COLT’S SINGLE ACTION ARMY AND NEW FRONTIER

BY JOHN TAFFIN

            The Colt Single Action Army was so superbly designed that it still exists 135 years after its introduction with more than one-half million being produced. Everything about the original Colt Single Action Army is perfection. The grip frame, borrowed from the 1851 Navy, is the most user-friendly grip ever designed for shooting standard loads; the hammer is just the right angle for most thumbs to reach; the balance is so good it has never been surpassed; and it is the most naturally pointing sixgun ever designed. Not only is it a superb sixgun in itself it inspired such sixguns as the Ruger Blackhawk and Super Blackhawk, and it's great influence can definitely be seen in Ruger’s Vaquero as well as single action sixguns marked Abilene, Cimarron, EMF, Freedom Arms, Great Western, Navy Arms, Texas Longhorn Arms, Seville, USFA, and Virginian Dragoon, There have probably been even more replicas of the Colt Single Action produced than the original itself.

            The sixguns produced by Colt from 1873 to 1941 are normally found to be superb examples of the gunmaker’s art. The early 2nd Generation Colts were also fine sixguns but may be found with oversize chambers especially in .45 Colt and as machinery began to wear the later sixguns slipped in quality. Many 3rd Generation revolvers also have oversize chambers and cyinder throats. This is a manufacturing problem not a design flaw. One of the biggest problems encountered with all generations of Single Action Armies is interior action parts that are well worn or were not very closely fitted during their manufacture. Fitting of cylinder bolts and hands requires precise handwork to have the bolt lock into its locking notch in the cylinder precisely at the time the hammer reaches its furthest backwards travel and the hand has finished rotating the cylinder.

For all of three of these events to coincide requires a master's touch with stone and file. This is a time-consuming operation that requires much patience. Eddie Janis of Peacemaker Specialists says of this operation: "Our priority in doing an action job is not to make the gun feel smooth and light. Our priority is to build a gun that is totally reliable by eliminating wear and parts breakage. By accomplishing this goal, the byproduct is having a pistol that feels like it's running on ball bearings but locks up like a bank vault.”  Once a Colt Single Action is properly tuned and smoothed it will virtually run forever. 

The Colt Single Action Army has a rich .44 caliber heritage traveling from the Walker of 1847, through the Dragoons of 1848-1851, the 1860 Army, the Cartridge Conversions, and the 1871-72 Open-Top. Ask most sixgunners what the first chambering in the Colt SAA was and they will say the .45 Colt. Not so. The first chambering was .44, which was then changed when the military asked for a .45. From that time forward Colt, whether with the Single Action Army or the New Service or the 1911 was first and foremost  .45; at the same time Smith & Wesson has been predominantly .44s since 1870 traveling from the .44 American through the Russian, Special, and Magnum.

In 1872 and 1873 somewhere between 25 and 50 Colt Single Actions were chambered in .44 S&W American and .44 Russian; about the same time Colt also produced Single Actions chambered in .44 German Government and .44 Rimfire. They even offered a .44 with a double firing pin so it could be used with either the .44 Henry Rimfire or Centerfire. The .44-40 was covered in Chapter 7, however there were other .44s also offered with some confusion due to factory records. In addition to the .44 Russian of 1872, Colt also added the .44 Russian to the standard catalog in 1889. The .44 Special arrived at Smith & Wesson in late 1907-early 1908, however Colt would not chamber their Single Action Army in .44 Special until 1913. Up to this point SAAs had been chambered in .44 Russian, but beginning in 1913 barrels were marked “RUSSIAN AND S&W SPECIAL 44” as they could be used with both cartridges. Beginning in 1931 they were marked “COLT SINGLE ACTION ARMY .44 SPECIAL.”

During what is now referred to as the First Generation run of Colt Single Actions from 1873 to 1941, relatively few .44 Specials were manufactured. Company records show 506 Single Actions and one Flat-Top Target with no Bisley Model or Bisley Model Flat-Top Target .44 Specials being manufactured. In the 1970s my wife Dot surprised me with a 7 1/2” First Generation .44 Special which had been carried by a sheriff in Colorado during the 1920s. When we found out how valuable it actually was we decided it belonged in a real collection not a shooting collection and we traded it for a 2nd Generation .44 Special, a .45 Colt New Frontier, and all the money she had paid for it. So basically we wound up with two excellent Single Actions without spending any money, however if I had to do over again I would keep that First Generation .44. We live and learn.

When Colt dropped the Single Action Army from production prior to World War II they had no plans to ever produce it again as sales had been going downhill steadily for years. In fact Great Western brought out their replica of the Single Action Army in 1954 based on information from Colt that they would never produce the Single Action again. Just prior to Great Western introducing their Single Action, Ruger downsized and modernized the basic single action sixgun with the .22 Single-Six. Now everyone who wanted a single action could have one with virtually unbreakable springs and chambered in the very economical .22 Long Rifle. It wasn't enough. The relatively new medium of television was filled with old B westerns which also meant Colt Single Actions. By 1956 Colt decided there really was a market once again for the Single Action Army. Those first Single Actions were chambered in .38 Special and .45 Colt with serial numbers beginning at 0001SA to distinguish them from the serial numbers of the First Generation Colts which began at 1 and ended in the 357,000 range.

In 1957 the .44 Special was chambered but only with 5 1/2” and 7 1/2” barrels; there were no 4 3/4” .44 Specials cataloged. Only about 3% of the Second Generation Single Actions were .44 Specials with 1,220 with 5 1/2” and 830 with 7 1/2” barrels having blued/case-hardened finish combinations being manufactured and another 125 and 55 nickel-plated .44s respectively. In 1962 Colt introduced their modernized version of the Flat-Top Target with the New Frontier having a Flat-Top frame and adjustable sights; by 1967 the .44 Special had been dropped from the New Frontier production with only 120 of the 5 1/2” and 135 of the 7 1/2” barrel lengths being produced. Serial numbers for the New Frontier run from 3000NF to 73XXNF.

For continuity we also look at the .44-40 in this chapter. Colt did not add the .44-40 to their production schedule with the introduction of the Second Generation Single Action or New Frontiers. The only Second Generation .44-40 found is the nickel-plated 7 1/2” Frontier Six Shooter found in the Peacemaker Centennial run of commemoratives with 2,000 being made. This is probably one of the finest .44-40 Colt Single Actions ever produced.

By 1974 the Second Generation Single Actions were gone. Colt promised to bring them back which they did as the Third Generation in 1976. Several changes were made including barrels threads changed from 20 tpi to 24 tpi, both the hand and ratchet were changed to allow assembly with less fitting, and the full-length base pin bushing in the cylinder was dropped in favor of a small collar. The full-length base pin bushing has recently been resurrected.

Colt went full bore with production of .44s in the Third Generation run with both blue/case hardened and nickel-plated finishes offered in all three standard barrel lengths of  4 3/4”, 5 1/2”, and 7 1/2” in both .44 Special and .44-40. They have also offered Buntline Specials in both .44s as well as .44-40 and combination .44-40/.44 Special Sheriff’s Models. Currently only the standard Single Action Army is offered and as far as .44s are concerned only in .44-40.

In 1978 Colt resumed production of the New Frontier beginning at serial number 01000NF and lasting until 1982 with serial numbers in the 16XXXNF range. Note carefully all New Frontier Second Generation serial numbers have four digits while Third Generation numbers run five digits.  During the Third Generation run of New Frontiers the .44 Special was once again offered but only in 5 1/2” and 7 1/2” barrel lengths while the .44-40 was issued in both 4 3/4” and 7 1/2” lengths. Generally speaking the Third Generation .44 Specials are not as well made or as precisely fitted as were Second Generation examples. One of the major differences can be found in the cylinder throats with Second Generation .44 Special New Frontiers measuring .429” and Third Generations going .433”; the latter will work fine if bullets are sized accordingly. In measuring the throats of seven .44-40s I found three First Generations with one cylinder throat at .423” and two at .424”; the Second Generation Peacemaker Centennial at .427”; and three Third Generations all at .429”. It is obvious it is impossible to come up with just one load that will work well in all seven .44-40's.

The Colt New Frontier .44 Special is an excellent hunting handgun with proper loads. I have used the .44 Special Keith load in both Second and Third Generation New Frontiers with no problem whatsoever with bullets sized at .428” and .431” respectively. Do not take this load for granted! I have also used it in a Third Generation .44 Special Single Action Army and it worked and continues to work fine in five chambers however in only took one shot to jug the sixth chamber. Extraction was hard from this chamber and I could see the outline of the bolt cut on the fired case. I am assuming the bolt cut was too deep to start with, however care should be used with heavy loads in the .44 Special New Frontier. Especially with today's #2400 by Alliant used with the 250 grain hard cast Keith bullet, cut back to 15 grains and then carefully work up to 16 grains. For most of my everyday use in the .44 Special with either generation and either the Single Action Army or the New Frontier I stay with the Keith bullet over 7.5 grains of Unique for around 900 fps. This load doesn't strain me or the sixguns.

The New Frontier has been gone now for 25 years; I assume we will never see it again. That is very unfortunate for sixgunners. An alternative, which we will talk about in the chapter on custom .44 Specials is having Third Generation Colt New Frontier barrels fitted to re-chambered Flat-Top, Old Model Three Screw, and 50th Anniversary .357 Magnum Blackhawks.

 

13-1 to 13-11 Classic Colt Single Actions.

Photos courtesy of sixgunsmith/stockmaker Jim Martin and Rick Talacek.

13-1) Wooly mammoth stocked 1904 .44-40 Frontier Six-shooter.

 

 

13-2) 1901 era .44-40 stocked with elephant ivory.

 

 

13-3) Reeking with character is this 4 3/4” 44-40 with stag stocks.

 

 

13-4) 2nd Generation .44 Special with one-piece Koa stocks.

 

 

13-5) Out of Mexico comes this 4 3/4” .44-40.

 

 

13-6) A 1901 .44-40 wears one piece stocks of whalebone.

 

 

13-7) One-piece wooly mammoth grips set off this 1903 Frontier

Six-shooter to perfection.

 

 

13-8) This 1907 Colt has been fitted with maple stocks and converted to

.44 Special.

 

 

13-9) Colt .44-40 Frontier Six-shooter from 1910 with one-piece ivories.

 

 

13-10) 1913 Colt .44-40 with stag stocks and the rare Colt Rocking Horse

logo on the frame.

 

 

13-11) Jim Martin used this .44 Special with stainless steel cylinder and his

design custom stocks to win the California State Fast Draw Championship

more than 55 years ago. He can still shoot!

 

 

13-12) A good hat, a Colt .44 Special, and a box of cartridges makes a

pretty good survival kit.

 

 

13-13) One of Skeeter Skelton’s favorite sixguns was a 5 1/2” ivory stocked

.44 Special New Frontier. Taffin’s version has been stocked with carved ivories

by Dennis Holland of Nutmeg Sports.

 

 

13-14) One of the world's most beautiful sixguns is the Colt New Frontier.

This .44 Special wears one piece ivories from Nutmeg Sports.

 

 

13-15) Colt produced the New Frontier from 1962 to the early 1980s with both

2nd and 3rd Generation versions. These 7 1/2” .44 Specials with ivory stocks

are excellent hunting handguns.

 

 

13-16) This 3rd Generation .44 Special 7 1/2” New Frontier with one-piece

walnuts is a top choice for up close hunting of deer-sized game.

 

 

13-17)                        All the sixgunnin’ bases are covered with this 7 1/2” Colt New

Frontier .44 Special with extra cylinders in .44-40 and .44 Russian fitted by

Hamilton Bowen.

 

 

13-18)                        High on the list of Perfect Packin’ Pistols is the 5 ½”

Colt New Frontier chambered in .44 Special.

 

Chapter 12       Chapter 14