3rd Gen 2nd Thoughts

Unlike Some, Duke Has No Issue With His 3rd Generation Colt SAA Revolvers

Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos: Yvonne Venturino

Duke feels the 3rd Generation Colt SAA’s got a bad reputation because of some
flaws in early 1970s, but such an opinion is unfounded now.

A bad reputation is a tough thing to overcome, and the 3rd Generation of Colt Single Action Army production quickly gained one upon reintroduction in 1976. In some instances it was deserved. In others, not so much.

In fact I was one of those early detractors. My brand new 3rd Generation .45 with 7-1/2-inch barrel, acquired in November, 1976, should never have left the factory. I had a local store order it in so there was no chance for examination beforehand. Its triggerguard had a minute crack, its hard rubber grips were far from fitting the grip frame and the entire left side of the grip frame hung past the left side of its main frame. The hammer was a wobbly fit in its recess. I was so disappointed I gave it away a few years later.

But being such an avid SAA fan I still indulged myself in buying them but looked before leaping (in other words, seen and handled before paying). Most encountered passed my tests. In fact I developed the habit of running my fingers over mating edges of frame and grip frame to see if fingernails would catch on non-matching edges. After about 1980, finding fault with their fit became a rare thing.

Before continuing, let’s get this matter of 1st, 2nd and 3rd Generation SAA’s out of the way. It’s a simple matter of serial numbers. The 1st Generation ran from 1873 until 1941 with serial numbers going from 1 to 357,859. (Sources may vary on the exact total.) There were no letters in the serial numbers—none. Colt began what was called the 2nd Generation in 1956 at 0001SA and ended circa 1974 at approximately 74,000SA.

SAA’s were out of production for two years while Colt retooled and made some engineering changes. When production started again in 1976, the 3rd Generation began at serial number 80,000SA and by late 1978 number 99,999SA was reached. At this point Colt changed the SA from a suffix to a prefix and started again at SA01001. Why 1,000 numbers were skipped remains a mystery.

Many fans wondered what the company would do when SA99999 was reached. What they did was logical. The SA was split and numbers started over again at S02001A. Two thousand numbers were skipped this time making for another mystery. That was in 1993. According to a recent post on the Colt Forum, serial numbers as high as S75XXXA have now been reached. Also there was information Colt was only producing about 80 SAA’s a month at this time. At that rate they won’t have to worry about what to do with the SA in serial numbers for quite a while.

The three finishes Colt SAA’s offered in the 3rd Generation include full blue (above, middle), blue with case
hardened frame (bottom) and fully nickel-plated (top). They also show the three standard barrel lengths of
4-3/4, 5-1/2 and 7-1/2 inches.

From 1978 until 1993, 3rd Generation Colt SAA’s had the “SA” letters as a prefix

In 1993 after SA99999 was reached, Colt split the “S” and “A” and started over
again at S02001A. The most recent numbers are in the S75XXXA range.

Now in a sentence let’s get this idea of a 4th Generation SAA settled. According to Colt there is no such thing in regards to those engineering changes between 3rd Generation and the first two. Consider it this way: parts between 1st and 2nd Generations are interchangeable. Some are with 3rds but not all. The barrel threads are different. Until 1976 barrel threads were 20 per inch. Since then they have been 24 per inch. Also different is the ratchet at rear of cylinder, mandating a different rotating hand. Cylinder pin bushings in 1st and 2nd Generations were removable. Not so in 3rds until about 2002 when the old style bushings returned.

The following is my experience-based opinion concerning 3rd Generation SAA’s, after having owned 40 with 10 still on hand. I favor those with the split SA in the serial numbers, or simply stated those made from 1993 on. Mine are excellent examples of the revolver makers’ craft, except from the factory their actions are rough to an extreme. Upon buying one I factor in the cost of an action smoothing by my friend Tom Sargis at Bozeman Trail Arms. At the same time I have him smooth their forcing cones as they leave the factory short and rough.

One reason I lavish my affections on many 3rd Generation SAA’s is Colt resurrected two of my favorite cartridges in them. The .44 WCF (.44-40) came in 1982 and .38 WCF (.38-40) came in 1993. They have done an excellent job of matching barrel and cylinder dimensions with these fine old cartridges, making them some of the most accurate SAA’s I’ve ever fired. Of those 3rd Generation SAA’s in my racks now 7 are chambered for those two dual-digit cartridges. The other three are .45’s.

As can be seen by this pristine condition 3rd Generation .45, Colt’s fit and finish are excellent.

With the advent of cowboy action competition and many of their participants desiring low recoil, Colt for a time brought back .32 WCF (.32-20) and .38 Special as caliber options. Of course .45 Colt and .357 Magnum were standard from the beginning in 1976. By Colt’s website those two again are the only options. Also along the way in 3rd Generation, Colt offered .45 ACP cylinders for fitting to .45 Colt SAA’s. In 1978 the .44 Special was added as an option but according to the company’s website it is not available now.

Another feature Colt brought back in the 3rd Generation is the angled screw in mainframe to secure the base pin. From 1873 until the early 1892 the screw was the method standard for holding the base pin in place. Then gradually between 1892 and 1896 Colt phased in the transverse spring-loaded latch standard from then on. Mostly Colt fans refer to the first style as “black-powder frame” and the second as “smokeless-powder frame.” Yet beware those names are misnomers. Colt did not warranty any SAA for smokeless powder ammunition until 1900 and all the 2nd and 3rd Generation guns are fine for modern ammunition regardless of frame style.

Since the late 1870s the three standard barrel lengths for SAA’s have been 4-3/4, 5-1/2, and 7-1/2 inches and such remained standard in 3rd Generation. However, special order or special run 3rd Generation ones have had these following lengths: 2, 3, 3-1/2, 4, 5, 6, and 12 inches. Also, standard finishes have always been blue with color case hardened frame or fully nickel plated. As a special order item Colt also has made them with full blue finish.

Because of his eyesight Duke’s current favorite barrel length is 7-1/2 inches. One of Duke’s most used
Colt SAA’s is his 3-inch Sheriff’s Model (below) for which he has both .44 Special and .44-40 cylinders.
It’s used most often as .44 Special with shot loads and has accounted for a couple dozen rattlesnakes.

By Duke’s count at one time or the other since its inception in 1976, the 8 chamberings in the 3rd
Generation SAA’s have included (from left) the .32 WCF (.32-20), .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .38 WCF
(.38-40), .44 Special, .44 WCF (.44-40), .45 Colt and .45 ACP.

Stock Solution

Grips, or more formally, stocks are a favorite add-on to my 3rd Generation SAA’s. Only my most recently acquired ones still wear their factory hard rubber ones. Once in a while you might encounter a 3rd Generation wearing some of the plainest, roughest, 2-piece walnut grips. The .45 Colt I bought just a week before this writing does and they will go soonest. As for the factory checkered, hard rubber sets I find them too thick and certainly not as attractive as fancy woods, stag, bison bone or ivory. Right now I have 3rd Generation SAA’s with rosewood, stag, fancy walnut, and hand-carved ivory.

It might sound strange to lovers of the more exotic materials, but my favorite grip material is wood. The fancier the better and the style I prefer is 1 piece. Back in the 1800s Colt actually cut those from solid wood but nowadays most grip makers just glue a spacer between two grip halves. Still I favor the screw-less look and like them thinner than factory stocks.

Now, the purpose of any gun is shooting. Admittedly Colt has had some problems with some of their barrel and cylinder dimensions. (Not only limited to 3rd Generation SAA’s.) For instance I had a nickel-plated, 1980 vintage .44 Special unable to shoot decent groups even from machine rest. Its barrel groove dimension was 0.427 inch as all their .44’s have been. In fact I have a 1922 dated factory spec sheet showing maximum and minimum barrel groove dimension for all their .44’s as 0.426 to 0.427 inch. However, my particular .44 Special’s cylinder’s chamber mouths were 0.435 inch.

Accuracy of 3rd Generation Colt SAA’s can be excellent when good ammunition is fed them.
Note Duke’s .44-40 shot to the left of point of aim as has been so common for him.

Then there is .45 Colt. That same factory spec sheet says all their .45 barrels are supposed to be 0.451 to 0.452 inch and not the 0.454 inch so often touted for pre-World War II .45 SAA’s. And their .45 Colt cylinder chamber mouths usually run 0.455 to 0.456 inch. Sometimes they vary from one chamber to the other. My Colt SAA .45 made in 1997 has some 0.455-inch ones and one of 0.453 inch. Conversely my two most recently made SAA’s from the first decade of this century have six each 0.400 inch (.38-40) and 0.428 inch (.44-40) chamber mouths. In my estimation those are perfect and both SAA’s are finely accurate with good ammunition.

One problem plaguing 1980s SAA’s for me was they consistently hit left of point of aim out to 25 yards, requiring the sight to lean slightly left to hit point on. I became so aggravated with two of them an impulse overtook me and I used pliers from my pickups’ toolbox to bend them. I don’t recommend this now but it’s what I did. None of the one’s I’ve had with the split “S” and “A” letters in serial numbers have shot left. They may vary up and down but at least hit on for windage.

And that is pretty much my say on 3rd Generation Colt SAA’s. There were some birthing problems but I see no reason to apologize for them now.

Colt Mfg. Co.
P.O. Box 1868
Hartford, CT 06114
(860) 236-6311
www.colt.com

Bozeman Trail Arms Mfg.
28 Lake Dr.
Livingston, MT 59047
(406) 223-1111
www.bozemantrailarms.com

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3 thoughts on “3rd Gen 2nd Thoughts

  1. Frederick Ludwikowski

    Still would like an article on Radom P35 9 mm pistols. Also, let Duke know I may be interested in buying his Astra 400 should he decide to sell it.
    Ski

    Reply
  2. John Hull

    I love the look and feel of the Colt SAA, regardless of the vintage. But for a shooter I’ll take a Ruger Blackhawk in .45 Colt over the SAA every time, or even the Ruger Vaquero model. My Blackhawk has .453″ throats, and a .453″ bore and shoots period correct RNFP 250 gr. 1:20 alloy bullets sized to .454″ with superb accuracy. I’d love to own a SAA if I could find one with matching cylinder/bore dimensions, but they’re just too expensive. I enjoyed the read though.

    Reply
  3. Jim L

    Nice quick way to know what generation Colt your looking at as well as what you might encounter. My U.S. Firearms did have a nicer finish than that of my Colt but alas they are gone, and Colt still lives on.

    Reply

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