FINALLY A .44 FROM COLT--THE ANACONDA

BY JOHN TAFFIN

            Colt was the first firearms manufacturer to produce a workable and practical revolver, the single action Patterson of 1836. Just over 20 years later Smith & Wesson came forth with the first cartridge-firing revolver, the Model #1 chamber in .22; meanwhile Colt continued to supply the big bore percussion revolvers to the military. Smith & Wesson took the lead again in 1869 with the first cartridge firing big bore revolver, the Model #3. By 1877 it was Colt's turn again with the first practical double action cartridge firing revolvers the Lightning .38 and Thunderer .41 followed one year later by the Model 1878 in .45 Colt. Three years later Smith & Wesson introduced their .44 double action top-break revolver. Colt came back in the 1890s with double action revolvers having swing out cylinders and then before the end of the century introduced the New Service revolver. This was a big, strong sixgun chambered mostly in .44 and .45.

            I've always been a dreamer and perhaps this is due to circumstances. I grew up in a home with wonderful parents. My father died before I was a year old and my mother remarried two years later. I was fortunate to have a caring stepfather, however after he served in World War II and was a POW for 18 months, there were to be no guns in our house. This meant I would have to wait until I graduated from high school, went to work, and bought my own. So for all those growing up years I mostly dreamed about guns. There was always at least one firearms catalog tucked in my high school textbooks.

            After high school there was a window of about three years when I could have just about any gun I wanted. Even after getting married we still had plenty of money until two things happened. I decided to go to college about the same time our first baby was on the way. There would be no guns added for the next four years as I would be going to school full-time, and working full-time, while my wife stayed home with the three kids we added during the college years. Even after graduating it would still be a long time before there was money available for guns. In fact, in the college years it was not buying but selling guns to help pay tuition. All this time dreams kept me going and I had a number of dream books.

            You can gather some idea of how long ago I was in college by the fact one quarter as I bought my books in the school store I also picked up a copy of The History of The Colt Revolver in that same store. Try to find this situation on any campus today. That book did more than any textbook to get me through school simply because it was perfectly set up for dreaming with pages duplicating the Colt catalogs including what would be prove to be the last of the breed, the sixguns found in 1940.

I don't know how many times I looked through the pages of the 1940 Colt catalog and dreamed. There was the Colt Shooting Master with a 6” barrel and Patridge front sight mated with a windage adjustable rear sight, `velvet-smooth hand finished action, and special checkered walnut stocks, and it could be had chambered in .44 Special. On the next page there was the 7 1/2” New Service Target also available in .44 Special; it would be 30 years before I would ever get to shoot one and know it was even better than I dreamed it could be. Finally came the work horse, the regular production New Service in barrel lengths of 4 1/2”, 5 1/2”, and 7 1/2” and even chambered in .44-40 as well as .44 Special; the barrels of the latter were marked “RUSSIAN AND S&W SPECIAL .44."

As if the pictures weren't enough there was such beautiful prose: "The New Service Revolver was designed for those requiring an especially sturdy firearm of sufficiently large caliber for the most serious service without excessive weight. It withstands the rigors of heat, cold, rain, or snow as well as excessive use, as many as 250,000 rounds having been fired from a New Service Revolver without noticeable impairment of accuracy. It is the Model chosen by men who frequently find themselves far from gunsmiths and whose lives may depend upon the reliability of their Fire Arms, for it is capable of stopping any animal on the American Continent....The New Service is essentially a holster Revolver for the man in the open---Mounted, Motorcycle and State Police; the Hunter, Explorer and Pioneer."

In those pre-political correctness days, the New Service could definitely be called a man's sixgun. In its 40-year history, more New Service Colts were built than Single Actions in the 70-year history of the pre-War Colt Single Action. If one looks closely enough at some of the old Western Movies it is possible to even find a New Service in the holster of the "B" movie hero. And then the New Service died a terrible death. With the coming of World War II, Colt changed over to wartime production and both the New Service and Single Action Army disappeared. The story is that the machinery was moved to the parking lot to make room for new production and when the war was over the machinery was found to no one's surprise to be a rusted mess. After the war ended the New Service was never resurrected and for the next 50 years there would be no more .44 double action sixguns from Colt.

When Smith & Wesson introduced the .44 American Model #3 they set themselves on the path which would emphasize .44 caliber over .45 caliber; over at Colt the coming of the Single Action Army placed them on the .45 road. Smith & Wesson did make .45s, however they were a small number compared to the .44s; and likewise Colt also produced sixguns chambered in both .44 Special and .44-40, however it was the .45 Colt that was number one in both the Single Action Army and the New Service. For 40 years the number one big bore cartridge at Smith & Wesson was the .44 Special.

Then in 1956, Smith & Wesson stunned the shooting world with the introduction of the .44 Magnum. Elmer Keith had simply asked for a 250 grain bullet at 1200 feet per second; he got much more, a 240 grain bullet at 1450 feet per second. Keith retired his fine Colt and Smith & Wesson .44 Special sixguns and carried a Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum daily until his stroke in 1981. The other two of the big three sixgun manufacturers at the time, Colt and Ruger, were caught off guard by the introduction of the .44 Magnum. Smith & Wesson already had the frame size they felt was necessary for this new Magnum. They simply specially heat-treated their 1950 target, added a full length cylinder and bull barrel to help dampen recoil, and the first .44 Magnum was a reality.

Ruger got wind of the new cartridge, tried it chambered in his .357 Blackhawk, however found the frame and cylinder were too small and the result was the larger .44 Blackhawk and this .44 Blackhawk with a larger and longer cylinder and frame was soon on the market often beating the Smith & Wesson to the dealers shelves. Smith & Wesson and Ruger both had their .44 Magnums ready for shooters in 1956; what about Colt?           At Colt, the premier sixgun was the newly introduced Python. What had started as a deluxe .38 Special target pistol was transformed into what many will still say is the finest .357 Magnum ever offered to shooters. The Python was built on the old .41 frame, too small for the .44 Magnum. Colt had the proper sized frame for the .44 Magnum in their New Service. But the manufacture of this large sixgun was stopped before World War II and as we have seen the machinery was destroyed sitting in the New England weather for four years.

In 1956, Colt re-introduced the Single Action Army in .45 Colt and .38 Special, shortly to be followed by the .357 Magnum and the .44 Special.  Colt wisely decided the Single Action Army, the Model P, frame was too small for the .44 Magnum. John Lachuk had chambered numerous Colt Single Actions for his wildcat .44 which turned out to be a dead-ringer for the .44 Magnum and on a couple of occasions I have fired another .44 Magnum Colt Single Action put together by Dick Casull that handles the .44 Magnum perfectly though recoil is fierce. Casull, of course specially heat-treated the frame and made the cylinder for the latter .44 Magnum Colt. Even Great Western chambered their Frontier Model in .44 Magnum, however all of these single action .44s would be right on the edge. Colt would have needed to enlarge both frame and cylinder of their Single Action Army to chamber it in the .44 Magnum.

Smith & Wesson and Ruger would compete with each other for the affections of .44 Magnum shooters while Colt just decided to ignore it. Sixteen years later, in 1972, Colt looked at the .44 Magnum again. Colt Single Action serial number GX9234 was built in .44 Magnum. With a larger frame, longer cylinder and longer grip frame, it looked much like the El Dorado, Seville, and Abilene single actions that came along later. One gun was made, the project was shelved, and Hartford continued to ignore the upstart .44 Magnum. After all it was probably just a passing fancy.

By this time Dirty Harry movies had arrived and seemingly everyone had to have the gun that Clint Eastwood used as San Francisco cop Harry Callahan. Prices on Smith & Wesson .44 Magnums soared out of sight. Ruger Super Blackhawks also became hard to get as would be Smith & Wesson purchasers switched to the single action Ruger so they could at least have the proper cartridge if not the proper sixgun. The time was ripe for the manufacture of other double action .44 Magnum sixguns. Colt ignored the demand; Ruger and Dan Wesson did not. By the 1980s both Dan Wesson and Ruger had double action .44 Magnums available and the black market prices on the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum plummeted. Many of those who paid double price to get a .44 Magnum now found that they had a gun that was available for less than the retail price.

Fast forward to the 1990s. After thirty-five years of the .44 Magnum, after it had been produced by Smith & Wesson, Ruger, Great Western, Dan Wesson, Seville, Mossberg, Uberti, Thompson/Center, Marlin, Winchester, M.O.A., Desert Eagle, Pachmayer, Rock Manufacturing, Freedom Arms, Hawes, Rossi, Browning, Astra, Llama, etc., etc., etc., finally we had a Colt .44 Magnum. The new sixgun that took three plus decades to arrive was the double action Anaconda. It was big, it was a .44 Magnum, and the barrel said “Colt”. 

From the introduction of the Python in 1955 Colt had produced several other members of the snake family. The Cobra, the Diamondback, and the Viper, all had their fangs pulled and were no more, however in 1991 the newest and biggest snake joined the Python and the King Cobra and it promised to be the deadliest of them all. What we did not know at the time was all snakes from Colt would soon disappear just as surely as St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland.

The Anaconda was not only a long time coming, when it arrived, something was radically wrong. After 35 years of waiting, the Colt .44 Magnum finally surfaced and it would not shoot. Even Colt knew they had real problems and they stopped shipping Anacondas. Talking to John Nassif of Colt in early 1991, I learned the problem was barrels. The .44 barrels just would not perform. Whatever the problem was, it was taken care of and Anacondas were once again shipped. When my test gun arrived, the first thing I did was look down the barrel and it was beautiful! It looked incredibly smooth at least to the naked eye and seemed to say:  “I will shoot", and shoot it did.

The Anaconda was available in 4”, 6”, and 8” barrels; my test gun was a 52-ounce, 6” barreled stainless steel double action sixgun.  At 52 ounces it was not very heavy for a 1990s .44 Magnum when one considers the weight of the Dan Wesson and Ruger Super Redhawk .44 Magnums. It was, in fact, only five ounces heavier than the original .44, the 6 1/2” Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum.

The Anaconda was offered available in stainless only, and since we had long passed the day of beautifully blued sixguns from both Colt and Smith & Wesson we would never see an Anaconda in the Colt Royal Blue finish of the early Pythons. As far as appearance, the Anaconda appeared to be the healthy offspring of the marriage between a stainless Python and a King Cobra with the barrel being pure Python, albeit larger in diameter and the rest of the gun definitely descended from the King Cobra side of the family. Except for the King Cobra-shaped trigger guard, it was a strikingly handsome sixgun, and to my eye even better looking than either of its parents.

The stainless finish on the Anaconda was as good, and in many cases better, than that found on most stainless steel handguns. The entire gun was nicely polished, almost looking like a gun ready for bluing. The exceptions were the flattened off top of the frame and barrel, and the hammer and trigger which were a non-reflecting dull grey. Sights were strictly King Cobra-style which means a white outline adjustable rear sight and the ramp style front sight with a pale red insert harder for me to see in sunlight than the red insert material used by Smith & Wesson. Although hard to see in bright light, the red insert did fill the rear sight nicely, and that front sight was securely fastened to the base with two pins.

The double action pull was not bad but would certainly benefit from the gentle touch of a custom gunsmith; while the single action pull felt exceptionally good to me just as it was. Since the Anaconda was basically a hunting handgun, it was the single action trigger pull which was most important. The face of the trigger had three longitudinal serrations I would have liked to seen left off and in their place a smoothly polished trigger with no rough edges. Grips furnished on the Anaconda were finger groove rubber and were too small for my hands which is quite strange as a stainless Python I received a number of years before had a pair of rubber grips that were so large I could not get my hand around them. Smaller is better than bigger when it comes to handgun grips but I preferred a set of fancy wood grips which BearHug soon supplied. With the factory stocks using full house .44 Magnum loads, I made it through two hundred rounds before the raw spot on my palm made me reach for the Chimere shooting gloves.

For test-firing the Anaconda for accuracy on paper, at least to begin with, I wanted to use a scope as my eyes work pretty well with black sights and pretty poorly with red inserts. Plus I wanted the testing to give a true picture of the Anaconda and the ammunition not my eyesight.             So into my parts box I went and came up with a B-Square mount that I had used on the .357 Python in the past. This is a mount that clamps on the barrel using the ventilated rib and definitely was not designed to stand up to .44 Magnum recoil. If it would fit I decided to install it and use it as long as it would hold up.

The B-Square mount clamped on perfectly, snugged up tightly and I then went looking for some rings that would fit. The only ones I could find were of the 30MM size and they were attached to a Tasco Pro-Point, a non-magnifying red dot scope. This would work; I didn't need magnification, only clarification. It was also snugged down solidly and I fully expected it to shatter or blow or something before very many rounds were run through the .44 Anaconda but I would also use it as long as I could. Three hundred fullhouse and above rounds later the B-Square mount was still tight as it was before a single round was fired and the Pro-Point was still in perfect shape.

Since the Anaconda was nearly four decades in arriving, it was given a workout as few sixguns had ever received from me. Factory loads from 180 grain jacketed hollow points to 330 grain cast bulleted heavy hunting loads were mated up with handloads with both jacketed bullets from 240 to 300 grains and cast bullets from 240 through 320 grains all to feed the big snake. The Anaconda never hesitated, never stuttered, never skipped a beat. No matter what I fed it, it asked for more. Some .44 sixguns will shoot jacketed bullets or cast bullets exceptionally well; others will shoot lightweight or standard weight, or heavyweight bullets exceptionally well. The Anaconda did it all. It couldn't tell the difference between a cast bullet and a jacketed bullet; it didn’t care if it was being fed lightweight bullets or heavyweight bullets.  What ever it got it spit out nice tight little groups consisting of .44 caliber holes closely spaced together.

The Anaconda was fired for groups at both 25 and 50 yards even though at 50 yards the red dot on a Pro-Point scope is larger than the three-inch black aiming bull. The Federal 180 grain JHP put five shots into one-inch at 25 yards while at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, namely heavyweight cast bullets, the same results were obtained with RCBS's cast bullet 300 grain gas-checked #44-300SWC as it duplicated the group of the Federal 180 jacketed bullet perfectly. The 180 did it at 1652 fps, while the 300 grain cast bullet over 21.5 grains of WW296 did it with a whole lot more recoil at 1336 fps. At 50 yards, using the large red dot, not a 2X or 4X scope, the same RCBS 300 grain bullet put five shots into 1 3/8” and that is great performance from a heavy loaded .44 Magnum. I just had to try the Anaconda at 50 yards with iron-sights and using hunting loads I found Federal’s 240 JHPs grouped into 3 1/2” and the excellent Black Hills 300 grain JHPs were just over three-inches.

I’m not what you would call fond of snakes; the real ones that slither so silently. However I do like sixgun snakes, the Python, the Viper, the Cobra, the King Cobra, the Diamondback, and the Anaconda, all snakes from the Hartford factory. Now they are all gone. Smith & Wesson and Ruger are celebrating the 50th Anniversary of their .44 Magnums as this is being written; the Colt .44 Magnum did not even last one decade. 

32-1 & 32-2) The Colt Anaconda .44 Magnum, once the barrel problem was

settled, shot exceptionally well.

 

 

 

32-3 and 32-4) At 50 yards the Colt .44 Magnum shoots all weight bullets

with excellent accuracy.

 

 

 

32-5) The factory rubber stocks were found to be too small for the author’s

hands and were replaced by custom stocks by BearHug.

 

 

 

32-6) The Colt Anaconda .44 Magnum arrived 35 years after Smith and

Wesson's .44 Magnum; it proved to be too late. Custom stocks are by BearHug.

 

 

 

32-7) Although no longer produced the Colt Anaconda is a very strong and accurate

.44 Magnum suited for outdoor pursuits.

 

 

 

32-8) From the 1890s until 1941 the Colt big bore revolver was the New Service.

Colt did not resurrect the New Service in building the Anaconda.

 

 

 

32-9) The Colt Python frame was too small to use for the Anaconda.

Stocks are by BearHug.

 

 

 

32-10) Finally a Colt barrel marked .44 Magnum; alas it was not to last.

 

 

 

32-11) Colt’s Anaconda handles all .44 Magnum bullet weights equally well.  

 

Chapter 31      Chapter 33