Saga of the Colt Single Action Army .45
May 21, 2018
Thanks to Hollywood Westerns, the M1873 Colt Single Action Army (SAA) is the world's most recognized pistol. The real pistol is a lot more deadly than the noisemaker portrayed by Hollywood. A good shooter can shoot coins out of the air with it as fast as you can toss them up and also put all his slugs in the kill zone of a man silhouette target out to several hundred yards. This is in sharp contrast to the movies, where no one gets hit until a crucial scene to the plot and actors shoot at each other harmlessly the rest of the time.
Hollywood has everyone wearing low-slung Buscadero holsters that first appeared on the Mexican border areas in the 1920s, but the men of the Old West carried the gun high on the hip in a Slim Jim or a Mexican Loop holster. Even the draw is different in the movies, where they cock the gun while it's still in the holster and wildly fan the hammer with their free hand once it's out. Try that with real bullets, and if you don't manage to shoot yourself in the leg, you will find that you can't hit anything at any distance fanning the gun. Fanning a six-gun has also ruined more lock work than you can imagine. It's a show-off's stunt, and show-offs didn't last long as gunfighters. Fanning's only place is in fantasy Western movies.
The Old West gunfighters never cocked a pistol until its muzzle was pointed away from them half way to the target. The hammer was cocked by laying the thumb crossways over the hammer, which positions the hand high up on the grip, with the ball of the hand at the base of the trigger finger angling down and pressing against one of the flat Colt logo panels, and the thumb angling downward pressing against the other flat logo panel. The cocked hammer spur should be digging into the back of your hand (you had better stone the sharp edge of the spur off), and the center of your palm should be against the gun's backstrap, while the trigger finger should have the first joint around the trigger, with the tip of the trigger touching the tip of the thumb. Squeezing the two logo panels and the trigger together turns the force of pulling the trigger into a steadying force, while automatically aligning the sights with whatever at which you are pointing.
The result is a lightning-fast pistol that hits as good as a rifle out to long carbine range. I have never had the SAA roll back in my hand or felt any recoil with this grip. This old gunfighter's trick was never talked about outside the trade, and as the last guardian of the information, I am the only one ever to reveal it in print. It is the secret to the Colt Single Action's reputation.
This grip makes the gun point much more accurately, and point shooting was the way revolvers were used in the 19th Century, not aiming. Point shooting is much more accurate than any sights, so the sights on the early guns remained more rudimentary affairs, intended only to help you see where a new gun was pointing on your first shooting outing. Today's shooter seems to think he needs sights, but David didn't have a sight on his sling when he killed Goliath with it, and Robin Hood had no sights on his bow and arrow. Hand-and-eye coordination is far more accurate and natural than sights and a whole lot faster in a gun battle.
To quickly learn to point shoot, adopt a strict form until you have mastered it. You can then hit from any position. Assume the classic duelist stance, with your body sideways to your target. This also makes you the thinnest possible target for return fire. Lay your chin against your shoulder and fully extend as though you were going to touch the target with the gun's muzzle, regardless of any intervening distance. Keep the wrist and elbow straight, and lock your eyes on the target, ignoring the gun and its sights, and you will hit it when you pull the trigger.
For targets, a row of matchsticks or empty .22 cases as far away as you can easily see them will do just fine. Place them far enough apart so that hitting one doesn't disrupt the one beside it. If you miss one, just keep going or you will miss again at the same place. Keep your eyes locked on the target and stretch out, pointing at it, and you will hit, as long as you don't look at the gun or its sights.
Back in the days of the percussion cap Colt, it was common to raise the pistol until the muzzle was straight up in the air before cocking, because that let any loose fired percussion caps fall clear of the gun, instead of falling down between the hammer and the frame, where they would block the hammer from firing. Some men continued this practice after the cartridge Colts came out, because it enabled them to point shoot more accurately.
Some people think that a single-action revolver is more primitive than a double action one. Not so. The double action came first on the pepperboxes that preceded the modern revolver. Unfortunately, no one could ever seem to hit anything with them. Sam Colt reasoned that a gun that you can hit with would be in more demand than one that you couldn't hit with, so he made his pistols as single actions.
The lock work remained the same from the beginning. The percussion cap Colts started with the 1836 Patterson and progressed through the giant Colt Walker, the Colt Dragoon revolvers, the M1851 Navy and the M1860 Army revolver. The grips were basically the same, and the grip of the M1851 is exactly the same as the M1873 Colt .45.
Since the lock work is not considered as long-lived as the modern coil spring single actions, it's worth knowing that there is a way to make the old gun's mechanism last as long or longer than the new versions. Ship your gun, minus the grips, to the firm of Diversified Cryogenics. It will cryogenically treat your gun by cycling it down to 300 degrees below zero and then back up to 300 degrees above. The molecular structure that did not convert from austenite to the stronger martinsite when heat treated at the factory now completes the transition to the stronger martinsite. The cryogenic process also precipitates fine alloying carbides that fill the pores of the metal, creating a much smoother surface. Your dirty gun barrel will clean like glass after this as well as give the projectiles up to 60 fps more velocity. Stresses that produce warpage are removed, so your gun won't walk its shots as the barrel heats up. Parts wear is reduced up to 75%, and the leaf springs will now last as long as, or longer than coil springs. Price for cryogenic treatment of a Colt SAA is $65, and that includes return shipping. Please include your name address and phone number inside the box.
If you need a gunsmith for an older gun, Eddie Janus at Peacemaker Specialties is considered one of the best ever. Colt sends all its customers needing parts for 1st and 2nd generation peacemakers to him. Eddie also makes fitted screwdrivers for the SAA, so you won't burr up the screw heads with an ill-fitting screwdriver. Gun screws have to be kept tight, because they tend to back out under the vibration of firing. He makes a base-pin puller so you can remove a tight base pin without marring it with a screwdriver trying to pry it out. These base pins are often very tight. I have polished them with 600-grit sandpaper until I could remove them more easily on some of my tighter single actions.
Colt could not make a proper cartridge revolver until Smith and Wesson's 1855 Rollin White patent on bored-through cylinders expired in 1869. Colt attempted to circumvent this patent with the Theur and Richards conversions of the M1851 Navy and the M1860 Army revolver.
In 1872, Colt brought out the Open Top Frontier revolver in .44 rimfire. This was made obsolete the very next year, for in 1873, Colt improved on it, bringing out the .45 Colt M1873 Single Action Army revolver. This was immediately adopted by the Army to replace the M1860 cap and ball revolvers that were the previous standard.
Colt had originally designed the M1873 as a .44 caliber revolver, since all previous Army pistols had been .44s. A last-minute change in the specifications demanding a .45 caliber resulted in the .45 Colt cartridge having a rim diameter of only .500 inches, due to lack of space. This was deemed unimportant, since the pistol ejected one at a time with an ejector rod, but it prevented the round from working properly in repeating rifles like the Winchester '73 and Colt Lightning. The rim was made full-size for the later Colt M1909 New Service revolver, but you could only load every other chamber in a Colt single action with the M1909 ammo. Sometime after 1909, the rim diameter of the .45 Colt was enlarged to .512 inches, the maximum diameter that would work in the Colt single actions. This eliminated the extraction problems previously encountered in the Colt New Service double-action revolvers with their star extractors and the original .500 rim diameter shells. That .44 frame is one reason for the Colt M1873 having such a light, trim weight.
The M1873 was still serving when the M1911 .45 automatic was adopted. The cavalry flirted with the new double action Colt, adopting the .38 Long Colt revolver in 1892, which proved such a miserable failure against the Muslim Moros in the Philippines. The rest of the army stayed with the SAA, which had no problem putting down the most fanatical Moro with one shot to the vitals.
This was no surprise, as the .45 Colt was the most powerful military revolver cartridge ever made. It fired a 255-grain bullet at 910 fps, which repeatedly proved that it could stop a cavalry horse with one shot. The army always said that the way to stop a horseman is to stop his horse, and the new round could do it emphatically. This factor saved the life of many a bronc buster, because if the high-heeled cowboy boot gets caught in the stirrup when the bronc throws the rider, the rider can be quickly dragged to death unless he can kill the horse quickly. The .45 Colt was always up to the task.
On the frontier, there were many who thought it great sport to bring down the great American buffalo with the revolver while hunting from horseback. It worked equally well on the huge grizzly bears that kept coming into conflict with the human interlopers to their domain. Of the 36 calibers that the Colt SAA would be made in, the .45 Colt chambering was always the most popular. It offers tremendous power with no felt recoil. Contrary to what others have written, I have never had this gun and cartridge roll back in my hand or deliver any felt recoil whatsoever.
The cartridge is known as the .45 Long Colt to differentiate it from the shorter and weaker .45 S&W Schofield, which fired a 230-grain bullet at 700 fps. The .45 Schofield will fire in a .45 Colt gun, but not the other way around. Since the cavalry had bought some of each type, they standardized on the Schofield round to prevent logistics problems until the Schofield guns were out of service. Since Remington continued to make the .45 Schofield cartridge until WWI, you had to specify .45 Long Colt if you wanted the more powerful Colt load.
While the gun was often termed a six shooter, it really is a five shooter, since the lack of a hammer bar safety like you have on more recent designs makes it necessary to carry it with the hammer down over an empty chamber. This is easily done by the old routine of loading one chamber, skipping one, loading four, then cocking the gun and letting the hammer down on the empty chamber. If you carry all six cylinders loaded, you have to contend with the fact that a sharp blow to the hammer from dropping the gun or hitting it against something can fire it. A lot of cowboys had the gun go off and shoot them in the leg when they were fooling with a saddle and a heavy stirrup flopped over on the hammer.
The SAA is an exceptionally light and handy pistol. A 4¾" barrel SAA weighs just 40 ounces and measures just 10.25" overall. It is just big enough for its cartridge and no bigger than it has to be. I like that. So many modern guns seem to be morbidly obese. I have always found the 4¾" barrel to be the best balanced, quickest, and steadiest barrel length. It also came in 7½" and 5½" barrel lengths. The army adopted the 7½" barrel length, which was a holdover from the long barrels on the cap and ball Colts. It is a bit long for easy carry, and in 1895 and 1896, the army was shortening some of these to 5½" length. These were termed the altered revolver, but with the first guns being sent to the artillery corps, it soon became known as the artillery revolver.
The M1873 SAA quickly became the favorite gun on the frontier. It was extremely rugged and very light and fast to use. Best of all, you could hit with it. There was a saying on the frontier that God made man, but Colt made them equal. The frontier is portrayed by Hollywood as populated by timid folk desperately dependent on the lawman to protect them from the bad man. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Timid folk didn't go to the wild frontier. People went there for the freedom. There, every man had to stand up for himself, and as long as it was a fair fight, he didn't have to worry about the law afterwards. Indeed, the lawman was often indistinguishable from the outlaw. Back shooting, horse stealing, bank robbery, taking a cut from the gambling houses and whore houses, fining innocent people on trumped-up charges- all these crimes and more were committed by the lawmen. Small wonder that many towns preferred to do without one and deal with outlaws themselves. If a would-be tough guy or outlaw gang showed up, the townsfolk just ganged up on them and shot them down or strung them up.
Settlers and frontiersmen were a hard-bitten, no-nonsense crowd that wasn't about to be pushed around. Many had left the East to get away from being pushed around by too many laws. With every man packing a gun, the wild West was actually a lot safer place for honest folk than today's police states that only claim to have personal liberty.
Just as important was the fact that a man could defend his honor without fear of arrest. When men can defend their honor, the spoken word means much, and a man's word is literally his bond. When everything must be settled in the courts, only the most noble retain their honor, and the average man will lie and cheat. These people understood that liberty and honor had a price, and they were willing to pay it. They also knew that neither can exist in a police state, where the courts settle everything.
Handgun hunting was a matter of convenience back then. You had the pistol on you, and you didn't happen to have the rifle or shotgun when you saw the game, so you got your dinner with the pistol. That can quickly get to be a habit. Shooting a jackrabbit for dinner with the pistol was good practice for the day you might have to defend yourself with it as well.
The Colt Single Action Army revolver protected and fed the frontiersmen, and when the Yukon and Alaskan Gold Rushes started in 1898, it was the favorite pistol of the gold seekers. Wolves, bear, and moose fell to the .45 Colt, along with more than a few men along the way. I speak from experience when I say that in the thick brush of the Alaskan interior, there are few shots that aren't easily taken with a good pistol.
It soldiered on, with the army making one-shot kills that stopped the fanatical Philippine Muslim Moros in their tracks, until it was replaced by the M1911 .45
automatic. It was carried into WWII on the hips of
General Wainwright and General Patton, but its days as an issue weapon were over. Early in WWII, the last 4,500 Colt SAA revolvers in Army inventory were sent to England, where the Royal Armouries kept a few for their museum and sent the rest to S.O.E. (Special Operations Executive), England's spook headquarters during the war. They shipped them to France for distribution to the Marquis and other underground resistance organizations. Thus, ended the last large-scale military service of the SAA.
Today, it remains a first-class hunting and defense weapon. Its limitation is the slow reloading time that makes it unsuitable for stopping large gangs or large dog or wolf packs. Still, five shots is more than adequate for most police or civilian defense needs, and its ease of hitting and one-shot stopping power make the .45 Colt Single Action a first-class choice even today, 144 years after it first came out.
The recent videotaped incident where Spanish police shot a terrorist suspect multiple times, only to have him get up and laugh at them and taunt them before charging and finally being put down with more multiple shots, would not have been as dramatic if a Colt single action had been employed. One .45 Colt in the vitals, and he would have been stopped cold. Had there been a skilled man with one of these at the site of the first big Muslim terrorist attack in Paris in 2015, where three terrorists with AK-47s killed unarmed Parisians like shooting fish in a barrel, he could have quickly taken out all three attackers with the SAA.
That's worth remembering, since ISIS brags of all the ISIS fighters that it has smuggled into Europe masquerading as refugees. Even where shots and bombs aren't used, systematic rape as an instrument of terror has kept unescorted women and children off the streets in many areas where so-called "refugees" have flocked. People packing pistols are the best answer to terrorist threats, and this pistol has a proven record of success.
The best holster design is the pancake holster. It is the fastest, most comfortable. And most concealable holster ever made for both open and concealed carry. I recommend El Paso Saddlery's Tortilla Pancake Holster. For those who want a traditional Old West open-carry holster, I like El Paso Saddlery's M1890 holster. It is comfortable, fast, and holds the gun securely. El Paso Saddlery is no Johnny-come-lately to supplying gunfighters. They made holsters for John Wesley Hardin, the deadliest gunfighter in the Old West.
However you carry it, just remember, it can't save your life if it isn't there.