After A Long Separation From His Multi-Caliber
Battery Of Single Actions, Duke Returns To
Frontier Mode And His First Love.
Long time readers of mine might be surprised at this following statement: I haven’t fired one of my Colt Single Action Army revolvers for sport or recreation in several years. A book on World War II small arms has consumed my time. But now that it’s finished, I’m fondly eyeing my shelf of Colt Peacemakers again.
After a sell-off back in 2008 in order to finance some of the guns I needed for the book project, I’m left with a baker’s dozen of Colt SAA’s ranging from my trusty 4-3/4-inch 2nd Generation .357 Magnum to a 2nd Generation New Frontier .45 Colt. I bought the .357 in 1970 upon turning 21. I’ve sold it twice and bought it back twice. The New Frontier was a 1989 gift from Hank Williams Jr. from the first time he invited me to his home for a visit.
My newest SAA’s are a pair of engraved .44-40’s I bought for Yvonne and myself in 2006. Mine’s a 4-3/4-inch, hers a 5-1/2-inch. They were made by US Firearms instead of Colt and are of excellent quality. (Too bad the company went goofy, stopping SA production and turning to making a space-age, .22 rimfire with the unfortunate name of “Zip Gun.”)
All my other Colt SAA’s are .38-40’s, .44-40’s and .45 Colts—except for my lone 3-inch Sheriff’s Model. Although it does have a .44-40 cylinder, I keep it fitted with a .44 Special one kept loaded with 5 shotshells just for shooting rattlesnakes around the place.
Actually, I also keep a 4-3/4-inch .45 Colt for the same purpose. Since we have two levels to our home, in warm months there’s a shotshell-loaded handgun near both outside doors.
Although I’m not the greatest fan of the .45 Colt cartridge, three of my Colt SAA .45’s and a third USFA are so chambered and have special meaning for me. They are the closest I will ever come to owning a genuine US-marked Cavalry Colt .45. Again for the uninitiated, all variants had 7-1/2-inch barrels, color case-hardened frames and hammers, with the rest of the metal blued. And they all had 1-piece walnut stocks (aka grips) with an inspector’s cartouche on the left side. Only about 37,000 were sold to the US Government between 1873 and 1892. Today they cost plenty—the cheapest one ever offered to me was fully authenticated and priced at $7,000.
Anyway, back in my young years I was smitten by the history of the US Cavalry of the Indian Wars era. In fact, my first trip to Montana in 1968 was specifically to visit the then-named Custer Battlefield (now it’s called the more politically-correct Little Bighorn Battlefield).
Duke’s 2nd Generation Colt New Frontier was a gift from Hank Williams Jr.
Although not a .45 Colt fanatic, Duke favors these four .45 SAA’s because they
are replicas of the US Cavalry sidearm from 1873 until the 1890’s. At left are a
1984-vintage Colt SAA and a USFA Custer Battlefield .45 with patina finish. At
right are a matched brace of Colt Peacemaker Centennials. Cavalry-issue Colt SAA’s
had an inspector’s cartouche (inset) stamped into the left grip.
At the museum, there on exhibit, was a Model 1873 “trapdoor” carbine and a US-marked Colt. I determined to have both types. Finding a genuine .45-70 Model 1873 carbine wasn’t difficult. I got mine in 1975 for a measly $225 and still have it. But US-marked Colts just have not been possible, so I’ve had to settle for facsimiles.
The first came in 1984 from Colt’s Custom Shop. To get a single action from them then, it had to be ordered with a specific dollars’ worth of “embellishments.” I didn’t want the 7-1/2-inch, .45 to be all scratched up with engraving, so I simply added ivory grips and a presentation box.
Months and months passed and I finally called Colt. The nice lady on the phone said, “The gun has been ready for a long time but the presentation box hasn’t arrived.”
I replied, “Lady, I can’t shoot a box. Send the gun now and the box when possible.” The Colt arrived a few days later and I instantly took off the ivory and set about having 1-piece walnut grips made. (I don’t even recall when the box finally arrived, but it did come eventually and is stuffed in a closet around here somewhere.)
As members of the then named Custer Battlefield Historical Association, Yvonne and I participated in their 1986 re-ride. During the event, we spent the night at the Crow’s Nest from where the Indian village was located that momentous day in 1876. The next day we followed a troop of reenactors all the way to the battle monument. I packed that Colt .45 in a black El Paso Saddlery reverse-draw replica of a cavalry holster.
What I actually wanted in 1984 was one of Colt’s Peacemaker Centennial .45’s. Those came out in 1975 and were perfect recreations of US Colts except for the 1873-1973 stamping on the barrel’s right side. I actually saw one right after they were introduced but had neither cash nor credit card on me. The next day I drove 80 miles back to the store with the money only to find it had been sold.
It wasn’t until 1993 when I landed one of those .45’s and then, shortly afterward, another one came my way. Then about 2005, USFA decided to put out a Custer Battlefield .45. It looked just like the one at the battlefield museum, patina and all. I even was lucky enough to get serial number 1876 on mine.
Currently, Duke’s only .44 Special SAA is this Colt Sheriff’s Model (above) he uses for
rattlesnakes (below). For this he uses only shot loads for snakes due to safety considerations.
Two of Duke and Yvonne’s favorite single actions are these discontinued United States
Fire Arms .44-40’s, shown with machine-rest groups fired from both guns.
Two other of my treasured Colt SAA’s are .38 WCF’s (the formal designation for the .38-40 and so marked).
Made originally from 1883 until 1941, .38 WCF barrel and cylinder dimensions were all over the map. I’ve slugged groove diameters at 0.401-inch up to 0.408 and cylinder mouths at 0.403 to 0.410. Therefore, when Colt resurrected the .38 WCF in their 3rd Generation circa 1994, I was pleased to find those dimensions were uniformly 0.400 inch for the barrels and 0.401 inch for chamber mouths. What I didn’t care for were caliber stampings of .38-40 instead of the old .38 WCF.
Then I saw a brand new one so marked and nabbed it. It carried the 5-1/2-inch barrel but I also wanted one with 7-1/2-inch length. At a 1990’s SHOT Show in Dallas, I approached Colt’s Custom Shop boss at their booth and asked about getting a .38 WCF with 7-1/2-inch barrel. He looked me right in the eye and said, “I’m making up some for Hank Williams Jr., but I won’t do it for you.” So I went right to my hotel’s office and asked to use their fax machine. My note was to Hank asking if I could buy one of his 7-1/2-inch .38 WCF’s when they arrived. His immediate reply was, “Mike, you bet! You can have your pick.”
The next day I showed that to the Colt fellow. He said, “Well, why didn’t you say you were a friend of Hank’s. I would have agreed to make you one.” I replied, “I shouldn’t have to say that.” And then I left.
Awhile later the gun arrived from Hank. It was caliber-stamped .38 WCF too. When I mentioned it to Hank, he said, “What? All the others are just marked .38-40.” Those two .38 WCF’s, incidentally, are some of the best-shooting SAA’s I’ve ever experienced.
None of my Colt Single Actions wear their original factory stocks. Most have 1-piece sets of walnut or rosewood. My early ones were fabricated by various guys, but since the 1990’s all my 1-piece grips have been made by a neighbor who also slicks up single actions. His name is Tom Sargis and his business is Bozeman Trail Arms.
Besides wood stocks, I have a brace of nickeled “Frontier Six Shooters” in .44 WCF (aka .44-40) wearing bison bone grips, another pair of .44’s with ivory grips, and one of the .38 WCFs with stag grips.
Something all my single actions have in common is they are sighted to hit point of aim at 25 yards. If there is anything I detest, it’s a fixed-sight handgun that doesn’t shoot to its sights. Once in my fledgling gun’riter days an editor rejected a piece I wrote on sighting in fixed-sight handguns. His reasoning? “Holding off is no big deal.” Well, it is to me and I never submitted another article to that idiot.
In my experience, most fixed-sight single actions that don’t shoot to their sights print to the left. Being frustrated with my Colt Custom Shop 7-1/2-inch .45 because I couldn’t hit anything aimed at, I grabbed a pair of pliers from the glove box of my pickup. With no padding, I grasped the front sight and tweaked it to the left. It has hit dead center now for 30 years and still wears the pliers’ marks.
But being a more gentle and patient soul now, I simply prevail on Tom Sargis to tweak those single actions as needed—using his padded vise, rosin and lever fitted into the cylinder recess to turn the barrel ever so slightly. It seldom takes a tweak of more than a few thousandths to get them hitting center. Once a fellow whined to me, “I don’t want to see my front sight leaning off to the left.” My reply was, “Hey dummy, you can’t tell when you’re aiming because you only see the tip of the sight anyway.” (Guess maybe I haven’t mellowed as much as I thought.)
Well, so much for windage. It is with elevation that sighting problems can get sticky. If a Colt-type single action is printing low, the sight can be filed down. This is a good job for someone handy with a file, but I would never try it myself. In fact, Tom has even said I should be prohibited from owning metal-cutting tools. A Colt shooting high is tough to correct because then it needs a taller front sight and adding metal is tough.
Once I had a gunsmith squeeze a front sight in a smooth-jawed vise and then trim it up to look good. But then it had become too thin to see well. The only easy alternative I know of is to shoot lighter bullets. (In handguns, light bullets impact lower and heavy ones higher.)
With a little more free time lately, Duke is back to shooting
his SAA’s. He got his first Colt Peacemaker in 1968.
And of course, there is the safety factor we must all concern ourselves with if shooting traditional single actions, whether Colts, replicas or Old Model Rugers. This calls for loading them with five rounds and lowering the hammer on the empty sixth chamber. The easy way to do that is as follows. With hammer on half-cock and cylinder free to rotate, load one chamber, skip one chamber and then load four more. Finally, put the hammer at full cock and lower it carefully. The hammer will now be on the empty chamber. And please, don’t take this matter lightly. I’ve personally known two guys who aren’t around anymore because they failed to do this.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino
Bozeman Trail Arms
28 Lake Dr.
Livingston, MT 59047