Concerning the American Wild West, the Colt Single Action Army revolver became the stuff of legend.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
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The Colt firearms firm certainly hit its stride in the 1800s, helped no doubt by the American Civil War and goings on along the Western Frontier. Perhaps their biggest contribution to the movements was the Colt Single Action Army revolver - otherwise known as "The Peacemaker", the "M1873", the "Model P", the "Colt 45" or, simply, the "SAA". Regardless of the name, the revolver became one of the most popular sidearms in the history of sidearms with it seeing action through the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War and the Range Wars to name a few. The revolver lasted in "official" US Army roles from 1873 to 1892 though its use survived much longer outside of the military thanks to its popularity with the public. While other weapons lent themselves to the title of "The Gun That One the West", few can argue the reach that the Colt Single Action Army revolver - a gun that was brought back into production multiple times since its inception because of the public demand for the classic type - has had on developing both America itself and its prized gun culture.
In the time leading up to Colt's excellent SAA design, a key patent owned by Smith & Wesson - noted as the "Rollin White Patent" of 1855 - protected the use of a "bored-through" cylinder design utilizing metallic cartridges. Once the patent had expired in 1869, the field was open for any and every firearms firm to move in and develop their own designs and a plethora of revolvers soon permeated the gun markets from America to Europe. In 1873, the US Government was on the lookout for a new service revolver aimed at arming Cavalry elements, prompting Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company (founder Samuel Colt passed away in January of 1862) to lend its talents in supplying the required piece. After successfully clearing evaluation, the Colt design was accepted into service with a signed procurement contract as put forth by the US Army. From there, the legacy of the fabled "Colt 45" was secured. Upon entering service, the new Colt Single Action Army replaced the outgoing Colt Model 1860 Army percussion cap revolvers then in service.
Interestingly, the Model 1873 was nothing overtly special in its design, form and function. The heart and soul of the firearm was naturally its six-round, rotating cylinder nestled within a bridged frame. The receiver was solid and contained the major working components to manage the cylinder, trigger and hammer functions. The barrel was fitted ahead with the extractor rod installed underneath. A blade-and-notch sight was standard on early production models. The hammer was clearly visible at the rear of the receiver while the pistol grip was adorned with wood for a relatively comfortable hold. The trigger was set low in the design, protected by an oblong ring. The Colt 45 was characterized in type as a centerfire, single-action revolver, based on both the type of ammunition it fired (black powder centerfire) and the key function of the trigger itself.
In a "single-action" pistol, the trigger only actuated the firing process, forcing the operator to manage the hammer. The hammer was positioned to "cock" the weapon (there as a "half-cock" used for when loading the cylinder chambers and "full-cock" for when ready to fire - reminiscent in scope to the old flintlock pistols preceding percussion-based ones) which also rotated the cylinder to the next available chamber. In the "double-action" revolvers to come, the trigger both cocked and fired the weapon in one smooth action - hence the use of the word "double". While a trigger pull fired the gun, the operator was forced to cock the weapon once again to fire another round. However, users of Colt 45s also found it somewhat effective to "fan" the hammer and let off successive shots as if an automatic weapon, some training and practice involved.
The original Colt was chambered for the powerful .45 Long Colt cartridge but other calibers soon found a home in the lineage - this brought on to help broaden the mass market appeal of the popular handgun. Other calibers included the .44-40 WCF, the .38-40 WCF, the .32-20 WCF, .22LR, .38Spl, .357 Magnum and .44Spl within time. In 1900, the Colt 45 series was officially cleared to fire smokeless powder cartridges.
The Colt "Frontier" was developed from the Colt 45 though chambered for use with .44-40 Winchester ammunition, the same cartridges utilized in the equally popular (and historically important) WinchesterModel 1873 lever-action rifle. The cross-use of ammunition allowed the user the ability to carry one ammunition supply for his two guns - something of a Godsend when traveling through bandit territory on a coach or on horseback.
The Colt 45 came in varying barrel lengths to suit buyer needs beyond the original's 7.5 inch length. The discerning customer could purchase a short 4.75 inch barrel version or the longer 5.5 inch form. The Colt "Storekeeper" was even a design sporting a 3 inch barrel and suitable for concealment by various owners - as its name would suggest and proved popular by storekeepers and bank personnel needing a quick action defensive weapon. The "Buntline Special" was another Colt 45 form, albeit most imposing with its 12 inch barrel and made popular by Wyatt Earp who was said to have received the type through writer "Ned Buntline" (Edward Judson) during Earp's time in service with the Dodge City Peace Commission (hence Buntline's name in the moniker).
In practice, Colt 45 proved itself a reliable and utterly robust weapon in-the-field and despite heavy abuse. Both outlaws and lawmen respected the gun and chose it on these qualities as their primary firearm despite their very different career paths. Even the "common man", sometimes subject to daily gun violence in the West depending on the town or territory, found it wise to keep a trusty sidearm revolver on his person or in the home as standard practice. By the end of the lawless West, the gunman could be regularly found with rifle in hand and a revolver for close-in trouble. The Colt series revolver was, at its core, relatively simple-to-operate and easy to maintain weapon, proving dependable to a high degree and enjoying mass market appeal.
Colt 45s in service with the US Army were eventually replaced with another Colt product - Model 1892 double-action revolver making use of the .38 Long Colt cartridge - within time. The Colt 45s widespread use and popular names and actions associated with its history today remain a sought after collector's item when in good to excellent condition. Fabled American General George S. Patton of World War 2 fame was popularly known to carry a pair of customized Colt Single Action Army revolvers throughout his military career spanning from the Mexican Expedition of 1916 up to his death in Europe in 1945.
Manufacturing Colts Manufacturing Company - USA / Aldo Uberti - Italy / US Firearms Manufacturing Company - USA
Italy; United States
- Close Quarters Battle (CQB) / Personal Security
260 mm (10.24 in)
121 mm (4.76 in)
2.20 lb (1.00 kg)
Single-Action; Rotating Cylinder
300 ft (91 m; 100 yd)
Single Action Army - Base Series Designation
SAA - Alternative Name; abbreviation of "Single-Action Army".
New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol - Offiial US Army Designation.
Peacemaker - Alternative Name
Model P - Alternative Name
M1873 - Alternative Name
Colt 45 - Alternative Name
Colt Frontier ("Frontier Six Shooter") - Based on the Model P but chambered for the .44-40 Winchester cartridge for mass-market appeal.
Colt Bisley - Target Pistol
Colt Cowboy - Appearing in 1999; modern transfer bar safety installed.
Storekeeper - Compact form with 3 inch barrel
Buntline Special - Long form with 12 inch barrel; popularized by Wyatt Earp.
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