Iconic Colt Revolver Examined by County Museum

Iconic Colt Revolver Examined by County Museum

This Colt .45-caliber Single Action Army started out fitted with a 7.5-inch barrel. It was cut down to 5.5 inches around the turn of the 20th century and its front sight refitted. Note the “U.S.” stamp, which identifies it as military issue, as opposed to a civilian SAA. Photo courtesy of the Sweetwater County Historical Museum

SWEETWATER COUNTY — The Sweetwater County Historical Museum’s Vintage Firearms Research Program recently looked at a firearm with a significant history of usage by the U.S. Army.

The handgun researched was a six-shot .45-caliber Colt Single Action Army. Museum staff determined that it was manufactured in 1876.

The U.S. Army adopted what was officially designated the Colt New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol, popularly known as the Single Action Army or the Peacemaker Colt, in 1873. A .45 with a 7.5-inch barrel, the Single Action Army served as the Army’s official sidearm throughout the Indian Wars until the adoption of the Colt Model 1892, a double-action .38. The SAA was also extremely popular with civilian shooters in various barrel lengths.

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In 1893, the Army began recalling its Single Action Army revolvers and replacing them with the newly-adopted 1892s. The recalled SAAs went into storage for possible future use as the new 1892s became available.

The 1892s were at first issued almost exclusively to the cavalry, while artillery and infantry units continued to use the Single Action Army. Complaints were received from horse artillery regiments about the 7.5-inch SSA (and their holsters) being too long, making them cumbersome. As a result, in 1894 and 1895, the Army Ordnance Department began a process of refurbishing the 7.5-inch SAAs in storage and shortening their barrels to 5.5 inches. Officially or unofficially, the 5.5-inch configuration came to be known as the Artillery Model.

After its defeat in the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded the Philippine Islands to the United States. Early in 1899, fighting broke out between American forces and Filipino nationalists under the leadership of Emilio Aguinaldo, who wanted independence for the Philippines, not another chapter of colonialism. The brutal conflict continued until Aguinaldo’s capture in 1901, though fighting continued on a smaller scale. During the fighting, more than 4,200 American service members and more than 20,000 Filipinos were killed. 

Combat reports came in from the field in the Philippines concerning the poor performance of the Model 1892’s .38 Long Colt ammunition. Specifically, the .38-caliber bullets failed to stop enemy combatants, even they were hit multiple times. As a result, the Army hurriedly sent many of the refurbished 5.5-inch .45 Artillery Model SSAs to the troops there. These circumstances influenced the later military changeover to the Colt Model 1909 double-action revolver, a .45 caliber. They also played a major role in the American military’s adoption of the Model 1911 semi-automatic pistol. It also chambered a .45-caliber cartridge and was known as the .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol). The Model 1911 and its successor, the Model 1911A1, continued to be issued as the standard American military sidearm until 1985.

Residents who have a vintage firearm (or firearms) and would like to learn more about them can contact the museum at (307) 872-6435 or via email at blustd@sweetwatercountywy.gov. There is no charge for the museum’s firearms research program.