Colt 1873 Single Action Army Revolver “The Peacemaker”

Colt 1873 Single Action Army Revolver “The Peacemaker”

The Colt 1873 Single Action Army Revolver is perhaps the most iconic handgun ever invented. Its rich and detailed history has been woven into the stories of the Western Frontier that have been passed down through the generations. It has helped to facilitate the larger than life legends of some of the most famous historical figures of the time, such as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and Billy the Kid. It is a gun that was first brought into existence for the main purpose of arming the U.S. Cavalry, but quickly became a favorite of gunslingers on both sides of the law. This American classic revolver has now been in production for part of three centuries.

The Single Action Army became known by several names over the years. The Model P, the Equalizer, the Frontier, but probably most famously the Peacemaker. That phrase became popular early on thanks to a Colt distributor named Benjamin Kittredge of Cincinnati, Ohio. He first branded the revolver the Peacemaker to help set the Colt apart from the competition, and build its reputation as an easily recognizable firearm. The promotion of Colt’s early commercial revolvers relied heavily on the advertising that was mostly conducted by a small and select group of distributors. This handful of dealers, which included Kittredge, were able to receive generously discounted prices in trade for their promotional efforts. Surely such a respectable revolver didn’t need a gimmick or any flashy promotion to succeed, but the name Peacemaker fit perfectly with the many tales of gunfighters circulating from the western territories. It became a symbol of power, and demanded respect.

The well-balanced and ergonomically fluid six shooter gained a reputation for its fine craftsmanship and enduring construction. Originally developed in the .45 Colt caliber with a 7-1/2” barrel by Colt’s engineers William Mason and Charles Brinkerhoff, the SAA was adopted as the standard military pistol in 1873. It remained as such until 1892 when it was replaced for a considerably smaller caliber Colt firearm. That proved to be a costly error in judgment. It was soon brought back into Calvary service after the revolver that replaced it, the Colt 1892 chambered in .38 Long Colt, was deemed inadequate for the type of warfare that the Calvary was facing against Spain and the Moro tribes of the Philippines.

However, soon after the turn of the century, the invention of semi-automatic technologies would make the 1873 Single Action Army obsolete for military purposes. But thanks to the popularity of westerns films, it still remained a sought after side arm on the commercial market. Colt on three occasions had attempted to bring an end to the production of the Peacemaker. Each time they did, the demand for it would be rejuvenated by the cultural popularity generated by film and television. The gun still remains available by special order today.

Three generations have been established to represent each of the three production runs of the Colt Single Action Army Revolver. The first generation began with the introduction and spanned 67 years. During this period, commercially sold revolvers could be special ordered in the standard 7-1/2” barrel, as well as 5-1/2” and 4-3/4” lengths. Many of the early guns were black powder as the change over to smokeless powder didn’t occur to around serial number 165,000. According to The Colt Single Action Revolver – A Shop Manual Volumes 1 & 2, 2001 by Jerry Kuhnhausen, there were 357,859 revolvers produced during the first generation (1873-1940).

Note: Numbers are clearly estimated, as they do not account for any revolvers that may have been assembled from 1st generation leftover parts in the factory. Although according to Colts Single Action Revolver, Pre-War Post-War written by Don Wilkerson, frame serial number 357,859 was the last to come off the assembly line in 1940. Despite that, one would think that wartime efforts would have switched the focus at the Colt factory to more pressing endeavors, therefore the possibility for discrepancies does exist. (WWII 1939-1945)

The second generation was manufactured from 1956 to 1975. The number produced during this production run is estimated at about 73,319. There were some basic engineering differences for this generation of revolvers. These included changes to the cylinder ratchet, cylinder bolt arm, and the addition of a floating firing pin. There were also some changes to the threads on the gate screw and modifications to the mainspring, hammer and trigger screws, as well as the metal finishing and bluing. This generation can be identified by the use of an “SA” suffix at the end of the serial number.

The hiatus in production after the second generation was short lived and the third generation began in 1976. This generation of revolvers is still available today, and can be ordered in a variety of barrel lengths. Some differences that can be seen in the current generation are a revised cylinder with a simplified ratchet design, and the elimination of the full-length base pin bushing. It will also have a revised hand and hammer assembly and a thread change to the barrel itself (now .695” – 24 tpi).

Some additional notes regarding serial numbers of the third generation – a gap of 5,000 exists in the serial number beginning with 80000SA, and once the number reached 99999SA, the letters were made a prefix (e.g. SA01234).  Colt had exhausted their seven-digit serial number sequence in 1993, which initiated the beginning of a new 7-digit format with an “S” prefix and a “A” suffix (e.g. S01234A).

Much like the famous Winchester lever action guns, the Colt 1873 maintained a celebrity status thanks to Hollywood filmmakers. John Wayne carried the Colt revolver in nearly all of his movies. As did a slew of other leading men and women that portrayed Old West heroes and heroines. The two makers have also shared the fictional label of “The Gun That Won the West”. Although the phrase originated with a Winchester ad in the early 20th century, Colt has held an equal claim to the title due to the countless references of the famous revolver’s involvement in many historical events.

This early six-shooter’s reputation grew with each rumored accolade. From the dusty streets and tumbleweeds of Tombstone where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday shot it out with Billy Clanton and the gang at the O.K. Corral, to the U.S. Calvary defeating the Moros in guerilla warfare in the damp and rugged jungles of the Philippine Islands. It was a legend in the making and Hollywood took notice early on.

The imagery of the Old West is seared into our minds' eyes from the countless Western scenes that many of us grew up watching. I can still imagine William Bonny perfecting his gun fighting skills amidst the rocky outcroppings and desert landscape. Plinking whiskey bottles at 30 yards and spinning the revolver around his finger before sliding it back into his worn leather holster. Of course in my mind Bonny looks a lot like Emilio Estevez from Young Guns. But whoever you're picturing, you’d have to admit that it is pretty cool that we can still own the same gun that these gunfighters used two centuries ago.

To compile a complete list of all of the Colt Peacemaker movie credits would require a great deal more attention. It would certainly be the basis of an article in and of itself, as could a conversation of the calibers that the Peacemaker came in. We have purposely opted to avoid that particular topic here for the sake of a future conversation. The fact of the matter is that if you are going to write about such an iconic firearm, you're going to have to leave some stuff out, or turn your project into a book, because there is a lot of intriguing and valuable information to be covered. The Colt Peacemaker is not just a part of American history, it’s a symbol of our heritage and culture. It represents the tools and ingenuity that it took to build this great nation from a once rough and wild frontier.