It was a grand Thanksgiving Day. Family, good friends and good food, in this case Spanish style all the way with Enchiladas, Burritos, Chili Rellenos, Rice Ortega, and Spanish Rice. If the first Thanksgiving Day was not celebrated this way it should have been. After dinner, we reached for the Smith K-22, Ruger Single-Six, and Smith & Wesson 422 for some enjoyable plinking and also to have my daughter and son-in-law brush up on their shooting and handling of handguns as the final step , having already finished the safety and liability course, before applying for their concealed weapons permits.
Like most young men, my son-in-law has been busy the past fifteen years getting married, finishing college, starting a family, choosing a career, all the time-consuming things that leave little time for shooting except for the occasional outing with the 10/22 I gave them as a wedding present. Now with his life settled down he was becoming hooked on handguns.
After we returned from plinking, he took a phone call in my office. It seemed to take a long time and when he finally came out I knew why. He was carrying a sixgun that had been on my desk along with a belt and holster. He was totally enthralled by the simple beauty of the ivory- gripped sixgun. And well he might be as the gun he discovered was probably the finest lookin', slickest handlin' sixgun ever created, the Colt Single Action Army, in this case a four and three quarter-inch .45 Colt. His eyes fairly sparkled as I said: "I just got 500 rounds of .45 brass, they will be loaded and ready to go for our next plinking session."
The now legendary Colt Single Action Army was first offered in the now equally legendary .45 Colt. Basically designed for the military market, the SAA was offered in a barrel length of seven and one half- inches to duplicate the feel of the 1851 Navy and 1860 Army. The Single Action Colt was soon offered with a five and one-half inch barrel, the Artillery Model as opposed to the longer Cavalry Model. When the barrel length was cut even with the ejector rod housing one of the finest balanced sixguns (the finest?) ever emerged, the four and three-quarter inch barreled single action.
A Shootist was just as dangerous with his sixgun in the holster as if it were in his hand. Perhaps even more so. The average reaction time is somewhere around one-half second. A sixgunner who practices religiously, as I did for a number of years, can draw and fire and hit the target with unbelievable speed. I myself was able to get down below one-quarter of a second and sometimes when I was really on, in the neighborhood of one-tenth of a second. No reaction time is fast enough to counter this. The old "you go for your gun first" myth is just that, a myth. All other things being equal, he who drew second finished second.
The Colt Single Action was carried by gunfighter's on both sides of the law: Jesse James, Cole Younger, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, the list goes on and on. In 1916, before heading into Mexico after Pancho Villa, a young Army Lieutenant picked up an Ivory-gripped Single Action Army .45 in El Paso. The engraved sixgun became famous on the hip of then General Patton in World War Two. It had two notches in the grip from the Mexican campaign.
The career of the infamous team of Bonnie and Clyde was stopped by former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, whose favorite sixgun was "Old Lucky" a .45 Colt Single Action. There are those who have said that Hamer went modern and carried a .45 Government Model the same as the rest of the posse on the Bonnie and Clyde hunt. Not so. My good friend, Sheriff Jim Wilson of Crockett County, Texas, contacted Frank Hamer Jr. who said
that his famous father always carried two guns, his .45 Colt Single Action and a back-up. His normal backup was a .44 Special Triplelock, but he substituted a brand new .38 Super when taking the infamous duo. But his sixgun of choice, then and always, was a Colt Single Action Army.
Of course, without the Colt Single Action there would have been no reel, movie -style that is, gunfighters. Can one even imagine John Wayne or Roy Rogers or Gene Autry or any of a host of other Saturday afternoon western heroes carrying a Beretta 9MM? Matt Dillon meeting Arvo Ojala on the streets of Dodge City at the beginning of "Gunsmoke" every Saturday night carrying a .357 double action revolver just would not have seemed right. Although in Matt Dillon's case, it was not a Colt Single Action, but the first Colt clone, a Great Western.
Colt Single Actions are legendary for their blinding speed. At least in the movies. Glenn Ford, in "The Fastest Gun Alive" and subsequent movies, carried his Colt Single Action in a rig quite different from other stars. The holster rode higher, and in front of it, sewed vertically to the belt, was a thick piece of leather. Ford would cock the hammer in the holster, fire the first shot and then swipe the hammer back on the piece of leather as the sixgun came forward and fire the second shot. Charles McDonald Heard, a teacher of movie fast draw, went Ford one better. Heard cocked the gun in the holster for the first shot, caught the hammer with the thumb of his left hand for the second shot, then swept the hammer back with the little finger on his left hand for the third shot. And defied anyone to be fast enough to count all three shots!
In 1925, a young Idaho cowboy stepped out on the porch of his modest ranch house and celebrated the Fourth of July by shooting his Colt Single Action .45 Colt. Before he was done, he would blow the top strap and top of the cylinder off the old black powder Colt. The over- sized 300 grain .45-70 bullets seated over all the black powder that could be squeezed into the case had proved too much for the ancient Colt. The gun was gone but a new career was launched as with this episode Elmer Keith began the writing that would make him world famous. Keith's first cartridge sixgun had been a seven and one-half inch .32-20 Colt Single Action and when he found the little .32 lacking in game killing power, he went to the .45 Colt. When the .45 blew apart in his hands, Keith found the .44 Special and the rest, as they say, is history.
A number of special Colt Single Actions, .44 Specials that is, were built up by custom 'smiths under Keith's directions in the 1920's and 1930's and they were favorite hunting sixguns until the early 1950's. At that time Smith & Wesson brought out the .44 Special 1950 Target Model and the Single Actions were put away in favor of the more `efficient' double action forty-fours. By 1956, Keith had the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum and this became his gun of choice for the rest of his long life.
Roots normally run deep and I found Keith's roots when I unloaded his sixguns after his death. The occasion was a gathering of the Elmer Keith Museum Foundation Board and all of Elmer's sixguns were displayed for the first time since his death. I found his business guns were still loaded and I, not too dry-eyed I might add, unloaded them for safe handling. Cylinder after cylinder of his .44 Magnums were emptied and then I found something quite curious. Keith had indeed not forgotten his roots and the only non-.44 Magnum sixgun I found loaded was a four and three-quarter inch Colt .45. The same type that had launched his writing career in 1925. And from the looks of the ammunition, it had been loaded for decades. Keith graduated from the .45 Colt to the .44 Special to the .44 Magnum. The Colt Single Actions were retired in favor of the N- frame Smith & Wesson big bore double action. But he never forgot his beginning and if he ever needed it, the old .45 Colt Single Action Army was ready and waiting.
My roots also run deep. My first big bore sixgun was a Colt Single Action Army purchased as a teenager in 1957. It was a beautiful four and three-quarter inch .38-40 in excellent shape and like a fool I let it get away. It has been many years and many handguns since then, but the last Colt Single Action I purchased earlier this year sixgun I purchased, was a Third Generation seven and one-half inch .44-40. Magnum. Over ninety years separated the manufacture of these two sixguns and there have been many in between most of which I still have and enjoy and will pass on to friends and grandsons when I leave this life. The Colt Single Action Army, the Model P, began life in 1873 with the first sixgun to be chambered in .45 Colt. That first SAA, a seven and one-half incher with serial number One and one piece walnut grips, still exists and resides in a private collection. Before production ceased in 1941, the First Generation Colt Single Actions numbered around 357,000. Over half of these were in .45 Colt, with half of the remainder being in .44-40. The rest were .38-40, .32-20, .41 Long Colt, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, and .44 Special plus somewhere between twenty-one and twenty-eight other calibers depending upon which expert one gives the most credence to.
By the early 1950's, America was hooked on westerns through the new medium of television and the demand for Single Actions soared. Both Ruger and Great Western brought out copies of the Colt. Ruger went with all coil springs and .22 caliber; Great Western virtually duplicated the old Colt except for the frame mounted firing pin. By the early 1960's, Great Western was gone and Ruger had enlarged their single action and brought it out in .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, and the new .41 Magnum. They even improved the improvement and called it the Super Blackhawk.
Colt re-tooled and the Second Generation of Colt Single Action Armies began with serial number 001SA in 1955. The first guns were in .38 Special and .45 Colt with five and one-half and seven and one-half inch barrels being available. I bought one of the first seven and one- half inch .45's and if you think guns in general and Colt Single Actions in particular are expensive now, it would be well to note that I paid $125 for that Colt at a time I was making ninety-cents an hour! It took a lot of hard work unloading heavy freight from trucks and boxcars to pay for that Colt.
By 1957, Colt chambered for the .44 Special and I have a five and one-half inch 1957-made .44 that is a prime example of the gunmaker's art. No, it is not for sale. That sixgun came in a curious trade. About fifteen years ago, a Colt Single Action Army in .44 Special was advertised in the local paper for $450. I went to look at it and decided, foolishly, it was too much money. The next day my wife picked up my repaired boots at the bookmakers and they were almighty heavy when she handed them to me. In one of them was that Colt Single Action. When she picked up the boots, she also made a side trip and gathered in the .44 Special.
That sixgun was how I first met Skeeter Skelton as Single Action .44 Specials were his passion also. A close-up picture of the barrel with "RUSSIAN AND SMITH & WESSON SPECIAL 44", got me right to Skeeter's heart. The .44 Colt had been used by a lawman in Colorado and when I found out how valuable the 1927 Colt .44 was, I traded it to a collector for the above mentioned 1957 .44 Special, a .45 Colt New Frontier, and my wife's $450 back.
By 1961, the New Frontier was brought forth to honor new president JFK. This is one of the most beautiful of the beautiful Colt Single Actions. Modernized with a Ruger-style flat-top frame and adjustable rear sight, the New Frontier was made in .45 Colt, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, and .44 Special. I still have a hard time forgiving myself for not coming up with the $140 needed to purchase a .44 Special New Frontier in 1962. Only 255 Second Generation New Frontier .44 Specials were made and I let it get away.
By 1975, the Colt Single Action was in the 74,000SA serial number range and Colt announced that production would cease once again. This shutdown was much shorter than the fourteen years between the First and Second Generations as the Third Generation began in 1976 at serial number 80,000SA and when they hit 99,999 the `SA' became the prefix of the serial number. The final run of Colt Single Action sixguns were beautifully finished but are no way the equal of the Second or First Generations Colts. Today the Colt Single Action is offered as a Colt Custom Shop proposition.
With the advent of the Third Generation Single Action, the design of the cylinder hand and bushing were changed to cut costs, the hammer was given a flat-looking unsightly profile and some of the last ones were really slopped through as Colt flooded the market with every possible variation. By 1981, the Colt Single Action Army, except for Custom Shop Models, was gone. The last run had been in .45 Colt, .357 Magnum, .44 Special, and .44-40.
Just what is so special about the Single Action Army? A design that has its beginning over 150 years ago with the first Colt-designed single action . Pick up a Colt Single Action and you will discover true sixgun quality. As I have said before, the aesthetic value of the Colt Single Action cannot be approached by any other handgun. If your soul, spirit and heart are not touched by the feel and genuine great looks of a Colt Single Action Army, something is wrong. Slowly cock the hammer and listen. As the big hammer moves past the safety notch one hears a distinct "C"; the hammer moves past the half-cock and an audible "O" registers. As the hand pushes against the ratchet on the back of the cylinder, one who listens carefully can hear an "L"; and finally as the hammer and trigger come together in the firing mode, a definite "T" comes forth. Yes C-O-L-T is heard distinctly as the hammer comes back. If you are not emotionally affected by the graceful lines of the big bore Colt, you are on dangerous ground my friend. You have crossed over the line from enjoying fine handguns as works of art into the drab world of viewing them as working tools like claw hammers and computers. If this is true, it is time to slow down, quit taking life so seriously, and enjoy the finer things once again.
This would be a good spot to interject safe handling of the Colt Single Action, or for that matter any Old Model Ruger, Great Western, or other single action which does not have a safety or transfer bar. All of these sixguns MUST be carried with an empty chamber under the hammer. A loaded round with the firing pin resting on the primer, or precariously poised above it in an inadequate `safety' notch, is a dangerous accident waiting to happen.
To load such single actions, of which the Colt is the prime example, place the hammer on half cock, open the loading gate, load the first round, skip one chamber and then load four more. Close the gate. pull the hammer back all the way, and then it can be lowered gently on the empty chamber. Remember, load one, skip one, load four, pull the hammer all the way back and let it down gently. All of the old timers knew this and often carried rolled up greenbacks in the empty chamber.
Some will say the Colt Single Action is outdated and fit for the museum only. They said the same thing with the coming of the first workable double action revolver in 1899. They said it in 1911 with the birth of the Colt Government Model semi-auto. The death knell was sounded again in 1941. I heard it was ancient and not worthy of my time in the 1950's when I started shooting, and I still hear it today.
Yes, the Colt Single Action is ancient. It has flat springs that will break, especially the hand and bolt springs. But even someone as fumble-fingered and as devoid of gunsmithing skills as I am can replace either. They still claim the Colt Single Action Army is inaccurate, that there is no way its long hammer fall can allow groups that will match modern double action and semi-automatic handguns. Hogwash.
I have three shooting class First Generation Colt Single Actions, one a Single action Army and the other two are pre-World War I Bisleys, which are simply Single Action Armies with wide trigger and hammer and a larger grip. Both of these Bisleys were purchased as dogs and have been rebarreled and re-cylindered to .44 Special. Both will shoot one- hole groups at 25 yards with either the original .44-40 cylinder or the Second generation .44 Special cylinder in place and one will even do it with .44 Russian brass and black powder. Now that is versatility! The standard Single Action is also a .44 Special 7 1/2" that started life as a 4 3/4" .32-20.
Second and Third Generation big bore Single Actions in both .45 Colt and .44 Special chamberings will shoot one-hole groups at twenty- five yards even with their old fashioned fixed sights. And with their 250 to 260 grain bullets at 900 to 1000 feet per second they do it with a gentle recoil that makes a second or third shot easy to get off if one is ever really needed.
Show me any other big bore sixgun that is as easy to holster as a Single Action Colt. It simply securely rides in a minimum of leather. It balances in leather and it balances in the hand, so much so that I believe that the marvelous balance and design of the Colt is so perfect that it was not an invention but a discovery. It is almost supernatural in its origin and has never been equalled.
If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, then the Colt Single Action has been praised to the high heavens. Consider
the fact that Great Western started in the 1950's as the first company to clone the Colt SAA. They even used genuine Colts in the pictures in their first advertising. Their guns were true to the SAA except for the fact that a Christy-style frame-mounted firing pin was used. At about the same time that Great Western's Bill Wilson, no relation to the famous Arkansas pistolsmith, was bringing out big bore single actions, Bill Ruger reached into the past and looked into the future at the same time and introduced a down-scaled single action .22 with a full-sized grip frame identical in shape to the Colt Single Action Army, and virtually unbreakable coil springs for the hammer, hand, and bolt. This gun would eventually evolve into the Blackhawks of today.
Over the past few decades we have seen an almost endless number of suppliers of Colt clones from Italy. Today, Cimarron Arms is bringing in Colt replicas that are so close to the original that a casual inspection will have the sixgunner thinking he has a new Colt from the 1880's. Big Bore Cimarron Single Actions are available in .45 Colt and .44 Special as well as .44-40 and .38-40.
The traditional Colt Single Action Army is one sixgun that comes from the factory with comfortable, usable grips. The original Colt grip is perfect for cartridges up to around 1100-1200 feet per second with a 250 grain bullet. After that recoil starts to become very noticeable, however Colt Single Actions should not be pushed any harder than these big bore, medium energy loads.
When I re-stock a Colt Single Action it is normally to get a better looking grip not change the grip profile.
Many early holsters were really not holsters at all but soft sheaths that swallowed the whole gun. This offered maximum protection and security but made a fast draw impossible. A Cherokee Indian and lawman of the early part of this century, Tom Threepersons, designed a rig for the Colt Single Action that still bears his name. Threepersons took his idea to Tio Sam Myers of El Paso who made the Threepersons holster of stiff saddle skirting, wet formed to the sixgun. The hammer and the trigger guard were completely exposed and the trigger guard rode on a welt that ran the full length of the holster. The holster rode high and tight on a belt with no extra trappings. Nothing except enough leather to accept the barrel and cylinder of the Single Action Colt. Everything included in the holster was all business. Serious social business.
Pick up a sea shell and it is said that one can hear the sea as the shell is placed over the ear. Pick up a Colt Single Action and you can hear the tickling of the ivories in a saloon on Main Street in Dodge City; you can smell wet cattle as they are driven north through wind and rain and dust; you can taste fresh cooked bacon and beans over a campfire in the mountains of Montana; and you can see the history of a country stretching over a century.
Pull back on the large hammer, sight down the hog wallow trough that serves as a rear sight, and slowly squeeze the trigger. As the gun roars and gently bucks in recoil on a .45 Colt or .44 Special or .44-40 you feel the mild but business like recoil of a heavy bullet as it settles its business with finality. No heavy-kickin' Magnum here, but a payload that has served sixgunners for over 100 years.
An uncountable number of deer, black bear, cougars, and even grizzly bear have fallen to the old Colt. A young rancher friend of mine stills carries a .45 Colt 4 3/4" as his everyday ranch sixgun and he has taken everything that walks hereabouts and he does it with blackpowder loads. This man will never suffer from the stress of modern life. He has discovered one of the real keys to happiness.
Watch a group of Colt Single Action devotees gather and start talking about the big Colt. You can tell 'em easily. A big Stetson, a $300 pair of boots and a nickel's worth of clothes in between. They have a contented look on their faces that no one else can understand. Their eyes mist over as they talk in reverential, almost mystical, tones about the virtues of the Single Action Colt. Yes, they will look down their noses at your wondernine and maybe even politely laugh a little at your poor choice of handgun. Call 'em throwbacks if you will, but don't call 'em out.
Handguns are my passion, and Colt Single Actions are the ultimate consuming passion. For big game hunting my first choice is one of the excellent five-shot revolvers from Freedom Arms. Knocking about the woods, A virtually indestructible Ruger, preferably an old Flat-top Single Action suits me just fine. And for defensive use, I can think of no finer choice than a four-inch double action big-bore sixgun from Smith & Wesson. BUT, when I want to stir my soul, quicken my spirit, or make my heart beat just a little faster, I'll reach for a Colt Single Action Army and head for the hills.