Elmer Keith shot a single action Colt like this one.

FOR OVER THIRTY YEARS I wore a sixgun as regularly as I did my trousers. Without it I did not feel fully dressed. It was a tool, and a mighty useful one at that. I still like to have a good gun in easy reach at all times.

During those years I tried out, on both stock and game, every make and caliber available – everything from the 36 Navy Colt, 44 caliber Dragoon, and Single Action Army Colt down through modern revolvers and semi-automatics. During that time I killed three elk, seven mule deer, one whitetail, three black bear, one record cougar, and one mountain goat with a sixgun, not to mention coyotes, bobcats, eagles, and a Mexican javelina.

Over the years the small game ran into the thousands, but the only record kept was on blue grouse when I killed from 41 to 43 of the big birds for three successive years with a sixgun. I remember killing 125 jack rabbits on the Pahsimeroi in three days when testing one of the first 357 S & W Magnums. In over twenty years of big-game guiding, I also trailed and finished with a sixgun many animals of all species that my parties had wounded.

Sixguns by Elmer Keith. Single Action Colt with elaborate engraving by R. J. Kornbrath.
Sixguns by Elmer Keith. Single Action Colt with elaborate engraving by R. J. Kornbrath.

On two occasions I had to stop mad cows I had roped. They wound me up and threw my bronc and came for me with sharp horns. On another occasion I had to get out of bed, saddle up a bronc, and go to the rescue of a local butcher who had tried to kill a big Durham ball with a Colt by planting the slugs in the forehead.

The beast had put the butcher up a tree and, as it was cold weather, he was fast freezing when the neighbor called. When I rode up close to the tree, the bull charged. A single 265 grain 45-cal. Ideal slug, backed by 40 grains of black powder, in the forehead from my old 5 1/2″ Single Action Colt did the trick. The bull stuck his nose in the ground and turned over on his back with all four legs stiff in the air, his tail stretched out toward my bronc, then he relaxed in death.

On another occasion, a mean outlaw bronc I was riding stuck his foot in a badger hole and turned somersault over me. He knocked most of the wind from me and came up running, kicking me with his hooks because one spur had caught around the stirrup leather and held my boot in the stirrup during the roll. Three 45 colt slugs angling upwards from where I bounced along the frozen ground did the trick. The third one reached the spine and put his hind quarters down, and I simply planted the fourth in his brain – and had a long hike home packing heavy saddle. But for that Colt Single Action, I would have been dragged and kicked into doll rags.

On one trip out to Ovando, my sixgun kept my partner and me in meager food supply for six days while we traveled with a pack string of twenty-three horses. The grub horse had busted a yellow-jackets' nest and bucked off down the mountain and across a river. When we found her, there was no food left in the pack. We lived by that sixgun alone for those six days.

Far more often the sixgun was needed to kill a rattler, collect a mess of grouse or sage hens, or rabbit for the cow dogs' dinner. Whether I had to climb out of the blanket to kill a porcupine that was eating the pack outfit, or clean the pack rats out of some cabin wished to sleep in during a rainy night, or simply heave a slug in front of a band of running horses to burn them toward the corral, the old sixgun was always hear and handy. It was a tool of the trade.

On other occasion the old gun was packed for social purposes — when serving on sheriff's posses, hunting cow thieves, or to back our honor and judgment. I still remember seeing one cow thief squirm when I watched him and his three riders while my partner cut four of my steers from two cars of beef that he was preparing to load on the train. Those steers had my brand, badly blotched, and the wattle cut off their noses, but I would have known their hides in a tan yard; so I took them by force. Suffice to say, I would have been pushing up daisies over twenty years ago instead of writing this article now, had I not carried and known how to use a good, heavy sixgun.

Guns were usually carried in a shoulder holster or, more often, in an open-top, quick-draw belt holster that left both hammer and trigger fully exposed. The bottom of the belt holster was tied to the leg or to the chaps so that the gun would not fly up and hit the elbow when riding a pitching bronc. Holsters were just large enough to accommodate the gun, and the belts were more often than not a combination of money and cartridge belts of double-soft chap leather. We never did see any of those huge buscadero Hollywood corsets in use on the range, nor did any of the old gun fighters I knew in my younger days use such an outfit.

Helena, Mont., was settled in the late sixties, largely by Confederate Civil War veterans. I knew, lived, and hunted with several of these men, most of whom owned or carried a good sixgun, either an old cap and ball Colt or a more modern single action. Now they are all dead and gone, and the modern trend seems more to small-caliber target guns. Colt has even stopped manufacture of the best gun they ever built – the Single Action Army.

I witnessed three gun fights when a kid in Helena and was not much impressed by the results from the 38 Special. In one, one man proved the quicker on the draw and a couple of 38 Specials through the heart stopped his opponent even though the opponent did draw and fire two shots that hit the pavement short of his executioner. In another, a cop planted five 38 Specials in a gunman's chest, about center, yet that gunman emptied his break-top 32 at the cop. One bullet, I thought the first, hit the cop right over the heart but went through a notebook and lodged in the bottom of his blouse pocket. One more went through a kid's leg as he was peacefully engaged in eating noodles in his booth, and the rest came through the front window over my head and flattened against a building across the street.

The gunman then threw his gun at the cop, and it also went through the window and across the street. He died as he was carried up the hospital steps. Another time my friend Bill O'Connel, the night cop around the N.P. Depot, killed two holdup men who had stuck up a saloon, with one shot each from his 45 Colt Single Action. Their one return shot only went through a transom window over Bill's head as he entered the saloon. 

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