The Venerable .45 Long Colt

By Chuck Hawks

.45 Colt
Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

The .45 Colt, sometimes called the .45 Long Colt to distinguish it from the .45 ACP (also sometimes, incorrectly, referred to as the .45 Colt) is the oldest service cartridge still in use today. It was introduced in 1873 for the then new Colt Single Action Army (SAA) revolver, the famous Peacemaker. The .45 Colt and the SAA revolver quickly became legends in their own time, and the most popular handgun/cartridge combination on the Western frontier.

Many authorities decry the use of the name ".45 Long Colt," claiming it to be incorrect usage as the cartridge's official name is simply ".45 Colt." However, there were both long and shortened case versions of the .45 Colt cartridge on the frontier. The reason for this is that Smith & Wesson was given a government contract for a limited number of service revolvers in .45 Colt, and the cylinder of their revolver could not handle the full length cartridge. So the Army issued both standard .45 Colt ("long Colt") cartridges and shortened .45 Colt cartridges specifically for the S&W revolvers in inventory. The Colt SAA could use both versions, of course.

Another bit of interesting historical trivia is that it was the .45 Colt/SAA that was brought out of retirement when the Moro insurrection in the Philippines started to get out of hand and the .38 Long Colt service revolvers used by the U. S. Army at the turn of the Century proved inadequate to the task of stopping the fanatical knife wielding natives. The .45 ACP/1911 auto pistol is generally credited with solving the problem, but that is not the case. It was the old .45 Colt SAA revolver that was brought out of storage and issued to desperate troops in the Philippines. This is easily verified by old photos of U.S. troops in the Phillippines that show their sidearms, as well as by the dates involved. Consider that the Philippines became a U.S. colony at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, which marks the beginning of the U.S. involvement in the Phillippines (long before the invention of the .45 Auto). The last battle of the Moro Insurrection took place in 1912 (this was the only battle in which any .45 Autos were used). The M1911 .45 Auto was not even adopted until 1911, when the war in the Philippines was almost over. So it was the .45 Colt revolver that provided the legendary "knock-down" power later (incorrectly) credited to the .45 Auto.

The .45 Colt has remained a popular cartridge throughout its long history. It is great fun to shoot, not nearly as punishing as the .44 Magnum, but a lot more effective than the .44 Special. There are many revolvers available in .45 Colt, but the best and most popular are probably the Ruger Blackhawk and the Colt SAA.

In this day and age I would not recommend even a good single action revolver as a primary self-defense weapon, but neither would I feel at a great disadvantage if forced by circumstances to use one. I own a .45 Colt SAA New Frontier, which is the model with the flat top frame and fully adjustable rear sight. Once the shooting starts it becomes evident that the old 1873 vintage .45 hits harder and shoots more accurately than the bulk of current .45 autos.

Physically, the .45 Colt is a typical, straight wall, rimmed revolver cartridge. Its rim diameter is .512", its base diameter is .480", and its neck diameter is .476". The case length is 1.29" and the overall cartridge length is 1.6". The .45 Colt uses .454" diameter bullets and standard large pistol primers. The SAAMI maximum average pressure is pegged at 14,000 psi.

For recreational shooting I handload 200 grain Speer "flying ashtray" JHP bullets in front of 11.0 grains of HS6 powder for a muzzle velocity of 945 fps. These are normal pressure loads. In fact, HS6 can launch the 200 grain bullet at up to 1081 fps in front of 12.5 grains of HS6 powder, according to the Speer Reloading Manual #13. I assure you that , based on my testing, you would not want to see someone hit by one of those bullets. That bullet expands reliable and violently at .45 Colt velocities. There is nothing that the .45 ACP cartridge can do that the old .45 (Long) Colt cannot do as well or better.

On the other hand the .45 Colt is an old cartridge and, like most of its generation, traditional .45 Colt brass is relatively thin compared to modern magnum brass. For this reason, the .45 Colt should not be "magnumized," no matter how strong the revolver in which it is chambered. If you want magnum performance, buy a .44 Magnum or .454 Casull instead of a .45 Colt. The SAAMI mean maximum pressure limit for the .45 Colt is 14,000 psi.

The most common factory loads for the .45 Colt give a 225 grain lead bullet a muzzle velocity of 960 fps and an energy of 460 ft. lbs. Or a 250-255 grain lead bullet a MV of 860 fps and a ME of 410 ft. lbs. The best one shot stopper among the factory loads is the 225 grain Federal lead hollow point bullet, at 77% according to Marshall and Sanow. The mid-range trajectory of this load shows a rise of 3.2" over 75 yards.

The .45 Colt is one cartridge where the reloader can easily out perform factory loaded ammunition. The loads using the 200 grain Speer JHP bullet mentioned above shoot just as flat as the factory load, and have much better terminal performance. I seriously suggest handloading to anyone contemplating using a .45 Colt revolver in the hunting field.

For example, according to Marshall and Sanow, the 200 grain Speer JHP bullet is an 88% one shot stopper fired from a .45 Auto at a chronographed velocity of 928 fps; a velocity that a .45 Colt revolver can exceed by 133 fps with the same bullet at standard (not +P) pressures. Load both to +P pressures (which I do not advise in either case), and the much greater powder capacity of the .45 Colt case allows it to increase its lead over the .45 ACP.

Other bullet weights commonly available to the reloader include 185, 225-230, 240, 250, 260, 275, and 300 grain, something for everyone. A grand old cartridge is this .45 Colt.

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Copyright 2001, 2004 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.