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Thumb buster love: 40 years with the Colt SAA.

The summer of 2008 marks my 40th year spent studying, collecting, and above all shooting the Colt Single Action Army revolver. Back in 1968 as a summer job between my first and second year of college, I was hustling freight on the docks of a local storage and transfer company. That was in southern West Virginia, where Colt Single Action Army revolvers were not exactly common. In fact, they were so uncommon I'd never actually seen one in person.

Regardless, as so often was the case in my younger years, I just knew if only a Colt SAA would fall into my hands, all would be right in my world. That summer job I worked alongside a high school friend named Mike Bucci nicknamed Butch. He shared my fondness for shooting, but couldn't understand why I was pre-occupied with a "cowboy gun."

One afternoon on the loading docks Butch was talking to one of the truck drivers named Jesse May. He called me over saying, "Hey Mike, Jesse here says he owns one of those cowboy guns you're always talking about." I began to rapid fire question Jesse May, "What caliber is it? First or second generation? What barrel length? Blue and color case hardened finish or nickel plated? What do you want for it?" You see, I may have never seen a real Colt SAA, but I knew something about them because I had certainly read a bunch about them in firearms magazines.

Jesse said, "It's a .45 and has a barrel about this long." (He held his fingers about 6" apart.) Then he went on to say he didn't know what color case hardening was but the gun was not nickel-plated and didn't understand what I meant by "generation" and lastly it wasn't for sale. I asked him to at least bring it with him to work someday.

Weeks went by and he never did, so I thought he was just blowing smoke. Then to my utter astonishment one payday Friday after work he called my house and said, "If you want that Colt meet me back at the docks and bring $100." I did but expected him to show up with a Model 1917 double action .45, or most anything besides a genuine Colt SAA .45.

He did not. As we met he unwrapped from an oily rag a pristine Colt SAA .45 with blue/case color finish, 5-1/2" barrel, and of second generation manufacture. (Later I dated it as being made in 1964.) The only thing un-original about it was someone had replaced the factory hard-rubber grips with plastic ones resembling mother of pearl. I was speechless. Not only was I holding a "real" Colt SAA but a darn nice one and it was now mine!

Remembering in my stash of odds and ends there was a single .45 Colt factory cartridge, I rushed home, got it, and then drove outside the city limits and fired my one cartridge at a chunk of wood. That was the beginning of 40 years of Colt SAA shooting, which I hope is far from over.

Actually, my Colt SAA shooting got off to a fairly slow start because, although I was already a handloader and bullet caster, money was short for more bullet moulds and reloading dies. And it was even shorter for .45 Colt factory loads. I bought the Colt in June, but it was early September before enough cash was available to order Lyman bullet mould No. 454190, a set of RCBS dies, proper shell holder, and lube/sizing dies.

Forty years later I have owned scores of Colt SAAs, fired hundreds more and reloaded all the major calibers for which they have been chambered in their 135-year history. The oldest one I ever owned was a nickeled .44-40 factory lettering to 1892 and the most recent a nickeled .45 from 1997. I won't bore you with how they all came my way, but a couple of stories might be interesting. One is right after I turned 21 in 1970 I bought a .357 Magnum with 4-3/4" barrel. In 1972 I sold it, bought it back in 1976, sold it again in 1977, and finally bought it back again in 1996. It's still with me now. Sometimes it pays to sell guns to friends with whom you stay in contact.

Another two came my way in a most pleasing manner but one ended up tragically. In 1989, the first time Country/ Western singer Hank Williams Jr. visited me, he gave me a 1914 vintage Colt SAA .45. On April 1st 1991, as I plinked with it at steel targets, it blew up in my hand due to reasons yet to be determined. Luckily, I wasn't hurt. Another day in 1994 the UPS truck delivered a package to my door. The return address was Hank's. Upon opening it I found a very fine Colt Custom Shop SAA .45 with rare full-blue finish and my name engraved on the backstrap. Hank had ordered two identical .45s with his name engraved on one and mine on the other. I've taken much better care of it than of that first one.

Before going on let's talk about Colt SAA "generations." Colt started SAA production three times and stopped it twice. The 1 st Generation ran from 1873 to 1941 with serial numbers going from 1 to over 357,000. That's fairly simple. Then in 1955 they started up again with serial number 0001SA and ran to around 74000SA. That was 2nd Generation production. Again, fairly simple.

It gets more complicated in the 3rd Generation. That production run started at serial number 80000SA and ran to 99999SA. Then they started over with SA0001 and ran to SA99999. Thereupon they split the SA and started over at S00001A and who knows exactly where they are now. The last one I personally saw was S3XXXXA, but that was a few years ago. Some people feel there are actually four generations of production, but Colt told me since they never stopped production of the 3rd Generation, they don't consider there to be a 4th Generation.

Between 1st and 2nd Generations, all parts were interchangeable. Not so with 3rd Generation. The company changed the design of the rotating hand and the corresponding ratchet on the rear of the cylinder. However, 3rd Generation cylinders can be fitted to earlier SAAs if the hand is also changed. The barrel threads were changed, making 3rd Generation barrels not incompatible with earlier ones. With the 3rd Generation Colt did away with the removable cylinder pin bushing in favor of a press-fit type. In recent years they have gone back to the earlier style.

It sometimes surprises people to learn the Colt SAA, aka Peacemaker, has been chambered for about three dozen different cartridges. Despite the fact the Peacemaker will forever be identified with the .45 Colt, it was not actually its very first caliber. Because the US Army considered the .44 S&W "American" its standard cartridge circa 1872 when developmental work was ongoing with the newly designed revolver, that was its first caliber. Then the army changed its, mind and decided henceforth all its rifle, carbine, and revolver cartridges would be .45 caliber, which led to the .45 Colt, with its huge 250-grain bullet powered by a case full of black, powder.


But let's get one bit of misinformation out of the way right i now. It is often written that the .45 Colt as loaded by the US Government contained a 40-grain powder charge. That indeed was tried but found too powerful for the wrought iron frames of early SAAs. A friend owns an original cartridge box of Frankford Arsenal .45 Colt loads dated January 1874. It is clearly marked as having a 30-grain powder charge. Later, in a reprint of an 1899 Winchester catalog is listed a load having 38 grains of black powder. That's the most powerful black powder .45 Colt commercial loading I've ever seen documented. None of this is to say some company at some time did not load a 40-grain charge, but the US Government issue ammunition was not so loaded.

By far the .45 Colt has been the premier chambering of the SAA throughout all its generations. But there have been seven other cartridges made in numbers large enough to also be considered noteworthy. In second place in 1st Generation production was the .44-40. As a caliber, .44-40 was never put on Colt SAAs until the 1980s. In fact any Colt SAA even marked .44 WCF is probably rare (I have never seen one marked that way). What Colt did about 1878, when the .44 WCF was first chambered in the SAA, was mark them FRONTIER SIX SHOOTER or COLT FRONTIER SIX SHOOTER on the left side of the barrel and sometimes a tiny ".44 CF" on the triggerguard. (CF means centerfire.) Incidentally the .44 WCF chambered SAAs were the only caliber to have its own name.

In 2nd Generation production the .44-40 never was a standard chambering, but exactly 2,002 of them were made in a commemorative run called the "Peacemaker Centennial." That's something we will return to shortly. Then starting in 1982 in the 3rd Generation Colt brought back the .44 WCF/.44-40 and it remains in the line.

The third most popular caliber was the .38 WCF, aka .38-40. Only the former marking was seen on 1st Generation guns but both markings have been noted on 3rd Generations. No 2nd Generation SAAs were made in .38-40.

Fourth was the .32-20, which is an awfully small cartridge in such a large revolver. At least that's my opinion. Regardless, it was popular in 1 st Generation, skipped in 2nd Generation, and brought back to a minor extent in the last 10 years.

Last among the top five SAA calibers in first generation production was the .41 Colt, often called the .41 Long Colt. It's one of the oddest cartridges ever chambered in a mass produced handgun. It started out with a heel-type bullet, meaning the bullet had a reduced diameter shank fitting inside the cartridge case with the full diameter part of the bullet being the same diameter as the outside of the cartridge case. Confused? Just look at a round of .22 LR. They still carry heel-type bullets.


By the 1890s, amino companies changed the .41 Colt so instead of a nominal .403" bullet the rounds now had .386" ones fitting inside the cartridge case. The bullet was given a deep hollowbase so it would expand to grip the rifling of the nominal .401" barrels of .41 Colt revolvers. The wonder of such a system is it actually works pretty darn well!

Here's another interesting tidbit about .41 Colt SAAs. They used the same barrels as .38 WCFs. You can put a .38-40 cylinder in a .41 Colt sixgun and go to shooting or vice versa. Both .41 Colt and .38-40 SAAs of 1st Generation production carried a tiny "41" mark beneath the barrel. The .41 Colt has never been resurrected by Colt.

Those five cartridges don't end the story of the Peacemaker's most popular chamberings. Three other very noteworthy cartridges got their start in the 1 st Generation, but became very numerous in later production. These were the .357 Magnum, .38 Special, and .44 Special.

When the Colt SAA was introduced in 1873, the barrel length was 7-1/2" for use by US Cavalry. As civilians began to buy the SAA in numbers Colt brought out shorter, handier barrel lengths. The 5-1/2" length came circa 1875 and the 4-3/4" one about 1879. That latter one is most likely the all time most popular, but a statement I can't prove.

Those three barrel lengths are considered standard. Other lengths have been as short as 3" on so-called Sheriff's Models up to 16" on those fabled "Buntline Specials." Most likely Colt has made special order guns with most any barrel length in between.

In my 40 years of Colt SAAs, I have owned and shot extensively barrels ranging from 3" to 12" long. As commentary on my feelings about barrel lengths, I should say the 3" Sheriff's Model is still with me, while the 12" Buntline Special is long gone. The Sheriff's Model is a 3rd Generation .44-40, with a .44 Special cylinder fitted to it. I keep that little gun loaded with homemade .44 Special shot loads it has accounted for several rattlers around my home.

For actual shooting I especially like the 7-1/2" length. The longer sight radius allows me to shoot noticeably better than I do with the shorter barrels. Of course the 4-3/4" is better for packing about on the person. Yvonne just has to be different and prefers the 5-1/2" length. I gave her one the year we were married. It started out as a 5-1/2" .357 Magnum. By luck I found an unfired 1st Generation COLT FRONTIER SIX SHOOTER barrel and had both .44-40 and .44 Special cylinders fitted to it. A set of Eagle Grips' buffalo horn "Gunfighter" grips rounded out her SAA. Yvonne put all the wear on it herself, packing it around many miles on horseback in Montana's mountains.


Throughout its three generations the Colt SAA has been offered with two finish options as standard. They are fully nickel-plated and with a color case hardened frame with the rest of the revolver blued. A custom option on occasion has been the full blue finish as mentioned above but it is rare. Personally speaking I like the blue/case colored look except when shooting black powder loads. Then the nickel-plated finish really shines (good pun!). That's because the black powder fouling cleans off the nickel-plating very easily.

Many fans refer to the two basic frame styles of the Colt SAA as either black powder frame or smokeless powder frame. Both names are misnomers. Starting in 1873 and running into the early 1890s Colt used a screw angling in from the front of the frame to secure the cylinder base pin. Starting in the 1890s the system was changed to a spring loaded transverse screw to do the same job. Those cylinder pin retaining systems had absolutely nothing to do with shooting black powder or smokeless powder. In fact Colt didn't warranty the SAA for smokeless loads until 1900.

With those Peacemaker Centennial commemoratives offered in the mid-1970s Colt again offered the early so-called BP frame, and then in the 3rd Generation production made it a custom shop option for a while. Personally, I like the "BP frame" and have it whenever possible. I've seen too many of the transverse latches come loose and get lost.

Since the Colt SAAs grip frame bolts together in two parts, which are likewise bolted to the mainframe, a style of grips called 1-piece stocks were the original type issued on US Cavalry Colts. The wood was a single piece inlet so the grip frame fit into it. There is no stronger method of making single action grips.


A few other of my SAAs have custom ivory grips, most notably the set on the custom Colt Hank presented me. Those were made by Paul Persinger and he beautifully relief carved my MLV initials in them.

Lastly, a question I have been asked many times is what is my all time favorite Colt SAA. Is it a .45? No, actually after gaining much experience with these sixguns I prefer the .44-40 first and the .38-40 second. My all time favored Colt SAA, the one I'll still have when all my other handguns are sold off', is the nickel-plated Peacemaker Centennial Colt Frontier Six Shooter. Those beauties were made exactly as a Colt SAA was produced in the late 1870s but with modern materials. I've never found any SAA that will outshoot them with either smokeless or black powders. I like them so much I have a matched pair and they will be with. me to the very end of this life.

And that brings to mind the question of fate. In the beginning I mentioned how my friend Mike Bucci introduced me to truck-driver Jesse May who in turn sold me my very first Colt SAA. Within three years of the time we three people stood there talking about "cowboy guns" my friend "Butch" had died, of cancer. Even before that, Jesse May was killed in a traffic accident. Somehow or the other I was fated to go on for at least 40 more years to still be talking up those "cowboy guns."

Photos: Yvonne Venturino




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Author:Venturino, Mike "Duke"
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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