Guns and Gear

Colt .45s: Big and heavy worked, and still does

Think back to the days when America had two major handgun manufacturers: Colt and Smith & Wesson. Now consider this when speaking of their big-bore handguns: Smith & Wesson was identified more often with a .44 caliber, as in .44 Russian and .44 S&W Special, but for Colt it was .45’s. First came the .45 Colt in 1873 with a revised version in 1909. Then, beginning in the early 1900s, the company began toying with a rimless .45 for use in autoloading pistols. Of course that became the .45 ACP.

By my count, Colt produced four basic handguns for those two .45’s. First was the Single Action Army in 1873, which in the beginning was simply called the “strap model.” That’s because it was Colt’s first handgun with a topstrap connecting the front and rear of the frame. The SAA name came because it served the U.S. Army from 1873 till 1892 and was even revived for combat during the Philippine Insurrection in the early 1900s. Shortly thereafter, the Army knew it was going to eventually adopt an autoloader, but needed a stopgap until one was perfected. That was the U.S. Model 1909, for which a special .45 Colt round was issued. We’ll return to it later.

In 1878, Colt saw fit to bring out a double-action revolver, albeit its double-action mechanism was about the only way it differed from the SAA. Barrel lengths were the same, and in fact the exact same barrels were used on SAAs and Model 1878DA’s. The actual revolvers were the same size and could share the same holsters, of course considering equal barrel lengths on both. Loading and unloading for both designs was done in the same manner — through a loading gate on the frame’s right side. Empties were punched out via an ejector rod mounted to the barrel’s right side.

For various reasons, the Model 1878DA never achieved the popularity of the SAA. It survived only until 1905, with a bit over 51,000 made. The SAA is still in production, with about 700,000 having been made so far. Of course, the premier chambering for both SAA and Model 1878DA has always been .45 Colt. Standard barrel length for both revolvers was 4¾”, 5½” and 7½”.


Colt’s two most famous .45’s: (left) is the Single Action Army with which
the .45 Colt cartridge was introduced. At right is the U.S. Model 1911 .45 ACP,
which served the American armed forces for 75 years.


This pair of Colt US Model 1917 .45’s represent ones used in both world wars.
One at left still wears its original blue finish. One at right was Parkerized
for reissue in World War II.

New Service

In 1899 Colt began selling its newest double-action design, the New Service. It was nowhere near the SAA in any respect except caliber, which was primarily .45 Colt. The New Service featured a side-swing cylinder, of 6-shot capacity — the same as the earlier .45 Colts. Standard cataloged barrel lengths for New Service revolvers was 4½”, 5½” and 7½”.

As we mentioned earlier, the U.S. Army knew for years it was going to adopt an autoloading pistol, but until John M. Browning got his design perfected they needed a temporary revolver to fill in. That was simple for them: just adopt the New Service as the U.S. Model 1909. In order to insure a proper push on empty cases with the star-type extractor of a side-swing cylinder, the army’s new 1909 ammunition used case rims far wider than its earlier .45 Colt loads. The respective rim diameters (measured on original military loads) were .502″ for the early cases and .534″ for the 1909 version.

The U.S. Model 1909 may have been the shortest-serving U.S. martial handgun, for John Browning’s new autoloader beat out all competitors in testing and was adopted as the U.S. Model 1911. It’s doubtful that any of you readers need much of a description about 1911’s. Suffice to say, all military ones had 5″ barrel lengths and were issued with 7-round magazines. Of course adoptive caliber was the .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol).


This Colt US Model 1917 is shown with an original 24-round box
of .45 ACP military ammunition, which came already installed in three
round “half-moon” clips.

Two 1917’s

Next came an anomaly. In 1917 President Woodrow Wilson decided to embroil the United States in Europe’s three-year-old war. And naturally, the U.S. armed forces were caught woefully short of all sorts of weapons. That even included handguns — not nearly enough U.S. Model 1911’s had been made to equip all troops who needed them. So the government prevailed on both Colt and Smith & Wesson to adapt their big-frame double-action revolvers to fire .45 ACP cartridges. These revolvers were designated US Model 1917’s and may be the only time two U.S. military firearms, with no parts interchangeable, were given the same model number. Barrel lengths were always 5½”. Interestingly, between 1899 and 1944 Colt produced about 356,000 New Service revolvers. Over 150,000 of them were U.S. Model 1917’s, made in only about a two-year period from 1917 to 1919.

Since the new army caliber used a rimless case which certainly would not function with star-type extractors, some bright light at Smith & Wesson came up with “half-moon” clips. These were merely stamped pieces of spring steel into which .45 ACP rounds were snapped at their extraction groove. The Army even issued pre-loaded clips in 24-round boxes.


The U.S. Model 1911 .45 ACP served American armed forces for 75 years.

.45 History

Let’s look at all this variation of Colt .45 ammunition briefly. Starting out, the copper-cased .45’s used by the US Army in 1873 carried a 250-gr. lead bullet over 30 grs. of black powder. Case length was 1.29″. By 1875 this was changed because the army bought some Smith & Wesson revolvers built for their own .45 round. In a case only 1.10″ long 28 grs. of black powder was loaded under 230-gr. lead bullets. Both of these loads gave about 725 to 750 fps velocity. In the 1880s the army returned to the longer .45 Colt cartridge.

By 1909, smokeless powder dominated. The new .45 Colt military ammunition still used 250-gr. lead bullets. Guess what? It was still loaded to a nominal velocity of about 725 fps. Then when the .45 ACP specifications were finalized, bullet weight was settled up as (nominally) 230 grs., but bullet form was now full-metal jacketed. Velocity was supposed to be about 830 fps, although the original box mentioned above for rounds in half-moon clips said 800 fps. For over 100 years, American ordnance officers were quite satisfied with handgun bullets from 230 to 250 grs. traveling at moderate velocities.

Now, I’ll put in my two-cents worth. The year 1968 was a banner one for me because in its summer I obtained both my first Colt SAA .45 and my first US Model 1911A1 .45. It was a Remington-Rand of World War II vintage. That same year I began loading for both .45 Colt and .45 ACP. The very next year I happened on a Colt Model 1909 .45, shooting it for several years before it was traded off on something else long forgotten.

Over the decades I’ve owned several-score .45 Colt handguns: mostly Colt SAAs, but at least two of the Model 1878DAs. Never could I land a U.S. Army-marked SAA; prices have always been out of my reach. However, I do have a pair of the Colt Peacemaker Centennials which are exact duplicates of those early .45’s. Also in my vault currently resides a pair of Colt (New Service) U.S. Model 1917s, one still wearing its World War I blue finish and the second having a Parkerized finish. That means it was refurbished for World War II. And of course, no self-respecting gun’riter can be without at least one 1911. I have a 1918 vintage one and a 1911A1 version made in 1944. Both are Colts.

Personally, I can shoot a Colt SAA .45 and a US Model 1911 .45 in reasonably good fashion. I can also do well with a Colt Model 1917 .45, but only when fired as a single action. Firing double action I can barely keep bullets on-paper. I am probably typical of most Colt .45 shooters. For 140 years Colt has kept Americans — military and civilians alike — well supplied with .45 caliber handguns, and I know for sure many serving U.S. combat troops wish they still did.

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By Mike “Duke” Venturino, American Handgunner