Case hardening redux

Making a Colt SAA Great Again
; .

Duke’s 3rd Generation .32-20 came with its original frame coloring removed by a previous owner due to light surface rust.

Having owned many hundred firearms over the years, I’ve never felt a need to have any refinished. Honest wear doesn’t bother me so long as guns’ bores are bright and mechanical function is correct. Damage from neglect is a different matter. I always avoid the latter while eagerly snapping up the former.


Duke’s 3rd Generation .32-20 after it was re-color case hardened by
Clear Creek Armory. Note also color case hardened hammer and fancy
walnut one-piece style grips.

The Prize

A few months back I encountered a Colt SAA that called for an exception to my rule. Back about the turn of the current century, Colt again offered .32-20 as a caliber option with the 3rd Generation Single Action Army. The move was obviously spurred by the immense popularity of cowboy action competition. Evidently, the new .32-20s didn’t sell all that well because after a few years Colt quietly dropped .32-20 again.

All this said, try to find one! I have only seen a few for sale on Internet sites and had never actually viewed one personally. My hankering was for a .32-20 SAA, one with a 7-1/2″ barrel length, which seems to be the rarest of all. I finally encountered one listed in a classified ad on an Internet forum.

It was just what I wanted except for one wart. Its owner said when he received it, the color case hardened frame was covered in light surface rust. Leaving it this way would eventually result in pitting. The only option was to remove the rust with a chemical that also removed the frames’ colors. I don’t blame the gent at all because the rest of the SAA was pristine. Furthermore, he had it priced correspondingly low due to its frame now being gray instead of attractively colored.

It’s a little-known fact certain chemicals can remove the colors of color case hardened steel without actually affecting the steel’s hardness. The various lead removing cloths sold by several companies warn about rubbing them on color case hardened parts. Even consistent exposure to sunlight can fade color case hardening.

My mindset was thus — I’d buy the Colt .32-20 and shoot it plenty to ascertain whether it was suitably accurate. Then, I’d decide to move it on or keep it. “Suitably accurate” wasn’t the word for this SAA .32-20. It shoots like a laser beam! My decision then was to leave it be or have it recolor case hardened. I finally voted for the latter. This SAA has Colt’s beautiful Royal Blue on the barrel, cylinder, ejector rod housing and grip frame. All parts exhibit fine quality fit and polishing. It deserved to look good again.

This is where my friend, Bill Fuchs, doing business as Clear Creek Armory in Ten Sleep, Wyo. enters the story. I had Bill do some one-piece style grips for me along with other SAA repair work in 2020. Bill not only makes grips and does repairs, he can also do full restorations and custom modifications. Naturally it includes color case hardening. After determining this .32-20 was a keeper, I sent it to Ten Sleep.


Close up of the same gun with its frame colors removed.

Close up of Duke’s 3rd Generation Colt SAA .32-20 with its new color case hardening.


There are two basic methods of applying coloring to rifle and handgun parts. One is done by a chemical process. For instance, the replicas coming from Italy and Vaqueros from Ruger have this finish. Then there is true color case hardening in which parts are packed in bone meal, baked at high temperature and then quenched in distilled water. I’ve watched it done and it’s quite an involved process. An experienced eye can discern the two types of coloring at a glance. Incidentally, using the bone meal process means parts and frames must be held in fixtures. Otherwise the high temperatures can cause warping.

Clear Creek Armory uses the bone meal process. When I sent the .32-20 Colt to Bill I also asked for him to color case harden the hammer. Colt did this on blued/color case hardened SAAs until near the end of 1st Generation production. Afterwards they just brightly polished both sides of the hammers. I’ve never known any SAA lover who doesn’t prefer color case hardened hammers.

Bill Fuchs is nothing if not a considerate man. Knowing my affection for fancy wood grips he had saved a piece of exquisite walnut just for me. With fancy walnut one-piece grips added to the now attractively colored hammer and frame, my formerly dingy Colt .32-20 is now a fine shooting showpiece. I had Yvonne take before and after photos so you readers can see for yourselves.

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