I’ve been spending a bit more time listening to bluegrass music during my commute and while I mow the grass. I genuinely enjoy it (the mowing too), especially the covers of famous non-bluegrass songs. While I was mowing away earlier this week, “Big Iron” by Cumberland Gap came over the airwaves. If you’re not familiar with Cumberland Gap and you like bluegrass, I recommend you check them out. And for those who qualify for AARP membership (born on or before today in 1964), you might be familiar with the deep crooning voice of Marty Robbins. Mr. Robbins wrote “Big Iron” and released it as part of “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs” in September 1959. “Big Iron” is the story of a lone ranger riding in to town to kill or capture a bad man named Texas Red. Marty does a marvelous job of laying out the scene with an up tempo beat paired with his deep, rich voice. Not to spoil it for you, but the ranger wins against Texas Red using the big iron on his hip . . .
While I pushed the mower around, I got to wondering what that big iron must have been. Obviously, it would be a six shooter of some sort, maybe a Colt Single Action, but likely something I’d never heard of. My gun history fu is weak so I took to the internet to see if someone with more knowledge than me had tracked it down. Lo, Wikipedia prevails. And from the Wikipedia article on “Big Iron”, came this little gem.
The Ranger’s “Big Iron” actually existed. It was a one off custom handgun chambered in .45 Colt and featured a Great Western copy of the Colt Single Action Army frame, Colt 1860 Army backstrap, grip frame and grips and a cut down 9 1/2″ Marlin rifle barrel. Marty Robbins saw it in Andy Anderson’s famed North Hollywood gun shop in the late 1950s and wrote the song around it.
Unfortunately, that particular paragraph was followed by a big “citation needed” sign which basically relegates it to unsubstantiated rumor. But I’m a curious guy with some time on one hand and a cold Shiner Bock in the other. So I decided to read up on this Andy Anderson guy. And that led me to this short bio at Spaghetti Western Replicas. They did a great job writing about Andy and if you like history, I highly recommend you read an article that clearly took them some time to write. Most of the article focuses on the way he revolutionized fast draw shooting in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Notable clients of his Gunfighter shop included Bob Munden, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, John Wayne, and Marty Robbins. And buried right under that was this paragraph.
One of Andy’s best performances in live ammo single action fast draw was in 1971 when he shot in an invitational shoot. The nine best shooters in California shot a double elimination, one shot per draw at four inch balloons at 21 feet. The balloons were suspended in mid-air by rubber bands. Andy is justifiably proud of placing third to Thell Reed and Ray Chapman. He uses his favorite sixgun, “The Big Iron,” a Colt S.A. 44 Special with 7 1/2″ barrel out of his own favorite rig, the “AA”, a high rise version of his Walk & Draw Western.
Further google searching revealed a forum post on singleaction.proboards.com about buntline single actions where member jayhawker claims to own the gun that inspired “Big Iron” and his description is below.
Have a .44 Mag Colt. Originally built by Andy Anderson of fast draw Gunfighter holsters. Great Western .44 Mag cylinder, GW frame, original Colt 1860 Army grip frame, 12 inch barrel made from a Mdl 92 Winchester .44 WCF barrel, big-horn sheep one piece grips. Original buyer later replaced the GW frame with a 2nd gen Colt frame. Both the owner and Anderson said this custom Buntline was inspiration for Marty Robbins, who was a Gunfighter shop customer. The owner, who used it for live ammo fast draw competition shortened the bll a bit at a time until it “pointed” for him. Bll ened up approx 10.5 inches. I shot it many years ago in a bowling pin match, with .44 Spl factory loads and placed well. Sorry, no pix.
And that’s how a song played during some yard work helped me learn about fast draw and custom single action revolvers. If you are, or know “jayhawker” please send an email to email@example.com so we can write an article about the history of that gun. In the meantime, find a way to listen to “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs” when you have time. Marty was a national treasure, and his music could make anyone feel like a cowboy.