A gun is a tool. Like a hammer, it’s a soulless instrument used to solve problems. Dad’s old lever gun or that Luger Grandpa brought back from the Bulge might have sentimental value, but its significance is forged of blood relation; your kinsman who handled it established the nostalgic appeal you cherish. Some guns are innovative, some interesting and some forgettable, but they’re all just tools — with the exception of one.
For as long as you’ve been seeking oxygen, craftsmen in Hartford, Connecticut, have been breathing life into a gun that, after more than 140 years, refuses to be exiled into antiquity. It’s one that was dropped on the banks of the Little Big Horn in 1876. In Arizona, Bat Masterson wielded it with retribution in 1878 and Wyatt Earp with ease and efficiency in 1881. The Rough Riders carried it up San Juan Hill, and it rode the range, the veldt and the gold fields with Major Burnham. Americans carried it to Europe during World War I, and Patton carried it there and to Africa during World War II. In 1969, John Wayne carried one to his only Oscar win.
For as long as young men have fantasized about gunfighters and saloons, toy versions of this gun have graced their hands. The Colt Single Action Army (SAA) revolver is a handgun that embodies the American spirit like no other. It’s considered a man’s gun because almost every man has dreamed of one. It’s an American man’s gun because when ruggedness and manliness were American qualities that mattered, it was the gun real men carried.
Wrap your hand around a Colt SAA, and you can almost feel an electric charge. Your thumb instinctively finds the hammer, and as it’s retracted, you hear the unmistakable four clicks that signify this is, by God, a C-O-L-T. It’s the first sound Custer, Earp, Masterson, Patton and Wayne heard every time they thumbed that hammer, and for many an outlaw, gangster, road agent or ruffian, it’s the last sound they ever heard.
Some will profess that with 21st-century wondernines, ultra-compact mouse guns and accessory-railed tactical blasters, there’s no place for a single-action revolver. You cannot argue that Colt’s SAA is the premier fighting pistol, but that’s not the point. The 1873 Colt’s SAA — or Peacemaker, as it’s been called — hasn’t existed for a century and a half because it’s the preeminent fighting pistol. It’s a work of art with a history and attachment to America. It’s also fun to shoot.
Most folks don’t just go out and buy a Colt SAA on a whim. The acquisition of Colt’s Peacemaker is, in most cases, the cure for an aching desire. Hard-working Americans generally don’t carry around enough pocket money to just pick one up, and not everyone can afford one. They’re not impulse buys or mass-produced gizmos like you’ll find on the counter at every gun shop. They’re hand-fitted mechanical sculptures created from forged steel. The hands of men shape them, and their sweat is impregnated within. Maybe money should not be a consideration. Samuel Colt once wrote, “Money is a trash I have always looked down upon that I never had handy to know how to appreciate it.” Funny thing: By the early 1850s, Colt had become one of the richest men in America.
“Most folks don’t just go out and buy a Colt SAA on a whim. The acquisition of Colt’s Peacemaker is, in most cases, the cure for an aching desire.”
Without exception, every time one of us handle Colt’s single action it fuels a fire burning within. It seems that there have always been other, more practical guns we needed, guns for personal protection and hunting, guns far less expensive. But at the half-century mark, a man realizes he only lives once, and sometimes you owe yourself a present such as this 5½-inch-barrel Artillery Model chambered for .357 Magnum. Regardless of barrel length or caliber, gorgeous case-hardening and deep, dark bluing and hand fitment of parts are standard with every one.
There is something even more special about one that is yours. After a long session of fondling, the next purchase is usually a holster. G&A ordered the popular Galco strongside Western holster ($87) and slid it onto the company’s 1880’s leather cartridge belt ($130). That’s the type of rig an SAA is supposed to ride in. Then, we went to the range.
At 10 yards, it put bullets very near point of aim with .38 Special and .357 Magnum loads, and we were able to punch five-shot groups measuring about 2 inches. Groups were similar from the bench at 25 yards, but the point of impact was a little left and high. This is common with just about every Colt’s SAA we picked up. (We had three.)
After the necessary load testing, the G&A staff stepped away from the bench. Soon, we were standing in a pile of brass that would make a handloader’s knees weak, and we consistently put five shots into a 6-inch circle at 25 yards. That evening, a Ballistol wipe-down brought back the out-of-the-box luster. The next day, another pile of empty cases.
You don’t have to own a horse, be a cowboy or fantasize about a shootout on the streets of Dodge City to enjoy the experience. They remain a viable defensive arm if for no other reason than they meet the “must have a gun” requirement. Surprisingly, they can be fired with intimidating rapidity with two-handed operation when the support-hand thumb is used to cock the revolver. Due to their safe single-action mode of operation and generally good triggers, they make great trail guns for hikers, hunters and those on wilderness excursions. While the original .45 Colt chambering might be the most popular for the modern man, the .38 Special/.357 makes more sense and is capable for medium-size game and all-size bad guys while also being a joy to shoot for nearly anyone.
Historically, the SAA is Colt’s (and possibly the world’s) most iconic and successful handgun. Between 1873 and today, it was only out of production for a brief period from the beginning of World War II to 1955. As much as has been written about the SAA and as long as it has been around, an unresolved debate continues, and that’s whether it is a left- or a right-hand gun. The truth is, it’s both.
Some claim Samuel Colt was left-handed, but he died (in 1862) long before the SAA was introduced. However, he was alive and well when the cap-and-ball Colt Walker and 1st, 2nd and 3rd Model Dragoons were produced. They were configured with a cut-out on the right side, making them difficult to cap when held in the right hand. Just as influential, these handguns were designed as cavalry horse pistols, and many troopers wore their saber so it could be drawn and wielded by the right hand with the pistol holstered butt forward on the right side for left-hand access. Ultimately, with the realization that right-handed troops shot better with their right hand, the cavalry or reverse draw was instituted.
With the loading gate on the right side of a Single Action Army, some right-handed shooters find it easier to switch the SAA to the left hand for loading and unloading. We prefer to keep a handgun in the hand that will be shooting it, and open the gate with the shooting thumb, rotate and control the cylinder with our trigger finger and load with the left hand. Essentially, the same procedure is used for unloading. Whether you’re right- or left-handed doesn’t matter; it’s safe to say that the Colt SAA is ambidextrous.
Colt offers a dozen standard models of the SAA. You have the option of color case-hardening and blued steel or full nickel plating. Available barrel lengths are 4¾, 5½ and 7½ inches in either .357 Magnum or .45 Colt. For a little more jingle, there are lots more options. Colt’s Custom Shop has been granting special requests for as long as the Single Action Army has been in existence. For example, on July 24, 1885, Bat Masterson penned the following letter to Colt:
“Gents, Please send me one of your Nickel plated Short .45 Caliber 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 the Extra for Extra work. Make it very easy on the 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 that the ejecting rod is.
Colt’s still offers many of those same custom alterations, to include additional chamberings such as .38-40, .44-40 and .44 Special. You can also specify a bird’s-head grip, special grip materials, gold or silver plating, even engraving.
You’ll likely own lots of guns during your lifetime. With time, there’ll be some your memory will overlook, but you’ll never forget your first Colt SAA. Sitting around a campfire, a man might tell you about using his M9 to fend off terrorists. Another might describe how his duty revolver once saved him from a felon. There’ll be a story about a striker-fired auto never malfunctioning and another about a match won with a custom 1911. Let them regale you. When they’re done, pull your Colt from its leather, thumb the hammer back to its second notch, open the loading gate, and slowly slide the cartridges into the palm of your hand. Then, place the Colt on the table.
As mentioned earlier, G&A received three samples, and each was purchased at full value. An SAA sent to us for review will never be returned to Colt.