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150 Years Of The Colt Single Action Army


American Rifleman by Rick Hacker January 3, 2023

Initially developed as a dedicated sidearm for the U.S. military, the Colt Single Action Army became iconic as one of the tools that tamed the frontier and embodied the spirit of the American West.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Colt Single Action Army (SAA), or the “New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol,” as it was originally cataloged. However, the factory used an abbreviated “Model P” designation for what would become one of its most recognizable, collectable and popular revolvers. With its ergonomically shaped, plow-handled grip, gracefully sculpted hammer and superbly balanced pointability, the Model P has inspired counterfeits, replicas and even updated variations throughout its existence. And yet, today, the same, basic 1873 Single Action Army is still produced by the original company that introduced it a century and a half ago—despite various corporate organizational changes over the years.

The first 8,000 “U.S”-stamped Single Action Armys, priced at $13.30 each, were shipped to cavalry units in 1872, and most saw
hard use. However, this pristine Rinaldo A. Carr-inspected Colt, Serial No. 137595, was part of the final U.S. contract of 2,000
guns shipped on June 21, 1891, and was unissued, which accounts for its remarkable condition. Stored at Springfield Armory
until sold as surplus in the 1920s, this SAA in 2022 fetched a winning bid of $763,750 at Rock Island Auction.

Following a pattern of firearm evolution, the SAA was the culmination of many Colts that had come before it, thanks to the inventive adaptations of Colt engineer Charles B. Richards and factory superintendent William Mason, whose innovative patents combined to create the post-Civil War Colt 1860 Army and 1851 Navy Richards-Mason cartridge conversions. That, in turn, spawned an entirely new cartridge revolver, a short-lived but nonetheless significant .44 rimfire, the New Model Holster Pistol, or as it is better known today, the Colt 1871-72 Open Top. It was Colt’s first cartridge revolver specifically manufactured with all-new parts and firing a self-contained metallic cartridge—the .44 Henry Flat—the same cartridge as the 1860 Henry and 1866 Winchester rifles. Consequently, it was highly sought after by frontiersmen of the era. However, when the Open Top was entered into the government field trials of 1872, the Army was not impressed.

For one thing, it viewed the Open Top’s lack of a topstrap as structurally weak. In addition, Colt’s newest sixgun still utilized a wedge to secure the barrel to the frame, as had been done with the earlier cap-and-ball models, and without a rammer (obviously unnecessary for a cartridge revolver), the barrel could not easily be leveraged off the frame to remove the cylinder, making field disassembly difficult.

Undaunted, Richards and Mason went back to the factory and added a topstrap (the first time this had been done to a Colt revolver since its 1855 Sidehammer), incorporated an elongated groove for a rear sight and wisely kept the Open Top’s comfortable plow-handled grip, which had been derived from the 1851 Navy. They also installed a removable cylinder base pin in the frame and strengthened the ejector-rod housing, among other minor changes. Finally, in optimistic anticipation, they chambered their updated sixgun in .44 S&W American—the chambering of Smith & Wesson’s No. 3 revolver, which the Army had adopted in 1870.

The Colt 1871-72 Open Top was the immediate predecessor to, and inspiration for, the Single Action Army.

Except now the Army decided what it really wanted was a harder-hitting cartridge than the .44 S&W. Undeterred, Colt teamed up with the Union Metallic Cartridge Co., and together, developed the .45 Colt, a centerfire cartridge that packed a charge of 40 grains of blackpowder—the same as the formidable (and much more cumbersome) Colt Dragoons—but pushed a 255-grain bullet out the muzzle at 810 f.p.s.—slightly greater than the .44 S&W. This, then, became the Single Action Army, a gun that would signal the end of the Open Top. Within months, the .45 Colt SAA was readied and re-submitted to the Army for testing. This time, the results were dramatically positive. Quoting from official test board conclusions, Capt. John R. Edie wrote:

“I have no hesitation in declaring the Colt revolver superior in all aspects, and much better adapted to the wants of the Army than the Smith & Wesson.”

Consequently, in 1872, the .45-cal. Single Action Army—which was initially referred to rather unromantically as “The Strap Model” because of its topstrap—was enthusiastically chosen as the Army’s official sidearm. The first order of 8,000 revolvers was shipped in the summer of 1873. In all, between 1873 and 1891, before the Army replaced the SAA with the Colt Model 1892 Army & Navy double-action revolver, 37,063 SAAs were issued to troops.

But somehow, Single Action Army Serial No. 1 went AWOL and was considered lost. That is, until 1925, when it was discovered, wrapped in oilcloth, on a Nashua, N.H., farm. That historic gun, which can be seen on this month’s cover, now resides in a private collection.

The official dress for the Army’s new .45-cal. 7½"-barreled SAA was blue, with a handsome bone-charcoal-casehardened frame and hammer. Stocks were one-piece walnut, stamped with the inspector’s cartouche, and the frames were stamped “U.S” on the left side after the patent dates. However, like many military guns before it and since, the SAA, priced at $16, was enthusiastically embraced by the civilian population, especially when 18 elaborately engraved nickel-and-gold-plated SAAs were displayed for the first time by Colt at the Philadelphia World’s Fair in 1876. Afterward, these guns went on tours around the country and garnered exuberant praise, such as this published statement by B. Kittredge & Co. of Cincinnati, one of Colt’s major distributors:


Lando Lincoln:
“I never pulled the trigger.”
                   - Alec Baldwin


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