William Mason, chief engineer at Colt, came up with one of the grandest sixguns of all time, the 1873 Single Action Army. I’ve often maintained the SAA is so good Mason must’ve fallen asleep at the drawing board and some supernatural force drew up the plans in front of him as he slept.
Colt’s new sixgun was chambered in a new cartridge—the .45 Colt with a 255-grain bullet over 40 grains of black powder. Barrel length was 7-1/2″, it had a top strap and the grip frame was borrowed from the 1851 Navy. This was a very powerful pistol, and when I have duplicated the load with modern components in old-style brass, muzzle velocity is right at 900 fps.
The US Army did not only adopt this new revolver, but it also became a favorite among civilians. Colt would produce more than 350,000 Single Action Army revolvers from 1873 to 1940. Beginning in 1878 it was also chambered in the cartridges used by the Winchester 1873 levergun—first, the .44 Winchester Centerfire, then the .38 WCF, and the .32 WCF. During the course of production of what is now known as the 1st Generation Colts, these four cartridges were the most popular and in the order mentioned. More than 30 other chamberings were also offered.
By 1940 demand for the Colt Peacemaker had dropped and the machinery was worn out, so Colt removed it from production. Thanks to the demand produced by old Westerns on the new medium of television in the early 1950s such a demand rose the first of the 2nd Generation Colts arrived in December 1955. This time production would last a much shorter period ending in 1974 when machinery was once again worn out.
This time the shutdown period was much shorter and the 3rd Generation Colts arrived in 1976. Since then, the Colt Single Action Army has followed a somewhat strange path sometimes offered as a production gun and other times from the custom shop. The bad news is quality has also been spotty, however, the great news is current Colt Single Action Army sixguns are of excellent quality with close attention paid to fit and finish. Colt has added new machinery and adopted the attitude of wanting to produce the finest Single Action possible. I’d say they’ve succeeded.
I received three test sample SAAs in the three standard barrel lengths of 4-3/4″, 5-1/2″, and 7-1/2″ in three different chamberings. Colt is currently offering the Single Action Army in .45 Colt, .357 Magnum, .38 Special and the three WCF chamberings. The latter three are now better known as .44-40, .38-40 and .32-20. It is my understanding these latter designations came about in the 1880s when Marlin wanted to chamber their rifles in these cartridges without using the name Winchester on their barrels.
Before we look at each of the three SAAs separately, a few general remarks are appropriate. All three are excellently finished with a beautiful deep blue and the breathtaking case hardened colors Colt has long been known for. Metal to metal fit is excellent with no overhanging edges such as where the triggerguard meets the bottom of the mainframe. The grips are the standard checkered rubber black eagles, and are also fitted exceptionally well with no sharp edges hanging over, and the ears of the top of the backstrap and the curve of the back of the hammer are also fitted very well.
I was especially impressed with the lockup of the cylinder. The bolt is fitted to the notches in the cylinder, the cylinder is fitted to the base pin, and the base pin is fitted to the frame so there is very little side-to-side or front to back movement of the cylinder. All three sixguns are very well timed. An old test to check for timing is to place light thumb pressure on the cylinder producing resistance as the hammer is cocked. If the timing is off the cylinder will not lock completely into battery. All three cylinders passed the test. These guns are put together right!
Let’s look at them individually starting with the shortest barrel length. The 4-3/4″, known as the Civilian Model in the 1800s, is in .44-40. Trigger pull on this one was set at 4-1/8 pounds, barrel/cylinder gap is .006″, and the cylinder throats are all a uniform .429″. There is a lot of variation found in Single Actions, both domestic and replicas chambered in .44-40. I have found some as tight as .426″ and my 2nd Generation Peacemaker Centennial Commemorative and early 3rd Generation are set at .427″ and .429″, respectively. As a bullet caster, I tailor bullets to fit particular sixguns and always keep loads on hand with bullets in both diameters.
Shooters, especially those not familiar with the traditional fixed sights found on Single Actions often ask, “Why can’t they sight in these guns for me at the factory?” They are asking the impossible, as there are so many variables. We all see and hold differently, point of impact will vary according to the load used, and even the lighting conditions will affect where the bullet strikes the target. Because of the latter, I never try to sight in a sixgun under indoor lighting. I have also noticed if you spend a lot of time shooting during the day, the point of impact will change slightly as the angle of the sun changes. If you’re really lucky a Single Action will shoot right to point of aim with the selected load right out of the box. Anyone this lucky should be buying lottery tickets.
Having said all this, the .44-40, in my hands using my eyes and my loads, shoots approximately 1″ to the right and 3/4″ low at 20 yards. Both of these are an easy fix thanks to my friend Denis Fletcher, a retired engineer, who is now a pretty good machinist. He made a barrel vise for me, which fits the trailer hitch on my Silverado. We have become experts at twisting barrels and it won’t take much to bring this one right into line and, once the load is selected, file just enough off the top of the front sight to bring point of aim in perfect alignment with point of impact.
I have pretty much standardized on 200- to 225-grain bullets for the .44-40 using 8.0 grains of either Unique or Universal or 8.5 grains of Power Pistol. In the relatively short-barreled .44-40 these loads are in the 850 to 900 fps category, making them adequately powerful while still very pleasant shooting.
Next up is the 5-1/2″ .32-20. Trigger pull on this one is 4-3/4 pounds, barrel/cylinder gap is .005″, while the chamber throats are a uniform .313″. This one is dead on for windage and shoots about 1-1/2″ low so a few file strokes will bring it right to point of aim.
Two standard loadings for the .32-20 for decades has been 5.0 grains of Unique or 10.0 grains 2400. These loads put the .32-20 into the Magnum class and should not be approached lightly. (They are only for large-framed revolvers and never should be used in either the S&W M&P or the Colt Police Positive.) Both of these loads shot well with 100-grain cast bullets. Recoil in the relatively heavy Colt is extremely mild. This .32-20 would make an excellent varmint pistol, and no can or rock at a reasonable distance would stand a chance.
Finally we come to the 7-1/2″ .38-40. My first Colt, my first centerfire sixgun, was a .38-40 and it has been a favorite cartridge ever since. (OK, so I have many favorite cartridges.) This SAA has a trigger pull of 4-1/2 pounds, barrel/cylinder gap of .007″, and cylinder chamber throats are a uniform .399″. This one will definitely need a barrel tweaking as it shoots 2″ to the right for me and 3/4″ low.
In a properly set up sixgun, the .38-40 is a very accurate cartridge. It got a bad rap in the early days simply because chamber throats and barrel diameters did not always match up very well. This is no longer the case. My standard load for the .38-40 is 8.0 grains of Universal or Unique under a 180-grain cast bullet. Muzzle velocities are in the 1,000 to 1,100 fps, again, resulting in a powerful but pleasant shooting load. All test results are in the accompanying chart and reveal what an excellent performer this Colt Single Action really is.
All three of these are test guns on loan, however, all three of them are not going back. I will definitely purchase one of them (there is no way the .38-40 will ever leave my hands), possibly two, and if finances are in line, all three. I can’t give them any finer recommendation than that.
Single Action Army
Maker: Colt Mfg. Co.
545 New Park Ave.
West Hartford, CT 06110
(860) 236-6311, www.coltsmfg.com
Action Type: Single Action
Caliber: .32-20, .38-40, .44-40 (tested) .45 Colt, .357 Magnum, .38 Special
Barrel Length: 4-3/4″, 5-1/2″, 7-1/2″
Overall Length: 10-1/4″, 11″, 13″
Weight: 39 ounces (varies)
Finish: Blue/Case Hardened Frame, full nickel
Grips: Checkered black eagle
Price: $1,290, $1,490 (nickel)
*For safety, this revolver must be carried with the hammer down on an empty chamber, reducing capacity to five.
Black Hills Ammunition
P.O. Box 3090, Rapid City, SD 57709
(605) 348-5150, www.black-hills.com
Walt Ostin of Custom Gun Leather
39-1260 Fisher Rd. RR 2
Cobble Hill, BC, VOR ILO Canada