Recollections of a Combat Master

  • Elden Carl

The Historical Record: Elden Carl and the .44 Magnum

By Jay Hohenhaus, Historian

After looking through my collection of old gun magazines and books for any information regarding Elden Carl's involvement with the S&W Model 29 .44 Magnum and .44 Special, I found six items of interest and also developed a theory.

Item 1. An article from an unknown gun publication circa 1962, which described a combat match held by the Bear Valley Gunslingers, was sent to me as an unmarked xerox copy from another student of firearms history. I named it “The Mystery Article, the One About a Turkey Shoot.” (As we were ready to post my article, one of our readers helped me identify the source publication of this mystery article!)

Item 2. Within the expansive files of small arms historian Craig Smith is an article from Elmer Keith’s “Gun Notes” column, found on page 64 of the December 1962 issue of Guns & Ammo magazine, called “A Step in the Right Direction.”

Item 3. In Gun World magazine (May 1963) there is an article found in “The Firing Line” column with Duke Roberts, Rangemaster called “More Bore.”

Item 4. In Guns & Ammo magazine (September 1963, pages 32-35 and 67-70) there is an article by LtCol Jeff Cooper entitled, “Is There an Ideal Combat Sidearm? The Police Pistol.” I will refer to this article as “The .44 Special Squad.”

Item 5. A letter dated March 14, 1966 from San Diego Sheriff Joseph O'Connor and his Rangemaster Elden Carl Jr. to the Chief of Police in San Buenaventura, California in response to a question of suitability of the government Model 1911 for police service. The letter was reproduced in Professor Allen P. Bristow's The Search for an Effective Police Handgun on page 166-167. I will refer to this item as “Advice from the Sheriff and his Rangemaster.”

Item 6. In the March/April 1987 issue of American Handgunner I found an article titled “Conversation with a Champion” (pages 28-30 and 65-69) in which LtCol Jeff Cooper is interviewed by Jon Winokur. The relevant part of this article will be referred to as “A Revolver for Sheriff O'Connor, the One That Jeff Cooper Liked.”

The theory I will develop can be called “The Dirty Harry Connection.” Is there a relationship between the movie character Dirty Harry Callahan and a California police officer by the name of Elden Carl?

The Mystery Article, the One About a Turkey Shoot

As I've mentioned, this article from the early days of combat pistol competition was sent to me by a fellow enthusiast and came with no identifying marks. The title of the article is “Turkey Shoot: Combat Style” and is credited to T. L. Bish. Thanks to reader Jim Higginbotham who identified T. L. Bish as writing for Gun World Magazine, we searched for and found this article in Gun World Magazine, February 1963, Pages 18-21. Because we originally did not know which magazine published it, the only reference to a date was the “1962” shown in a picture of the Norman Pardee Trophy belt buckle. In 1962 the belt buckle went to Elden Carl, who was that year's Bear Valley Gunslingers' annual champion.

The article reports on a match held by the seven year old Bear Valley Gunslingers combat pistol club, and the “Turkey” refers to the frozen turkeys awarded as prizes at the match. It is well illustrated and is a time capsule of equipment and techniques. Jeff Cooper is seen firing his stock government Model 1911 on a B-21 silhouette using one-handed point from his Hardy-Cooper shoulder holster. Another photo shows John Plahn, Ray Chapman, Jack Weaver and Elden Carl. The match evidently emphasized weak hand skills because most are wearing cross-draw holsters. Jack Weaver has rotated his low-slung K-38 into cross-draw, low on his left hip. Elden is carrying his S&W Model 19 in a cross-draw rig and has a unique ammunition holder that suspends an actual factory box of cartridges on his gun belt from the one to two o'clock position.

There is still an old west flair to this early combat match. The influence of western style quick-draw competition can still be seen in the competitors' garb. Pistols are a mixture of stock 1911's, double action revolvers and single action Army's. Besides the hint of the Old West in clothing and pistols, the roots of Jeff Cooper's Modern Technique of the Pistol can be seen as well. The “Double Tap” is vaguely mentioned as a “British theory of scoring.” This was a reference to the then still classified British Commando Training Manual (Fairbairne/Sykes), which LtCol Cooper would have had access to from his days at Quantico developing the Advanced Military Combat Course. Also seen is a primitive version of Cooper's El Presidente Drill and a primitive revolver speed loader, the Hunt Multi-Loader.

Within the article is the following information about the Model 29 .44 Special/.44 Magnum: “The course utilized at the Fall Turkey Shoot is one that has long been used by the El Cajon (Calif) Police Department as part of its training. This department patrols a vast area five miles east of San Diego, and is one of the few in the nation today that has adopted the Heavy Service Revolver in .44 S&W Special caliber as a duty side arm. All ammunition carried by this department is hand loaded with a 250 grain Keith bullet to hit along at about 1000 feet per second. Special magnum loads are carried in ammo pouches by all officers while on duty.”

Note: The .44 Special was an optional sidearm at El Cajon Police Department for only those who could qualify with it. Most officers used the .38 Special. One drop pouch of .44 Special loads was carried as well as another of .44 Magnum loads for emergency situations, as when an armed perpetrator was behind hard cover. The duty projectiles were 240 grain, not 250, Keith type semi-wadcutters. The El Cajon P.D. patrolled a small city approximately 15 miles east of San Diego.

A Step in the Right Direction

“The Police Dept. of El Cajon, Calif., located some five miles east of San Diego and headed by Chief Joseph O'Connor has had amendments drawn up to their Police Manual permitting optional use of the .44 Special as a police weapon with either factory loads or Department hand loads of Keith 250 grain bullets at 970 fps. Heavy loads may be carried in the belt for emergency use. This department has 43 officers and the town has a population of some 40,000. This change from the pip squeak .38 Special for all officers was brought about by Officers Gerald Herndon and Elden Carl, assisted by this magazine, and Jeff Cooper.

“Each year I receive a great many factual accounts of gun fights between officers and criminals where the little .38 Special was used and failed to stop the criminal. In many cases officers lost their lives solely through the use of an inadequate gun and load. If all police departments in this country were to emulate El Cajon and train their officers thoroughly in combat firing, we would not lose a fraction of the good police officers we now do annually.

“For many years I have recommended .44 and .45 Caliber weapons for all police personnel or sheriff's offices. The smallest gun and load I will recommend is the .357 Magnum, with full powered loads. The best present load being the new Norma soft point. Even then the 250 grain Keith bullet in the .44 Special offers the same penetration and about double the actual knock down effect. It's high time all law enforcement agencies in this country adopted regulations permitting the optional carrying of .44 caliber weapons. My personal choice for all peace officers is the .44 Magnum 4 or 5-inch Smith & Wesson.”

More Bore

In Gun World magazine (May 1963) there is mention of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department and its use of the .44 Magnum. The following is from the “The Firing Line” column with Duke Roberts, Rangemaster called “More Bore”:

“In January, the new sheriff of San Diego County Joe Connors [SIC], took office and since has endorsed the .44 Special as a police weapon. He is not alone in his thoughts as many other departments are doing the same thing. The Palos Verdes (Calif.) department has carried this gun for a long time.More and more mention still is being given to the .41 as a better and more effective weapon for police use by many people. Without doubt, there is bee hive action toward a better weapon for law enforcement.”

The .44 Special Squad

There is not much in “Is There an Ideal Combat Sidearm? The Police Pistol” about .44's. LtCol Cooper goes through his standard recitation of action types, cartridges, and explanation of the Hatcher index of stopping power. What is informative are the illustrations which show a group of El Cajon Police Department officers on the range with S&W Model 29's, a group I call the .44 Special Squad and they include Elden Carl, George Cretton, Ted Provost, William J. “Billy” Cox and Jim Fields.

William J "Billy" Cox

El Cajon Police Department Officer William J. Cox and his police dog Lobo, circa 1966-67. Prominent is Officer Cox's Smith & Wesson Model 29 with a six inch barrel. Courtesy the William J. Cox Collection.

There is one photo of Elden with the caption, “Officer Eldon Carl demonstrates two-handed hold. S&W .44 Magnum is caught at top of recoil. Note Carl's eyes are still on target.”

Another picture is captioned: “Left to Right: Ted Provost, Eldon Carl, Jim Fields and George Cretton of the El Cajon, California Police Force demonstrate the “Weaver Stance,” with two-handed hold; basic standup quick draw stance; FBI Crouch, and the “Cooper Speed Kneeling” positions. These weapons are all .44 Magnum S&W revolvers with 6 ½ inch barrels. El Cajon officers are permitted to use the .44 special as their Official Duty cartridge.”

A third photo is described: “From left to right, Officers of the El Cajon. California Police Force, Eldon Carl, George Cretton, Jim Fields, Ted Provost, and Billy Cox demonstrate variations on the widely used FBI Crouch. These are .44 Special loads being used and note that Officer Carl's weapon is caught at the precise moment of recoil during the firing while all the rest have been returned to battery for the next sequence.”

In the body of the article, Cooper does make one comment on the .44's suitability for law enforcement use: “I do not include the .44 Magnum, which is a splendid cartridge but not for police work. It is much too hard to use well for the ordinary man, and its penetration is something fierce. Loaded light of course, it's just fine. .44/240/1000 is about perfect and is equally available from a .44 Special loaded up or a .44 Magnum loaded down.” This sounds like Dirty Harry's “Light, Special Load” from the movie Magnum Force, but we'll get to that later.

I have been able to contact George Cretton and William J. “Billy” Cox, two other members of my “.44 Special Squad.” George Cretton remembers Elden Carl hand loading the .44 Special ammunition that he carried: “I carried his reloads in my service weapon.” Both Star Machine Works and Hensley and Gibbs were located in San Diego. Elden leveraged both of these hometown companies, plus a world class supply of automotive wheel weights in his shooting program. Star manufactured the early progressive reloading machine and bullet sizer/lubricator, and Hensley and Gibbs' manufactured multiple cavity bullet molds.

As to how many El Cajon officers opted for the .44 Special, Cretton recalled: “I seem to recall the numbers were more the exception than the rule. I believe that was due in part to the expense of the weapon, which officers paid for and/or the ability of the officer to wield such a handgun. As Mr. Cooper explains [“Is There an Ideal Combat Sidearm? The Police Pistol”], the .44 was a handful and not easily mastered. I think it's safe to say, as Mr. Cooper suggests, most officers viewed their sidearm as a necessary tool of the trade and much less research and understanding of the technical aspects described in this article were known or solicited by the officers carrying them on a daily basis. Jim Fields worked most of his career in traffic enforcement and retired from El Cajon PD. Billy Cox was hired before me, eventually left for LAPD where he ended up in an administrative position, working out of the Chief's Office. He set academic records in three of the five LAPD Academy subject areas and while there he attended law school, later becoming a prosecutor for Los Angeles County. He's retired now, living in Long Beach, CA. He was one of about 13 of us who all became attorneys during my tenure at El Cajon PD.”

George Cretton retired from El Cajon PD as a Lieutenant and went on to a second career as a lawyer. He is now retired from that career.

William J. “Billy” Cox took time away from writing his latest book to answer my questions about his time with El Cajon PD and the use of the .44 Special. He recalls: “Not many officers used the .44 as an alternate to the .38, just because the Model 29 was unavailable during that time period.” Cox used a Model 29 with a 6½ inch barrel. His holster was made in San Diego by Triple K Manufacturing, the “Elden Carl Signature Model,” which was a forward cant, steel shanked holster, designed by Elden Carl. He later sold his Model 29 around the time of his transfer to the Los Angeles Police Department.

Triple K Elden Carl Holsters

A page from the 1971 catalog published by the Triple K Manufacturing Company of San Diego. One of their hand crafted leather items was the Elden Carl Signature Model Holster. Designed by Elden, this model featured the 12 degree forward rake he popularized in combat competition. In addition to Triple K, Don Hume Leathergoods also built holsters with a forward rake, which were popular with the El Cajon PD officers who carried Model 29's like

Elden Carl, George Cretton and William Cox.

Advice from the Sheriff and His Rangemaster

March 14, 1966

Mr. David Patrick Geary

Chief of Police

City of San Buenaventura

52 South Garden Street

Ventura, California 93001

March 14, 1966

Mr. David Patrick Geary

Chief of Police

City of San Buenaventura

52 South Garden Street

Ventura, California 93001

Dear Chief Geary,

In response to your letter of February 18, 1966, I can only say that we did lots of research on police handguns, and managed to come up with a paradox: the .38 Special revolver does not do a proper job, but the average police pistol shooter is unable to be effectively accurate with a gun that will do a proper job.

Recoil control is a major problem in combat pistol shooting as are the psychological factors which cause a man to flinch or jerk his shots. The greater the recoil and blast the more severe the tendency to flinch.

We came to the conclusion in our office that if a man could shoot a heavy caliber gun he could carry it. Either the .38 Special or the .44 Special is considered uniform for the San Diego Sheriff's office, but a man must qualify with his duty gun.

In my opinion based on several years of combat pistol competition, the .45 government automatic is the best combat handgun in the world, but it has one major drawback which makes it unacceptable for police service, that being the safety factor. If you carry it cocked and locked with a round in the chamber it is as fast as any revolver on the draw and faster in its rate of fire at close range. The problem comes in having a relatively inexperienced shooter handling a cocked automatic pistol. I'm sure the accidental discharge rate would rise rapidly (as might injuries). The services have had lots of trouble with accidental discharges, and they don't allow their men to carry a round in the chamber.

That brings up another point. If the .45 auto is carried with the chamber empty it would take much longer to get into action than a double-action revolver since the slide would have to be activated and a round fed before the gun could be fired. Obviously a man with a double-action could get off two or three rounds in that period of time.

In conclusion, I can only say that the double-action revolver is still the best handgun for police service, but the big bores are harder to shoot than the .38 Special. I would say if a man can shoot a big gun, and you wish to authorize an alternate duty weapon, the .44 or .41 would do fine. If in doubt I would rather have a man on my side who can hit the target with a .38 than miss it with a .44 or.41.

If I can be of further assistance to you please feel free to contact or correspond with me.

Sincerely yours,

J.C. O'Connor, Sheriff, San Diego County

Elden R. Carl, Jr., Range Master

A Revolver for Sheriff O'Connor, the One Jeff Cooper Liked

In the American Handgunner March/April 1987 edition, there is an interview with LtCol Jeff Cooper conducted by Jon Winokur which is titled “Conversation With a Champion.” On page 29 Winokur asks Cooper, “You've long been a proponent of the large automatic for self-defense, but if you had to rely on a revolver, what would it be?”

Cooper responded: “A number of years ago we made a gun up for the San Diego Sheriff [Joseph O'Connor, San Diego Sheriff from 1963-1971], a dyed -in-the-wool revolver man who felt that anybody who would hold an automatic in his hand would spit on the flag. We found him one of the older models of the Smith .44 Special – the one on the big frame but without the rib [S&W Fourth Model Hand Ejector Model of 1950 Military .44 (Model 21)]. We gussied it all up, got it properly tuned and set-up with a five-inch barrel. Elden [Carl] worked over the action, built the Sheriff a set of custom stocks, and loaded him up a thousand rounds of 240's that left that five-inch barrel at just a hair under 900fps. That's as good a wheel gun as you're going to find for defensive purposes. If I were stuck with a revolver, I'd use that.”

Smith & Wesson Ad

As a tribute to newly elected San Diego County Sheriff J.C. O'Conner, a group of well wishers, including LtCol Jeff Cooper, contributed money to purchase a Model of 1950 Military .44 (Model 21) pictured here in a vintage advertisement. Elden spearheaded the project.

Since the only Model of 1950 available had a 61⁄2 inch barrel, the revolver was shipped to Smith&Wesson to have the barrel cut to the 4 inch size preferred by the sheriff. While at S&W, the 1/10 service type (half moon) front sight was replaced with a black Baughman Quick Draw ramp. The barrel was nickel plated and the rest of the pistol was finished in a polished bright blued. It was then engraved "Sheriff J.C. O'Conner.” Elden tuned the action and carved a set of custom stocks. A fitting sidearm for an accomplished Pistolero.

The Dirty Harry Connection

My Theory: Elden Carl was the inspiration for the “Dirty Harry Callahan” character's use of the Model 29.

Facts: The screenwriters of the Dirty Harry franchise movies (Rita Fink, Harry Fink and Terence Malick) have stated that the San Francisco detective Dave Toschi, who hunted the Zodiac Killer, was the inspiration for Harry Callahan, who in the movie Dirty Harry hunted the Scorpio Killer. Toschi, like Callahan, was known for his guns, in Toschi's case for carrying two revolvers, but he did not carry a .44 Magnum like Callahan. Toschi was also a socially refined guy, whereas Callahan was not, so those character features must have come from someone other than Toschi.

Screenwriter John Milius, who wrote most of the Dirty Harry script, claimed he based Harry Callahan on a policeman he knew who was a “take no prisoners” type, but has never cited the officer's name (Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer). This information accounts for the less refined behavior of the Callahan character. But where did the use of the Model 29 come from?

The Connection: Elden Carl's use of the Model 29 as a duty pistol while an officer at El Cajon Police Department was well documented in the firearms literature of the time. Screenwriter John Milius is a “gun guy” and was probably aware of this literature, but there is a more direct potential connection. My theory is that the connection to Elden is through Jeff Cooper, particularly through his writings.

Although I thought Milius might be aware of Cooper's writings, I could not prove it. My acquaintance Bob Dickerson, a self-described “old codger with a good memory,” suggested I look at the Writer's Commentary track on the Deluxe DVD edition of the movie Magnum Force. Sure enough, we have screenwriter John Milius describing how he became interested in the Model 29 “from a series of Jeff Cooper articles.” The question is...which articles?

I think I can put Cooper's article “Is There An Ideal Combat Sidearm? The Police Pistol” in Milius' hand. How? In the second movie of the Dirty Harry franchise, Magnum Force, there is a scene where Harry Callahan meets the “Vigilante Rookie Cops” on the shooting range. They ask Harry what ammunition he is carrying in his Model 29. He responds that he is carrying a “light Special load,” a line that has bothered firearms savvy movie goers for years, because the .44 Special is already a light load, and to further lighten it would make it inappropriate for defensive use. “Light Magnum” would have made more sense than “light Special.”

On the same Writer's Commentary track from Magnum Force we hear Milius explain how the line he wrote was actually “light Magnum load” and it was changed to “light Special” after he sold the script to the studio. Milius must have read “Is There An Ideal Combat Sidearm? The Police Pistol” by Cooper because the “light Magnum load” idea comes from this particular article.

How do I put Elden as the inspiration for Dirty Harry's use of the Model 29? Some of the photos used in Cooper's article show Elden Carl and four of his fellow officers demonstrating shooting positions using their .44 Magnum S&W revolvers with six and a half inch barrels. Short of a statement from John Milius that Elden was his inspiration, this is as close as I can get my theory. So it remains a theory.

We know from former Gunsite Operations Manager Bill Jeans that John Milius came to the facility for a tour in the early 1980's, coinciding with a Gunsite Alumni Shoot. “I gave tours to lots of folks, but he's the only legendary movie director involved,” Bill remembers. Milius arrived in Mike Dillon's (Dillon Precision) helicopter and Bill drove him around Gunsite in the school's Volkswagen VAP (a combination van and pickup), a vehicle known to the early generation of Gunsite students as the transporter between range and classroom.

Milius and his second wife Celia Kaye were students of Jeff Cooper and eventually they bought a parcel of land to the northwest of Gunsite with the intention of building (Gargantuan Gunsite Gossip, Vol. 1, page 69). A divorce interrupted those plans. The land was used with permission by Gunsite to conduct long range rifle training and was later sold to Gunsite's owner Buz Mills.

I don't know when LtCol Cooper and John Milius first became acquainted. I missed my chance to ask Jeff, or an even better source, Mrs. Cooper. We have lost both now. Jeff's daughter Lindy is unaware of the connection.

Anyone have any more information to add?

Contact me at

Historian's Note:

There is a reason we see two different spellings of Elden's name in publications. At some point during his time as Rangemaster at the San Diego Sheriff's Department, he dropped the Junior from his name and used the “Eldon” spelling. Upon his Dad's passing in 1968 he went back to “Elden Carl” and dropped the Junior altogether. Thell Reed also dropped the Junior from his name at his father's death.

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