Colt Single Action Army revolver
Virgil Caldwell for TTAG
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By Virgil Caldwell

Colt enjoys perhaps the greatest name recognition of any gun maker. Iconic handguns and the uses they have been put to in times of war and trouble are part of the reason. Solid performing handguns is another.

While I prefer the Government Model 1911 .45 for concealed carry and personal defense, I often carry a Colt Single Action Army revolver in the field as a trail gun when hiking. And sometimes just because it feels right.

My philosophy of a hard hit delivered with accuracy over a flurry of smaller caliber shots seems a good fit for my lifestyle.

The classic Colt isn’t at the top of many lists for personal defense anymore, but then it isn’t at the bottom of many lists either. For protection against dangerous animals including feral dogs and the big cats, the Colt seems just right.

I am in pretty good company. Long after the introduction of double action revolvers and the 1911 pistol, T.E. Lawrence, Frank Hamer, Tom Threepersons, Douglas McArthur, George S. Patton and many others relied on the Colt SAA for everyday use. It is a practical and hard-hitting handgun and these men carried on the point of danger.

Sam Colt made his name with the perfected revolver, though it was not his idea. Examples had existed for some time, but his design was an application of technology that made the revolver practical and useful. He made mass production and parts interchangeability in gun making to a fine art.

Some time after Colt’s death in 1862, Colt Firearms was given the task of creating a new Army revolver. The early .38 Colt and .44 Colt cartridges were less powerful than the .36 and .44 cap and ball revolvers.

The .38 Colt with its pointy bullet wasn’t only slower than the .36 Navy, the soft ball of the .36 expanded in the body creating a more serious wound. The black powder Colt 1860 .44 Army was much stronger than the relatively weak .44 Russian, .44 Colt and .44 American cartridges.

Colt was tasked with creating a handgun and cartridge capable of taking an Indian war pony out of action at 100 yards. (More horses than men were killed in practically every battle in the west.)

Colt Single Action Army revolver
Colt .22LR revolver (top) and Single Action Army in .45 Colt (bottom) (Virgil Caldwell for TTAG)

The result was the solid frame Single Action Army. The .45 Colt used a variety of loads ranging from 230 to 260 grains, at 750 to 900 fps, and in both copper and brass cartridge cases. The cartridge lived up to its promise. While the Single Action Army is available in other chamberings, notably the .44-40 WCF, the .45 Colt is still my favorite.

Colt Single Action Army revolver
A 7½ inch barrel Colt Single Action Army revolver (Virgil Caldwell for TTAG).

The original Army revolver featured a 7½ inch barrel. The later Artillery Model featured a 5½ inch barrel and finally a popular 4¾ inch barrel or Gunfighter’s Model.

The Single Action Army requires the hammer be put on half-cock to load it and free the cylinder to revolver clockwise. Open the loading gate. Load one cartridge, skip a cylinder, load four. Cock the hammer back fully and then lower it (carefully) on an empty chamber.

The revolver is only safe to carry with five beans under the wheel. With no transfer bar, Single Action Army’s firing pin would rest directly on the primer of a chambered cartridge. That’s not a safe practice.

Colt Single Action Army revolver
Colt Single Action Army revolver at half-cock (Virgil Caldwell for TTAG)

To unload the revolver, open the loading gate and kick each cartridge out individually with the ejector button.

Colt Single Action Army and Colt Python
A Single Action Army .45 is more compact to carry than most four inch barrel .357 Magnum revolvers. (Virgil Caldwell for TTAG)

The first guns were manufactured with iron frames that were case hardened to strength. I still prefer the case hardened look with modern high quality steel revolvers.

The balance of the Single Action Army revolver is excellent. It is among the fastest pointing and hitting handguns I have every used.

The 1911 fits my hand well and it is superior in rapid fire. The double action revolver required a different grip style to stabilize the handgun as the forefinger works the trigger., but nothing points like the SAA. Even today few handguns are as fast and sure to an accurate first shot at moderate ranges.

.45 colt and .45 ACP ammunition
Virgil Caldwell for TTAG

The wound potential of the lumbering old slug is unsurpassed in standard loads although it can be equaled by stronger loads in the .45 ACP.

Colt Single Action Army revolver
The Colt Single Action Army’s sights are simple but very useful. (Virgil Caldwell for TTAG)

My modern SAA is the 4 ¾ inch version with case hardened frame. The revolver is plenty accurate for most uses.

Colt Single Action Army revolver ammunition
Virgil Caldwell for TTAG

Handloads, using the Oregon Trail 250 grain SWC bullet, are loaded to 780 fps for practice and 900 fps for field use. When pulling the crisp single action trigger, the revolver bucks straight up in recoil and is easily controlled. While there are handguns that hit harder, few offer the combination of power and modest recoil that the .45 Colt does.

An example is a handload using the Hornady 250 grain XTP at 820 fps, far below the caliber’s potential. The bullet traveled 42 inches in water with modest expansion. That is a lot of protection against creatures with claws and fangs. And while the Colt has a great deal of practical utility and suits me well as a field gun, it’s also a Colt, an American icon, and I enjoy firing it immensely.

Most of the loads I’ve used and tested are the Black Hills Ammunition 250 grain cowboy load. This load breaks about 750 fps and delivers 2.5 inch groups at 25 yards. It’s more than accurate enough for cowboy action use. For field use, Buffalo Bore offers a number of interesting loads. The soft lead hollow point offers perhaps the finest big bore defense load for revolver use.

A hard cast 255 grain / 1000 fps load isn’t too difficult to control nor too hot for the SAA but offers real .45 Colt power in a factory loaded cartridge. Remington offers a powerful 230 grain JHP at 900 fps, hotter than a similar .45 ACP and offering excellent expansion.

A great advantage of the Colt Single Action Army is its balance on the hip. The revolver sets right, with the proper balance of barrel, cylinder and butt to offer a forward tilt on the draw.

Colt Single Action Army revolver
DM Bullard shoulder holster (Virgil Caldwell for TTAG)

I use one of two holsters for field use. One is the DM Bullard shoulder holster. When jackets come out in the winter months and I’m hiking or driving near Appalachia in search of antiques and interesting people and food, the Colt often rides in this well-made and easily adjusted shoulder holster.

Colt Single Action Army revolver
Jeffrey Custom Leather holster (Virgil Caldwell for TTAG)

Other times I use a Ranger-type belt holster from Jeffrey Custom Leather. These holsters offer excellent fit and function, spreading the weight of the revolver.

The draw is fast. Cock the hammer as you align on the target and press the trigger and you have a hit. That is all we can ask, really.

Colt revolvers are among the most famous and iconic of handguns. They are historically important and still offer practical utility today. If a sense of history and emotional attachment mean anything to you these are the handguns to have.

Just don’t lock them in the safe. Put them to use, as they were intended.

Specifications: Colt Single Action Army Revolver

Action Type: Single Action
Caliber: .45 Colt
Capacity: 6 rounds
Barrel Length: 4 ¾”
Grips: Double Eagle composite
Sights: Fixed, half moon front, groove rear
Weight: 40 oz.
Finish: Case hardened frame, barrel, grip frame and cylinder, Colt blue
MSRP: $1799 (about $1650 retail)

Ratings (out of five stars):

Style and appearance * * * * *
With its blue finish and case hardened receiver the Colt SAA is a gorgeous six gun.

Reliability * * * * *
What can you say? They just never give you trouble.

Accuracy * * * 
There are more accurate revolvers, but the SAA is plenty accurate for the uses you’re likely to put it to. It just isn’t a target revolver.

Versatility * * * *
For most of what really needs to be done with a handgun – particularly a revolver- the Colt Single Action Army will serve.

Overall * * * * 1/2
The Colt Single Action Arm revolver is a certified classic, one of the most iconic (and beautiful) firearms ever made. It was truly great in the 19th century and it’s still truly great in the 21st.

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      • I own two clones, one a 38/357 with a 7 1/2 barrel and a .45 Colt with a 4/34 barrel. the latter is one of my favorites. It came slick out of the box, and with some polishing became slicker still. I made some faux ivory grips from Tombstone Grips, and with its case hardened frame is a real looker. It shoots straight and with “cowboy loads” it is a pretty soft shooter.

    • Or 2-1/2 Super Blackhawks. Then you wouldn’t have to go around trying to convince people that standard pressure .45 Long Colt is a powerful cartridge. Everybody knows that the .44 magnum is the most powerful handgun in the world and at this range it would probably blow your head clean off.

      The Vaqero birdshead is well worth the $$$ as well, especially in .44 mag.

    • Please tell me where you can get half of a 686. Is that a 343? Is it any good? You seem to be the expert. How accurate is it? Is it easy to clean?

      Sheesh. Keyboard commando.

  1. A couple of the Italian reproductions I’ve seen rival the Colt in each and every respect, while carrying a price tag that doesn’t induce cardiac arrest.

    There’s no excuse for that price. Half of the hand fitting could be automated and still make for a great gun if only Colt would get its head out of its ass.

    • The Italian revolvers are great and the evil roy is the closest competitor. But make no mistake none of them rival the Colt in every respect. Absolutely none of them have the same quality of finish. Actually it’s no comparison. With that said the Evil Roy from Cimarron is an excellent revolver and you can print tighter groups. That’s because the sight picture is tighter than the Colts. My advice buy a Colt and an Evil Roy. Lots of money for sure but you can’t take it with you.

      • The price tag on a gun that Colt has been making for almost 150 years and that, other than the steel it is made of, hasn’t change at all, is way too high. The hand fitting involves primarily polishing the contact sides of the hammer and making sure the cylinder lock times correctly and fits into the locking grooves on the barrel. With only four moving parts (including the cylinder), this is not a time consuming task.

        • Mark, you should probably make your services available to COLT to help them out. You sound like an expert.

        • Wow, Mark. You should tell Colt all of this. With experts like YOU around, the price of all handguns should drop 40% overnight! Thank God for you! I don’t know why the rest of us didn’t think of this.

      • I tried posting this yesterday afternoon, but for some reason it never was posted. I own an Evil Roy and it’s great fun and had a trigger job already when I bought it new. Or at least that’s what the ad said!

        And I can’t believe I’m using these words in the same phrase, based on what Colt’s been saying for years, but for the price of the Colt 45, you can get a brand-new Python! At least after the gougers are finished!

  2. Although not a exactly SAA clone, my Ruger Blackhawk offers a similar experience. Fun to plink around with, but I also have a 45 acp cylinder, so it is much easier on the wallet. Not only that, but I have the freedom to put 44mag equivalent loads through it safely. I’m not saying it’s the same, but if you’d prefer not to spend 1600 bucks on one piece, it’s a great substitute.
    That being said, one day I’d really love to own a true antique SAA and wonder what hands have fired it before I did.

    • Blackhawks are clones. Colt put adjustable sights on the SAA way back in the 1890s. They’re just slightly improved SAAs

      • Gov, don’t forget the New Frontier. Owned a couple of those too. Some of you guys can bitch about the price and talk about clones, but there nothing like the original.

        • Yep, that’s what Colt was calling their own reproduction. I think they quit making those though.

          Agreed on the clones. Mine shoot .44 mag.

      • Well….. not really a clone, since the lockwork and such is different. Sight or no sights.

        The Flat tops are pretty much clones since they used the same type of lockwork.

        They worked harder to make,the Vaquero (new one) look like a clone.

        • They call them 1911s regardless of whether they have series 70 or 80s triggers, steel or aluminum frames, single or double stack magazines, etc., so IMHO they’re all SAAs. The definition of ‘clone’ varies.

        • Well even the Colt’s aren’t exact replicas. Probably a lot better than the originals.

    • I have the same one (in 7.5″ barrel) and love it. Great gun, and the first thing I did after shooting a cylinder was run inside and put the ‘ugly’ Hogue rubber grips on it.

      How much do you use the .45 ACP cylinder vs. the .45 Colt? I handload, so the cost difference isn’t too much, and I end up sticking with the .45 Colt cylinder most times. But, I can definitely see how friggin’ expensive the .45 Colt ammo is!

      • Got a gallon bag full of 45 Colt brass, but haven’t jumped into that one yet. I shoot about half and half right now. Need to buy a die set and work up a nice hand load. Being a Ruger, I’d like to shoot for something north of standard 45 Colt, but south of 44 mag level, so it’s still pleasant to shoot.

        • Good deal! It’s an easy one to reload (not like those !@#$ tiny .380s)

          For that, you may want to look at 2400 as a powder to play with. Ruger-only loads are in the Hornady/Sierra manuals at least, and I’ve had good luck with around 20 grains of 2400, CCI-300 under a 250 gr XTP for 1,200fps/800 ft-lbs. It has a little more ‘pop’ than the Unique loads, but is still shootable. Unlike some of the heavier H-110/300-MP loads that I played with that hurt after two cylinders.

  3. Good article. There are certain firearms that every enthusiast should own. ’03A3, M-1 rifle, 1911, Smith 29, etc. And a Colt SAA. Mine’s a 4 3/4″ .45 Colt with one piece ivory grips. El Paso Saddlery Duke rig. Among others. Recently gave a friend a 4 3/4″ .44 Spl. Mint. Randy’s done a lot for me. He deserved it.

  4. “My philosophy of a hard hit delivered with accuracy over a flurry of smaller caliber shots seems a good fit for my lifestyle.”

    Damn straight.

  5. The original cartridge for the .45 Colt was loaded to 40 grains of black powder. [By way of comparison, the .36 caliber cap and ball was loaded with 15 to 20 grains, and the .44 cal. 1860 Army, designed for 35, was only loaded to 30 (for accuracy and to reduce recoil).] It did not take long for the Army to order that the powder be reduced to 35 grains to improve accuracy. Cowboy action shooters (and manufacturers of “cowboy ammo”) download that further to 28-30 grains or so, or its equivalent in smokeless, with muzzle velocities of 650 to 750 fps.

  6. The single most iconic gun of all time.

    But until they drop the price or I come into some money, I’ll stick with my Ruger SAAs. Maybe I could fit in an Uberti into my collection at some point.

  7. I agree that Colt’s SAA is an excellent revolver, but at that price point it’s more of a status symbol. I have three Uberti SAAs and they shoot the same as a Colt SAA, and I can own three of them for the price of one Colt. No competition.

    • No a Colt is a Colt. Worth more every day. Just like gold bullion, a Rolex or anything else that has intrinsic value. Buy an Umburti and try to sell it for more later. Good revolvers, but less more every day. Just like a used car.

      • bloomburg: “like the exchange rate with the yen, the price of gold can go down due to fluctuations.”
        xi jinping: “fluctuations? fluctuamericans!”

  8. I’ll stick with my 1970 vintage S&W magnum. Wasn’t ever too crazy about wheel guns, but my mom gave it to me for Christmas. With all the crazies running state and national legislatures, it my be all that will be legal until they come for those too.

  9. Having tired of seeing them in virtually every TV & movie western, I wasn’t that big fan of the SAA. Then I picked up a genuine Colt Gen II SAA last year for $500. Of course, for that price, it wasn’t in mint condition, with the grips missing and some faded bluing on one side. And it’s in the less popular 357 magnum caliber.
    But, using the same 38 special caliber as my other wheel-guns, I’ve been enjoying it at my local range.

  10. I appreciate what Virgil has written here, he is very persuasive. My old friend Warren from Virginia always swore by the 45LC as the best caliber for defense, or most anything else. Maybe it has to do with having the same name as one of the Earp bothers? Can we hear from those of you named Morgan, Newton, Wyatt or James?

  11. Nice revolver but at that price, what are they thinking? I bought two Ruger stainless Vaquero’s in .45 colt for less than a $1000. The Ruger’s are overbuilt and will handle heavy loads. I am sure the Colt is good quality, but I work for a living.

  12. Perfectly written description of my favorite friend, you said it all with thrift and understaning.I have had my Colt for 50 years now and it still lays next to me while I sleep.I have over 100 different guns now. I trust the Colt.

  13. There are Colt SAA pistols and there are ‘wannabes’. No ‘clones’. Copies, yes.
    If you love guns and you want the best save for a real Colt. There is a big difference.

  14. I have 2 first gen colt saa 45s, an Uberti Cattleman 45 and 2 EMF Great Western Californians made by Pietta, one 45 and the other 357. The one closest to the original first gen Colts is by far the Pietta Great Westerns. You would really have to know what you’re looking for to tell them apart from the Colts if it wasn’t for the names on the barrels. About 90% of the parts are interchangable with Colt. The Great Western Californians are a cross between the firs and second gen Colts, The front sight blade and rear sight notch are copied from second gen, the cylinder looks like a first gen Colt. The hammer is identical to the first gen but the firing pin is the floating second gen type. The case hardening is real.

  15. I have a 45 Long Colt revolver S# 235928 that I bought from a gentleman named Jim Christenberry (Cristenberry) when when I was still in high school. He had not taken very good care of if. It was kept in a wooden drawer and without any holster or protection. This was about 1951. I paid $50.00 for it and strangely enough, I have only fired it two times. I shot a cat off a fence post once and I will not mention the other time. I have not really checked the production date but I think it was around 1900. The bore is excellent and indicates it had been firing black powder ammo. It belonged to the foreman of a nearby ranch I don’t know when or how he came to own it. I suspect he bought it new. I haven’t inquired if it is rated to shoot. I have a few rounds of smokeless ammunition for it but I’m not sure I got them when I bought the revolver or acquired them myself.

  16. I have. a uberty 7.5 barrel case hardened wood grips it is a beautiful weapon I purchased brand new for $325.00 , I love it the feel the handling it is a great weapon but it is no colt , I recently looked at a 7.5 ,barrel Colt wood grips for $1700.00 the fluid feel and extreme quality of the weapon is far superior to the Uberty or any other revolvers I will have a Colt

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