USFA PRESERVING SIXGUN HISTORY
By John Taffin
In the 1970s it was my regular habit to read section 640 GUNS every day in the morning paper's want ads as well as attend all the local gun shows. With this diligence I expected to find one special sixgun per year. It may be a like new 3-1/2" Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, or an unfired Old Model Ruger .41 Magnum, even a Second Generation Colt Single Action. In the early 1970s the ad read "Colt Single Action .44 and old belt and holster."
The address was a trailer park just outside of town and I hustled over to find a First Generation 7-1/2" Colt Single Action with cartridge belt and holster. "It belonged to my uncle and he wore it regularly as a sheriff in Colorado. Those marks on the top strap are from his blood when he got shot." As I handled the Colt I could scarcely keep my heart from beating audibly. Except for the minor pitting on the top strap, the .44 sixgun was in excellent shape mechanically and the case coloring had turned a beautifully aged gray. The left side of the barrel was marked "RUSSIAN AND S&W SPECIAL 44". A very rare single action!
"How much?" I asked as I contemplated my budget. "Four hundred and fifty dollars." I was sorely tempted but with paying for three kids to attend our private church school, I felt it was out of the question. I reluctantly thanked the man for his time and left. It was impossible to contain my excitement as I told my wife all about the Colt .44 when I arrived back at home; she was more than a little surprised that I was able to resist buying that beautiful sixgun. Later that day she headed out to do some shopping and I asked her to stop at the local boot repair shop. I had been so stirred up by the .44 Colt that I had forgotten to pick up my finished boots. When she returned home she handed me the boots with a slight smile on her face. As I took the boots I realized they felt a few pounds heavier than normal. In the left boot was the Colt! She had gone out on her own and purchased the .44 Special! You hold on tightly to a wife such as this one!
After doing a little research on the Colt and finding out how really rare it was, we decided it belonged to a collector not a shooter as I was. So we traded it for the $450 we paid for it plus two shooting Colt sixguns, a 2nd Generation 5-1/2".44 Special and a 7-1/2” .45 New Frontier. So she got her money back and I got two great shootin’ sixguns I enjoy immensely to this day. However, that isn't the end of the story as this Colt .44 Special and Russian was my ticket to meeting someone very special. Later that year I attended the NRA Show carrying pictures of the old Colt, especially a close up of the barrel inscription, all for a purpose. I was looking for one particular individual. When I found him dressed in a dark suit wearing a white Stetson, I simply handed him the picture of the barrel close up. He grabbed me by the arm and said: "Son, let's go find a place to talk." The man was Skeeter Skelton and I had found the way to his heart.
Fast forward 20+ years, another similarly marked sixgun was in front of me and it was the one of the most beautifully finished Single Action Army sixguns I had ever seen. The bluing was so deep you could see in it all the way back to your great-grandfather, and the case colors looked as if they belonged on the wall of an art museum. It was not an original Colt as I was at the exhibit for a new company, United States Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company, and they were in the business of selling Colt replicas. The sixguns were not only fitted and finished in this country, the work was done in the old Colt Armory.
At that time USPFA was a relatively new company that had taken over the old manufacturing facility of Colt Patent Firearms. In keeping with the move into this historic facility, USPFA's catalog was a beautiful stroll through history with both color and black & white photos and 18th century period style advertising for the cap-n-ball Colts, the Walker, the First, Second, and Third Model Dragoons, the 1851 and 1861 Navy, the 1860 Colt Army as well as various pocket pistols plus "Single Action, Central Fire, Army, Six Shot, .38, .44, and .45 Inch Calibre, Revolving Pistols. USPFA's Custom Shop offered non-standard barrel lengths, engraved sixguns plus grips of gutta percha, stag, pearl, and ivory.
In talking with the USPFA folks at the SHOT Show arrangements were made to to receive a sixgun just like the 7-1/2” .44 ticket to Skeeter’s heart, a blued and case colored 7-1/2" marked “RUSSIAN AND S&W SPECIAL 44”. I received it in a few weeks and found it to be impeccably finished and fitted up tightly with very little cylinder movement either fore, aft, or side-to-side. Whoever put this sixgun together knew what they were doing and they did it 1870's black powder style with a bullseye ejector rod head, and a screw through the front of the frame to secure the cylinder pin. The serial number was found in three places, again in 1870's style, on front of the trigger guard behind the front screw, on the bottom of the frame in front of the trigger guard, and also on the butt.
This re-created .44 Russian/.44 Special proved to be an excellent shooter, however, it was not the end but only the beginning for USPFA. Beautifully assembled in this country using Italian parts, it was just the first step as USPFA’s Doug Donnelly had a dream and began moving to providing an all American made Single Action; in the process the name was changed to USFA for United States Firearms. Making the switch to an all American made sixgun was neither quick nor easy, however it is now complete and the USFA catalog has been changed dramatically. What remains is just about the finest traditional factory built Single Action sixgun I have ever seen; and unlike other replicas, this one is All-American. No, I do not mean it is assembled in this country with imported parts, but rather all the parts, all the finishing, all the fitting, everything is American made and American accomplished.
For my first experience with the American-made sixgun, two USFA single actions were ordered through regular dealer channels and paid for up front, so no one could say they were especially selected sixguns as writer’s samples; in fact they were custom built after they were ordered, as are most USFA sixguns, and came through with consecutive serial numbers. The sixguns ordered were a .45 Colt with the Civilian length 4-3/4”” barrel and the second sixgun has a lot of “trying to re-live my youth” attached to it. My first ever center-fire single action sixgun was 1900-ish Colt Single Action Army in .38-40, a beautiful sixgun that I foolishly let slip away. The original had a 4-3/4” barrel, however this one was ordered with the easier to shoot 7-1/2” length.
After many years of testing virtually every sixgun offered as well as most semi-automatics and single-shots, I am not easily impressed, and it takes something very special to stir my mind, heart, soul, and spirit. Usually it requires a sixgun touched by one of the Master Gunsmith’s talented hands. Not this time! As I unpacked the two new Single Action sixguns from USFA, I immediately realized these were sixguns done right. Most factory single actions, one major exception being those from Freedom Arms, need some work to either tune them or fit them enough to satisfy someone who has been shooting single actions as long as I have. That does not mean to say they are not usable out of the box but rather they often need such work performed as trigger pulls reduced, actions smoothed out, cylinders tightened, and grips fitted properly. Not so with these sixguns.
The first thing I noticed about the USFA Single Action was the beautiful finish. The main frame and the hammer were beautifully case colored in what is described as Armory Bone Case while the balance of the sixgun was finished in a deep, dark Dome Blue color. Grips furnished as standard are checkered hard rubber with a “US” molded into the top part of the grip. These stocks posed a problem for me. Normally, I prefer to fit favored single action sixguns with custom grips made of ivory, stag, or some exotic wood. However, in the case of USFA Single Action sixguns the grips are so perfectly fitted to the frame and feel so good in the hand I was very hesitant to change them. If one looks at the grips on most single action sixguns the fitting leaves a lot to be desired, not so here. These grips have been fitted to the grip frame on a factory built revolver as carefully as custom grips by the Master grip makers.
One of the things I always look for in the fitting and finishing of a single action sixguns is the radiusing of the lower part of the back of the hammer and the two "ears" formed by the back strap where it screws into the mainframe on both sides of the hammer. A well-made single action will exhibit a smooth mating of the contours of all three. USFA sixguns are very nearly perfect in this area and the same careful fitting can also be found where the top of the face of the hammer meets the top strap. The fit of the trigger guard to the bottom of the mainframe is so perfectly done one can run a finger over the area and not feel where one part begins and the other ends. The same is true where the back strap meets the mainframe.
The front of the ejector rod housing as well as the cylinder are both beveled which not only looks good and feels good, it also provides for easier holstering. Markings on these sixguns include the serial number in three places, the butt, in front of the trigger guard, and on the mainframe in front of the trigger guard screw. This is exactly as the original 19th-century Single Action Armies were marked. The normal three patent dates are found on the left side of the frame; the caliber markings, in this case "45 COLT" and “38 W.C.F.” are found on the left side of the barrel; while the top the barrel is marked in two lines “U.S.F.A. MFG. Co” and “HARTFORD. CT. U.S.A.” on the shorter .45, while one line is used on the .38-40.
Now comes two measurements that often find most other single actions lacking or in need of correction. Those two are chamber mouth diameters and trigger pulls. Both USFA sixguns passed with 100%. I have seen chamber mouths on .45 Colt as small as .449” and as large as .460”. All six chambers on the .45 Colt from USFA measure a uniform and perfect .452”, and the .38-40 is also uniform and correct at .400”. Trigger pulls on both sixguns are exactly as I prefer, being set at three pounds. Cylinders lock up tight both in the hammer down and hammer cocked position. In fact, when the hammer is cocked, the cylinders on either sixgun are as tight as those found on Freedom Arms revolvers.
USFA Single Actions are available with a V-notch or square rear sight; these were ordered with the square rear notch which is perfectly filled in with just a smidgeon strip of daylight on both sides by a front sight that also has a square profile rather than tapering to the top. Sixgunners also have a choice of a cross pin or screw in "black powder" cylinder pin latch. I went with the more modern spring-loaded version. The standard chambering for USFA Single Actions is .45 Colt, however other choices include .32 WCF (.32-20), .41 Long Colt, .38 Special, .38 WCF (.38-40), .44 WCF (.44-40), .45 ACP, and .44 Russian. The latter can be marked, and properly chambered, as mentioned earlier in this article, as “RUSSIAN AND S&W SPECIAL 44” as early Colt Single Actions were marked. They could be used with either .44 Russian or the then relatively new .44 Special. In addition to the .45 Colt and the .38-40 USFA sixguns I was able to borrow (it’s now mine) a .38 Special chambered USFA Single Action with the third standard barrel length offered of 5-1/2” thus allowing me to test three different calibers in three different barrel lengths. The .38 is marked on the left side of the barrel with “COLT AND S&W SPECIAL .38” just as early 20th-century revolvers.
One of the inherent problems found in fixed sighted sixguns is getting them to shoot to point of aim. Point of aim depends on the load used, how one sees the sights, and how one grips the sixguns. All three of the first three USFA American-made sixguns tested were dead on for windage with most of my loads, my grip, and my eyes. The .38-40 and the .38 Special shot anywhere from one to three inches low and can be easily filed to hit point of aim with one particular bullet weight and load. Caution is necessary here as one must be careful to not only use the right load when filing the front sight but also to shoot as one normally expects to shoot. For me, I will get three different points of elevation depending upon whether I am resting the sixgun on sandbags, resting only my hands, or shooting offhand. The difference can be several inches.
I really struck pay dirt with the .45 Colt. Not only is it dead on for windage it also shoots most of my .45 Colt loads right to point of aim for elevation. There's no reason to touch the front sight blade with a file. I can't remember ever experiencing a traditional single action in the nearly five decades I have been shooting them that came perfectly sighted, perfectly timed, with perfectly fitting grips, and with the desired trigger pull all wrapped up into one package. The only possible way I can see to improve a USFA sixgun is by spending some time polishing the interior parts with a stone.
We've taken care of every aspect of these USFA Single Action Army sixguns except how well they shoot. With the way these sixguns are put together I expected them to shoot very well and that is exactly what occurred. Both the .45 Colt and the .38-40 exhibited several five-shot groups at 50 feet that were one inch or less. My most used loads with these two calibers are 8.0 grains of Unique under 250-255 and 180 grain
bullets respectively. These two calibers, as well as the .44-40, are loaded on the RCBS Model 2000 progressive press. This is very convenient as all three use the same shell plate and by using the same powder charge it takes me all of 10 to 20 seconds to remove one die plate and substitute another. With both the .45 Colt and .38-40 loads using Unique group size was under one-inch.
Neither the .45 Colt nor the .38-40 chambered in traditional sixguns should ever be “magnumized” but rather kept at reasonable muzzle velocities. To gain the greatest slap down power with these two cartridges in USPA’s Single Actions I choose two very special bullets with wide flat noses. For the .45 Colt, the choice is RCBS’s #45-270 SWC, a Keith-style bullet that weighs out at 281 grains cast 20:1 lead and tin. With 8.0 grains of Unique, this bullet only travels around 800 fps from a 4-3/4” barrel however with this weight I would say that is plenty for most applications. With the .38-40, I go with the Gordon Boser designed Lyman #401452 he came up with more than 60 years ago for his wildcat .401 Special. In Starline’s .38-40 brass over 8.0 grains of Unique from the 7-1/2” barrel of the USFA Single Action sixgun, this load clocks out well over 1,000 fps and shoots into one-inch at 50 feet. One cannot ask for more from the old .38 Winchester Centerfire.
Remember the old commercial for potato chips which said “I bet you can’t eat just one”? The same situation applies to USFA Single Actions; you can bet I could not be satisfied with just one, or even three. I reached back in my personal history to come up with a next two. I've already mentioned the specially marked .44 Russian & .44 Special 7-1/2” Colt my wife and I decided to sell to a collector; it was now time to replace it. That pre-War Single Action was beautifully built, however its replacement rivals, even surpasses it. To put it simply USFA is building pre-War Single Actions in the 21st-century. I still have the two single actions I received in trading that old Colt from the 1920s; its replacement was less expensive, relatively speaking, and I am convinced it is an even better sixgun than the original.
In the late 1950s I was newly married, working the night shift in the factory, and spending my days while Diamond Dot was working, at Boyle’s Gun Shop and helping them clean up after a fire. One day a fellow came in with three guns he wanted to sell for a total of $65; John Boyle bought all three. Two were nondescript and long forgotten, however the third was a 7-1/2” Colt Single Action unlike anything my teenage eyes had ever seen. After doing a little research I discovered it was a rare Flat-Top Target chambered in .44 S&W. Since I am at the age when I'm always looking for a way to go backwards in time, I ordered a 7-1/2” Flat-Top Target Model from USFA chambered in .44 Special and finished as the originals in all blue. Both of these excellent sixguns have now been stocked by Roy Fishpaw. Roy used ram’s horn for the Russian/Special and exotic wood for the Flat-Top; as with the sixguns themselves Roy's grips are absolutely superb.
Every regular reader knows of my passion for .44 Special sixguns and these two from USFA are as fine as they come. Everything said about the .45 Colt and .38-40 also applies to these .44 Specials; they are superb sixguns! However the .44 Special saga does not stop there. In 1986 I founded a group called The Shootists. Every year since that time we have met for a week to shoot and share. With the arrival of the 20th Anniversary of Shootists a small committee was formed to come up with a proper sixgun to commemorate our group; the sixgun chosen was a USFA and in deference to me, in .44 Special. As founder and first chairman I was given the privilege of being able to purchase the first two, serial numbers SH01 and SH02. It certainly sounds repetitive by now, however again we have two superb sixguns.
The .44 Special saga never really stops. This summer my friend Cactus Tubbs came down from the mountains and stopped at Boise Gun Company which happens to be the local dealer for USFA. He found two very rare Rodeos, consecutively numbered 4-3/4” .44 Specials. He grabbed one and convinced me, it didn't take much, I needed the other one. Diamond Dot got on the phone, did the bargaining, and within the hour I had another USFA .44 Special. One of the really neat things about the USFA Rodeo is the fact it is a Beater Gun; by that I mean it is a grand sixgun which can be taken anywhere under any conditions without worrying about hurting the matte blue finish.
When I was a kid I thoroughly enjoyed Wild Bill Elliott movies. Every B-western movie star had to have something to set them apart from the others; Elliott chose to wear a pair of Single Actions with butts to the front just like that other real Wild Bill. Elliott’s sixguns had the plastic stag grips found on many Hollywood Single Actions and Bob Leskovec of Precision Pro Grips has the original pattern. In the 1960s I discarded such grips, however now I collect them; one more example of how everything changes as we grow older. Bob was commissioned to stock both of these Special Specials Wild Bill Elliott style.
The basic price for a USFA Single Action is now $975 for a 4-3/4”, 5-1/2”, or 7-1/2” finished in Old Armory Bone Case and Dome Blue. Custom touches include a case colored hammer, full blue finish; nickel finish; walnut, pearl, or ivory stocks; and special engraving from names all the way up to full coverage scroll engraving. Three special models are also offered, the Rodeo, Rodeo II, and the Cowboy. (The latter is NOT to be confused with the Colt Cowboy of a few years back which while being an excellent shooter was not a traditional sixgun.) The much less expensive Rodeo, $660, is the same basic sixgun as the Single Action however, as previously stated, it comes finished in a subdued matte blue finish instead of the beautiful finish of the standard revolver; Rodeo II is satin nickeled with blued screws, trigger, and basepin, while the stocks are of a hard brown rubber dubbed Burlwood; and the Cowboy is an all blue sixgun with Burlwood grips; price for the latter two is $790. All three standard versions are offered in 4-3/4” and 5-1/2” lengths and in .45 Colt or .38 Special. USFA also offers an antique version, The Gunslinger, a sixgun made to look as if it has been in service 100+ years, and such special sixguns as the Custer Colt and the highly engraved and ivory stocked Theodore Roosevelt Single Action.
The original Single Actions were made from 1873 to 1940 and are a grand part of sixgun history kept alive by USFA. Three years ago USFA looked at another period of history, semi-auto history that is, from 1900 to 1911 with not one but two classic .45 semi-automatic pistols. The same high-quality has now been carried over to .45 semi-automatic pistols. Doug Donnelly, headman at United States Firearms, has deep feelings about producing high-quality traditionally styled firearms. His Single Actions are some of the finest ever produced with special attention to detail and authenticity while incorporating some of his own ideas and he has now carried this over to semi-automatics.
On the exterior there is very little difference between the original Model 1910 and the improved Model 1911. Interior improvements included two locking lugs in the top of the barrel while the chamber part of the barrel was larger in diameter. Both the USFA 1910 and 1911 .45s are essentially the same pistol mechanically with some very minor and one major difference on the exterior. The USFA Model 1911 is basically a re-creation on the original Model 1911 with the long trigger, flat mainspring housing and double diamond checkered wood grips. It differs from an original Government Model 1911 in two major areas. First it is absolutely beautifully finished in a deep, dark, highly polished blue black reminiscent of the best Smith & Wessons and Colts of the 1950s and is probably the type of finish found on the Commercial Model 1911 prior to World War I.
The second major difference is the fitting. We have many custom pistolsmiths offering superbly fitted, virtually handbuilt 1911s with no perceptible play between slide and frame. This 1911 had the same careful fitting and not the looseness found on military 1911s use by the doughboys and G.I.s of World War I and World War II. As a result this 1911 marked United States Property shoots as well or better than any other 1911 I have fired in the last 50 years. The 1910 is the same basic pistol, however instead of the spur hammer of the 1911, the Model 1910 carries the rounded hammer of the original Model 1905, and the same long trigger, flat mainspring housing, grip safety, double diamond checkered stocks, perfect fitting of slide to frame, and beautiful blue finish as the model 1911 with a few minor differences. The rounded hammer, the slide stop, and the thumb safety are finished in Fire or Carbona Blue instead of the traditional high polished blue found on the rest of these beautiful semi-automatics. Both the model 1910 and model 1911 were test-fired with 11 different factory loads and shoot superbly; both will shoot Black Hills 230 hardball load into one-inch at 20 yards.. These excellent .45s carry a MSRP of $1,875.
USFA has made a great reputation in
single actions sixgunning circles and as soon as
enough Model 1910/1911s get out they will do accomplish same thing with
semi-automatic pistoleros. The 1911 is also now
available in the Superb .38 Super (You can just bet I will order one of these
in the future!) and .22 versions. USFA now owns many of the trade names of past
Colt pistols and revolvers and the next to be offered is the Woodsman .22.
History is alive and well at United States Firearms, or as they say, “The
Legend Lives.”. USFA can be found at
Selected Loads For USFA Sixguns
.44 Special Sixgun Load MV 5Shots/20 Yds
7-1/2” Flat-Top Target OT 240SWC/5.0 gr. Bullseye 858 fps 1-1/4”
7-1/2” Flat-Top Target CCI Blazer 200 Gold Dot HP 908 fps 5/8”
7-1/2” Single Action OT 240 SWC/5.0 gr. Bullseye 798 fps 1-1/4”
7-1/2” Single Action OT 240 SWC/5.5 gr. WW452AA 870 fps 3/4”
7-1/2” Single Action RCBS 250KT/7.5 gr. Unique 999 fps 1”
5-1/2” Single Action Lyman #429421KT/17.0 gr. H4227 940 fps 1”