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The Colt Single Action Army Revolver: The Gun that Won the West

In the last few decades of the 19th Century, America’s Wild West was a dangerous, lawless place. With law enforcement officers spread relatively thinly, it was a thankless task trying to keep order in an era of shoot outs, legendary characters we still revere today, Native American raiding parties and vendettas which sometimes played out over several years.

To say that one single make of gun ‘won the west’ perhaps has an air of exaggeration to it, but if you’re looking for a gun that radically changed the period in which it appeared and has gone on to become the defining gun of the American West, you need to look no further than the Colt Single Action Army revolver.

Contrary to popular belief, the Colt Single Action Army, also known as the SAA, Model P, Peacemaker and M1873, was not the most popular revolver at the time, that accolade went to the lesser-known Harrington & Richardson gun, which had sold 3 million models by 1908. But the Single Action Army’s design, power and reliability made it the standout gun of the era – so much so that Colt are now on the third generation of the revolver and over 150 years after it was first sold, you can still purchase a new model today. 

This was the gun that came to symbolise the American West, and through popular culture, its fame soared decades after its peak usage. 

The Wild West

As I’ve just mentioned, lawless is perhaps one of the best words to describe the American West at the time that the Colt Single Action Army appeared. The bitter American Civil War had ended in 1865, though the nation remained deeply divided. This was perhaps more visible the further east you went in the country, where much of the fighting had taken place, and where the war wounds were at their rawest.  

Civil War reenactment at American Museum, Bath The American Museum in Bath is dedicated to showing how our transatlantic cousins lived from the 1680s to the 1860s.By Nat Bocking is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Things were more complicated out West. While battle lines had been drawn between white Americans during the Civil War, there was also the ongoing situation with the Native Americans who were understandably furious with the constant encroachment by the white men and women into their territories.

Native tribes had been pushed off their lands as early as 1786 and over the next hundred years, many were gradually pushed West as the United States looked to colonise its vast open wildness. But the tribes were far from passive and on countless occasions delivered a bloody nose to the Americans through raiding parties, ambushes and even full-scale conflict.  

To complicate things further, there were plenty of truly unsavoury characters roaming the west at the time. Whether it was through cattle rustling, armed robbery or just plain good old fashioned murder, there was always plenty for the sheriffs and their deputies to busy themselves with. 

All of this combined to make the American West a thrillingly dangerous place where fortunes could be made quickly and where you could be shot in the back for it just as fast. 

Samuel Colt   

It is an interesting twist that the man who made such a profound impact on the American West was born and died about as far away from the West as you could possibly get in Hartford, Connecticut. Samuel Colt was born in 1814 and it was said his early idea for a revolver with a rotating cylinder came to him while aboard a ship headed for Calcutta while learning the seaman’s trade as a young man. Aged just 16 or 17 at the time, he fashioned a wooden model of his revolver design of which he would return to in later years. 

Steel Engraving of Samuel Colt with a Colt 1851
Navy Revolver.

After a brief stint as a street entertainer, he enlisted a gunsmith from Baltimore to build a prototype of the gun he had designed while on the open seas. In 1835, Colt headed for England where he was granted a patent and a year later he was also in possession of an American patent. 

His design wasn’t revolutionary but came with a few notable differences including a percussion cap, which made ignition much more reliable and faster than the older flintlock design (a gun using a flint striking mechanism). Perhaps the most significant difference was the gun’s use of interchangeable parts, meaning that everything in the gun would be mass-produced and so easily fixed. Colt’s vision of an assembly line of workers producing the gun was still a long way off, but he was certainly on the right track. 

Things got off to a rocky start indeed and a combination of the financial crisis of 1837, reckless spending on the part of Colt and changes in design meant that he went out of business in 1843. He unquestionably had a great gun on his hands, but perhaps slightly ahead of its time, which could be seen in the tendency for curious soldiers to strip down the revolver to see how it worked. And surprise surprise, it didn’t work properly when re-assembled. 

But it was an encounter with Samuel Hamilton Walker in 1847 that revived Colt’s gun-making fortunes. Walker, a captain with the Texas Rangers at the time, was a fan of Colt’s earlier revolver and had even used it with great success to fight off a large Comanche raid. After travelling to New York to meet with Colt, he ordered 1,000 revolvers that would be used by Rangers in the Mexican–American War. 

Walker requested a few minor changes, the most significant being it needed to carry six bullets and not five and the gun that appeared came to be known as the Colt Walker. What came next was a hugely successful period for Samuel Colt as numerous revolvers emerged, including the Colt Dragoon, Colt 1851 Navy, Colt Army Model 1860, and Colt M1861 Navy.  

As America exploded into civil war, Colt supplied arms to both sides, an act that led more than one furious northern newspaper to label him as a ‘southern sympathiser’. Say what you want about feeding weapons to both sides during a bloody civil war, but it certainly made Colt an enormous amount of money. When he died in 1862, after complications with gout, he left around $15,000,000 (equivalent to $385,000,000 today). His revolvers had made him a staggering amount of money and yet he died before the most famous gun to carry his name had even come into existence.

First Generation 

Colt may not have been alive to see the iconic gun come to bear, but he certainly got the ball rolling. The problem had been that another company, Rollin White, already held a patent for a single shot bored-through revolver cylinder, which was set to expire in 1869. But while you couldn’t sell a gun with the same kind of design, you could certainly begin designing it and for this Colt had turned to two of his finest engineers at the company, William Mason and Charles Brinckerhoff Richards. 

US Colt Single Action 1873 Cavalry Model first generation
US Colt Single Action 1873 Cavalry Model.

In 1872, ten years after Samuell Colt’s death, the new revolver, then known as the New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol, underwent army trials and after suitably impressing, it entered full production in 1873. The weapon quickly became a firm favourite for the U.S military and over the next 20 years, they purchased around 30,000 of them at a reported cost of $13 each (£280 today). And if you’re lucky to have had one of these passed down to you, it’s probably worth in the region of $10,000 – $15,000 today.

Two years after the military introduction of the gun, it was released to the wider public and came with the nickname ‘Peacemaker’, which sounds entirely ironic but I’m fairly sure it wasn’t meant to be.   

This was a single-shot weapon, meaning that the hammer needed to be cocked back before every shot. And after the shot, the cylinder would clink around one-stop, loading a fresh cartridge into the chamber.   

The first generation gun came in several barrel length varieties, typically used for different situations or even different types of user. The two most common barrel lengths were the 120 mm (4.75 inches), known as the ‘Civilian’ or ‘Gunfighter’ model, and the 140 mm (​5.5 inches) model but the Cavalry standard at 190 mm ​(7.5 inches) also sold well. The was also a 100 mm (sub-4-inch) barrel unofficially called the ‘Sheriff’s Model’, ‘Banker’s Special’, or ‘Storekeeper’ which came without an ejector rod but its smaller size meant it could be easily hidden. 

The Colt Single Action Army came with a six-chamber cylinder and a loading gate feeding cartridges into the cylinder on the right side of the receiver. Loading the gun was quick and easy and required the shooter to simply half-cock the hammer, open the loading gate and insert the cartridges. An action that you have no doubt seen countless times in the movies. When all the cartridges were spent, you needed only to align the chamber with the loading gate and pull the ejector rod back to open the cylinder and allow the cartridges to fall out. 

And while we’re on the subject of cartridges, this was another area where the Colt Single Action Army set itself apart. In the past, guns, including Colt’s, had used the percussion cap method, meaning that by pulling the trigger, the hammer inside the gun would drop onto a percussion cap of mercury fulminate. This in turn ignited a paper cartridge containing black powder and a bullet. The explosion of the black powder would then force the bullet down the barrel and out of the gun.  

The first metallic cartridges had been first developed at the beginning of the 19th Century, but it wasn’t until 1845 that Frenchman Louis-Nicolas Flobert invented the first rimfire metallic cartridge. The Smith and Wesson Model 1 was the first U.S revolver to use the method in 1857 and roughly fifteen years later, it was also used on the Colt Single Action Army. 

These new types of cartridges significantly sped up the rate of loading and firing, while also making the bullets much more water-resistant. Instead of the complex percussion cap method, the metallic cartridges contained a primer, black powder, and bullet all in a single brass cartridge. Firing six bullets had never been easier. 

Another quite cool, yet not entirely useful aspect of the Single Action Army was the ability to ‘fan-fire’ the weapon. Again, this is almost certainly something you would have seen in the movies and involved the firer holding down the trigger and repeatedly slapping the top of the hammer to make the gun fire rapidly. It looked great when John Wayne did it, but you’d better make sure you’ve hit your target otherwise you’re going to be scrambling around trying to reload while being chased by the target you probably missed because fan-firing was notoriously inaccurate.    

A Gun Through History

This gun and its various model varieties such as the Frontier Six-Shooter, the Colt Bisley and the Buntline Special which came with an enormous 300 mm (12-inch-long) barrel, were a huge success and by 1941, Colt had produced 310,000 of these revolvers. 

The gun was involved in major conflicts that spanned many decades. Custer’s fool-hardy last stand was done so with the weapon by his side, while future President Theodore Roosevelt, who famously led his Rough Riders regiment during the American-Spanish War of 1898 as they stormed the Spanish defences on San Juan Hill in Cuba, also did so with Colt Single Action Army in hand. 

In 1881, as gunfire erupted in the town of Tombstone between a group of outlaws and lawmen, including such famed figures as Virgil and Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday, it was said that every weapon firing that day was a Colt Single Action Army. The gunfight, which has been rather erroneously named the ‘shootout at the OK Corral’, did not, in fact, take place in the Corral at all, but rather next to C. S. Fly’s Photographic Studio on Fremont Street. The fight lasted just thirty seconds and it was said only thirty shots were fired, resulting in the deaths of three of the outlaws.

One man who perhaps did more than any other in creating a lasting legacy for the Colt Single Action Army was a man born William Frederick Cody – but you will almost certainly know him better as Buffalo Bill. This was a man of extraordinary legend, a cowboy, a medal of honour soldier, a scout, a prolific hunter (apparently killing 4,282 buffalo in eighteen months in 1867 and 1868) – in many ways he embodied not just the American West but the type of man that many wished to be.

In 1883, he set up his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a circus-like attraction that toured annually and eventually reached as far as Europe. It was a phenomenal international success, think Cats crossed with the Lion King and Hamilton and at the centre of much of it was Buffalo Bill’s almost hallowed treasure, his Colt Frontier. This is almost certainly where the phrase, the gun that won the west first appeared. 

The popularity of the gun meant that Colt continued making it right up until the start of World War II – and even then they stopped to focus on more useful guns for the war rather than the weapon falling out of fashion. There are countless instances of the Colt Single Action Army appearing during the bloody six-year war, but without question, the most famous was the ivory-handled Colt revolver strapped to the side of a certain General George S Patton throughout the war. 

Quick side note on Patton before we move on. In 1916 he was part of the military expedition that crossed the border into Mexico in search of the Mexican revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa. While out looking for a place to buy corn, the young Patton inadvertently stumbled upon the residence of one Julio Cárdenas, a captain in Pancho’s small army. With just fifteen men and three Dodge Touring Cars, Patton and the Americans attacked, quickly overwhelming Cardenas, leaving him and two others dead. 

Now, I’m telling you this story for two reasons. Firstly, the use of the Dodge cars meant that this was the first-ever U.S motorised military action and perhaps more pertinent for this particular story, the gun that the young Patton blazed away with that day was of course a Colt Peacemaker. The story goes that he made two notches on his gun to symbolise the two men he had just killed, though the question of who actually fired the rounds that killed the three men has long been debated.    

The Second and Third Generations

In the years after World War II, the Colt Single Action Army came roaring back into fashion on the back of renewed interest in the American West and the huge popularity of films set during the period. Colt initially had no plans to restart making the Single Action Army, but with the western now in vogue, production commenced once again in 1953 sparking the guns second generation. Just over 73,000 were made up until 1974, while the Buntline Special and an adjustable-sight model known as ‘The New Frontier’ also received new runs of production.

The third generation began in 1976 with a new variety that came with a change in barrel thread pitch and a solid cylinder bushing instead of the replaceable parts. Around 20,000 of these were made up until 1982 but from 1994, production reverted to the replaceable parts. Today, the Colt Single Action Army comes in the three traditional barrel lengths: 120 mm (4.75 inch), 140 mm (​5.5 inch) and the 190 mm ​(7.5 inch), along with eight chamberings: .32-20, .38-40, .44-40, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .44 Special, .45 Colt, or .45 ACP. 

A Living Legend 

Colt has now been producing the Single Action Army on and off for almost 150 years, making it one of the longest-running weapon productions in history. As I mentioned earlier, this wasn’t even the most widely bought gun across its first 50 years, but it has since eclipsed almost everything else. If we’re talking about a gun during the American West, more often than not, it’s a Colt Single Action Army. 

To say it won the West is almost certainly a slight stretch and if you were a member of one of the tribes chased off their lands by gun-toting cowboys or the U.S cavalry, you probably have a very different interpretation of this gun and the effect it had. But the period in which the Single Action Army entered was one of dramatic change in America. The Transcontinental Railroad, a topic we’ve already covered on megaprojects if you’re interested, opened just a few years prior and completely transformed the country. Between 1876 and 1912, the final 11 lower 48 states were admitted to the union as the nation that we today know as the modern United States began to emerge. Roughly speaking, it also saw an end to what we know as the wild west era. The rampant lawlessness was slowly subdued as one of the most iconic periods in U.S history, filled with many of the most memorable tales, drew to a close. The Colt Single Action Army was, and still is, a revered weapon that holds a special place in a special period of U.S history. 

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