebaugh, you have about 25 percent less chamber pressure than the .44 Mag., less recoil and more control. All the testing I’ve done also found deeper penetration than the .44, too. My big bores run best at 1,200 to 1,300 feet per second. After that, you’re just gaining recoil and noise.
Sounds like some heavy-duty physics. Learn this in college?
I barely got through high school. Never went to college. I’m self-taught—with a great deal of help from some really good people such as Lee Jurras of Super Vel Cartridges, Dick Casull himself, dozens of other men all over the country who’ve been my friends for years and let me ask all sorts of questions and Hamilton Bowen, who is absolutely the greatest six-gun maker in the country today.
Did you grow up shooting and hunting?
Actually, I grew up in what you’d have to call a “gun-free zone.” My dad’s cousin was hurt in a BB gun accident, and my grandmother refused to have any guns around. I sort of broke the mold.
What was your first gun?
The first gun I personally owned was a 16-gauge, double-barreled Damascus shotgun. My first six gun was an old three-screw .357 Ruger Blackhawk with a 6 ½-inch barrel. I must’ve been about 15 or so when I got that.
So in 1986, the .500 Linebaugh comes out. What was the reaction?
It was on the cover of Guns & Ammo. The orders came in and they’ve never stopped. To date, I’ve probably built about 400 of the .500 Linebaughs.
In 1988, you also added the .475 Linebaugh to the mix. Why did you develop that revolver?
The .500 Linebaugh cartridge was originally built on the old .348 Winchester [rifle] brass. Just as the .500 Linebaugh was taking off, Winchester Ammunition informed me the cartridge was being discontinued. They told me they could make me the brass—but it would take an order of one million of them, minimum. No way I had that kind of money. So I started playing around with .45-70 brass, seeing if it might work. One night, I took a case, cut it and then machined a .475 key-style bullet out of a bolt, just to see if it would all fit. It worked. It was .500 at the case base and .497 at the neck. I had a new handgun round. Meantime, other companies started making brass for the .500.
If someone orders a handgun from you, how long does it take?
Over a year right now. It’s been that way for years, backlogged like that. I’ve been especially busy these last few years, with the work and the travel and the seminars that I do. I don’t even get to do much hunting any more.
Speaking of which, what’s the biggest animal you’ve taken with your revolvers?
I shoot a buffalo every year or so. I’ve got a buffalo on my wall right now that weighed over 1,000 pounds. I’ve killed a dozen antelope, four mule deer and 10 or 12 buffalo, all but one of them with a handgun. And I very seldom recover a bullet. They go right through the animal.
Even the buffalo?
What’s your favorite, every day handgun?
A .500 Linebaugh with a 4 ¾ inch barrel. That little gun doesn’t kick at all.
What’s the best thing about being the inventor and maker of the .475 and .500 Linebaugh revolvers?
All the great people I’ve met, all the truly good friends I’ve made over the years. I’m thankful for the freedoms we do have in this country, and I try to take the time to enjoy them, to appreciate the sunrises and pay attention to the sunsets.
This article appeared in the February 25, 2013 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine. For more information on John Linebaugh’s Custom Sixguns visit www.customsixguns.com.