March 24, 2022
"God made man, Sam Colt made them equal." Few adages have stood the test of time such as this old West proverb. With this, few firearms can bring about such stories or can claim to be that which “won the West” over the Colt Single Action Army .45. Call it "big iron", "the Single Action Army", "the Colt .45", or the ever famous "Peacemaker", this handgun lives on in legend and lore. From the dusty trails, to the plains, the silver screen and riding in the holsters of lawmen, American troops and the lawless alike. With its roots in black powder, how does our beloved .45 Colt fair in modern times?
The .45 Colt has a record of stopping men dead in their tracks, from the fierce Moros in the Philippines to shootouts at high noon. So, let’s examine this 19th Century big-bore cartridge. The .45 Colt is a .45 caliber revolver cartridge with a 33mm long rimmed case and its roots in the black powder era of ammunition. It was developed in 1872 as a joint venture between the U.S. Army and Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company. The rimmed case was loaded with a .452-inch diameter lead projectile weighing from 230 to 255-grains. Charge weights of black powder ranged from 28 to a whopping 40 grains. Muzzle velocities of up to 1,050 fps were achieved. The .45 Colt cartridge was adopted in 1873 by the U.S. Army and would continue serving as the official military handgun cartridge for 14 years, and for some years even after it was replaced by the .38 Long Colt. During this time, other manufacturers developed handguns that chambered the .45 Colt, such as the popular Remington 1875, as well as cartridge conversions such as the Richards/Mason offerings on earlier black powder “cap and ball” revolvers.
The .45 Colt cartridge would unofficially take on the name .45 “Long” Colt by U.S. Army quartermasters as a way to differentiate between it and Smith and Wesson's shorter .45 Schofield cartridge also in service, and inventory. While a .45 Colt revolver would chamber and effectively fire the .45 Schofield cartridge, the opposite was not true. This created real problems when U.S. Cavalry units armed with .45 Schofield revolvers were resupplied with .45 Colt ammunition. Colt’s later .45 Caliber Model 1909 revolver would chamber a similar, but not identical cartridge. Then there was Colt’s .45 Caliber M1911 pistol with its own short rimless .45 caliber cartridge. This unofficial .45 “Long Colt” designation proved useful, as so many .45 caliber cartridges existed at this time. The "Long Colt" designation remains and is still widely used (and equally debated) even by Colt Mfg. and their current Generation Peacemaker.
While the .45 Colt had a short life in terms of official military use, the cartridge was widely popular among civilian sales. Numerous firearms were chambered for the .45 Colt and the cartridge was influential for future military cartridges (see the Thompson-Lagarde tests of 1904). This was due to the ineffectiveness of the anemic .38 Long Colt load during the Moro revolution of the Philippine-American war.
The weak .38 Long Colt chambered in the U.S. Army standard Colt Model 1892 revolver was simply ineffective at stopping the Moro warriors during their frontal charges on U.S. troops. Between the mind altering drugs and the makeshift body armor used (from resin and cloth wrapping), the .38 Long Colt simply lacked the needed penetration to vitals and would ultimately prove ineffective, even after numerous rounds on target. Reports of U.S. soldiers firing a full cylinder of .38 Long Colts into a Moro with no seeming effect, and then being hacked down while trying to reload soon reached the U.S. With this, Frankfort arsenal ramped up production of .45 Colt ammunition and the U.S. military brought the old .45-caliber 1873 Colt out of retirement, with great overall success. The .45 Colt’s added diameter, mass and penetration was the solution, providing substantially better terminal performance and stopping the Moros with much greater effectiveness.
Since then, many new and much more modern cartridge introductions have left the Indian War era .45 Colt long forgotten it seems. With modern smokeless powders, more can be accomplished with less real-estate (meaning lower case capacity and smaller cases), making for smaller handguns and higher capacity. Outside of cowboy action shooting, collecting and nostalgia, does the .45 Colt still have a place? In my opinion, yes! Many companies offer .45 Colt handguns, even outside of single-actions. Smith and Wesson offers the Model 25, a popular N-frame, much like the Model 29. Charter Arms offers a 3-inch "snub nose" 5-shot double-action that sparks my personal interest. Plus, revolvers chambered for .454 Casull and .460 Smith and Wesson can also fire the .45 Colt.
The .45 Colt also remains a viable option for medium game hunting as well. Wait, medium game? A 255-grain soft lead projectile at 710 feet per second barely breaks the 300 foot pounds of energy barrier! How can that be used for medium game effectively, much less large or dangerous game or bear repellent? The .45 Colt will "get you killed!"
With several people, this is an erroneous ideology. When it comes to the hunting field, the .45 Colt impressed even the famed English big-game hunter Sir Samuel Baker, a cartridge innovator himself. In 1881, while Baker was hunting the Big Horn mountain range of Wyoming, one of his guides killed a grizzly bear with a single shot from a .45 Colt revolver. The beast was shot between the shoulders, and the bullet passed through its heart. Baker was so impressed he bought one. Today, the .45 Colt isn't always viewed outside that of a mild mannered "cowboy load" and some fail to realize two things: first and foremost, modern bullet technology applies to the .45 Colt, likely better and more so than that of the .45 Auto.
Second, there is the matter of the sheer case capacity of the .45 Colt. Much like its big bore and magnum brethren, the Colt utilizes a 33mm case, allowing for the use of a stout load of magnum pistol powder. Load offerings such as "heavy", "outdoors" or "+P/+P+" variants from Underwood, Buffalo Bore, Double Tap or "magnum" hand loads will produce impressive velocities from over 250-grain projectiles and kinetic energy that meets or surpasses that of a standard .44 Magnum. With this spike in performance, recoil is much more manageable than that of a .44 or even .41 Magnum. The .45 Colt is also a low recoil option, offering acceptable and overall good terminal performance in terms of self-defense. The .45 Colt, from an all steel revolver, will offer superior ballistics, with a heavier projectile and better recoil mitigation than its .45 Auto counterpart. It makes for a superior overall option than that of the .38 Special from smaller framed revolvers.
In terms of accuracy, the .45 Colt gets great marks overall. From a Colt Single Action Army clone (Uberti Cattleman 1873), the 250-grain load shoots well. It is a very well-mannered cartridge, and easy to score solid hits with. For a more precise shot, it is hard to beat the Ruger Super Red hawk with 300-grain target loads or 225-grain Semi-Wadcutter Hollow Points. It produces excellent accuracy, absolutely minimal recoil and is a dream to shoot. While I am not typically a fan of Ruger firearms, the Super Red hawk has near magical accuracy and is a testament to Ruger's famed hammer forged barrels and rugged, tankish revolvers.
In terms of self-defense with a .45 Colt, I am somewhat of a traditionalist. While Hornady and companies such as Double Tap offer great performing ammunition choices from their Critical Defense/FTX line of ammunition, I would likely choose a 225-grain soft lead, Semi-Wadcutter Hollow Point. This offering from Federal is mild shooting, has minimal flash and produces 810 feet per second from a 3-inch Charter Arms, only falling 20 feet per second under their advertised velocity. This soft lead hollow point is practically a scaled up variant of the famed .38 Special 158-grain SWCHP +P, or "FBI load". This load is a proven performer and soft lead hollow points work well from lower velocity handguns such as the .44 Special, .38 Special and the .45 Colt.
Underwood offers a "high velocity" variant of this cartridge and one I would likely consider for medium game, or even a self-defense cartridge as well. It takes the same basic projectile (225-grain SWCHP) and surpasses the .45 Auto in terms of velocity and muzzle energy. Underwood’s offering produces a muzzle velocity of 1,051 feet per second, which is a 26.62% increase in velocity and muzzle energy knocking hard on milder, commercial 10mm loads and .357 Magnum loads at 551 foot pounds. Not bad for the "antiquated" .45 Colt, not bad at all.
The .45 Colt is a hand loaders dream, much like the .357 Magnum. It is such a versatile cartridge, with so many uses. A quality, non-antique or antique clone firearm can go from a light recoiling training aid, to grizzly bear repellent with the simple swap of ammunition. It can make for an exceptional defensive cartridge, with performance even rivaling or surpassing the heaviest loaded 10mm or .357 Magnum loads. Even the mighty .460 Rowland falls short in performance to a modern "magnum" .45 Colt offering. From mild mannered, to blazing velocities and bone crushing kinetic energy, the .45 Colt continues to perform well. While its stint with the U.S. military was rather short, the .45 Colt is a staple of American handgun cartridges, and is likely the most legendary handgun cartridge in American history.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.
About the Author:
Michelle Hamilton has a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice/Homeland Security, is a serious student of wound ballistics, military history, small arms design and manufacturing and is a competitive shooter.