In the beginning, Sam Colt created the revolver, the single action sixgun. Perhaps we had better qualify that to say Sam created the first practical working revolver. The story goes that young Colt shipped out of Boston as a cabin boy and during his spare time watched the ship’s wheel rotate and also be locked into a desired position. That set the wheels to turning in Sam’s mind and he soon whittled a working model out of wood of what he thought a revolver should be. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out at the time he thought, “I hope no one ever calls my revolver a wheelgun.” Well, I can at least imagine so!
In reality by the time teenage Sam came up with his idea the revolver was at least 150 years old as there is a six-shot, flintlock revolver in the armory of the Tower of London dating back to the late 1600s. Sam may not have been the first, however he made it work, he made it practical, he made it portable, he made it affordable, and in doing all this he became known as The Man Who Made All Men Equal. We could also say Sam Colt, more than anyone else, was responsible for the Age of the Gunfighter. The first real gunfighter’s weapon remains one of the finest handlin’ sixguns ever, the .36 caliber 1851 Colt Navy. With its easy packin’ portability, it ushered in the era of the shootist. However, this was not Colt’s first revolver, that distinction going to the five-shot, folding-trigger Paterson of 1836.
A decade later, after bankruptcy and the start of war with Mexico, the out of production .36 Paterson was followed by the powerful but cumbersome Walkers and Dragoons. Hollywood notwithstanding, these big .44’s were so heavy they were not carried in holsters but saddle scabbards. The sixgunner had to be on horseback to have easy access to his sixguns, however the advent of the 1851 Navy brought a sixgun easily capable of being carried readily accessible in a hip holster. Just before the dawn of the Civil War, the power of the Dragoons and Walkers was combined with the portabilty of the Navy as the 1860 Army arrived. Not quite as powerful as the Dragoons and Walkers of the 1840s, and not quite as small as the 1851 Navy, it was, however, in .44 caliber, and almost as easy to pack as the .36 Navy. By this time the revolver stage was solidly set for a long line of easy to carry, big bore single action sixguns. Colt was not the only choice as, in fact, Remington beat the 1860 Colt by two years with the introduction of their .44 caliber Model 1858. Both of the new .44s would see extensive service with the Army of the Potomac.
Sam Colt, who died in 1862, did not live to see the dawning of the era of cartridge firing big bore single actions. A decade after his death something must have been very right as far as planet line-up and additives in the drinking water as 1873 was a banner year for great firearms. Winchester introduced their first center-fire lever action, the Model of 1873 chambered in .44 WCF; the single-shot 1873 Trapdoor came forth in .45-70; and one of the greatest, I would not argue with anyone who called it The Greatest, sixguns ever was also introduced at the same time. The Colt Single Action Army still exists having gone through three production generations, and being produced almost continuously except for the years 1941-1956 and a short time in the 1970s. It has also been copied and modified by some manufacturers and certainly served to inspire others. In the last half-century single actions owing their existence to the great Colt Single Action Army have been offered by such companies as Great Western, Ruger, Seville, Abilene, Freedom Arms, Texas Longhorn Arms, Interarms, and United States Firearms. Foreign manufacturers such as Armi San Marco, Pietta, and Uberti have produced Italian replicas which have been imported by American Western Arms, Cimarron, EMF, Navy Arms, and Taylor’s & Co., while Herter’s, Hawes, and EAA have all offered German made big bore sixguns. Even Beretta and Taurus, long known for semi-automatics and double action revolvers, are now offering traditionally styled single action sixguns.
The first Colt Single Action Army, officially known as the Model P and affectionately as The Peacemaker, was offered in the now equally legendary .45 Colt. Those first single actions came forth at the bequest of the United States Military for use by the cavalry, and were originally offered with a Cavalry Model barrel length of 7 1/2” to duplicate the feel of the 1860 Army it would replace. The other standard barrel lengths soon offered were the 5 1/2” Artillery Model and one of the finest balanced sixguns, perhaps the finest, the 4 3/4” Civilian Model.
The practical working single action is almost two centuries old arriving on the scene in 1836, and then being improved in 1847, 1851, 1860, and finally in 1873 it became basically the fine sixgun still existing today. Experts expected it to die with the coming of double action sixguns from Colt and Smith & Wesson in the 1870s and 1880s. It did not. It should have died in 1899 with the coming of the Smith & Wesson K-frame double actions, as slick handlin’ a sixgun as one is likely to find. It did not. It should have been buried by the advent of the 1907 N-frame big bore sixgun from Smith & Wesson. It did not. By 1911 the .45 ACP chambered Government Model, a gun designed to give the power of the 1873 .45 Colt in a “modern” gun, should have made everyone forget the single action. The single action remained. It is a survivor.
Some very famous men who had every opportunity to choose a 1911 or a double action sixgun did otherwise. In 1916, before heading into Mexico after Pancho Villa, a young Army Lieutenant picked up a fully-engraved, nickel-plated, ivory-gripped .45 in El Paso. This was not a 1911 Government Model but a Single Action Army. That sixgun became famous as it was seen in many photographs taken of General Patton in World War Two. It survives today in the West Point Museum complete with S. D. Myres leather rig and two notches in the grip from the Mexican campaign. Hollywood made Bonnie & Clyde heroes and tried to make Frank Hamer look like the country bumpkin. They were wrong again. The career of the infamous team of Bonnie and Clyde was stopped by former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, whose favorite sixgun was “Old Lucky” a .45 Colt Single Action. Hamer was a real hero, a true “one riot, one Ranger” type of lawman. It was Hamer who said if he couldn’t get it done with five rounds in his .45 Colt he was “guilty of sloppy peace officering.” He got it done.
The single action still survives in the day of many superb double action revolvers and semi-automatics. Is it only nostalgia placing the person who packs a single action at a great disadvantage? In the vast majority of cases I do not believe so. I pack a single action often, almost always when the hardware is packed openly, and even when I am testing a double action or semi-automatic, I more often than not will be wearing a single action. They just seem to holster and pack so much easier than other types. The first shot is fast, and subsequent shots may be slower but the big bore single action can be depended upon to deliver five shots from a gun whose balance and portability has never been equaled. In the areas I frequent the most, the mountains, forests, foothills and deserts of Idaho, the chances of needing anything other than a big bore single action is virtually nil. The single action suits me just fine.
Yes, packin’ a single action with roots going back to the 19th-century in this the first decade of the 21st century may be looked upon by some as operating with not quite a full deck and being controlled more by tradition than practicality, but given my choice as to a single action sixgun or a high capacity nine I would pick the single action every time. I am not a peace officer, and God Bless those who are, however, if I had to go forth into the big city jungles faced by many of these peace officers every working day I would prefer a 100% reliable semi-automatic such as my Clark Custom Combat Commander .45, or at the very least I would want a Smith & Wesson K-frame .357 or big bore N-frame. But I am not, so I remain perfectly comfortable with a single action sixgun.
My modest collection of personal sixguns as well as handguns on loan for testing and evaluation contains all types, single actions, double action sixguns, and both single action and double action semi-automatics. Stacked up against any of these the Single Action Army is a classic pure and simple, heading a list which also includes the Colt 1911 Government Model and Python; the Ruger Flat-Top and Super Blackhawk; and the original S&W .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, and the answer to the Peace Officer’s Dream, the Combat Magnum of the 1950s. Personally, I like any handgun that looks good, feels good, and shoots good but first and foremost I am, and always have been, a single action sixgunner and always will be.
From my first Colts in .38-40 and .45 Colt; the Rugers of the 1950s, .22 Single-Six, .357 and .44 Flat-Tops; through the Freedom Arms and Texas Longhorn Arms sixguns first arriving in the 1980s; to the New Model Rugers and USFA Single Actions of today, I’ll take single actions. In the beginning, my revolver shootin’ beginning, my first sixgun purchased was a single action. It was 1956, I was a teenager, and the sixgun was a Ruger .22 Single-Six. Fast-forward nearly 50 years and the latest sixgun booked in is a USFA 7 ½” .44 Special Flat-Top Target.
Why does the single action remain so popular to the point of being awarded the status of being both practical and the first choice of a sixgun connoisseur by countless thousands of shooters like myself? Why do so many one-handgun owners who want a gun for plinking, a gun for the possible home defense, a gun for the car when traveling, a gun for packin’ on the hip while roaming desert, foothills, forests, and mountains, pick a single action? Why do many shooters pass over the double actions and semi-automatics to buy an old-fashioned single action? The answer to the why is simply because it suits his/her needs perfectly.
Single action sixguns take me back to the first date with the young blonde teenage girl that would become my wife four months later. Our first trip together in my ’53 Merc was taken to Boyle’s Gun Shop to pick up my custom Ojala rig. She knew what to expect from then on, however I can’t believe she would ever believe we would both be so involved in firearms in general and single action sixguns in particular over our now 46 years together. From our first times together she has shot with me and we were especially careful to shoot together as she was expecting each of our three kids. They say unborn children can hear music and the type of music played determines what they will prefer later, so if this true they could also certainly hear gunfire and be pointed in the right direction gun-wise even before being born. Whether true or not is debatable but we didn’t take any chances. We shot single action sixguns.
One of the first negatives pointed out about single actions is they are slow to load and unload. Frank Hamer would say you should not need any more than five rounds anyway, and anyone must confess there is no way to reload a single action as fast as a double action with a speedloader or the fastest of all reloads, the magazine fed autoloader. However, when the only magazines are empty everything is reversed and the single action is much faster to load and reload than it is to fill the semi-auto’s magazine. An accomplished single action sixgunner will actually beat the average non-speedloader using double action shooter when it comes to reloading especially if the double action shooter is careless and finds himself with an empty case stuck under the extractor star. Empties can be ejected from a spinning single action cylinder pretty fast and those nose heavy big bore rounds drop back in with no effort. Thell Reed is almost as fast doing this as Jerry Miculek is speed loading his double action. Almost.
The single action has always been considered far more likely to break than other types of actions as both Colt and Colt-style replica single actions with leaf springs are prone to breakage when it comes to bolt and hand springs. Both of these are fairly easy to replace, however in a gun that is properly tuned they rarely break. They can also be rather easily replaced with coil springs and wire springs. Bill Ruger not only made the single action affordable for the average shooter he also modernized it in 1953 with his all coil-spring driven Single-Six. With today’s New Model Ruger and Freedom Arms revolvers we have single actions that are virtually indestructible.
There are those who will try to tell us single actions are not as accurate as double actions or semi-automatics. A good gun is a good gun and after nearly a half-century of shooting virtually every type of repeating handgun I can say accuracy is a result of quality gun building not a certain type of action. But what about long hammer falls and heavy triggers? Most new handguns, whether single action, double action, or semi-automatic require a trigger and action job as they come from the factory. If one doesn't wish to spend the extra dollars to have a single action perfectly tuned with a three-pound creep-free trigger and a lighter though still reliable mainspring then the answer is simply Get Used To It. The human body is amazingly adaptable.
The single action is an inherently strong design. In fact, until the advent of the Ruger Redhawk and Super Redhawk, and now the Smith & Wesson Model 500, no double action could even come close to handling the pressures possible in many single action sixguns. The newer model single actions have massive frames coupled with a cylinder that is anchored solidly both front and rear requiring an awful lot of shooting to get out of alignment. When I consider the thousands of heavy loads I have personally run through my 10” Freedom Arms .454 Casull, even I, a true single action connoisseur, stand in awe at the strength of this fine revolver. Coupled with the strength of the modern single actions from Ruger and Freedom Arms is the ability to pack this strength in such a practical and portable package. The Ruger Redhawks and Super Redhawks are very strong revolvers, but they are nowhere near as portable nor as easy to holster as the single actions.
Whatever caliber is chosen one of the great assets of the single action is grip shape. The single action grip is the finest ever devised to fit the most hands, however it is not all-encompassing. For my hands, the traditional Colt grip shape is perfect for calibers up to heavy loaded .44 Specials and .45 Colts. We are talking 250 grain bullets at 900 to 1,100, possibly 1,200 feet per second. Get above these loads and recoil becomes a problem for me even with the Colt grip shape. Ruger addressed this problem by introducing the Super Blackhawk grip frame in 1959. For some reason it just never worked well for me. The Bisley Model introduced nearly three decades later does.
There's something almost spiritual about the Single Action. Did Sam Colt have some special help in coming up with that first practical single action? Did William Mason actually design the Colt Single Action Army or did he go to sleep one night only to wake up the next morning and find the plans had mysteriously appeared on his desk? Could the single action actually have come from the mind of mere mortals? It doesn’t seem so to me as to my eye the beautiful lines of the single action cannot be approached by any other handgun. There are qualities inherent in a good single action that cause soul, spirit, and heart to be stirred. If one’s emotions are not quickened by the feel and genuine great looks of a Colt Single Action Army, a Freedom Arms Model 83, a Texas Longhorn Arms Number Five, a Ruger Flat-Top or Bisley, something is definitely lacking in life. The fact that your reading this book tells me all your emotions are in tune.
It is quite difficult to explain all of this to anyone who doesn't understand. Pick up a single action, thumb back that big hammer, rotate the cylinder, and if you do not feel the dust of a Texas cattle drive, hear the sounds of the saloons along the Main Street of Dodge City, smell bacon and coffee on an open fire in the mountains of Montana, something is not connected. Take the next step. Fire that first shot and feel the gentle recoil of a .44 Special or .45 Colt, or experience the power of a .44 Magnum or .454 Casull. From that moment on you will either be a true lover of single actions or all hope is lost.
My Smith & Wesson and Colt double actions and semi-automatics will not be given up; they are normally the first choice when carrying concealed, but as I head for the desert, foothills, forests, or mountains, it is quite likely I will be packin’ a single action. It may say Colt, Freedom Arms, Ruger or Texas Longhorn Arms on the barrel. Whatever the choice of makers, single actions are made for the outdoors, and when I head out chances are extremely high it will be a single action. A good single action sixgun, plenty of ammo, food, water, sleeping bag, and a companion fit to ride the river with, is all one needs to head for the hills and experience real-life.