My life has been blessed in many ways not the least of which is found in the time frame for growing up, the Fabulous Fifties. I have often mentioned the 1950s as being such a wonderful time and actually much like those acted out on the TV show Happy Days before it ran out of ideas and went silly. Wedged in between the end of the Korean War and the psychedelic ‘60s and then Vietnam, the 1950s allowed kids to be kids, music was still music, and the gathering place was the local drive-in with real french fries hand cut from real potatoes not dropped out of a sack, great burgers that came from corn fed beef, and chocolate shakes as thick as fresh concrete.
The 1950s were also the greatest decade of the 20th Century for firearms development. Just in handguns alone, the 1950s brought us some of the best sixguns ever produced. From Smith & Wesson came the 1950 Target in .44 Special and .45 ACP, as well as fixed sighted versions of both; the Highway Patrolman .357 Magnum; the 1955 Target .45 ACP; the Combat Magnum .357; and the original .44 Magnum; Ruger arrived in 1949 with their semi-automatic .22 pistol and then followed with great single actions, the .22 Single-Six in 1953, the .357 Blackhawk in 1955, the .44 Magnum Blackhawk in 1956, and the .44 Super Blackhawk in 1959. Great Western also entered upon the sixgunnin’ stage in 1954 with the first replica of the Colt Single Action Army.
Over at Hartford, Colt introduced the .357 Magnum, followed up by the Python in 1955 and also offered the first compact 1911, the Colt Commander. However, more importantly for Single Action sixgunners something major was about to happen. Production of the Colt Single Action Army ceased with the start of World War II with no plans to resume production. More than a third of a million Colt Single Actions had been produced from 1873 to 1940 with the top year number wise being 1902 with 18,000 being manufactured followed by 1907 with 16,000 coming out of Hartford. That was the last year for production figures to reach five digits, and 1929 saw the last four-digit number with 1,400. The Depression kicked in and by 1935 and 1936 production figures equaled 100 each. They went up to 700 in ’37, back down to 500 in ’38 and 400 in the year I arrived upon this planet, 1939. There was a final surge in 1940 of 859 units with more than 500 of these going to help defend the British homeland in World War II.
In all probability Colt was more than ready to cease production of both the New Service double action revolver and the Single Action Army. Machinery was wearing out, sales were down, and those having money during the Depression years were more apt to turn to the relatively new Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum and even switch from revolvers to the semi-automatic 1911. By 1941 the Colt Single Action Army was dead and buried and never to be seen again, or so both Colt and just about everyone else thought. The Single Action was considered totally obsolete, a relic of the Frontier. There were no more Indian Wars, cattle drives, gunfighters…. The West had been at least officially tamed.
However, history rarely ever follows a straight path, but rather travels twists and turns and switchbacks. The path began to deviate in the early 1950s for one reason, television. A brand new company, Great Western, had started making a replica Single Action Army in California with their Frontier Model in .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .44 Special, and .45 Colt in 1954. The first issue of GUNS magazine arrived in January 1955 with a pair of Colt Single Actions on the front cover of that premiere issue. The Single Action was back as the arrival of TV resulted in a whole new generation discovering B Western movies and the Single Action Army. Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers found their careers totally revived. Tim McCoy, Buck Jones, Bob Steele, the Durango Kid, and Wild Bill Elliott and many more were, as Gene Autry’s theme song said, Back In The Saddle Again; and Great Western and GUNS were off and running.
Even before the Great Western arrived, a young Bill Ruger saw the possibility of a modern single action with virtually unbreakable springs and brought forth the .22 Single-Six in 1953. The sixgun itself was slightly scaled down in size from a Colt Single Action but the grip frame was a deadringer for the old Colt Model P. Perhaps the Ruger Single-Six was the inspiration for Great Western to bring back a full-sized Single Action Army one year later. TV had a great influence on shooters and the shooting public wanted the authentic Colt Single Action Army. When production ceased in 1940, the selling price had been around $40 at a time when the Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum was selling for $65. Smith could not keep up with the demand; Colt sales had plummeted. People always want what they can’t have and the lack of real Colts began to drive up the price and by the 1950s, used Colts had topped the $100 mark.
We had the Ruger Single-Six and the Great Western, but what of the Colt Single Action Army? Many shooters and collectors tried to prevail upon Colt to resurrect the Single Action Army after World War II, and while Colt did offer barrels and cylinders, mostly in .45 Colt and .38 Special, they made no plans, at least they told no one if they did, to resurrect the Model P. The powers to be at Colt reasoned they would have to charge at least $100 for a new Colt Single Action Army and they just didn't believe anyone would be willing to pay that price. However, since used prices had risen to that level that began to put things into a more positive perspective for the return of the Single Action Army. The Colt was dead and buried, never to rise again when that first issue of GUNS hit the stands in January 1955. However the situation was about to change.
Tombstone was billed as the Town Too Tough To Die; the Colt Single Action Army was simply the Gun Too Good To Die. The Colt Single Action Army was dead and buried by 1941, and at the end of the War, it would be the double-action and semi-automatic that would reign. Never again would a single action be produced. No one would want them. If it had not been for TV creating the demand, just as the movies would do 20 years later with the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum and Dirty Harry, the Single Action Army would probably have stayed in the grave. The Resurrection occurred in 1956 when single action sixgunners got their wish as the 2nd Generation of Colt Single Actions began. First in .45 Colt and .38 Special and in 7 1/2” and 5 1/2” barrels, later in .357 Magnum and .44 Special, and the 4 3/4” barrel length was also added to the line. For some unknown reason, all the other calibers were made in all three standard barrel lengths, however the .44 Special was never made in the latter length during the 2nd Generation run.
My first new Colt Single Action Army was the first one I saw at Boyle’s Gun Shop. It was a 7 1/2” .45 Colt with a retail price tag of $125. By this time I already had a 1st Generation 4 3/4” .38-40 from around the end of the 19th-century and no money. There was no such thing as plastic cards and who would give a teenager credit? Boyle’s would and simply kept an index card with one's name on it to track purchases and payments; nothing to sign, no interest payments. My name was put on a card and I had my first brand new Colt. To this day, almost 50 years later, I have never been without a running gun bill.
I was in ecstasy when I purchased my first sixgun, the .22 Ruger Single-Six, one year earlier. I moved up a notch with the .38-40, and then soared even higher with this new .45 Colt in the same 7 1/2” barrel length used by Matt Dillon, Paladin, Chris Colt, and Clay Hollister as the made-for-TV westerns were pushing the old Western movies of the 1930s and 1940s off the small screen. What was interesting to me about these four characters is the fact they used sixguns rarely ever seen in the old Western movies. Silver screen cowboys almost always used 4 3/4” and 5 1/2” Single Actions, however TV had reverted back to the more authentic barrel lengths used throughout the 1870s and into the 1880s.
Not too long after finding that first .45 Colt, Fast Draw arrived on the national scene and I added a second 7 1/2” .45, this one a 1st Generation example. A double Fast Draw rig was ordered from the Pony Express Shop in California and I began spending most of by non-working hours drawing, spinning, and dropping those Colts back into their respective holsters. When I started I had marks where the spinning barrels contacted the insides of my arms, however I not only learned I got pretty good at it. The only other gun trick I ever learned, or even tried to learn, was the Road Agent’s Spin. This trick is performed by pretending to surrender one's Single Action by offering it butt first and then spinning it with the finger in the trigger guard so it turned over and comes up into a natural cocked hammer firing position in the hand. I got pretty good at that also with either one or two 7 1/2” Colt Single Actions.
When organized Fast Draw hit my area I joined the Green Valley Rebels and ordered a single Arvo Ojala holster and belt, black basket weave, for the 7 1/2” Colt. That Ojala rig is special for several reasons not the least of which is the fact the first date with my soon-to-be wife saw us going to Boyle's Gun Shop to pick up my new rig in late 1958. She came from a non-shooting family so she did have a chance to run the other direction, however she didn't, we were married in February 1959, and it wasn't long until she became a shooter herself. I still have the Ojala rig and Diamond Dot, however the .45 Colt had to go in the early 1960s to help pay for college tuition and also to feed the three hungry kids we had by then. Those were tough times, however they did serve to strengthen us and bring us even closer together, and the lost Colt had been replaced many times over the ensuing 40 years. I have been blessed.
The 2nd Generation of Colt Single Action Armies did not even come close to the number of units produced, variety of calibers, nor the number of years of manufacture as the 1st Generation sixguns. According to two excellent publications for students of the 2nd Generation Single Action Army, Don Wilkersons’ book, The Post-War Colt Single Action Army (1978), and George Garton’s Colt's SAA Post War Models (1979), serial numbers started in 1956 with 0001SA and ended in 1974 in the 73,300SA range. The SA suffix was used to distinguish 2nd Generation Single Actions from those produced during the 1st Generation time frame. All production figures given in the remainder of this chapter on the 2nd Generation Single Actions come from these two books which are high on the sixgunner’s list of must have books. Another highly recommended, must have book covering all generations as well as repair, rebuilding, and restoration of the Colt Single Action is Jerry Kuhnhausen’s The Colt Single Action Revolvers, A Shop Manual (2001). This book is filled with hundreds of drawings depicting everything about the function and specifications of all Colt Single Action Army parts. Even if one never works on a Colt, the information contained in this book is still invaluable.
The 2nd Generation Colt Single Action, as mentioned, arrived in 1956 in two chamberings, .38 Special and .45 Colt, in the standard Colt finish of case-hardened frame, and with barrel lengths of 5 1/2” and 7 1/2” offered. One year later the 4 3/4” barrel arrived in both chamberings along with nickel-plating and the .44 Special in only the first two barrel lengths. The .357 Magnum came forth in 1960 which led to the discontinuance of the .38 Special in 1963. Three years later, 1966, the .44 Special was dropped. Then until 1974, when production ceased, only the .45 Colt and .357 Magnum were offered.
Wilkerson offers the following production figures. A total of 11,710 .38 Specials were produced in all standard barrel lengths and both blue and nickel, however nickel-plated .38s are very rare with a total of just over 500 being produced. Switching to the .45 Colt we find the numbers to be a total of 37,000 in all barrel lengths with approximately 7% being nickel-plated. Since the advent of Cowboy Action Shooting especially, prices of 2nd Generation Colts have taken a decided upswing with a 4 3/4” .45 in excellent condition now demanding $2,500 or even more. There were 7,200 4 3/4” .45s produced with approximately 20% being nickel-plated; strangely enough there were 1,500 nickel-plated .45s produced in each barrel length.
Colt Single Action Army Models chambered in .44 Special are quite rare in the 2nd Generation run though far outdistancing the slightly more than 500 produced in the 1st Generation period. I had one of those original 1st Generation .44 Specials my wife purchased for me, however when we saw how rare it was it was decided it needed to be in a special collection, so it was traded to a collector for all our money back, plus a .45 Colt New Frontier and a 2nd Generation 5 1/2” Single Action .44 Special in excellent condition. So we wound up with two Colt Single Actions without any outlay of money. I still have both of these great single actions, however, in retrospect I wish I had held on to that rare .44 Special. Only 2,230 2nd Generation .44 Specials were made and only in the two standard barrel lengths of 5 1/2” and 7 1/2” with only 170 of these being nickel-plated. The .357 Magnum was second only to the .45 Colt in numbers produced with 17,375 made in all three barrel lengths however just over 2% were nickel-plated.
The Buntline Special, offered in any barrel length during the 1st First Generation run, became available in 1957 in .45 caliber only and with a standard 12” barrel length only. There were 4,000 produced in the blue/case-hardened finish, however the nickel-plated version is very rare with a total of only 65 leaving the factory. The rarest 2nd Generation Colt Single Action is the 3” ejector-less Sheriff's Model in .45 Colt with just over 500 being offered as a special run through Centennial Arms. I well remember one sitting on the shelf at the gun shop for very long time with a price of $139.95. I didn't have that kind of money during the college years, in fact I don’t think I could have come up with the 95 cents. In retrospect I wish I had borrowed the money and bought that Sheriff's Model.
The Sheriff’s Model was the beginning of thousands upon thousands of specially serial numbered 2nd Generation Commemorative issues. It would take several pages just to list all of these, however the ones I find the most significant are the 1873-1973 Peacemaker Centennial special sixguns. These are some of the finest revolvers ever produced by Colt, which is not always true of most commemoratives. The Peacemaker Centennials were offered with a 7 1/2” US marked .45 Colt finished in the original military blue/case-hardened frame and hammer, and a companion 7 1/2” Frontier Six-Shooter, nickel-plated, and chambered in .44-40. Five Hundred sets were offered with both sixguns in special presentation boxes, as well as 1,500 of each sold singularly. About 12 years ago I walked up and down the aisles of the Reno Gun Show thinking about buying a cased set of both Peacemaker Centennial Models. I even had the plastic card in my hand but I just didn't do it. Two years ago I found an identical set on the Internet for the same price. This time I did not hesitate. These are beautifully finished and fitted sixguns and as far as I know the only .44-40 offered in the 2nd Generation run.
To compete with Ruger's .22 Single-Six, Colt began offering a .22 Single Action in 1957 known as the Frontier Scout. These were first offered with 4 3/4” barrels and then expanded to a 9 1/2” Buntline Scout .22 in 1960. All of these featured the standard Colt Single Action Army fixed sights. All blue and nickel-plated versions were offered as well as some chambered in .22 Magnum. The Scout was dropped in 1970 and replaced by a standard sighted Peacemaker and an adjustable sighted New Frontier. Unlike the Scouts these featured the case-hardened frame of the standard Colt Single Action Army. They were offered in barrel lengths of 4 3/4”, 6”, and 7 1/2”. These were quite beautifully finished and excellent shooting revolvers however they never could compete with the Ruger Single-Six. They are found in both a .22 Long Rifle version as well as two-cylinder models with both the standard .22 and also a .22 Magnum cylinder. Production ended in 1976.
The 2nd Generation Colt Single Action Army Models are some of the finest Colts ever produced especially the earlier ones. As the machinery started wearing out Colt still produced the Model P and the buyer is advised to carefully inspect those made in the last two years of production, 1973 and 1974, beginning at serial number 65,000SA. This does not mean all of these were below par but rather a warning that some slipped through that were not quite up to expected Colt standards. Even these can be brought back to near perfection by a competent gunsmith.