Guns of the Old West Spring 2013Armi
A look back at Colt’s Snub Nose Peacemakers
by Dennis Adler
Not all frontier lawmen wanted to walk the streets of their town looking like an invitation to a gunfight festooned with a brace of Colts around their waist. Some preferred a degree of subtlety and an implied respect for the office and laws.
That was usually backed up with a Winchester lever action rifle, or if it came to pistols, the short-barreled, ejector-less .45 Colt in a small waist belt holster or butt forward in a trouser pocket. Both methods of carry, along with skeleton shoulder holsters in the late 1890s and early 20th century kept small but powerful guns close at hand but not openly displayed.
Interestingly, in many western towns open carry was forbidden and concealed carry strictly prohibited, though enforcement of such ordinances was mostly perfunctory except in towns where the local law had the name Earp or Masterson attached to it. Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan preferred long barreled Colts and S&W’s both for enforcement and protection; those barrels also severed them well for buffaloing malefactors, drunkards and those who had ignored the sign posted at the edge of town, “No carrying of firearms within city limits.” Enforcing that one cost Dodge City marshal Ed Masterson his life in April 1878.
Other lawmen, Bat Masterson included, preferred shorter barrel length Peacemakers, which Colt’s began offering first in 1875. The short-barreled revolver actually has its origins with Samuel Colt’s first Paterson models manufactured in New Jersey from the 1830s to early 1840s, and again in the 1860s at the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Mfg. Co. in Hartford, Connecticut, when a special version of the .36 caliber Police model was built in limited quantity (no more than 50) with a 2-inch barrel.
These rare little Colt pocket pistols were “inspired” by field alterations of the 1851 Navy and 1860 Army during and shortly after the Civil War. Heavily modified six-shooters with their barrels loped off to anywhere from 2 to 4 inches and loading levers discarded, were not uncommon and Colt’s took note of that with its special Police models and the even more rare .36 caliber Trapper model of the 1862 Police with 3-1/2 inch barrel.
But all of these were cap-and-ball revolvers, the first short-barreled cartridge handgun of respectable caliber manufactured by Colt’s came in the early 1870s, when factory-built Richards-Mason cartridge conversions in .38 caliber rimfire and centerfire were built using old Civil War era Police, Pocket Model of Navy Caliber, and Model 1849 frames. The shortest production barrel length offered was 3-1/2 inches and almost all came without an ejector. Colt’s larger caliber conversions all came from the factory with 7-1/2 and 8-inch barrels, but that is not to say there weren’t any shorter barreled guns around.
Like the old Civil War percussion guns, gunsmiths were more than willing to collect a dollar and change to shorten the barrel and crown the muzzle on a .44 caliber conversion. Famous El Paso, Texas lawman Dallas Stoudenmire notably carried a converted Richards-Mason 1860 Army .44 with the ejector removed and barrel cut down to 2-7/8 inches.
When Colt’s introduced its benchmark 1873 Single Action Army, the standard barrel length was 7-1/2 inches. So when exactly did the “Sheriff’s Model” Peacemaker come into being?
The Barrel Options
A Peacemaker was a Peacemaker so far as the frame was concerned until the introduction of the Bisley Model in 1894. The retail price for “Colt’s New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol” was $20 in 1873 with a 7-1/2 inch barrel. When it came to caliber and barrel length choices the Connecticut armsmaker was open to customer preferences once the U.S. military had its fill of SAA revolvers. That was around 1875.
As noted by author and historian R.L. Wilson in The Book of Colt Firearms, the first short-barreled Peacemakers where built that year with a choice of either 4-3/4 inch or 5-1/2 inch lengths. A year later at the U.S. Centennial Exposition held in Philadelphia’s Fairmont Park, Colt’s introduced its longest barreled SAA model with a rifle-length 16-inch barrel and detachable skeleton shoulder stock.
This was to become the heralded Buntline Special made famous in dime novels by Ned Buntline, and allegedly supported by the presentation of long barreled Colt revolvers to famous frontier lawmen like Wyatt Earp, Bill Tilghman and other frontier peace officers whose exploits filled the mythical pages of Buntline’s paperbacks. Fully 180 degrees from the Buntline was the gun really carried by many of the lawmen portrayed in pulp fiction, the “Sheriff’s” model, which was first produced with a 2-1/2 inch barrel in 1882.
It took Colt’s until 1888 to begin offering a full line of shorter-barreled revolvers all of which have come to be known as the “Sheriff’s” model because of the distinct abbreviated barrel lengths and absence of a cartridge ejector. Initially two barrels were available, 3-1/2 and 4-inches.
Eventually lengths were available from the very rare 2-inch, to 2-1/2, 3, 3-1/4, 3-1/2, and 4 inch, the most common being 3- and 4-inches in length. It is the latter two which became the foundation for both Colt 2nd and 3rd generation Sheriff’s models with 3 inch barrels and the current F.lli Pietta Sheriff’s models with slightly longer 3-1/2 inch barrels , a very nice compromise between the 3- and 4-inch models. Pietta also offers a 3-1/2 inch Sheriff’s Model with a fill length ejector, for those who prefer not to deal with ejector-less single actions.
A Sheriff’s Model was just as likely to be kept under the counter by the cash register in a general store, tucked behind the back of a saloon keeper’s apron just in case he couldn’t reach the shotgun under the bar, or slipped into the coat pocket of a lawman or outlaw.
The idea behind the Sheriff’s Model was to get the drop on an assailant up close and quickly defuse a confrontation by discouraging an individual from further action or, if need be, shooting them down where they stood. Rarely were these stand-up gunfights but rather the culmination of events that unfolded in a matter of moments and were over just as quickly. Reloading wasn’t actually part of the equation here, thus the absence of an ejector.
This made the gun easier to carry and a bit lighter. It also made it very hard to reload!
The odds were that shell cases would expand just enough after discharge that simply opening the loading gate, holding the gun up and rotating the cylinder wouldn’t dislodge them. That was the job of the ejector rod, but without one you had to use whatever might be at hand.
Those who carried Sheriffs Models often packed a small metal rod or sawed off skeleton key in their pocket to push into the front of the cylinder chambers and drive out spent shells. It was more time consuming than using an ejector rod, but clearing a Colt Single Action of fired shells and reloading one chamber at a time was never quick work, no matter what the barrel length. That was S&W’s premier advantage over Colt with the New Model Number 3 topbreak, which was offered with shorter barrels from 3-1/2, 4- and 5-inches. 
The Schofield variation had also been made available with a shorter 5-inch barrel famously carried by Wells Fargo & Co. railway agents among others.
About the Gun
Although compared here to an early 3rd Generation Colt SAA Sheriff’s Model for authenticity, the Pietta, with a ½ inch longer barrel is a surprisingly well balanced revolver and comes with an out of the box factory tuned trigger pull that averages just 2 lbs. 7.0 oz. and an equally light hammer draw that demands a mere 4 lbs. 1.7 oz. effort. On most Single Action models hammer draw averages 6 lbs. or better.
The 3rd Gen. Colt exceeds both with its standard factory action. The Pietta’s action is substantially lighter than most SA guns on the market today and better than some that have been tuned. In practice, this six-shooter is lightning fast to draw, cock and fire.
The Deluxe Great Western II Sheriff’s Model is the latest offering from F.lli Pietta and features an ejector-less 3-1/2 inch barrel, with the majority of the polished stainless steel gun covered in period-style vine scroll engraving on a crosshatch background, intricate diamond patterns around both sides of the frame at the barrel, and sunbursts behind the cylinder flutes and over the transverse latch pin.
While not a hand-engraved gun like those offered from Pietta by Incisioni Dassa, the limited edition Great Western II features Pietta’s new deep laser engraving technique which creates remarkable depth and detail. The process cuts deeper into the metal like an engraver using a traditional chisel and hammer, producing a texture that can be felt and seen.
This is accentuated by the use of a fine crosshatched background pattern to set off the work. The technique can also be used to create detailed features such as the intricately engraved screw heads on the GWII, a treatment usually reserved by period engravers for their finest work. This level of hand engraving would generally demand well over $1,000 today, so to purchase the entire gun for a suggested retail of $800 makes this quite a deal.
A standard blued and color cased Pietta Sheriff’s Model retails for $550, in polished stainless steel about $100 more, so the deep laser engraving is an exceptional bargain. The Deluxe Limited Edition Sheriff’s Model comes with white Micatra grips, factory tuned action, and chambered in either .45 Colt or .357 Magnum. The exclusive Great Western II Deluxe Sheriff Model is available through E.M.F. Co.
To facilitate both ease of concealment, at least by 1880’s standards, and a quick draw, I used an “Aces & Eights” Slim Jim holster designed by John Bianchi Frontier Gunleather.
As rumor has it, these shortened holsters are what Wild Bill Hickok actually wore “under” his waist sash when carrying his brace of 1851 Navy revolvers. I have tried this combination with the “Aces & Eights” rig and it works, but it is hard to prove from photos that the Price of Pistoleros actually had cut down holsters under his waist sash. Hickok was also known to wear his guns in full length holsters over a waist sash, and even belted over his frock coat; so there remain various speculations on the way he wore his pistols at various times. Period photographs show him with and without holsters, but almost always with two guns around his waist.