The 3RD Gen. Colt Single Action Army

Lousy — Or Great?

Colt SAA’s of the 3rd Generation are great!” “Colt SAA’s of the 3rd Generation are Lousy.” It may be a conundrum, but both statements are true. Early 3rd Generation SAA’s had some problems in fit and finish. More recent 3rd Generation ones are excellent in those respects. Both of those opinions humbly come from my own experiences.

Back in 1976 Colt reintroduced the SAA after a two-year hiatus for retooling and redesigning. Whereas 2nd Generation SAA’s left off in the 74000SA range, 3rd Generation skipped to 80000SA. My first 3rd Generation SAA came in late ’76 and was a .45 with a 71/2″ barrel, blued with case-colored frame. It was in the first few hundred of that 80000SA range.

It was a great disappointment to me, even to my relatively inexperienced eyes. The backstrap and trigger guard did not fit flush with the frame and sharp edges stuck out. Its backstrap came with a small crack and the grip frame’s blue did not match the barrel or ejector rod housing. Eventually I actually gave it away.

Among the re-engineered factors was a change in barrel threads, a different ratchet at the rear of the cylinder, with corresponding rotating hand and a pressed-in cylinder pin bushing as opposed to the replaceable one of 1st and 2nd Generation SAA’s.

Duke’s 3rd Generation .45 Colt SAA’s exhibiting many of the options available on them
since 1976. The blued and case-colored frame, fully blued and fully nickel-plated version,
the three standard barrel lengths and so-called “smokeless powder and black powder
frames” showcase available features. Note all of them wear custom grips.

Good Ones Too

Yet, my most recent 3rd Generation SAA has excellent fit and finish. Nickel-plated with 43/4″ barrel, its serial number is in the S48000A range putting it well into 21st century manufacture. A colleague recently told me the highest serial number he has observed was in the S65000A range. Caliber of my newest is .38-40 and its cylinder pin bushing is retro-graded back to the removable version.

Colt SAA serial numbers went to 99999SA in 1978. Then they were switched to SA1001. In 1993 number SA99999 was reached, then Colt split the SA to S2001A. Why they skipped about a thousand numbers when going to the SA prefix and 2,000 when splitting the SA remains a mystery.

One huge boost to 3rd Gen. popularity was the explosive growth of cowboy action competitions. The most popular revolver used being Colt SAA’s and replicas. As reintroduced in 1976, 3rd Generation caliber choices were .45 Colt and .357 Magnum. In 1978 .44 Special was added and in 1982 the .44-40 was reintroduced. Prior to my first .44-40 purchased in 1982, I had owned samples of all three chamberings. When the .38-40 was added in 1993 I purchased several.

An interesting sub-variation in 3rd Generation SAA’s was the reintroduction of the misnamed black-powder frame. That was the one with a screw angling in from the frame’s front to secure the cylinder base pin, instead of the later transverse spring-loaded screw. In 1st Generation SAA’s, phasing out the angled screw began in 1892 but Colt didn’t warranty the model for smokeless powders until 1900. Hence the misnomer. Also during the 1st Generation, Colt stamped .44-40’s, and only .44-40’s: “COLT FRONTIER SIX-SHOOTER.” Some of the 3rd Generation .44-40’s were so marked. I actually have a pair with black-powder frame and consecutive serial numbers.

Since 1976, 3rd Generation SAA’s have had (1st) an “SA” suffix, (2nd)
an “SA” prefix and currently an “S” prefix with an “A” suffix.

Know The Details

Normally cataloged 3rd Generation SAA’s had 43/4″, 51/2″ and 71/2″ barrels. However, special runs were made with 3″, 31/2″, 33/4″, 4″, 6″ and 12″ barrel lengths. Those are ones I know about, but others could have crept in. I’ve owned all except the 6″ length. Colt also made limited numbers of 3rd Generation .38 Specials and .32-20’s.

These days, my shelves hold several 3rd Generation SAA’s with 3″, 43/4″, 51/2″ and 71/2″ barrel lengths. They are .38-40’s, .44-40’s and .45 Colts, while the 3″ “Sheriff’s Model” .44-40 also has a .44 Special cylinder. It’s my all-time favorite rattlesnake handgun around the place here, with .44 Special shot-loads. For regular bullet shooting my favorites are the .44-40 and .38-40 with .45 Colt a distant third.

Standard finishes for Colt SAA’s since 1873 have been fully nickel-plated or blued, with case-colored frame. They sometimes case-colored the hammer, too. Occasionally, on special order, fully blued SAA’s have been available. Back in the 1990’s Hank Williams Jr. presented me with a full-blued 3rd Generation .45 with 43/4″ barrel and my name inscribed on the back-strap. It’s one of my most treasured possessions.

Being more of a shooter than a collector, I’ve sold off all my 1st Generation SAA’s and many of my 2nd Generation ones. I’ve kept samples of the 3rd Generation in various calibers, barrel lengths and finishes. That’s because they’re fine shooters and, well, once they get under your skin, you can’t live without some in the safe!

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