Gun Review: Colt “Peacemaker” Single Action Revolver

Arizona attained statehood in 1912. The Copper State retained a frontier ambience right into the mid 20th Century. To honor its past and proclaim its devotion to both the Second Amendment and Art. II, § 26 of Arizona’s state constitution (“The right of the individual citizen to bear arms in defense of himself or the State shall not be impaired”), the legislature recently named the Colt “Peacemaker” revolver Arizona’s official State Firearm. So why’d the Colt get the nod . . .

Colt employee William Mason designed the Single Action Army Revolver for US Ordnance Department trials. He fitted the gun with percussion revolver lockwork that came to maturity about 1850. It was still in use in contemporary Pocket, Belt and Holster revolvers.

The official report of the Ordnance Board recommended the Colt “to officers of the Army and Navy, guides, hunters and all who travel among dangerous communities as the best weapon to be carried on the person that has ever been devised.”

In 45 Colt chambering, the revolver was standard issue from 1873 until it’s replacement by a Colt double action revolver in 1891. Government contracts accounted for just over 37,000 units of a total production of 136,000 pieces within that time frame. The Colt remained in production until 1941 and the beginning of  the Second World War.

“First Generation” Production totaled 357,859 revolvers. The revolver remained popular among hunters, experimenters, explorers and police officers. Prompted by Western movies and television series, the company produced Second Generation Colts from 1956 to 1975. Guns produced after 1975 are deemed “third generation.”

Although first generation revolvers encompassed at least thirty calibers, 45 Colt caliber weapons were by far the most common, followed distantly by 44 WCF, 38 WCF, 32 WCF and 41 Long Colt.

Among enthusiasts, the revolvers produced between 1920 and 1940 and early second-generation revolvers are considered the best in terms of finish, function and overall shootability—though current production revolvers are much improved over early third generation examples and appear equivalent to the best of earlier guns.

This review focuses on the Colt Single Action Revolver made in 2010 with the 5 ½” –barrel “Artillery”  configuration. In practice, this length is marginally easier to shoot accurately than the 4 ¾” model and delivers somewhat less user-accessible accuracy than the 7.1/2” “Cavalry” model.

Action integrity, fit and finish are excellent, exhibiting perfect timing and a very desirable three pound trigger release. Unlike most earlier revolvers, the 2010 model has ideal cylinder throat and barrel/forcing cone measurements promising (and delivering) optimum accuracy. Like a good militia, the sights are well-regulated; the modern revolver is equivalent in accuracy to the best historic Colts and modern “clones” I’ve shot.

Compared to other 19th century revolvers, the Colts were considered quite robust, easier to repair and usable—even when some of the delicate lock parts were out of tune or a broken leaf spring prevented normal operation. It is not unusual to find Colts from the earliest years in completely functional condition.

Historically, they respond well to normal use and tend to crater if subjected to fanning or racing the action in a reckless quest for speed. High volume shooters often spare their traditional Colts by using the modern Ruger Single Actions or the Uberti/Cimarron near-copies that are less expensive and utilize coil or wire springs in place of the smaller action springs.

The owner’s manual for new Colts advised that the revolver will lose monetary value if the owner loads it—or even move the hammer. Obviously, it will lose even more value if actually fired.  With the correct loading and handling procedure, the cylinder bolt will drop within the lead of the cylinder notches and prevent a dragline around the circumference of the cylinder.

To load the revolver, you draw the hammer to half cock, open the cylinder gate and place the first round in the chamber. Then you manually rotate the cylinder, skipping one chamber, and loading the next four rounds in sequence. You draw the hammer to full cock and lower it all the way—visually confirming that the firing pin protrudes above the empty chamber.

While the revolver was designed with a safety notch to allow loading of all six chambers, it’s generally deemed insufficient to prevent accidental discharge if the hammer receives a heavy blow.

Most of my shooting is done from 25 yards in multiples of  five-round strings following the general practice of leaving an unloaded chamber under the hammer. I have yet to use the revolver from the bench or with a two-handed hold. My off-hand results—coupled with experience with other revolvers of the type—tell me that the Single Action Revolver is capable of producing groups of two inches or less at that range.

Loads consist of commercial cast 250 grain round nose flat points sized .452 and a swaged .454-inch Hornady 45 Colt bullet both loaded to the factory equivalent, mid-800 feet per second range over a charge of Alliant Unique. The great majority of my shots stay within a spread of 3.5 to four inches.

The Single Action Army has won much praise for the configuration of its grip; it tends to align along the axis of the wrist and arm contributing instinctively to point shooting. I find it very easy to make center mass hits on the B27 silhouette target at across-the-room distances drawing from the holster at a safe speed and shooting from low point.

The plow handle grip tends to roll upward when the revolver is fired, moderating felt recoil. This is desirable on modern, magnum caliber revolvers and to some extent with the larger bore Colts.

Target shooters deplore the tendency as it forces them to re-acquire their grip with each shot and militates against consistency. Target shooters also insist that the long hammer fall of the Colt detracts from accuracy when compared to short throw double action revolvers or semi-automatics.

Both complaints may be valid for the shooter locked into other types of revolvers but neither is valid for the shooter who is acclimated to the Colt revolver. I used to shoot the NRA Short Course matches with a similarly configured Ruger Single Action, regularly scoring on the dividing line between Expert and Master.

In short, the Colt Single Action Army revolver is fun to shoot and easy to shoot well. Whether original or a reproduction, it’s a piece of history that proves its worth both aesthetically and ballistically. Even without examining the role the gun played in Arizona’s decision to elevate it to official status, it was a worthy choice.