Guns and Gear

Skeeter Skelton’s Last Sixgun

Mike Piccione
Editor, Guns & Gear

By John Taffin, GUNS Magazine 

It was Elmer Keith who lit the sixgunning fire in my heart, however it was Skeeter Skelton who continually fanned the flames. Keith did the majority of his work and writing about sixguns before I ever purchased my first revolver, however I kind of feel like I grew up with Skeeter, who was 11 years old when I was born, and whose first articles appeared in these pages in the late 1950s. Skeeter became Handgun Editor of another magazine in the mid-1960s and I followed everything he wrote for the next two decades. Skeeter not only did feature articles he also had a monthly “Hipshots” column and sometimes a question-and-answer section; above all he had the rare ability to grab sixgunners by the heart, soul and spirit, and pull them right into the article.

Skeeter was single-handedly responsible for the resurrection of the .44 Special going all the way back to 1972 when he did an article on converting Ruger Old Model .357 Blackhawks and Smith & Wesson Highway Patrolman .357 Magnums to .44 Special. He also lobbied both Colt and Smith & Wesson to begin producing a .44 Special once again and the result was the Single Action and New Frontier from Colt and S&W’s Models 24 and 624 in the early 1980s. It is altogether fitting and proper his last sixgun would be a .44 Special.

Skeeter passed from us in 1988. Shortly thereafter in 1989, I did an article on Ruger conversions for our sister publication, American Handgunner, and soon after that I received a letter from our mutual friend John Wootters and he related the tale of Skeeter’s last sixgun. I’ll let him tell the story: “Your recent Sixgunner piece about the “little Rugers” inspires me to tell you a tale. The so-called “little Ruger” in .44 Special was the favorite type of sporting pistol cartridge of my late buddy, Skeeter Skelton, who spent much of his terminal illness in a hospital here in Houston. Together with another friend and single-action expert, Bob Baer, we passed a lot of time plotting the creation of just such a pistol, of which he’d done several only to sell or trade them all away. We even acquired the 3-screw, .357 Mag Blackhawk for raw material. Sadly, Skeeter had to fold his hand before the last race, and the project never went further, until recently.

“The gun was re-chambered and re-barreled (4-5/8″, from a slow-twist, proven-accurate .44 Douglas premium blank) by Houston pistolsmith Earl Long. Bill Grover (Texas Longhorn Arms) then took over. He recut the forcing cone to suit himself, put a Colt-style crown on the muzzle, and installed one of the front sights he makes for his Grover’s Improved No. 5 Keith gun. He also re-chambered the cylinder and adjusted the cylinder gap to less than .002″ (which makes it the tightest Ruger, even customized, I’ve ever seen!), and then hand-fit one of his No. 5 basepins. Finally, he broke the leading edge of the cylinder all around to make it easy on holsters.

“Bob Baer took over from there. He installed a bolt-block and hand-tuned the action… and he is as good at that as any living man. He also performed his trigger magic, producing an absolutely exquisite 2-pound letoff. Then he flat-filed the frame, removing all markings, and rounded off the square corners of the topstrap, sort of ala Colt SAA.

“Many years ago, Skeeter and I shared a hunting trip in northern British Columbia, during which we jointly discovered the skeleton of a mature Stone ram, probably killed in an avalanche. We slipped the horns, and Skeeter took one and I the other. Later, I traded Chubby Hueske, the custom knife maker of Bellaire, Texas, some of the horn material for his work and skill in flattening and rough-shaping a pair of single-action grip blanks from it. I’ve been saving them for the right gun for 15 years.

Serial number S.S. 4 (of 7) became John Taffin’s Skeeter Skelton Sixgun.

“This is the right gun. Baer fitted and shaped the grips to my order, leaving the aluminum XR3-RED grip frame bright-polished—which was the way Skeeter liked them. That sheep horn is spectacular, a beautiful, creamy, smoky gray with subtle striping. Bob says it’s harder than ivory! Now the gun went back to Grover for marking and polishing. The only markings are ‘.44 SPECIAL’ on top of the barrel, ‘T.L.A., INC. RICHMOND TEXAS’ in two lines on the topstrap, a tiny, stylized longhorn-steer head on the right side of the frame (Grover’s logo), and the serial number ‘S.S. 1’ (for Skeeter Skelton), on the underside of the frame. Finally, Grover’s man, Lee, did an inspired job of polishing and bluing.

“The little .44 is a sweetheart, quiet and pleasant to shoot, accurate (naturally, in that chambering), light as a feather, and pretty as a yellow cactus Blossom. It leaps to the hand of its own will, and seeks a target with the eagerness of a pointer pup. I will cherish it ’til the day I die, and I may even have it buried with me!

“I think you’d like what I’ve come to call ‘Skeeter’s Gun’. I know Skeeter would have loved it… it’s his kind of sixgun… and mine. It’s also a sort of tribute to an old and dear friend. He comes to mind every time I buckle it on, which is daily when I’m at my ranch on the border. He’d have liked this memorial better than any other kind, I expect. Baer told Sally and young Bart about it, and they agree; they’re touched.”

This could have been the end of the story, however Bill Grover, who is now also gone home, had a great idea. This was the first Skeeter Skelton Sixgun and since Bill was a manufacturer he could change the serial number to S.S.1. He contacted several of us and the end result was a few more, six in all, Skeeter Skelton Sixguns. They went to Bill Grover himself and Bob Baer, Terry Murbach, Bart Skelton, Jim Wilson and myself. Mine is numbered S.S. 4. Only the theme of a Skeeter Skelton Sixgun and the S.S. serial numbers are of the same style and sequence as these sixguns are not identical as each man incorporated their own ideas into what they wanted their Skeeter Gun to be like.

All seven of the Skeeter Skelton Sixguns came together in 1992 as we all gathered, including John Wootters, and held a memorial service for Skeeter in the mountains of Colorado each of us firing off a .44 Special salute to our friend. As I said, although all seven of us have SS Sixguns they are all quite different, revealing the individual taste of the owners. My particular S.S. 4 started life as a .357 Magnum Ruger Flat-Top Blackhawk from the 1950s. Grover and I worked out this project together. The cylinder was re-chambered to .44 Special tightly to allow the use of .429″ diameter bullets but to minimum dimensions for long case life. The barrel/cylinder gap was set at .0025″, and the Ruger XR3 grip frame and steel ejector housing were not discarded but put back for use on another .44 Special Grover was building for me. In their place Grover fitted steel Colt parts, a Colt backstrap and triggerguard and a Colt ejector rod housing along with a Bullseye ejector rod head.

Gathering to remember Skeeter and shoot their Skeeter Skelton Sixguns was (above, from left) Bob Baer, John Taffin, John Wootters, Bart Skelton, Jim Wilson and Terry Murbach.

With the installation of the Colt backstrap and triggerguard, it was necessary to machine a special hanger to accept the Ruger mainspring and strut. Grover also replaced the trigger return spring with a new coil spring. The stocks were walnut but are now heart-stopping, creamy 1-piece ivories by Tedd Adamovich of BluMagnum. The front sight is a TLA Number Five front sight, bold, flat, and black and a Number Five basepin with a large easy to grasp head was also installed. The finish is high-polish blue and the gun is marked “SKEETER SKELTON .44 SPECIAL” on the left side of the barrel and “TEXAS LONGHORN ARMS INC., RICHMOND TEXAS” on the topstrap. The serial number, S.S. 4 is marked in the same three places as original Colt Single Actions. I think of Bill and Skeeter every time I shoot it.

S.S.1 was the last sixgun Skeeter saw and handled, at least in the beginning stage as the three good friends planned it out. However, unbeknownst to him Ruger was also working on a special Skeeter Skelton Sixgun while he was in the hospital for the last time. In 2006 Ruger celebrated the 50th anniversary of the original Flat-Top .44 Magnum Blackhawk with the issuance of a 6-1/2″ New Model Flat-Top. Nearly 20 years before Ruger had built the first 6-1/2″ New Model Flat-Top .44 Magnum especially embellished and to be presented to Skeeter. He passed before it was finished and this sixgun was then presented to Skeeter’s wife Sally and his son Bart.

Editor’s note: I grew up reading Skeeter Skelton’s gun articles. Big thanks to GUNS Magazine for this article – visit them here http://www.gunsmagazine.com. ~Mike P. Guns & Gear Editor