Colt New Frontier .44 Special

I doubt few would argue the notion that the Colt Single Action Army is one of the most coveted and collectible American handguns ever made. In production pretty much continuously since 1873 (with a few cessations along the way for things like war, marketing predictions, redesign and retooling) in all its variations, somewhere in the neighborhood of 620,000 Model P’s have been assembled to date. It was the sidearm Custer’s troops carried into the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the gun that “Bat” Masterson ordered direct from Colt, short-barreled, silver-plated and light on the trigger, and the armament of just about every cowboy movie and television actor of note, including the likes of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and John Wayne. It has graced the holsters of lawmen and the lawless alike and was a favored sidearm of the Texas Rangers well into the 20th century, even after much more modern designs and action types became available. Early examples of this iconic pistol—and those with identifiable provenance to the famous and infamous—have, for the most part, proven themselves a better investment than anything Wall Street can or has had to offer.

Primarily of fixed-sighted design, Colt has on a couple of occasions offered a target model of this revolver with sights adjustable to some degree or another, allowing its point-of-aim to be more precisely coordinated with its point-of-impact with a given load at a given range. In my experience, a standard SAA that shoots where it looks right from its box is a rare bird, indeed.

The first of these Single Actions to wear an adjustable sight was known as the Standard Frame Target or Flat-top Model. From its inception in 1888 to around 1895, it was the revolver of choice for many of the world’s top competitive pistol shooters. This model had a flat-top frame into which a dovetail rear sight was fitted, allowing it to be adjusted for windage by drifting it to one side or the other. Elevation was introduced by means of the flat-top’s front sight assembly that had a moveable blade secured by a screw that could be moved up or down or alternately replaced with a blade of different height. A Bisley-gripped Model Target was introduced by Colt in 1894 and soon proved more popular than the Standard Frame Model.

The production of these pre-war target model Single Actions (a.k.a. First Gen-eration) ceased around 1913, and it would be close to 50 years before Colt again offered another adjustable-sighted Model P to the shooting public.

The New Frontier

The year was 1961 and Colt named their new target-sighted Single Action the New Frontier. Released in its own serial number range, beginning with number 3000NF, the New Frontier was a classy revolver, indeed. Built on the same chassis as their Single Action Army, its frame was flat-topped to accommodate a fully adjustable “Accro” rear sight assembly that was paired to a stylish ramped and serrated front blade, a combo that provided a true target-quality sight picture capable of being dialed in with a multitude of loadings. It was catalogued in three barrel lengths—7½, 5½ and 4¾ inches (with the latter two lengths being rare), and some 72 guns left the factory in Buntline form with 12-inch barrels. Calibers offered during this Second Generation production period included .357 Mag (most popular), .45 Colt (second most popular), .44 Special and .38 Special (quite rare).

Its frame was beautifully color-casehardened, while the rest of its exterior wore Colt’s Royal Blue — a deep, dark, luxurious bluing obtained through extensive polishing prior to application.

Grips were well-fitted walnut with silver Colt medallions. During this Model P’s Second Generation production run (1956-1975) roughly 4,200 New Frontiers were produced. With some minor production modifications, Colt reintroduced the Single Action Army in 1976 and with these changes the Third Generation of this prestigious revolver was born. A New Frontier incorporating these Third Generation modifications was released in 1978. Barrel lengths, sights, grips, and finish remained the same and calibers produced during this run of guns included the .357 Mag, .44-40, .44 Special and .45 Colt. Some full nickel-plated pistols and a Buntline-barreled model were also offered. By 1981 Colt had produced around 15,582 Third Generation New Frontiers when this model was deleted from the line.

The New Frontier never achieved the im-mense popularity of its cousin, the slick-topped, fixed-sighted Single Act-ion Army, even though in the opinion of this author—and many others—it was a superior firearm. Although infinitely more capable of precisely delivering its payload to point-of-aim, those who parted with their hard-earned cash for this model pistol routinely preferred and purchased the more “Cowboy” version.

Gun Details
New for 2011, Colt has reintroduced the New Frontier, and their initial offering will be a .44 Special with a 5.5-inch barrel. This will be followed by a 7½-incher in .45 Colt, then a 4¾- and 5½-inch version in .45 Colt.

Although I’m partial to short-barreled single actions, I must say that the mid-length-barreled .44 Special that Colt sent me for review was one handsome, well-balanced and nicely assembled pistol. What struck me first when I unboxed this new Colt was its brilliantly colored casehardened frame. Famous for their case-coloring, this pistol didn’t disappoint, showing broad patches of blues, reds and grays throughout, which included its loading gate that was so precisely fit to the frame that its seams all but couldn’t be detected when a finger was run across them. Once I got past the coloring on the frame, I took in the remainder of this pistol’s Royal Blue exterior and found the bluing rich, deep and dark (think early Colt Python). I was extremely pleased to find that the edges and serrations on this Colt’s front sight remained square and sharp and were not overly and improperly polished, as was the case on many late Second Generation and most Third Generation Model P’s, be they SAA or New Frontier. I’ve owned several New Frontiers over the years and, of those, only one had a front sight as precise as this one, and it had been—according to its serial number—one of the first 100 New Frontiers ever produced. Proper polishing of this pistol’s exterior extended throughout, with all seams properly mated and all screw holes remaining round.

Whereas earlier New Frontiers wore an adjustable “Accro” rear sight, this latest iteration wears a similar but superior Elliason-type rear sight assembly made for them by Champion Gun Sights. Although both the Accro and Elliason are fully adjustable for windage and elevation, this newer Elliason copy has a finely serrated, full-profile sight blade (think Bo-Mar type) angled slightly backward from top to bottom to help deflect light. Its corners are ever so slightly rounded to eliminate sharp edges, and its square notch is cut wide enough to provide adequate light on either side of the front blade for proper and quick sight acquisition and alignment. Both elevation and windage screws are detented for positive and precise adjustment.

Grips on this New Frontier are fabricated from lightly figured walnut and fit the straps of this piece quite precisely. Each panel wears a gold-colored Colt medallion (earlier guns had silver medallions) and are oil-finished. Although nothing could be faulted with their fit, their finish left a little to be desired, with some sanding and filing marks in evidence. I also noted during late range sessions with this revolver that the leading edge of these grips where they met the frame was a little too proud and could use a slight bevel, as this sharp edge raised havoc with the thumb on my shooting hand during prolonged firing.

Like all unaltered Colt Single Actions, the New Frontier felt more than a little oversprung to me right from its box. I confess, though, that all of my Colt Single Actions have been extensively gunsmithed and either had their springs altered or replaced with lighter ones, so I’m more than a trifle spoiled in this area. Still, the action on this recently produced Colt was crisp and precise and was quite shootable as is. My RCBS Premium trigger-pull gauge measured the New Frontier’s single-action pull right at 3.5 pounds, with just the slightest amount of initial creep present—a nice, quite acceptable trigger for an out-of-the-box Colt. Indexing was spot-on for all six chambers, and lockup was precise and solid, with the locking bolt hitting properly on each bolt-stop approach, leaving the cylinder unmarred after numerous cyclings. A soft slug driven down this .44’s barrel revealed a bore diameter of .430 inches and individual cylinder throats also measured .430 inches, quite a divergence from earlier guns in this chambering.

Although there’s been some variance over the years, earlier .44 Specials from Colt usually had barrels with bore diameters in the neighborhood of .427 or .4275 inches (the same diameter as their .44-40 barrels) paired with cylinders with throats machined in the .432-inch range. A call to Colt’s Marketing Manager Mike Guerra confirmed that Colt had altered their bore and chamber dimensions for their .44 Specials in an attempt to get them to perform better with today’s crop of cast and jacketed bullets. I’m thinking we might see a future tightening of tolerances from Colt in other chamberings, as well.

Like all Single Actions produced by Colt during 2011, this New Frontier features a 175th Anniversary Rollmark on top of its barrel, which reads “Colt’s PT F.A. Mfg Co. Hartford CT U.S.A.—1836 * 175th Anniversary * 2011” that harkens back to the year 1836 when the U.S. Government issued Sam Colt a patent for the world’s first commercially viable revolving firearm.

This new release of New Frontiers is numbered in its own serial number range. The first New Frontier produced in 1961 bore Serial No. 3000NF (a four numeric followed by two alpha series). When re-released in 1978, serial numbers started at 01001NF (a five numeric followed by two alpha series). For this latest run of guns, the NF was moved to the beginning of the serial number followed by five numbers, the first gun bearing Serial No. NF20000.

Range Time

I put the New Frontier on paper at 25 yards with an assortment of .44 Special loadings I had on hand. That included seven commercial offerings, as well as two reloads I had previously assembled for other .44 Specials I own. Bullet weights ran from a light of 180 grains to a hefty for caliber 250 grains. Both all-lead as well as jacketed bullets were tried. This particular pistol seemed partial to the heavy-bulleted Keith SWC load from Black Hills. This was a special loading from Black Hills produced as a companion round for use in the Smith & Wesson Model 21-4 Thunder Ranch revolver built at the urging of Thunder Ranch’s founder, Clint Smith. Although not currently catalogued, it is still an offering available from Black Hills, and from the 5½-inch tube of the New Frontier, bullets were traveling some 741.5 feet per second (fps).

The New Frontier also showed a preference for the nickel-cased, shiny-projectiled Silvertip round from Winchester, producing 2.25-inch groups and velocities approaching 800fps. One of my reloads utilizing a hard cast, semi-wadcutter profiled bullet from the Oregon Trail Bullet Company, propelled by a healthy dose of IMR’s 800X powder, produced the most energy, with velocities averaging 936 fps and five-shot groups forming in the 2.31-inch range.

The New Frontier performed flawlessly during the course of two range outings, with fired cases falling freely from each chamber when its loading gate was opened and muzzle slightly elevated. The heavier bulleted rounds tended to group a mite high from the 25-yard mark even when its rear sight assembly was moved to its lowest setting, indicating the need for a slightly higher front sight blade should one be inclined to use these heavier projectiles. Cartridges using bullet weights in the 180- to 200-grain range hit appropriately to point-of-aim at 75 feet, but to be able to take full advantage of the adjustability of the New Frontier’s rear sight assembly, a slightly taller front sight (at least for this particular pistol, anyway) seems in order.

Final Notes

I applaud Colt in their re-release of this classy target revolver and in their renewed efforts and attention to its finish and detail. The New Frontier has all of the panache of the Single Action Army with the added benefit of being able to be dialed in with a multitude of loadings. It’s legal for use in SASS and can be counted on to perform a multitude of tasks—from plinking to target work to nightstand duty to the hunting of small game—and do it all with the dazzle and showiness of the thoroughbred it is. It’s not cheap, but it is a Colt. I’m sure that these new SAs will be hard to come by, so if you want one (or two) you best get on down to your local gun haunt and get your order in. Find out more by calling 800-962-2658 or visit coltsmfg.com.