The Colt Single Action Army…aka the Model P, the Peacemaker, Model 1873, Single Action Army, SAA, and Colt 45 is a single action revolver with a revolving cylinder bored to hold six metallic cartridges. It was designed for the U.S. government service revolver trials of 1872 by Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company, today Colt’s Manufacturing Company, and adopted as the standard military service revolver until 1892.
The Colt Single Action Army has been offered in well over 30 different calibers and various barrel lengths. Its overall appearance has remained almost unaltered since 1873. Colt has discontinued its production twice but brought it back due to popular demand. The revolver was popular with lawmen, outlaws, civilians and cowboys alike, but todays current models are mostly bought by collectors and reenactors. Its design has influenced the production of numerous models and copies from other companies…with names like Beretta, Remington, Smith & Wesson, Ruger, and Uberti.
When only sixteen years old, the firearm’s inventor… Samuel Colt, signed on as a cabin boy on the ship Corlo bound from Boston to Calcutta. In his spare time he noticed the ship’s wheel revolved and the spokes always came back into perfect alignment as it was locked by a clutch. Colt watched this operation and was inspired to carve a wooden pistol with a revolving cylinder. Later, bound by the Rollin White patent (#12,648, April 3, 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 4, 1869. For the design, Colt turned to two of its best engineers: William Mason and Charles Brinckerhoff Richards who had developed a number of revolvers and blackpowder conversions for the company. The Colt Single Action Army was designed for the United States government service revolver trials of 1872 by Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company and adopted as the standard military service revolver. Its original moniker was the “New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol”.
The first Colt Single Action Army prototypes were manufactured in .44 American caliber for the 1872 government trials, as the .44 American was the cartridge used in the 1000 Smith & Wesson Model 3 revolvers issued to the troops. After the tests, the Colt was declared the superior revolver and the government specified that a .45 caliber cartridge would be required. With the adoption of the Colt Single Action Army revolver in 1873, the service cartridges were Copper cased .45 center fire Benét inside primed “Colt’s Revolver Cartridges” loaded with 30 grains of black powder and an inside lubricated bullet of 250 grain. They were manufactured at Frankford Arsenal, Philadelphia, PA, through 1874. In 1875, the cartridge was shortened so that it would also function in the newly adopted S & W Schofield revolver. It was designated “Revolver Cartridge” and loaded with 28 grains of black powder and a bullet of 230 grain. The Bénet primed cartridges were manufactured until 1882 and then replaced by reloadable cartridges with brass cases and external primers.
By 1878 the Colt SAA was being offered from the factory in additional calibers for civilian and foreign military sales. Many were sold in .44-40 Winchester Center Fire (WCF), introduced in 1878 to allow cross-compatibility with the Winchester ’73 lever action rifle; this model was called the “Colt Frontier Six-Shooter” which was etched and later roll-stamped on the left side of the barrel. Additional period calibers for the SAA included .38-40 Winchester (38 WCF) introduced in 1884, the .32-20 Winchester (32 WCF) introduced in 1884, the .41 Colt introduced in 1885, the .38 Long Colt in 1887, the .38 Special and the .357 Magnum in the 20th Century. The SAA at one time or another was offered in dozens of calibers, but the .45 Colt has always been the most common.
First Generation models, built from 1873 through 1940 (with small numbers assembled during and after World War II, the so called “Pre-War, Post-War” model), had production numbers of the Colt Single Action Army reaching 357,859. Calibers, at least thirty in all, ranged from .22 rimfire through .476 Eley, with approximately half, or 158,884 (including Bisley and Flat Top Target variations), chambered for .45 Colt. The next most prevalent were the .44-40 Winchester Center fire (WCF) at 71,392; 38-40 (38 WCF) at 50,520; 32-20 Winchester (32 WCF) at 43,284 and, the .41 Colt at 19,676.
Second Generation Colt Single Action Army revolvers were produced from 1956–1974 and carried serial numbers in the range of 0001SA to 73,205SA. About 400 of the Second Generation Colt Single Actions were factory engraved by Colt’s, the factory engravers of the period were Alvin Herbert, Earl Bieu, Dennis Kies, Robert Burt and Leonard Francolini. One of the most sought-after engravers who have worked on Colt revolvers was Alvin White and the shop of A. A. White Engravers.
The Third Generation began in 1976 characterized by a change in barrel thread pitch and a solid cylinder bushing replacing the removable/replaceable part from the first and second generations. This Generation ran until 1982 as a limited-issue product with the serial number range of SA80,000 to SA99,999. In 1994, production resumed with the increase in popularity of “Cowboy Action Shooting”. These models are known either as “Late Third Generation” (or sometimes Fourth Generation) with the serial number convention changing yet again… starting with S02001A and continuing with the “S” prefix and “A” suffix to 2009. Colt currently offers the Single Action Army in one of two finishes: either an all-nickel or blued with color case-hardened frame; in the traditional three barrel lengths: 4¾”, 5½” and 7½”; and six chamberings: 32-20, 38-40, 44-40, .38 Special, .357 Magnum or .45 Colt; a total of 36 variations.
The Single Action Army action is a refinement of the earlier Colt percussion revolvers and the Colt 1871 cartridge revolver. The cylinder is mounted on a central axis and operated by a hand with a double finger whose more extended action allowed the cylinder-ratchet to be cut in a larger circle, giving more torsional force to the cylinder. Three notches on the face of the hammer engage the sear portion of the trigger, affording four basic hammer positions. The hammer when fully lowered rests within the frame. Drawn slightly to the rear, the hammer engages the safety notch of the sear and holds the firing pin out of direct contact with a chambered cartridge. Like the earlier percussion revolvers, the Single Action Army was designed to allow loading of all of the chambers. The safety notch replaced pins on the rear of the percussion revolver cylinders which served the same purpose as the safety position by preventing hammer contact with the primer/percussion cap. However, many users adopted the practice of leaving one empty chamber under the hammer because a sharp blow could damage the mechanism and allow the fully loaded revolver to fire. This practice is now universally recommended. Drawn back about half way, the hammer engages the second notch. This cams the cylinder bolt out of engagement and allows the cylinder to rotate for loading. Fully cocked, the revolver is ready to fire. Cartridge ejection is via the spring-loaded rod housed in a tube on the right side of the barrel. The loading sequence is as follows:
- Place the revolver on half-cock and open the loading gate to the side.
- Load each chamber in sequence (original), setting the hammer in the safety notch when finished; or (safe and prudent method) load one chamber, skip the next, load the remaining four chambers, close the loading gate, draw the hammer to full cock and lower fully, making sure that the firing pin is over the empty chamber.
- Firing the revolver is accomplished by drawing the hammer to full cock and pulling the trigger. The hammer must be manually cocked for each shot.
It is possible to fire the SAA rapidly by holding down the trigger and “fanning” the hammer with the other hand.
All original, good condition, U.S. Cavalry and Artillery Single Action Armies (those produced between 1873 and 1891) are among the most valuable to the collector. Especially valuable, often going for well over $10,000, are the OWA (Orville Wood Ainsworth) and the rare Henry Nettleton inspected Single Action Army Colts. The OWA Colt refers to the earliest issued Single Action Army guns which were inspected by Orville W. Ainsworth. Ainsworth was the ordnance sub-inspector at the Colt factory for the first 13 months (Oct. 1873 to Nov. 1874) of the Single Action Army’s production. It was Ainsworth who inspected the Colts used by Col. G.A. Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The number range of possible Little Bighorn Colts is 4500 – 7527.
Henry Nettleton was the U.S. Principal Sub-inspector in 1878 at the Springfield Armory. Second only to the OWA Colts, Nettleton Colts are prized by serious collectors. Both the Nettleton and OWA Colts have the cartouche (OWA or HN) on the left side of the wood grip.
By the mid 1870s, the Army had purchased a significant number of Smith and Wesson Schofield revolvers chambering a shorter .45 round. Logistical problems arose because the ammunition was not interchangeable. The Colt revolvers would accept the shorter round but not vice versa. For a time, the Government stopped orders for the longer Colt cartridge and used the Smith and Wesson round exclusively. The S & W Schofield was soon retired and sold to the civilian market.
The largest group of U.S.Colt Cavalry revolvers was inspected by David F. Clark, his D.F.C. cartouche will be encountered on revolvers inspected from 1880 to 1887.
During the year 1893, the .45 U.S. Colt Single Action Army revolvers were retired by the Cavalry and replaced by the .38 caliber Colt Model 1892 Double Action Army revolver. The .45 Single Action Army revolvers were still standard issue to the Infantry, Artillery and other branches of the U.S. Army. In 1895-96, the Government returned 2000 SAA revolvers to Colt’s to be refurbished; 800 were issued to the New York Militia with the 7 ½” barrel and 1200 were altered to a barrel length of 5½”. In 1898, 14 900 of the SAA revolvers were altered the same way by the Springfield Armory. The original records of the War Department do refer to these revolvers with the shortened barrel as the “Altered Revolver”. The name “Artillery” is actually a misnomer, maybe because the Light Artillery happened to be the first units to be armed with the altered revolver.
The Artillery Single Actions were issued to the Infantry, the Light Artillery, the Volunteer Cavalry and other troops because the standard issue .38 caliber Colt M 1892 double-action revolver was lacking stopping-power. For that reason, the .45 Artillery SAA Revolvers were used successfully by front troops in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War. Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders charged up San Juan Hill wielding the .45 caliber Artillery Model.
The Artillery Model usually had mixed numbers. It can be identified by the U.S. on the frame, the inspector’s stamps on different parts (such as a tiny A for Orville W. Ainsworth, DFC, HN, RAC for later inspectors and K for replacement parts) and the cartouche of Rinaldo A. Carr (RAC), the inspector who inspected the refurbished guns, on the grip.
The power, accuracy and handling qualities of the Single Action Army (SAA) made it a popular sidearm from its inception and well into the 20th century. The association with the history of the American West remains to the present century and the revolvers remain popular with shooters and collectors. George S. Patton, who began his career in the horse-cavalry, carried a custom-made SAA with ivory grips engraved with his initials and an eagle, which became his trademark. He used it during the Mexican Punitive Expedition of 1916 to kill two of Pancho Villa’s lieutenants, and carried it until his death in 1945 shortly after the end of World War II.
In 2010, knowing the significance of the Peacemaker in Wild West history, Arizona State Rifle and Pistol Association President Noble C. Hathaway and Cast Bullet Director Dan Walliser put forth a survey to the state of Arizona. The survey was to determine what popular “Old West” firearm should represent the state of Arizona as the official State Firearm. The Colt Patent Firearms Single Action Army won by a 38% margin. Soon after Hathaway submitted a bill to the Arizona legislature to make the Peacemaker the official state firearm. On the last day of the 2010-2011 regular legislative session Arizona Senate Bill 1610 was passed and within days Governor Jan Brewer signed the bill into law. Arizona is only the second state to have an official firearm…behind Utah’s recent adoption of the 1911 Semi-Auto pistol of Utah native John Browning fame.