The Colt Peacemaker: 150 Years of the Great American Firearm

High noon. Frightened townspeople scurry into doorways as the two men walk slowly into the dusty street. Doors and shutters slam, wide eyes looking furtively through the cracks. The men stop, facing one another, 75 feet between them. Each pulls back his duster, revealing a gleaming, low-slung Colt revolver strapped to his hip. A tumbleweed blows by. Silence reigns as each man sizes up the other through steely, squinting eyes. Fingers tap on pistol butts. The scene explodes with sudden motion, the guns appearing so fast it seems they were always there. Muzzle flashes brighter than the noon sun herald the twin gunpowder explosions.

Colt Single Action Army Revolvers
The Colt Peacemaker wasn’t quite as ubiquitous as the movies tell us, but they were very popular. (

It’s over before the spectators can blink, one man looking unbelievingly at the blood as he pulls his hand from his torso, then falling dead into the dust. The other man twirls and grimly holsters his smoking revolver, turns on his heel, and walks away. Perhaps he’ll notch his Colt, or maybe he’ll just tell himself he’s tired of the killing as the screen fades to black. It depends on the movie.

This, of course, is the stereotypical Hollywood gunfight trope. It’s also almost completely fictitious. I say “almost” because Hays City, Kansas Sheriff Bill Hickok reportedly gave two men the chance to defend themselves in 1869, as he confronted them. Wild Bill killed them both. As far as we know, there never was a real gunfight like the one described above.

The one accurate part of that made-up account is that, by the mid-to-late-1870s, any such encounter would likely have seen both men equipped with a Colt revolver. And there’s a good chance those revolvers would be some version of the 1873 Colt Single Action Army, later known as “the Peacemaker.”


The famed 1873 Colt Single Action Army (SAA) didn’t just spring into being. Its roots go back to the 1830s, with a detour through the archrival Smith & Wesson Company. In 1830, a young man named Sam Colt went to sea to study navigation. Aboard the side wheel steamer Corvo, the 16-year-old Colt became fascinated by how a clutch controlled and locked the ship’s wheel. He quickly translated that application to firearms.

By the voyage’s end, young Colt had carved a model from a block of wood. It featured multiple rotating barrels using the concept from the ship’s wheel. Colt’s idea quickly evolved into a single barrel, fed by a rotating cylinder. The first modern revolver was born.

Colt Single Action Army Revolver with holster
The Colt Peacemaker began life as a military sidearm sporting a 7.5-inch barrel. (Wikipedia)

Colt took the next step when he hired inventor Rollin White in 1849. White was supposed to be crafting revolvers, but he also worked out the first bored-through cylinder that could be loaded from the breech. Up to that time, all revolvers were loaded from the front, cap and ball style. Colt politely informed White that they did not pay him to invent new things. When he persisted, White was fired. White patented his bore-through design in 1855 and promptly signed an agreement with Smith & Wesson, who went on to manufacture the first cartridge-firing revolvers.

Colt soon learned the error but was unable to officially design and produce such guns until White’s patent expired in 1869. But they stayed busy behind the scenes. Colt factory superintendent William Mason and engineer Charles Richards worked on some ideas that eventually manifested as the Colt New Model Holster Pistol, better known today as the 1871-72 Open Top revolver. The Open Top, Colt’s first cartridge revolver, became quite popular.

Colt submitted the Open Top for the 1872 US Army trials, but the design was rejected. The Army considered the gun’s lack of a top strap (hence the name) a structural weakness, and it was difficult to disassemble in the field because of how the barrel attached to the frame. Undeterred, Mason and Richards went back to work.

The 1873 Colt Single Action Army Revolver

Mason and Richards added a top strap, a removable frame-mounted cylinder pin, an improved ejector rod housing, and a grooved rear sight. They kept the Open Top’s grip and made the front sight blade a bit taller. The prototype was chambered for the .44 S&W American cartridge, which was the Army’s current standard.

But the Army not only wanted a new gun, it also wanted a better cartridge too. Colt immediately collaborated with the Union Metallic Cartridge Company to develop the famous .45 Colt round, for which they chambered their new gun. The US Army was thrilled, and the new Colt, along with its cartridge, easily won the trials, being adopted that same year.

Colt Single Action Army "Artillery Model"
The 5.5-inch barreled “Artillery Model” was very popular, though it was never especially issued to artillerymen. (

The Army’s first order of 8,000 revolvers was delivered the next summer. The new .45 Colt revolver had a 7 ½-inch barrel. The frame was case hardened with a blued cylinder, barrel, and trigger guard. The cylinder held six rounds, but soldiers soon learned to only load five. Resting the hammer on a loaded chamber was asking for trouble since the gun had no hammer or firing pin block. The original military grips were walnut.

The US military eventually bought over 37,000 SAA pistols before the gun was superseded by the Colt 1892 Army & Navy double action revolver. But the latter pistol, chambered for the anemic .38 Colt cartridge, was not up to the task, prompting the Army to pull many SAAs from storage for refurbishment and reissuance, especially during the Philippine Insurrection following the Spanish-American War.

The Civilian Market

The new sidearm sparked civilian interest almost immediately, but public clamoring for the SAA rose sharply after Colt displayed 18 elaborately engraved models at the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair. The display then embarked on a nationwide tour, receiving glowing press coverage, not to mention Colt distributors’ advertisements calling the SAA “the best weapon to carry on the person that has ever been produced.” Modern gun owners are used to hearing stuff like that, but maybe not so much in 1876. And the thing is, that claim was probably true at the time.

Bat Masterson
Legendary lawman Bat Masterson special ordered no less than eight Single Action Army revolvers from Colt, most of them with nickel plating. (Public Domain)

Colt answered the call with new SAA models, the most popular being the 5.5-inch barreled “Artillery Model” and the 4.75-inch barreled “Civilian Model.” Those names, by the way, were later coined by collectors. Colt didn’t call them that at the time. Custom barrel lengths could be ordered, with Colt charging a dollar for every inch over the 7.5-inch “Cavalry Model.” As a result, SAAs sported barrels from 2.5 to 18 inches long, though the extremes are very rare.

Colt also offered custom options such as nickel, silver, and gold plating; pearl and ivory grips; and different levels of engraving. So many variations exist that collectors can make a career just from the Colt SAA.

Possibly the shrewdest SAA option appeared in 1877. 1873 had been an auspicious year for American firearms, with the Colt SAA and the Winchester Model 1873 lever action rifle hitting the market almost simultaneously. The wildly popular Winchester was initially chambered for the new .44-40 Winchester cartridge. Colt saw an opportunity. Beginning in 1877, the SAA could be purchased with a .44-40 chambering, allowing settlers and frontiersmen to carry one cartridge that worked in both guns. Even better, the .44-40 could be reloaded, making it very attractive to people outside the established trade networks.

Sales of both firearms predictably exploded, as often happens when companies cater to their customers’ needs. Colt’s choice to offer the SAA in .44-40 helped both guns — Colt and Winchester — earn the sobriquet “Gun that Won the West.” Some dispute those titles, of course, but the two models of 1873 deserve it as much as any other.

Colt Single Action Army "Civilian Model"
The 4.75-inch barreled “Civilian Model was the most popular configuration, and lots of folks liked the nickel-plated option too. (

Colt added the .38-40 Winchester and .32-20 Winchester chamberings to the SAA lineup in 1884. Winchester took the cue and did the same for the Model 1873 and, later, the Model 1892 rifles. Winchester recognized the advantages of staying aligned with the SAA. Despite the new chamberings, the original .45 Colt was so popular that the SAA was often called the “Colt’s .45,” no matter what cartridge it fired. “Colt .45” has been a ubiquitous, and valuable, term ever since. The SAA was eventually chambered for a mind-boggling 41 different cartridges, though the four mentioned above were far and away the most popular.

Colt Peacemaker: The Gun That Won’t Go Away

Colt ended SAA production in 1941 due to declining sales and the need to gear up for World War II. When production ceased, Colt had made 357,859 Single Action Army revolvers. The post-war gun-buying public seemed more interested in semi-automatic pistols and double-action revolvers, prompting Colt to announce in 1949 that the SAA would not return.

But pop culture and copycats had other ideas. Television and cinema brought cowboys, lawmen, and desperadoes to the forefront in the “Golden Age of Westerns,” which lasted through the 1960s. Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, and more prompted a clamor for “cowboy guns,” to which Colt appeared deaf.

Roy Rogers
TV cowboys like Roy Rogers helped create renewed demand for the Colt Peacemaker. (Getty Images)

But when Great Western Arms introduced a full-sized Peacemaker replica, soon followed by Ruger’s Single Six and Blackhawk models, Colt took notice. Those firearms’ sales figures forced them to take notice. Colt quickly dusted off the old equipment and authentic Colt Single Action Army revolvers reentered production in 1955. Produced until 1975, these guns are known as “Second Generation” Peacemakers, while the original 1873 to 1941 run are “First Generation.”

Second-Generation gun parts are interchangeable with First-Generation parts, but the Second-Generation guns have a different serial number format, with an “SA” suffix after the number. The most swapped-out part is the cylinder. Those can be distinguished by the Rampant Colt logo stamped on the rear of Second-Generation cylinders, with the last digits of the serial number on the front.

Second Generation Peacemakers were originally chambered only for .45 Colt and .38 Special, with 7.5 and 5.5-inch barrels. That changed with the popular 1957 TV program “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp,” prompting the 12-inch “Buntline Special,” which had not previously existed, despite what the TV said. The Buntline Special is still on TV as Wynona Earp’s magical revolver, creatively nicknamed “Peacemaker.” Cool show, though, if you like that sort of thing.

Colt Single Action Army "Buntline Special"
The “Buntline Special” didn’t exist until Wyatt Earp said it did. (Traditions Firearms)

The Second-Generation offerings were eventually expanded to include the popular 4.75-inch barrel, as well as some shorter options. The .38 Special chambering was discontinued in 1964, after the 1960 addition of .357 Magnum made it redundant. Second-Generation production ended in 1975, after building almost 70,000 guns. The tooling and machinery were badly worn and needed to be modernized and replaced.

1976 saw production resume on what are now called the “Third Generation” guns. A few minor changes were made, though some have reverted to First and Second-Generation styles. Third-Generation Peacemakers are still being made today with 7.5, 5.5, and 4.75-inch barrels. They are only available in .45 Colt, the original 1873 chambering, though the Colt Custom Shop will make one special for you with various chamberings, finishes, grips, and engravings.

The Classic American Sidearm

Many folks consider the 1873 Colt Single Action Army to be the definitive American firearm. That’s hard to argue with, though a few contenders admittedly exist. That it’s the single action revolver by which all others are judged cannot be denied. William Mason and Charles Richards designed an all-time classic whose styling, quality, and reliability have rarely been equaled and never surpassed. Sam Colt, unfortunately, never saw his company’s greatest creation. He died in 1862 of complications from gout.

General George S. Patton's revolvers
General George S. Patton, Jr. carried two ivory-handled revolvers. One of them was a Colt Peacemaker (top), with which he had taken down one of Pancho Villa’s top lieutenants in 1916. It doesn’t get any more American than that. (

That the Colt Peacemaker’s sales are strong 150 years after its introduction speaks louder than anything we can say about it. Few guns can make that claim, though, fittingly, the Winchester Model 1873 is one of them. But even the Winchester hasn’t been in near continuous production like the Single Action Army. And the Winchester’s popularity is primarily nostalgic. It’s a great gun with a slick action, but far better lever guns are available, and have been since the 19th century. But which single-action revolver has clearly surpassed the Colt?

The Colt Peacemaker is a time-honored piece of Americana, not to mention a damned fine firearm. There’s a reason so many replicas and tributes exist, and it’s not just that the Colt-produced models are expensive, though that is one aspect. Demand is high because people want quality, reliability, and history. And it being a great-looking gun doesn’t hurt. All that adds up to the 1873 Single Action Army, the Colt Peacemaker, being the greatest American gun. Name me a better one.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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