Reloading the .45 Colt
December 04, 2011
In 1873, the U.S. Army adopted a new service handgun and cartridge. The gun? The legendary Colt Single Action Army. The cartridge? The equally iconic .45 Colt. The round was originally loaded with a 255-grain lead bullet over 40 grains of FFg black powder for a velocity of about 900 fps (out of the issue SAA's 7½-inch barrel). It was a formidable cartridge, used on good guys, bad guys and innumerable game, large and small. It is immensely popular to this day, and justifiably so.
Much to the irritation of cartridge buffs, the .45 Colt is often incorrectly referred to as the ".45 Long Colt," and many guns, cartridge boxes and cases have been so labeled. But this was never an official designation for the round. The term was meant to differentiate it from the shorter (and newer) .45 Smith & Wesson (aka the .45 Schofield). Our test gun this month is Beretta's single-action Stampede, made by Uberti in Serezzo, Italy. For reloading, I used the RCBS carbide dies I've had for decades, and they worked to perfection. The .45 Colt offers a wealth of versatility to the reloader. Replica revolvers as well as vintage arms are not particularly strong, so pressures of loads for them must be kept within the SAAMI maximum limit of 14,000 psi. All of the loads shown here are within this maximum and should be safe in any .45 Colt SA in serviceable condition, especially the modern-day clones. The loading manuals have separate listings of load data for the much stronger Ruger revolvers, but amped-up loadings must not be used in Colt originals or replicas.
It is also possible to get two, or even three charges into the .45 Colt's cavernous case. A solution to this dilemma is to use IMR's new Trail Boss low-density powder. An appropriate charge of Trail Boss occupies a lot of the case volume, and while it makes an overload less likely, the reloader must still remain vigilant. Many traditional powders are also suitable, and we have included a representative cross-section of them.
The mainstay of the .45 Colt is, of course, cast bullets. While the lighter 200-grainers are just fine for plinking loads, the classic 250- to 255-grain roundnose flatpoints or semi-wadcutters at 750 to 850 fps mimic original loads and offer plenty of power and accuracy. Loads that are close to the original weight and velocity tend to hit closer to point of aim than lightweight bullets at higher velocities.
Modest charges of the fast-burning W-231 and TiteGroup did great with the 200-grain RN bullets. At velocities of 825 to 900 fps they punched small groups, and recoil was light.
The 244-grain WC bullets were made by my friend, the late Joel Penny, out of pure linotype. They are hard as a rock, but do not lead, and they shoot great at about any velocity. Contemporary firms offer similar designs. The representative combination shown uses 6.2 grains of TiteGroup for 917 fps.
Several great loads were developed with the traditional 250- and 255-grain lead bullets. It's hard to find a bad load with such bullets, but they favored True Blue, AA-5, and Vihtavuori N-350, to name a few. I must confess, however, that I long ago settled on the BBC 250-grain RNFP with 11.5 grains of Vihtavuori 3N37 as my standard .45 Colt load. Velocity is almost exactly 1,000 fps, and accuracy is top drawer.
While most jacketed hollow- and softpoints need about 800 fps for expansion, at lower velocities these heavyweights are still formidable. They function like a hardcast bullet, i.e., they don't expand, but penetrate like the dickens.
Hornady's new 225-grain FTX bullet was developed for the many .45 Colt lever-action rifles with tubular magazines, but it lends itself nicely to revolvers with increased velocities and flatter trajectories. Velocities over 900 fps were obtained with HS-6, True Blue and Longshot. Check out the new Hornady Manual 10th Edition for additional loads.
A minor modification in loading technique is required for the FTX bullet. Overall maximum cartridge length for the .45 Colt is 1.600 inches, but the FTX bullet has a long ogive, so cases have to be shortened to 1.215 inches to stay within this length. Trimming can be easily accomplished with a manual case trimmer, but being basically lazy, I used Hornady's new Lock-N-Load power case trimmer to whittle cases down to size.
You may or may not be able to securely roll-crimp the FTX bullet in these shortened cases with your regular seating die, but not to worry. The Hornady Series II .45-caliber seating die (part no. 044151) works great for the FTX loads, as does the Lee Carbide Factory Crimp die (part no. 90865). Loads with all bullets except the FTX were crimped with the Lee die. A good bullet pull is essential for uniform ballistics, and a firm crimp is a big help.
The excellent Speer 225-grain JHP did well with 7.5 grains of old standby W-231 at 826 fps. Sierra's 240-grain JHC favored 7.0 grains of Red Dot. The Hornady 250-grain XTP is a great all-around game bullet, and typically shows fine accuracy. Here Alliant's Power Pistol was a standout. With 8.5 grains, velocity was 877 fps. HS-6 and W-231 were also quite accurate.
Interestingly, all of these loads, regardless of varying bullets weights, hit pretty much the same as to elevation (but still left of the point of aim). Varying the velocity up or down can also adjust for elevation, too.
It is silent testament to the grand, old .45 Colt that virtually every ammo manufacturer extant produces a variety of loads for it, and a fine cadre of revolversâ€”replica, as well as modernâ€”is readily available.
Witness also the fact that the .45 Colt enjoys enormous popularity with reloaders. RCBS reports that in 2006, they sold more dies in .45 Colt than in .25-06, 9mm, .30-30, 8x57, .222 and the list goes on. So fans of the original frontier manstopper need not fear its demise anytime soon.