Book Review: The Collected Works of Skeeter Skelton
It’s that time of year again. The magical time where temperatures in the Midwest dip below the 0 mark and I attend family reunions with 40 people packed in a single 2 story house. Its times like these I get into the Christmas spirit by sneaking off to a quiet room with a pint of stout, stretch out in an easy chair, and crack open one of two books: Good Friends, Good Guns, Good Whiskey or Hoglegs, Hipshots, & Jalapenos by Skeeter Skelton. Before I get too carried away talking about these books, I should talk a little bit about the author and why I enjoy reading him so much.
Charles “Skeeter” Skelton was a former border patrolman, sheriff, and later DEA special agent from Texas who was best known for being a regular contributor to Shooting Times before eventually becoming their main handgun editor. Most of his articles were written in the 70s and 80s but the content drew a lot from his childhood growing up in the Depression and his formative law enforcement days manning the last horse mounted Border Patrol station during the 50s. His writing style gained him many fans and he wrote on a variety of topics ranging from handgun reviews, cartridge analysis, reflections on law enforcement, and legends of the Old West. His bread and butter were personal anecdotes and stories that were laden with enough firearms references for the dedicated Shooting Times reader to still get their gun fix while reading through Skelton’s comfy colloquialisms.
In my first couple of years getting into shooting as a hobby, I started off strong with an interest in Milsurps that later developed into early 20th century US civilian arms, most notably pre 1964 Winchester rifles and pre 1990 Smith and Wesson double action revolvers. Poking around online for data and reading material brought me across Skeeter’s path and his articles just clicked for me. I did my best to find as much written material online as I could before taking the plunge and shelling out the money (a not insignificant amount I might add) for the only two published treasuries of his articles that were published posthumously by Shooting Times.
Good Friends, Good Guns, Good Whiskey
This book was the first treasury released just after Skelton’s death in in 1988 and I think must have been printed in significantly more numbers than HHAJ as it was fairly easy to come across. Buying this book was my introduction to the arcane world of firearms publications and realizing that publishers like Paladin Press and Collector Grade Publications that went the way of the dodo after the advent of the internet were the only places to find a lot of this information. Not only that, but the gun hobbyist community of the old days isn’t nearly as developed as it is now, so the niche for these publications was very small making these books rare and expensive nowadays.
GFGGGW (holy shit it’s barely shorter to abbreviate it) is a bit longer than HHAJ and in my opinion is superior. The books are broken up into sections that then have relevant articles collected into them. The sections in GDGGGW are broken up a little different than the sequel and I think with the exception of one of the sections, I find things that I never get tired of reading annually and to this day 6-7 years after buying the book I still find new things that pique my interest that didn’t before. Below is a list and minor breakdown of each of the sections which contain 7-10 articles apiece.
Me and Joe
These are all semi-fictitious, semi-autobiographical tales of Skeeter’s boyhood growing up with his best friend Joe Bishop during the Great Depression. These stories are good but not my favorites, they’re basically like watching an episode of the Andy Griffith Show but with more gun references. When you’re in the right mood though, they’re very comfy.
Best: “Me and Joe and the Man in Black”
A visitor comes to town who is a friend of Joe’s grandfather. He wears all black including a black Stetson that Joe and Skeeter both find fascinating and briefly describes his job as a “cattle inspector”. Skeeter spies his ivory gripped S&W Triple Lock 44 Special under his coat which leads to a series of stories about the man’s past in the Rough Riders, Mexican Punitive Expedition, and the Texas Rangers. Inspired by this man of action, Skeeter and Joe buy black hats at the end of the story in his honor.
Dobe Grant stories are kind of like the grown up versions of Me and Joe. Dobe wasn’t a real person but rather a sort of amalgamation of several crotchety old former lawmen that Skeeter met throughout his life and shared stories, hunts, and drinks with later in life. Some of these stories have Dobe and Skeeter going on adventures together like in “Dobe and Skeeter Blinded By the Light” and “Trouble at the Turkey Track” and some of them are closer to campfire stories like “The Golden Spurs of Dobe Grant” and “Dobe Grant’s Old 45 Colt”. These used to be some of my favorites but as I’ve gotten older I’ve found Dobe reads a little more obnoxiously boomer than I remember as he lacks a lot of Skeeter’s self-deprecating humor, though from a story telling perspective, I’m sure that’s by design. There’s some good gems in here and the descriptions of guys actually using their Colt Single Actions, Ithaca 37 riot guns, and Winchester 1892s are well written and extremely re-readable.
Best: “Dobe and Skeeter Blinded by the Light”
In this story, Skeeter is tailing a fugitive during his Customs Investigator days and Dobe happens into the bar he’s performing his stakeout. It ends up being a ride along as Dobe comes as backup when they’re tailing this guy and to make the job a little easier, Dobe breaks the taillight on the perps car when he stops at a gas station so they’re following a bright white light. When backup comes and the perp is finally arrested, he’s carried off complaining to officers that he’s had a bad night and some crazy old man walked up to his car while he was in the gas station and vandalized his car.
Tales of the Old West
These stories range from short biographies to anecdotes pieced together by a common theme. There are some familiar names in here like Wyatt Earp and Pancho Villa but also some I had never heard of like Jeff Davis Milton and Tom Threepersons. I like Skeeter’s personal anecdotes more than his biographies of others, but these are still very entertaining and his personal style still shines through.
Best: “The Life and Times of Colt’s Single Action Army”
This is one of those stories where the tales of multiple outlaws and lawmen (John Wesley Hardin, John Armstrong, John Selman, Bat Masterson, Doc Holiday, Theodore Roosevelt, Frank Hamer, and George Patton) are all told through their common weapon- The Colt Single Action.
This one’s a mixed bag, they’re all biographical profiles of some of Skeeter’s friends from over the years, most of them fairly well known in the gun industry circa 1980. Articles on timelessly interesting characters like Bill Jordan and Jim Clark are great, but others haven’t aged too well (cough cough, Bill Ruger). Others are barely a page long and concern people that likely weren’t overly interesting even at the time of the original publication. All that said, this chapter contains an article on his first border patrol supervisor Buck Smith that may be my favorite article of his full stop.
Best: “Buck Smith”
I mentioned above that all of the sections in this book besides one I never get tired of reading. Well this is it. Partially this is due to the bizarre way Skeeter structures these articles basically in the form of events being told through written correspondence between Skeeter, his editor at shooting Times, and Jug himself (INB4 millennials can’t into hand written letters) but also because I don’t really find the character that interesting. Unlike Joe and Dobe who are fictional-ish characters inspired by real people, I’m pretty sure Jug Johnson is purely an invention of Skeeter’s imagination and his character basically boils down to a semi-literate backcountry retard.
I decided since I was going to take the time to write an article over these books I may as well give them a chance so I’m not shitting on them exclusively and I can report after buckling down and going through the whole chapter that they’re actually pretty good. Still not what I’m going to go back and reread the most, but there is definitely some very niche gun related humor in here that I could appreciate.
Jug in essence has very good personal luck with money and generally not getting himself killed, but he is horrible luck for anyone he comes in contact with. Skeeter learns this after about 4 articles and then immediate flees to his secret hideout desert bar until things blow over, deflecting Jug onto his friends and acquaintances. Jug idolizes Skeeter and wants to emulate him as best he can, but is never successful. Seeing how adept Skeeter is with reloading, he tries to one up him by making his own wildcat cartridge consisting of a 50 BMG case necked down to accept a 240 grain 44 projectile that he dubs the 44-50 Jug. In another article, Jug is working at Dobe Grant’s ranch and assures him that he is good at reloading. Jug decides to load up some “accurate” 44 mag rounds and determines that he should use the powder that says “Bullseye” instead of the ones with “just the big numbers on it”. This leads to him loading up 22 grains of Bullseye instead of Alliant 2400 that the powder measure is set up for and blows the top strap off the Dobe’s gun. Niche reloader humor, but it got a laugh out of me.
On another occasion, Jug attempts to track Skeeter to Las Vegas and ends up at a large gun show where he finds a bunch of people “all tryin to put the big britches on the other guy” including a man with a ton of Nazi memorabilia including an rare engraved Luger with “AH” engraved in the grips. The date on the article was 1984 and I just got a kick out of the fact that the obligatory gun show Nazi table is a time honored tradition that dates back to well before I was born.
Best: “Jug’s Million Dollar Missile” (the 44-50 Jug story I mentioned above)
Articles in this section contain reviews over particular models like the S&W Model 24 and the P-08 Luger, but also general topics like his favorite 22 pistols and different roles and niches certain handguns can fill. What’s refreshing about Skeeter’s specific gun reviews is he’ll give the history of the gun, say almost nothing about the basic dimensions or features because he respects his audience enough to assume they have a slight amount of experience and basic knowledge, and then spend most of the article talking about how it shoots and interesting stories about the gun.
Since litigation culture hadn’t quite hit full swing in the 70’s, Skeeter also will occasionally publish these reviews with some handloading recipes towards the end and in my early years of reloading 38 special for my Model 10 with a Lyman 310 tool, these articles would act as my reloading manual before I got a proper one. These are probably the articles I reread the most.
Best: “Guns I Should Have Kept” and “Guns I Remember Best”
As someone who does not conform to the “Never Sell Guns” gospel that most gun guys these days are hardliners on, I can relate a lot to these. In them, Skeeter fondly and sometimes painfully reminisces about guns he got great deals on and flipped or simply let go in a moment of weakness or need.
These are ruminations on the Law Enforcement occupation in general and contain some pretty interesting anecdotes. Many of them revolve around Skeeter praising those who think outside the box and don’t always follow the letter of the law if it interferes with practicality and the spirit of the law.
Best: “Law in a Cowtown”
For being a cop, Skeeter has a lot of respect for the “small town that bands together for the common good” western trope. In “Law in a Cowtown”, he describes some episodes in his career where he was standing shoulder to shoulder with regular citizens who posse-ed up to join him on a manhunt and even one where he was saved from getting jumped by a gang from a couple of locals who came to his aid with guns that didn’t *quite* meet legal NFA specifications. He let it slide.
Like the handgun reviews above but focused on one or a couple specific cartridges. These tend to be a little more history heavy and much more likely to get some hand loading advice. These are the articles I like the best and in one specific example, which I’ll go into greater detail below contained an instance where Skeeter had a close safety call that I specifically encountered in my time reloading as well.
It’s also worth mentioning in this section that Skeeter had a long standing love affair with the 44 Special cartridge.
Now if you’re anything like me, you probably read that and went “44 Special? You mean the weaker version of 44 Magnum that is also inexplicably more expensive?” and you would be right. Skeeter thought there was a case to be made back in the 70s when wheelguns were king and 6 shots was the standard that something big bore and in-between the ubiquitous LE issue 357 magnum and the famously overkill 44 magnum was the perfect cartridge for western lawmen and civilians wanting a home defense handgun. He personally advocated for the then new 41 Magnum if someone was limited to store bought ammunition and 44 Special if you were a handloader.
While factory loads for 44 Special were (and bafflingly still are) ballistically identical to standard ball 45 ACP, the reloading potential for 44 Special was insanely good and allowed all the manstopping benefits of the 44 mag with less recoil, less muzzle blast, and less strain on the revolver you were shooting. Modern gunwriter John Taffin has carried the torch of the 44 Special to this day claiming there is still a good place for it and at least some people on the market still agree. If you don’t believe me, here’s an offering from Ruger whose spec sheet reads like a wish list directly from Skeeter (44 special only, 5 inch barrel, gold bead front/micro adjustable rear, and Roper style walnut grips):
Best: “Skeeter’s Cowkiller Loads”
This was the article I mentioned above that I could personally relate to. Early on when I moved on from my Lyman 310 set up to a more permanent single stage press, I relied heavily on an old Lee powder measure as I had been told it had one the best accuracy to cost ratios on the market. I loaded up some 357 Magnums with 7 grains of Unique and 158 grain SWC for my S&W 28 and took it to the range only to discover afterwards that at some point during the day, I had bulged my barrel. I searched Google up and down trying to find something online based on what I had done that could explain it before giving up and assuming I had short thrown the lever leading to a reduced charge.
Later that winter when I had out these books, I read this article for the first time and was amazed when Skeeter described almost the exact same situation with him. He loaded up lead SWC 44 mags over a light 8 grain charge of Unique in a plastic powder hopper. These produced pitifully underpowered loads that failed to put down an injured heifer from about 6 feet away. Skeeter determined that the chemical composition of Unique combined with the plastic material the hoppers are made of resulted in the powder losing some of its effectiveness and after swapping out the contaminated powder with fresh, it was fine again. And from that day on I learned the lesson to always empty out my powder when I’m done with a reloading session.
This is a mixed bag of articles that range from humorous gun related stories like “The Mama Mia Mishap” to musings on random non-gun subjects like desert camp cooking or Smith Corona Typewriters.
Best: “South of the Border Bartering” and “Bustamante, I Hate You”
These stories are fairly similar and cover a topic that is near and dear to Skeeter: packing up in the mid 50’s and travelling to Mexico in search of Single Action Armies. By this point in time, Colt has discontinued the SAA and swrore up and down they would never bring them back wghich led to a cult following in the US where collectors snapped them all up. For men of less means like Skeeter who were enamored with the guns, that meant thinking outside the box. In his case, he found that there were a few Mexican military or police officals still carrying these heirlooms and would usually be willing to trade for something newer in the US that they couldn’t get their hands on in Chihuahua or Sonora. It was a romantic image (for me anyway) adventuring to a country rich in history with the old west and finding these treasured relics only to bring them back and refurbish them to working condition. Skeeter apparently liked it too, as he would reuse the topic several times both here and in more fictionalized accounts written from Dobe Grant’s perspective as well.
Hoglegs, Hipshots, & Jalapenos
The sequel to GFGGGW was printed in 1991 and is shorter and in my opinion slightly weaker in overall quality than its predecessor. But even that is still pretty damn good.
One of the shortcomings of this book is that there are fewer sections and most of the articles are simply leftover “Hipshots”. The chapters for this book are as follows:
This one is mostly unique to HHAJ and contains articles detailing preferences and thoughts on things like barrel length, grip and stance, holster types, training DA vs SA, fixed vs adjustable sights, concealed carry, handgun hunting, and related topics. These are informative but not especially entertaining and may have dampened my excitement when I first opened this book expecting more of GFGGGW.
Best: “A Letter from Skeeter”
This article has a host of my favorite Skeeter tropes: stories of gun culture from the Depression, vintage reloading techniques, and rich colorful descriptions of lounging on the front step of a backcountry ranger cabin loading up ammunition and watching a desert sunset.
While the “Cartridges” section in GFGGGW had a few specific cartridge reviews, the 8 articles the sectoion was comprised of also had a smattering of articles devoted to the purposes and applications for different cartridges and also handloading in general. HHAJ on the other hand has 15 articles on specific cartridges and only two that venture outside of that, both of them being comparison articles.
Best: “James, Earp and Masterson Liked It” (review of the 45 Colt). However, “The Nineshooters” was also an interesting read as it was Skeeters first published article and also gave a glimpse of how gun enthusiasts in the 1960’s viewed the 9×19 that is so ubiquitous today.
Articles in this section are basically the same as last book but contains more specific gun centered reviews like over the 1911, S&W Model 10, K-22, Colt Ace, etc.
Best article: Me and My Model 27
Something about the early development of the 357 Magnum is just really cool to me. Skeeter’s stories about it are also cool- as a young border patrolman, he knew not one but two other patrolmen in Arizona who were personally acquainted with Daniel Wesson and received two of the first production registered magnums. Through a streak of good luck one of the two parted with his and Skeeter was able to snatch up the well worn example with a custom front sight, 5” barrel, and Roper grips. This became one of his most loved guns and the article relays the 5-6 he has owned in the exact same configuration over the years.
Basically a combination of Compadres, Jug Johnson, and the old west stories from the last book. There’s also an interesting little fictional short story about Dobe Grant fleeing out of Mexico for dubious reasons and a sort of mini autobiography of Skeeter looking back on his career.
The biggest missed opportunity IMO with this final section is that the 3rd to last article is a later published piece from the 80’s where Skeeter writes about reuniting with Jody Bishop from his childhood “Me and Joe” stories at the latter’s ranch. While ostensibly a simple narrative of the reunion, the article touches on the nature of how friendships fade over time but there’s always something special about spending time with someone who you lived and experienced a formative part of life with. It’s an excellent bookend since GFGGGW opened with the Me and Joe stories but instead, there are two more articles after this to close out the book and the last one is Skeeter harping on about how gunsmiths who butcher guns and screw people out of money are jerks. Uh… yeah?
Best Article: Skeeter Skelton: Rifleman
While “Me and Joe, Fully Grown” is a great way to end the book like I mentioned, my personal favorite article from this section is Skeeter talking about some of his favorite rifles from over the years. From his WWII issued Garand, to a number of sporterized DCM rifles, custom hunting rifles, to even things like the Mini 14 and Ruger Deerfield, there’s a lot of great stories and references to cool guns in this article and its one I reread pretty much every year.
While my gun interests over the past couple of years have broadened much more, I still have a special place in my heart for the guns that Skeeter wrote about. It’s because of him I’ve bought a lot of different guns over the years, and because of him that my grail gun I got myself after college- a Third Gen Colt Single Action 45- is probably the last handgun I would ever sell. He also was my overwhelming inspiration (90% Skeeter, 10% Fallout New Vegas) that I finally bit the bullet and dove into handloading. The technology around handloading has come a long way since the time Skeeter wrote but I still find myself mostly loading cast lead semi wadcutters over Alliant powder for my revolvers like he did.
If this article was of any interest to you, I would highly recommend you not delay in picking up at least a copy of Good Friends, Good Guns, Good Whiskey. I am confident you will not be disappointed and will treasure your copy like I do mine. However, if you are wary of spending almost $100 on a modest sized book, that is totally understandable and I am happy to provide this link to about 30 articles for your casual enjoyment: http://darkcanyon.net/skeeter_skelton.htm
The site that those articles are on is a memorial page for a Cowboy Action shooter and despite the fact that it looks hopelessly outdated, I’ve visited it semi regularly since at least 2015 and it’s always been there like a faithful dog. Do yourself a favor and read an article or two, I’d recommend “The Mama Mia Mishap” and “The Gunmen of El Paso”, but as I mentioned above in “Compadres”, I think this particular article is my all time favorite as it is the one article that I think summarized Skeeter’s writing best: http://darkcanyon.net/Hipshots_aug_1987.htm
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