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Guns That Changed the World: The Colt Peacemaker

Updated on August 19, 2012

Guns That Changed the World: The Colt Peacemaker

The Colt Single Action Army handgun (also known as the Colt Peacemaker, Single Action Army or SAA, Colt .45 and sometimes as The Equalizer) is a single action revolver with a revolving cylinder holding six rounds. It was designed for the US government service revolver trials of 1873 by Samuel Colt's Manufacturing Company and adopted as the standard military service revolver.

The .45 Colt cartridge was of center fire design containing charges of up to 40 grains (2.6 g) of fine grained black powder and a 255-grain (16.5 g) blunt round nosed bullet. Relative to period cartridges and most later handgun rounds, it was quite powerful in its full loading.



A Little Background

Guns that Changed the World

The Colt Single Action Army handgun replaced the Colt 1860 Army Percussion revolver and remained the primary US Military sidearm until 1892 when it was replaced by an enclosed frame Colt double action revolver. By 1875, 15,000 units chambered for the .45 Colt cartridge had entered service along with an additional 1863 chambered for the .44 Henry rimfire cartridge (Wilson 1985.)

By the mid 1870s, the Army had purchased a significant number of Smith and Wesson 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.

Colt Single Action: From Patersons to Peacemakers

Colt Single Action: From Patersons to Peacemakers
Colt Single Action: From Patersons to Peacemakers

Featuring Guns from the Dr. Joseph A. Murphy, Dennis LeVett,and Dow Heard Collections. Additional Photography Courtesy of Greg Martin Auctions. 309 pages, Illustrated throughout in stunning detail in full color. Hardcover.

 

Variations 1873- 1941

Guns that Changed the World

The Single Action Army became available in standard barrel lengths of 4 3/4", 5 1/2" as well as the Cavalry standard, original 7 1/2". The shorter barreled revolvers are sometimes called the "Civilian" or "Gunfighter" model (4 3/4") and the Artillery Model (5 1/2"). In practice, the customer could order just about any barrel length and combination of basic features and finish. In 1892, at serial number 144,000, a springloaded base pin latch replaced the cylinder pin retaining screw and by 1900, at serial number 192,000, the Colt Single Action was certified for use with smokeless powder. (ibid Wilson). In 1920, larger, highly visible sights replaced the original thin blade /notch. The revolvers remained essentially unchanged from that point until cessation of manufacture at the beginning of World War II.

The Colt Peacemaker

Colt Peacemaker Encyclopedia

Colt Peacemaker Encyclopedia
Colt Peacemaker Encyclopedia

Colt Peacemakers from A to Z.

 

45 Colt Cartridge Variations

Guns that Changed the World

The original .45 Colt black powder load propelled the 250-255 grain bullet at a nominal 970 feet per second (300 m/s). Authors Taffin and Venturino have demonstrated that modern black powder loadings of the 45 Colt cartridge frequently achieve velocities in the vicinity of 1,000 feet per second (300 m/s) with the Cavalry standard barrel length. Specifications for 20th Century Smokeless loads set velocity with a 255-grain (16.5 g) round nosed flat point bullet at 870 feet per second (270 m/s) providing 429-foot-pound-force (582 J) energy (Smith 1968).

The current version of the 45 Colt cartridge differs from the original cartridge case in that the rim is significantly larger and the internal aspect of the primer pocket is surrounded by brass instead of protruding into the powder chamber. Some commercial and custom revolvers employ high pressure loads that are dangerous in the Single Action Army and other vintage arms chambered for the Colt cartridge.

Classic Colt Peacemakers

Classic Colt Peacemakers
Classic Colt Peacemakers

The love affair with the Colt Peacemaker started more than 100 years ago. Today, millions of people recognize this revolver as "the gun that won the West." Collectors are paying all-time high prices and with the rise of Cowboy Action Shooting, more people than ever are falling in love again with the Peacemaker. This is a look at the best of the best, the most storied, adorned and collectible examples of this popular revolver. Reach for this book to see rare and one-of-a-kind guns and read the stories behind them. Nothing fuels the romance of the Old West like the image of a Peacemaker and this book highlights some of the finest examples ever found.

 

Fastest Gun in the West - Guns that Changed the World

Calibers

Guns that Changed the World

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 "Frontier Six-Shooter" which was etched and later stamped on the barrel). Additional period calibers for the SAA included .38-40 Winchester (38 WCF) introduced 1884 and, the 32-20 Winchester (32 WCF) introduced in 1884 and the 41 Colt introduced in 1885. Some of the separately serialized 44 Henry Rimfire revolvers were rechambered to .22 rimfire after 1885.

From 1873 through 1940 (with small numbers produced during and after World War II), production of colt single actions reached 357,859. This is identified as the "Pre War" or "First Generation of the model. Calibers, at least thirty in all, ranged from .22 rimfire through .476 Eley with approximately half or 158,884 (including separately numbered Bisley and Flat Top Target variations), were in the .45 Colt chambering. 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 (ibid: Wilson.)

Second Generation Colts were produced from 1956-1974. The Third Generation ran from 1976 until 1982 and became a limited issue product. In 1994, production resumed and is known either as "Late Third Generation" or sometimes Fourth Generation. After 1974, the barrel thread pitch was changed and a solid cylinder bushing replaced the removable/replaceable part from the first and second generations.

Samuel Colt: Arms, Art, and Invention - Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Samuel Colt: Arms, Art, and Invention (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
Samuel Colt: Arms, Art, and Invention (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)

Samuel Colt (1814–1862) first patented his “Colt” revolver in 1835 and thereby redefined the architecture of handguns. This stunning book is the first to present in detail the evolution of his most famous invention and to document the unsurpassed Colt firearms collections held by the Wadsworth Atheneum.

Colt designed his revolvers with an artistic sensibility––paying particular attention to form and beauty and juxtaposing colors and finishes to heighten the visual effects. He was also one of the first American manufacturers to secure celebrity endorsements and to commission paintings by renowned artists like George Catlin to promote his arms. Colt's standards for excellence, industrial foresight, and quest for market domination are explored in light of primary documents that reveal his constant battles to protect his patents.

Essays discuss Colt's personal collection of historic firearms as well as the memorial collection of Colt-manufactured firearms, the relationship between art and commerce as they pertain to the inventor's career, and his international celebrity. Richly illustrated and beautifully produced, this volume presents the artistry of the firearms that Colt worked so diligently to perfect––as well as his promotional abilities that made a tremendous impact on American culture.

 

Operation

Guns that Changed the World

The Single Action Army action is a refinement of the earlier Colt percussion revolvers and the Colt 1871 cartridge revolver. The six shot cylinder is mounted on central axis and operated by a hand working off the hammer and engaging ratchets at the rear of the cylinder. Three notches on the face of the hammer engage the sear portion of the trigger affording four basic hammer positions. The hammer 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. At some point in the history of the Single Action Army, many users adopted the practice of leaving an 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 (Keith 1956.) Drawn back about halfway, 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 on the right side of the barrel. The loading sequence:

  1. Place the revolver on half-cock and open the loading gate to the side;

  2. Load each chamber in sequence (original) or load one chamber, skip the next, load the remaining four chambers, close the loading gate, draw the hammer to full cock and lower fully being careful to note that the firing pin is over the empty chamber (Safe and prudent method)

  3. 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. While this is often shown in movies, it is unsafe and should not be attempted. The U.S. Fire Arms Safety and Instructional Manual for Single Action Firearms describes safe handling procedures and user responsibility.

Wild West Tech - Six-Shooter Tech - History Channel

Wild West Tech - Six-Shooter Tech (History Channel)
Wild West Tech - Six-Shooter Tech (History Channel)

Six-shooters--revolvers with six chambers--were as common as cell phones in the Wild West, but when one went off, it was more than annoying--it was most often deadly. A priest, a 16-year-old boy sailing the world, and a covey of cold-blooded killers all played important parts in the development of this classic western weapon. What was missing from Samuel Colt's first revolving handgun? How did Smith & Wesson exploit a technological edge to make millions of dollars? Which six-shooter was prone to blowing up? Join us for a bang-up hour as we examine the advances that made the six-shooter safer and more reliable as a first line of defense...and just as often, as a first line of attack.

 

Fastest Gun Shooting - Guns that Changed the World

Replicas, etc of the Colt Peacemaker

Legacy

Guns that Changed the World

The handling qualities of the Single Action Army made it a popular sidearm from its inception and well into the 20th century. Such notable old west personalities as Wyatt Earp and William Barclay Bat Masterson favored these revolvers with Earp's elusive and possibly apocryphal "Buntline Special" Colt Buntline gaining fame in the Earp Biography by Stewart Lake. An order for a somewhat customized Single Action Army from Masterson remains in the Colt archives (Ibid Wilson). The association with the history of the American West remains to the present century and the revolvers remain popular with shooters and collectors. Famed British adventurer and soldier T. E. Lawrence ("of Arabia") had a special fondness for this weapon because it saved his life during one of his pre-World War I trips to Mesopotamia; he was attacked by an Arab bandit who stole the gun and tried to shoot Lawrence. However, the bandit was unable to fire the weapon because he did not understand the revolver's mechanism. Lawrence thereafter always carried one of these weapons for good luck. (see Lowell Thomas, With Lawrence In Arabia (1924)). US Army General 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.

US Army General 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.In the early and mid-20th century, original Peacemakers lacking historical provenance and not in pristine condition were not particularly valuable. They served as raw material for early enthusiasts such as Elmer Keith, Harold Croft and R. F. Sedgley who modified the revolvers to enhance performance and experimented with more effective ammunition. (Bowen 2001.) At the beginning of the 21st Century, first and second generation single actions are highly regarded as collectors items and often considered too valuable to shoot. Various copies and near-copies of the revolver are made by A. Uberti of Italy, now owned by the P. Beretta firm. American manufacturers include Colt Manufacturing Company which retains the model in its catalog. U.S. Fire Arms Mfg. Co. builds several variations that are true to the original first and second generation specifications. STI International has introduced a very precisely made Single Action Army with a modified hand/spring assembly designed to last longer than the originals.

The Single Action Army is the precursor and inspiration for modern sporting revolvers from Ruger, John Linebaugh and Freedom Arms.

Inspector's Marks and Engraving

Guns that Changed the World

All original, good condition, first generation Single Action Armies (those produced between 1873 and 1941) are among the most valuable to the collector. Especially valuable, often going for well over $10,000, are the OWA and the Nettleton Single Action Army Colts. The very first production Single Action Army, thought lost for many years after its production, was found in a barn in Nashua, New Hampshire in the early 1900s.

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 ordnance 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.

Another historical military SAA revolver is the Artillery Model. It was issued to the rear-echelon troops, artillerymen, and such during the Spanish-American war period. Following the Indian wars, in 1895, the cavalry SAAs had fallen into disrepair and had been sent back to the Colt factory or Springfield Armory to be refurbished, fit with a shortened barrel, (cut from a 7 1/2 in (191 mm) to a 5 1/2 in (140 mm) and re-issued. Most of the Artillery Colts had mixed numbers. The standard military revolver at the time was the Colt double action New Army revolver chambered in 38 Colt. Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders charged up San Juan hill wielding the Artillery Model. Artillery models can usually be identified by the original inspector's cartouche (such as the OWA or HN) on the left side of the grips and the cartouche of Rinaldo A. Carr (RAC), the inspector who inspected the refurbished guns, on the right side.

Often even more valuable are original factory engraved Colt SAA's. Colt engraved less than one (1) percent of 1st generation production, which makes them extremely rare( Wilson 1985.) Often, engraved pieces were ordered by famous people of the day, including law/police, government/heads of state. Colt employed a number of highly skilled engravers, many of whom were highly trained artisans who immigrated to America from Europe.

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    • bjj james profile image

      bjj james 4 years ago

      This is the gun I think of when I think of the wild west

    • CapGunsOnline LM profile image

      CapGunsOnline LM 4 years ago

      Great lens and love the classic guns. We carry a lot of similar cap guns in our online store. Love the history and thank you for telling us more about it.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Great lens! That looks like an awesome gun. What is your view on black powder firearms? My husband really wants one and i just want to do some research first.

    • lclchors profile image

      lclchors 5 years ago

      I did cowboy mounted shooting with 45's what a blast

    • glenbrook profile image

      glenbrook 5 years ago

      Love the Colt SAA. If I bought one though I'd probably get an Uberti replica... genuine Colts are a bit out of range for me.

    • profile image

      reasonablerobby 5 years ago

      I shot a Magnum 45 once at a gun shop in Vegas on holiday from the UK but never one these beauties

    • profile image

      JimDickens 5 years ago

      Great lens. Great equalizers

    • Bigdaddyguru profile image

      Bigdaddyguru 5 years ago

      God made all men, Sam Colt made all men equal. I liked your lens

    • profile image

      jjrb230 5 years ago

      Very interesting and great videos

    • KANEsUgAr profile image

      KANEsUgAr 6 years ago

      Great lens, beautiful pictures.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      answered quite a few of my questions, thanks.

    • profile image

      JoshK47 6 years ago

      Very informative lens on an iconic firearm!

    • jvsper63 profile image

      jvsper63 6 years ago

      I am not to crazy about guns. But you did a great job on this lens:) Joni

    • photofk3 profile image

      photofk3 6 years ago

      I'm a great firearms enthusiast. I live in Hungary where gun laws are unfortunately very restrictive, so I could never get a real handgun in my hands so far, but I read firearms related magazines and there's plenty of gun related materials on the Internet, too. Thanks for sharing this.

    • ToTheBrimm LM profile image

      ToTheBrimm LM 6 years ago

      Baseball and apple pie is nice, but this is what I mean when I'm talking about traditional Americana.

    • Joe McGuire profile image

      Joe McGuire 6 years ago

      Nice lens. I will be back to finish reading everything and I might pick up the History program one day in the future. Looks like an interesting watch

    • profile image

      GrowWear 6 years ago

      Guns give me the willies, but I appreciate them for protection, and I can admire the craftsmanship. That's a fine specimen pictured on the leather jacket.

    • profile image

      Pete Schultz 6 years ago

      I'm glad I scrolled past the comments box before making a commnet, there's much more fun information below...be sure you check it out too.

    • pylemountain1 profile image

      pylemountain1 6 years ago

      What a great lens about the Cold Peacemaker. This is my kind of lens and you should see it jump a bit because I'm gonna lensroll it to a lot of gun related lenses. Cheers and I'm a big fan or your lenses. :)

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Beautiful pistols. Kicking hand guns!

    • sewjr24 profile image

      sewjr24 7 years ago

      Great lens. Always wanted to shoot one of these.

    • profile image

      tdove 8 years ago

      Thanks for joining G Rated Lense Factory!

    • KimGiancaterino profile image

      KimGiancaterino 8 years ago

      It's a beautiful gun. I think my dad has a similar one, though he only shoots at tin cans.

    • profile image

      julieannbrady 9 years ago

      A most informative lens -- I'm not personally into guns, but your lens looks most complete. How much does this gun weigh? 5*****