July 13, 2023
By Joe Engesser
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While shooting history is filled with tall tales and mythmaking, Ed McGivern was the real deal. As a record-setting exhibition shooter, celebrated firearms author, and famed shooting instructor, Edward “Ed” McGivern needs no introduction to serious firearms fans.
Few Ed McGivern guns are held in private hands today, and Rock Island Auction Company has the privilege to offer the collecting public two of McGivern's iconic revolvers, both examples from the prestigious Dave Ballantyne Collection. Click on the images throughout this article to learn more about each gun.
Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska during the twilight years of the Wild West, Ed McGivern was destined to be a marksman. McGivern was a self-taught shooter, cutting his teeth on semi-automatic pistols before gravitating toward the double action revolver, a move that would prove to be a more than ideal match for the talented handgunner.
While working as a sign painter for his day job, Ed McGivern spent years refining his shooting technique, using electric timers to find the fastest angles for his quick draws and aid in honing his hand reflexes. Though the squat 5’5” McGivern didn't fit the popular image of the Hollywood gunslinger, he let his shooting talk for him. He started touring with Wild West shows in the early 1900s and by the 1930s he would earn the title “fastest gun in the world.”
Working with his Philadelphia patron, Walter Groff, Ed McGivern gained fame around the country as an exhibition shooter, demonstrating his fast draw, speed shooting, and accuracy on aerial targets like cans, shotgun clays, and quarter-sized lead discs. As the crowds grew, so did the complexity of Ed McGivern's legendary trick shots.
Some of Ed McGivern's most notable pistol trick shooting feats included hitting two targets with two revolvers simultaneously, shooting through the .5” center hole of a washer thrown in the air, shooting dimes on the fly, driving a tack or nail into wood with a bullet, and splitting playing cards that had been tossed into the air edge on.
Most of these fancy revolver tricks were accomplished with one or two of Ed McGivern’s factory Smith & Wesson double action wheel guns. The two Ed McGivern guns for sale at Rock Island Auction Company were shipped to the famous marksman shortly after his popular book, 'Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting,' was first published in 1938.
The first Ed McGivern revolver for sale is a Smith & Wesson .357 Registered Magnum, registration number 2902. The revolver was shipped on May 25, 1938, and delivered to Ed McGivern in Lewistown, Montana. The factory letter states that the revolver “was authorized as a ‘no charge’ shipment by D.B. Wesson and marked for fast double action shooting.” By 1938, Ed McGivern had developed a close friendship with Douglas Wesson, Smith & Wesson's then-vice-president. McGivern was instrumental in helping Wesson advertise the Magnum revolver and market the .357 to law enforcement.
The Smith & Wesson order form and invoice confirm the revolver's configuration as listed in the factory letter and its delivery to Ed McGivern, and the revolver was among the firearms listed after his death. The Registered Magnum’s hammer spur is offset on the right side, one of the alterations Ed McGivern is known to have performed on many of his Smith & Wesson revolvers and provides further confirmation of McGivern’s ownership and usage.
This Registered Magnum was displayed at the 2015 NRA Annual Meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, along with other Ed McGivern-owned ephemera. The gun is pictured on page 45 of ‘Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting’ and an autographed copy of McGivern’s book is included with the lot.
The second fantastic Ed McGivern gun for sale is one of only 96 K-32 Hand Ejector Target revolvers manufactured by Smith & Wesson from 1936 to 1941. These rare revolvers are found in the 653388 through 682207 serial number range and are built on Smith & Wesson’s square butt K target frame with five screws and pinned 6 inch round barrels. After WW2 this model became part of the K-22/K-32/K-38 Masterpiece series of target revolvers.
The factory letter and Smith & Wesson invoice included with Ed McGivern’s K-32 Hand Ejector Target revolver confirm the gun’s 6 inch barrel, McGivern gold bead front sight, humpback hammer, and checkered walnut grips. The letter also states the revolver was shipped to Ed McGivern on May 10, 1939. This gun was displayed at the Smith & Wesson Collectors Association Annual Meeting in Orlando, Florida, in June 2011.
Ed McGivern experimented with numerous iron sight styles throughout his shooting career. His preference was a type of iron sight with a small diameter rear aperture and a black post with a domed-gold bead for the front. Both Ed McGivern guns for sale at Rock Island Auction Company feature examples of this unique sight. The 1952 Smith & Wesson Centennial Catalog describes the McGivern sight as follows: “This is another dual-purpose sight different from the Call design in that the bead is a half sphere of gold which protrudes from the rear face of the Patridge blade.”
The Centennial Catalog goes on to state, “The advantage of the McGivern bead lies in the fact that its globular shape will pick up skylight from practically any angle and reflect it back to the eye of the shooter. Its originator, Ed McGivern, the famous speed and exhibition shooter from Great Falls, Montana, holds this sight to be the best possible for aerial work, or where targets are dark colored and not clearly lighted.”
Needless to say, Ed McGivern set numerous records for fast and fancy revolver shooting, including achieving a world record for “the greatest rapid-fire feat” on September 13, 1932, in Lewistown, Montana, performing five shots in 2/5 of a second. This record still stands today.
Ed McGivern demonstrated that shooting with both extreme accuracy and speed was possible, an ideal combination in close-up self-defense situations that relied on instinctive reflex. In ‘Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting’ Ed McGivern wrote that with sufficient practice “the subconscious mind can, will, and does make corrections instantly or within a very few hundredths of a second, while the gun and target are moving, and in plenty of time to score hits.”
With age and arthritis catching up to him, Ed McGivern turned his attention to training police officers, federal agents, and servicemen, and he was called to testify in at least 37 trials as a firearms and ballistics expert. In addition to his famous book, McGivern also wrote numerous articles for outdoors and shooting magazines of his era and collaborated with Douglas Wesson on ‘Burning Powder,’ a 1938 booklet offering detailed instruction on revolver shooting and handgun hunting.
Elmer Keith called Ed McGivern “the fastest and finest double-action revolver shot that ever lived and probably ever will.” Though shooting has evolved in the decades after his death in 1957, McGivern’s advice on trigger control, holsters, sight alignment, proper grip, and shooting fundamentals are still more than relevant for today’s handgunner.
Ed McGivern’s name continues to rank high in the pantheon of renowned exhibition shooters, with some of his handguns proudly displayed at the National Firearms Museum. In 2001, Smith & Wesson offered a Performance Center Heritage Series Model 15-9 revolver in .38 Special commemorating the legacy of Ed McGivern. While these commemoratives are gorgeous revolvers, there’s nothing like owning one of the legendary trick shooters’ real-life wheel guns, true treasures in arms collecting that are a rare opportunity for the most dedicated arms collectors, Smith & Wesson fans, and students of firearms history.
Subscribe to the Rock Island Auction newsletter for weekly gun blogs and gun videos that detail the stories of some of the most famous shooting legends in history, including Annie Oakley, Buck Taylor, Al Freeland, Ira Paine, and Tom Knapp. We also cover the history of the sixgun in full, exploring topics like the development of the double action revolver, the history of Smith & Wesson, the evolution of the snub nose, and the rise of the iconic Single Action Army, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.
Anyone thinking about dipping their toe into the world of firearms collecting should visit one of Rock Island Auction Company’s Sporting & Collector
I trust that this was a typo, on your part, and not what the 1952 S&W catalog really says... he 1952 Smith & Wesson Centennial Catalog describes the McGivern sight as follows: “This is another dual-purpose sight different from the Call design in that the bead is a half sphere of gold which protrudes from the rear face of the Partridge blade.” It is Patridge, named for E. E. Patridge - Not the bird with a similar name. Sorry, couldn't resist.
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