Elmer Keith (1899-1984), Handgun Hunter & Firearm Enthusiast
Elmer Keith (1899-1984), Handgun Hunter & Firearm Enthusiast
Elmer Keith with Roan
Elmer Keith was an Idaho rancher, firearms enthusiast, and author. Keith was instrumental in the development of the first magnum revolver cartridge, the .357 Magnum, as well as the later .44 Magnum and .41 Magnum cartridges.
Keith's trademarks were his cigars, his ten-gallon Stetson, and his outspoken opinions. Keith was an avid handgun hunter in the earliest days of the sport, and often hunted medium game with a double action Smith and Wesson revolver. In the days when handgun cartridges tended to fire large, slow bullets like the popular .45 Colt, or light, fast bullets like the .30 Mauser, Keith was pushing the limits of existing cartridges, driving large bullets at high velocities.
He was married to Lorraine (nee Randall) Keith. Elmer Keith was born in Missouri but was raised in Montana, Idaho, and eastern Oregon. In the 1930s and early 1940s, he had a ranch on the North Fork of the Salmon River near Salmon, Idaho. In the late 1940s, Elmer and Lorraine sold the ranch and moved into the town of Salmon.
During World War II, Keith served as an inspector at the Ogden, Utah Arsenal. The rifles that he inspected were cartouche stamped with the initials "OGEK" on the buttstock.
Keith's first major contribution, the .357 Magnum, was the result of handloading the .38 Special cartridge far beyond normally accepted limits, taking full advantage of the greater strength of the revolvers available in the early 20th century compared to those of the late 19th century. The .357 Magnum first became available in 1935 and quickly became a favorite among law enforcement and civilian users. The .357 Magnum had a slightly longer case than the .38 Special, but was otherwise identical, so .357 Magnum revolvers could shoot .38 Special or .357 Magnum ammunition, but .38 Special revolvers (most of which are not safe for the pressures generated by the Magnum round) could not chamber .357 Magnum ammunition. Buying a .357 Magnum revolver gave the shooter all the abilities of the well-established .38 Special, with the ability to double the available power by using the Magnum cartridge. Keith's contributions to the commercial development of the .357 Magnum have been questioned by some writers, and Keith subsequently denigrated the .357 Magnum as he had the .38 Special.
The .44 Magnum was developed in much the same way, and was released in 1955. Keith had earlier determined that the thinner chamber walls of the .45 Colt would not comfortably withstand the pressures generated by his own heavy loads. He started with the .44 Special revolver, and used the same formula of pushing heavy bullets at high velocities that he had used for the .357 Magnum. The resulting .44 Magnum was a formidable cartridge for handgun hunting, and remained the most powerful production handgun cartridge until the commercial introduction of the .454 Casull based on the .45 Colt. The .44 Magnum is still far more popular, as the recoil of .454 Casull rounds is considered excessive by most shooters, and revolvers in .454 Casull were rare and expensive until the introduction of .454 Casull models by Sturm, Ruger and Taurus in the late 1990s.
Besides being a handgun target shooter, Keith was also an avid handgun hunter, and was a very skilled one. He claimed to have shot and killed a mule deer at a range of 600-yards using his 6-1/2 inch S&W Model 29. Keith later had this gun cut to 4-1/2 inch barrel length; it is currently part of the Keith collection with the factory standard 4 inch barrel length that he more commonly carried.
The .41 Magnum, released in 1963, was an attempt to reach a middle ground. The .357 Magnum was adequate for hunting deer-sized game, but the limited power meant it needed to be used by a skilled marksman. The .44 Magnum provided far more power, easily taking deer sized game, but recoil and muzzle blast are substantial. The .41 Magnum, inspired by the older, obsolete .41 Long Colt cartridge, was intended to provide more power than the .357 Magnum with less recoil than the .44 Magnum. The .41 Magnum used a completely new case (unlike the .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum which were based on existing cases), and used a .410" bullet instead of the earlier .41 Colt and .38-40's roughly .400" diameter bullet, while pushing the new .410" bullet to similar velocities as achieved by the .357 and .44 Magnum bullets. However, while there was (and still is) a small community of shooters preferring the .41 Magnum, the round failed to achieve a similar high degree of popularity. The police, to whom the .41 Magnum was initially marketed, were happy with the .38 Special or .357 Magnum, and most officers had no interest in anything more powerful, and which also delivered significantly greater blast and recoil. These can place the shooter at a disadvantage in a gunfight requiring fast, repeat, shots. Hunters likewise stayed with the .44 Magnum, preferring the added power it gave, while being willing to live with its somewhat heavier recoil.
Keith is also famous for designing and commissioning his No. 5 revolver, fashioned by R.F. Sedgeley, in 1928.
Keith Devised Bullets
Keith was also responsible for a number of bullet designs still popular today, and collectively called "Keith style" bullets. These bullets were based on the semi-wadcutter design, but using a wider than normal front surface, and convex sides. These changes increased the volume of the bullet outside the case, thus allowing more room inside the case, needed for large loads of slower burning powders (see internal ballistics). These bullets remain popular for both target shooting and hunting. When shooting paper targets, they cut a relatively clean hole in the target, yet provide more case volume and a better ballistic coefficient than a flat front wadcutter. When used for hunting, the heavy bullets provide excellent penetration; they are often used on dangerous game, for which more reliable penetration than is possible with expanding hollow point or soft point bullets is required.
Keith was instrumental in the development of various wildcat cartridges, a few of which were later adopted as factory rounds. The .333 OKH ("O'Neil-Keith-Hopkins"), developed in conjunction with Charlie O'Neil and Don Hopkins, was made from .30-06 Springfield brass necked up to take the .333" 250 and 300-grain bullets of the .333 Jeffery. There was also a .334 OKH, based on the shortened .300 H&H Magnum case. This latter round, necked up slightly to take the .338" bullets of the old .33 Winchester, was introduced commercially in 1958 as the .338 Winchester Magnum. The .338-378 Weatherby Magnum is barely distinguishable from another one of Keith's wildcats, the .338-378 KT(Keith-Thomson), which he developed in the 1960s with Bob Thomson.
An admirer of the old British double rifles, Keith had numerous examples in his collection. He used two of these doubles, a .476 Westley Richards and a .500 Nitro Express, to take dangerous game in Africa on two different safaris. Keith documented the first of these hunts in his 1968 tome, Safari.
Keith was a prolific writer, writing both books and magazine columns. During the 1950s and 1960s, he was especially well-known for his regular monthly columns he wrote for Guns & Ammo magazine, typically exploring the performance of the latest new gun offerings, especially those firing large, heavy bullets pushed to high velocities.
• Sixgun Cartridges and Loads, 1936
• Big Game Rifles and Cartridges, 1936
• Keith's Rifles for Larger Game, 1946
• Big Game Hunting, 1948
• Shotguns. Harrisburg, 1950
• Sixguns, 1955
• Guns and Ammo for Hunting Big Game, with John Lachuk, 1965
• Safari, 1968
• Hell, I Was There (autobiography), 1979