The Saga Of The Single Action Army
August 02, 2017
It is popular in some circles to view the iconic Single Action Army (SAA) as an exemplar of perfection. It isn't. I hate to sound harsh, but in fact, it is a pretty fragile revolver. It was groundbreaking and revolutionary. What it is, in a business-school sense, is an example of sticking with something thought to be perfect long after improvements could have been made.
Samuel Colt made great revolvers and then resisted all attempts to improve his fundamental characteristics. He fought against the solid frame with topstrap and insisted on sticking to his open-top design. Colt refused to consider selfcontained cartridges. Soon after Colt passed away in 1862, Colt's company turned to manufacturing conversions to cartridges by rebuilding cap-and-ball revolvers. When Colt management — all of whom rose through the company under Sam Colt — went with a solid-framed revolver, they stuck with the flat springs that the original plans had incorporated since the 1830s.
I did solid, if not brisk, business as a gunsmith replacing busted flat springs in Colts, mostly the two-leaf bolt spring and the tiny little spring on the hand.
When Iver Johnson perfected the hammer block in the late 19th century, shooters could safely carry a six-shot revolver with all six chambers loaded. The SAA was, and is, a five-shot six shooter. Iver Johnson was a small firm back then, and Colt could have easily negotiated the use of that patent. They probably could have just bought Iver Johnson and then used the newly purchased patent! Alas, they didn't.
All of those missed opportunities added up. The modern sidearm of the first decade of the 20th century was a .38 Special revolver. Those who wanted something bigger could have a .44 Special. These were
doubleaction revolvers with swing-out cylinders. A modern SAA, with coil springs and a hammer block, one that could be carried with six rounds and was durable enough to stand up to hard use, would still have been attractive. But Colt had fallen behind.
Then the .357 Magnum arrived. Yes, the Colt is chambered in it, but that's the limit. When Elmer Keith began experimenting, he used SAA revolvers. After blowing up too many, he switched to the Smith & Wesson Triple Lock. They are pretty soft by today's standards, but those were built of the best alloys at the time. The SAA? Colt was still using mid-19th century alloys, heat-treatment and hardening.
Which brings us to the 1950s. Colt did not resume SAA production after World War II because, by 1946, they didn't see a future in it. (No kidding.) Others did, and the explosion of Western movies in the early 1950s created a new market that Colt's competitors jumped into. One of those was Bill Ruger, who decided to take advantage of all Colt's missed opportunities.
The new centerfire revolver was the Blackhawk. Introduced in 1955, it used almost all the latest ideas on how to improve the Colt SAA. The Blackhawk had coil springs for trouble-free, unbreakable use; it featured the latest alloys; and Ruger used the investment casting process so that he could work with the toughest alloys. Once cast, Ruger's parts only required finish machining. The Blackhawk's solid frame was topped with an adjustable rear sight, something that took Colt 90 years to get around to offering on a single-action revolver.
Made in .357 Magnum, the Blackhawk was too small for the .44 Magnum, which was also introduced on the heels of Ruger's Blackhawk. I own a Blackhawk in .41 Magnum — a first-year gun of that caliber — and it is almost impossible to shoot with full-powered ammunition. Ruger took note and later redesigned it. The subsequent Super Blackhawk was not only capable of handling the .44 Magnum, it was also robust enough that it spawned an entire generation of .44 Magnum handloads. The original .44 Magnum was a 240-grain bullet at 1,200 feet per second (fps). (Don't believe book specs. I don't think I've ever chrono'd a factory .44 Magnum loaded with a 240-grain bullet that posted a velocity over 1,300 fps.) The prudent but ambitious handloader could boost a 320-grain hard-cast bullet up over 1,300 fps in a Super Blackhawk.
The SAA? Colt belatedly resumed production in 1956, and they tried to chamber it in .44 Magnum. I wasn't paying attention to their revolvers then, but I have read accounts of the efforts. When they could get people to test-fire the development guns — recoil was ferocious as you'd expect from a 37-ounce handgun firing a .44 Magnum — the guns fell apart so quickly that there wasn't any point in selling them.
However, there was one trick that Bill Ruger missed: the transfer bar. He took care of that in 1974 and, in a brilliant move, even designed a replacement parts set that converted the older, fiveshot Blackhawks to six-shotsafe operation.
My father bought a Blackhawk in .357 Magnum in 1961. He didn't shoot it a lot, but my brother and I did. We probably put a literal ton of lead though it the last time I saw it. (My brother is its keeper.)
Unlike Colt, Ruger moved forward with its single action revolvers. Over time, the Blackhawk and the Super Blackhawk were made in just about every centerfire caliber imaginable. When the interest in Cowboy Action Shooting (CAS) surged, Ruger was there. Interestingly, shooting a CAS match isn't too hard on the guns. No, it is practice that does in the weak wheelguns. You can't practice if your revolvers are in the shop being rebuilt; that is, unless you have two or three matched pairs that can be rotated through a service schedule. The Rugers? Get a pair of them slicked up (if needed), and then invest in making loads of ammunition.
When the interest in CAS pushed demand for calibers other than .44 Magnum, Ruger responded with a new version of the old Blackhawk in 1993: the Vaquero. The "V" was a fixed-sight Blackhawk. It came in the traditional cowboy calibers, as well as .44 Magnum, and the original Vaquero was a smidge larger than an SAA. So in 2005, Ruger introduced the New Model Vaquero, which is much closer in size to the SAA and will fit most SAA holsters.
I always wanted a durable .45 Colt single action but could never warm up to the Super Blackhawk. I also
couldn't bring myself to pay real Colt SAA prices for a safe queen. The New Model Vaquero was perfect, and the one I have is even more so. I sent it to Hamilton Bowen (bowenclassicarms.com), and he fitted a second cylinder to it. He made sure the original .45 Colt cylinder was properly fitted and timed, and then bored a new cylinder to .45 ACP. And as an extra step (because I asked, and he figured out how to do it), he relieved the back of the new cylinder so it can also chamber .45 Auto Rim.
Versatile? I can use CAS-level "softie" loads in .45 Colt. I can use my buckets of .45 ACP practice ammo for skill-building. If I want more power, I use the top-end, hard-cast bullets I've loaded in .45 Auto Rim cases. And, if I ever go to Alaska, I'd put the .45 Colt cylinder back in and stoke it with handloads featuring Lead Bullet Technology's hard-cast heavyweights. I'll have six safe shots of T-rex-level .45 Colt resting on my belt.
It took almost a century and a half, two manufacturers and a custom pistolsmith, but now I've found it: SAA perfection.