The 19th century’s legendary Colt Single Action Army Revolver rides on in the 21st.
STORY AND PHOTOS BY JIM DICKSON
Why would anyone today want to stake their life on a gun with a 146-year-old design and a 183-year-old lock work design? Well, there are good reasons, such as power and ease of hitting with the best pointing and fastest revolver ever made. I’m talking about Colt’s legendary M1873 Single Action Army .45 revolver.
Thanks to Hollywood, it is the most recognizable pistol in the world today and the most intimidating. It doesn’t need Hollywood’s hype, though. This gun can still stand on its own virtues.
Its .45 Colt cartridge was designed to put down a cavalry horse at 100 yards with one shot. The original load was a 250-grain bullet over 40 grains of black powder that gave 1,000 feet per second out of a 7½-inch barrel. The Army was tasked with ridding the plains of the buffalo and the Indians’ larder, and the cavalry troops found it great sport to ride alongside a buffalo and kill it with their powerful new Colt pistols. As a grizzly bear-stopper, it was tried and not found wanting.
With a .45 Colt you only need one shot per man and you can immediately turn your attention to his fellows who are also attacking you. If you have a smaller caliber and have to do a double tap, you are probably going to get killed quickly if you have even halfway competent adversaries.
This caliber does not need expanding bullets to work. That’s important because expanding bullets don’t always expand. If your bullets are dependent on expansion for stopping power, then you are in for a world of hurt.
Its single-action mechanism first appeared on the Colt Patterson revolver of 1836 in an era of double-action pepper box pistols that no one could ever seem to hit anything with. Samuel Colt reasoned that a gun that was easy to hit with would sell better and be more effective than a noisemaker. His reasoning proved sound and the Colt revolvers were all single-actions until the late 1870s when they marketed their first double-actions. Then as now, very few men were true masters of double-action shooting, but most quickly learned to hit firing single-action.
While you can empty a double-action revolver faster than a single-action, you cannot shoot it any faster if you take time to point it accurately, so the supposed speed advantage of the double-action is academic at best A gun is only effective if you hit with it and the incredibly good pointing of this gun made hitting easier than it had ever been with a pistol. It came in three standard barrel lengths, 7½ inches, 5½ inches, and 4¾ inches.
Of the three, I always found the 4¾-inch length the fastest and best balanced. This was commonly called the gunfighter model on the frontier because of its popularity with the gunfighters of the Old West.
A CLOSELY GUARDED secret of the gunfighting trade was the gunfighter’s secret grip that made for the fastest and most accurate shooting. As the last living man with this trick, I became the only one to ever put it in print. Why not? I am not likely to face an opponent with a single-action revolver in this day of plastic-frame double-action automatics.
The secret grip begins by cocking the gun with the thumb laid crossways across the hammer, not behind it like cocking a modern double-action. This positions the hand high on the grip, where it has to be for accurate pointing. Cocking the other way throws your grip low on the rounded bottom part of the grips, where accurate pointing is well nigh impossible.
The hammer spur comes razor-sharp from the factory and that sharp edge must be stoned off because the hammer spur needs to be digging into the top of your hand. The palm of the hand should be as much behind the grip as possible, instead of right beside it.
The trigger is held in the crook of the first joint of the trigger finger and not by the tip of the finger, unless your hands are too short to use this grip. The two flat Colt logo panels on each side of the grip are pressed in by the base of the trigger finger on the hand and by the thumb with both of them angling downward. The tip of the trigger finger rests against the tip of the thumb.
To fire, you squeeze the two flat Colt logo panels, as this aligns the gun with whatever you are pointing at. Now press the trigger finger against the thumb to fire. This converts the normally disruptive force of pulling the trigger into a steadying force. The gun now shoots right where your eyes are fixed.
In the days of cap and ball revolvers, it was always a good idea to raise the gun muzzle up high as you cocked it so that any loose cap or cap fragment that might fall off the nipple would fall free of the gun, instead of jamming it by landing and wedging itself between the hammer and the frame. This was continued by many with the cartridge revolver simply because it aided accurate pointing to raise the gun up between shots. While no secret, this too seems to be a forgotten trick today.
IT IS IMPORTANT to remember that a pistol is pointed in a gunfight. Emphasis on sights came only after target shooters took over training novices in the 20th century. Point shooting, also called instinct shooting, is the only way you can fire accurately in all light conditions and fire fast enough to keep alive. Speed is not rushed in these situations but comes from polished practice. Rushing gets you killed quickly. Point shooting was not easily mastered until the late Lucky McDaniel developed ways to teach it. Lucky was the man who taught the U.S. Army the Quick Kill instinct shooting method during the Vietnam War.
To learn to hit without using the sights, assume the classic duelist stance with the body held sideways to the target, presenting the smallest target for return fire. Keep the arm fully extended with the wrist and elbow straight and your chin against your shoulder. Lay out a row of matchsticks or empty .22 cases as far away as you can easily see them. Now lock your eyes on the target, ignoring the gun and its sights as you point the gun at what you are looking at, and fire. Shoot at each target in turn, for if you miss one you will just miss again in the same place on your second try. You will soon be hitting better than you ever could using sights.
Lucky was very proud of a 7½-inch barrel .44-40 Colt Single Action that he called his “magic pistol” because he never missed with it. I remember it was a very tight-fitted single-action with absolutely no play in the cylinder. Lucky always said that it was the only one that he had ever seen like that.
Under no conditions should you fan a single-action like you see them do in the movies. That ruins lockwork fast and is inaccurate. People wanting to act like some damn fool movie actor is the reason I don’t let people handle my guns.
The ease of hitting with the Colt Single Action Army revolver is extraordinary. You can match it with other revolvers, but it takes a lot more practice than it does with the Colt single-action. The unsurpassed ease and speed of mastering this revolver keeps it a top favorite of shooters. Only hits matter. Everything else is just noise. Too many people carry guns that are just noisemakers past point-blank range because they cannot hit at longer ranges with them. Whatever you carry, you had better be able to hit with it at all ranges. The Colt Single Action Army makes that a lot easier than other revolvers do.
TODAY THERE ARE super featherweight guns made of space-age materials in pipsqueak calibers that can never be depended on as man stoppers. These have a vicious recoil because they are so light. Some of these modern marvels are actually dangerous to fire. A policeman had a broken bone in his hand after one shot with one of these and it is generally accepted that you will only be able to get one shot off in a gunfight with the worst offenders of these because of the resulting injury to your hand. Not my idea of how to win a gunfight, especially if there are multiple opponents.
The old Colt stands in sharp contrast to them, having virtually no felt recoil with a caliber proven to stop man or beast. It does it all with the absolute minimum weight possible without going overboard and unleashing a kicker. It is pleasant and fun to shoot.
When you make even a .22 pistol much smaller and lighter than the Single Action Army it becomes much harder to hit with as well. Full-sized guns hang steadier and are far easier to shoot accurately. Inexperienced shooters often fall into this trap and buy guns that are difficult for even the experts to fire accurately. What chance of hitting has the new shooter then? At best it is discouraging. At worst it is fatal. These guns have a place as back-up hideout guns, but not as primary defense guns.
ON THE FRONTIER there were plenty of men who could shoot the Single Action Army accurately out to long carbine range. It was not just a close-range weapon. Because it was right there on your hip, it brought every type of game to bag since you don’t pass up a good opportunity for dinner in the wilderness.
It’s no accident that single-action revolvers have always been the most popular pistols for handgun hunting. Their ease of hitting keeps them at the forefront. Those who use double-action revolvers usually cock them and use them as single-actions on game even though the double-action revolver’s hammer is smaller and not well suited for serious single-action use.
The big Colt is extremely safe to carry because it was always carried as a five-shooter with the hammer down on an empty chamber. That’s because the design predates hammer blocks and a blow to the hammer can fire the cartridge beneath it. The procedure is to load one chamber, skip one, load four, then cock and let the hammer down on the empty chamber. It’s safe as houses to pack now.
For those who think five shots are not enough, I ask you, how many times do you go up against more than five at a time? Legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hamer is most famous today as the man who tracked down and whose posse killed Bonnie and Clyde. Frank’s favorite pistol was a Colt Single Action .45 he named Old Lucky. Frank always said, “If I can’t handle the situation with five shots, then I’m not much of a lawman.”
THE ORIGINAL HOLSTERS still work quite well. El Paso Saddlery has been making them since 1889 and they were holster makers to John Wesley Hardin, the Old West’s deadliest gunfighter with the highest score of men killed. I live on a remote farm deep in the mountains of North Georgia and I often carry a Colt .45 in a copy of the hip holster Wes used. It is a Slim Jim style of the early type with extra loops for six cartridges sewn onto the front of the holster. Carrying cartridges on the holster was typical of Wes’s holsters.
It holds the gun securely and comfortably and is very fast. The extra cartridges carried on the holster are quite handy when you aren’t wearing a cartridge belt. Being able to quickly reload after firing is always important. I consider this holster well nigh perfect.
I have also used El Paso Saddlery’s M1890 Mexican loop holster and found it very secure and comfortable.
For concealed carry, nothing beats the modern pancake holster and El Paso Saddlery makes a fine one they call their Tortilla. It has a thumb break snap and holds the gun securely against the body.
Extra cartridges can be carried in six-round and 12-round belt slide cartridge carriers from El Paso Saddlery or you can carry them in a duplicate of the U.S. Cavalry pistol
bullet pouch from Pacific Canvas and Leather Co.
For this article, I had 1,140 rounds to fire, consisting of:
• 500 rounds of Black Hills 250-grain RNFP firing at 725 feet per second
• 150 rounds of Armscor 255-grain lead at 847 fps
• 150 rounds of Aguila 200-grain LFP at 600 fps
• 100 rounds of Fiocchi LRNFP at 725 fps
• 80 rounds of Hornady Critical Defense 185-grain FTX bullet at 920 fps
• 80 rounds of Hornady Cowboy Action 255-grain lead at 725 fps
• 100 rounds of Georgia Arms LRNFP at 725 fps
• 80 rounds of Federal 225-grain SWHP at 830 fps
The lower velocity loads are intended for cowboy action shooting matches. Even though labeled a cowboy action load, the Armscor is a full-power load.
All the ammunition gave good accuracy and proved capable of 2-inch groups at 25 yards, as long as I did my part.
While I would not use it for big game, the lower velocity
Cowboy Action loads should not be dismissed for defense against humans. The British found with the .455 Webley that a big heavy bullet at these lower velocities dumped more energy with less over penetration in thin human targets.
LIKE ANY GUN that has screws, the screws of the Single Action Army work loose when firing and have
to be tightened. I check mine after every box or two of shells. If you don’t, they can tie up the gun and/or fall out and get lost in the leaves.
Eddie Janis of Peacemaker Specialists makes a pair of
screwdrivers fitted to the screws of the Single Action Army that I highly recommend. When you see an old single-action with the screws all buggered up, it doesn’t necessarily mean the gun has been worked on.
Often it just means the screws were tightened with whatever screwdriver was handy. Eddie also makes a cylinder pin puller that is a necessity for pulling out a tight cylinder pin without marring it. I polish the cylinder pins on my guns with 600-grit sandpaper until I can get them out without prying on them.
If you want the Colt’s lockwork to last as long as the latest coil spring single-action designs, simply take the grips off and ship it to Diversified Cryogenics, to the attention of Mark Link. Cryogenic treatment involves cycling the metal from 300 degrees below zero to 300 degrees above. It removes all stresses in the metal and closes the pores so that the gun cleans like it was made of glass.
Accuracy and parts life are drastically improved and there is no outward change to the appearance of the revolver. I cannot recommend it strongly enough. I wish all guns were
cryogenically treated. It makes the greatest improvement imaginable.
The one thing to remember is that this gun has the same sustained fire rate as a cap and ball revolver using
paper cartridges. As long as you only have five targets, you are fine. If you are facing a Red Chinese and North
Korean human wave attack, you are in trouble. That’s why the military uses automatic pistols.
If you want to hold a piece of history in your hand or write your own page in the history books, the .45
Colt Single Action Army revolver is a proven performer that can still get the job done the same as it could in 1873. What more can you ask of it?