The First Double-Action Big-Bore Sixguns
Sam Colt was a firearms genius; no one can dispute this. His 1836 Paterson was the first truly successful single-action revolver. After collaborating with the other Sam, Sam Walker, Colt’s 1847 Walker brought new meaning to power in a 1-handed firearm. One year later, the advent of the 1st Model Dragoon was the beginning of powerful sixguns, which were also at least beginning to be portable sixguns. The 2nd and 3rd Model Dragoons followed in rapid succession with each being an improvement over the original. These were still very large and heavy revolvers at 4 pounds, even though a half pound less than the Walker.
The 1851 Colt Navy was truly a milestone in revolver evolution. The Walker and Dragoons were powerful, and very large .44-caliber sixguns. With the 1851 Navy, Colt managed to reduce the weight of a revolver to the point of making it totally portable and packable at all times, ushering in the era of the gunfighter. It was not only relatively light in weight; it could be drawn from leather very quickly, and had excellent balance. The .36-caliber Navy was the favorite sixgun of Wild Bill Hickok who was still carrying a pair of ivory gripped, well-used Navies when he was murdered by being shot from behind. This was 1876, his eyes were growing dim, his reaction had slowed, however it’s a tribute to his ability he was shot in the back of the head while playing poker — not challenged from the front.
By 1860, Sam Colt was able to blend new technologies and new metals together to bring out a .44-caliber revolver almost as easy to pack as the 1851 Navy. The 1860 Army became the official side-arm of the Northern troops in the Civil War, which of course put the Colt Company on solid financial footing and made Sam rich. Actually, he did not live to see most of the money, as he died in 1862. His firearms were hugely successful, at least after he recuperated from bankruptcy over the Paterson, however this success blinded him to the wave of the future. He totally ignored any thought of producing firearms using fixed ammunition or cartridge cases. Two fellows by the name of Smith and Wesson had introduced the first successful cartridge-firing revolver, with their Model #1 7-shot, tip-up .22 revolver in 1857. Sam Colt just knew everyone would always desire to load their own ammunition in his revolvers in the form of powder, ball, and cap.
Colt’s Model 1878 differs from the Colt Single Action Army in the
grip frame, triggerguard and hammer profile.
By this time double-action revolvers were starting to show up, with both Starr in this country, and Deane & Adams in England, producing double-action percussion revolvers. Colt looked upon double actions and fixed ammunition as so much foolishness. His ideas set the future course for Colt as they continued to live in the past, while Smith & Wesson was looking toward the future. The man who changed everything as far as revolver evolution was one Rollin White, who worked for Smith & Wesson after Colt turned him down. White held the patent for bored-through cylinders using fixed ammunition.
In 1869, Smith & Western brought out the first big-bore,out the first big-bore, cartridge-firing revolver with the break-top Model #3 chambered in .44 S&W American. Not only did this revolver fire a serious cartridge, it was very easy to unload and reload. When a latch in front of a hammer is unlocked the entire barrel and cylinder assembly rotates 90 degrees downward and the ejector assembly automatically ejects the fired cases. It took a couple of seconds to refill the cylinder, rotate the barrel and cylinder assembly back into place, and the gun was ready to fire.
When the Army ordered Smith & Wesson Americans, the powers at Colt began to pay attention, however they could not get around the White patent immediately. In the process they converted Colt percussion revolvers to handle fixed ammunition with the Thuer, Richards and Richards-Mason Cartridge Conversions. Then their first revolver built to handle big-bore cartridges, the 1871-72 Open-Top, became a reality. One year later, this short-lived model was redesigned by William Mason to become the 1873 Single Action Army.
S&W’s Double Action not only unloaded faster than the Colt Model 1878 …
… it’s also much faster than any of the “modern” double action sixguns.
Now both Smith & Wesson and Colt had superb, though quite different, single-action revolvers. The Smith & Wesson evolved into the Model #3 .44 Russian, while Colt had the .45 Single Action Army. The Colt was more powerful and more rugged, while the Smith & Wesson was a more sophisticated design and easier to load and unload. Colt received the Army contract, while Smith & Wesson sold most of their Model #3 Russian sixguns overseas. Duplicating the old loads using balloon head brass with a 246-grain bullet in the .44 Russian and 255-grain bullet in the .45 Colt, muzzle velocities are approximately 750 fps and 950 fps respectively. The .45 Colt full-house loading proved to be too much for the US Army and it was dropped back to about 800 fps.
Smith & Wesson had won the race to offer the first big-bore cartridge firing revolver simply because they were the only participant and Colt was not about to let this happen again. The next race would be for the introduction of a self-cocker, a double-action revolver, and in this case Colt would lead the way. In 1877, Colt introduced their first double-action revolvers with the Lightning chambered in .38 Long Colt and the .41 Long Colt in the Thunderer. Not true big bores, but they were the start. One year later, Colt’s first big-bore double-action revolver arrived as the Model 1878 in .45 Colt.
Both of these Colts, the Model 1877 and Model 1878, were basically single-action revolvers fitted with double-action triggers and a new grip frame. In both cases, the grip frames were changed from the Colt Single Action style allowing the revolver to naturally roll in the hand when fired, to a new grip frame with a rounded butt and a hump at the top of the backstrap to prevent the double-action revolver from moving in the hand when fired. The movement of the Single Action aided the thumb in contacting the hammer and naturally cocking it as the revolver came back down out of recoil. With the double-action revolver this was not necessary, however the grip needed to be maintained as the trigger finger never lost contact with the trigger.
Both Colt double actions still loaded and unloaded by bringing the hammer to half-cock, opening a loading gate on the right side, rotating the cylinder one chamber at a time and punching each cartridge out with the ejector rod, then rotating the cylinder once again as new cartridges were dropped into place.
Evolution of the Colt big-bore revolver .45-style introduced in the 19th century.
Left: Single Action Army Middle: Model 1878 Right:New Service
Three years after Colt introduced the Model 1878, Smith & Wesson came forth with their first double-action revolver. In 1881, Smith & Wesson introduced the .44 Double Action 1st Model. They did exactly as Colt, that is, they basically simply added a double-action trigger to their single-action Model #3. They did not, however, have to change the grip frame, as the Model #3 already had a rounded butt and a slight hump at the top of the backstrap.
Smith & Wesson’s Double Action .44 Russian would be manufactured until 1913; however, all frames were made prior to 1899. Approximately 54,000 were manufactured. A rare variation was the lighter Wesson Favorite, also in .44 Russian, with approximately 1,000 being produced. By slightly lengthening the cylinder, the Double Action became the Frontier Model, with approximately 15,000 being made in .44-40 and less than 300 in .38-40.
Colt’s first big-bore double-action revolver would last until 1907 with slightly over 51,000 being manufactured. In addition to the original .45 Colt, they were also made in .44-40, .44 Russian, .41 Long Colt, .38-40, .38 Long Colt, .32-20, .32 Colt, .22 and British chamberings of .450 Boxer, .455 Enfield and .476 Enfield. The .32 Colt and .22 are extremely rare, with only two known examples of each.
One interesting variation of the Model 1878 Double Action Colt is the version found with an oversized triggerguard. This is sometimes referred to as the Alaskan Model or Philippine Constabulary Revolver. The overly large trigger guard made it easier to handle the Model 1878 wearing gloves. We do know William Howard Taft, who was governor of the Philippines, ordered 5,000 of these revolvers, known as the Model of 1902, for the United States Army stationed in the Philippines.
From 1878 until the 1990s Colt offered three double-action .45 Colt sixguns,
the Model 1878 (left), the New Service and the Anaconda.
Tough To Shoot?
For many years I have read the original double actions were very hard to shoot double action and I had no reason to doubt this. That is, until I acquired by own Model 1878 .45 Colt and Smith & Wesson Double Action Frontier .44-40. By acquiring, I should say both were anniversary presents from Diamond Dot, a wife who truly understands. Perhaps I have a stronger than normal trigger finger from so many years of shooting, however, I found both revolvers easy to operate double action and also easy to handle when point shooting.
I’ve always had an immense fondness for single actions in general and the Colt Single Action in particular. However, in the past 15 years I’ve also learned to appreciate the Smith & Wesson single-action revolvers, the American, the Schofield, the Model #3 Russian and the New Model #3. If I had lived in the 1880s and if I had normally carried a single action and if I had been introduced to either the 1878 Colt or the Double Action Smith & Wesson, what would I have done? I know that’s a lot of “ifs,” but I can certainly understand shooters switching to the self-cocking sixguns.
Contrary to what we see in most western movies, a single action is very difficult, and dangerous, when using a maximum speed draw while cocking the hammer either in the leather or as it’s drawn. The introduction of the self-cocking revolvers removed this obstacle. Now it was only necessary to draw the sixgun and pull the trigger as the revolver found its target.
Colt not only produced the first big-bore double-action revolvers a few years before Smith & Wesson, they would also be the first to produce what we consider a modern double-action revolver; that is, one with a swing-out cylinder. By the end of the 1880s Colt began a line of Army and Navy .41-framed double-action revolvers, mostly chambered in .38 LC and .41 LC, and having swing-out cylinders. These would evolve into the larger New Service in 1898. Immensely popular, the New Service overtook the Single Action Army in total production numbers due to the fact more than 150,000 New Services chambered in .45 ACP with 51/2″ barrels as the Model 1917 were ordered for the use by the troops in World War I.
The evolving S&W .44: Model #3 Russian (left), Double Action .44 Russian and .44 Special Triple-Lock.
Collectors apply special terms to distinguish the various models of New Services from 1898 to 1941. The Old Model, the name applied to the first 21,000 New Services, was rather strange looking with a straight stovepipe-shaped barrel and a trigger guard looking like it just didn’t quite belong there. Next came approximately 2,000 Transitional Models with interior improvements and a hammer block safety. Most New Services encountered are the Improved Model, which would go to serial number 328,000.
The barrel on the Improved Model has a large collar where it screwed into the frame and the triggerguard looks like it’s part of the frame. In 1928 the Late Model New Service appeared with a change in the shape of the top strap to give it a more flattened appearance and the rear sight was milled to a square notch.
In 1940 Colt offered three versions of the New Service. The most prevalent was a standard model with barrel lengths of 41/2″, 51/2″ and 71/2″ in either blue or a nickel, and chamberings of .45 Colt, .45 ACP, .455 Eley, .44-40, .44 Special, .38-40, .38 Special and the latest and most modern cartridge, the .357 Magnum. For some reason the last two chamberings came with 4″, 5″ or 6″ barrels. A beautifully shooting (“like a rifle”) New Service, was the New Service Target Revolver available in .44 Special, .45 Colt and .45 ACP in a choice of either a 6″ or 71/2″ barrel. Stocks were checkered walnut, the trigger was checkered, as were the front and backstraps, finish was a deep blue, and sights were adjustable with a choice of a Patridge or bead front sight.
Colt’s ultimate New Service was their deluxe target revolver, the Shooting Master. This 6″-barreled revolver featured a hand-finished action, sights and a top strap finished to eliminate glare, and a choice of calibers from .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .44 Special and .45 Colt to .45 ACP. The Shooting Master represented the highest quality revolver Colt could build until the Python arrived in 1955. Along with the Colt Single Action Army, the New Service was dropped in 1941. The Single Action Army was resurrected in 1956 but the New Service remains buried.
S&W .44 double-action sixgun cartridge evolution: The .44 Russian
(left) (1881), .44 Special (1907) and .44 Magnum (1955).
S&W Catches Up
Ten years after Colt introduced their 1889 Navy Model revolver with a swing-out cylinder, Smith & Wesson followed with their first modern double-action sixgun, the .38 Military & Police. Since this was the first double-action Smith & Wesson revolver to require the ejector rod to be pushed to eject fired shells, it was known as the 1st Model Hand Ejector. It was in this double-action sixgun the .38 Special was introduced. Not a big bore yet, but the stage was set for a new sixgun and cartridge.
In 1907 Smith & Wesson enlarged their .38 Military & Police Model of 1899 to become the .44 1st Model Hand Ejector of 1907. Two great improvements were added to the 1st Model big bore. A shroud was added to the bottom of the barrel to enclose and protect the ejector rod, and this 1st Model became known as the Triple-Lock due to the addition of a third cylinder lock. This lock in front of the cylinder was machined where the frame and cylinder yoke came together to solidly lock the cylinder in place.
The Triple-Lock was perhaps not only the most beautifully designed double-action revolver of all time, it’s also significant for the new cartridge it introduced, the .44 Smith & Wesson Special. With this new cartridge Smith & Wesson did not really know what they had. The .44 Special was advanced as an improvement over the .44 Russian, a superb cartridge in its own right. To come up with the .44 Special, the .44 Russian case was lengthened from .97″ to 1.16″ and the powder charge was increased from 23.0 to 26.0 grains of black powder under a roundnosed 246-grain lead bullet. With the lengthening of the case, the increase in powder charge simply made the .44 Special a duplicate of the .44 Russian. When the switch was made to smokeless powder the muzzle velocity basically stayed the same right at 700-750 fps.
The Triple-Lock and the .44 Special were capable of handling a 250-gr. bullet at a muzzle velocity to equal or even eclipse the most powerful cartridge of the time, the .45 Colt. Instead, factory loads stayed at the .44 Russian level. It would be up to handloaders to discover the true potential of the .44 Special. The Triple-Lock was offered in both fixed and adjustable-sighted models in barrel lengths of 4″, 5″ and 61/2″, in both blue and nickel finishes. And while the vast majorities are found in .44 Special, there were also a few manufactured in .38-40, .44-40 and .45 Colt. The feature giving the Triple-Lock its name lasted only until 1915 when, after 15,375 revolvers had been produced, the third locking feature was dropped to save a grand total of $2 per gun.
The Smith & Wesson big-bore Hand Ejectors went through several stages. In 1915 it became the 2nd Model Hand Ejector, however not only was the third locking feature missing so was the shrouded ejector rod. The 3rd Model returned the shrouded ejector rod in 1926, and then this grand sixgun became the 4th Model, or as it’s better known, the Model 1950 Target .44 Special. Five years later, with the addition of a longer cylinder, heavy bull barrel, and special heat treating, the 1950 Target became the magnificent sixgun known simply as the .44 Magnum. In 1957 when all Smith & Wesson revolvers received model numbers, the .44 Magnum became the Model 29. Somehow “Model 29” loses something when translated from “.44 Magnum.”
Colt would not introduce another big-bore double-action revolver until the 1990s with the appearance of the Anaconda in both .44 Magnum and .45 Colt. This followed by several years Ruger’s introduction of the Redhawk, and Dan Wesson’s Model 44, both chambered in .44 Magnum. Today we have a veritable menu of big-bore double actions from which to choose. All of them, however, have their roots in the first double-action sixguns from Colt and Smith & Wesson.
By John Taffin