Colt Single Action Army

By MSW Add a Comment 20 Min Read


Photographs of cowboys from the Old West proudly showing off their Colt hardware.

Colt Single Action Army, serial No 5773 7th Cavalry issued.

The Peacemaker

Produced: 1873–1941 (Gen 1), 1956–1974 (Gen 2), 1976–present (Gen 3)

The gunfight at the O.K. Corral never actually occurred at the Old Kindersley Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. It really happened off Fremont Street in an alley adjacent to an open lot that abutted the rear of the corral. Hollywood and dime novels would have us believe there was a meeting at high noon; white hat heroes against black hat villains. The core of the gunfight was keeping the peace, and the “Peacemaker” was one of the common names used for the Colt Model P.

The fight was between two groups of men who detested each other. On one side were the outlaws and on the other the lawmen. As years passed facts surrounding the gunfight have taken on a subjective patina. The lawmen were of course the Earp brothers—Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan—who made a living running saloons and gaming tables among other business endeavors. They were also lawmen in towns that sprung up in the west that are best described as in between the edge of civilization and pure wilderness. Doc Holliday was with the Earps that day, and Holliday was known more as a gambler than a dentist. The outlaws were cowboys who smuggled cattle and stole horses—rustlers by any other name. Their names were Billy Clanton and brothers Tom and Frank McLaury. Threats were made and there were pistol whippings the morning of the gunfight. The cowboys were carrying firearms, but a city ordinance prohibited possession of weapons in town. Virgil Earp, a Deputy US Marshal, decided to disarm the cowboys to keep the peace. When the two groups met at about 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, two shots were fired. No one really knows who fired first. In thirty seconds it was over. Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers were killed. Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded. Pried from Billy’s still warm dead hand was a Colt Single Action Army (SAA). Frank McLaury carried a similar Colt. A Colt SAA owned by Wyatt was auctioned in 2014 and fetched $225,000. It is not known if this Colt was used in the infamous gunfight. Today the gunfight is replayed every day; show times are held at noon, 2, and 3:30 p.m.

This legendary gunfight, like the Colt SAA, is part of the American fabric—as American as baseball, canned beer, pickup trucks, and apple pie. Deep down all Americans have a bit of cowboy or cowgirl in them. This is what makes this revolver so significant today though it was introduced in the late nineteenth century. When debuted it was innovative, and today it is a classic.

Samuel Colt was long in the cemetery when the 1873 first appeared. Colt, the man, had died in 1862. He had seen the tremendous success of his Walker revolver evolve into the success of 1852 Navy revolver and others. Colt was the consummate marketer and was quick to put a Colt revolver in the hands of people who held sway over the public’s perception as well as government coffers; everyone from sultans to sheriffs received gifts of revolvers from Colt. It was a well-known brand and still ranks as one of the more recognizable brands in the world.

In the late 1800s the cutting edge high-tech weapon development was the metallic cartridge. Smith & Wesson held the rights to produce revolvers with a bored through cylinder which were capable of accepting metallic cartridges. The patent was in the name of Rollin White. Colt, the company, did not want to pay royalties to their competitor, so they modified old percussion revolver designs to accept metallic cartridges and called these conversion revolvers. While Colt waited for the patent to expire—the United States government actually denied Rollin an extension of his patent—their engineers who had created the conversion revolvers—William Mason and Charles Richards, worked on a totally new revolver design with the endgame being a United States government contract. The service revolver trials of 1872 held by the military showed the new Colt design a rugged and reliable revolver and the Single Action Army (SAA) was adopted by the United States government and put into service in 1873.

The Colt SAA purchased by the government featured a 7.5-inch barrel and was chambered in .45 Long Colt (LC) or .45 Colt, which was a new round to go with the new revolver. It was a very potent cartridge at the time and helped establish the .45 caliber as America’s favorite pistol cartridge. The SAA, as its name states, is single-action. The hammer must be thumbed back and cocked to fire the revolver. The cylinder holds six rounds and is loaded via a loading gate on the right side of the pistol. The SAA was finished with a blued barrel, cylinder, and grip frame. The frame was case-hardened, which gave it a frothy mix of color. The Government model, also called the Cavalry model, had a smooth walnut grip. True Government models have the cartouche of government inspectors; the initials of David F. Clark, Orville Wood Ainsworth, or Henry Nettleton were stamped in the wood grip on the left side.

Collectors can instantly determine the generation of a Colt SAA. They may even hotly debate the actual number of Colt SAA generations, but it is generally agreed there are three. First Gen Colts were made from 1873–1941 and had a screw in the front of the frame to hold the cylinder or base pin in place. The screw could get lost and threads could loosen. Later generations used a spring-loaded base pin screw that is pressed to remove the base pin. A cylinder or base pin bushing eased operation with blackpowder loads. Original .45 LC cartridges were loaded with blackpowder, which leaves a residue that can quickly bind a cylinder and make the weapon unusable. The cylinder is beveled at the front to aid in holstering. Sights are fixed. The rear consists of a groove milled in the top of the frame and the front is a squared-off rounded blade. The rear sight is a V-shaped groove. Some inexpensive copies of Colt SAAs do not shoot to point of aim, thus requiring the front sight to be bent or filed down. Flat springs are used throughout the SAA. Bill Ruger in the 1950s reengineered the SAA using a cast frame and coil springs and called it the Blackhawk. Coil springs have a far longer, if not infinite, life compared with the flat springs.

The SAA is slow to load and unload, because as each cartridge is loaded into a chamber, the cylinder rotates and loading continues. To unload is just as tedious, as each empty cartridge case needs to be ejected separately. To load it the hammer is pulled back to half cock, which allows the operator to swing open the loading gate and rotate the cylinder. The SAA has an ejector rod attached to the right side of the barrel to help eject sticky cases especially after extended fire with blackpowder cartridges. The S&W Model 3 Schofield, a direct competitor to the SAA at the time, is a break-top revolver that quickly unloads empty cases in one step. It was also quicker to reload than the Colt, but in the end the Schofield fired a less powerful round and was more delicate than the SAA.

The Colt SAA was used during the American Indian Wars on both sides; Native Americans often picked up revolvers and other weapons from fallen soldiers. Colt’s major competitor at the time was Smith & Wesson. The Government purchased some Schofields and used both weapons. The Colt was soon the preferred weapon over the S&W. The Colt SAA served well in battle but by 1893 the Colt SAA was replaced by a newer Colt, the .38-caliber Colt M1892 Double Action Army Revolver with swing-out cylinder and double-action and single-action trigger. It was very similar to modern day revolvers. On paper it was cutting edge weaponry at the time, but in use the power from the .38 LC cartridge was anemic. During the three-month-long Spanish–American War, Teddy Roosevelt personally requested that Colt SAAs be taken out of mothballs for his Rough Riders. Between 1895 and 1906 the United States government had Springfield Armory in Massachusetts and the Colt factory in Connecticut rework over 16,000 Colt SAA Cavalry revolvers. The letter from the US Ordnance Department stated:

“It is intended to shorten the barrels of all the .45-caliber Colt’s revolvers on hand to a length of 5.5 inches [Cavalry models had 7-1/2-inch barrels] as provided for the 250 revolvers which you have been directed to prepare and issue to the batteries of light artillery. This alteration for the new revolvers (caliber .45) on hand can, it is thought, be done at the Armory, whilst those requiring renovation may be altered at the least expense to the Government by the Colt’s Arms Company at the same time with the work of renovation to be done under the contract of Aug. 20, 1895, with that company.”

This is how the reworked SAAs became known as Artillery models as the refurbished guns were to be issued to artillery troops. Some of these old SAAs had seen about twenty years of hard service during the Indian Wars while others were in storage and had never been used. The US Ordnance Department specified that Colt rework the used guns, and the guns in storage would be reworked by Springfield Armory. Original Artillery models, specifically those reworked by Springfield Armory have mismatched serial numbers as Springfield disassembled the guns and grouped similar parts together. No effort was made to keep serial numbered parts together and the government saved on the cost because of this practice.

Later in 1899 during the Philippine–American War, the SAAs saw additional service. Troops needed firepower to deal with Moro tribesmen. The Moros proved to be vicious fighters wielding spears and bolo knives who worked themselves up to such fervor that troops found the stopping power of the .45 LC was the only solution in hand-to-hand combat. After this second war and the repeated experience of the shortcomings of .38 LC, the US government embarked on finding a new caliber. The .45 ACP and 1911 pistol were not too far in the near future. By 1902 the Colt SAA was finally retired, but that is not to say the Colt SAA has not seen other wars. General George S. Patton carried an engraved and ivory handle Colt SAA during World War II in the European Theater.

For the civilian market Colt offered the SAA in various barrel lengths: 4.75, 5.5, and 7.5 inches were most common. Shorter-barreled models were known as the Sheriff’s Model, Storekeeper, or Banker’s Special.

Perhaps the most famous and oddest variant of the Colt SAA is the Buntline, a standard SAA revolver with a 12-inch barrel (or longer). As the tale about who invented and who used the Buntline has grown grander and more embellished over the years, decades, and centuries, so, too, has the length of the revolver’s barrel grown. Some Buntlines have barrels 16 or 18 inches in length. The Buntline is usually associated with Wyatt Earp due to a fictionalized biography of Earp written in 1931 by Stuart Lake and titled Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. Lake describes Earp using a long-barreled Buntline, but there is no direct evidence to support that Earp ever used or even owned a Buntline revolver. What is known or alleged is that a late nineteenth century dime novelist with the pseudonym of Ned Buntline had the revolvers specifically made and presented to famous lawmen at the time, and Earp is alleged to have received one of these long-barreled revolvers. Ned Buntline was actually the pen name of Edward Zane Carroll Judson, who wrote four dime novels, all about the exploits of Buffalo Bill.

The Colt Flattop Target model featured an adjustable rear sight and an interchangeable front sight blade. The top strap of the frame was flat, hence the name Flattop. Another variant also used for target shooting was the Bisley, named after a famous target range in Bisley, England. The Bisley is unique in that it had a long, bent grip and different hammer and trigger, making it better suited for the target shooting style of the late nineteenth century. The Colt Frontier Six-Shooter model (the civilian variant of the Military SAA) was chambered in .44-40 WCF, the same caliber Winchester debuted in the Model 1873 lever-action rifle. The round proved so popular with shooters and hunters, Colt was forced to chamber their SAA in the round. Cowboys of the day liked the convenience of using the same cartridge in their rifle and revolver. Today they are all generically called SAAs.

Colt purists and collectors know which generation had a rounded or a squared trigger guard as well as the numerous other characteristics that separate different generations. During World War II Colt ceased production of the SAA to build other weapons ordered by the government, namely the Colt 1911 semiautomatic pistol. Production resumed in 1956 ushering in the Second Gen Colt SAAs. In the 1950s westerns were a TV show staple—Have Gun – Will Travel, Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, Bonanza, Bret Maverick, and a herd of others. It was a good opportunity to sell SAA revolvers, and companies like Great Western Arms Company, which produced the first SAA clones from 1954–1964, and Sturm, Ruger and Company, which began manufacturing SAAs in .22 rimfire in 1953. SAAs from Germany and Belgium were also produced, but like Great Western Arms, they all rode off into the sunset. Today Colt and Ruger in the United States and Uberti and Pietta in Italy still produce SAA revolvers. The Italians probably have produced more SAAs than Colt ever did. During Colt’s Second Generation span the New Frontier was offered;—a SAA with a fully adjustable rear sight and ramp front sight. Ruger’s Blackhawk had similar sights on their revolvers, and many shooters liked the adjustable sights. Colt’s Third Gen began in 1976 and continues to this day. As the generations evolved Colt made slight modifications to the SAA design and in Third Gen guns changes—like a new cylinder bushing—were made to ease manufacturing and make it more cost effective. The cylinder bushing was subsequently changed back to the original style.

The SAA is a natural pointer. The balance is near perfect. No wonder trick shooters, exhibitionists, and fast draw shooters like the late Bob Munden can make the SAA sing and spin around their trigger fingers. Even B-movie western extras make it look easy to use the SAA. Thumb back the hammer and the Colt SAA has four distinct clicks. Music to some ears.

The Colt SAA is one of the most recognizable revolvers in the world. On one end of the spectrum the SAA is a cowboy’s tool. It is hard to find a pristine example of an early First Gen for the simple fact these revolvers were used day in and day out. On the other end of the spectrum, the SAA is a blank canvas for the engraver. Emigrants from Europe who worked in the Colt factory like Gustave Young, Louis Daniel Nimschke, Cuno Helfricht, and others created stunning and beautiful works of art out of the Colts. Cowboy Action Shooting in recent years has introduced the Colt SAA to many new shooters who dress up in period costume and plug away at steel and cardboard target desperadoes.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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