By the late 1870s, for all practical purposes, the buffalo were gone. Once the buffalo disappeared, the Indian could no longer exist as he had for many centuries, as the buffalo provided both food and shelter with every part of those magnificent shaggy beasts being used. Once the herds were wiped out, the Indian’s world was gone and it would not be long until reservations were a way of life.
With the Frontier era pretty well over, men began to look at sixguns for recreational purposes as well as self-defense. Target shooting became widespread with well-known men such as Walter Winans setting nearly unbelievable records using the Smith & Wesson New Model #3 chambered in .44 Russian. Winans, whose reputation was made shooting single action revolvers as few others were able to do before or since, would say in 1920, “The revolver is obsolete.” He should have known better.
Originally the Colt Single Action Army was just as its name implies, manufactured as an Army sixgun adopted for the United States Cavalry in 1873. Fifteen years later it was time to bring forth a variation on the Model P. As a teenager I spent much of my time hanging around the most interesting place I could find, the local gun shop and shooting range. When the owner suffered a fire in part of his shop and was faced with months of trying to salvage parts and equipment I was more than happy to work with him in the reclaiming operations. One day, as we were cleaning some parts, a fellow came in with three handguns for sale. "Will you give me $65 for these three guns?" One was a Colt Single Action, the other two were old break-tops and their manufacturer is long lost from memory. At a time when one could have a pre-War Colt Single Action in excellent condition for around $90, the purchase was made even though the Colt exhibited no original finish.
By this time I was fairly familiar with sixguns but this Colt was a little different. The sights were not standard but rather a movable rear much like that found on the my original .22 Ruger Single-Six, that is, it moved in a dovetail for adjusting windage, while the front sight was adjustable by loosening a screw and moving it up and down. The top strap was also wider and thicker. That night as I was reading about Colt Single Actions in the latest issue of GUNS QUARTERLY, I came across the mysterious model of the Colt Single Action Army. It was not a standard model but a rare Target Model known as the Flat-Top Target.
The caliber marking on the barrel of the gun brought into the gun shop was ".44 S&W". Colt records showed that Colt produced 51 Flat-Tops in .44 S&W and 51 Flat-Tops in .44 Russian. Many current researchers believe these were all the same therefore there were actually 102 Flattops brought forth in .44 Russian. The Colt Single Action Flat-Top Target Model was produced from 1888 to 1895 as Colt's offering for bullseye shooters. Some Flat-Tops were assembled from existing frames after 1895 and there exists one Flat-Top Target Model in .44 Special, a caliber which did not come forth until 1907-1908. It has been my good fortune to handle this very special Special as it belonged to Elmer Keith. The .44 Russian was the target cartridge of the day and Flat-Tops are also found in the English cartridges of .450 and .455 along with some 20 other chamberings.
Some of the Flat-Top Target Models were fitted with extra long grips that filled in under the butt of the standard Single Action Army grip frame to give target shooters better control of the sixgun. I have not seen or heard of any Flat-Top Target Models being fitted with the 1860 Army grip frame, which to me would have made perfect sense. The Flat-Top was officially dropped in 1894 as it was modified to become the Bisley Target Model. In England it was advertised as "Colt's New ‘95 Model, .455 Cal. Army And Target Revolver In One. Takes the standard service cartridge. No pistol shoots more accurately, quickly, or is as durable in construction. Every pistol guaranteed. Everyone should try it before buying a military, match, or frontier revolver."
The sighting system for the Bisley remained the same as found on the Colt Flat-Top Target Model, however, a wide hammer and trigger were added, and to provide a sixgun more adaptable to target shooting, the grip shape was radically changed. To raise the back of the back strap, the frame was slightly altered to ride about 1/8" higher in the back, the grip frame was given a smooth curve that went right to the top of the back strap and also was curved higher behind the trigger guard. This allowed the grip to nestle deeper in the hand for stability while target shooting. The grip shape of the Single Action Army was designed, either purposely or accidentally, to help tame felt recoil of big bore cartridges as it allowed the sixgun to roll naturally in the hand. I would say accidently as it first appeared on the .36 caliber Model 1851 Navy which exhibited very minimal felt recoil. The Bisley grip frame was brought forth to stabilize the sixgun and keep it from shifting in the hand during target shooting.
The Bisley Target Model lasted for less than 20 years, the last one being shipped around 1913. The Colt Single Action Flat-Top and Bisley Target Model both disappeared before World War I nearly a century ago. Since the Bisley was originally designed as a target shooting sixgun for England, the most popular caliber in the Bisley Target Model was the English .455 Eley, followed by the .32-20, and .38-40. In the Single Action Flat-Top Target Model the number one chambering was not .44 Russian or even .45 Colt, but the easy shooting .38 Colt. There was a good reason for its popularity. It had virtually no felt recoil and if current production .38 Long Colt ammunition from Black Hills is any indication, it was exceptionally accurate.
The next three top chamberings in the Single Action Flat-Top were the .45 Colt, .22 Rimfire and .41 Long Colt. Target Models are very rare and not easily found. It isn't often that one walks into a gunshop as that one did 50 years ago. The true value of that .44 caliber Flat-Top Target Model in the late '50s was more like $700; imagine its value today. Today Target Models definitely demand collector prices. Very high prices. Of the total Colt Single Action production prior to World War II of nearly 357,000 sixguns, less than 1,000 each were Single Action and Bisley Target Models, 917 for the Single Action and 976 for the Bisley.
Even if one could a find Flat-Top Single Action or Bisley Target Model, they would certainly be too valuable to be an everyday shooting sixgun, however thanks to Cimarron we can at least capture the flavor of the original Flat-Tops as both models are now offered replica style manufactured by Uberti with a 7 1/2" models of each in .45 Colt chambering. Originally, only 100 .45s were made in the Single Action model by Colt and 97 in the Bisley style in this caliber. Now thanks to replicas anyone can own and shoot a .45 Target Model Colt.
The Bisley Model started out as a target pistol, however it did not stay that way. Colt recognized a demand from shooters for a standard, fixed sighted Model P with the Bisley Model hammer, trigger, and grip frame. For me, and probably for most shooters, the original Colt Single Action has better balance and is faster from leather than the Bisley. The Colt Single Action grip frame is also considered as the best for shooting as it rolls naturally in the hand upon recoil which in turn places the thumb in the proper place for fast re-cocking of the hammer. However, once that recoil increases past a certain point the rolling of the grip frame in the hand becomes a liability and often allows the hammer to dig into the back of the hand. This is why the standard grip frame did not last very long on the Ruger .44 Magnum Blackhawk. For most shooters, the Bisley Model grip frame does a much better job of handling recoil than the original Single Action style.
I first became acquainted with the Bisley Model in the early days of GUNS magazine in the 1950s. Two excellent articles were found authored by a grand old gentleman, who must have been at least in his late 70s, by the name of Walter Rogers. His second article praised Bill Ruger for offering such great single action sixguns in magnum calibers, however his first article featured the sixgun he had carried most of his life. Rogers was born about the time of the Gunfight at OK Corral and spent his lifetime as a cowboy, forest ranger, and outdoorsman. His firearms of choice, naturally, were a Winchester lever action rifle, he really liked the .25-35, and a Colt Single Action.
That first article is entitled "Take Your Time Fast” and featured his fast leather and a special Single Action. Rogers' Colt was not your ordinary Model P, in fact it was not a Model P at all but rather a Bisley Model. For much of his life Rogers carried that Bisley .45 in a home made holster on a companion home made combination cartridge and money belt. His sixgun was not 100% Bisley as the hammer spur had been modified to have the same shape as the Colt Single Action Army. One often encounters old Colt Single Action Army Models with Bisley style hammers; Rogers reversed it by using a Bisley Model with a standard Single Action hammer. It worked for him.
About the same time I found my first Bisley Model in a gun shop. It was a 4 3/4” .45 refinished with a gold plated cylinder and barrel and the balance of the gun was nickeled. Grips where imitation stag and altogether it was quite gaudy looking. However, the price was quite reasonable and I've always regretted not buying it at the time.
Another fan of the Colt Bisley about the same time as Rogers was the saddle and holster maker to the Hollywood stars, Ed Bohlin. Bohlin had short fingers and preferred the low riding hammer of the Bisley to the standard Colt Single Action Army. If one watches carefully it is often possible to notice a Bisley riding in the holster of many a 1930s good guy or bad guy ‘B’ movie cowboy. Buck Jones often carried a Bisley Model, as did Andy Clyde, California Carlson in the Hopalong Cassidy series. Even Charles Bronson used a pair of Bisleys as he starred with Yul Brynner in the movie about Pancho Villa.
The first Bisleys were true target models, at least as much as possible in the 1890's, with adjustable front and rear sights quite crude by today's standards but much more conducive to target shooting than the fixed sights usually encountered on a Colt Single Action Army. Colt determined shooters wanted standard Bisley Models and within two years of the introduction of the Bisley Target Model, it was fitted with the standard sighting system of the Colt Single Action Army while maintaining the new grip shape, hammer, and trigger. All of these are marked (BISLEY MODEL) followed by the caliber designation on their barrels except those found in .44-40 which are also marked with "COLT FRONTIER SIX SHOOTER", the same as the standard Colt Single Action Army found in .44-40.
As with the Colt Single Action Army, barrel lengths were standardized with more than half of them being 4 3/4”, and the balance almost evenly split between 5 1/2” and 7 1/2”, and with a very few also being made without ejector rod assemblies. These are extremely rare, less than a dozen known, and are an example of striking the proverbial gold should one be found. There are no examples known of any Buntline Special Bisleys.
By 1912, sales of the Colt Single Action in general were on the decline and the Bisley was dropped from the Colt catalog. For the next several years Bisleys would still be produced from inventory parts on hand. In its short life of less than twenty years, the Bisley was serial numbered along with the standard Colt Single Action production. The most popular calibers in the Colt Single Action, in order of preference were .45 Colt, .44-40, .38-40, .32-20, and .41 Long Colt. With the Bisley the order changed radically with the .32-20 first, followed by the .38-40, then the .45 Colt, .44-40, and .41 Long Colt. Of the 356,629 Single Actions produced before production ended in 1941, a total of 44,350 were Bisley Models while 310,386 were standard Single Action Army Models.
Thirty years ago it was possible to pick up Bisley Models quite reasonably, certainly less than a comparable Single Action Army, and I managed to pick up two poorly re-finished .44-40 Bisley Models with equally poor barrels for less than $200 each, both of which have long since been rebuilt into .44 Specials with new barrels and cylinders. One by Hamilton Bowen has a 7 1/2” barrel and has been totally refinished as original including the case hardened frame and hammer. Is not only a most attractive sixgun, it is also an excellent shooter when using the Christy .44 Special cylinder with Specials or .44 Russians, or slipping in the original .44-40 cylinder. I once ran 50 rounds of black powder .44 Russians through this Bisley Model with all rounds cutting one hole at 25 yards.
My other rebuilt Bisley Model is a nickel-plated 4 3/4” sixgun with a .44 Special Colt cylinder and a Douglas barrel all done by Trapper Gun. This is another most attractive sixgun especially with its genuine stag grips. It also rides easy in a holster and is really not all that difficult to use for fast work, however I can see why Walter Rogers preferred the standard hammer for this type of application. I think of him every time I shoot it.
The Bisley Model has been gone since before World War I, however its tradition lives on in replicas offered by both Cimarron and EMF and also in the grip frames found on both the Freedom Arms Model 83 and the Ruger Bisley Model. Neither grip is a copy of the original however they are similar. The Bisley Model was also used by Harold Croft and Elmer Keith for building some very special single action sixguns as we shall see in the next chapter.