Historians divide time into two segments, BC and AD. But, for firearms enthusiasts, history is divided “before 1873/after 1873.” The three most iconic firearms of the 19th century, and their equally influential cartridges, all made their appearance that year. The development of the Colt Single Action Army revolver in .45 Colt, the 1873 Winchester lever action rifle in .44-40 and the 1873 Spring-field Trapdoor rifle in .45-70, made 1873 the water-shed year for firearms design in the 19th century.
I would bet that there isn’t a person reading this magazine who isn’t familiar with the Colt Single Action Army revolver—better known as the SAA, or the Model P, for Peacemaker. The original Colt moniker for this gun was the New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol. We’re lucky that never caught on, or we’d be talking about Colt “NMAMCRPs” today instead of Colt SAAs.
The SAA wasn’t the first big-bore, cartridge-firing, American sixgun adopted by the U.S. Army—the Smith & Wesson American has that distinction. In fact the 1873 SAA wasn’t even the first Colt cartridge revolver to be adopted by the Army. The Army bought 1,200 of the first model Richards .44 Colt conversion of the cap and ball 1860 Army revolver in 1871. But the acquisition of both the S&Ws and the Colt conversions were of limited quantities that were destined to be issued to the troops for practical field tests.
When the Army conducted formal competitive tests to pick its next service pistol, the Colt SAA easily bested the competition. The Army bought 12,500 Colt SAAs for service use over the 19-year service life of the SAA. That was a nice jump start to Colt’s business, but by 1900 Colt had sold over 190,000 SAAs. Those were phenomenal sales numbers for a 19th century handgun.
Based on Hollywood movies of the 20th century you’d think that Colt SAAs were the only handguns to be found on the western frontier. That certainly wasn’t the case, but if you look at Colt’s sales volume compared to their competitors at Remington, Smith & Wesson and Merwin Hulbert, you’d see at least half a dozen Colt SAAs for each non-Colt handgun you’d run across.
Ultimately Colt SAAs were chambered for 29 different cartridges. But the original .45 Colt was the flagship chambering, far outselling all other cartridges. The original Army tests were conducted on SAAs chambered for the .44 S&W American cartridge, but for the production models, the government stipulated that the cartridge would be .45 caliber with an inside lubricated bullet. This was the genesis of the .45 Colt cartridge.
With the adoption of the Smith & Wesson Schofield revolver as an alternate service pistol in 1875, the army faced a logistical problem. The cylinder on the Schofield was too short to accommodate the .45 Colt cartridge. The Army initially decided to standardise on the shorter Schofield round, but in 1887 the Army standardized on a new cartridge that could fit both Colt and Schofield revolvers. The M1887 Military Ball Cartridge was a Schofield-length round that had a rim diameter that was larger than the truly tiny rim on .45 Colt cartridges of the time, but smaller than a full-sized Schofield rim.
Today we have two reasons to be thankful for the M1887 cartridge. First of all, the M1887 rim became the common rim on subsequent .45 Colt cartridge cases. If that had not been the case today’s Cowboy Action Shooters would have no .45 Colt rifles to shoot in matches, because there is no way the vestigal rims of the earlier .45 Colt cases could have functioned in a lever-action rifle. The second reason to be grateful is because the effectiveness of the M1887 round, when it was returned to service during the Phillipine insurection, lead directly to the development of the .45 ACP round.
The SAA remained the official service pistol of the US Army from 1873 until 1892, but The .45 Colt round was far more popular on the civillian market than the .45 Schofield. Commercial .45 Colt loads of the time loaded 250-grain to 260-grain bullets over 40 grains of 2Fg black powder. Velocities of up to 970 feet per second (fps) are claimed for this loading, though my own 40-grain charges only average 907 fps through a 7½-inch barrel. The Colt SAA and its .45 Colt cartridge became icons of the American West.
The second famous gun and cartridge pairing of 1873 was the model 1873 Winchester rifle and the .44-40 cartridge. The rifle itself wasn’t spectacular. It represented the next step in refinement of Winchester’s toggle link, lever-action that began with the Henry rifle and continued with the model 1866 Winchester. The model 1873 improved on the 1866 version in a number of ways. The frame was made of iron rather than bronze. There was a lever-actuated safety that prevented the rifle from firing until the bolt was fully in battery. And the frame had removeable plates on either side that allowed a shooter to clean the action without totally disassembling the rifle. And, as a black powder shooter who also owns an 1866 rifle, I can vouch for that improvement. It is a godsend.
So, those improvements to the rifle were certainly welcome, but the thing that really set the model 1873 apart from its predecessors was its chambering. Previous Henry and Winchester rifles had been chambered in the .44 Henry rimfire round. And, even though skilled frontiersmen like Yellowstone Kelly dropped everything up to and including buffalo with that round, most experts would agree that it is pretty anemic.
The 1873 Winchester, chambered for the .44 Winchester Center Fire (.44 WCF) cartridge was still underpowered compared to the big single-shot buffalo rifles of the day, but it was a big step up from the .44 Henry rimfire. More importantly, it ushered in the era of standard cartridges. Because Winchester sold so many 1873 rifles, every general store and trading post carried a stock of .44 WCF cartridges. Other arms manufacturers quickly realized that chambering their weapons for those readily available cartridges would be a good selling point.
I don’t think there is a single major gun maker in the latter 19th century who didn’t chamber at last one model for the .44 WCF round. But calling it a .44 Winchester Center Fire was just giving Winchester too much free advertising, hence the name .44-40 was born, and it stuck.
The final gun and cartridge to emerge in that watershed year was the 1873 Springfield Trapdoor rifle and the .45-70 Government cartridge. The 1873 Springfield rifle was a minor evolution on the trapdoor rifles turned out by the Springfield arsenal since 1866. As was the case with the 1873 Winchester, the cartridge is the real star of this story.
In 1866 the U.S. government had a huge arsenal of muzzleloading rifles produced during the Civil War that were effectively rendered obsolete by improvements in metallic cartridge technology. But, after the huge outlays of money spent to fight the Civil War, the government was in no mood to scrap the muzzleloaders and shell out the cash needed to re-equip the army with cartridge firing weapons. The solution was provided by Erskin S. Allin, the master armorer of the Springfield Armory. What Allin did was to cut off the breech of the muzzleloading barrels and fit them with a strong trapdoor cartridge chamber and breech block. The barrels were lined, reducing them from .58 to .50 caliber, and the .50-70 cartridge was designed to shoot in these rifles.
The 1866 Springfields were issued to troops at the Bozemen Trail forts during Red Cloud’s War. They contributed to the victories at the Hayfield Fight and the Wagon Box Fight. But the guns had problems—the extractors and the ejector springs were prone to breakage. And the stubby 450-grain, .50 caliber bullet lacked ballistic efficiency. The 1873 model corrected those problems, and its new .45 caliber round, with a 405-grain bullet, propelled by 70 grains of black powder, became an instant classic. The Trapdoor Springfield chambered for the .45-70 cartridge was the army’s primary long arm for 19 years, until it was replaced by the Krag. But they remained in use with some units into the 20th century. However, during that time, several different models of the rifle evolved. There were the models of 1873, 1877, 1879 and of 1884 along with various experimental models and speciality models like cadet rifles, officers’ rifles, marksmen’s rifles and even a shotgun model for foraging.
To get a feel for the guns of 1873 I put together a test battery of currently manufactured versions of those arms. Of the three, only the Colt SAA is still offered by its original manufacturer. When I began thinking about this article I owned one Colt SAA. It was a second generation model, built in 1967 — a beautiful gun, but it has the crossbolt basepin catch on the frame. For this article I wanted a revolver with a black powder frame, just as it would have come from the factory in 1873.
I contacted Tim Loomey, the supervisor of Colt’s Custom Shop, and asked if they could produce a new SAA revolver for me with the old black powder frame. Not only did Tim tell me that would be no problem, but he surprised me by saying that the black powder frame is one of their more popular options. Tim explained that custom engravers prefer that frame because there is no crossbolt to interfere with their designs.
A few months after placing the order my new Colt arrived, and it was worth the wait. The 7½-inch barrel and the ejector rod housing were beautifully polished and finished in a dark, modern hot blue. The top of the barrel was stamped “Colt’s PTFA MFG Co. Hartford CT. U.S.A.”, and the side reads “Colt Single Action Army .45.” The ejector rod head was the circular bullseye type used on the early 1870s and 1880s production. I’m a big fan of the bullseye ejector. I like the looks, and I think it is easier to manipulate than the cresent heads.
Colt’s production runs of SAAs are divided into “generations,” based on the year of production. Colts made between 1873 and 1940 are known as first-generation Colts. Production of new SAAs ceased from 1940 until 1956. Guns made when production re-started in 1956, until production slowed in 1974, are called the second generation. In 1976 full production resumed until 1982. The time period from 1976 until the present is called the third generation by some, while others break it into more sub-divisions.
At first glance, my new Colt looks like an early first-generation gun, but there are substantial differences. The firing pin on my gun is the modern, high pressure firing pin, rather than the fat, cone-shaped pin on early first generation guns. And the sights on my revolver are the more user-friendly, second generation style, with wide, square profiles to the front blade and rear notch. Early first generation SAAs have narrow, tapered front sights and shallow “V” rear sights that are much harder to use. So my new Colt has the classic styling of the earliest Colt’s along with some unobtrusive improvements of later generations…the best of both worlds.
The 1873 Winchester outsold it’s competitors by such wide margins that Winchester almost had the market to themselves. Over the model’s 43-year production run, Winchester sold almost three quarters of a million 1873 rifles. Variations included carbines and fancy sporting models as well as workhorse, plain-Jane rifles. Our test gun, built by Uberti and imported by Taylor’s & Company, is an example of a fancier sporting rifle.
This is the sort of rifle a well-to-do cattle baron, or railroad magnate would have gotten as a special order from Winchester. The blued, 24-inch barrel starts out octagonal at the reciever and transitions to round when it exits the forend. The barrel and the full-length magazine tube are finished in a modern blue, as is the dustcover, loading gate and the crescent buttplate. The frame, hammer, lever and trigger are color casehardened. The color coverage is about 75 percent, with deep blues and purples over a smokey-gray background.
The forend and pistol grip of the buttstock are both nicely checkered in a traditional diamond pattern. The buttstock has both a pistol grip and a slight fish belly. The wood in the buttstock has a hint of fancy grain with some faint tiger-striping. All in all, a beautiful rifle.
The 1873 Springfield Trapdoor was also imported by Taylor’s & Company. Manufactured by Pedersoli, another well known Italian replica maker, the carbine came with a blued, 22-inch round barrel outfitted with the correct M73 rear sight. The breechblock is color casehardened, as is the carbine-style buttplate. The balance of the metal on the rifle is blued steel. The straight-grained walnut stock holds the barrelled action with a blued steel barrel band and a robust tang screw.
I’ve owned two original trapdoor cabines over the years, an 1873 model and an 1879 model. This replica compares favorably to the originals in appearance. Functionally it may actually be better. The same barrel blanks are used on this rifle as are used on every other Perdersoli .45-70. So, the bore is a true .457. My original Trapdoor carbines had bores in the .460 to .462 neighborhood. To shoot them accurately with 405-grain bullets, I had to cast special hollow-based bullets. But, with this replica, just about any 405-grain bullet shoots accurately.
On the range, I put our three test guns through their paces. I fired the Colt SAA revolver with both Winchester Cowboy Action factory loads, and with my black powder handloads. All shooting was done off-hand from 15 yards. The Colt SAA had a beautiful, clean trigger that broke at 3 pounds even, and it grouped nicely with both kinds of ammunition. It tossed the 250-grain bullets downrange from the Winchester cowboy loads with an average velocity of 714 feet per second (fps). Group sizes with this ammunition varied between 4 and 4.5 inches in diameter.
When I moved to my black powder handloads velocity took a jump up. I load 250-grain PRS, big-lube bullets over 33-grains of 2Fg Goex black powder. Velocity averaged 784 fps with that load, and group sizes shrank in half, to 2.5 inches in diameter. It was gratifying to see that the black powder-framed Colt likes shooting black powder.
When it came time to test the 1873 rifle I couldn’t find .44-40 factory ammunition in any of my local gun emporiums, so I tested it with smokeless power handloads and with black powder handloads. Shooting was done off-hand at both 25 yards and 50 yards. My smokeless .44-40 handloads are made up of a 200-grain RNFP bullet over eight grains of Unique powder. Average velocity out of the 24¼-inch barrel with that loading was 1,263 fps. Accuracy was quite good. From the 50-yard line I shot 4-inch groups. Moving to the 25-yard line, my groups shrank to 1.5 to 2 inches.
My black powder load gave up some velocity to its smokeless counterpart. By loading a 200-grain bullet over 33-grains of 2Fg Goex, I got an average velocity of 1,163 fps. Accuracy remained very good, with 4-inch groups at 50 yards, and 1.5-inch groups at 25 yards. In fact, at 25 yards, most bullet holes were touching.
When it came time to range test the Trapdoor Springfield I threw a box of Remington Express Rifle, 405-grain, jacketed softpoint ammunition into my range box and I grabbed a batch of my .45-70 blackpowder handloads. As with the lever action, I shot the Trapdoor off-hand, at both 25 yards and 50 yards. The Remington factory ammunition threw their 405-grain slugs down range at 1,123 fps. From 50 yards I shot 4-inch groups, which I’m beginning to think is as good as it gets for me. Moving up to the 25-yard line shrank groups to 2 inches on average, usually with three or more holes touching.
My black powder handloads were made up of a 405-grain RNFP bullet over 60-grains of Goex 2Fg powder. That load averaged 1,052 fps out of the carbine’s 22-inch barrel. At 50 yards that load shot into a four-inch group. Does anyone see a pattern here? From 25 yards I shot one-inch groups consistantly with this rifle, as long as I maintained focus.
It is easy to see why these three guns were so popular in 1873, and why they remain popular almost 140 years later.
For more information on the Taylor’s 1873 Trapdoor Carbine and Sporting Rifle, visit: taylorsfirearms.com or call 540-722-2017
For more information on the Colt Single Action Army, visit: coltsmfg.com or call 800-962-COLT(2658)
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