Back in the day, Colt was very attuned to customers’ needs, and the company entertained special orders from single revolvers to crate loads. Colt also watched the market and tried to supply firearms to meet the demands of shooters. In the latter part of the 19th century, formal handgun target shooting became a popular sport both in the U.S. and abroad. In 1894, Colt introduced a modified version of its Single Action Army (SAA) revolver for target shooters. It was called the “Bisley,” and was named after the shooting range used by the British National Rifle Association. While Colt used a number of components from the SAA, like the cylinder, barrel and ejector rod, a few major and minor changes were required.
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When comparing the SAA to the Bisley, the most noticeable difference is the grip frame. The backstrap appears to have a straighter drop downward, removing some of the flair of the original “plow-handle” shape. At the same time, the frontstrap has a swept-under design that positions the gun in the hand for the kind of grip generally used by target shooters in the late 1800s/early 1900s. This new shape required changes to the grip frame and frame attachment points. The standard grip panels were black gutta percha with checkering and the “rampant Colt” logo. The triggerguard was enlarged somewhat, and the wide, curved trigger was moved back, closer to the grip, for better control during one-handed shooting.
Another accommodation was the hammer spur, which was curved and lowered, with a generous checkered portion for faster, easier cocking using only the shooting hand. Less apparent changes include a longer mainspring and hand, as required by the redesigned frame, and this means they are not interchangeable with those parts on the SAA. The Bisley shared the same barrel length options as the SAA; it could be had with a 4¾-, 5½- or 7½-inch barrel with “BISLEY MODEL” stamped on the side. Standard Bisleys came with blued barrels, cylinders and grip frames with color-casehardened frames. Nickel plating and other specialty finishes, including engraving or fancy grip panels, were available but are rarely seen these days.
While designed as a target pistol, the standard Bisley had a rounded blade front sight while the rear sight consisted of a channel cut into the topstrap of the frame. The vast majority of the 45,326 Bisleys made had these sights. Colt also made a flattop, target-sighted version of the SAA from 1890 to 1898, and a flattop version of the Bisley was also produced. It had a removable blade front sight that allowed for elevation adjustments by substituting blades of different heights. The leaf-style rear sight was fitted in a notch in the frame and could be moved laterally for windage adjustments. Only 976 flattop models were produced. Although Colt offered the Bisley in some 18 different calibers, the most commonly encountered (in order of popularity) are .32-20, .38-40, .45 Colt, .44-40 and .41 Colt as well as the British .450 and .455 Eley cartridges. Most of the Bisley models encountered today by collectors have a lot of honest wear, and those standard versions shipped to addresses in the U.S. were generally used for self-defense rather than target shooting.
Taylor’s & Company Firearms of Winchester, Virginia, has been offering a reproduction Bisley from Uberti for a number of years in .357 Mag and .45 Colt, with the usual barrel lengths of 4¾, 5½ and 7½ inches. Recently, the company began to offer Bisley replicas chambered for the .44-40 cartridge, and I got my hands on a 4¾-inch-barreled version that looked like a Colt Bisley in almost every way. The most noticeable difference was the grip panels, which were not hard rubber but smooth walnut. I examined the Uberti-made reproduction externally and observed a high degree of workmanship in its overall fit and finish. The color casehardening was well done, with pleasing colors that contrasted nicely against the deep blue on the rest of the gun and the reddish varnish on the walnut stocks.
I also noticed the .44-40 Bisley’s barrel markings. Of course, being a reproduction and an import, the stamping on top of the barrel reflected the country of origin (Italy) and the distributor name (Taylor’s & Co. Firearms). The side stamping on the replica had “MOD. 1873 CAL. .44 W.C.F.” There was no “BISLEY MODEL” stamping as on the original. It just so happens that I have an original .44-40 Bisley with a 4¾-inch barrel that was made in 1908. The side of the barrel is correctly stamped, and like all Colt single actions in .44-40, it’s not marked with the caliber but says, “COLT FRONTIER SIX SHOOTER.” This stamping harkens back to the day when Colt began to market the SAA in .44-40 as a companion piece to the Model 1873 Winchester rifle. This enabled the user to carry one load for their handgun and long gun—a perfect combination for the frontier.
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I also noted that the patent dates on the left side of the frame below the cylinder were slightly different, plus the replica lacked the small rampant Colt logo that’s seen on the original just to the rear of the patent dates. Outside of that, the ejector rod housing on the original comes all the way to the end of the 4¾-inch barrel, while it stops about a quarter-inch shy of the muzzle on the reproduction.
While the Bisley was made for target shooters, I can certainly see why it was also popular with those who used a handgun for more “social” purposes. Compared to the SAA, the Bisley’s straighter backstrap and up-swept frontstrap offer an added measure of control. The SAA’s plow-handle grip is forced down in the hand by recoil, and with my medium-sized hand, I can only reach the very top of the hammer spur for cocking. With the Bisley, the recoil comes backward into the hand more, causing less slippage, and the low and broadly curved hammer spur is just where I need it. The hammer’s shape and deep checkering offer excellent purchase for the thumb, so one-handed target shooters would certainly appreciate the advantages offered by the Bisley. In like manner, today’s SASS competitor shooting in the Duelist category may also find the attributes of the Bisley to his or her liking.
Today, the .44-40 can still be had in a smokeless powder loading with a 200-grain JSP bullet at 1,190 fps. For Cowboy Action Shooting (CAS) competition, there are several cowboy loads tailored to shoot safely in older guns and offer performance enhancements for competitors. To evaluate the Taylor’s Bisley, I selected Hornady Frontier cartridges with 205-grain, round-nose, flat-point (RNFP) bullets, plus HSM Cowboy Action and Ten-X Ammunition loads with 200-grain RNFP bullets.
At the range, I started by measuring the pistol’s velocity with the three test loads, which proved to be a pleasure to shoot. Next I set up my sandbag and put up bullseye targets at 15 yards. A few test shots showed me that the sights on the Taylor’s Bisley were shooting about 3 inches low at that distance, so I adjusted my aim to the top of the bullseye, and the hits began to register in the target’s X and 10 rings. My best five-shot group measured 1.47 inches using the Ten-X cartridges. Second place went to the Hornady load with a 1.55-inch cluster. I had four shots going into a group that measured 1.29 inches using the HSM cowboy ammo, but a flyer expanded the group to 2.42 inches. The trigger pull on this Uberti replica is crisp, and my Lyman digital trigger pull gauge showed the weight to be just 3.25 pounds. For a comparison, I measured the trigger pull on my original Bisley, but given its age and all of the gunk that I’m sure is inside the action, its weight was 4.38 pounds.
After the paper punching, I donned a high-ride pancake holster made for Colt-style single actions and did a number of draw-and-shoot exercises using the Taylor’s Bisley and a mix of the three test cartridges to ring steel. I shot one-handed like the old-time cowboys would’ve done and, as I predicted, the Bisley was very controllable and easy to cock. The front and rear sights on the replica are wider than on the original and easier to acquire for faster follow-up shots. I had no misses on the steel range and was very happy with the gun’s performance.
Fast On Target
As a final exercise, I set up a B-27 target center at a distance of 7 yards and fired five shots one-handed with each of the test cartridges as fast as I could shoot, re-aim and shoot again. While some shots landed off to the left, all of the .44-40 ammo extracted easily and I experienced zero malfunctions. The point of this last test stage was to demonstrate that at typical CAS/SASS handgun shooting distances, the Bisley was more than up to the task in the accuracy department when combined with quick shooting. This is a very handsome revolver that performs well, especially when shooting one-handed. It is high quality and, in my opinion, is reasonably priced. Any of the CAS fraternity in the market for a single-action revolver would do well to consider the Taylor’s & Co. Firearms Bisley. For more information, call 540-722-2017, or visit taylorsfirearms.com.
Taylor’s & Co. Bisley
- Caliber: .44-40
- Barrel: 4¾ inches
- OA Length: 11.95 inches
- Grips: Walnut
- Weight: 38.4 ounces (empty)
- Sights: Fixed
- Action: SA
- Finish: Blued, casehardened
- Capacity: 6-shot
- MSRP: $560
Taylor’s & Co. Bisley .44-40
Load: Hornady Frontier 205 RNFP
Load: HSM Cowboy Action 200 RNFP
Load: Ten-X 200 RNFP
Bullet weight measured in grains, velocity in fps by chronograph, and accuracy in inches for best five-shot groups at 15 yards.
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This article originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.