150 Years With the 45 Colt

The 45 Colt cartridge is 150 years old this year (2023) and this fine round is still going strong. In appropriate guns, the 45 Colt is extremely versatile with mild-recoiling loads trotting along at 750 fps on up to big-game-flattening loads like Buffalo Bore’s Heavy 45 Colt +P at 1450 fps that are ONLY to be fired in some of the stoutest revolvers and some modern lever-action rifles. If you are not sure if your gun can handle the hot ones, be sure to contact the manufacturer to verify before you try.

Low velocity to High Velocity 45 Colt Loads.
The 45 Colt is very versatile with a wide range of ammunition available. Be sure to verify which loads are safe to fire in your gun!

Many refer to the classic cartridge as the 45 Long Colt. Although the name isn’t actually correct, or I suppose “official” would be a better word, most shooters know what the “Long Colt” is because the term is used so freely. 

The Colt Single Action Army (SAA) revolver, one of the finest handguns ever invented in my opinion, was adopted by our military in 1873. A couple of years later the Smith & Wesson Schofield revolver chambered in 45 Schofield (aka 45 S&W) was also purchased by the U.S. Government. The 45 Schofield cartridge is shorter in length than the 45 Colt, so folks started referring to the original round as the 45 Long Colt. The Schofield’s 45 S&W cartridge could be fired in the Colt SAA, but the 45 Colt could not be fired in the Schofield revolver because the case is too…you guessed it, long!

Well, at least this is the main explanation for the nicknamed cartridge. These days I assume it also helps separate the abundant 45 ACP as well.  The name is so common now that vendors list 45 Long Colt ammo in their selections. Okay, enough cartridge-name trivia for today.

Happy Birthday, from Gunsite!

A group of shooters firing handguns on the range at Gunsite to celebrate the 150th birthday of the Colt 45 cartridge.
Shooters celebrating 150 years of the classic 45 Colt cartridge at Gunsite (Photo: Lacey Polacek).

I was fortunate to be invited to a media event at the famed Gunsite Academy (gunsite.com) a few weeks ago to celebrate the 150th birthday of this fine cartridge. Dick Williams is the quintessential seasoned handgunner, and I mean that with the utmost respect. At 80 years young, Mr. Williams shoots his handguns with expertise and precision, hunts, writes, and completes his evenings in leisure with a fine cigar and good sipping bourbon. On top of all that he’s one heck of a nice guy. He’s a regular at Gunsite and has hand-picked a group of shooters for such gatherings that have been deemed “The Gunsite Irregulars.”

This particular event was originally planned as three days of shooting revolvers, both single-action (SA) and double-action (DA) and lever-action rifles all chambered for the venerable 45 Colt. We ended up deviating slightly from the schedule and spent Day One with the newly released Gunsite Glock which, even though it’s not a 45 Colt, it is a fine fighting pistol in its own right.

What to Take?

Deciding on what guns to take proved to be both easy and difficult. The easy part was covered by two firearms I did not have in my arsenal chambered in 45 Colt: a lever gun and a DA revolver. The folks in the firearms industry are some of the most helpful, generous, and all-around greatest people one would ever hope to find; anywhere. My friend Rob Leahy at Simply Rugged Holsters (simplyrugged.com) offered up his 4.2-inch barreled Ruger Redhawk, a heavy-duty DA revolver with a slick action. On top of that, he made me one of his good 240 Holsters on very short notice to wear during the shoot since I’m a lefty and he only had right-handed holsters for that particular gun at the time.

Another easy pick was one I didn’t have. I own a couple of Henry lever-actions, one in 30-30 Winchester and another in 45-70 Government. The good folks there (Henryusa.com) sent their stout, Big Boy Steel Side Gate in 45 Colt for inclusion at the birthday bash. True to Henry fashion, this lever-action runs smooth, is accurate, and is a pleasure to shoot.

Lew Gosnell firing the Henry Big Boy lever-action 45 Colt on a small, steel target.
Gunsite Instructor Lew Gosnell putting the Henry Lever Gun through the paces on a small steel silhouette target.

Now for the hard part. What single-action 45 revolver to take? Don’t tell my wife, but I have a few of these. One option was actually a gift from my better half, a stainless Ruger Vaquero fine-tuned and stocked in sheep horn by Tyler Gun Works (tylergunworks.com). It’s one of my favorite sixguns. But would I need the adjustable sights of my Ruger Blackhawk for precision aiming at further distances? Or maybe my easy-packing 3.5-inch U.S. Firearms thumb-buster? With a little more cogitating the choice became clear, the real deal had to come along on this trip. A genuine 4 and 3/4-inch Colt SAA, that was it!

Colt Single Action Army Revolver and the 45 Colt Cartridge, Two 150-Year-Old Classics
Two 150-Year-Old Classics, Colt’s SAA and the 45 Colt Cartridge.

Paper, Steel on the Move, and Hunting Bad Guys in the Shoot House

Gunsite is a first-class gunfighting school. I have watched with genuine admiration as the instructors, seemingly with no effort, take a group of shooters from all walks of life, ages, and shooting experience and have the group shooting on comparable levels within a couple of days of instruction. It’s real-world, solid training.

Firing the Ruger Redhawk at a distant steel plate, one handed.
The author firing the Ruger Redhawk 45 Colt at a distant steel plate, one-handed (Photo: Lacey Polacek).

We went through various drills on the square range with each firearm configuration and moved over to steel targets that are shot at varying distances while moving from one form of cover to another. For the shoot house, we used a new model Ruger Flattop in 45 ACP with frangible ammunition. On this scenario each shooter, accompanied by an instructor, clears multiple rooms in a building and engages targets that are deemed threats. It’s good training and the old-style SA revolver is quite capable of getting the job done. The same goes for lever-action carbines.

The 45 Colt cartridge and many of the guns chambered for it are steeped in history and are markedly relevant today. In our modern, disposable world, that’s saying something. To put it in perspective, how relevant do you think your cell phone will be in the next decade? How about 15 decades from now? Long live the 45 Colt!

Shane Jahn is a freelance writer whose firearms interests encompass revolvers, lever actions, Ruger No. 1s, and traditional rifles. He is an avid outdoorsman and hunter and enjoys taking these types of guns to the field. He is a former firearms instructor and has been a lawman on the U.S./Mexico border for over twenty years.

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