April 04, 2012
The Colt Peacemaker is quite easily the most recognized handgun of the American West, immortalized in the art and photographs of the time and in thousands of cinematic productions since then.
This rugged revolver was introduced in 1873 and produced until 1940. Production resumed in 1956, and finicky collectors dispute historical and technical details with a fanaticism usually found only in the worlds of Lugers and Chevy Corvettes. Some say two generations, some three, and some purists four. For shooters, they're all the same gun.
It was adopted by the Army in 1875, serving officially until 1892 with encores until World War I. Production at Colt continues today, with the design little changed since it first began to ride on the hips of cavalrymen and cowboys. You'd never know it growing up in front of American television, but S&W's top-break revolvers were actually more popular on the frontier.
The fixed cylinder, sturdy frame, and single-action mechanism proved to be more durable than competitors' more sophisticated designs, and the Colt Single Action Army (SAA) surged back into beloved service with the success of the Single Action Shooting Society in the 1990s.
Today, Colts are available, and replicas are produced by Uberti and Pietta and imported by Taylor, Dixie, and Cimarron among others. Through the SAA's lifespan, it's been offered in a number of calibers, ranging from .22 rimfire to .32-20, .38-40, .44-40, and the classic and massively powerful .45 Colt. To avoid confusion, many folks add "Long," but it's not necessary among the cognoscenti.
The subject revolver is arguably a 2nd Generation, but built in 1956, it may contain a part or two from before World War II. It's a 4.75-inch-barreled model; Colt also offered 5.5- and 7.5-inch barrels.
It belongs to my neighbor, Danny Cifers, who is a lifelong historian of the Old West. A former gunsmith, his proudest works are action jobs on Peacemakers, and he's gotten quite good at it.
Cifers purchased the gun in an Anchorage gun store while stationed in Alaska. It was in good but used condition with the original plastic grips. He refinished the metal, lovingly honed the inner workings, and polished the hammer.
While in the frozen north, he was given a large chunk of mammoth tusk. Now almost all of the curmudgeon's handguns wear this 40,000-year-old tusk.
The grips of this SAA have a scrimshaw of a sleeping turkey vulture, Cathartes aura, etched in its ancient surface. Obviously, the Colt's nickname is "Buzzard."
Until crippled by neuropathy, Cifers competed successfully with Buzzard in Mounted Western Shooting, blazing away on his mule, "Gus."
The hammer is brought to halfcock, releasing the cylinder to spin freely clockwise. Flip out the loading gate.
Cartridges are inserted singly as chambers parade past the gate. It is still highly recommended that only five rounds be loaded. Load one, skip one, load four if the gun is to be holstered. Load five in a row to shoot. The gate is snapped shut and the hammer brought to fullcock before being lowered on the empty chamber.
If the hammer is lowered carelessly directly from halfcock, it can break the sear. When the hammer is cocked (first click), a bolt inside removes the indexing lug from grooves in the cylinder. At click two, the hammer comes into halfcock. With clicks three and four, the sear is fully engaged and ready for the trigger to be squeezed.
These four clicks have traditionally been said to represent "C-O-L-T." Once the handgun has been fired and your opponent lies in the dusty street — one arm dangling in the horse trough — put the big iron back on your hip and get the heck out of Dodge.
Later, open the gate and, pushing the lug on the ejection rod, eject spent casings. Clean, reload, and ride into the sunset while they roll the credits.
Early .45 Colt casings could hold 40 grains of blackpowder with a 250-grain lead bullet. It was a monster for its time. Cases were thin and when later smokeless loads were introduced, solid case heads were necessary.
While modern metallurgy has increased the strength of the SAA, the design remains a blackpowder gun. Most modern commercial loads recognize this, and it's usually foolish hand-loaders who get into trouble. If you want a muscle handgun, get a modern S&W .460 or Ruger Redhawk.
Older guns fired with stout loads can develop cracking at the timing groove in the middle of the cylinder, which just happens to be the weakest point in the case wall. Most older guns are in museums or collections. They are quite valuable and need to be protected. Anyone ruining one of these classics with +P loads should be drummed out of the fort.
Hornady's mild cowboy load has a 255-grain LFN going out of the barrel at 767 fps. Winchester loads pushed a similar bullet out of Buzzard at 782 fps.
Cifers's long-running competition load has 6.5 grains of Alliant Red Dot pushing a 255-grain LFN cast in a Lyman mold with lead poured from a Lee smelter pot. He loads in RCBS dies on an RCBS single-stage press, using Starline brass and Federal primers. The Lyman bullet has a much wider meplat and shorter ogive than the two factory loads.
Bad weather put off T&E for almost a week. Eventually to just get it over with, I shot in gusting winds at 23 degrees Fahrenheit. My notebook flapped, and the ink froze in my pen, but I came to appreciate the weight and balance that have kept this revolver popular for 13 decades. However, muzzle flip was sprightly.
Friend and teacher Sheriff Jim Wilson has ruminated on why the SAA is better than a semiautomatic for mounted shooting: "With an autoloader you shoot and the horse startles. Of course, you grab the saddle horn with both hands — and that's when you shoot the horse in the neck."
I shot Buzzard through wind, tears, and runny nose at the Mohave Sportsman's range. When I set up the Oehler 35P, I draped range bags over it to keep it from blowing over. The Oehler survived, and I put out some Birchwood Casey targets at 10 yards.
Even with the heavy bullets, light loads kept the shoot comfortable. Surprisingly, the handloads were 100 fps faster than the factory loads, but produced no more recoil.
In an alarming situation, an early group just walked away from the bull. Something was wrong with the cylinder, and it turned out the axle pin detent wasn't working. The axle pin had worked its way out with each shot, and I had to reseat it for each subsequent shot.
Buzzard shot to point of aim, but 1 inch left with all loads. The handloads shaded the two factory loads by a fraction of an inch — but he's tuned it for years.
I have never been so glad to get off a shooting range.