Colt .45 Peacemaker
At this writing the Colt .45 Peacemaker is 140 years old. Of all American handguns it is the most famous, most legendary and arguably the most esthetically pleasing. It may not have been designed by old Sam Colt himself—he had passed away over a decade prior to its introduction, still, it incorporated the graceful lines and especially the grip frame he pioneered with earlier percussion revolvers.
As I wrote in last month’s issue the start of the 1870s also coincided with the beginning of big-bore, metallic-cartridge firing revolvers. Until about 1870 the US Cavalry was still issuing Colt and Remington .44-caliber cap-and-ball sixguns to its troopers. The Army hierarchy knew it was time to upgrade and they decided their new cartridge revolver should be .45 caliber.
In fact Colt’s .44 Model 1871 “conversions” had pleased many officers but there were two major faults with it. One was that its cartridge used a heel-type bullet with outside lubrication. The exposed lube could not help but become contaminated with dirt and other crud when packed about in the outdoors. And, the revolvers needed a topstrap connecting the rear of the frame to the front. Otherwise the impact of a big bullet plowing into the rear of the barrel tended to stress the revolver’s frame to the point of bending it.
Therefore, by 1873 Colt had developed their “Strap Pistol” as the company first referred to it. We all know it today officially as the Colt Single Action Army and that is what is inscribed alongside its barrels. Other nicknames have been Peacemaker (most popular), hogleg, and my personal favorite: the Equalizer.
The Colt Peacemaker .45 came apart in Duke’s hands in 1991 due to reasons still unknown.
By mid-1874 the new Colt .45s were being shipped to cavalry regiments all over the West. In fact the famous (or infamous) Black Hills Expedition led by Lt. Col. George A. Custer with a major portion of the 7th Cavalry was delayed in leaving due to waiting for delivery of their new handguns.
One of the first, if not the first, accidental fatalities caused by an inherent problem with the Peacemaker’s design occurred on that expedition. The soldiers loaded their new sixguns fully and relied on the safety notch in the hammer to hold the firing pin away from the cartridge resting under it. That’s a fragile arrangement as one trooper learned when something struck his hammer causing the revolver to discharge.
So that’s one thing every shooter of Colt Single Action Army revolvers and their innumerable clones should keep foremost in mind—load them with five rounds and let the hammer down on the empty sixth chamber!
Back to those Colt .45s, which were issued to the US Cavalry from 1873 until 1892 and used much even thereafter. They were all of a basic type. Barrel lengths were 7-1/2 inches. Their stocks (not grips) were one piece of plain-grain walnut inlet so that the grip frame fit into it. Finish was a rather dull blue on barrel, cylinder and grip frame while the frame itself and the hammer were color case hardened. Sights were a tiny blade front with a corresponding groove down the frame’s topstrap for a rear sight. In the period of its service the US Government purchased a bit over 37,000 such Colt .45s.
Their initial purchase price was $13.50 each which included a screwdriver. That item was a necessity because another inherent trait of the Peacemaker is that the six screws that hold the triggerguard and backstrap to one another and to the frame will loosen up. Carrying them on horseback speeds up the process immensely.
Original US Government produced .45 Colt ammunition did not consist of a 255-grain bullet over 40 grains of black powder as is often mistakenly written. The bullet weight was 250 grains and powder charge was 30 grains. All of it crammed into a copper case 1.285 inches long with an inside, centerfire primer. Later some civilian produced .45 Colt ammunition did contain 255-grain bullets and powder charges of 35, 38 and 40 grains. Such is documentable by original ammunition catalogs. To the best of my knowledge all civilian manufactured .45 Colt ammunition used brass for cartridge cases.
Almost as soon as Colt began shipping .45s to the US Army they released them for sale to civilians. It is interesting that some stamped US on the left side of the receiver were fitted with ivory grips, fully nickel plated and sold on the civilian market. Those were ones actually intended for the government but were refused by inspectors for one minor flaw or the other.
By 1875 civilian demand for Colt .45s resulted in a version with 5-1/2-inch barrel length and by 1879 a 4-3/4-inch length became a standard catalog item. Colt did sell that length earlier but it was a custom order item. Civilian finish was a brighter blue than the government ordered and in the black-powder era nickel plating was a popular finish. (Cleaning black-powder fouling from a nickel-plated revolver is easier than from a blued/case hardened one.)
Early on Peacemakers made for the civilian market also carried the 1-piece walnut stocks. Ivory stocks built in the same manner as walnut ones were popular too—again as custom order items. By 1882 2-piece hard-rubber grips became standard and actually remain so to this day.
Another significant change began in 1892. Until that time all Peacemakers’ cylinder pins were secured by a small screw angled in from the front of the frame. In that year the transition began to a spring-loaded transverse latch but the system did not become the norm until 1896. Often the first system is called the “black-powder frame” and the latter one the “smokeless powder frame.” That is not correct. Colt did not begin to warranty any of their Peacemakers for smokeless powder ammunition until 1900.
Although Colt began offering other chamberings in the Single Action Army as early as 1875 with the .44 Henry Rimfire and eventually offered Peacemakers in about three dozen different ones, the .45 Colt was always top seller by a wide margin. Here’s an example. It is generally accepted that total production from 1873 until 1941 was 357,859. (That includes variations such as Bisley, Bisley Target, and Single Action Target.) Just considering regular fixed-sighted Peacemakers there were over 150,000 made as .45 Colts. The next most popular caliber was .44 WCF (aka .44-40) with only about 64,000.
Duke bought his first Colt Peacemaker .45 with
5-1/2-inch barrel back in 1968.
No article about the Colt .45 Peacemaker can be complete without covering the 2nd and 3rd Generations. The production period of 1873 until 1941 is considered 1st Generation. Due to demand generated by cinema and television Westerns Colt brought back the Single Action Army in 1956 and kept it going until 1974 with about 75,000 produced. Of course again the majority were .45s. These 2nd Generation Peacemakers are easily identified because Colt put an SA suffix after the serial number as in 2222SA.
Production started again in 1976 with some minor changes such as different barrel threads, a fixed cylinder pin bushing, a different cylinder ratchet design with corresponding different cylinder rotating hand. A gap of about 5,000 numbers was put into the serial numbers with these 3rd Generation Peacemakers starting at 80000SA. After 99999SA was reached the SA was made a prefix. When SA99999 was reached the SA was split and became S0001A. And still .45 Colt reigns supreme as caliber choice.
As a teenager in southern West Virginia I had never laid eyes on a Colt .45 Peacemaker but still I desperately wanted one. Not only had I been influenced by all those Western programs but also the writings of people like Skeeter Skelton, Elmer Keith and others. For a summer job in 1968 I was hustling freight on the docks of a trucking company. One of the truckers said he owned a Colt .45 Peacemaker. I was skeptical because he had a reputation for windiness but still I pestered him to show it to me. To my utter amazement one payday Friday he did just that. It indeed was a beautiful condition 5-1/2-inch .45, which I later learned had been made in 1964. He offered it to me for $100, which was just about what my entire 2-week paycheck amounted to. (Minimum wage then was $1.60 an hour.)
Brothers and sisters was I one happy 19 year old although actual shooting of my new .45 much was limited that summer. Although already a handloader, funds had to be accumulated to buy dies, bullets mold, shell holders, cast bullet sizing die and so forth. Because a Model 1911A1 .45 ACP had also come into my hands that summer, I only bought .45 ACP reloading equipment and then made it work for .45 Colt too.
After 45 years of loading the .45 Colt, Duke has settled mostly on RN/FP style cast bullets for his handloads, such as (left) the 250-grain bullet from NEI mold No. 324 and (right) the 255-grain bullet from Redding/SAECO mold No. 955.
Uncounted thousands of handloads were fired through that first Peacemaker before in 1977 I foolishly traded it for something now forgotten. By that time there wasn’t much finish left on it. A casual perusal of my hand-jotted lifelong records showed I’ve owned exactly 30 Peacemaker .45s since 1968. Their barrels have ranged from 3-1/2 inches (Colt Custom Shop job) to a 12-inch Buntline and their finishes have been nickel plated, fully blued and blue with color case hardening. Since I have been downsizing my collection in recent years only five of those 30 remain. Two have 4-3/4-inch barrels and three have 7-1/2-inch barrels. One’s factory letter shows it was actually shipped to me and another’s states that it was ordered by Country/Western singing legend Hank Williams Jr. with my name engraved on it.
The remains of a 6th .45 Peacemaker are here also. On April 1st 1991 it blew up in my hand for reasons still undetermined. I came to the conclusion that the .45 Colt case’s huge volume wasn’t the best place for small dollops of fast burning smokeless propellants. For many years thereafter my Peacemaker shooting was mostly done with shorter .45 S&W “Schofield” cases due to their lesser volume. Then Hodgdon/IMR introduced their Trail Boss powder, a much more “fluffy” (for lack of a better word) powder which fills most of the .45 Colt’s case capacity with safe loads. I use it almost solely now. Almost all of my handloads now use one design or the other of roundnose/flatpoint bullets usually cast by me.
Of course the .45 Colt’s original propellant—black powder—still isn’t a poor choice. In fact in Colt Peacemakers and revolvers of similar strength black powder will give the most velocity safely achievable. Once I did a test of Old West sixguns by shooting them into a baffle box of soft pine, 1-inch planks. The box held 12 boards and the .45 Colt 250-grain bullet lodged in the last one. Nothing else available in the late 1800s equaled that.
My days of actually carrying a handgun out in the Montana’s hills are over. Mostly now I shoot them here on my own property just for fun. Colt Peacemaker .45s are perfect for that.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos: Yvonne Venturino
Single Action Army
Maker: Colt Mfg. Co.
P.O. Box 1868
Hartford, CT 06114
Although Sam Colt was dead by the time the first Peacemaker .45s (right) arrived in 1873, its designers followed the graceful lines pioneered by him with cap-and-ball sixguns such as the Model 1862 at left.
Action: Single action
Caliber: .45 Colt
.357 Magnum (others Custom Shop only)
Capacity: 6 (carry 5 with hammer down on an empty chamber)
Barrel Length: 7-1/2, 5-1/2, 4-3/4 inches
Overall Length: 13 inches (7-1/2-inch barrel)
Weight: 40 ounces (7-1/2-inch)
Finish: Blue & case hardened frame or full nickel
Grips: Black plastic
Price: $1,349 ($1,551 nickel)
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