By Dennis Adler
1872 – 2012
William Mason’s “Improvement” that changed the course of American Arms Making
In one of the earliest 20th century books written about the history of the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms manufacturing Co., A History of the Colt Revolver by Charles T. Haven and Frank A.
Belden with Stephen V. Grancasy, then Curator of Arms and Armor for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the authors described the Single Action Army by its original factory classification, the “New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol.”
A rather cumbersome description popularly shortened to “Peacemaker” around 1873, the new Colt was also known as the “Frontier Six-Shooter.” The military often used the contraction SAA for Single Action Army, but no matter what name was used the new Colt was destined to become the most successful and longest-lived single action revolver design in history.
The earliest technical description of the Single Action Army illustrated the differences from previous Colt revolvers. “The front of the frame was connected to the standing breech by a top strap over the cylinder, and the barrel was screwed into it. The cylinder was held in place by a removable pin passing through it and working in and out of the front of the frame under the barrel.” Interestingly, this same wording could have been used almost verbatim in 1858 to describe the Remington Army Model revolver. The only technical differences was in styling and in the use of a bored through cylinder and metallic cartridges, rather than percussion cap, loose powder and ball.
Colt had, in effect, built a better Remington. The architect of this new gun was none other than Colt’s Superintendent of the Armory, William Mason, who received a patent for his design on September 19, 1871.
A second patent was issued on July 2, 1872 and a third on January 19, 1875. Since almost all early deliveries of the SAA were to the Ordnance Department for distribution to the U.S. Army, the civilian market had yet to realize the benefits of the new Colt revolver in 1873.
Most individuals were carrying Civil War era revolvers or Richards and Richards-Mason conversions, few outside of the military would even have a chance to see a Peacemaker until 1874 or 1875. Many Americans got their very first glimpse of the new Colt revolvers in May of 1876 at our nation’s International Centennial Exposition held in Philadelphia’s Fairmont Park.
The Exposition was opened by President Ulysses S. Grant and Dom Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil. As thousands waited to enter they could see, close by, the vast Main Exhibition Building.
Beyond were the towers and expanse of Machinery Hall, the Gothic barns of Agricultural Hall, the arabesque architectural intricacies of Horticultural Hall, the art galleries of Memorial Hall, and twenty-four state and other buildings covering 236 acres. It was at the time the largest exposition in American history.
A little more than a month after the Exposition opened the country was shocked and saddened as news spread about the June 26th death of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his men of the famed 7th Cavalry at the battle of the Little Big Horn; a tragic event that cast a dark cloud over the nation’s 100th anniversary celebration.
For the Centennial Exposition, Colt’s had prepared a pinwheel display of 18 specially engraved and ivory stocked Single Action Army models as the centerpiece of the company’s massive presentation case.
The guns were all handcrafted in the shop of Cuno A. Helfricht. When he began working at Colt’s in 1869, he was all of 20 years old, following in his father’s footsteps as a contract engraver. More work began coming the way of the Helfricht shop following Gustave Young’s departure from Hartford. Within a few years Cuno Helfricht would rise to the position of chief engraver, a position he would hold at Colt’s for half a century, from 1871 to 1921.
Between May and November 1876 more than eight million people from the United States and around the world visited the Philadelphia Exposition, roughly 20 percent of the nation’s population at the time. Countless thousands were left in awe of Helfricht’s work, assuring him a place within Colt’s history as its most prolific engraver.
The Peacemaker - A Gun by Design
There was a sense of both elegance and simplicity in William Mason’s Single Action Army design. Aside from frame, barrel, cylinder, and grips, the mechanics of the Peacemaker were confined to a minimum of workings: mainspring, hammer swivel, hammer and firing pin, short sear, short sear spring, long sear, lifter with spring (operates the lifter and long sear), trigger, and trigger spring.
The remaining major components included the cylinder pin and its retaining screw, the hammer screw, trigger, and ejector assembly. Only three screws were visible in the side of the frame, plus the retaining screw for the cylinder arbor, a pair of screws for the backstrap and one for the base of the grip. When one piece grips were replaced by two-piece grips a grip screw was added to the parts list.
With the Single Action Army having passed Ordnance Department trials at Springfield in 1872, Washington requisitioned 8,000 revolvers which were to be issued to the United States Cavalry in 1873. In his summation of the National Armory trials, John R. Edie, Captain of ordnance wrote: “I have no hesitation in declaring the Colt’s revolver superior in most respects, and much better adapted to the wants of the Army than the Smith & Wesson.”
It is Important to note that both the S&W c.1874 (as improved by Major George W. Schofield) and New Model Remington c.1875 cartridge revolvers were also used by the Cavalry, but the Colt Single Action remained the military’s dominant sidearm throughout the late 19th century and well into the early 20th.
Second part of the article in the next issue ...