Andy Anderson, master Hollywood fast-draw holster-maker, stood 6 feet 4 inches tall and had correspondingly large hands. He had trouble with his gun hand being too large for the standard Colt Single Action Army grip. He tried replacing the standard SAA grip frame with the longer grip frame from a Colt 1860 Army revolver, which was a fairly common modification in the Old West. But even the longer 1860 Army grip was too short for his large gun hand.
Andy’s favorite single-action revolver was always a 7½-inch-barreled Colt .44 Special that he called his “Big Iron,” while his 5½-inch-barreled Colt .44 was his “Little Iron.” Being a proficient metal smith, Anderson decided to fabricate a special backstrap that was long enough for his hand. In order to mate with the standard SAA triggerguard, the bottom of the backstrap was S-shaped and provided a natural finger groove for his little finger. Andy eventually produced six of these unique Big Iron backstraps with matching grips. At one time I owned one of the six sets that had originally belonged to Hollywood superstar Steve McQueen, but I foolishly sold it.
Building My Own
One of the items that I obtained from the Anderson estate was a sheet-metal template for the Big Iron grip. The purchase of a vintage 7½-inch-barreled, .44 Special Great Western Arms single action was the catalyst to have my own copy of the Anderson Big Iron. Several years ago, I had Alan Harton of Single Action Service build a poor man’s copy of Elmer Keith’s legendary No. 5 single action using a three-screw .357 Mag Blackhawk that had been extensively modified for fast-draw competitions as the base gun. I was extremely satisfied with the result, and Alan was my first choice to modify the Great Western backstrap to the exact shape of the Big Iron template.
Alan’s reputation for superb work in custom sixguns has lead to a lengthy turnaround time, but it wasn’t long before I had my custom Big Iron backstrap back and it was a perfect fit to the template. I highly recommend Alan Harton’s work.
But where would I obtain grips for this custom grip frame? I discussed the project with my friend Raj Singh, the owner of Eagle Grips, and he agreed to make grips for me if I would send him the backstrap. Anderson’s personal Big Iron eventually wore one-piece elephant ivory grips with his logo—a spade with a bullet hole through it—scrimshawed on each side. So I asked Raj to make one-piece grips out of his synthetic ivory, Ultra Ivory, which is the finest faux ivory I have seen. Ultra Ivory has a visible grain structure, similar to elephant ivory, and resembles the genuine ivory more than any of the cast polymer ivory grips.
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I personally find most single-action grip panels thicker than I like, especially where they butt against the main frame. I requested that my Big Iron grips be shaped similar to the original one-piece walnut grips of blackpowder Colts, and they are shaped perfectly. It required only a few minutes using epoxy, with paste wax as a release agent, to fasten the two grip panels to the filler piece in the middle. While I was doing this, I “glass bedded” the grips to the grip frame with the epoxy. This provided a fit that had absolutely no wiggle.
Another nice feature of Ultra Ivory is that it is relatively easy to scrimshaw. A few minutes with a scrimshaw needle and black India ink and I had Anderson’s trademark spade with the off-center bullet hole on my Big Iron grips. I’m grateful to Eagle Grips for making it possible for me to complete my personal .44 Big Iron.
Now that I had my copy of Andy Anderson’s custom Big Iron .44, I needed a special Anderson-style fast-draw holster for it. Spaghetti Western Replicas (SWR) offers excellent copies of the complete line of Anderson fast-draw rigs. Anderson was best known for his unique Walk and Draw rigs, which had a steel-lined hip plate so that no tie-down strap was needed. While the original Walk and Draw rig, as used by Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven, did not have a skirt on the holster, it was soon available as the “Walk and Draw Western” with a full wide skirt. This provided a place to attach a steel deflector plate for those practicing their fast draw with live ammunition.
For my Big Iron, I chose the early version of the Walk and Draw Western rig with the separate holster pouch fastened to the holster drop shank with screw post binders. This provides a bit of extra clearance for positive thumb cocking while the sixgun is still in the holster.
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For this holster, SWR uses A-grade Herman Oak vegetable-tanned leather. The belt and holster are fully lined, and the holster has a steel insert. The gun belt is 2½ inches wide and curves before tapering on the ends for a 1½-inch buckle. Anderson offered a unique hand-hammered buckle that started as a now-discontinued North & Judd solid brass, rectangular, heel-bar harness buckle. Anderson flattened the buckle by hammering the face of the buckle. SWR offers a cast replica of the Anderson buckle. The gun belt also has full .44-caliber bullet loops, 28 in total on a 40-inch, center-hole belt.
I wanted my Big Iron rig to be special, so I ordered the holster fully hand carved in one of Andy’s favorite patterns, the onion blossom. And I provided an engraved sterling silver buckle for the strap that encircles the pouch. The SWR rig is superb, and it’s the perfect complement for my .44 Big Iron.
For More Information
Single Action Service
Spaghetti Western Replicas
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This article originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.