By Dennis Adler
Pictured is one of the original 1876 Centennial Colts engraved by Cuno Helfricht. This may have been the only example that did not have ivory grips. Note the similarity in the engraving patterns duplicated by Pietta’s master engraver in Italy for the Centennial Buntline.
The Colt models issued to the U.S. Cavalry were from the earliest production. Often referred to as the black powder frame, the distinguishing characteristic of early Peacemakers was the use of a cylinder arbor retaining screw threaded into the bottom front of the frame, which when tightened into a groove in the cylinder pin securing it in place.
Disassembly for cleaning required the screw to be removed so the pin could be pulled forward and through the cylinder. If the screw became lost or the threads damaged, the gun could not be safely reassembled, as there was no way of securing the cylinder arbor to the frame. It was very much the same issue that had plagued earlier Colt open top designs, which used a small wedge to secure the barrel assembly to the cylinder arbor. A wise soldier or cowboy made sure to carry an extra in their saddle bag.
A solution was arrived at in 1892, after which Single Action revolvers used a new built-in transverse latch to lock the cylinder pin.
All that was required was to simply press the latch and withdraw the cylinder pin from the frame. Between 1873 and 1899 Colt’s made approximately 24 other changes to the Peacemaker including variations in calibers, barrel lengths, front sight design, barrel address stampings, patent dates, grip design (hard rubber eagle and shield grips were added in 1882, and changed to hard rubber without eagle and shield in 1896), and model variations specific to the SAA Target and Bisley.
William Mason received his first patent for the Single Action Army on September 19, 1871. A second patent was issued on July 2, 1872 as the guns went into production, and a third patent for improvements on January 19, 1875. Pictured is the third Mason patent 1875.
The U.S. military continued to order Colt revolvers from 1873 until 1891, accounting for more than 37,000 guns. Their longevity in service was such that no more than 2,000 were returned to the factory for refinishing, and that wasn’t until 1895-96. The government arsenal at Springfield reconditioned another 14,900 guns in 1898, most of which had seen heavy use on the frontier. Many were altered by the armory to shorter 5.5 inch barrel lengths before being returned to service or sold.
Prior to 1900 Colt had stated that their revolvers were not intended for cartridges using smokeless powder. In October 1898 this was a noted owner’s precaution, but with the proliferation of cleaner burning smokeless powders, Colt’s found it necessary to implement another change and beginning in 1900 announced that their revolvers (serial number range beginning at approximately 192000) were guaranteed against smokeless powder.
Variations and the Centennial Colts
The massive Colt display cabinet first seen at the 1876 Centennial Exposition held 18 Colt Single Actions in a massive center pinwheel. The cabinet also displayed other Colt revolvers, pistols and rifles along with the first of the Buntline models, seen at the far right. The gun was originally shown with the detachable skeleton shoulder stock and 16-inch barrel. According to factory records the company also built long-barreled models in the early 1880s with lengths of 12 and 10 inches in addition to 16 inches. They were manufactured again in the mid to late 20th century, beginning in 1957 as part of the 2nd Generation Colt Single Action Army line.
The SAA was offered in the following calibers between 1873 and 1899:
.45 Colt, .44 rimfire (1875), .44-40 (1878), .22 rimfire (1883), .38-40 and .32-20 (1884), .41 caliber (1885), .38 Colt (1886), .32 S&W and .32 Colt (1887), .44 Russian, .38 S&W, .32-44 S&W, .32 rimfire (1889), .44 S&W, .380 Eley and .450 Eley .44 smoothbore (1890), and .38-44 (1891).
Among the most significant changes made to the SAA during the 1870s and 1880s, there stands one truly memorable variation, which over time has come to known by the name Buntline.
The name is more a twist of fate than a decision on Colt’s part. Introduced at the gala Colt’s Exhibition at the 1876 United States Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, two of the unique long-barreled Colt revolvers with skeletonized detachable shoulder stocks were shown alongside a massive pinwheel of hand engraved, ivory stocked revolvers in the center of Colt’s massive display cabinet.
Factory records indicate a total of 18 long-barreled, shoulder-stocked guns were built, plus an assortment with shorter 10-inch and 12-inch barrels. These unusual Colts with flat top straps, folding leaf rear sights, and detachable skeletonized shoulder stocks were purportedly presented to famed lawmen such as Wyatt Earp, Charlie Bassett, Neal Brown, Bat Masterson, and Bill Tilghman by popular dime novelist, playwright, and newspaperman Ned Buntline.
None of the alleged recipients of the gifts claimed by Buntline ever publicly acknowledged receiving them, nor are there any documented records of any of the aforementioned lawmen having been seen with them! That these guns exist has never been in question, the photographic evidence from 1876 is undisputable; the question is who owned them and what if any connection Ned Buntline truly had, other than the popularization of his name with the distinctive long barreled revolvers.
The F.lli Pietta Centennial Models
Italian arm maker Fratelli Pietta has been building exceptional reproductions of the c.1900 era Colt Single Action since 2003, and to celebrate the 140th Anniversary of the gun’s 1872 patent, along with the magnificent engraved Colt’s displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exposition and the first appearance of the Buntline, the company has introduced its finest engraved examples and its first black powder frame Buntline.
The new Centennial Buntline is hand engraved in styles reminiscent of the Helfricht guns shown in 1876. The patterns, based on Helfright’s work, and the exceptional use of animals and scenes on the lower frame, highlight both sides of the Centennial gun.
The black powder-style frame model is fitted with a 12-inch barrel and the first examples will all be chambered in .45 Colt, like the original 1876 guns. Built to order, the Centennial Buntlines will be sold exclusively through Dixie Gun Works in Union City Tennessee.
The laser engraved deluxe nickel, and gold and nickel models shown, are productions models also available through Dixie. Prices for all deluxe and Centennial models are on request. The Peacemaker is not only an American legend, but fast becoming an Italian one as well!
Still the One
Colt’s has long realized that no matter how many guns they make, no modern handgun, revolver or semi auto, will ever surpass the popularity nor longevity of the Pacemaker.
Between 1900 and 1940 Colt’s produced over 165,000 Single Action Army revolvers. From 1956 to 1970 another 59,000 were produced in the 2nd Generation. Production numbers within the current model line continue to climb with no end in sight.
Over the past 140 years since Single Action Army manufacturing began late in 1872, there have been very few changes to the fundamentals of William Mason’s design, most concerning improvements in ease of operation and variations in frame and backstrap design to accommodate the Target Models and Bisley variations. With only a brief period between World War II and 1955, when the Peacemaker was temporarily discontinued, it has been built by Colt’s longer than any other revolver manufactured anywhere in the world, and remains to this day, along with the Winchester Model 1873, the most recognized symbol of the American West.
Portions of this article are excerpted from the author’s 2007 book Colt Single Action – From Patersons to Peacemakers, published by Chartwell Books, and 3rd Edition The Book of Colt Firearms by R. L. Wilson (with additional photography by Dennis Adler) Blue Book Publications, Inc. 2008. The author would like to express his thanks to R. L. Wilson for the use of archival images; the Dr. Joseph A. Murphy Collection; and to Alessandro Pietta and F.lli Pietta.