The Colt Single Action Army Revolver

By Chuck Hawks

Colt SAA
Illustration courtesy of Colt's Mfg. Co., Inc.

The Colt Single Action Army (SAA), perhaps the most famous handgun in history, was introduced in 1873. It was accepted as service standard by the U.S. Army, and used by civilians all over North America and the world (especially in Great Britain). It became the most popular handgun on the American Frontier and, along with the Winchester lever action rifle, the definitive firearm of the Old West. The SAA in all of its permutations has become one of the most collectable firearms ever made.

The Colt SAA adopted by the U.S. Army in 1873 was in caliber .45 Long Colt (the full-length cartridge, not the shortened cartridge required by S&W substitute standard revolvers). U.S. Army revolvers had 7 1/2 inch barrels, blued metal parts with a color case hardened frame, and oiled walnut grip panels. These revolvers were stamped "U.S." on the left side of the frame and the inspector's initials (and often date) were stamped into the grips. The U.S. Ordinance Department's test board, which accepted the 1873 Colt revolver for military use, concluded: "the Colt revolver superior in most respects, and much better adapted to the wants of the Army than the Smith & Wesson." The U.S. government procured over 37,000 Colt SAA's over the next 19 years.

Various Colt SAA models were built from 1873 to 1940, when the SAA was discontinued to facilitate military production during World War II, marking the end of the "1st Generation" SAA's. Production was reinstated in 1956, the beginning of the "2nd Generation" of SAA's, which were made through 1975. 1976 saw the introduction of the "3rd Generation" (New Model) SAA's, which are still being made as I write these words in 2003. The differences between one generation and another are minor, of more interest to collectors than to shooters. For instance, the 3rd Generation differs from the 2nd primarily in the elimination of the cylinder pin bushing and a thinner profile front sight.

Over the years Colt has produced SAA variations under the names Peacemaker, Frontier Six-Shooter, Bisley, Bisley Target, Flattop Target, New Frontier, Buntline, and possibly others. Collectors often refer to various models as Buntline, Long-Flute, Rimfire, Sheriff's, Storekeeper's, and U.S. Martials.

.45 Colt was the official U.S. military caliber, and has also been the most popular caliber in civilian versions of the revolver, but many other calibers have been offered over the long lifetime of the SAA.

The calibers currently offered are .45 Colt, .44-40 WCF, and .357 Magnum/.38 Special. In the past many other cartridges have been offered in various SAA models. Among the most popular were the .32-20, .38-40 and .44-40, for which Winchester also chambered rifles. Other notable centerfire calibers were .32 Colt, .32 S&W, .32-44 S&W, .38 Colt, .38 S&W, .38 Special, .38-44, .41 Colt, .44 German, .44 S&W, .44 Russian, .44 Special, and .45 ACP. Rimfire calibers included .22, .32 (1 gun only!), and .44 Henry. There were SAA's produced in calibers popular in the UK for the British trade, including .450 Boxer, .450 Eley, .455 Eley, and .476 Eley. The latter was the largest caliber produced in the SAA. There were even SAA's produced in .44 and .45 Smoothbore calibers (less that 25 total). Altogether, some 30 different SAA calibers appear in Colt records.

Barrel lengths of 4 3/4 inches, 5 1/2 inches and 7 1/2 inches have always been the most popular, but several others have been produced over the years. Barrel lengths with standard ejectors run from 4 3/4 inches to 16 1/8 inches. SAA's without ejectors have appeared with barrels from 2 inches to 7 1/2 inches. 4 3/4 inches was the minimum barrel length to which the standard ejector could be fitted. Why any gun with a longer barrel would be ordered without an ejector I do not know. Current production is supplied with 4 3/4 inch and 5 1/2 inch barrels. 7 1/2 inch barrels are available by special order.

Colt SAA revolvers have been produced with a myriad of metal finishes. Most common is a combination of blued steel with a color cased frame. Next most common is the bright nickel finish. But gold and silver plated examples were turned out by Colt to special order and in the form of Commemoratives, and various combinations of nickel, silver, gold, color case, and blue have also been produced.

Standard grips were walnut or black hard rubber. Various exotic woods, metals, ivory, mother of pearl, stag, and probably other materials were also used for SAA grips. Grips were smooth, checkered, or carved in various patterns. Colt logos, Colt medallions, and the American eagle are found on most SAA grips (excluding military production), but not by any means on all.

Engraved SAA's are fairly common. Colt still offers A, B, C, and D factory engraving patterns, and would also engrave to special order. Grade "C" engraving (75% coverage) is the most popular, followed by grade "D" (100% coverage). Many unique SAA's have been produced, some for historically significant figures such as W.F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, W.B. "Bat" Masterson, President Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Pinkerton, and General George Patton. The latter ordered his famous engraved SAA with nickel finish and ivory grips in 1916 and carried it through WW II.

Of course, most of the famous frontier personalities of song and story used the SAA after it was introduced. These include (but are certainly not limited to) famous lawmen such as Wyatt Earp, Bill Tilghman, Captain Jack Crawford, and Pat Garret as well as outlaws like Frank and Jesse James, Cole Younger, Billy the Kid, Sam Bass, John Wesley Hardin, Kid Curry, Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and the Dalton brothers. Plenty of other frontier notables and gunfighters, such as Judge Roy Bean, Clay Allison, Ben Thompson, Doc Holliday, Buckskin Frank Leslie and Pawnee Bill Lilly are also associated with the famous Colt. The SAA also became the favorite handgun of the Texas Rangers, Wells Fargo Agents, and legions of anonymous peace officers, cowboys, farmers, miners, shop clerks, and gamblers.

Modern Colt SAA Revolvers

Colt SAA revolvers of the modern period (since production resumed in 1956) have been produced as Single Action Army and Buntline models. These standard models have a round top frame with a machined groove for a rear sight, and a rounded blade front sight. The usual finish is color case/blue or bright nickel. Cylinders are fluted. The grip frame is a two piece steel assembly. The grip panels are smooth oiled walnut or black plastic. Barrel lengths are 4 3/4, 5 1/2, and 7 1/2 inches. The Buntline model came with a 12 inch barrel but was otherwise similar to the regular SAA.

The modern SAA remains true to its heritage. It is a traditional Colt single action powered by flat springs. The hammer has the usual 1/4 ("safe"), 1/2 (loading), and full cock (ready to fire) positions. It is properly and safely carried with the hammer down on an empty chamber. It should never be carried fully loaded with six cartridges, even with the hammer in the so-called "safe" (1/4 cock) position. A sharp blow on the hammer could break the sear (which is part of the trigger) or safety notch (which is cut into the lower end of the hammer) or both and allow the gun to fire. Nothing has changed in this regard since 1873, nor should it.

The SAA uses a hammer mounted firing pin. A loading gate in the right side of the frame gives access for loading and unloading. The steel ejector rod housing is located on the lower right side of the barrel, aligned with the loading gate.

The fluted cylinder is easily removed for cleaning. To do so, first bring the hammer back to the half cock position and open the loading gate. Then depress the cylinder pin latch button (located on the left side of the frame in front of the cylinder) and slide out the cylinder pin. The cylinder is then loose and can be removed from the right side of the frame.

To eject fired cases from a Colt single action revolver, the hammer is put in its half-cock position, which retracts the cylinder bolt and allows the cylinder to turn freely. The cylinder is manually rotated to align each chamber, one at a time, with the loading gate so that a stroke of the spring loaded ejector rod can knock out the case. Loading is likewise accomplished one chamber at a time, by manually rotating the cylinder so that a cartridge can be dropped into each chamber in succession.

Here is an easy way to safely load any traditional SA six-shooter. Count out the five cartridges to be loaded, and put the rest of the box aside. With the hammer in the half-cock position and the loading gate open, manually rotate the cylinder to align the first chamber to be loaded and insert a cartridge. Now rotate the cylinder to the next (second) chamber, but do not load it--leave this chamber empty. Then rotate the cylinder to the next (third) chamber and insert a cartridge. Proceed to load the fourth, fifth and sixth chambers in a similar manner. When the last cartridge has been loaded into the gun, do not rotate the cylinder. Just close the loading gate and pull the hammer back to its full cock position. This will rotate the cylinder, placing the empty chamber, the one you skipped, under the hammer. Carefully and slowly lower the hammer all the way down. (I then like to pull the hammer back to the 1/4 cock "safe" position but this is not, strictly speaking, necessary.) Visually inspect the gun to verify that the empty chamber is under the hammer (you will be able to see the 5 cartridges that are not lined up with the barrel). That is all there is to it. With a little practice, it's a lot easier to do than to read about. Any single action revolver with the hammer down on an empty chamber is absolutely safe. It cannot be fired unless it is first manually cocked.

The typical SAA with a 5 1/2 inch barrel is 11 inches in overall length and weighs 42 ounces. The current Single Action Army is an expensive revolver with a very high quality finish, assembled in the Colt Custom Shop. The MSRP in 2003 was $1530.

The SAA New Frontier

A modern version of the flat top target SAA was introduced in 1961 as the New Frontier (5 1/2 and 7 1/2 inch barrels) and New Frontier Buntline (12 inch barrel). A presentation version was made for President John F. Kennedy, who had coined the term "new frontier" during his 1960 election campaign.

The New Frontier has a flat top frame. The top strap of this frame is considerably more substantial than the rounded top strap found on standard SAA models. The sights consist of a white outline, target-type fully adjustable rear and a serrated ramp front with a square top blade. A .45 New Frontier with a 7 1/2 inch barrel has a generous 8.45 inch sight radius, an overall length of 13 1/2 inches, and weighs 4 pounds. Calibers offered were .357 Magnum, .44 Special, and .45 Colt. Serial numbers end with the letters "NF."

The production of 2nd Generation New Frontier models (there was no 1st Generation New Frontier model) ran from 1961 until production of all 2nd Generation SAA's ceased in 1975. But the model was reinstated in 1978 (a 3rd Generation SAA) and continued until the New Frontier was finally discontinued, along with all regular SAA production, sometime during 1983.

The 3rd Generation SAA New Frontier test fired for this article (which was made toward the end of the 1981 production batch) is a presentation grade revolver with a lustrous Royal Blue metal finish, color cased frame, and oiled walnut grips with gold Colt medallions. The hammer spur is checkered, and the sides of the hammer are highly polished but left in the "white." The New Frontier is both the most handsome and the most functional of all modern era, regular production SAA models. Most are in the hands of collectors, which I regard as unfortunate; they deserve loving care, but they should be used in the field.

In 1984 SAA revolvers became available only from the Colt Custom Shop, and the New Frontier model is not available at all. This is a pity because, for all of its production life, the SAA New Frontier was Colt's only big bore hunting revolver.

Test Fire

The Colt SAA test fired for this review is the late model New Frontier described above. This .45 Colt caliber revolver has a 7 1/2 inch barrel. The stock trigger pull must have been around 5 1/2 pounds. An after market replacement mainspring fixed that, lowering the pull to a clean 3 pounds. The fully adjustable sights are zeroed at 25 yards.

The SAA is a comfortable gun to shoot. It points naturally. And the graceful Western style grip allows the gun to roll slightly upward in the shooting hand, minimizing the effect of recoil. Many shooters over the years have found the Colt SAA grip to be the most comfortable of all handgun handles.

The New Frontier's adjustable sights are excellent in use, a definite advantage compared to the fixed sights of standard Single Action Army revolvers and a practical necessity for a gun to be used in the field. Hunting loads are unlikely to shoot to the same point of impact as the standard 255 grain lead RN factory loads for which the fixed sights are intended.

According to the Speer Reloading Manual No. 13, 200-230 grain JHP bullets can be driven at a muzzle velocity (MV) well over 1000 fps (up to 1081 fps, in fact) without exceeding the SAAMI pressure limit for the .45 Colt. At a MV of 1000 fps the 225 grain Speer JHP develops about 500 ft. lbs. of muzzle energy (ME). That makes the .45 Colt New Frontier a viable short range deer gun.

Factory loaded .45 Colt ammunition is rather expensive, so only Federal Classic factory loads with 225 grain lead SWC-HP bullets were test fired. This is reputed to be the best .45 Colt factory load for defensive purposes. The catalog muzzle velocity of this load is 900 fps, and the ME is 405 ft. lbs. All shooting was done from a bench rest on an outdoor range at 25 yard targets. Three 5-shot groups with the Federal factory loads averaged 3.5 inches.

The first reloads I tried used Speer 230 grain lead RN bullets over moderate charges of W231 powder. The results were pretty horrible; four 5-shot groups averaged 7.3 inches.

Handloads using the famous Speer 200 grain JHP ("flying ashtray") bullet in front of fast burning W231 and 700X powders and medium burning rate HS-6 powder were tried next. These loads produced better groups than the factory fodder and much better groups than the handloaded lead bullets. A total of a dozen groups were fired using the 200 grain Speer JHP bullet.

There was little difference in accuracy between cartridges loaded with 700X and those loaded with W231. Both were supposed to produce MV's of about 900 fps and the groups averaged 2.8 inches.

The real winner was the 200 grain Speer JHP in front of the medium burning HS6 powder at a MV of 945 fps (MV taken from the Speer Reloading Manual.) Groups with this combination averaged a satisfying 1.7 inches.

It is worth noting that some of this shooting was done in the company of Guns and Shooting Online Technical Advisor Jack Seeling, shooting a modern Colt Government Model (1911) pistol in .45 ACP. Both of us were able to consistently shoot smaller groups with the SAA than with the semi-automatic pistol that had finally replaced it in U.S. Army service. Not bad for a 130 year old design!

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Copyright 2003, 2009 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.