Icon doesn’t quite do the Colt Single Action Army revolver in .45 Long Colt justice. If a Winchester lever action was the rifle that won the West, then the Colt .45 was the pistol that did likewise. It became U.S. Army standard issue sidearm in 1872 and would retain that position for the next 20 years, from the beginning of the “Indian Wars” across the Great Plains through Geronimo’s surrender in 1886 and beyond. Cowboys, gunfighters, gamblers, stage drivers, Native Americans, nearly every western character adopted both the pistol and the cartridge or one of its spin-offs between its introduction in the 1870s and the turn of the 20th century, a dynamic time in U.S. firearms history.
Both the cartridge, the .45 Long Colt, and the pistol would also evolve, serving as the genesis for another icon: the .45 ACP round, and the Model 1911 semi-automatic pistol. This pairing also served as the standard U.S. military sidearm from World War I, WW II, Korea, and Vietnam, up through 1985.
Both .45 Colts – the Colt Single Action Army and the .45 Long Colt, as well as the .45 ACP and the 1911 — are by no means finished two decades into the 21st century. So, let’s take a closer look at the past, present, and speculate some on the future of all four of these items: the .45 Long Colt cartridge, the Single Action Army (SAA) revolver, the .45 ACP round, and the Model 1911 pistol.
The .45 Long Colt/Single Action Army Revolver
The pairing of this cartridge and the “Peacemaker” revolver associated with it wasn’t a chicken-egg proposition. The round and the pistol developed along parallel lines, together.
The revolver was a joint operation between two Connecticut industries: Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company, of Hartford, and the Union Metallic Cartridge Company of Bridgeport. Colt began work on the revolver in 1871. It submitted a sample of the revolver to the U.S. Army in late 1872, and the revolver was accepted for purchase by the Army in 1873.
Samuel Colt had been making revolvers since 1836, when his design for the Colt Paterson, a .36 caliber cap-and-ball percussion handgun that employed a rotating five-shot cylinder debuted. The Paterson, manufactured in the New Jersey town of the same name, rendered the single-shot pistol obsolete. Yet only 2,800 Patersons were made– some were in the hands of the recently formed Texas Rangers – when production ended in 1842.
This first foray into gun making bankrupted young Colt and cost him his factory. Not to be thwarted, Colt tried again. He contacted Captain Samuel Walker, of the Texas Rangers, during the Mexican War and suggested that together they might design a better a pistol. Walker had several suggestions to improve Colt’s fragile, difficult to reload Paterson. Colt agreed to Walker’s modifications, and Walker helped Colt get the federal government to buy his pistols. The result was the Walker Colt, a beefy four and a half pound, .44 caliber, six-shot, cap-and-ball percussion revolver with a nine-inch barrel and a trigger guard. With 220 grain bullets driven by 50 grains of black powder, this pistol was almost as deadly as a rifle out to 100 yards. This pistol, and subsequent designs – like the .36 caliber 1851 Navy, the .44 caliber 1860 Army – helped Colt establish a new factory in Connecticut and eventually led to the development of the SAA.
During the Civil War, cap-and-ball revolvers began evolving, moving from percussion-capped cylinders towards bored out cylinders able to hold and fire centrefire primed brass cartridges. Gunsmiths converted cap-and-ball pistols, like the 1860 Army, to hold centerfire cartridges. One such cartridge was the .44 Colt, designed for 1860 Army conversions by Charles Richards, a Colt engineer, and William Mason, a Remington refugee who jumped ship to Colt. Using an outside lubricated 225-grain bullet .451-.454 in diameter, driven by 23 grains of black powder, this round generated a 640 feet per second (fps) velocity. This round debuted in 1871 as a stop-gap measure for while Colt set up to manufacture the Model 1871-72 Open Top revolver, designed for the more powerful .44 Henry Rimfire cartridge. Although the Army bought several thousand Open Tops during its two-year production run, it still wanted a sturdier, more powerful revolver, one that didn’t use outside lubricated bullets that picked up grit, one that had a beefy top strap over the cylinder to hold things together.
In 1871, Richards and Mason began developing this new revolver, teaming up with ammunition engineers at Union Metallic (the company later merged with Remington), to develop its cartridges. The result was the Single Action Army revolver and the .45 Long Colt. Driven by 40 grains of black powder, the bullet traveled at 840 fps generating about 400-foot-pounds of man-stopping wallop. Production of both revolver and ammo began in 1873. The Peacemaker became the sidearm of choice, especially in the West, combining reliability with unmatched pointing and balance. Production in 30 different calibers continued until 1941, the coming of World War II. The two most common were .45 Long Colt and .44-40, a cartridge which could be paired with a Winchester rifle. Only after Colt‘s original patents for the .45 Long Colt expired, did this round become available in a rifle.
Colt wasn’t the only one making revolvers for a .45 cartridge. Smith & Wesson’s Model 1875 Army Schofield revolver was an Army-approved alternate to the Colt, but it created a logistics issue: The S&W revolver used the .45 S&W Schofield cartridge, somewhat shorter than the .45 Colt round. As a result, Schofield revolvers couldn’t chamber the longer .45 Colt. Colt SAAs could chamber the Schofield round, however. So, in 1874 Frankford Arsenal, then the principal supplier of Army ammo, dropped production of the .45 Colt in favor of the .45 S&W round. This resolved the Army’s problem, but there were still plenty of the longer Colt-length cartridges in circulation, so they were designated .45 Long Colt to differentiate between the Schofield and the Colt rounds.
The .45 Colt wasn’t done yet. The Army couldn’t leave well enough alone.
In 1892, the Army adopted the Model 1892 Colt double-action revolver, with a swing-out cylinder, and a six-inch barrel. It was chambered in .38 Long Colt, a round developed in 1875. This 150-grain, black powder-propelled, round-nose bullet left the muzzle at 708 fps, and produced only 157 ft.-lbs. of knockdown energy – compared to the .45 Colt’s 400 ft.-lbs.
In 1899, following 1898’s Spanish-American War, Spain ceded her Philippines land holdings to the U.S., including the Moro territories in the southern Philippines. The Moros – derived from “Moors,” the Spanish term for Muslims – lived in this region. They had a 400-year history of resisting all colonizers, including the Philippine government, the Spanish, then the Americans. Ferocious warriors with extraordinary bravery, they began an armed rebellion against the American takeover of their lands that lasted until 1913.
Among the Moro fighting forces were jihadists, suicide warriors, called Juramentados, who attacked occupiers expecting to become martyrs for their self-sacrifice. Seemingly unstoppable, they used spears, arrows, bayonets, guns, and swords and they roared right through barbed wire, despite being torn up. Even bullets seemed to bounce off them, especially the .38 Long Colt rounds.
Some of this was their fanaticism. Juramentado candidates, mag-sabil, were expected to “endure the pangs of death.” Before a fight, they swore a jihad oath on the Qur’an, took a ritual bath, and shaved off all body hair, except for their eyebrows. Some of this may have been their “body armor.” Juramentados wrapped a strong band firmly around the waist, and wrapped cords tightly around the genitals, ankles, knees, upper thighs, wrists, elbows, and shoulders to restrict blood flow and prevent the mag-sabil from losing too much blood should he be wounded.
“He [the Moro warrior] is absolutely fearless,” said Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, “and once committed to combat he counts death as a mere incident.”
Colonel Louis A. LaGarde, M.D. recorded how Antonio Caspi, a Juramentado prisoner, shot in a 1905 escape attempt, “…was shot four times at close range in a hand-to-hand encounter by a .38 Colt’s revolver loaded with U.S. Army regulation ammunition. He was finally stunned by a blow on the forehead from the butt end of a Springfield carbine.” LaGarde goes on to describe how three bullets entered his chest, perforated his lung, yet he didn’t stop. The fourth, entered his left palm and passed through his forearm.
Another Juramentado, Panglima Hassan, was shot dozens of times before his jihad was stopped. And numerous records depict U.S. soldiers shocked by how the bullets from their .38 Colts and .30-40 Krag rifles hit Moros but didn’t put them down.
As a result of these experiences, commanders pleaded with the Army to swap the .38s for mothballed .45 Colt Peacemakers SAAs. This led to the development of the Colt Model 1909 revolver, essentially a Model 1892 rechambered in .45 Long Colt. It also led to the development of the .45 ACP and the 1911 a few years later.