Single Action Sixgun. If you are a real sixgunner those words stirred something deep within your soul. No handgun has ever captured the imagination and spirit of shooters as the single action in general and the Colt Single Action Army in particular. The Colt Single Action Army was just that, a revolver adopted by the U.S. Army in 1872 with the first production chambering being in .45 Colt. Now more than 130 years later the single action sixgun and the cartridge are stirring up emotions among those who cherish them both. Why?
The .45 Colt is certainly the most versatile of all sixgun cartridges. It started life as a black powder cartridge in 1873 with a payload of a 255 grain bullet over 40.0 grains of black powder for a reported 850 fps. Modern brass, bullets, black powder, primers, and sixguns will better that by about 100 feet per second. The advent of the Ruger Blackhawk .45 Colt in the early 1970's gave sixgunners a .45 that would safely handle the same 255 grain bullet, even a 300 grain bullet, to a full 1,200 feet per second.
Long before the Ruger, experimenters were hard at work. In the 1920's Elmer Keith was pushing the .45 Colt way beyond the limit of what the Colt sixguns could stand. In 1936, in his book Sixgun Cartridges and Loads, he actually published a load of 22.0 grains of #2400 using balloon head brass and 260 grain bullets. THIS LOAD IS DANGEROUS! I have duplicated this load using balloon head brass and fired it in a bull strong .454 Casull and it is definitely in the .44 Magnum category. No Colt Single Action was built for these pressures. I'm sure he turned more than one Colt Single Action into twisted and torn metal using this load. He later dropped back to 20.0 grains and then 18.5 when solid head brass appeared in the 1950s.
Today the .45 Colt is more popular than ever and it retains its versatility with a whole range of both factory and custom guns being offered. The .45 Colt, with loads at or below the original black powder loads of more than a century ago, is the most popular cartridge for purists/traditionalists taking part in Cowboy action shooting, while custom five-guns are offered that will snap at the heels of the .454 Casull and leave the .44 Magnum gasping for air. With the proper sixgun and load, the .45 Colt will handle anything that walks on this continent. Many a buffalo and grizzly bear fell to the old black powder loaded .45 Colt but those were different times. Today, the old .45 Colt Single Action, especially in an adjustable sighted version such as the New Frontier, is a nearly perfect close range hunting sixgun and worn in a properly designed holster it is always ready should opportunity present itself in the form of deer, black bear, elk, or even moose.
In addition to the .45 Colt, the Colt Single Action and replicas thereof are mostly found chambered in .44-40, .44 Special, .38-40, .357 Magnum, and .32-20, while Rugers come with frames marked .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .45 Colt, and even .44-40. In addition to fully custom sixguns, there are numerous embellishments that can be added to already existing single actions turning them into truly personal custom sixguns. What follows in the next four chapters is a run down of some of what can be done, what is available, and where to find it. I do not propose this as an exhaustive survey but rather it is offered to provide information concerning the products and pistolsmiths that I have personally experienced for customizing and custom building the single action sixgun.
Once in a great while even though we are panning for water we actually find gold. Such was a situation I found myself in when cleaning out the basement of an older couple's house. Several loads of decades accumulated junk filled the back of my pick-up for the trip to the local dump. However, there was gold among the trash. The old gentleman had been a long time life member of the NRA and most of the magazines from the 1920s to the 1950s were in that basement. They did not go to the dump!
I spent a long time going through those magazines clipping sixgun articles. Most of them were by Elmer Keith, however there where others covering such topics as the .44 Special as well as customizing the Colt Single Action Army, including Gordon Boser’s .401 Special. Many of these custom Single Actions had adjustable sights and there's no doubt in my mind that a young and new gunmaker by the name of Bill Ruger received much inspiration from looking at the pictures of these old classic custom Colts.
There are actually three categories of custom single actions. First there are the changes that any shooter can make to turn his sixgun into something that is personally his own. Being an artist rather than a mechanic, these are the touches that I conclude if I can do it anyone can. Secondly, there are the changes such as re-barreling or re-chambering or both that require the skills of a good gunsmith, and finally, there are the completely custom sixguns requiring custom built cylinders and barrels. Larry “Missouri Cyclone” Crow of Competitive Edge Gun Works has an excellent series of videotapes including four of special interest to sixgunners. They are The Colt SAA, Customizing the Colt SAA, The Ruger Vaquero, and Customizing the Ruger Vaquero. The Ruger tapes apply to the Blackhawk as well. Larry is very thorough, they are easy to understand tapes, and are also available on CD.
The Colt Single Action Army is so perfect as is very little is required in the category of embellishments. I almost always fit my Colts with custom grips made to fit my hand and particular taste. Grip makers offer grips of exotic woods, genuine stag, elegant ivory, even buffalo bone or ram’s horn stocks. Single Action stocks will be covered in depth in Chapter 34.
Colt Single Actions can easily be converted from other calibers to .45 Colt. Eddie Janis of Peacemaker Specialists (see the previous chapter) is a young man that truly appreciates Colt Single Actions and offers both .45 barrels and cylinders for upgrading Single Action Colts to .45 Colt be they 1st, 2nd, or 3rd Generation models. In addition, Janis can slick up an action and make it literally sing. A unique service offered by Janis is that of taking a perfectly finished, modern manufactured 3rd Generation Colt Single Action and turning it into one that appears to be a 100 year old gunfighter's pride by antiquing the finish and remarking the lettering.
Jim Martin can also super slick up a single action be it Colt, Great Western, or replica. He specializes in sixguns brought to perfection and is a long-time single action gunsmith, fast draw shooter, trick shooter, and instructor of movie cowboys on the use of the single action sixgun. In the 1950s Great Western not only offered completed sixguns but kits as well. As a young man, Jim Martin purchased Great Western kits, assembled them and sold them, using the money to buy more kits. You can bet his guns had much better actions than the originals.
One of the problems with Colt Single Actions, especially in .45 Colt, is over-sized cylinders. To counteract this problem I started with a 2nd Generation Colt New Frontier in .357 Magnum chambering, and sent it to John Linebaugh along with a 4 3/4" 2nd Generation New Frontier barrel in .45 Colt with instructions to make a tight .45 Colt with minimum tolerances. The result is an easy to pack .45, now equipped with factory ivories, that will cut one ragged hole at 25 yards with 260 grain cast bullets over 20.0 grains of H4227 for right at 1,000 feet per second muzzle velocity and is a definite candidate for the Perfect Packin’ Pistol title.
Hamilton Bowen has built many really large, high-power single action sixguns, however he has strong traditional leanings and likes building sixguns shooting the older, milder cartridges as well as the .475 and .500 Linebaugh powerhouses. Two of his creations are the .50 Special and the .41 Special. I first shot the .41 Special in a Bowen Ruger Security Six at The Shootists Holiday in 1987. I liked the concept. So much so that I handed over a Colt Single Action to be made into a 5 1/2” barreled .41 Special. My idea was a sixgun that would handle 200 grain bullets at 900 to 1,200 feet per second or about the same as heavy loaded .44 Specials with 250 grain bullets.
Bowen returned my Colt with a 5 1/2” Douglas barrel and custom .41 Special cylinder and everything else is stock. In fact except, for the non-fluted cylinder, it looks like an ordinary Colt Single Action Army. But ordinary it is not as it is one of the finest shooting single actions I have ever come across in a half-century love affair with the old thumb-buster. Brass for the .41 Special for this mild wildcat is easily made. Using an RCBS case trimmer set to .44 Special length and hooked up to a quarter-inch drill for power, and with my friend Joe Penner feeding the brass and yours truly running the drill, we were able to produce 125 .41 Special cases in less than one-half hour. Trim, de-burr, load and shoot, is all that is necessary for the .41 Special. I keep the .41 Special loads in the Special range staying below 1,250 feet per second with 215 to 220 grain bullets. Machine cast 215 grain SWC commercial bullets over 12.5 grains of #2400 cut one ragged hole at 25 yards from this fixed-sighted Colt Single Action Army sixgun. Velocity is 1,063 feet per second, is very mild and pleasant to shoot, and incredibly accurate. The .41 Special must be gaining in popularity as Midway now offers .41 Special brass of the prorper length and properly head stamped.
Wanting a quality .32-20 sixgun for years, a second Colt Single Action Army was sent off to Hamilton to be made into a semi-long-range varmint pistol. For this sixgun an 8 1/2” barrel with a post front sight was mated up with an adjustable rear sight from a S&W N-frame. As expected, this sixgun also shoots superbly and is probably one of the most accurate .32-20s in existence. This sixgun had been previously re-blued so Bowen case colored the frame and corrected Colt’s non-finished hammer mistake by also case coloring the hammer.
One of the slickest custom sixgun is accomplished by Milt Morrison of QPR on a replica Bisley Model Single Action. To arrive at an easy to conceal defensive single action Morrison removed the ejector rod housing and also removed the ejector mount slot on the right side of the frame, welding and re-contouring the frame in the process. The standard Bisley grip frame was removed and replaced by a brass QPR Bird’s Head grip frame adapted to a Colt-style mainframe. At the same time the original Bisley hammer was also changed from its link system to a roller system to work with the new mainspring. Of course, the entire action was tuned in the process and also all cylinder end shake was removed.
The original barrel was discarded and replaced by a 2 ½” .800” diameter barrel, the rear sight notch was changed from its V-shape to give a square picture, a new front sight was fitted, and the trigger was contoured to match the inside of the trigger guard. Finally, the mainframe was re-color cased, the rest of the gun was finished in QPR’s high luster Black Diamond blue, and an 18K gold band was inlayed around the cylinder. It is certainly one of the most beautiful and efficient single action belly guns in existence and one that any 19th century gambler, outlaw, or lawman would certainly have appreciated. Chambered in .44-40 it is potent even though very easy to shoot and control with the heavy barrel.
Next to tuning and fitting custom grips, one of the best ways to customize such an already near perfect sixgun as the Colt Single Action is to have it engraved. Two of the most famous Single Actions in existence are the fully engraved Colt of Theodore Roosevelt and General George S. Patton. Roosevelt’s Colt was a 7 1/2" Frontier Six-Shooter .44-40 with full engraving, nickel plating, and ivory grips with TR carved into them. Carried in an equally fancy carved cross draw holster, the .44-40 was his constant companion on his ranch in the Dakota Badlands in the 1880s.
Young Lieutenant Patton chose a special sixgun before he joined Black Jack Pershing to pursue Pancho Villa in 1916. That sixgun was a Colt Single Action Army .45 with the 'Gunfighter' length 4 3/4" barrel also fully engraved carrying ivory grips with the initials GSP etched into them. There are two notches cut into the grips and we do know Patton had a stand up on your feet and shoot it out gun battle with bandidos while in Mexico. This sixgun, carried in a Myres Border Patrol holster, became his authority symbol in World War II. Contrary to popular belief, Patton did not have a pair of Colts. His second sixgun, also packed in a Myres holster and sometimes packed in tandem with the Colt, was an ivory stocked Smith & Wesson 4" .357 Magnum, one of the first out of the factory as Patton bought his in Hawaii in 1935.
The man Patton and Pershing were after was Pancho Villa who also carried a Colt Single Action .45 again with the 4 3/4" barrel length and full nickel plating with extra fancy ivory grips that carried a carved steer head with gold horns and ruby eyes. Texas Rangers routinely carried fancy sixguns. Frank Hamer, the Ranger who came out of retirement to stop Bonnie and Clyde, is most known for his carrying of a plain vanilla .45 Colt Single Action that he called 'Old Lucky'. But Hamer also had his fancy sixgun, a fully engraved and ivory stocked Colt Single Action .45. Tom Threepersons, who designed the famous holster that still bears his name, packed a nickel-plated Colt Single Action .45 with pearl grips bearing the Colt factory medallion and a carved steer head. A look through any museum or book of Colt firearms will reveal dozens of fancy firearms carried by peace officers and outlaws alike especially in the Southwestern part of the country. It goes without saying that the stars of the 'B' movies of the 1930s and 1940s such as Tom Mix, Buck Jones, and Tim McCoy, all packed fancy sixguns across the silver screen. Even John Wayne, who also starred in 'B' movies at the beginning of his long career, died in his final movie, "The Shootist", packing a fully engraved .45 Single Action.
When I began to really become interested in sixguns as a teenager in the 1950's, Elmer Keith was the handgun writer. His book "Sixguns" was published in 1955, and my dog eared copy opens almost automatically to the page with his #5, a completely custom Colt Single Action .44 Special that Keith had built up in the 1920's. This was a sixgun! Chambered in the top caliber of the day, it was fully engraved and ivory stocked. I located an old copy of the American Rifleman from April 1929 and read the firsthand account of the building of the #5 SA, as Keith called it. The picture of the fully engraved sixgun in the article was even better than that found in the book and I dreamed of the day when I might have such a sixgun.
I already had a 4 3/4" .45 Colt with ivory grips by Charles Able that I had selected years earlier for engraving. This sixgun would be a shooter not a piece to hide away, so I made sure it shot to point of aim with a favorite .45 Colt load. It took a slight bit of filing on the front sight to get the point of impact to point of aim and then the blued Colt with a case hardened frame was also sent south to Boerne Texas to be engraved by Jim Riggs. On this sixgun Riggs used a style that looks very much like pictures I have seen of sixguns that were engraved in the frontier period. The scrollwork more subdued and a sunburst affect graces the loading gate and recoil shield. My name is also engraved on the backstrap so this sixgun will, in all probability, eventually go to the oldest grandson who also bears my name. With its satin nickel finish and ivory stocks the overall effect of this Colt Single Action Army is one that any single action sixgunner would like Do not make the mistake of thinking the cost of engraving is out of reach. Of course we are not talking museum high-grade presentation pieces here. I see no practical use for a sixgun that has taken hundreds, perhaps even thousands of hours to complete and is replete with 100% coverage of very intricate patterns. A sixgun such as this is highly valuable, strictly for show, and only for the rich.
My fancy guns are working guns. Fancy working guns, but working guns nevertheless. They are carried in quality leather, they are carried and shot routinely. A gun that isn't for shooting has little value for me. I do have three very limited run sixguns that are collector's items not for shooting. However, these have been given to my wife to put away as an investment for her “golden” (whoever came up with misnomer?) years.
For less than the cost of a new sixgun, one can have a truly personal engraved firearm. It will look great and also still be a true working sidearm. My grandfather was killed three months before my father was born. Grandma continued with the plans to come to America and made the trip on her own carrying my father with four other youngsters in tow. She was to come on the Titanic but did not have enough money. Her sister offered the money but grandma refused to take it. Her sister and her four kids did not survive; Grandma came on the companion ship. If she had not been proud, I would not be here today. Twenty-seven years later, my father was killed before I was a year old. I have nothing that belonged to my grandfather and precious little, other than a broken pocket watch and a belt buckle that belonged to my father. When he was killed he had a .22 rifle and 12 gauge shotgun. My mother, who was still a teenager herself, only knows they disappeared. Perhaps his brothers thought they should be taken for their own use. They weren't worth much but they should have been put away for me. They were not.
I had one engraved Colt Single Action but three grandsons. This had to be taken care of. So a nickel-plated 3rd Generation 4 3/4" .44-40 was sent off to Dale Miller for engraving. The nickel plating was stripped and Miller engraved the barrel, cylinder, and frame with tasteful scroll engraving beautifully executed. The back strap has a scroll work at the top and bottom with enough room left in the middle to engrave my name should I so choose. The rounded part of the top of the backstrap as well as the recoil shield on both sides of the hammer are all engraved with a pattern that makes it appear as the sun coming up on a beautiful morning. Eddie Janis of Peacemaker Specialists performed one of his Saddle Tramp action jobs, and Milt Morrison of Qualite re-finished the sixgun in bright nickel. It now wears beautiful ram’s horn grips by Paul Persinger, whose work is as perfect as it gets. The result is a fancy sixgun but still a workin' sixgun.
Two down, a .45 Colt and a .44-40, one to go. A third 4 3/4” Colt Single Action, a 3rd Generation .38-40 that had already had been tuned and also had proven to be an excellent shooter, was sent off to Dale Miller. Miller covered 3/4 of a .38-40 in scrollwork and then beautifully re-blued the entire Single Action including the hammer which for some reason Colt stopped finishing many years ago. Miller's work is absolutely beautiful and affordable. To finish off the project, Eagle Grips fitted the pair of one-piece Ultraivories with a steer head carved on the right grip panel.
For the past two decades I have been putting 'things' away for my grandsons. Interesting books, special pictures, copies of my articles, ... These sixguns are more than fancy firearms that fulfill a whim. They are my legacy to the future generations.