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The New Colt Single Action Army.

Rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated -- the greatest sixgun in history is still available from Colt.

Anyone who says they do not believe in miracles obviously is not acquainted with the Colt Single Action Army. The basic design of the action dates back to 1836, and although the Single Action Army was introduced 120 years ago, its popularity is growing both in its original form and in the replicas offered by Cimarron and EMF. The reason of course is the rapidly growing sport of cowboy action shooting.

Even Ruger, which modernized the Colt Single Action with the Single-Six in 1953 and the Blackhawk in 1955, has now taken a step "backwards" bringing us the Vaquero, which looks as much like a Colt Single Action as possible.

From 1873 to 1941, more than 350,000 Colt Single Actions in more than 30 calibers were produced. Half of the big guns were made in .45 Colt and the rest in .44-40. The next two most popular calibers were the .38-40 and the .32-20.

Long before World War II however, the Colt was basically a dead design with plummeting sales. Even if the coming of hostilities had not forced a shift to wartime production, the Colt Single Action would probably have been dropped from production.

Colt Goes Post-War

After the war years, Colt announced the retirement of the Single Action, but by the mid-1950s, the new medium of television saturated the airwaves with old western movies and new western television shows and shooters wanted Colt Single Actions again. The dead Colt was resurrected and the Second Generation Single Action began. Still the same gun as the 1873 Peacemaker, the "new" Colt was made of stronger steels and was available only in four calibers: .45 Colt, .38 Special, .357 Mag. and .44 Special.

By the 1970s, the machinery was wearing out and the Colt Single Action was again pronounced dead -- only to revive in a few short years with the Third Generation of the Colt Single Action Army. This incarnation produced Single Action sixguns in .45 Colt, .44 Special, .44-40 and .357 Magnum. Two minor changes occurred. The hand design was changed for easier assembly and the cylinder no longer featured a full length bushing, but rather a button bushing at the front end.

In addition, the original "black powder" screw in the front of the frame, which held the cylinder pin, was changed to a spring-loaded catch. These three design changes marked the only changes in Colt Single Action design in over 120 years. Hammer profiles have changed, the type of lettering on the barrel has changed, the location of the serial numbers has changed -- all minor variations which have nothing to do with the operation of the Single Action six-gun itself.

The Third Generation Colt Single Action lasted into the late 1980s when the market was flooded with all types of variations of finish and barrel length. Quite often, these latter guns were second rate to say the least.

The Gun With Nine Lives

Having died three times, it would seem that the Colt Single Action would finally remain dead and buried. Not so. The Colt Single Action is back! Again! I consider this the "Fourth Generation," but Colt refers to them as a continuation of the Third Generation so I will go along and also call them Third Generation Single Actions.

They are expensive and limited, available only from the Custom Shop, but they are genuine Colt Single Action Armies and no other single action can make that claim. Available in both blue case hardened and nickel finish, the newest Colt Single Actions are being made in .45 Colt, .44-40 and .38-40.

For the past year I have been privileged to own four of the newest Colt Single Action Armies. Two of these have been in .45 Colt chambering, a 7 1/2" blued sixgun and a 5 1/2" nickel example. The other two are both nickeled sixguns in .44-40, one 4 3/4" and the other 5 1/2" in length. At the present time, Colt is cataloging both blue and nickel sixguns in all three calibers but only in barrel lengths of 4 3/4" and 5 1/2". 7 1/2" guns are promised in the future.

All new Colt Single Action Armies feature nicely shaped, plain-Jane walnut grips with gold colored Colt medallions, I have replaced the 5 1/2" gun's grips with custom grips -- one-piece birdseye maple from BluMagnum on the .44-40 and stags from Charles Able on the .45 Colt. The short barreled .44-40 now wears Third Generation Colt Eagle grips.

As they came from the factory, all Colt Single Actions could use an action job and all but the short-barreled .44-40 have been worked over by fast draw expert and gunsmith Bob Munden. Munden replaces the mainsprings and bolt springs with those of his own design and then works over all of the action parts with file and stone. The result is an incredibly smooth Single Action Army.

The 4 3/4" .44-40 was sent to Eddie Janis of Peacemaker Specialists. It now has been action-tuned, with the trigger set at 3 lbs. and the barrel tweaked in to correct the leaning front sight.

Sixgun Sighting

In all my years of shooting Colt Single Actions I can only recall one that shot to point-of-aim with my preferred load. That one was a Third Generation .44 Special with a 5 1/2" barrel. All the rest needed the front sights filed down, or they required that the front sights be built up, which normally requires the aid of a good metalsmith.

Windage is accomplished by bending the front sight, turning the barrel or filing the rear notch so the centering of the front sight is changed. Normally the first option is the easiest.

With a little judicious reloading one can often move the point-of-impact. I recently mated six .45 Single Actions with three loads using 255 grain bullets. With this very limited experimentation, four of the six were shooting to point-of-aim.

It comes as no great surprise that all four of these sixguns needed sight adjustments to bring them to point-of-aim. All the Vaqueros and Cimmarons I have tested lately have been right on for windage and simply needed filing of the front sight to sight them in perfectly.

Of the four Colt Single Actions, two shot low and two shot high. The low shooters were the 7 1/4" barreled .45 Colt, which shot 2" low with most loads, and the 4 3/4" .44-40, which shot 1 1/2 to 3" low. These differences can easily be corrected by filing the front sight.

The 7 1/2" barreled .45 is now right on the money -- corrected with load experimentation rather than filing of the front sight. The proper load turned out to be the Bull-X 255 gr. bullet over 7 grs. of WW231 in Winchester brass powered by a CCI #300 primer.

Not so easily corrected are the two 5 1/2" specimens, the .45 Colt which shoots 1" high and the .44-40, which shoots anywhere from 3" to 6" high. I can live with the former, which can probably be corrected by using a lighter and faster bullet. The latter, however, will require extensive load experimentation or build-up of the front sight. One of the best ways to do this is to just set a bead on top of the existing sight.

Windage turned out to be a minor problem with the 5 1/2" .44-40 shooting dead-on and the shorter barreled .44-40 shooting 1" to 3" right. The latter has now been corrected by Peacemaker Specialists.

Performing Under Pressure

These Colt Single Action Armies are not tackdrivers to say the least and a lot of that could be accounted for by the relatively poor sight picture which is to be expected in these older guns. Nickel-plated guns with nickel-plated sights are normally more difficult to shoot. As they are now, both .44-40s shoot 2" to 3" groups at 25 yards and the .45 Colts are somewhat tighter shooters.

Since these are designed as packin' pistols to be used for close range encounters where a big bore sixgun is needed fast, this presents no major problem. Mostly they will be used for cowboy action shooting, which calls for shooting relatively large targets at relatively close range and relatively fast speeds.

The only malfunction that occurred happened with the 5 1/2" .45 Colt and it is a common malady with Colt Single Actions, the base pin worked forward under recoil. That's why all custom single actions do not rely on spring-loaded catches. On Colt Single Action Armies with factory style loads, normally a stronger spring will solve the problem. If not, the end of the cylinder pin can be tapped and a small Allen screw installed to bear against the bottom of the barrel.

Somewhat surprising is the fact that the best shooting load in the 5 1/2" .45 Colt was the worst in the longest barreled .45 Colt, and vice versa. The Calvary Model liked Winchester's 255 gr. lead bullets the best, while the Artillery Model preferred 255 gr. Blazers. The best loads for the .44-40s were assembled with the Lyman #427098, and included a standard 200 gr. flat-nosed .44-40 bullet, and Unique powder. The shorter barreled .44-40 liked 10 grs. of Unique at 1,100 fps, while the other preferred 8 grs. of Unique for 900 fps.

The Colt Single Action Army is like no other sixgun in its ability to stir heart and spirit. The mind may tell us other guns are better for our purposes but our emotions won't accept it.

Those of us who consider ourselves traditionalists know there are other fine sixguns out there -- from Smith & Wesson K-frames and N-frames to Colt Anacondas to Ruger Redhawks and Blackhawks to Freedom Arms Casulls. All are serious sixguns for serious use. And therein lies the real beauty of a Colt Single Action,

The Colt is for campfires, walks in the woods, cowboy shooting and dreaming of days gone by. We love these other sixguns and use them, but only the Colt can totally stir our emotions. The grand old Single Action Army enters the 21st century more popular than ever.
 Colt Single Action Selected Loads
Load Velocity Accuracy Velocity
 .45 Colt 5 1/2" .45 Colt 7 1/2"
Blazer 255 Lead 750 fps 1 3/4" 778 fps
Winchester 255 Lead 749 fps 3" 754 fps
Black Hills 255 SWC 787 fps 2 1/4" 856 fps
Oklahoma Ammunition 250 RN 867 fps 2 1/4" 868 fps
Federal 225 LSWC-HP 811 fps 2 1/4" 811 fps
Bull-X 255 SWC/9.0 gr. Unique 919 fps 2 5/8" 914
Load Accuracy
Blazer 255 Lead 3 3/4"
Winchester 255 Lead 1 1/2"
Black Hills 255 SWC 1 5/8"
Oklahoma Ammunition 250 RN 1 3/8"
Federal 225 LSWC-HP 2 1/4"
Bull-X 255 SWC/9.0 gr. Unique 1 3/4"
 .44-40 4 3/4" .44-40 5 1/2"
Lyman #429215/8.0 gr. Unique 919 fps 3" 904 fps 2"
Lyman #427098/9.0 gr. Unique 1,106 fps 2 7/8" 1,140 fps 2 5/8"
Lyman #427098/10.0 gr. Unique 1,092 fps 2" 1,180 fps 3 1/4"
Remington 200JFP/9.0 gr. Unique 814 fps 2 1/2" 950 fps 2"
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Comment:The New Colt Single Action Army.
Author:Taffin, John
Publication:Guns Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2000
Words:1909
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