By the 1970's the machinery was once again wearing out and the Colt Single Action was pronounced dead again in 1974, however this time Colt did not say it would never be returned. Return it did in 1976 with the 3rd Generation of the Colt Single Action Army. Changes occurred, most of which were ill advised. First was the match up of the hand and the cylinder. The hand design was changed for easier assembly and the cylinder no longer had a full-length bushing but a button bushing at the front end. Very recently, Colt rethought this change and all currently produced 3rd Generation Single Actions now once again contain a full-length cylinder bushing. With the advent of latest generation of Model Ps, shooters have had a choice of the original black powder-style screw in the front of the frame to hold the cylinder pin or a spring loaded catch, a change that occurred long before World War I.
The strangest change in moving from 2nd Generation to 3rd Generation was the change in the barrel threads going from 20 threads to the inch to 24 threads to the inch. With thousands of 1st Generation sixguns out there being prime candidates for new parts, why in the world would Colt change the hand, cylinder, and especially the barrel threads? A 3rd Generation barrel can be fitted to a 1st or 2nd Generation Single Action, however it is strictly a one time happening as the new barrel is basically being re-threaded as it is installed. It is unfortunate someone was not in charge of this project who really appreciated and understood the Single Action Army and its mystique.
The first 3rd Generations also suffered a change in the hammer outline resulting in a profile with a very poorly executed flat look, however this has also been changed to give the hammer profile a more rounded and pleasing look. This is also true of the top of the frame where it meets the hammer as this was also very square and extending too far back. This has also now been changed for the better. The 3rd Generation run has been an up-and-down affair, coming and then going, a standard production and then a Custom Shop offering, however things have settled down and it is once again not only a standard production item, Colt is also doing a very good job of fitting and finishing. It would be difficult for any untrained eye to see the difference existing between the three generations, however an experience sixgunner, believe it or not, is able to feel that difference just by handling and cocking the action. For everyone, the surest way to tell is by serial numbers. All 1st Generation Single Actions have numbers only in their serial numbers, and most will have six digits; 2nd Generation sixguns have an SA at the end of the serial number and that serial number is less than 80,000SA; and 3rd Generations began with 80,000SA. If the S or A or both are anywhere except at the end it is a 3rd Generation Colt. The first run of 3rd Generation Colt Single Actions lasted into the late 1980s when the market was flooded with all types of variations as to finish and barrel length and often second class examples before the production was to cease again, for the third time. These 3rd Generation Colt Single Actions were produced in .45 Colt, .44 Special, .44-40, and .357 Magnum. The 2nd Generation run had ended at approximately serial number 73,300SA, however when the 3rd Generation appeared there was a gap in the serial numbers and they began at number 80,000SA. When they hit serial number 99,999SA, the SA was then placed in front of the number. Colt Single Actions have been even more popular than Colt ever envisioned and they eventually had to go to a serial number with an S as the prefix and an A as the suffix.
Colt dropped the .44 Special from their 2nd Generation Single Actions in the mid-1960s and it is no small thanks to Skeeter Skelton that we got the .44 Special back in the 3rd Generation Single Action Army. He led the way in persuading Colt to do this, and they later presented him with fully engraved, ivory stocked 4 3/4” .44 Special. Especially if one intends to use anything more than standard factory level loads, the .44 Special is much preferred over the .45 Colt, .44-40, and .38-40 all of which have much thinner cylinder walls than The Special.
To my way of thinking one of the best things about the 3rd Generation Colts is for the first time since 1940, the Colt Single Action Army was once again made available in the “dash” cartridges, that is the .44-40, .38-40, and now even .32-20. Lest one think that the .38-40 is old and antiquated and fit only for the bone yard, consider that ballistically it is a deadringer for that most modern of all semi-automatics, the 1990s born and bred .40 S&W with its original factory loads. The ultramodern, totally up-to-date .40 S&W used a standard load of the 100+ year-old .38-40, which is a 180 grain bullet at about 900 to 1,000 fps. In fact for my early reloading experiments with the .40 S&W I used cast bullets designed for .38 Winchester Centerfire
As a teenager, I purchased a 60 year old .38-40 x 4 3/4" Colt Single Action Army in excellent shape, and later added a Lawrence Gunslinger outfit in black basket weave finish and handmade one piece walnut stocks and I thought I was quite the sixgunner. Truth was the sixty-year old Colt cost me two weeks pay and the holster and belt another week and I could barely afford to shoot more than a few rounds at a time in those pre-reloading days. Marriage, three young babies, college tuition all followed in rapid succession and it became a case of groceries or guns and all but a few of my sixguns got away. As I finished college and began to have a few more dollars coming in than going out, I looked for a replacement Colt SAA in .38-40, but none ever surfaced, at least not at a reasonable price. Both Colts and Great Westerns in .45 Colt, .44 Special, .44-40, and .357 Magnum were found over the years and purchased eagerly but no .38-40.
When I heard, in of the early 1990s, Colt would once again produce a .38-40 Single Action Army I could hardly believe it. Ruger had offered a special run of .38-40/10mm Blackahwk Convertibles (a very accurate sixgun with either cylinder), and good shooting replicas had been offered, but would we really have a genuine Colt Single Action .38-40 again? My emotions immediately went back 35 years; ever since I allowed that old .38-40 to get away I kept expecting to someday find one and now someday was here. Finally, the Colt Single Action Army .38-40 was a reality in both blue and nickel finishes, and in 4 3/4" or 5 1/2" barrel lengths, with the 7 1/2” barrel arriving later. After 35 years I was again shooting a real Colt Single Action Army .38-40.
During the First Generation era of the Colt Single Action Army, buying a .38-40, whether it was a Single Action or double action New Service, was a real act of faith. Barrel grooves and chamber mouth diameters ran from tight to over-size and it was not uncommon to have a tight chamber and oversize bore or vice versa. The very good news is Colt did it right with the 3rd Generation run. Both barrels and cylinder dimensions are tight, the chamber mouths on my gun run .399-.400", and it is one of the tightest sixguns I have seen this side of Freedom Arms with minimum headspace and tight lock-up. Sloppy reloads need not apply for service. All primers must be seated flush or below and brass must be properly sized and crimped or it is no go. The rounds simply will not fit the cylinder if they are less than perfect.
The .38-40 is a bottlenecked cartridge looking much like a .45 Colt necked down to forty caliber; in spite of its name the .38 WCF is not .38 caliber but a true forty caliber. This is why .38-40 bullets work in the .40 S&W. Being a bottlenecked case, the .38-40 requires a standard sizing die and lubing of brass before sizing. I use Dillon's spray lube for all of my .38-40 reloading, and then load .38-40s on a Progressive RCBS Model 2000 press. The fact that the .45 Colt, .44-40, and .38-40 all fit the same shell holder on the Model 2000 and I also use the same powder charge for each cartridge makes it very easy. It takes less than 10 seconds to change the die plate, the powder measure stays with the press, and it is only necessary to switch cartridge cases and bullets. For the .38-40, I use Starline brass being mated with CCI #300 standard primers and have pretty much settled on 8.0 grains of Unique with a Oregon Trail 180 grain RNFP (round nose flat point) bullet at my standard load.
Shooting any fixed sighted single action for the first time can be a real frustrating experience. Quite often they will shoot away from the sights and be off as to both windage and elevation. This new to replace the old Colt Single Action Army .38-40 proved to be right on the money windage wise and shot three inches low. A little careful filing on the front sight raised the elevation bringing point of name and point of impact to the same spot. The original sights on the 1st Generation sixguns consisted of a very shallow rear sight mated up with an inverted V front sight. If one had good eyesight the tip of the front sight matched up with the top of the rear V and very precise shooting could be performed. Somewhere along the line, the rear sight became a square notch but the front sight is still tapered towards the top resulting in a strange sight picture with the front sight not filling the rear sight either fully nor with square sides matching completely with a square notch.
Selected Loads for the Colt 3rd Generation Single Action Army .38-40 x 4 3/4"
Load MV 5 Shots/25 Yards
Lyman #401043 180 gr. 8.0 gr. Unique 1,022 1 1/8"
9.2 gr. Unique 1,065 2"
10.0 gr. Unique 1,235 2"
5.8 gr. Bullseye 864 1 3/8"
6.5 gr. WW452AA 983 1 1/4"
The final run of chamberings of the Colt Single Action Army, before its death and final trip back to life for its trek into the 21st century, consisted of .357 Magnum, .44 Special, .44-40, and .45 Colt. When it became a Custom Shop offering only, the chamberings were .44-40 and .45 Colt only, and the .44 Special and .357 Magnum were dropped, and then the third chambering became the .38-40. All three chamberings were Custom cataloged with a Royal Blue finish mated with the case hardened frame made famous by Colt or a full bright nickel finish. An extra nice custom touch was a nickel-plated Colt with bright blued screws on frame, backstrap, and trigger guard. For some strange reason known only to Colt all three chamberings were first available with 4 3/4” and 5 1/2” barrels but only the .45 Colt was offered with a 7 1/2” barrel.
The .44-40s I have encountered all have chamber throats of .430”, however some .44 bullets of this size will not fit the chambers. My rule of thumb is to use the largest bullet, which can be easily seated in the chamber. In the past this has been difficult unless one was a bullet caster, however commercial cast .44 bullets are now available in weights from 180 to 225 grains, I prefer the latter, for use in the .44-40. They are offered sized .427”, .429”, and .430” making it an easy task to tailor loads to a certain sixguns. Colt has not been careful enough in chambering their .45 Colt cylinders with some chamber throats being oversized as high as .460”; the ideal is .452”, and the 3rd Generation .45s I have encountered run .457-458”. For most of my loading of standard .45 loads for use in Colt or replicas, I prefer .454” bullets. Throats should never be oversize as a reamer cuts smaller holes, not bigger as it wears. Oversize throats simply mean the reamer was too large to start with. It doesn't do any good to replace the cylinder with another 3rd Generation .45 cylinder which would probably have the same malady. The only answer seems to be having a competent gunsmith re-chamber a .357 Magnum cylinder to a tight .45 Colt.
The production of the Colt Single Action Army has changed once again. It is no longer a Custom Shop offering, but rather a standard production item; the price has been dropped significantly twice in the last few years bringing it down to the $1200 range; it is now offered in all three barrel lengths; both blue/case-hardened or nickel-plated finishes; and in six caliber offerings, .45 Colt, .44-40, .38-40, .357 Magnum, .38 Special, and even in .32-20, another chambering which had not been seen since before World War II. The latest word form Colt is the offering of one more chambering, the rebirth of the .44 Special. All 3rd Generation .44 Specials I have measured have .430-.431” chamber throats making them just about perfect for today's jacketed or commercial cast bullets of .430” in diameter.
Permit me here to repeat once again something I said about the Colt Single Action Army 20 years ago. "Just what is so special about the Colt Single Action, a design having its beginning more than 145 years ago with the first single action? Pick up a Colt Single Action and you will discover true sixgun quality as the aesthetic value of the Colt SAA cannot be approached by any other handgun. If soul, spirit, and heart are not touched by the feel and genuine great looks of the Colt Single Action Army, something is wrong. Slowly cock the hammer and listen. As the big hammer moves past the safety notch one hears a distinct "C"; the hammer continues past the half cock and an audible "O" registers. As the hand pushes against the ratchet on the back of the cylinder, one who listens carefully will hear an "L"; and finally as the hammer and trigger come together in the firing mode, a definite "T" comes forth.
If you are not emotionally affected by the graceful lines of the big bore Colt you are on dangerous ground my friend. You have crossed over the line from enjoying fine handguns as works of art into the drab world of viewing them as working tools such as computers or claw hammers. If this is true, it is time to slow down, quit taking life so seriously, and enjoy the finer things once again.
If you find yourself in such as state as just described, head for the nearest Colt Single Action Army. Pick it up and if you are sincere in wanting to be helped, run your fingers along its sensuous shape and you will feel the dust of a thousand cattle in your nostrils, you will smell bacon sizzling in a pan over an open fire, you will hear a piano tinkling from the Long Branch, why you may even envision yourself back one hundred plus years pinning on a star. The old Colt will do that to one whose heart is in tune.”
In addition to the standard model Single Actions, Colt also offered 3rd Generation Sheriff's Models in .44-40, as well as a convertible .44-40/.44 Special, in both blue and nickel finishes with 3” barrels. At the other end of the spectrum, we have had the Buntline Special offered in nickel-plated .44 Specials and .44-40s, and both nickel-plated and blue/case-hardened finishes chambered in .45 Colt.
To compete with the Ruger Vaquero and to also gain a share of the market of Cowboy Action Shooters, the Colt Cowboy was unveiled at the Colt booth at the 1998 SHOT Show. I must admit I was totally underwhelmed. When I first saw it I went directly to the Colt rep to ask if it was made in Germany; they assured me it was All-American made. But, it did not look, feel, or smell like a Colt. It did say COLT on the barrel. Colt went back to the drawing board and made a few changes to have the Colt Cowboy look much more like a real Colt Single Action. They didn’t quite make it.
The Cowboy sold for about 35-40% of the price of a new Colt Single Action so there were major differences not the least of which is the transfer bar safety. However, unlike the Ruger Vaquero, opening the loading gate on the Colt Cowboy does not free the cylinder. Just as with the Colt Single Action Army, the hammer must still be placed on the half cock notch to be able to rotate the cylinder just as it has been in Colt sixguns since 1836 and Single Action Armies since 1873.
For a gun selling for so much less than the genuine Colt Single Action Army, one should certainly expect differences as to fit and finish. The case colored frame is not as vivid color wise as that found on the genuine Single Action Army being somewhere in between that found on the Ruger Vaquero and the original Colt sixgun. The fitting of the grip frame to main frame is not quite as good as that found on the current Single Action Army and the hard rubber 2nd Generation style grip without the eagle found on 3rd Generation grips is slightly undersize for the grip frame. The grip frame is not quite square where it meets the main frame behind the trigger guard. Cylinder lock-up is tight with very little play experienced either side to side or fore and aft when the hammer is cocked for firing. The barrel/cylinder gap is very tight and will not accept the .002" feeler gauge I had on hand. As revealed by the Hornady Digital Caliper, the Colt Cowboy is slightly larger than the Colt Single Action with the cylinder diameter being 1.677" compared to the Single Action Army size of 1.654". However, lengthwise both cylinders are the same size at 1.610". For size comparisons, the Ruger Vaquero goes 1.737" and 1.703" respectively.
It may not be a Colt Single Action Army, however the Colt Cowboy does shoot very well. Using my standard everyday .45 Colt of a 250 grain round nosed flat point bullet from Oregon Trail, over 8.0 grains of Unique, gives a muzzle velocity of 855 fps. This load pretty much duplicates the original black powder loading with groups at a Cowboy Shooting distance of 50 feet resulting in five of six holes touching and measuring 7/8 of an inch. No one can complain about this. Shooting the Colt Cowboy is enhanced by the fact the sights are very easy to see with a square notch rear mated with a front sight that is only slightly tapered from top to bottom.
The Colt Cowboy sold for more than a Vaquero or Italian replica, somewhere in the neighborhood of $500-600. The Ruger Vaquero is larger and stronger for those that want to use full power loads, while the Italian replicas duplicate fairly well the original Colt Single Action Army. This alone doomed the Colt Cowboy from the very beginning. For the price one got a sixgun with the same grip feel as a Colt, balance almost the same as a 5 1/2" Colt Single Action Army .45, looking a lot like a Colt, operating much like a Colt, and even has "Colt's Patent F. A. Mfg. Co." on the barrel. For all of this, it never quite connected with shooters and is now gone from the Colt catalog. Perhaps, Colt would have been better off trying to produce the best possible Single Action Army at the lowest possible price.
I have mentioned the fact 3rd Generation Colt Single Actions are not the equal of the 1st and 2nd Generation versions, and I have been accumulating the Model P since purchasing that first Single Action nearly 50 years ago. Strangely enough, when I survey my Colts I find I have more 3rd Generations than either 1st or 2nd Single Actions, most of them tuned by specialists such as Bob Munden, Tom Sargis, Eddie Janis of Peacemaker Specialists, and Shapels Gun Shop. They have been stocked with ivory by Paul Persinger, Ultraivory by Eagle Grips, exotic woods by BluMagnum, and black micarta by Charles Able. A pair of 4 3/4” 3rd Generations, a nickel-plated .44-40 and a blued .38-40 both bear the talented and skillful engraving of Dale Miller.
My first 3rd Generation Single Action was the newly introduced 7 1/2” .44 Special in 1978. I still have it. The last one purchased was also a 7 1/2 ”, this one .44-40. Two of my most special sixguns are 3rd Generations, both 45s, a 5 1/2” with the standard blue/case-hardened finish and the other a nickel-plated 7 1/2” version. What makes these extra special is the fact they belonged to my dear friend and Brother, Ron Elerick, the Kilted Preacher. Ron, all 6’10” of him, was an evangelist, a very different kind of evangelist, as he walked where Angels fear to tread. Ron ministered to outlaw bikers. He definitely looked the part and rode a Harley all over the country spreading The Word. I miss him terribly, however these two Colts keep me connected to him.