Colt Peacemaker: How the Colt Single Action Army Won the West
When the smoke cleared from the side lot of C. S. Fly’s photography studio, just six doors down from the rear entrance of the O.K. Corral, Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton lay dead.
Recovered from the scene of this notorious Old West gunfight was the iconic firearm that helped forge the era’s great legends. Billy Clanton’s lifeless hand still gripped his empty Colt M1873 revolver, all six shots having been fired in the last thirty seconds of his life. Nearby lay Frank McLaury, with his own Colt revolver haphazardly flung some five feet away with two rounds still in the cylinder.
Collected as evidence and used in the hearing that followed, the firearms became an extension of the men who wielded them, like so many gunfights of the Old West. The model of the guns used would not have come as a surprise to anyone present. Clanton and McLaury both used the Colt Frontier Six-Shooter, a variant model of the most popular sidearm of the Old West: the Colt Peacemaker.
The Colt Single Action Army Revolver M1873 — also known as the SAA, or the Peacemaker — is undoubtedly one of the defining firearms of the Old West. Historically, the weapon appeared in nearly every famous gunfight of the late nineteenth century, though there were certainly other popular contemporary sidearms available. The Smith & Wesson Schofield M3, the S&W American M3, and the Remington M1875 all proved popular, but none came even remotely close to the widespread success of the Colt SAA. The Peacemaker was so widely used in the Old West, you’d have better luck naming a famous outlaw, lawman, rancher, or cowpoke who didn’t use one.
The story of one of the most commercially successful firearms of the 19th century is incredible, filled with innovation, drama, and — of course — famous frontier gunfights.
A “Revolver Revolution”
While the Peacemaker is certainly among the most recognizable single-action firearms, it was not the first of its kind. Some 40 years prior to the manufacture of the Colt Single Army Action Revolver, there was the Colt Paterson Revolver. Named for the location of Colt’s first factory, the Patent Arms Company in Paterson, New Jersey, the Paterson Revolver was the progenitor of the great single-action firearms of the Old West.
Patented in 1836, the Paterson Revolver was breech-loaded, had a folding trigger, and used interchangeable parts. The commercial success of the Paterson was spotty and the Ordnance Department frequently reported quality concerns with the models sold to the US Army.
It was slow and complicated to reload, requiring special equipment, in addition to paper cartridges and caps. Regardless of its flaws and drawbacks, the patent cemented Colt’s monopoly over revolver manufacturing for the next two decades, and kickstarted a revolver craze that gripped gunmakers around the world.
In 1847, a collaboration between Samuel Colt and Texas Ranger Captain Samuel Hamilton Walker produced the successor to the Paterson: the Colt Walker. The Walker was a monster of a revolver, weighing 4.5 pounds, with a 9-inch barrel and an overall length of 15.5 inches. Designed for close range combat, the Walker saw use during the Mexican-American War, replacing outdated percussion lock pistols — like the Harpers Ferry M1842 — and the Colt Paterson revolvers purchased by the federal government.
The Walker was exceptionally large for a revolver, but included subtle corrections to the Paterson revolver that made the sidearm more manageable and quicker to load and fire. In the years that followed, the Walker laid the groundwork for three additional Colt sidearms known as the First, Second, and Third Dragoon model revolvers. By the end of the 1840s, Colt was the undisputed champion of single-action revolvers.
The Trouble with Patents
Metallic cartridges were invented in the early 19th century, the first alternative to paper cartridges and cap and ball designs, but the earliest efforts were unreliable and ultimately made obsolete with the invention of the rimfire metallic cartridge in 1845.
In response to this advancement, an employee of Colt’s named Rollin White presented him with a concept that included boring revolver spinners to fit metallic cartridges in 1852. The patent was not ideal: while it included a combined cylinder and box magazine, as well as a bored cylinder capable of receiving metallic cartridges, the design also included an individual cap on the nipple for each shot, meaning that it would need to be replaced every time the weapon fired. This created a firing process even slower than cap and ball revolvers already in production. Colt was not convinced, and dismissed White’s idea.
White left Colt’s Patent Arms Manufacturing Company and defected to Smith & Wesson, where he had more success. Using White’s patent, they created the Smith & Wesson Model 1 Revolver, the first revolver to use rimfire metal cartridges. It was a commercial success and, coupled with the expiration of the 1836 patent for the Paterson Revolver, brought Colt’s early monopoly on the revolver market to a crashing halt. Other companies could now imitate Colt’s revolver designs, but they could not create anything using White’s bored cylinder patent.
While the 1850s were slow times for innovation at Colt, the company was not idle when there was money to be made. Colt produced a series of pocket revolvers, affectionately nicknamed “Baby Patersons,” in addition to the 1851 Navy revolver and the 1855 Sidehammer revolver (also a pocket revolver). By the time the Civil War began in 1861, Colt continued to double down on its cap and ball revolver production.
Although Samuel Colt passed away in 1862, the company saw enormous prosperity and success during the war, selling more than 130,000 of the 400,000 manufactured US Army M1860 and US Navy M1861 revolvers to the Union Ordnance Department.
The war was a financial boon for Colt, despite the loss of their founder and a factory to an accidental fire. Consistent revenue kept the company prosperous until 1869 when, at last, Rollin White’s bored cylinder patent finally expired, and Colt jumped at the opportunity.
Immediate efforts were made to convert the original cap and ball revolvers, particularly the M1860 Army, to metal cartridges. However, it quickly became clear that a new design was necessary. The Civil War was over, and a new frontier was burgeoning in the West.
Related read: Bowie Knives: The Old West’s Most Famous Blade
The Colt Single Army Action Revolver
For the design of their new single-action revolver, Colt looked to William Mason and Charles Richards, both of whom had worked with the company on previous revolver designs. In 1872, using schematics from their M1872 “Open Top” revolver — the SAA’s immediate predecessor and one of the conversion models — Mason and Richard created an elegant and efficient design for the new sidearm.
As a single-action, the weapon needed to be manually cocked before firing. With rimfire metallic cartridges now available for use, loading and firing the weapon was much simpler and exponentially increased the speed in comparison to its cap-and-ball predecessors.
Bringing the weapon to half-cock engaged the loading gate, which allowed the user to insert the metal cartridges right into the cylinder. Removing spent cartridges worked in a similar way. Bringing the weapon to half-cock, then using an ejector set along the base of the barrel, the user would individually eject the spent shells from the cylinder. Because the revolver was a single-action, it was possible for users to operate the weapon by holding down the trigger and “fanning” the hammer with their opposite hand for a rapid succession of fire.
The original design of the Colt SAA fired a .45 caliber bullet and sported a 7.5-inch barrel, with an overall length of 13 inches. It was issued to the US Cavalry and saw use through the late 19th century during the Indian Wars. Smaller variants were quickly produced: the “artillery” model, sporting a 5.5-inch barrel, and the smallest, the “civilian” model, had a 4.75-inch barrel.
These first Colt SAA’s saw great success and more than 35,000 were contracted to the US Army. Two months later, Colt released the Colt SAA for public purchase and advertised it as “the Peacemaker.” Meanwhile, Smith & Wesson had developed a shorter .45 cartridge and sold a large number of their Schofield revolvers to the Army by the mid 1870s, causing difficulties with ammunition interchangeability.
In 1873, Colt created the design for its most famous variant of the Colt SAA: the “Model P” Colt Frontier, or the Frontier Six-Shooter. Produced in 1877, this revolver was designed to fire the .44-40 Winchester caliber ammunition, as opposed to the Colt .45.
In a stroke of genius, Colt designed a sidearm compatible with the only other firearm of the Old West as popular as the Peacemaker: the Winchester M1873 rifle. Variations of the Peacemaker included smaller frontier caliber barrels (.38-40 and .32-20), and the Colt Bisley model (1894), featuring a wider trigger and hammer spur — ideal for fanning the revolver.
The Colt Peacemaker took the West by storm. Its elegant shape and handling complimented the accuracy and power it brought to bear. Infamous outlaws such as Billy the Kid, Jessie James, and Butch Cassidy owned and used the Peacemaker. Lawmen like the Earp Brothers and the Texas Rangers relied on them. From train robberies to shootouts, military campaigns to police action, the Peacemaker became synonymous with the Old West. One of Colt’s contemporary marketing slogans said it best: “God created men, Col. Colt made them equal.”
Even as Colt produced its M1877 Frontier model — the same used by Billy Clanton and Frank McClaury in Tombstone — Mason and Richards were working on its successor: the M1878 Double-Action. More than 50,000 were produced (with some 4,000 contracted to the US Army) and began to overtake the SAA in popularity in the years that followed. While the US Army and Artillery continued to use the Colt Single Action Army revolver in active service, in 1892, the Colt SAA was finally retired by the US Cavalry and replaced with the Colt Double Action Army revolver.
The Gun that Won the West
Many Old West firearms could be considered “the gun that won the West.” Remington’s Derringer pistol, Smith & Wesson’s Schofield M3, and the LeMat Revolver all have their place under the dry desert sun.
The Winchester M1873 rifle tops the list as the natural competitor to the Peacemaker. But, the rifle can rarely be considered without the revolver due to the genius of reboring the Colt Frontier to match the same caliber ammunition used by the Winchester M1873. At least two of the outlaws killed during the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral had a Winchester to match their Peacemaker revolver.
The legacy of the Colt SAA speaks for itself. When researching the history of the legends of the West (and beyond), the Peacemaker appears over and over again. It was with Custer’s 7th Cavalry during the Battle of Little Bighorn, where spent casings recovered in recent archaeological digs have helped piece together part of the mystery of one of America’s most mythic battles.
Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders charged up San Juan Hill armed with the “artillery” model SAA. Perhaps most famously outside of the West, you could find it on General George S. Patton’s hip during the Mexican Punitive Expedition of 1916 and when he led American troops to victory in North Africa, Sicily, and Europe during the Second World War.
If the Peacemaker is not the gun that won the West, it is certainly the gun most frequently associated with it. A staple of Hollywood and video games, it has appeared in hundreds of films and dozens of games. In 2011, the Arizona State Legislature made the Peacemaker the official state firearm, winning by a margin of more than 35%.
Despite having been discontinued twice, the Peacemaker is still in production today due to popular demand. It’s available in six different calibers, two finishes, and three barrel lengths, and more than half a million of the numerous models of the weapon have been produced by Colt over the last 150 years.
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References & Further Reading
OldWest.org strives to use accurate sources and references in its research, and to include materials from multiple viewpoints and angles when possible.
- Adler, D. (2007). Colt Single Action: From Patersons to Peacemakers. Chartwell Books.
- Adler, D. (2014). Guns of the Civil War. Crestline.
- Colt Manufacturing LLC. (2021). https://www.colt.com/timeline
- Glaser, Leah S., and Nicholas Thomas. “SAM COLT’S ARIZONA: Investing in the West.” The Journal of Arizona History 56, no. 1 (2015): 29–52. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24459905.
- Haskew, M. E. (2015). Colt: An American Classic (Collectors Guides). Amber.
- Haven, C. T. (1996). A History of the Colt Revolver. Odysseus Editions.
- Parsons, J. E. (2014). The Peacemaker and its Rivals: An Account of the Single Action Colt. Skyhorse Publishing.
- Pegler, M., Stacey, M., & Gilliland, A. (2017). Colt Single-Action Revolvers. Osprey Publishing.
- Rasenberger, J. (2020). Revolver: Sam Colt and the Six-Shooter That Changed America. Scribner.
- Wilson, R. L. (2008). The Book of Colt Firearms. Blue Book Publications Inc.
- Wilson, R.L. (1992). Peacemakers: Arms and Adventure in the American West. Chartwell Publications.
Will Krakower is a freelance writer from the New York area. He has a master's degree in Public History from Rutgers University and specializes in Early American History. He works as a historian for the New Jersey State Park Service and likes to research and write with his cat, Pumpkin, who sits on his lap and is a constant companion/nuisance.