The Life & Times Of Colt's Single-Action .45

by Skeeter Skelton


Shooting Times Magazine

June 1980


Samuel Colt's Single-action revolvers are inextricably intertwined with the history of the Old West, most particularly with that of Texas. The Paterson Colt, for example, was born in 1836, the year Texas won independence from Mexico. This five-shot percussion revolver became a  favorite in the Texas Navy and with the Texas Rangers, who put its increased firepower to effective use against hostile Indians.


Colt's company went bankrupt but was reborn when Texas became a state and war was declared between the U.S. and Mexico. A young Texas Ranger assigned to General Zachary Taylor's U.S. Mounted Rifles was selected for an important assignment. His name was Captain Samuel H. Walker, and his first army job was to locate the penniless Colt and commission him to design and produce suitable revolvers for the use the Mounted Rifles. The young ranger found the gunmaker, the commission was accepted, and a huge .44-caliber revolver called the Walker Colt contributed much to the capitulation of the Mexicans.


It is noteworthy that the Walker used essentially the same basic locking system as the earlier Paterson. This arrangement was later employed in the Dragoon series, the 1849 Pocket Model, the 1851 Navy, the 1860 Army, and 1861 Navy, and the other Colt percussion revolvers. Simple and reliable, the same system was employed in 1873 (after Samuel Colt’s death) in the Single Action Army .45-caliber revolver. For all practical purposes, the .45 Colt SAA we have today is the same sixgun adopted by the U.S. Army in 1873. The gun’s popularity has never flagged.


Nowhere were Colt revolvers more prized than in Texas, where they were first blooded, the Paterson Colt becoming known to Sam Colt as the Texas Paterson. The rolled-on, engraved cylinder scenes on the 1851 and 1861 Colt Navy .36-caliber revolvers and the 1860 .44 Army depicted an 1843 naval engagement in which Republic of Texas ships defeated a numerically superior Mexican armada.


The Single Action Army, with its easy-to-load .45 Colt cartridges, was taken immediately to the hearts of Texans as well as other gun-toting western figures – including outlaws and the law.


John Wesley Hardin, the son of a Texas preacher, had killed four men by 1868; he was only 15 years old. Three of the men were members of the infamous Texas State Police, the force that replaced the Rangers during the harsh post-bellum rule of a hated Yankee provisional government.


Hardin was a known outlaw, but he moved more or less freely about Texas, often hidden from the law by his many relatives. Although quite young, he headed up cattle drives to Kansas. One of these drives took him up the Chisholm Trail, where he met Wild Bill Hickok, then marshal of Abilene. They were friendly for a while, with Hickok allowing Hardin to go armed in spite of a town ordinance.


This tremulous peace between the two shootists came to an end when Hardin, his sleep disturbed by the snoring of a man occupying the hotel room next to his, fired through the wall and killed the noisy sleeper.


Hardin immediately vacated Abilene, certain Hickok would force him into a showdown if he tarried. In later years, the notorious gunman was to note, “They say I killed six or seven men for snoring. Well, it ain’t true. I only killed one man for snoring.”


Hardin turned gambler, and by the time he was 25, he had killed 42 men. He hid out in Florida, then Alabama. But Pinkerton detectives and Texas Rangers with outstanding murder warrants for his arrest were already closing in.


It is typical of the Texas Rangers that when they learned of Hardin’s whereabouts by intercepting a letter mailed to his Texas relatives, they sent a single Ranger, John Armstrong, to Florida to effect his arrest. On July 23, 1877, Armstrong and a few local officers trapped John Wesley Hardin and his cohorts on a train in Pensacola Junction, Florida.


When Hardin saw Ranger Armstrong enter his car with an upraised 7 ½-inch Colt SAA .45, he needed no further identification. Shouting “Texas, by God!” he went for his own Colt, which caught in his suspenders. Armstrong knocked him unconscious with a blow to the head from his single action.


The game was over for Hardin. He was sentenced to 25 years in the Texas penitentiary on a murder charge. He served 15 years, reading law while “behind the walls” at Huntsville, and was granted a pardon in 1894. After his release, he hung out a lawyer’s shingle in El Paso.


At that time, John Selman was serving as a police officer in El Paso. He had been other things, including a horsethief and shakedown artist. An altercation between the two men left the old Selman with an implacable hatred for Hardin. On an August night in 1895, Selman entered El Paso’s Acme Saloon with a colt SA .45, found Hardin with his back turned, and shot him through the back of the head.


Hardin was dead at 42.


The coroner, unaware of Selman’s vicious reputation, equivocated, “If Mr. Hardin was shot from the front, I would say it was excellent marksmanship. It he was shot from the rear, I’d say it was excellent judgment.”


Soon after, Selman attempted to catch George Scarborough – an ex=Ranger turned cattle detective – in a similar trap. Scarborough ended Selman’s career with four quick shots from his revolver, the ubiquitous Colt .45. Four years later, Scarborough met his own end when shot cattle rustlers near Deming, New Mexico.


Many famed men of guns preferred the .45 Single Action Army to all other handguns. One was Bat Masterson. Well-known in frontier Kansas as a lawman and a gambler, Masterson was later a U.S. Marshal in New York and died quietly while employed as a newspaper sportswriter. Although in his twilight years he wrote an advertisement singing the praises of the Savage .32 Automatic, Masterson was a diehard .45 Colt single-action man during his “active” periods. Colt factory records show he ordered at least eight .45 single actions from the factory between 1879 and 1885.


Maintained in the Colt archives is a letter from Masterson written on the stationery of the Opera House Saloon, Dodge City, Kansas, ordering a new revolver.


“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.”


A listing of the famous adherents to the Colt .45 single action would be nearly endless. Doc Holliday, the consumptive contemporary of Masterson, also carried a nickeled .45 – along with a Bowie knife or two. Wyatt Earp and his brothers, friends of the good doctor, also carried .45s. Wyatt claimed to have been the possessor of one of five “Buntline Specials,” Single Action Armies with specially fitted 12-inch barrels, reputedly a gift from penny-dreadful author Ned Buntline. This is perfectly feasible since the Single Action Army was at one time or another offered with barrel lengths of two, 2 ½, three, 3 ¼, four, 4 ½, 4 ¾, five, 5 ½, six, 6 ½, seven, 7 ½, eight, 8 ½, nine, 9 ½, 10, 10 ½, 12, 14, and 16 inches; standard – and by far most common – were the 4 ¾, 5 ½, and 7 ½ inch lengths.


The list of Colt .45 owners would include other well-known names. William Bonney and Pat Garrett, his killer. Theodore Roosevelt, who carried an engraved .45 Colt. Lawmen like Bill Tilghman, Heck Thomas, Longhaired Jim Courtwright, and Judge Roy Bean, all of whom swore by the gun. Butch Cassidy and the Younger, James, and Dalton brothers. And all the old photographs of Texas Rangers show them armed with the famed single action.


In later years, the old thumbbuster in .45 maintained its popularity. Photographs made in 1922 of Captain Frank Hamer, the famous Texas Ranger who was a nemesis of Bonnie and Clyde, show him firing a Thompson submachinegun at Mexia, Texas, for the edification of onlooking Texas National Guard troops. Holstered at his hip is an old-fashioned, ivory-stocked Colt SA .45.


Lieutenant George S. Patton purchased an ivory-stocked, nickel plated, ornately engraved Model P (the factory’s sobriquet for the revolver0 in 1916. Its serial number was 322088. The gun accompanied the young lieutenant of cavalry into Mexico with General “Black Jack” Pershing’s Punitive Expedition in pursuit of Pancho Villa and took its toll of the enemy. Later, Patton wore his .45 in France during World War II.


Another .45 fan was General Jonathan “Skinny” Wainwright. When forced to relinquish the Philippines early in World War II, Wainwright concealed his .45 Colt single action in the crotch of a tree to keep the Japanese from capturing it. The revolver was later retrieved by friend.


The colt single action has never become old fashioned; it is as useful a revolver today as it was 100 years ago. During the production of more than 4000,000 Colt SAs in more than 30 different calibers, about half were chambered for the .45 Colt cartridge. It has always been the most popular caliber. Before the advent of the .44 and .41 Magnum revolvers and perhaps expanding bullets for the .357, the .45 Colt was the most powerful handgun round. Even with its factory conical 250-grian slug, I believe it is better than the solid-lead-bulleted .357.


The cartridge is inherently accurate; so is the Single Action Army revolver. The gun’s accuracy is due in part to the rock-solid alignment of its cylinder with the bore that’s maintained by the straight cylinder base pin; single-action cylinders don’t get out of line. This revolver also has the most natural feel – for almost all hand sizes – of any handgun ever made and is superior in snapshooting and point-shooting.


The Colt SAAs of 1980 are basically identical to these made 100 years ago, but stronger steel is now used. After a pause in production to replace worn machinery, the Model P was reintroduced in 1976 with three slight changes. The hand which turns the cylinder has a somewhat altered shape. The removable base-pin bushing was changed to a fixed, staked-in bushing that appears to be permanent. Finally, the pitch of the barrel threads was changed. None of these changers alter the appearance or performance of the gun.


As a defense gun, the Colt single-action .45 is slower to operate than double actions and automatics, but its large caliber and good handling qualities make it quite formidable.


When I’m cruising the desert or mountains, just dawdling, the old .45 Colt is all the gun I need.





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