Saturday, September 10, 2016

The 1873 Colt Single Action Army

Colt Model 1873, U.S. Artillery Model
Dear Readers,

Before we start talking about the Colt Single Action Army Revolver (SAA), we have to note that Samuel Colt died on January 10th, 1862. I bring this up because some folks are under the false impression that Sam Colt himself invented the Colt 1873 Single Action Army. 

So now, if he didn't, who did? Actually, more than anyone else that distinction should go to a gunmaker, engineer, designer, inventor, William Mason. 

While the Colt Single Action Army Revolver is also known as the Single Action Army (SAA), Colt's Model P, the Peacemaker, the M1873, and of course the Colt .45 pistol, the story of its creation goes to how Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company turned to two of their best engineers, William Mason and Charles Brinckerhoff Richards. Their mission was to design a pistol specifically meant for the U.S. Army's Service Revolver Trials of 1872.

Because of Rollin White's patent #12,648 of April 3rd, 1855, and not wanting to pay a royalty fee to Smith & Wesson, Colt could not begin development of bored-through revolver cylinders for metallic cartridge use until April 4th, 1869.

Who was Rollin White you ask? He was a former employee of the Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company. He was the first in America to come up with the concept of having the revolver cylinder bored through to accept metallic cartridges. Initially Samuel Colt refused this innovation, and subsequently Rollin White left Colt and went to work for Smith & Wesson so that he could "rent" a licence from them for his patent.

It was his influence that enabled the S&W Model One to see the light of day in 1857. And thought White's patent expired in 1869, it wasn't until 1870 that Smith & Wesson competitors were able to commercialize on the design to make their own revolving breech-loaders using metallic cartridges. Once it was legal to do so, Colt submitted it's creation at the United States Army service revolver trials of 1872. 

Colt's Single Action pistol won that contract over Smith & Wesson who was the first to have an Army contract for a single-action pistol. With that contract Colt's Single Action Revolver was adopted as the standard military service revolver starting in 1873. 

Not long after winning the government contract, production began in 1873 with the Single Action Army model 1873, designated by the Army as the M1873. It was also referred to as Colt's "New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol". 

By the mid-1870s, the Army had purchased a significant number of Smith & Wesson Model 3 Schofield revolvers which chambered a shorter .45 S&W round. Because logistical problems took place as a result of the .45 S&W ammunition not interchangeable the U.S. government stopped orders for the longer .45 Colt cartridge.

The Army opted to use the Smith & Wesson round in spite of the fact that the Colt revolvers would accept the shorter round, but not vice versa. Because of that, the S&W Schofield was soon retired and sold to the civil market.

The Colt Single Action Army revolver, along with the 1870 and 1875 Smith & Wesson Model 3 "Schofield" revolver, had replaced the outdated Colt 1860 Army Percussion revolver. The Colt SAA quickly gained popularity with the troops and gained favor over the S&W because of the knock down power of Colt's .45 caliber cartridge. 

By the end of 1874, serial no. 16,000 was reached. And yes, by then, just a year after production started, it's said that 12,500 Colt Single Action Army revolvers chambered for the .45 Colt cartridge had entered military service with our Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. The remaining 3,500 revolvers were sold in the civilian market at the time.

While the Colt Colt Single Action Army was officially adopted in 1873, it remained the standard military service revolver for all three branches of our military until 1892. It was replaced by the Colt Model 1892, M1892, which was a double-action revolver with swing-out cylinder. The M1892 used a .38 Long Colt cartridge which later turned out to be horribly ineffective as a man-stopper. 

Here's some trivia, the very first production Single Action Army, the pistol with the Serial Number 1 was found in a barn in Nashua, New Hampshire in the early 1900s. Thought lost for many years after its production, it was chambered in .45 Colt which was a centerfire cartridge containing charges of up to 40 grains of fine-grained black powder and a 255-grain roundnose bullet. 

The .45 Colt is powerful if fully loaded. And yes, the .45 Colt cartridge was re-designated the .45 Long Colt after the creation of the .45 ACP for the M1911 Colt Semi-Automatic Pistol. 

As for the specifications of the 1873 Colt Single Action Army which was adopted by the United States military, the pistol with 7½" barrel is 12½" long overall and weighs 2½ pounds. An 1873 Colt with a with 5½" barrel is 11" overall and a few ounces lighter. 

The Colt Single Action Army is a single-action revolver that holds six metallic cartridges. And while I read where over the years the Colt SAA has been offered in over 30 different calibers and various barrel lengths, the most popular calibers have been the .45 Colt and the .44-40 WCF. Another bit of trivia is that from 1875 until 1880, Colt marketed a single-action revolver in .44 rimfire Henry caliber in a separate number range from number 1 to 1,863.

As for the barrel lengths, the Single Action Army was available in standard barrel lengths of 4¾", 5½," as well as the Cavalry standard which was the original 7½" barrel. The shorter 4¾" barrel revolvers are sometimes called the "Civilian" or "Gunfighter" models. The Artillery Model has the 5½" barrel. 

Of course, there was the "Sheriff's Model" which was also called the "Banker's Special" or "Storekeeper" model. It came with 3½" and 4" barrel without ejector rods. In the Old West, these lengths were not offered until Colt found out that lawmen were chopping off the barrels to make them shorter so that they could get their pistol out and into action faster of needed. As soon as Colt found out, they immediately starting producing the "Sherff's Model" as special orders.

As for other models? Besides the Sheriff's Model and others, Colt offered a "Flattop Target Model" in it's catalogs from 1890 to 1898. Colt manufactured 914 of these revolvers with a frame which was flat on top and fitted with an adjustable leaf rear sight. The front sight consisted of a base with an interchangeable blade.

Even though smokeless powder was invented in 1884, it wasn't until 1900 and the dawn of the 20th Century that a Colt Single Action Army pistol with the serial number 192,000 became the first to be certified for use with smokeless powder.

Some Old West trivia on the Peacemaker

It was smart to only load 5 rounds and leave the hammer on an empty chamber, just so if dropped your Colt won't go off accidentally. And yes, it was the way of doing things.  

Yes, in the Old West, the hammer of a revolver of the time would be kept on an empty chamber so that it wouldn't fire accidentally when bumped or dropped. Wyatt Earp learned about that very thing. He actually experienced a dropped-gun accidental discharge, and it was reported in the January 12th, 1876 edition of The Wichita Beacon which read: 

"Last Sunday night, while policeman Earp was sitting with two or three others in the back room of the Custom House Saloon, his revolver slipped from its holster, and falling to the floor, the hammer which was resting on the cap, is supposed to have struck the chair, causing a discharge of one of the barrels (sic). The ball passed through his coat, struck the north wall then glanced off and passed out through the ceiling. It was a narrow escape and the occurrence got up a lively stampede from the room. One of the demoralized was under the impression that someone had fired through the window from the outside."

Story has it that a gunfighter might leave the sixth chamber unloaded and stick a tightly rolled up $20 bill in it in case he was killed. The idea was that the undertaker would find the $20 bill and that would pay for a good funeral. But no, I haven't been able to verify that that sort of thing actually took place.

Also, maintained in the Colt Manufacturing Company archives is a letter from Bat Masterson ordering a new revolver. Yes, it was written on July 30th, 1885, on the stationery of the Opera House Saloon in Dodge City, Kansas.

His impromptu letter to Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company reads:

"Please send me one of your nickel-plated short .45 Calibre revolvers, it is for my own use, and for that reason I would like to have a little Extra pains taken with it. I am willing to pay Extra for Extra work. Make it very easy on trigger and have the front sight a little higher and thicker than the ordinary pistol of this kind, put on a gutta percha handle and send it as soon as possible. Have the barrel about the same length as the Ejector rod is. Truly Yours, W.B. Masterson."

Bat Masterson had the 1885 .45 caliber Colt Single-Action Army (SAA) revolver custom-made with a specially-made hammer that was exceptionally fast on release. The front sight was also a little taller and thicker than on the ordinary model. The "gutta percha" handles preferred by Masterson consisted of a tough plastic substance from the latex of several Malaysian trees which resembles rubber. This was his personal preference.

So there you have it, just a glimpse into the story of the 1873 Colt Single Action Army in the days of the Old West. I hope you enjoyed it.

Tom Correa

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