Gun Digest

Colt Single-Action Army: Owning The Enduring Legend

Colt Single-Action Army
Colt Single-Action Army

The Colt Single-Action Army revolver remains among the most coveted handguns of all time. But what's worth spending your money on?

What Single Action Army Revolvers Are Available:

“God created men, but Sam Colt made them equal.”

That adage was more of a premonition than a witty saying. When you look into it, what Colt did with its original revolvers was to offer the individual the first widely produced and available compact repeater for means of defense and offense. It could be said that Colt designed the gun that popularized handguns in general.

The SAA is still produced today by Colt. It’s difficult to get this gun brand-new from the factory, but there are many thousands of fine examples available out in the “wild.”

An Uberti replica with bird’s-head grip (left) and a gen-3 Colt Single-Action Army with standard black Colt stocks. The beauty of the SAA is present in both, and they’re both highly functional, as well as esthetically pleasing.

There are three main generations of these revolvers. First-generation Colts entered production in 1873 and were manufactured right up until the beginning of World War II in 1941. These guns are some of the most prized today, and many are still in firing condition.

America’s Legendary Gun: First-Gen Single-Action Army

Because the SAA was in the hands of Americans during our most formative and transformational eras, it became endeared to the public. In fact, there’s hardly been a time when this gun has not had influence on the American psyche. Where older cultures have their swords, knights, samurai and archers, we, as a young nation, found our heroes in the gunslinger, cowboy … and occasionally in the “good-hearted” outlaw.

The SAA is America’s version of a magical weapon. Every imaginable figure in our history has been impacted by this gun: It was in the hands of Custer’s men at the Little Big Horn. It was in the waistbands and sashes of Mexican desperados. Native Americans learned to fear it on the frontier—and treasured them when they adopted them into their own cultures. Bass Reeves, the famous gunslinger and law man, had one in his holster. The story of the Colt Single-Action Armyis the story of American exceptionalism, ingenuity and struggle.

Stoic Heroism: Second-Gen Single-Action Army

The second-generation SAA began production about 15 years after World War II started. At the time, Colt didn’t generally see the SAA as a profitable venture. But the lure of the SAA made its rebirth necessary and was in no small part due to the fact that the postwar era was the “golden age” of Westerns.

Note that the replica (top) has a rudimentary safety lever built into the hammer. The original Colt (below) doesn’t.

The second-generation guns were produced until 1974. There was, again, a sputtering in the manufacture as it resumed in 1976 with what is considered the third-generation SAA. There was intermittent production in the 1980s, but it seemed the SAA was destined to be forgotten as the nation and the public’s shooting interest began to look at new forms of handgunning and competition shooting sports. The end, it seemed, had finally come for the storied “Peacemaker.” However, it again proved to be too important to the American spirit to die in history’s dustbin.

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The New Golden Era

Today, we live in what could be described as the “renaissance” of the single-action. Past times saw the SAA as a weapon on par with, or even better than, many competing designs. Because today’s weapons are extremely accurate, high capacity and lightweight, the SAA is something of a dinosaur, in that it’s not modular, is slow-loading and somewhat difficult to master.

The 1990s saw a dramatic increase in the popularity of cowboy action shooting—a sport that flew in the face of high-speed race guns and polo shirts covered in sponsor logos.

The rampant colt is only present on genuine Colt Single-Action Army revolvers. That pony adds a tremendous amount of value and is a status symbol for some.

The 1990s also became a significant decade of the American Western, for which the emphasis began to focus more on gritty realism and less on theatrical heroism. The 2017 Christian Bale film, Hostiles, is a perfect representation of the somber and brutal use of the Colt Single-Action Army on the American frontier.

Americans were not the only ones influenced heavily by the storied culture of the West. Some of the most famous Westerns ever made were filmed in Italy with Sicilians and Greeks filling in for Mexicans and Native Americans. The lasting cultural impact of these films (such as Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy), along with the star status of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef, still influence film and story today. It just so happens that some of the largest manufacturers of replica SAA revolvers and many other contemporary weapons are in … Italy.

SAA Clones

Uberti is one of these major producers of SAA-type clones. It might surprise some, but many of the most significant and important guns on film weren’t authentic Colt revolvers. Virtually all the guns in Leone’s Westerns were made in Italy. Chances are that the SAA you see on screen is a replica, not an original Colt. For that reason, one could argue it’s the spirit of the SAA—and not the Colt rollmark—that makes it soldier on today.

A Cimarron Doc Holliday replica. This isn’t a replica of a historical gun; it’s a replica of the original movie prop from the 1993 film, Tombstone, which starred Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday.

While Colt Single-Action Army revolvers used to be made in a large variety of calibers, there are currently only a couple of versions offered new from the factory. Contrast this with what comes out of Italy: There are, quite literally, dozens and dozens of variations from Uberti, alone; it supplies three major American brands: Taylor’s, Cimarron and Stoeger.

Modern Problems, Modern Solutions

With the increased popularity of cowboy shooting sports came the desire to tweak and improve upon what were seen as the imperfections of the original SAA. One of the big issues was the fact that the hammer could not be lowered on a full cylinder.

The traditional way of loading an SAA was to follow this procedure: Load one, skip one, load four, hammer down. This ensured the firing pin came to rest over an empty chamber in the cylinder. Of course, this meant that for all intents and purposes, your six-shooter was now a five-shooter.

Brownell’s sells a dedicated set of SAA screwdrivers. It’s of critical importance to own a set when maintaining your own sixgun. A set such as this is made with special dimensions to match the screw slots, thus preventing them from getting marred.

Ruger came out with the Vaquero in 1993 to appeal to the cowboy market. While it’s cosmetically very similar, the gun is actually based on the company’s Super Blackhawk and employs the same style of transfer bar safety. This gun is not loaded the same way as an SAA. The Vaquero is different: All you have to do is open the loading gate, and the cylinder spins freely. You don’t have to touch the hammer to load and unload the gun.

The New Vaquero was introduced later. It’s much closer in overall dimensions to the Colt Single-Action Army, and the newer version is constructed out of modern materials using modern manufacturing methods—although it does borrow from tradition in some respects: It has nonadjustable sights and a fluted cylinder. However, unlike the SAA, it features the option of magnum chamberings (such as .44 Magnum).

Some of the most sought-after replica SAA revolvers came from a company called United States Fire Arms Mfg. Co. (USFA). The company is now out of business, but in its day, it made some of the finest replicas ever assembled. Unfortunately, the company made some bad investments in its product offerings and subsequently closed. Even so, these guns are still held in high regard, with some of them commanding prices that rival collectable Colts.

Typical loads fired in the SAA and clones are lead and not jacketed. While jacketed bullets can be used, traditional calibers such as .45 Colt and .44 Special tend to do best with traditional bullet profiles.

Standard Manufacturing recently came out with the simply named Single Action Revolver. The company boasts that it’s superior in every way to the originals in terms of both individual part and build quality. The price of one of these is comparable to a genuine new SAA from Colt, but it’s less than many gen-2 and gen-3 guns that are available on the collector’s and used gun market.

Is a Real Colt Really Worth It?

When it comes to what you get for your money, it all comes down to how you see value. Of all the manufacturers mentioned in this article, the only one that manufactures investment-quality guns is Colt. That’s not to say that the others are low quality—the exact opposite is true. It’s the fact that the “rampant colt” stamped on the side of a gun is worth more because it’s real Americana. The others are good replicas or in-spirit designs. Yes, they’re solid guns, but over time, they don’t carry the same value as a genuine Colt.

While there are many arguments to be made about what you get for the money, it can’t be said that a genuine Colt Single-Action Army is a cheap gun. Many currently command prices of anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000, depending on features and manufacture date. Today, the average price for a gen 3 is about $2,000. A factory-new Colt is listed at $1,799 on the Colt website. The MSRP for a matched set of Ruger New Vaquero cowboy action guns is $1,699.

The treasured Blue Box. Many collectors will pay a premium for the box alone. In fact, a matched SAA and original box can command a substantial price over an unmatched set.

Italian replicas from Uberti run as low as $400; on occasion, they can be had for less. As far as quality is concerned, there are differences in what each American importer offers. For instance, some of the imported guns lack recoil shields in the frame, which can lead to peening around the firing pin hole. And, you’ll pay more for a tuned competition revolver from Uberti: usually around $1,000, depending on the model.

Will the Real Single-Action Please Stand Up?

For some people, there’s absolutely no substitute for the original. In my opinion, a genuine Colt Single-Action Army is hard to beat in overall quality, material and construction, accuracy and investment. There are various levels of quality out there; most of this depends on age and collectability. Some of them aren’t worth shooting, because their value would be reduced. For the avid shooter, there’s something to be said about having the original—and the best. Depending on your attitude, these are either museum pieces or examples of living, fireable history that will turn heads at the range.

It could also be said that it isn’t necessary to possess the Colt brand; rather, it’s the spirit it instilled in the heart of every red-blooded American. Colt, itself, has a lot of competition from the replica business (it doesn’t actually produce a large amount of its most famous gun). A pair of Uberti revolvers on your belt will get you on the firing line for much less money.

Note the differences in markings between the two guns. The Uberti (top) has CIP markings common in European guns and lacks a rampant colt stamp, despite retaining the patent date stamping.

At the end of the day, the single-action revolver is not a truly modern weapon. It doesn’t really have a place on the battlefield or in a concealed-carry rig.

It is a symbol, though, and it represents the wild and untamable spirit of America and our adventurous and pioneering nature.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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