There’s really no two ways about it: They don’t make them like Elmer Keith anymore. He was known for wearing big Stetson hats, smoking big cigars, and hunting big game with handguns long before anyone else did. In Keith’s day, handgun rounds were either big and slow or fast and small. Confronted with this kind of ballistics market, Keith sought to make bigger rounds go faster. This is how Keith became the father of the magnum cartridges that we use today: the .357, the .41 and the .44.

Keith was perhaps most associated with the .44 magnum, with which he could dispatch a mule deer at 600 yards. He was also a prolific wildcatter of both pistol and rifle rounds, who was always looking for ways to make big rounds bigger. Indeed, Keith was very vocal about his distaste for smaller rounds, and would even express it to contemporaries such as Jack O’Connor who championed the 270 Winchester.

Keith was born and raised in Hardin, Missouri, right on the Western frontier, and had the opportunity to meet many gunfighters and Civil War veterans. He claimed, in fact, that it was the town barber, a former gunfighter, who taught him how to shoot using linoleum in back of the shop.

The Hotel Fire That Changed Everything

In 1911, Keith was burned very badly in a fire in Missoula, Montana. These were scars that he wore for the rest of his life and the fire would likely have killed just about any other man. But Keith refused to die. It was so bad that his chin became fused with his right shoulder and his left hand was turned completely upside down. His father contacted several doctors in the area to perform a surgery to fix his hand, but they all refused, saying that he probably wouldn’t even live to see 21 anyway.

It finally fell on Keith’s father to break his hand and reset it. After a trip down to the local liquor store to get a bottle of 100-proof Old Granddad, Keith told his father to break and set his hand no matter how much he passed out or screamed. Keith was then fitted with a special glove, and over the course of two years, regained the normal use of his hand through a lot of painful use. The hand was deformed, but Keith could use it to both rope steer and shoot pistols.

He became one of the most famous gun writers of all time and regularly responded to his own correspondence without the help of a secretary. He received, on average, between 300 and 500 letters every month. Among the dedicated six gunner community, these letters are held as prized mementos.

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