Genesis Of The Colt Single Action
Part 10 Of A 12-Part Series
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos Yvonne Venturino
In the fall of 1976 when reading an article by writer Skeeter Skelton, I got both good news and bad news. The bad news was Colt had quietly discontinued production of the 2nd Generation Single Action Army (SAA) in 1974. Few shooters outside the firearms industry had heard a word about it. The good news was Colt was bringing the SAA back again in a 3rd Generation.
Skeeter said there were changes made but the basic SAA was the same, i.e. three standard barrel lengths of 4 ¾”, 5 ½” and 7 ½”, finishes of full nickel or blue, with color case hardened frame, and grips of hard rubber. Grips on nickeled guns were walnut, with Colt’s Rampant Colt medallions.
The changes were incorporated in an effort by Colt to keep prices down. One new change was a pressed-in cylinder pin bushing instead of the removable ones used in 1st and 2nd Generation cylinders. Also the ratchet at the rear of the cylinders was re-shaped, which also necessitated a different shape on the rotating hand. And for some unknown reason, the pitch of the barrel’s threads was changed from the 20 threads per inch (TPI) as used on 1st and 2nd Generation SAAs to 24 TPI for these new ones.
Toward the end of 2nd Generation production Colt had begun using some investment cast parts, but the frames continued to be forged. The introductory caliber for 3rd Generation SAAs was .45 Colt, but .357 Magnum came along by the end of 1976.
In all three generations of Colt SAA standard cataloged barrel lengths have
been: 7 ½” (top) 5 ½” (middle) and 4 ¾” bottom. In the same order these
Colts are .38 WCF (.38-40), .38 WCF (.38-40) and .44 WCF (.44-40).
In the Colt SAAs almost 140 year history these eight calibers have been the
most popular. From left to right: .45 Colt, .44 WCF (.44-40) .38 WCF (.38-40)
.32 WCF (.32-20) .41 Colt (aka .41 Long Colt) .38 Special, .44 Special and .357
Magnum. All but .41 Colt are again available in 3rd Generation production.
Duke’s First 3rd Gen. SAA
And towards the end of 1976 is when I was introduced to 3rd Generation SAAs. That October the job I was working had paid a bit of overtime, so I ordered one of the new .45s with 7 ½” barrel. It was a disappointment. The grip frame’s edges did not match the main frame and the action was rough. The frame had been so heavily polished all screw holes were dished out. Third Generation serial numbers started over again at 80,000SA, leaving a gap of 5,000-plus after discontinuance of the 2nd Generation. My first 3rd Generation SAA had a number about 500 into that 80,000SA range.
Happily not all 3rd Generation SAAs were as poorly put together as mine. Some I saw in the late 1970s were finely made handguns. Regardless, Colt got and deserved a reputation for spotty quality. By 1978, at Skeeter Skelton’s continual urging, Colt added .44 Special as a caliber option to the 3rd Generation. Also at that year, serial numbers reached 99,999SA so Colt started them again at SA00001.
In 1978 I discovered a little known fact about SAAs. Third Generation cylinders could be fitted to 2nd Generation SAAs by simply fitting 3rd Generation hands to go with them. I had managed to find a 2nd Generation .357 Magnum at a very decent price and, wonder of wonders, a brand new unfired 5 ½” .44-40 barrel marked Colt Frontier Six-Shooter. That had to have been left over from 1st Generation production. Those two were mated by my gunsmith, and then he put in a new 3rd Generation .44 Special cylinder and hand. Everything went together perfectly and that particular SAA has been Yvonne’s now for three decades.
All Colt SAAs with serial numbers starting with SA are 3rd Generation.
After serial numbers reached SA99999 Colt started over with an “S” prefix and an “A” suffix.
Good News/Bad News
Anyway, back to 3rd Generation production. In the spring of 1982 Colt delivered we SAA fanciers more of that good news/bad news stuff. The good news was the .44-40 would once again be a caliber choice, but only in 4 ¾” and 7 ½” barrel lengths. The bad news was Colt was going to remove SAAs from their standard catalog and make them only available from the Colt Custom Shop, and only then if they were ordered with “embellishments.” That translated into custom grips, engraving, presentation boxes and such.
About this same time Colt began offering the mistakenly called “black powder frame” version of SAA. That is the frame style with a screw angling in from the front to secure the cylinder base pin instead of the transverse spring loaded latch made standard after about 1896. Despite my sourness over that first 3rd Generation .45 back in 1976 I just had to have one of those. So it was ordered with ivory grips and a presentation box.
I waited and waited for its delivery until many months had passed. Finally one day I called the Colt Custom Shop and spoke to a nice lady. After checking she said, “Sir, your gun is ready but the presentation boxes have not been delivered from the supplier.” I replied, “Lady, I can’t shoot a box. Send the gun, the box can come along whenever.” That .45 arrived in December of ’84 and I still have it.
Colt’s timing in taking the SAA out of the catalog in ’82 had been poor. The sport of cowboy action shooting had just gotten started and the market for SAAs increased dramatically. By 1993 Colt added the SAA back to the catalog with caliber options being only .45 Colt and .44-40. Early in 1994 .38-40 was resurrected and I got one of the first. It was a fine gun and one of the most accurate SAAs of my extensive experience.
Also somewhere around that time serial numbers had reached SA99,999 so Colt split the SA and started over again at S00001A. Some people started calling these SAAs “4th Generation” but Colt officials emphatically told me that since nothing had been changed in their manufacture these were still 3rd Generation.
Speaking of my own experiences, I own several SAAs with the split “S00001A” type serial numbers. All have been finely built and fine shooting sixguns. In fact some will easily outdo 1st and 2nd Generation SAAs in the same caliber. Besides the standard three barrel lengths in the 3rd Generation, Colt also made special runs of Sheriff’s Models (3″ barrel), Storekeepers Model (4″ barrel) and Buntline Specials (12″ barrels). The only one of those special runs I’ve favored is a Sheriff’s Model with dual cylinders for .44-40 and .44 Special. A Sheriff’s Model in .45 Colt had been made in a special run of 503 in 2nd Generation production, but these 3rd Generation Sheriff’s Model .44s were made by the thousands. In summer I often stick mine in my hip pocket with shot loads due to the plentitude of rattlers around my acreage here in Montana. It has been fired for that purpose many times.
Because the cowboy action sport demanded it, some changes have been made in SAAs in the last decade or so. The removable base pin bushing has been reinstated. Also virtually all the major calibers of 1st, 2nd and 3rd Generations have been again added to the catalog. About the only one not there is .41 Colt. Shooters can now buy SAAs chambered for .32-20, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .38-40, .44 Special, .44-40 and .45 Colt.
In the 3rd Generation, Colt once again started using the same caliber designations
as were standard on 1st Generation. For instance, this 3rd Generation Colt is stamped
.38 WCF instead of .38-40.
Sales of SAAs in the 21st century are not booming. Unofficially, I’ve been told Colt ships out about 1,000 SAAs a year on the average. The highest serial number I have personally seen has been in the S156000A range.
I can’t see myself buying any new SAAs. I have them in .357 Magnum, .38-40, .44-40, .44 Special and .45 Colt calibers, with both blued/color case hardened and nickel-plated finishes. That said, I still wish Colt well with their current SAAs. I can’t help but wonder, however, what they will do when serial numbers reach S99999A!
Although there are differences in specifications between 1st and 2nd Generation
SAAs and 3rd Generation ones, there is still the possibility of parts interchangeability.
This Colt has a 2nd Generation main frame and grip frame, a 1st Generation barrel
and a 3rd Generation .44 WCF/.44-40 cylinder.
Sheriff’s Models had been only a small production run in 2nd Generation and
all were .45 Colts. In 3rd Generation, they were built by the thousands as .44s
with both .44 Special and .44-40 cylinders. In summer months Duke keeps
one handy for rattlers with .44 Special cylinder installed. It’s loaded with the
first three rounds as shot loads and the last two as ordinary bulleted rounds.
Duke often keeps that 3″ barreled Sheriff’s Model handy in
summer around his Montana acreage. The hammer is kept
down on an empty chamber for safety.