The Colt Single Action Army is indelibly associated with the romance and adventure of the Wild West. Sitting through countless cowboy themed television shows and Saturday afternoon matinees in the 1950s and 60s meant that every small boy (and even some discerning small girls) became familiar with the SAA, even if most of us didn’t know what it actually was. Whether we called it a “Peacemaker”, “Colt 45” or just a “six-shooter”, for a whole generation, the SAA was simply the “cowboy gun”. It somehow looked right and the evocative and distinctive click, clack, click, clack of the hammer being cocked became a kind of aural shorthand for manliness, excitement and danger. Sadly, the idea that every cowboy carried a Colt SAA is not historically accurate – S&W top-break revolvers for example, were more numerous on the frontiers of America in the late 1800s. However, in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, when many cowboy movies and television programmes were being made, Colt SAAs were more readily and cheaply available than most other guns of the frontier period and so were most often used as props. For this reason the Colt SAA will always be the pistol most people associate with the Wild West.
The cast of the Maverick television show demonstrate their Colt SAAs, circa 1957
However, in addition to fuelling adolescent cowboy fantasies, the Colt SAA was also an important handgun. It may not have been the first revolver or even the first handgun to use a self-contained cartridge but it combined these things in a simple, rugged and enduring design which provided reliable firepower to very large numbers of people. Few would argue that this handgun, which has remained in production almost continuously for over 140 years, is worthy of the title “classic“.
Who was that masked stranger? It was Clayton Moore actually, wearing unfeasibly tight trousers and dual-wielding a pair of 7½” Colt SAAs in the 1955 Lone Ranger television show.
Up to the late 1700s and early 1800s, most handguns were single-shot, muzzle loading designs which used sparks from a piece of flint to ignite black powder. There were multi-barrel pistols, but on most, pulling the trigger fired all the barrels simultaneously. Reloading was slow and cumbersome and even a light shower of rain could render a pistol incapable of firing. However, in 1807 a patent was accepted for the percussion cap. This was a small copper cap filled with percussion sensitive material such as mercury fulminate or potassium chlorate. If the percussion cap was struck by the hammer of a pistol, it produced a small explosion which was then used to fire the main charge. Percussion caps were reliable and less prone to failure due to damp than the flint/black powder system. A number of muzzle loading pistols were produced which used percussion caps, but most were still single-shot designs.
In 1830, a young American, Samuel Colt, was sent to spend some time as begin a seafarer. The 16-year-old lad was interested in firearms and pyrotechnics (one of his most prized possessions was his Grandfather’s flintlock pistol). His ability to produce spectacular explosions and fireworks had made him very popular with his friends at school, until one of his experiments led to a fire which resulted in his expulsion. Looking for a suitable career for his son (and presumably one which would keep him as far as possible for explosives), Samuel’s father decided that seafaring might provide a safe outlet for his son’s interests and enthusiasm. Samuel joined the small brig Corvo, sailing between the US and Calcutta. Legend has it that Colt spent time during the voyage examining the ratchet and pawl mechanism used to control the ship’s steering gear and pondering whether a similar mechanism could be used to index multiple barrels in a handgun? He later claimed that he whittled a prototype pistol with revolving barrels from wood while on the ship to confirm that this was possible.
Colt Paterson revolver
Colt returned to the US in 1832 and began refining his design. In 1836 he registered a patent for a “revolving gun”. This incorporated a revolving cylinder (rather than the rotating barrels of his first prototype) and used percussion caps to ignite the powder charge in each chamber of the cylinder. In 1836 Colt formed the Patent Arms Manufacturing company in Paterson, New Jersey and began manufacture and sale of the five-shot Colt Paterson pistol, which is claimed to be the first practical revolver. Initially the Colt Paterson was offered in .28″ calibre though it was later upgraded to .36″. Sadly, it didn’t prove very popular in any calibre. Each pistol was hand-made, which meant it was expensive compared to other contemporary handguns and it proved to be fragile and unreliable in use. Colt was forced to sell the company and abandon manufacture of this revolver in 1842.
However, some people saw the possibilities inherent in the concept of a revolver. Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers was one of these. He contacted Colt to discuss ways of improving the Colt Paterson design (one of his suggestions was that a larger projectile would make the pistol capable of killing not just people, but horses too, an important consideration for the Rangers who often found themselves fighting mounted opponents). In 1846, the Walker Colt appeared. This massive (it weighed four and a half pounds) six-shot pistol was a clear improvement on the first revolver. The design of the internal mechanism was simplified to make it more reliable and the new pistol was chambered for a .454″ (11.5mm) bullet. This was still a percussion cap design where black powder, a percussion cap and a bullet had to be separately loaded into each cylinder. When it appeared, the Walker Colt was the most powerful handgun available, and it would remain so until the introduction of the .357 round in the 1930s. The Walker Colt also used a number of machine-made parts (an innovation in 1846) which meant that parts were more uniform and could safely be interchanged between pistols. The Walker Colt proved to be much more reliable and its use by the Texas Rangers provided positive publicity. Commercial success followed and Colt was able to build his own firearms manufacturing plant.
Clint Eastwood as The Outlaw Josey Wales with a pair of Walker Colt revolvers
Colt continued to evolve and refine his designs, supervising the production of a number of percussion cap revolvers up to his death in 1862. However, another important innovation appeared in the early 1860s: the centre-fire cartridge. This was a self-contained cartridge where a charge of gunpowder and a bullet were mounted in a brass casing which also incorporated a percussion cap in its base. The centre-fire cartridge allowed much faster reloading and was virtually impervious to rain and damp. Unfortunately for the Colt company, Smith & Wesson held the patent for the bored-through revolver cylinders required to use this new cartridge, and Colt wasn’t willing to pay royalties to a competitor. However, the S&W patent expired in 1869 and the Colt company immediately began work on the design of a new revolver using the .45″ centre-fire cartridge which could be offered to the US Army.
Like all previous Colt revolvers, the new design was single action only but it allowed the loading of up to six centre-fire cartridges via a loading gate on the right side of the frame. It also incorporated an ejector under the 7½” barrel to remove spent cartridge casings (early cartridge cases were prone to distort on firing, often jamming them in the chamber). For the first time on a Colt revolver, the SAA included a top-strap on the frame to provide additional strength to deal with the power of the .45″ round (the new pistol was originally to be called the “Colt Strap Pistol“). Colt entered the new design into the US Army trials in 1873 and it was adopted as the M1873 and used as the main US military sidearm until its replacement in 1891 by a Colt double-action revolver.
7½” Colt SAA from 1875
The Colt Single Action Army revolver also proved massively popular as a civilian weapon. It was rugged, reliable, easy to repair if it did fail and its machine-made internal parts could be interchanged between weapons. Best of all, Colt’s hi-tech manufacturing process meant that it was also cheap: the SAA cost just $17 when it was launched on the civilian market. This compared very favourably to the $40 – $50 asked for the Colt Paterson pistol in 1836, though the US Army paid just $13.50 for each of their first batch of SAAs.
Other versions followed including the Flat-top Target with a decent notch rear sight and the Bisley Target Model with a longer grip, wider hammer and trigger and a rear sight which was adjustable for windage. However, although these later developments were in many ways more practical, especially as target shooters, none could match the rugged simplicity of the original SAA.
Between 1873 and 1941 (when production of what became known as the “first generation” SAA finally ended) more than 350,000 Colt SAAs were produced in more than thirty different calibres, though .45″ was the most popular. In addition to the 7½” “Cavalry” version, two other barrel lengths were commonly offered: The 4¾” “Civilian” and the 5½” “Artillery”, though numbers of SAAs with different barrel lengths were also produced including a compact version (known as the Banker, or Storekeeper) with a 4″ barrel and without the under-barrel ejector rod. A number of finishes were offered including blued and colour case hardened though limited numbers with nickel, gold or silver plating or other unusual finishes were also produced. Standard grips were either black hard rubber or walnut though other exotic woods, ivory, mother of pearl and staghorn were also used for grips on special models. The huge interest in the Wild West promoted by movies and television led to Colt re-introducing the SAA in 1956 (the “second generation”). In 1975 the third generation SAA was introduced, and this version remains in production to the present day.
All versions of the SAA are single action only and all have a delightfully light (around 3lbs) pull and a crisp and consistent release. When you compare the profile of the SAA to any modern handgun, it looks kind of odd. The grip has an elegant if rather unusual curve. Sit it beside almost any modern semi-auto pistol and it just doesn’t look as if it will fit your hand. And yet it does. Perfectly. The SAA will comfortably fit most hand sizes and it’s a natural pointer with great balance. Hold an SAA, look at the target and you’ll find that the pistol just naturally follows. Which is lucky, because the sights (especially on first generation models) are rudimentary. The tall foresight is lined up with a V shaped groove in the top of the frame. Windage adjustment is done by bending the foresight in the required direction. Elevation adjustment is done by either filing down the foresight, or squeezing it in a vice to make it taller. Not that the lack of accurate sights was a major issue – this isn’t a target pistol, it’s a hard-working, blue-collar gun designed to hurl a large bullet in the approximate direction in which it’s pointed. The SAA is also lefty-friendly. Because there is no manual safety or cylinder release on the left side of the pistol, it can be used comfortably in either hand. And the loading gate on the right is especially easy to use for lefties.
But though it may not have provided pinpoint accuracy, if you did hit something with a Colt SAA you were going to do some serious damage. Those soft, .45″ bullets travelling at over 900fps caused horrific injuries. Remember all those movies and television shows where the good guy would get shot in the left arm? And he would either ignore this or perhaps pause briefly while he or his adoring girlfriend tied a handkerchief round the wound before he continued to battle the bad guys? Well, I’m afraid you can forget about that. Getting hit in the arm with a round from a Colt SAA might tear the arm off altogether or at least shatter the bone so comprehensively that you’d be left permanently disabled. If you got hit in the body or chest, you’d be left with a baseball-sized exit wound and very little time to explain that you’d come for the man who shot your Pa. This gun had stopping power long before that term was invented.
Of course the SAA wasn’t perfect. The sights were basically useless and accuracy (especially with early cartridges) was poor. Adequate if you were trying to shoot the hombre with aces up his sleeve on the other side of a poker table, less so if you were trying to hit a man-sized target at anything over 20 feet. One story, apparently true, describes two cowboys, both armed with Colt SAA’s who got into a heated argument while standing on opposite sides of a double bed. Both emptied their revolvers at each other from a range of a few feet. When the smoke cleared, it became clear that both had missed with all their shots so they went for a drink instead.
Distorted cartridge cases were difficult to remove, even using the ejector rod; you might wonder about that given that cowboys in movies and television shows from the 50s and 60s never had any trouble emptying out their used cartridge cases – this was because the reduced charge used in blank shells didn’t tend to distort the cases. The SAA had no manual safety and no drop safety, but it was provided with a half-cock position for the trigger, which allowed the gun to be carried safely. Sort of. After a number of US Cavalry troopers and civilians shot themselves or their horses while galloping with a half-cocked SAA, it was decided that it was safer to load with just five cartridges and keep an empty cylinder under the hammer.
Jessie James’ Colt SAA
The Colt SAA has become one of the most collectible handguns from the Wild West period. Very large sums indeed are paid for examples with well-documented provenance. A Colt SAA with the serial number 1 was sold at auction in 2009 for $862,500 (at the time this was the highest price ever paid for a historic handgun). Another SAA which belonged to outlaw Jessie James went to auction in 2013 with a starting price of $400,000. Even first-generation SAAs in only fair condition and with no particular history sell for $3000 – $5000. So, for many people, replicas are the only way to enjoy the SAA experience without spending a great deal of money.
Colt SAA Replicas
Marushin removable shell 6mm SAA
There have been a number CO2 and gas-powered replicas of the Colt SAA over the years (there have also been several spring powered versions, but really? Don’t bother!), but none have been ideal both as replicas and as shooters. Hahn/Crosman produced a range of CO2 powered SAA replicas from the 1950s to the 1980s. All shot pretty well, but they looked slightly odd due to the CO2 cartridge being located under the barrel. Tanaka produced a beautiful gas-powered SAA replica using their Cassiopeia system in the early 2000s where compressed gas was stored in the removable shells. Unfortunately, these proved to be unreliable and shot with all the power and authority of a gnat breaking wind. They were also discontinued fairly quickly due to concerns in Japan that they could be converted to fire real cartridges. Tanaka responded with a redesigned SAA using their Pegasus system and Marushin have also produced a removable shell SAA replica. These are beautiful-looking replicas, though neither are particularly satisfactory shooters.
Umarex Colt SAA
It wasn’t until 2015 that we finally got a decent Colt SAA replica which was also a reasonable shooter. Umarex released a CO2 powered Colt SAA with removable shells and a 5½” barrel. It’s generally a decent visual replica of the original and is now available in 4.5mm, 6mm and .177” pellet shooting versions and in a range of barrel lengths (though not, strangely, the popular 4¾”). If you want an SAA replica that you can also enjoy shooting, this is currently the only option.
For me, the Colt SAA is one of those replicas which no collection should be without. Whether you are interested in the history of this iconic handgun or you just want to practice your quick-draw technique, the Colt SAA does it all. It’s surprising and perhaps a little disappointing that there is only one current SAA replica that both looks reasonably like the original and shoots well, but at least we do now have the Umarex Colt SAA. It’s not the perfect replica, but at least it does give those of us who are interested in handguns the opportunity to experience a little of that SAA magic.