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John Linebaugh Interview

Meet the Inventor of the Sharps Rifle that Fits in Your Pocket

Photos by Pam Nelson

In the 1980s, John Linebaugh’s life changed. With a new Chevy truck that he bought off the lot, Linebaugh — thanks to a series of articles about his inventions, including a Guns & Ammo cover in 1986 — would finally be able to transition from working odd jobs around the small town of Cody, Wyoming, to turn his passion for ammunition and firearms design into a full-time career.

Despite his lack of professional training, he gave many legacy firearms and ammunition companies a run for their money, when he came out with his first big-bore cartridge, the .500 Linebaugh, chambered for not in a rifle, but a cowboy-style revolver. This cartridge, and its smaller sibling the .475 Linebaugh, would both change and inspire the sport of handgun hunting forever. Linebaugh’s firearms took the .44 magnum, made famous by Dirty Harry, and increased the caliber 25 percent. In his words, he put a “Sharps rifle in your pocket.” And while other big-bore revolvers might weigh over 80 ounces, Linebaugh’s comes in at half that. The cartridges, which bear his name, have been tested on every type of target, from steel to elephants and even serve as an everyday-carry gun for some of his friends.

KROGER CRAPS ON THE SECOND AMENDMENT! READ THE FULL STORY HERE.

According to Linebaugh, there are only four gunmakers still alive in the United States: David Clements, John Gallagher, Hamilton Bowen, and John Linebaugh. Until recently of course, there was also the late Dick Casull.

This interview isn’t just a look at a big-bore revolver legend; it’s also very personal to me. John and I have been friends for several years so when we sat down with some whiskey, we started with how our story began. Four years ago, I contacted John about appearing as a talking head on the Outdoor Channel show, Gun Stories with Joe Mantegna. The episode was on big-bore hunting revolvers and if the film crew was coming out to Cody, then they needed to interview John …

Above: Video documentary crew in the mouth of the Clarks Fork Canyon near John’s home, where Chief Joseph made his escape from the U.S. Cavalry and his desperate run to the Canadian border in 1878.

RECOIL: If I remember correctly, when I called you originally, you said you didn’t have cable or a computer.
John Linebaugh: I still don’t.

So have you ever seen your episode? 
JL: I have tapes of it. It came out incredibly good. You know Michael [Bane] sat right next to the camera, and he was like a coach on a football line. Stop. Look back. And he’s coaching me, and he kept mouthing — and this really messed with me — he said, “This is good sh*t.” I’ve never asked him though whether he was encouraging me, and it was all bull crap, or if he really meant it.

That’s Michael’s enthusiastic style, and he meant it. Since then, have you changed your management/business style, since you have been on the show?
JL: I just take it for granted that this is a way to reach the public. But no, no.

Have you gotten more orders?
JL: I’m turning stuff down.

Did you grow up around guns?
JL: We weren’t allowed to have guns. I grew up in a gun-free home. There was a shooting accident when my dad was in school — a child lost his eye with a BB gun and grandma said no guns.

I’m sorry, but the comparison to A Christmas Story is eerie here …
JL: They did the worst thing in the world — they took guns away from me. They told me we couldn’t have them, so we built them. We did whatever a kid does. You find a piece of pipe, put a firecracker in it and a marble, and you shot it through a neighbor’s window or something.

Did you learn nothing of the eye-poking incident?
JL: My parents learned that they can’t stop determination.

And you moved to Wyoming from Missouri. Why did you come here?
JL: Cody was the very last choice I had. Of all places, I said, “I’m not going to go to Cody. It’s a tourist trap.” I didn’t know that, I just felt it. I came in here on a Friday night, out of gas, out of money, and I had a job Saturday morning.

John’s personal cased set with one-of-a-kinds African with ivory and Alaskan with Bighorn sheep horn models in .475 and .500 Linebaugh, with Jerry Halfrich custom knives in Marvin Huey box.

What was the job?
JL: I worked for Speed Spiegelberg pouring concrete. Speed was also a big-time hunter and outfitter. He’s long gone now. I also worked for Hoodoo Ranch, cowboying. But I was in the concrete industry for about 10 years. I drove a concrete truck all day and built guns at night for five of those years.

So explain a little bit more about how you got started. 
JL: I had zero machine tool knowledge, experience, or hands-on anything. Until I was 17 years old, the most expensive, exotic tool I ever saw in my life was an electric drill. So when we came up with the concept of ballistic advantage, we had to build a bigger mousetrap. And we never built this under the pretense that we would go into business. This is one reason some of my customers like me so much — some of my customers became really close friends — and they say, “You didn’t design this to make money; you didn’t design this to become famous. You simply personally wanted a faster car, a bigger truck, a better horse, and a bigger gun.”

And that’s what we did. In the mid 1980s, we were it. The .454 Casull and Freedom Arms were just tooling up to make guns, and in the mid 1980s, a lot of states started legalizing handgun hunting. Wyoming had public hearings, where we would go out to Fish and Game and testify our thoughts, concerns, beliefs — what we knew. And they did legalize it. They set up an expert panel to say you could use this, this, and this. The .454 Casull was legalized, but it wasn’t in production. We couldn’t buy a .454, so we made our own.

John’s high-tech flip phone — his constantly used, but only contact with the outside world — at his favorite table at the Proud Cut Saloon in Cody.

To a lot of people, we built a car that won the Indy. Couldn’t buy one, couldn’t get Richard Petty to build us one — we just built it on our own. When we started this concept, I had dozens of friends in the gun industry. When we got our first article in Guns & Ammo, they shut me off. They would not talk to me no more. I lost a few friends overnight. But I look at it like this, we were kind of the kid down the block in the little town building hot rods and everyone thought it was really cute — that Little John had this car that would go 100 mph. Then one day, we won the Indy 500 and got on the front page of the newspaper.

They were scared to death of us. They would say, “He has no tested data. He has no backing. He’s never been to SAAMI. This guy is a loose cannon. He’s going to kill somebody.” In later years, we got the pressure barrel. We got the testing. We got the SAAMI equipment. We got everything the industry had, and it all proved out, just as we had estimated and figured out mathematically, using other ballistic experts’ methods and data. After the industry found out we were on the right track, we were driving safely. We did understand horsepower. We did understand internal ballistics, and we got so much press — they kinda jumped on the bandwagon and said, let’s ride. We are on top of the wave.


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What year was the Guns & Ammo piece?
JL: We had our first article in 1984 with Guns & Ammo. In 1986, the .500 Linebaugh had the front cover of Guns & Ammo magazine, and it turned our lives upside down. In 1988, we introduced the .475 Linebaugh. We have had three or four front covers on magazines. We’ve been incredibly blessed.

Guns & Ammo August 1986, with author Ross Seyfried, that introduced the .500 Linebaugh cartridge and revolver. The first successful 500-caliber revolver in the world.

How did you get to that point? 
JL: We started with the .45 Colt. We built a stronger gun around it, so we could increase pressures, torque, and rpm. We built a stronger motor in the same cubic inches. Then, we got the idea for the .500 from a small gun shop in Utah. These guys were so unorthodox, they never got any attention. They built one gun. I never saw it; they wouldn’t talk about it, but it planted a seed. I got some cases and cut ’em off. I reamed ’em. I blew ’em out, expanded them, checked them, made some artificial bullets, and they worked perfectly. I examined dozens of factory guns and was given an old SAAMI manual. By looking at all this stuff, I knew I could go X amount of thousandths over cartridge, and it would give me allowable tolerances. We had no load data — no idea where to start. And I vaguely remember the first gun that we built. I worked on it for three to four days; it was an old Seville [revolver], and the recoil was so outlandish it would cut you.

Right: Stainless custom Bisley with 5-inch octagon barrel and ebony grips.

And I sent it to Ross Seyfried, a combat shooter and editor at Guns & Ammo, and he said, “You’re right, it’s too much gun. How about a Bisley?” I was unaware Ruger was making a Bisley model. Then, I said, “We are doing this safely, so how about the cover of Guns & Ammo?” He said, “You’re asking a lot, guy.” I said, “It beats a Glock.” He called Bob Peterson, who owned Guns & Ammo, Thomas Saotis, and Red Bell. He called me at 7 a.m. the next morning and said, “You’ve got the front cover. You have three weeks to put this in our hands or you lose your window of opportunity.”

So what happened next?
JL: We had no gun; we had no barrel. We had a drill press and a file. Three days later, I called my guy who was mailing me equipment and parts in Colorado and I said, “Did you send the stuff I need?” He says, “Yeah, I mailed it.” I live 40 miles from town. So I called the post office in Cody and asked if he had the boxes. The guy says, “Yeah, it’s been here for two days.” It was 4:35 p.m., and I said, “Don’t lock the door.” I drove 40 miles to Cody in 24 minutes and brought this stuff home. Then, we found out we had a bad barrel — we had the wrong barrel. Hamilton Bowen graciously supplied a new barrel blank. We shot and tested it for two to three days. I sent it to Seyfried, and they snuck it into the NRA Show in New Orleans. He called and said, “Look, we had a leak. The information leaked, and it’s on the floor. If there’s something you want to do with your life, do it right now. Because once this is published, it’s going to change everything.” It turned us upside down. We had no equipment. We had no knowledge. We had no financial backing. We had no capital. And these orders start roaring in. I went from nothing to 66 orders in three months.

Is everything custom?
JL: Totally. We build everything but the main frame and a couple internal parts.

OK, so I’m going to shift gears and talk about the Linebaugh Big Bore shoot that’s in Cody every year. And I have three words for you: Why lawn chairs?
JL: We are just getting comfortable. I mean, do you stand up and drink Gentleman Jack?

I mean I can …
JL: It’s therapy. A lot of these people that come to my shoot, they have to drive 100 miles just to shoot my gun, and they do so under extremely rigid conditions. Nothing beats a good lawn chair. Eight years ago, I was on the table for open-heart surgery in March. In June, I was in my lawn chair, with the .500, banging the buffalo targets at 1,000 yards and the best cigar in the world sticking out of my mouth.

Tell me more about the shoot.
JL: It’s been going on 19 years. We started it in 2000. I resigned my position two years ago, and I said if you want to run it, I’ll be there. I just couldn’t do it all. And we usually get about 40 repeat offenders.

Grandsons Cory Linebaugh and Ty Linebaugh, son Dustin Linebaugh, and John at the Big Bore Shoot in Cody 2017.

OK, so the last thing I want to talk about is Dick Casull, inventor of the .454 Casull. He recently passed away; you knew him well. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with him?
JL: I corresponded with Dick Casull early on. And it’s amazing as I read more history, that what he was doing — when I was in diapers in 1955 — was things I tried to duplicate in 1983-’85. I doubt if the readership will know about the Shootist group. It’s been going on for 30 years. I was one of the original six members. John Taffin started it, and there were five others of us. It’s held every year in Raton, New Mexico, at the Whittington Center, and that’s where I met Dick Casull.

He was an incredibly kind person. I asked him a lot of questions. And about the third phone call, he did me the greatest favor in the world. He said, “Get a keg of powder, burn it up, blow it up, build another one, and start over and don’t ever call me back.” So in other words, I said, “Daddy, hold my bicycle.” And he said, “You’re on your own … peddle.” I was with him a year ago before he passed, and I told him that and he laughed. And I said, “You made me grow up. You made me step on out the ice. You made me fly.”

Grandsons Cory Linebaugh and Ty Linebaugh, son Dustin Linebaugh, and John at the Big Bore Shoot in Cody 2017.

John Linebaugh

Ashley and John with Linebaugh/Huey cased set currently on display in the Cody Firearms Museum and a No. 5 Linebaugh.

Born: 1955
Hometown: Pickering, MO
He has no computer or cable.
His cartridge, the .475, was adopted by SAAMI.
Favorite movie: Lonesome Dove
Carry gun: 1911; if I’m in the hills, I carry a .500.
Favorite color: Midnight Metallic Blue — the color of his Chevy that he bought in 1986, the year his life changed.
URL: www.johnlinebaughcustomsixguns.com


EDC: Old Case XX folded pocket knife, checkbook and cash, keys, 1911 Colt .45 with Black Talons with extra magazine, Belt P cartridge slide, old pancake holster

 


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