Compromise Part 3:
The Single Action Army

The Gun That Won’t Die!

This 3rd Generation .32-20 Single Action Army came from the Colt Factory in 2011.
Later models are a mixed bag, ranging from “top-rate to those that should have never left the factory!”

After previously unsuccessful U.S. Army Trials, Colt was sent back to the drawing board and William Mason came up with what became the Colt Single Action Army in 1872. The new Colt incorporated the solid top strap of the period Remington revolvers, the grip frame Sam Colt had first designed for his 1851 Navy .36 percussion revolver and chambered for the new .45 Colt. This new .45 round used a bullet of 250–255 grains over 40 grains of black powder for a muzzle velocity well over 850 fps.

This was Elmer Keith’s 5-1/2" Long-Range .44 Special. Notice the folding leaf rear sight and custom hammer.

The Winner

The new Colt 1873, officially referred to by the factory as the Model P and unofficially dubbed the “Peacemaker,” was just what the U.S. Army was looking for and their first-order resulted in 8,000 of the 7-1/2″ Cavalry Models being purchased in 1874 followed by 6,400 the following year with the last order for 3,000 being in 1891. The total number of Cavalry Model Colts purchased by the United States Government was just over 37,000.

Although the original barrel length was set at 7-1/2″ in 1895, 2,000 were returned to Colt for inspection and repair. Approximately 1/4 of these were condemned and most of the rest had the barrels cut to 5-1/2″, which soon became known as the Artillery Model length. In 1901 2,600 5-1/2″ Artillery Model revolvers were inspected and repaired by Colt with 550 being shipped to the Philippines immediately. By this time someone had made the foolish decision to mothball the .45 Colt Single Action in favor of the new double-action design of the New Model Army/Navy in .38 Long Colt. When this cartridge proved entirely inadequate against the Moro tribesmen in the Philippines, the old .45 Colt was taken out of moth balls and shipped to the troops.

From 1873 to the end of production in 1940, there was a grand total of 356,629 Colt Single Actions produced. Their greatest year of production was 1902 with 18,000 units manufactured. However, by 1935 and 1936 only 100 left the factory each year. Shooters were discovering other options such as the .357 Magnum Smith & Wesson and certainly the .45 ACP 1911 Government Model. We were in the midst of a depression, the machinery was wearing out and there would soon be a great demand for wartime production. It was time to end the Colt Single Action.

End Times

Col. Charles Askins put it well when he said there was many a damp eye when shooters heard of the end of the Colt Single Action Army. Collectors now refer to the Single Actions made from 1873 to 1940 as 1st Generation sixguns. When the Colt Single Action had been dropped from production in 1940, the official word was it would never come back again. Thank goodness it proved to be untrue and in 1955 Colt began producing the Single Action .45 again, with the first gun leaving the factory in November.

Still the same gun as the 1873 Peacemaker, the “new” Colt was made of stronger steels and as far as quality goes, the 2nd Generation guns — at least at the beginning — were as good as or better than anything from the first run of 1873 to 1940.

By 1975, history began to repeat itself. The 2nd Generation machinery was worn out and the Colt Single Action was removed from production again. This time, however, within a couple of years Colt entered the 3rd Generation of Colt Single Action Army production beginning at serial number 80,000SA. The 3rd Generation Colt Single Action lasted into the late 1980s when the market was flooded with all types of variations as to finish and barrel length and often second-class examples before the production was to cease again for the third time.

The addition of a 5-1/2" New Frontier barrel and an S&W adjustable rear
sight along with one-piece walnut stocks by TK Grips turned this 2nd Generation
.357 Magnum into a most versatile Perfect Packin’ Pistol.

Resurrection, Again

After being killed off three times, one would think the Colt Single Action would finally be dead and buried. Not so. The Colt Single Action came back! Again! This time it was a Custom Shop option, and then it was a production model, and then it was off, and then it was on, etc., etc., etc. Quality has been everything from top rate to those which should have never left the factory.

It has been 65 years since I purchased my first Colt Single Action. Over those far too quickly passing years, I have managed to add examples from every generation to my working collection and now I have settled on the 5-1/2″ barrel length as a very acceptable Compromise. I find I have examples chambered in .45 Colt, .357 Magnum, .44 Special with an auxiliary .44-40 cylinder, .38-40 and .32-20. The latter was produced in 2011 which was Colt’s 175th Anniversary and is as fine a sixgun as could be desired.

The .44 Special is always very special to me and two of my favorite 5-1/2″ Colt Single Actions in this Classic Chambering are my 2nd Generation examples. One has a King hammer and smoothed stag grips while the other is what is often referred to as a “pinto.” That is, it’s a nickel-plated .44 with one-piece creamy ivory stocks, however, the cylinder is blue and the barrel is quite interesting as it is not only blue but marked on the side with Bisley Model Frontier Six-Shooter. I’ve had this one for over 35 years so someone long before me installed the old Bisley barrel on it.

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One 2nd Generation .45 is high on my list because it is equipped with stunning one-piece floral leaf carved grips by Kirt Ratejasak and another 2nd Generation, this time in .357 Magnum. I purchased the latter used and found it shot 6″ to the left which is too much to adjust by simply twisting the barrel. I happened to have a 5-1/2″ 2nd Generation New Frontier .357 barrel in my parts box and this was installed and mated with a Smith & Wesson fully-adjustable rear sight. I now have a .357 Colt Single Action Army that can be perfectly sighted in with any load I choose from standard .357 Magnum loads to those with 180- to 200-grain bullets, along with standard .38 Special loads as well as Heavy .38/44 loads. Since the last rhinoceros was killed in my area more than 15 years ago, a .357 Magnum/.38 Special will handle the vast majority of my sixgunning needs.

During this century Colt has produced the Single Action Army in .45 Colt, .44-40, .357 Magnum, .44 Special, .38-40 and .32-20. For the past 10 years or so it has been extremely difficult to find a newly produced Single Action Army and currently the only version cataloged is in .45 Colt. Now that Colt has been purchased by CZ-USA, we don’t know what the future holds but I would not be surprised if the Single Action Army disappears totally from the production scene. I hope I am wrong!

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