The Truth About 45 Colt vs. 45 Long Colt

us-pistol-smith-and-wesson-no3-schofield-left

Mike Searson writes [via ammoland.com]: The year was 1873 and Colt’s latest handgun, the Model P (aka as the Single Action Army Revolver of 1873) was just awarded the contract as the official sidearm for the US Army. The chambering selected was a .45 caliber black powder cartridge manufactured by the Union Metallic Cartridge Company of Bridgeport, CT. Based on the slightly older 44 Colt round, this new cartridge used the same rebated heel type bullet. It was named the 45 Colt and all was right with the world.

Two years later Army units began adopting the Smith & Wesson Schofield Revolver for use as an alternate sidearm.

Schofield Revolver .45 Colt and Others Ammo
Schofield Revolver .45 Colt and Others Ammo

This revolver was based on Smith & Wesson’s Third Model top break revolver and as such offered an advantage by being faster to load and unload when compared to the Colt.

Unfortunately, the revolver used a shorter proprietary cartridge that soon created a problem of logistics. Cases of ordinance were simply marked “Pistol, 45 caliber”. The longer rounds were being shipped to units that were armed with the M1875 Schofields and the end result was that the longer rounds would not chamber in these revolvers.

The Colt shooters could easily use the shorter Smith & Wesson cartridge, so the quartermasters began referring to the Colt round as “45 Long Colt”. The Frankford Arsenal ended up dropping the longer round from production in 1887 and solely manufactured the 45 S&W round as the “.45 caliber M1887 Military Ball Cartridgeuntil 1892 when it was replaced by the 38 Long Colt round in a new double action revolver.

For about a decade the moniker 45 Long Colt was applicable when differentiating between the two rounds but by the dawn of the 20th century the Schofield had long been retired and sold on the surplus market, by the end of World War 2, both revolvers were becoming distant memories and Colt’s latest offering that proved itself in the Second World War (the M1911 chambered in 45 ACP) was becoming the new favorite among shooters.

However, after World War 2, a cultural phenomenon occurred that changed the shooting world as we knew it: Television and more specifically, programs themed as Westerns took the American imagination by storm.

Viewers wanted to own the guns shown on television, specifically, the Colt Single Action Army Revolver. Colt had ceased production at the onset of the war, but soon tooled up to make the classic revolver again and offered it in its original chambering: the 45 Colt!

After a few decades, interest in the old guns wavered again and colt retired the SAA in 1978. There was by this time a plethora of other handguns offered in this caliber from Ruger, Thompson Center and various Italian gun makers who replicated the SAA and later the Model 3. Smith & Wesson offered the 45 Colt chambering in their N-Frame revolvers as well. The round came back to the forefront in the form of the new sport of Cowboy Action Shooting in the early 1990s.

.45 Colt , A New Cartridge for a New Era

ruger-old-model-vaquero-in-45-colt

Thompson Center’s and Ruger’s offerings for the 45 Colt breathed new life into the old round that had eluded the older Colt revolvers and even the Smith & Wesson N-Frame. Ballisticians saw the case length and powder capacity to be the equivalent of the 44 Magnum and capable of launching a heavier bullet at higher pressure and velocity than its predecessors. These newer guns were heavier and made of superior materials than the old Colt revolvers and their Italian clones.

A few ammunition manufacturers and load developers began offering the round or the recipe to cook up a hotter load as “For Thompson center and Ruger Only” as a warning for Colt and S&W shooters to not load them in their firearms.

Do not try such loads in the Ruger “New Model” Vaquero (earlier model shown above). These guns are built on a smaller flame for competition use because the main complaint about the original Vaquero was its excessive weight compared to the original SAA and its foreign made clones.

Eventually the 45 Colt would form the basis for the 454 Casull and 460 Smith & Wesson rounds and of course the 45 Colt can be fired in these larger revolvers and single shot pistols. The base is dimensionally similar to the .410 Shotgun round and numerous Derringers, revolvers and single shot pistols have been made to accommodate both cartridge.

The 45 Long Colt Lever Gun Myth

None of the old time rifle makers ever chambered a rifle in 45 Colt until the late twentieth century for the sport of Cowboy Action Shooting.
None of the old time rifle makers ever chambered a rifle in 45 Colt until the late twentieth century for the sport of Cowboy Action Shooting.

While it may have been popular for shooters of the Old West to tote a carbine and revolver in the same caliber, this was done with rounds such as the 44-40 and 38-40. None of the old time rifle makers ever chambered a rifle in 45 Colt until the late twentieth century for the sport of Cowboy Action Shooting.

The reason for this had to do with the case dimensions of the original 45 Colt and its almost nonexistent rim. The round was simply not suitable for use in a lever action or slide action rifle. Modern cases use a slightly larger rim, so the issue has been addressed and made logistics for Cowboy Action Shooting much easier on the participants of the sport.

So is it 45 Colt or 45 Long Colt?

While either term is correct, 45 Long Colt was really just a nickname. The majority of ammunition manufacturers stamp their cases with “45 Colt” as do the majority of firearm manufacturers mark their firearms with the same. The reason for this is because .45 COLT is the official name used by the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI). When all else fails, this is the correct term to which we fall back.

 

Mike Searson
Mike Searson

About Mike Searson:

Mike Searson’s career as a shooter began as a Marine Rifleman at age 17. He has worked in the firearms industry his entire adult life as a Gunsmith, Ballistician, Consultant, Salesman, Author and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1989.

Mike has written over 2000 articles for a number of magazines, websites and newsletters including Blade, RECOIL, OFF-GRID, Tactical Officer, SWAT, Tactical World, Gun Digest, Examiner.com and the US Concealed Carry Association as well as AmmoLand Shooting Sports News. Home page: www.mikesearson.com FB: www.facebook.com/mike.searson TWITTER: www.twitter.com/mikesearson

 

comments

  1. avatar Mark N. says:

    Nice article. Now if the retailers stopped calling it “Long Colt,” all would be right with the world.

  2. avatar Alex says:

    This is relevant to me. I will probably be picking up some kind of .45 colt uberti or cimmaron in the next month. Was planning on getting a lever action in .45 colt as well, but I guess that was just a myth….

    What is the availability like for .45 Colt these day? Haven’t really looked. It is awful tempting to go .357 and shot some .38 as well…

    1. avatar former water walker says:

      I’m planning(eventually)to get a levergun. Absolutely getting 357/38special for availability and cost. 45colt is less common and pricier. YMMV…

      1. avatar Dave Lewis says:

        I went with a Uberti Cattleman – a very pretty pistol – in .38/.357 and a Rossi 92 with the John Wayne lever in the same caliber. It was a no brainer for me because I already owned a couple of .357s from my early sheriffing days and I didn’t want to introduce a new caliber to my collection. I had about 2500 rounds of .38 and .357 on the shelves along with reloading dies, 158 gr semi wad cutter bullets, and small pistol primers. I’ve got a Ruger Super Redhawk and Henry Big Boy in .44 mag and Charter Arms Bulldog in .44 special and I think that the .44 loads are a better choice if you want bigger holes in the target.

        1. avatar Alex says:

          Thanks, fellas! I think you have convinced me. .357 it is. I was also looking at those Ubertis. They sure do look purty. I have a big decision to make!

        2. avatar Anner says:

          Same here, went with a Uberti 1873 trapper in 357. I’ve used Uberti and Cimarron 1873s in CAS and love em. Much stronger toggle designs than the originals, smooth action, and lots of aftermarket support for better sights, short stroke kits, etc.

          38/357 was the first cartridge I started reloading and it’s super easy, both to find the components and to load. Commercial Ammo is always available.

          Remington 125gr JHPs out of a 16″ barrel are screaming fast and still don’t beat up the toggle link.

    2. avatar MLee says:

      When you do, you will absolutely love it. Although I have not even fired my Uberti – Taylors & Company Smoke Wagon yet, I adore it. It’s the 4109DE which is the 4 3/4″ barrel, 45 Colt Smoke Wagon. Tuned by Taylors, it has the finest trigger of any firearm I’ve ever owned. As long as I can fondle it, that’s good enough.

    3. avatar BLoving says:

      I’ve lost count of how many boxes of .45 Colt have been returned to my shop after the (either ignorant or inattentive) customer bought some for their .45 acp. From where I stand, the “long” in the name hopefully gives the customer enough of a pause to wonder if this is the right stuff for their Hi-Point.
      In any case, .45 colt is easy enough to find; both boring lead round-nose “cowboy” loads and (thanx to the Taurus Judge) a decent selection of personal-defense loads to choose from. If hunting loads are your objective, my best recommendation is the Hornady Leverloution. Yes, I know it was meant for a rifle. Still an awesome performer in a handgun.

      1. avatar Ozzallos says:

        You take ammunition back?
        Wow. And I mean that.

    4. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

      At least here in Wyoming, you can find .45 Colt ammo easily.

      .45 Colt brass is easily available. Modern .45 Colt revolvers slug at 0.451″, so they’ll take modern cast lead projectiles that you could also use in the .45 ACP. If you have an older SAA, you’d probably want .454 molds or bullets.

      It isn’t as common as 9×19 or .45 ACP ammo, but it is plenty available. Unless you’re loading wickedly hot loads, if you’re loading to the 14,000 CUP to 15,000 CUP level, the brass will seem to last forever.

  3. avatar Augustus Nalley says:

    Even Colt used to call it “Long Colt” on their webpage,

  4. avatar anonymoose says:

    Also, the Schofield had a wider rim that prevented the user from loading more than 3 chambers in their SAAs, so the 1887 round had the rim size of the Colt and the case length of the Schofield.

  5. avatar Aaron Watson says:

    Interesting read, as I have used the term interchangeably, but not much, as I own nothing
    chambered in it. .45 ACP, which I just call 45, plenty.

    I have seen brass at the range marked 45 LC, however, so the myth is perpetuated.

  6. avatar pwrserge says:

    I think calling it 45 LC makes it very easy to be distinct from .45 ACP. Some people get easily confused, and you don’t want somebody trying to shove ACP into a SAA.

    1. avatar Hank says:

      Yeah I’ve had those issues with the mentally impaired behind the counter. Asked for .45 colt, the guy came back with .45 acp. Another time, in a other place, asked for .45 acp, and the guy just looked at me like I had a dick growing out of my forehead so then I said, .”45 auto?” He said “no we don’t have either of those. Only regular .45.” I shook my head and walked out.

      1. avatar Anner says:

        I asked for 45acp gold dots one day, I could see them sitting on the shelf behind the counter. The guy grabbed a box of 45gap gold dots and was very confused when I said they weren’t the same. And this dude runs a business?

  7. avatar jwtaylor says:

    The .45LC colt needs no dimensional changes to far exceed the performance of the.44Marcum. Check out Jim Linebaugh’s custom guns and the loads he’s developed for them. Incredible power.

    1. avatar Tim says:

      +1 to that. Specifically:

      http://www.customsixguns.com/writings/dissolving_the_myth.htm

      http://www.customsixguns.com/writings/heavyweight_bullets.htm

      are both great reads by Linebaugh.

      Also:

      http://handloads.com/articles/default.asp?id=5

      Based on that info, I’m running the same (or a similar) 350gr slug at around 1200fps from a 7.5″ Blackhawk using a similar charge of 300-MP.

      And, a more sedate load straight out of the Hornady manual is a 2400 and 250gr XTP at 1200fps as well.

    2. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

      Yep.

      There’s sooooo much room in a .45 Colt case, it’s not remotely funny. With modern pistol powders, it is entirely possible to nearly triple-charge a .45 Colt round – which will result in the shooter pulling the trigger on a hand grenade, not a handgun.

      This is part of the reason for the development of “fluffy” powders like “Trail Boss,” which make it pretty difficult to over-charge a huge ol’ black powder case like the .45 Colt.

      In a modern revolver with tight chambers, you can stoke a .45 Colt to absurd power levels – sometimes in excess of what is possible with a .44 Remington Magnum.

  8. avatar Ing says:

    Great article. I’ve started doing research on postwar-to-1890 firearms for a game I’m developing, and this hits the sweet spot.

  9. avatar Lib lurker says:

    Nice article, well written and engaging to see the history

  10. avatar James69 says:

    Would be nice to have a top loading revolver for $500 or less. I can dream. .45 auto-rim? :’)

  11. avatar Specialist38 says:

    I have a S&W model 25 labeled 45 Long Colt on the barrel. When I bought it in 1980 a fellow in the store said it was mislabeled because it was NOT a Colt, it was Smith and Wesson. Ha.

    My Winchester Trapper is labeled 45 Colt. I never saw a problem with it. Seems like something for erudite gunsels to argue about.

    Now lets tackle 9mm vs 9mm luger vs 9mm parabellum vs 9×19. Nobody seems to have problems with all those labels. Or do they……..

  12. avatar TruthTellers says:

    .45 Colt is the round that’s stood the test of time. At standard pressures and with a good hollow point, the .45 Colt is a manstopper, at higher pressures for Ruger’s and T/C pistols, it’s a bear killer. Loaded with snakeshot, it becomes a pest exterminator as it can hold a greater amount of shot than the .44 Magnum, put two .45 round balls in the case, you’ve got a veritable shotgun that can reach out and put both balls in a 5 inch circle.

    .45 Colt is the most versatile cartridge ever and if it’s a swing out cylinder revolver, the cylinder can be cut for moon clips and can shot .45 ACP.

    The .45 Colt has been around 140 years and will be around another 140 so long as Hilary Clinton isn’t elected president.

    1. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

      Yep, I agree. In modern firearms with tight chambers (ie, modern-tight, as opposed to loose black powder era chambers), you can get such a wide span of performance out of a .45 Colt, it is difficult to match in most modern rounds.

      The danger in this, of course, is that a modern-hot .45 Colt load finds its way into being loaded in a creaky old SAA. The results will not be pretty.

  13. avatar Tym O'Byrne says:

    While its not as big of a mistake as calling a mag a clip, if you want to have fun go to single action forums and call it a .45 “long colt” and refer to the cylinder as a “wheel”.

    The funny part is how anal so many are in the firearms world today. I blame the war on guns into making everyone so edgy about anything involving this topic.

    Might explain why when i drink alone now i prefer to be by myself. People Stateside™ have gone nuts.

    That said my two .45 cal Blackhawks are my favorite handguns i have.

    My bear spray is made by Corbon btw.

  14. avatar Anner says:

    Where is dyspeptic? Thought for sure he’d have pointed out a dozen historical errors by now. Shoot, he was in the shop when the load was developed.

    1. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

      He’s right. I’ve always used the nomenclature of .45 Colt because that’s what SAAMI uses, and they’re the closest thing we have to a real reference on the issue, and they’ve always used .45 Colt as their nomenclature for this cartridge.

      Colt themselves helped spur this “Long Colt” moniker on when they introduced the .38 Long Colt vs. .38 Short Colt in the same timeframe – 1875 or 1877, as I recall. The “Long Colt” appellation caught on more because of that, I think, than the other .45 rounds extant at that time, but I wasn’t there, so I could well be wrong.

      As to the lack of lever rifles in .45 Colt: That’s true. The .44-40 occupied this space, and with good reason. Look at the taper on the .44-40 case. It makes it much easier to extract that brass reliably than a case with no taper like the .45 Colt. The .44-40 was designed to be easy to extract from actions with low extraction force – and it works. The .44-40 was the second most popular chambering (if my sources are to be believed) for the SAA, after .45 Colt.

  15. avatar Volunteer says:

    I have a 1960 SAA with ivory grips, that era produced some of the best ones ever made. 45 Colt is one of those rounds where it pays to reload.

  16. avatar RocketScientist says:

    “(aka as the Single Action Army Revolver of 1873)”

    “Also Known As’ as…. ?

  17. avatar Ian says:

    I always get a kick out of coming up to the gun counter and asking for .45 colt and the clerk responds with “you mean .45 long colt.” I’m always tempted to respond with “no, .45 short colt” just to see how dense they are, but alas I was brought up to keep things civil.

  18. avatar Phil LA says:

    Nice article about my favorite cartridge!

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