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.)
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.
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.
To unload the revolver, open the loading gate and kick each cartridge out individually with the ejector button.
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.
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.
My modern SAA is the 4 ¾ inch version with case hardened frame. The revolver is plenty accurate for most uses.
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.
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.
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.