By Marc Cammack
Bangor, Maine -(Ammoland.com)- American history is full of iconic firearms with many to name from the Kentucky Rifle, to the M16/AR15 family, but one revolver stands out above all other handguns as the gun is closely associated with the American West and that is of course the 1873 Colt Single Action Army.
The Single Action Army was quickly adopted by the US Army as it had many great qualities and would see service from 1873 until it was replaced by the .38 Colt 1892 double action.
Sam Colt was not the principal designer of the Single Action Army, as he died in 1862. He did lay the groundwork for the Single Action Army with his earlier designs. Several Colt employees and ex employees contributed directly or indirectly to the design for the Colt Single Action Army. Their contributions came over a period of many years.
Rollin White a former employee of Sam Colt had come with the idea for a bored out cylinder. This bored out cylinder made reloading a revolver much easier and was a major step in perfecting the metallic cartridge revolver. Sam Colt saw nothing but danger from White’s ideas and rejected them out right. White patented this idea on April 3, 1855.
But Daniel Wesson and Horace Smith saw a great amount of potential in a bored out cylinder. Smith and Wesson used White’s ideas and paid him a royalty of .25 cents per revolver.
White’s patent made it difficult for designers at Colt to come up with a good metallic cartridge revolver. An early attempt to convert Percussion Revolvers was made by F. Alexander Thuer, and these revolvers loaded from the front rather than rear. This type of loading was patented in 1868, and it’s estimated that about 5,000 Thuer conversions were made. White’s patent expired in 1869 and allowed for a newer and better conversion of Colt’s percussion revolvers.
Two Colt employees: Charles Richards, and William Mason collaborated to design a conversion for the Colt 1860 Army and this was used as the basis for the Colt Open Top 1872. The Open Top was a cartridge revolver that fired a .44 caliber rimfire cartridge and it had a two piece frame. Mason and Richards would improve the Open Top Design with several modifications. The result of these modifications was a completely new revolver and it was designated the Model 1873 Single Action.
The Colt Open Top and the new Single Action 1873, were submitted for testing by the Army in 1873. The Colt Open Top would fall behind the 1873 in the tests and would not be chosen for military adoption. However the biggest rival to the Colt 1873 in this test was the Smith and Wesson Model 3. All three revolvers were chambered in .44 rimfire for purposes of the test. The tests found the Model 3 to be harder to clean, less accurate than the Colt 1873, and that it was more likely to clog than the Colt 1873.
The Model 3 did have one advantage though and that was its ability to empty its spent cartridges quicker than the Colt.
The Colt was adopted by the Army as their sidearm chambered in the centerfire .45 Colt caliber but Smith and Wesson would still attempt to get their revolver adopted. Major George Schofield would make improvements to Smith and Wesson’s Model 3 revolver. The new revolver was in .45 Schofield a shorter caliber than the .45 Colt. Most importantly it had an improved extractor that ejected all 6 empty casings at once.3,000 Schofield revolvers were ordered by the Ordnance Department but the revolvers were still found to be less reliable than the Colt 1873 Single Action. Also many in the Ordnance Department and in the Army felt that the ability to quickly extract empty cartridges was not needed.
Colt Single Action Army Revolver
Over 37,000 Colt Single Action 1873s would be purchased by the Army from 1873 until its replacement in 1892. The revolvers were famously used by Custer’s 7th Cavalry during the Battle of Little Big Horn. Although the Army revolvers were chambered in .45 Colt, the civilian models had a much greater variety of calibers including .32-20, 38-40, and .44-40. There were also several variations of the Single Action and a wide variety of different barrel lengths. When production of the Single Action Army’s First Generation ceased in 1941, a total of about 357,000 revolvers had been produced.
Many famous lawmen and outlaws of the Old West used the Colt Single Action 1873 such as Bat Masterson, Pat Garrett, Wyatt Earp, John Wesley Hardin, and Billy the Kid . Because of this the revolver has been called “The Gun that won the West”.
The Old West was not the end of the use for the Single Action Army, as many lawmen carried them well into the 20th Century, and production for the civilian market continued. George Patton would use an engraved and ivory gripped Single Action Army as young officer during Pershing’s Expedition in Mexico to hunt Pancho Villa. Patton would carry this revolver along with a Smith and Wesson .357 Registered Magnum during the Second World War.
Today Colt still produces the Single Action Army and many other companies particularly those in Italy produce copies of it.
With the popularity of Cowboy Action and Fast Draw shooting the demand for such firearms is high. The demand will likely remain high due to the Single Action Army’s close association with the Old West and its appearance in many movies.
* Images: Rock Island Auction Company ( www.rockislandauction.com )
About Marc Cammack:
Marc Cammack has been collecting firearms since he was 14 years old.
His interests are primarily military surplus firearms of the late 19th into the 1950’s. He has studied these in depth, and currently volunteers at two local museums providing them with accurate information about their firearms.
He is a graduate of the University of Maine with a bachelor’s degree in history. He has studied modern European and American history since the age of 9, and has been shooting since the age of 11. He currently resides just outside of Bangor, Maine.