The original Colt Single Action Army serial number 1 was a seven and one-half inch barreled 'Cavalry Model' in the then brand new .45 Colt. It was 1873 and the new Army cartridge used a 255 grain conical bullet over a full forty grains of black powder. Both the Army and civilian shooters, on both sides of the law, buckled on the .45 Colt Peacemaker. The new sixgun spawned such sayings as "God Created Men But Sam Colt Made 'em Equal" and "Be Not Afraid Of Any Man No Matter What His Size. When Danger Threatens Call On Me And I Will Equalize."
By 1877, the Colt Peacemaker was chambered in .44 W.C.F (Winchester Center-Fire) or .44-40 as a companion piece to the 1873 Winchester lever gun. The .44-40 carried the same forty grains of black powder as the .45 Colt but with a flatter shooting 200 grain bullet. All .44-40 Colt Single Actions were barrel marked FRONTIER SIXSHOOTER.
The Colt Single Action Big Bore Trio was completed in 1886 as the second '73 Winchester chambering was added with the .38-40 or .38 Winchester Center Fire. This time the same powder charge of forty grains propelled a 180 grain bullet. These three chamberings .45 Colt (158,985 manufactured), .44-40 (71,281), and .38-40 (50,520) accounted for the about 80% of the total sales of the First Generation Colt Single Action Armies produced from 1873 to 1941. More than thirty calibers appear in the other 20%.
A look through most books dealing with old Colts will show that the .45 Colt and .44-40 were the choice of many well known shooters with only a few exceptions as far as the .38-40 is concerned. A 1930's Texas Ranger by the name of William E. Cooper carried a beautiful Cole Agee engraved 5 1/2" .38-40 Colt. One of Tom Mix's favorite sixguns was a stag handled 7 1/2" .38-40 Colt Single Action Army. Wanna guess what John Wayne carried in his 'B' westerns.? Yep, a 5 1/2" .38-40 Colt Single Action Army.
When the Second Generation Colt Single Actions came forth from Hartford in the 1950's, only the .45 Colt of the above three calibers made the leap into the post-World War Two Era. It was joined by the .38 Special, .357 Magnum, and .44 Special. By the time of the Third Generation Colts in the late 1970's, the .38 Special was long gone and the .45 Colt, .44 Special, and .357 Magnum were joined by the .44-40. The Third Generation Single Action Armies went the way of all flesh, but Praise the Lord are now resurrected in not only .45 Colt and .44-40, but for the first time in over fifty years, the .38-40 is back and once again being chambered in a Colt Single Action.
Lest one think that the .38-40 is old and antiquated and fit only for the bone yard, consider that ballistically it is a deadringer for that most modern of all semi-automatics, the 1990's born and bred .40 S&W! Yes both use a 180 grain bullet at about nine hundred to one thousand feet per second in 'standard' loadings.
As a teenager, I purchased a .38-40 x 4 3/4" Colt Single Action Army in excellent shape. The addition of a Lawrence Gunslinger outfit in black basket weave finish and handmade one piece walnut stocks and I thought I was quite the sixgunner. Truth was the sixty-year old Colt cost me two weeks pay and the holster and belt another week and I could barely afford to shoot more than a few rounds at a time in those pre- reloading days.
Marriage, three young babies, college tuition all followed in rapid succession and it became a case of groceries or guns and all but a few of my sixguns got away. As I finished college and began to have a few more dollars coming in than going out, I looked for a replacement Colt SAA in .38-40, but none ever surfaced. At least not at a reasonable price. Both Colts and Great Westerns in .45 Colt, .44 Special, .44-40, and .357 Magnum were found over the years and purchased eagerly but no .38-40.
Then in the early 1990's I heard that Colt would once again produce a .38-40 Single Action Army. My heart skipped a beat. When? Soon. Well, soon is now here and the Colt Single Action Army .38-40 is once again a reality in both blue and nickel finishes, and in 4 3/4" or 5 1/2" barrel lengths. After thirty-five years I am once again shooting a Colt .38-40. And loving it.
During the First Generation era of the Colt Single Action Army, buying a .38-40, whether it was a Single Action or double action New Service, was a real act of faith. Barrel grooves and chamber mouth diameters ran from tight to over-size and it was not uncommon to have a tight chamber and oversize bore or vice versa. If everything fell just right and you were kind to your parents and lived right and were uncommonly lucky, you just might get a .38-40 with the proper sized barrel and cylinder.
Finally, after all these years of doing without .38-40's, I am overjoyed to report that they are now doing it right. Both barrels and cylinder dimensions are tight, the chamber mouths on my test gun run .399-400", and the same thing seems to be true of other .38-40's that are out and being shot. The one I have is one of the tightest sixguns I have seen this side of Freedom Arms with minimum headspace and tight lock-up. Sloppy reloads will not pass muster here. All primers must be seated flush or below and brass must be properly sized and crimped or it is no go. The rounds simply will not fit the cylinder if they are less than perfect.
With all the renewed interest in the Old West spurred on by the cowboy action shooting events appearing all over the country, many participants in their desire to be totally traditional will opt for the .38-40 Colt Single Action Army. They will find that reloading for this old/new cartridge is not quite as straightforward as it is for say the .45 Colt or .44 Special. The .38-40 is a bottle-necked cartridge looking much like a .45 Colt necked down to forty caliber. Yes, in spite of its name the .38 WCF is not .38 caliber but a true forty caliber.
Being a bottle-necked case, the .38-40 requires a standard sizing die and lubing of brass before sizing. I use Dillon's spray lube for all of my .38-40 reloading, with Winchester brass being mated with CCI #300 standard primers. Brass is also quite thin in the neck area and will buckle if the case butts up against the base of the sizing or expanding dies. One slight bump is all it takes to ruin a case.
All Colt Single Actions come from the Colt Custom Shop and the test gun is finished in blue overall with a case hardened frame as only Colt can do it. Although the gun locks up tight with minimum cylinder end shake or side-to-side play, the inside is very rough and needs smoothed up by a competent gunsmith. Trigger pull, after a shimming of the mainspring with a leather washer between frame and spring, measured out at three and one-half pounds with Brownells' Chatillon trigger pull gauge.
Unlike all the recent .45 Colt and .44-40 Single Actions I have seen, the .38-40 came with black rubber grips of the Eagle style rather than the dull wood grips. The rubber grips feel good and are well fitted to the grip frame but I chose to outfit the .38-40 with a more Western looking pair of stag grips from Charles Able.
Picking leather for the .38-40 was easy. For open carry the El Paso Tom Threepersons basket stamped rig I have for the .44-40 Colt works perfectly and the belt loops also are the right size for the .38-40 brass. Since this Colt Single Action is a '.40 S&W' in disguise, I also opted for one of Milt Sparks' excellent concealment holsters , the #200AW with the hammer covered to protect a jacket lining and also the screw adjustable welt. The latter feature allows one to maintain proper tension for security without a hammer strap. I can carry a Government Model in my waist belt with perfect security, also a Browning Hi-Power or Smith & Wesson Model 3913. They stay exactly where they are put but not a revolver. A Single Action Army requires a holster for security and the Sparks' #200AW fits the bill perfectly.
Shooting any fixed sighted single action for the first time, be it Colt or Cimarron or EMF or Ruger, can be a real frustrating experience. Quite often they will shoot away from the sights and be off as to both windage and elevation. This Colt Single Action Army .38-40 proved to be right on the money windage wise and shoots three inches low. A little judicious filing on the front sight will raise the elevation and will dial it right in to perfection. The last Ruger Vaquero, EMF Hartford, and Cimarron Single Actions I tried all had this same trait. That is they all shot low and all were right on for windage. They are all doing it right.
The .38-40 was shot with factory ammunition as well as handloads with the standard cast bullet for the .38-40, Lyman's #401043, a 180 grain flat-nosed plain base, and Fusilier's 180 grain truncated cone designed for the .40 S&W and 10MM semi-autos. Fusilier has a complete line of hard cast premium custom bullets for both handguns and rifles. Contact them at 10010 North 6000 West, Highland Utah 84003. Phone 801- 756-6813.
Shooting a Colt Single Action, even one that is perfectly sighted in, can be a lesson in frustration. The original sights on the First Generation sixguns consisted of a very shallow rear sight mated up with an inverted V front sight. If one had good eyesight the tip of the front sight matched up with the top of the rear V and very precise shooting could be performed. Somewhere along the line, the rear sight become a square notch but the front sight is still tapered towards the top resulting in a strange sight picture with the front sight not filling the rear sight either fully nor with square sides matching completely with a square notch. So to give myself and the Colt Single Action Army .38-40 the benefit of the doubt, five shots were fired and the best four were measured.
For accuracy testing, the .38-40 Colt Single Action Army was shot at 25 yards using the Outer's Pistol Perch as a rest. This is not a Ransom Rest by any means, but simply consists of a rubber covered V to rest the barrel in and a padded platform for the hands. As one can see from the data chart, this is one fine shooting Single Action Army, in fact one of the finest I have ever had in my hands. Any time a fixed sighted single action will group down around one inch it is a keeper.
COLT SINGLE ACTION ARMY .38-40 X 4 3/4"
BRASS: WINCHESTER WESTERN .38-40 PRIMER: CCI #300
CHRONOGRAPH: PACT TEMPERATURE: 95 DEGREES
|Lyman #401043 180 gr/8.0 gr Unique||1022||1 1/8"|
|9.2 gr Unique||1065||2"|
|10.0 gr Unique||1235||2"|
|5.8 gr Bullseye||864||1 3/8"|
|6.5 gr WW452AA||983||1 1/4"|
|Fusilier 180 .401 TC/6.4 gr 452AA||993||1"|
|Winchester 180 JSP/Factory||755||1 1/4"|
The .38-40 never had a reputation for accuracy, a bum rap to say the least. When the sixgun is made right with close attention to tolerances, the above groups prove the .38-40 can hold its own with any .45 or .44 sixgun. It took a long time to bring the Colt Single Action .38-40 back to life. With results like this the wait was well worth it.
I could not resist running the .38-40 against other 'modern' .38-40 sixguns, namely an EMF Hartford, a Herter's .401 PowerMag converted to .38-40 by Bowen, and a Ruger .38-40 Blackhawk with barrel custom cut to four and five-eighth's inches. Again the .38-40 in a good sixgun can match any other caliber for accuracy.
COMPARISON OF .38-40 SIXGUNS
Lyman #401043 180 gr./6.5 gr. WW452AA
|Colt Single Action .38-40 x 4 3/4"||983||1 1/4"|
|EMF Hartford .38-40 x 4 3/4"||953||1"|
|Herter's .38-40 x 4 3/4"||944||1"|
|Ruger Blackhawk .38-40 x 4 3/4"||991||1 5/8"|