I LIKE SINGLE ACTIONS BECAUSE....
The first real gunfighter's weapon remains one of the finest handlin' sixguns ever, the .36 caliber 1851 Colt Navy. With its easy packin' portability, it ushered in the era of the Shootist. The first practical revolver goes back to the 1830's with the fragile Paterson which was soon followed by the powerful but cumbersome Walkers and Dragoons. These big .44's were so heavy that they were not carried in holsters but saddle scabbards. The gunfighter had to be on horseback to be effective, but the coming of the 1851 Navy brought a sixgun that could be carried readily accessible in a hip holster. Its major drawback, other than as a cap-and-ball being extremely slow to load, was its caliber. By 1860, the power of the Dragoons and Walkers was combined with the portability of the Navy and the 1860 Army arrived. Now we had a really effective big bore sixgun in .44 caliber.
In 1873, one of the greatest sixguns of all times was introduced, the Colt Single Action Army. It still exists in the used gun market and from the Colt Custom Shop and it has also been copied and modified and offered by Great Western, Ruger, Seville, Abilene, Freedom Arms, and by an endless host of foreign importers.
The first Colt Single Action Army was offered in the now equally legendary .45 Colt. Basically designed for the military market, the SAA was offered in a barrel length of seven and one half-inches to duplicate the feel of the 1851 Navy and 1860 Army. The Single Action Colt was soon offered with a five and one-half inch barrel, the Artillery Model as opposed to the longer Cavalry Model. Some budding gunfighter took a good look at the Colt Single Action, cut the barrel length even with the ejector rod housing and one of the finest balanced sixguns (the finest?) ever emerged, the four and three-quarter inch barreled single action. The Gunfighter's Weapon had really arrived.
Now a Shootist was just as dangerous with his sixgun in the holster as if it was in his hand. Perhaps even more so. The average reaction time is somewhere around one-half second. A sixgunner who practices religiously, as I did for a number of years, can draw and fire and hit the target with unbelievable speed. I myself was able to get down below one-quarter of a second and sometimes when I was really on hit speeds that even I don't want to believe and I was there. No reaction time is fast enough to counter this. The old "you go for your gun first" myth is just that, a myth. All other things being equal, he who drew second finished second.
The single action came upon the scene in 1836. That is more than one hundred and fifty years ago! It was improved in 1848, 1851, 1860, and finally in 1873 became basically the fine sixgun that still exists today. It should have died in 1899 with the coming of the Smith & Wesson K-frame double actions, as slick handlin' a sixgun as one is likely to find. It did not. It should have been buried by the advent of the 1907 N-frame big bore sixgun. It survived. By 1911 the .45 ACP chambered Government Model, a gun designed to give the power of the 1873 .45 Colt in a "modern" gun, should have made everyone forget the single action. The single action remained.
In 1916, before heading into Mexico after Pancho Villa, a young Army Lieutenant picked up an Ivory gripped .45 in El Paso. This was not a 1911 Government Model but a Single Action Army. The gun became famous on the hip of by then General Patton in World War Two. It had two notches in the grip from the Mexican campaign. The career of the infamous team of Bonnie and Clyde was stopped by former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, whose favorite sixgun was "Old Lucky" a .45 Colt Single Action. Hamer was a real hero, a true "one riot, one Ranger" type of lawman. He carried a single action long after all "thinking" lawman had opted for the double action revolver.
The single action fell on hard times in the 1930's and 1940's but it is a survivor. There were those that abandoned the single action and took up the new fangled double actions and semi-automatics. Movies of the period after World War I always had the buffoon armed with a seven and one-half inch single action. Tom Mix even carried, horror of horrors, double action sixguns in his western movies. Even at the Colt factory, the sales of the Single Action were eclipsed by the sales of the double action New Service.
In spite of the big swing to the double action revolver and semi- automatic between the great wars, the truth is that there is no gun faster for the first shot then the single action from a proper holster. This has been proven over and over again by countless shooters and no less personalities then Bill Jordan, Elmer Keith, and Skeeter Skelton all have said the same thing. But they all carried badges and used double actions for the simple reason that they were likely to find themselves in a situation in which one shot would not be enough.
I've shot law enforcement qualifying courses of fire in two states with both double action sixguns and semi-autos and have never had any problem qualifying but I do not believe I could do it with a single action. However my good friend Jim Taylor does it with a Single Action seven and one-half inch barreled Ruger .45 Colt Blackhawk. This sixgun has been his constant companion for twenty-five years and it shows. Using a speedloader for a single action that is a tube that simply allows the loaded rounds to drop into the chambers as the cylinder is rotated, Taylor gets in under the wire. My scores with a double action are higher but he does it the old fashioned way.
At the Shootists Holiday in 1986, I watched two well-known single action pistoleros who are both snakes with a single action, Taylor and Mike Venturino shoot bowling pins with single actions against an accomplished action shooter with a $2000 semi-auto and competition holster. Venturino stood on the left and used an old Colt Single Action .38-40 with a seven and one-half inch barrel and a traditional 1880's style holster. Taylor on the right used a Ruger .45 Colt also with a seven and one-half inch barrel and a twenty year old homemade holster, no metal lining just a comfortable packin' rig. At the signal both would draw, fire and take the pin before the action shooter had a chance. Want to guess who has switched to single actions?
Forgetting the games and looking at the serious side of life, is the person who packs a single action at a great disadvantage? In the vast majority of cases I do not believe so and I pack a single action as often as not and almost always when the hardware is packed openly. When I am out testing a double action or semi-automatic, I more often than not I will be wearing a single action. They just seem to holster and pack so much easier than other types. The first shot is fast, and subsequent shots may be slower but the big bore single action can be depended upon to deliver five or six shots from a gun whose balance and portability has never been equalled. In the areas I frequent the most, the mountains, foothills and deserts of Idaho, the chances of winning the Irish Sweepstakes, the Idaho Lottery, and the Mr. America Contest all on the same day are greater then needing anything faster than a big bore single action for the first shot and subsequent shots. The single action suits me just fine plus I cannot hit a target as easy from the hip with a either a double action or semi-auto as well as I can with a single action.
Yes, I realize packin' a single action in this "modern" age could be looked upon as more tradition than practicality but given my choice as to a big bore single action sixgun or a high capacity nine I would pick the single action every time. By big bore I refer to the 250 to 300 grain bullets from the .41 and .44 Special, the .41 and .44 Magnum, the .45 Colt , and the .454 Casull. Of course, I am not speaking from the standpoint of a large city cop by any means. If I had to go into the daily jungles that many peace officers must face every working day I would want a 100% reliable semi-automatic such as my Clark Custom Combat Commander .45 or one of the big bore Smith & Wesson Third Generation semi-autos such as the 4516 or 4506 or 1006. At the very least I would want a Smith & Wesson K-frame .357 or big bore N-frame.
My modest collection of sixguns contains all types: single actions and double action sixguns and single action and double action semi- automatics. The Single Action Army is a classic pure and simple. So are the 1911 Government Model and the Smith & Wesson Models 19 (.357 Magnum), 27 (.357 Magnum) and 29 (.44 Magnum). There are semi-automatics being manufactured today that will probably be labeled classics in the future. BUT first and foremost I always have been a single action sixgunner and always will. From my first Ruger .22 Single-Six through the .38-40 Colt Single Action, .45 Colt Single Action, Ruger .357 Flat- top, Ruger .44 Flat-top, ..... Well you get the picture. My first sixgun purchased was a single action and the latest acquisition is also a single action, a Flat-top Ruger .357 made in 1960.
Why is the single action so well liked by myself and countless thousands of shooters like me? Why do so many one-handgun owners who want a gun for the home, for the car when traveling, for packin' on the hip when fishing, hunting, hiking or camping, pick a single action? It may be different in other areas but in my part of the country, the one gun handgunner usually chooses the superbly simple and amazingly rugged Ruger .357 New Model Blackhawk. He will pass over the double actions and semi-automatics to buy an old-fashioned single action. Why? Because it suits his needs perfectly. Let's look at the many virtues of the single action and just why it is so appealing to sixgunners.
Most of us are products of grade B Western movies and/or the early days of television when the hero wore a stetson and packed a single action sixgun. When I started quick draw with the Colt Single Action I picked the seven and one-half inch barreled .45 and an Arvo Ojala rig because that is what I saw being used by my favorite TV sixgunners: Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, Chris Colt on Colt .45, and Clay Hollister on Tombstone Territory. I proved to myself that the long-barreled Colt could be drawn and fired with incredible speed. Surprizingly, I was actually faster with the longer barrel than with the four and three- quarter inch "gunfighter's sixgun" because it seemed to level on target better after the draw then did the shorter barrel.
Those early years of Westerns and TV certainly influenced many of us and then they were gone. But these are not real reasons for picking a single action. If it was, they would be purchased and soon traded in for "something better". Second hand double action and semi-automatics abound; single actions do not. Sixgunners buy single actions and use them for many applications.
The single action is loaded with assets and I must admit a few liabilities. Perhaps we should get the liabilities out of the way first remembering that what some shooters call liabilities are really assets.
The charge is made that single actions are slow to load and unload. Granted. There is no way to reload a single action as fast as a double action with a speedloader or the fastest of all re-loads, the magazine fed autoloader. But find yourself with an empty magazine and see if the single action is really that much slower to load than filling a magazine. It will in fact be faster.
And an accomplished single action sixgunner will actually beat the average non-speedloader using double action shooter when it comes to reloading especially if the double action shooter is careless and finds himself with an empty case stuck under the extractor star. Empties can be shucked from a spinning single action cylinder pretty fast and those nose heavy big bore rounds drop back in with no effort.
The single action is considered far more likely to break than other types of actions. Again, granted to some extent. I have broken countless single action springs over the past thirty-five years. But they were always Colt or Colt replica single action leaf springs and they were always either bolt or hand springs. Even someone as fumble fingered as I can replace either of these with a minimum of effort and expense. A broken mainspring has never been experienced in any of these sixguns. I've had to replace many because they were ground down by some previous would be gunfighter who wanted a sixgun that cocked easier. One Great Western .45 I acquired was such a sixgun and the firing pin would just dent primers as the hammer seemed to bounce off until I replaced the mainspring.
With Ruger and Freedom Arms single actions there is no problem with breakage whatsoever. I have a .44 Flat-top Ruger that was purchased new in 1957. It has gone through two barrel changes going from the original six and one-half inches to four and three-quarter inches to its present seven and one-half inches. It has never skipped a beat and has never required repairs. Freedom Arms has enough faith in their single actions to offer a lifetime warranty with each Premier Grade revolver.
Safety is another liability that the single action is charged with. This one is not granted. We hear quite often of shooters shooting themselves with "old-style" Colt and Ruger single actions. This happens but it should never happen for the simple reason that the best safety on any handgun is the shooter himself. Any knowledgeable shooter knows that an old style single action must never be carried with a loaded round under the hammer. Five beans in the pot is the only way to go. I started with single actions as a teenager in the 1950's and I never, absolutely never, carry a single action as a sixgun, but always as a five-gun. The hammer is always down on an empty.
In 1973, Ruger changed their single action design to incorporate a transfer bar safety that allows Rugers marked "New Model" to be carried safely with six rounds. I never changed. As New Model Rugers, were acquired, I still harkened back to my early days and carry all six-shot single actions with five rounds. I do not have to stop and think when I load a single action. I load one, skip a chamber, load four more and then cock and lower the hammer on an empty in old models or rotate the cylinder until the empty is under the hammer on New Models. I like things simple and safe. Freedom Arms five-shot single actions also have a built-in safety. I still prefer to use myself as the premium safety and carry these guns as four-shooters.
We have thus far seen that yes, the single action is slower to load, modern single actions are not prone to breakage, and safeties are in the hands and heads of the shooters. Even looking at the liability side of the ledger sees the old single action doing very well. Accuracy you say? Single actions are not as accurate as double actions or semi- automatics? They can't be with those long hammer falls and heavy triggers. Sorry, I will not give one inch on this one. Most new handguns require a trigger and action job as they come from the factory. I would not think of using a Freedom Arms single action without it first being worked over by the expert gunsmiths at Freedom Wyoming. If this is true for a gun costing in excess of $1500, how much more is this true for any handgun?
Long hammer fall contributes to inaccuracy? Again I say not one inch. Case in point, the Freedom Arms ten inch .22 Silhouette Model, the 252 Casull. This gun will produce one-inch five-shot groups with standard ammunition, not selected high priced target ammo, and it does it not at 25 yards or even 50 yards, but 100 yards! Complete with long hammer fall, this .22 with the out-of-date single action plops all the rounds from the cylinder almighty close to each other.
Some of the best silhouette sixguns are also single actions. The ten-inch barreled .454 Casull and .44 Magnum from Freedom Arms, the .44 Magnum and .357 Maximum from Ruger, and the .375 SuperMag from Seville, it just doesn't get any better than this. All of these guns are capable of shooting perfect silhouette scores and I have done my best long-range shooting with an unaltered Ruger .357 Maximum and a Freedom Arms .454 Casull. And many of these same guns are perfect for hunting. Is there a better hunting handgun anywhere than a single action .454 or .44 Magnum from Freedom Arms or a .44 Magnum Ruger Super Blackhawk?
Enough of "liabilities", let us go on to the great assets of the single action. The single action is the strongest of the big three, single action/double action/semi-automatic. The newer model single actions have massive frames coupled with a cylinder that is anchored both fore and aft. It take an awful lot of shooting for a single action cylinder to get out of alignment. When I consider the thousands of heavy loads I have personally run through my ten-inch Freedom Arms .454 Casull, even I, a single action lover, stand in awe at the strength of this fine revolver. Coupled with the strength of the modern single actions from Ruger and Freedom Arms is the ability to pack this strength in such a portable package. The Ruger Redhawks and Super Redhawks are very strong revolvers, but they are nowhere near as portable nor as easy to pack as the single actions.
Consider also the great versatility of the single action. Simply by adding an auxiliary cylinder and no other parts, the single action handles another caliber. Ruger has been offering dual cylinder guns for years in .22/.22 Magnum, .357 Magnum/9MM, .44 Magnum/.44-40, .45 Colt/.45ACP and in special offerings, .32-20/.32 Magnum and .38-40/10MM. Freedom Arms offers extra cylinders for their .454 Casull in .45 Colt, .45 ACP, and .45 WinMag, and both EMF and Cimarron have dual cylinder Colt replicas.
Up to the .44 Magnum, the double action revolvers and semi- automatics can keep up with the single actions. Move up to the .445 SuperMag and the semi-autos drop out and the single actions are thus far a custom proposition. They can handle the bigger .44 alright, it is just that no single action manufacturer has chosen to offer one. Ruger could easily bring back the .357 Maximum and also chamber for the .414 and .445 SuperMags.
Move beyond these big bores and the single action is all alone. Only they can 100% successfully handle all of the bigger big bores: the .454 Casull, the .475 Linebaugh, the .500 Linebaugh, the .475 Maximum, the .500 Maximum. A look at the big bores and bigger bores gives some idea of the power that is involved and the capability of the single action revolver:
ME TAYLOR KO*
.44 MAGNUM 240 @ 1400 FPS 1044 FP 21.0
.44 MAGNUM 300 @ 1400 FPS 1305 FP 27.7
.45 COLT 260 @ 1700 FPS 1667 FP 28.5
.45 COLT 300 @ 1500 FPS 1500 FP 30.0
.445 SUPERMAG 300 @ 1600 FPS 1704 FP 29.5
.454 CASULL 260 @ 1900 FPS 2083 FP 31.9
.454 CASULL 300 @ 1800 FPS 2157 FP 34.9
.475 LINEBAUGH 385 @ 1480 FPS 1871 FP 38.9
.500 LINEBAUGH 440 @ 1250 FPS 1527 FP 40.0
.475 MAXIMUM 385 @ 1580 FPS 2133 FP 41.3
.500 MAXIMUM 440 @ 1500 FPS 2200 FP 48.1
*Taylor Knock Out (TKO) is a theory advanced by elephant hunter Pondoro Taylor and is calculated by Caliber (in inches) times Muzzle Velocity (in feet per second) times Bullet Weight (in grains) divided by 7000. This is thought by many big bore enthusiasts to give a better comparison of the heavy caliber sixguns and rifles than does muzzle energy.
These are awesome figures to say the least and only single actions can handle all of these.
Sixguns that function at the power level of the above calibers lead to one of the greatest assets of the single action, namely grip shape. The single action grip is the finest devised to fit the most hands. The Colt grip shape is perfect for calibers up to heavy loaded .44 Specials and .45 Colts. We are talking 250 grain bullets at 900 to 1100 feet per second. Get above these and recoil becomes a problem even with the Colt grip shape. In the 1920's Elmer Keith and gunsmith Harold Croft designed a new grip for the single action using the back strap of the Colt Bisley and trigger guard of the Colt Single Action. This was found on the custom Colt .44 Special that Keith called his Number Five Single Action. Texas Longhorn Arms duplicated this grip on their Improved Number Five and its influence can be seen on the Freedom Arms Single Action and Ruger Bisley grips. The latter two grip shapes are the premier grip shapes for handling the recoil of all of the big bore calibers from .44 Magnum up. Double action sixguns and five-guns require custom grips to handle these recoil levels.
Now we come to the greatest asset, at least in my mind, of the Single Action. The aesthetic value of the single action cannot be approached by any other handgun as there are qualities inherent in a good single action that cannot be found anywhere else. If your soul, spirit, and heart are not quickened by the feel and genuine great looks of a Colt Single Action Army, or a Freedom Arms .454 Casull, or a Ruger Flat-top or Bisley, you my friend have been taking life much too seriously. It is time to step back and begin to once again enjoy the finer things in life.
Pick up a single action, thumb back that big hammer, rotate the cylinder, and I guarantee that you will feel the dust of a Texas cattle drive, hear the sounds of the saloons along the Main Street of Dodge City, smell bacon and coffee on an open fire in the mountains of Montana. Once you fire that first shot and feel the gentle recoil of a .44 Special or .45 Colt, or experience the power of a .44 magnum or .454 Casull, you will from that moment on be a true lover of single actions.
Each action type has its place, and after firing thousands upon thousands of rounds through all different styles of defensive combat- style honest-to-goodness fighting handguns, I have not changed my mind one whit about single actions. They were the first of the breed and still will deliver the goods today.
My Smith & Wesson double actions and my Colt and Smith & Wesson semi-automatics will not be given up. When carrying concealed, I will often opt for one of these. But as I head for the foothills, mountains, or desert, it is quite likely that I will be packin' a four and three- quarter inch single action. It may be a New Frontier .45 or Freedom Arms .454 or Ruger Blackhawk .41, .45 Colt, or .44 Magnum, but as single actions were made for the outdoors, when I head out chances are extremely good that whatever the caliber it will be a single action. The weather is great and improving. Grab your single action and some ammo and grub and lets head for the hills.