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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 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 protected] 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.

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  1. This song was always was in Fallout New Vegas, Very gun filled game, you could reload ammo, doing custom rounds, energy weapons, all in the western theme with Las Vegas being a city that was spared the Nuclear holocaust which started and ended on Saturday, October 23, 2077

      • I am the “gun guy” among my friends and after they all scurried out to buy the game I was incessantly bombarded with questions about reloading and ballistics for a month straight.

    • I also liked Fallout New Vegas. Say what you will but it was much better/realistic than Fallout 3. I mean, 200 years after the apocalypse and people are still scavenging canned food out of fridges? While in New Vegas you could see that people rebuilt, just like in the older Fallout games.

      Only thing that bummed me regarding shooting in that game was the fact that you had no bullet drop or wind effects, probably a mod for that though.

      • I wish the damage had been a bit more realistic, though. Emptying an entire magazine into a guy just to put him down was annoying and also necessitated carrying thousands of rounds on your person, which in turn diminished the importance of marksmanship (I know, V.A.T.S.). Great games, but I wish they had gunplay more reminiscent of STALKER which has fast, tense, and dangerous gunfights (a couple good shots and your dead). STALKER didn’t have Marty Robbins, though. Or this:

        • “Well, I’m six-feet-tall, I ain’t no hand-me-down”

          That line is always stuck on repeat in my head when i feel good.

  2. Bluegrass: Check out some Steeldrivers with Chris Stapelton

    Guns in songs: Townes Van Zandt – Pancho and Lefty “he wore his guns outside his pants for all the honest world to feel”

    I and all my extended family are Texans first and Americans second but Shiner gives me the sh**ts. Pour some Sammy Adams in a glass.

    • +1 to that, BStacks. Awesome song, still not sure if he’s celebrating or indicting redneck culture, which is probably what makes it so great.

    • I saw him open for The Gourds in Minneapolis about a year and a half ago. McMurtry and his band joined in at the end for Gin and Juice. Great show.

    • Hahahahahaha. Love that one.
      Long time Dr. Demento fan here.
      I was going to post that, but thought I better read comments first.

  3. “Big Iron” and “El Paso” by Marty Robbins, “Ringo” by Lorne Greene, “Don’t Take your Guns to Town” by Johnny Cash — they were the kind of songs that I grew up with. Tyler, you have an old soul. Which — trust me on this — is far superior to having an old body.

    • Not always a good thing, it makes you somewhat a loner. Not saying that people are great, but humans are social animals. There is something missing, though I don’t care much about it.

    • Lorne Greene and Ringo are particular favorites of mine. “The Voice of Doom”, I think they called him in Canadian radio. Awesome voice

  4. Thanks for this post. My dad was a huge Marty Robins fan and probably had everything he ever recorded. He passed away about 10 years ago and by then he had gotten rid of most of his records. One thing I have, however, is his old Tanfoglio SA .22 revolver, similar to the Ruger Single Six. It as as close as he ever got to a big iron on his hip.

  5. Great minds think alike….I spent a hour on BBQ saturday morning listening to old Western TV show themes. Would love if TTAG would reach out to Thell Reed for an interview. The mention above echoed my comment a week or so ago on him. Last of the baby boomer idols. Rivaling Marty Robbins sound is Johnny Western btw for me. Think he quit performing this year or last.

    Shows that evoke great memories for me.
    26 Men
    Lawman – John Russell had incedible chiseled face.
    probably could list 50 shows from the era.

    • +1 for the Thell Reed interview.
      Elden Carl was still with the San Diego Sheriffs office when I started there. He was a great pistol shooter.

  6. Johnny Cash did a cover of ‘Big Iron’ as only he can. I think at least half of his songs had a reference to a firearm.

  7. As I went out for to make a little round, I came upon that wild Bill Jones.
    He was walkin’ and talkin’ by my true love’s side, and I bid him for to leave her alone.

    He said “my age it is just twenty-one, too old for to be controlled.”
    I drew my revolver up from my side, I destroyed that poor boys soul.

  8. I’ve been a fan of Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs since I first heard it a few years ago, after being intrigued by the title and cover on someone’s online list of significant albums. I’ve since purchased and gifted a CD of the album to a friend in his early 20’s, because I figured he would like it and it would be unlike anything he’d heard. “Big Iron” is my favorite song on the album and I loved this article. And it will be decades until I’m eligible to join the AARP!

    Thanks for the link to the Spaghetti Western Replicas article. I’m really glad I know who Andy Anderson is now. He was the man! If I was making a western in the style of the great westerns I grew up watching, I could accept no substitute. They’re the holsters of my wildest duel fantasies when listening to Ennio Morricone soundtracks. If I ever get into Fast Draw or “cowboy” style dress, I’ll be looking up Spaghetti Western Replicas, it looks like they make some tremendous stuff. Heck, Lee Van Cleef’s hat! If I ever decide to blow a few thousand bucks on dress-up and make-believe, I have my guy. I’m ready for my Colonel Douglas Mortimer cosplay midlife crisis.

  9. Tyler,

    ‘jayhawker’ is Bob Arganbright. He was a fast draw champion in the 70’s. These days he’s a contributing editor for magazines published by Harris. Guns of the Old West, etc.

  10. Here’s an esoteric “fast gun song” that I bet no one on this site has heard: Hanky Dean.

    It is a great lesson, set to music, on why you should never pick on the old or the weak.
    (Everybody here knows why you don’t “pick on” the old guy, or the invalid… right?)

    I won’t try everyone’s patience by posting the whole song; besides, without the tune, it isn’t near as much fun as actually hearing it well performed. Nevertheless, these are my favorite parts — which should be enough for people to determine if I am wrong and someone does indeed know — or know of — the song:


    T’was a calm and peaceful evening
    In a camp called Arapaho,
    And the whiskey was a running
    With a soft and gentle flow.
    The music was a ringing
    In the dance hall ‘cross the way
    And the dancers were a swinging
    Just as close as they could sway.

    [Then Hanky Dean, suffering from a
    run of bad luck at cards, decides to
    pick on the “gentle little stranger.” This
    turns out to be a BIGGER mistake
    than drawing to that inside straight…]

    The gentle little stranger,
    Who was leaning against the door,
    Picked up a hand of playing cards
    That were scattered on the floor.
    Picking out the four of spades,
    He pinned it to the door,
    Then stepped 20 paces,
    Across that barroom floor.

    As he turned, he drew like lightening,
    Four times did his six-gun roar.
    He blotted out each pip,
    From the card upon the door.
    For he had traveled with the circus,
    And had only quit that day…
    “I have one more left, Mister,
    If you wish to call the play.”

    [At this point, Hanky suddenly
    decides he’s a “meek little child,
    and as harmless as a lamb.” 😉 ]


  11. And on a separate historic note, look up the Arizona Rangers. Those ol’ boys had a hard bark on ’em – they were every bit as hard a group of men as the Texas Rangers.


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