Cartridge Discussion: .45 Colt
I wrote up a cartridge discussion over a year ago after ol' Mike Venturino published his article on the .45 Colt that had the disparaging name. Now I think that Venturino is one of the best firearms writers in the business but I took issue with his article about the .45 Colt. I suspect the Duke wrote that one tongue-in-cheek as he's gotten a lot of mileage from the grand old pistol cartridge over the years considering the volume of articles he's written that have included .45 Colt discussion in their content.
Here's hoping that y'all will expand on the cartridge discussions and post your impressions of the rounds with which you've had experience.
A Colorful History
The .45 Colt was developed by Colt and appeared in 1873 along with a spanking new single action revolver featuring a solid frame. This was a rugged improvement over the open top Colt models that preceded it. The open top design, an obvious holdover from the Colt percussion revolvers of the past 35 to 40 years was pretty much at its technological limits with regards to durability and cartridge effectiveness. The new Model 1873 Single Action Army was a hit with the Ordnance Department and a contract was awarded Colt in July of 1873. Between the years 1873 and 1891 the Colt factory delivered 37,063 Single Action Army .45's to the government.
Civilians also clamored for the new Colt revolver. Though it came to be chambered in other cartridges including target rounds, some British favorites, and also cartridges (including a .44 rimfire) that were interchangeable with popular Winchester lever action rifles, it was far and away most popular in the .45 Colt chambering.
Colt soon brought out a large, rather primitive double action revolver that resembled the Single Action Army and also featured the ejector rod affixed to its barrel. It's mechanism was said to be fragile. The revolver known as the Model 1878 was made available in several chamberings, the .45 Colt being the most popular one.
And why shouldn't the .45 Colt cartridge be popular? It came in a smooth, easy handling revolver of simple design and it was potent. The old 19th century loading of a 255 grain lead bullet over 40 grains of FFg black powder could churn up as much as 900 fps with 450 ft. lbs of muzzle energy. No slouch by today's standards, the .45 Colt was generally considered to be the most powerful handgun cartridge until the advent of the .357 Magnum in 1935.
A Bad Choice. Your Government in Action
The .45 Colt was a cartridge that really did help tame the West and it gave reliable service wherever it was employed. In 1889 however the Ordnance Board had collective brain fade in my opinion and went for the new-fangled Colt double action swing-out revolver chambered for the decidedly tame .38 Long Colt. The .45 Single Action Army revolvers were gradually withdrawn as the military took delivery of these .38 models. In 1898 there came a "splendid little war" known as the Spanish-American War. Most U.S. sidearms used in that conflict were the Colt double action .38 models. Teddy Roosevelt himself used one of these .38 revolvers, salvaged from the Battleship Maine, to kill a Spanish soldier in the famous charge up San Juan hill, or so the story goes. The new Colt seemed to give a good account of itself during the war. Perhaps the more 'civilized' Spaniards and their colonial conscripts knew the rules and promptly and conveniently went 'hors de combat' when struck with a 150 grain .38 bullet that started out at a leisurely 700 fps.
Since Spain couldn't fight its way out of a wet paper bag the United States took over administration of Spanish territories at the conclusion of the war. One of these territories was the far-flung Philippines. The Spanish had only had a tenuous control of some islands in this archipelago and no real control over portions of the larger islands. The native population loathed the Spaniard. Now it was the Yank's turn to try his hand at control. Along with other peoples of the islands the Moro tribesmen had other ideas about submitting to foreigners. The Moro tribesmen, a native Muslim sect were a fiercely independent people. The troops of the occupation were subject to savage attacks on occasion by many Filipinos but none more vicious than the Moro tribesman when he "ran Juramentado". These attacks were made by individual Moro fanatics who had especially prepared themselves to endure as much bodily injury as possible while attempting to kill as many infidels as they could before their own deaths and subsequent 'rewards'. Juramentado roughly translates oath and Moros pledged to kill as many of the enemy as possible. They would use drugs to deaden pain, bind themselves up in very tight cloth and cords in order to limit blood loss and which also provided some protection for their bodies. Then wielding their favorite weapon the Kris, which is a very short squiggly-bladed sword, they would fall on the American troops, slashing and hacking in a most hideous way. Armed troops were dying under these dreadful attacks. It became widely reported that the Colt .38 revolvers were entirely lacking in enough power to decisively halt these attacks. Many of the old Colt Single Action Army .45 revolvers were trundled out of war reserve stores and rapidly shipped to the beleaguered troops. Some success was noted in the larger .45 Colt cartridge's performance against a more determined enemy. The Ordnance department contracted for supplies of Colt's New Service revolver chambered in .45 Colt to boost inventories of needed revolvers. These New Service revolvers, all chambered for the .45 Colt became known as the Model 1909. Even the elderly Colt Model 1878 double action revolver in .45 Colt was provided and issued in the Philippines as the Model 1902. The Ordnance Board was casting about for a new semi-automatic pistol to replace the revolver for the American fighting man. One requirement was that it be chambered for a .45 caliber cartridge. The reports of the failures of the .38 revolvers were fresh on the Board's mind. The Colt Model 1911 was the result but that is another story.
The Philippine Insurrection is a cypher in American history that deserves more study. A proud American will be disgusted by some of the methods the Army used to achieve dominance over the Filipinos. It's not one of the bright spots in our history.
The .45 Colt Mustered Out
At the dawning of the 20th Century the .45 Colt retained a large measure of popularity. If one needed a powerful large caliber handgun it could be counted on. Colt was still cranking out the Single Action Army in .45 Colt and also offered the more modern New Service double action revolver in the cartridge. Smith & Wesson chambered a smattering (a bare smattering I might add) of it's fine Triple Lock revolvers for the .45 Colt.
Only by the 1930's did the .45 Colt's popularity begin to wane. Single Action Army production was tapered off to a trickle and the high quality New Service was priced beyond the reach of many shooters in the Depression era. Smith & Wesson had no real interest in chambering the .45 Colt in its N-Frame revolver as it's own cartridge development, the .44 Special was being sold to satisfy the S&W fan of the big bore revolver. Besides, in 1935 the .357 Magnum appeared and this new Smith & Wesson cartridge fired the imaginations of shooters with dreams of what could be accomplished with magnum capabilities. The .45 Colt, good as ever, became an also-ran.
If the .45 Colt was an also-ran in the 1930's it was positively moribund in the 1940's. World War II reshaped the output of the two American handgun competitors. Exigencies dictated that handguns suitable for the war effort be manufactured. The .45 Colt was surplus to these needs so was not made. It's been said that the entire tooling and machinery for manufacture of the New Service was taken out of the Colt factory and left outside on a back lot to ruin in order to make way for wartime production of the M1911A1.
Now the .45 Colt cartridge was abandoned even by Colt, its originator who had discontinued both the Single Action Army and New Service. A very few .45 Colt revolvers were made up by Smith & Wesson in the late 1940's and early 1950's.
But a funny thing happened to the .45 Colt on its way to the bone yard. Americans went ga-ga over the "horse opera". First featured in film and on radio programs, the Western transferred nicely onto the new technological wonder, the television. Suddenly the American male wanted western style guns like he admired in the shows. Just think how neato it'd be, casting a steely-eyed squint down the barrel of one's trusty .45 Colt. Colt sat up and took notice and started up production of the Single Action Army again. The first SAA clones with names like Hawes, Great Western, and Herters appeared in the early to mid 1950's. A fellow named William B. Ruger expanded his handgun line to include a single action revolver of his own design. All this new crop of western styled revolvers featured the .45 Colt as an available chambering. Sales were good. Fast draw competition became a national craze among pistoleros back then just as all things AR15 are the craze now. Some years ago I ask my family doctor about gun shot wounds and he said the most common gun shot wound he treated were wounds to the right leg and foot back when fast draw was popular.
By the 1960's and 1970's the .45 Colt settled into a comfortable niche for the American handgunner. Despite the introduction of more powerful .44 and .41 Magnum cartridges it remained fairly popular. Ruger Blackhawks remained available in .45 Colt. In 1977 Smith & Wesson made a commemorative revolver chambered in .45 Colt for the 125th anniversary of its founding. The next year the Model 25 in .45 Colt became a standard cataloged item. Colt came out with the Anaconda in 1991 and soon it became available in .45 Colt. Sadly both of these fine handgun models have been discontinued.
Cowboy Action Shooting came into vogue in the early 90's as I recall. It may have started earlier out in California but I didn't see it in Texas until then. Clones of the Colt Single Action Army sprouted like mushrooms and remain popular. Lots of them chamber the .45 Colt. Colt is still turning out the Single Action Army in .45 Colt in its custom shop. Smith & Wesson catalogs the Model 625 in .45 Colt. Ruger sells its share of .45 Colt Blackhawk and Vaquero single action revolvers.
Is .45 Colt Good For Anything?
You betcha! A good .45 Colt would be a great choice for the shooter who only wanted a single handgun for everything. It could satisfy plinking chores, self-defense, field use and hunting up to deer sized game. When I was 13 I used an old mongrel Smith & Wesson 4-inch .45 Colt to put down a medium sized dog that was raiding the ducks on our tank. I've got a cousin who has taken several deer with his Smith & Wesson Model 25 .45 Colt with an 8 3/8-inch barrel. He uses a heavy handload stoked with Unique and claims great success. I think the .45 Colt would be a walloping good deer cartridge out to any distance that we have any business attempting with open sights. In my admittedly limited experience the .45 Colt isn't quite as accurate as some other cartridges but still groups better than my ability to shoot. It's been said that the cartridge is too capacious for modern smokeless powders but this is hogwash in my opinion. Sure, most any factory .45 Colt performance may be duplicated with handloads in the shorter .45 Auto Rim or .45 ACP in a suitable revolver but so what. The big .45 was here first. I'd feel very well armed indeed to be able to reach for a .45 Colt revolver in time of need.
Handloading the .45 Colt
Here's were I fall short. I've only owned a .45 Colt for about six years. It's a Colt New Service Model 1909 with a 5 1/2-inch barrel. It's tight with a perfect bore. Unique handloads are all that have been fired in it and precious little load development has been done to date. I hope that some other readers will chip in with their handloading experiences and the .45 Colt.
255 grain cast lead SWC, min charge/Unique* MV 836 fps ME 396 ft./lbs.
255 grain cast lead SWC, max charge/Unique* MV 1018 fps ME 587 ft./lbs.
255 grain cast lead SWC, 40 grains FFg MV 888 fps ME 447 ft./lbs.
230 grain FMJ-RN Unique MV 793 ME 321 ft./lbs
185 grain cast lead SWC Unique MV 849 fps ME 296 ft/lbs.
*As published in the Lyman 46th edition handloading manual
All tests done with Colt New Service w/5 1/2-inch barrel
Fired over an Oehler Model 12 chronograph
Sorry, that's it. If ya' don't care for Unique I can't help ya'. I'm intending to run more tests with other powders and play with the .45 Colt some more in future.
I cannot now remember whether the very first handgun I ever fired was my Uncle's Colt SAA "artillery model" .45 Colt or his Smith & Wesson Model 15. I was about the same age when I fired both for the first time. The old Colt has seen use with the heavy charge of Unique listed above though the serial number is around 80,000 as I recall. Scares me now. It always impressed me as the hardest kicking handgun known to man when I was a kid.
The Colt New Service would have never been a good choice for the .44 Magnum if it's production had crossed the introduction of that cartridge. The back strap of the New Service really pounds the hand when fired with the listed heavy charge of Unique. A hypothetical New Service in .44 Magnum would be punishing in the extreme. The New Service in .45 Colt is great when used with factory equivalent loads.
I have three cartridges which I've named "the mighty three" in my mind. The .44 Special, the .45 Colt, and the .45 ACP. None wear the magnum moniker but all are highly effective as handgun cartridges go. Folks could enjoy these cartridges if they tried 'em instead of some big boomer. Of the three the .45 Colt is the oldest and deserves respect and a home in a serious pistolero's handgun battery.