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Handloading Beyond The Basics
Rifle Magazine
February - March 2000
Volume 35, Number 1
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 203
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Make Mine a .45 Colt Single Action Army

 

As one might suspect, we get a    number of letters from readers asking about handguns, cartridges and loads for a variety of purposes. One reader might be interested in hunting deer-sized game, another a heavy-duty load for black bear. Others might be considering the .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum or the .44 Magnum as a utility rig for back-packing or hunting.

Of course, there are the inevitable comparisons among various handloads with whatever bullet might be suitable for whatever task. For years, it seems, folks just quoted Elmer Keith regarding the .44 Special, or later, the .44 Magnum and decided that was all there was to say. Now we have sixguns - actually five-shooters - chambered for the .454 Casull, .475 and .500 Linebaugh that put Elmer’s .44s to shame; unless, of course, you just want a good, solid handful of power that will serve for a broad range of tasks, from potting small game to rolling a good sized mule deer out to 90 yards or so.

Aside from all the rhetoric concerning the merits of one cartridge or another, or one sixgun or another, I made my choice 26 years ago - a .45 Colt Single Action Army. At that, the choice did not come lightly. Prior to the .45 Colt, there were double- and single-action .38 Specials, a Colt Single Action .44 Special, a Smith & Wesson .44 Special and a Smith & Wesson Model 19. There was also a Colt Single Action .32-20 WCF, but quite frankly, it was never even in the running.

Early on, while you could load the Colt Single Action .38 Special up with stout .38-44 loads that pushed 158- to 170-grain cast semiwadcutters to around 1,000 fps from the 4.75-inch barrel, I wasn’t all that impressed - although it dropped rangy desert jackrabbits, badgers and an occasional coyote like the hammer of Thor. The problem then, and still might be, was reliable performance with cast or jacketed bullets. Back in the 1970s, for example, what pitiful few good jacketed bullets were available for the .38 Special or .357 Magnum - or any other caliber for that matter - usually failed to expand   reliably. Sometimes they zipped through coyotes with seemingly little effect. The next time they might blow a $30 hole in the hide. (This was back when a coyote or bobcat hide was worth something.)

Not wasting much time with the .38s or .357 Magnum, the next logical step was the .44 Special. Again, jacketed bullets performed erratically and Lyman’s standard 429421 semiwadcutter proved the best of the lot. It didn’t have to expand to get the job done.

The first .44 Special was a Colt Single Action Army with a 7.5-inch barrel. The longer barrel helped increase velocity, but it was about as handy as a crowbar. Shortening the 7.5-inch barrel to 5.5 inches sacrificed a bit in terms of velocity, but the sixgun balanced better and still shot well enough to hit anything within reasonable range.

I tried a number of loads in the .44 Special, including Elmer’s red-hot recipes but decided an additional 100 fps or so wouldn’t make any difference to a coyote, or even a mid-sized deer, if I put the bullet squarely in the clockworks. As a result, most of my loads peaked out around 950 to 1,000 fps (I didn’t always have a chronograph back then), but better loads would keep five shots inside 4 or 5 inches at 100 yards. That’s what I was after: softball-sized groups out around 100 yards with enough clout to produce complete penetration with the Lyman 429421 semiwadcutter cast from moderately hard alloys with a Brinell hardness number (BHN) of around 11, plus or minus.

Amid the experiments with various sixguns and cartridges, I had a Colt SAA .38 Special that was serving no useful purpose. An advertisement from Numrich Arms (now Gun Parts) for .45 Colt barrels and cylinders provided an option. If the .45 Colt didn’t work out, the Colt could be rebarreled to some other cartridge, or the .38 Special barrel and cylinder could be reinstalled.


As I recall, the only barrel length option from Numrich Arms at the time was 7.5 inches, so that’s what I ordered. Again, it didn’t take long to become annoyed with the long barrel, and it was lopped off to 4.75 inches. It was exactly what I was looking for.

In time, working with various alloys in the Lyman 454424 semiwadcutter mould, I decided 16.5 grains of 2400 was just right. Velocity averaged - on a chronograph - 960 fps. Using 6 pounds of wheelweights alloyed with 4 pounds of nearly pure lead, the bullet expanded to .60 caliber and penetrated 8 to 10 inches in soaking wet newspapers at 15 yards. It really didn’t matter if the bullet expanded all that much since a .45- caliber hole was still a .45-caliber hole - at any speed regardless of what the bullet hit.

Over the years experiments with various bullet alloys have generally proven that a Brinell hardness of 10 to 11 is hard enough to prevent leading but soft enough to promote expansion on tougher game like feral hogs. Ultimately an alloy of one in 15 (lead/tin) proved ductile enough to avoid brittleness but still prevent leading up to 1,000 fps or so from a 4.75-inch barrel.

Powder charges in the big .45 Colt case have always been something of a nemesis in terms of shot-to-shot velocity variations. I’ll be the first to admit that 2400 rarely keeps 10-shot velocity spreads under 50 fps with anything other than Federal’s 150 primer. The important factor is a good, heavy bullet pull. For that RCBS made a custom sizing die with a .448-inch neck expander that worked fine with bullets sized from .452 to .454 inch. Nowadays a .449-inch expander is standard for RCBS .45 Colt dies, but it wasn’t 18 years ago when Bill Keyes made the custom dies.

Experiments have generally proven that most any pistol powder can provide yeoman service in the .45 Colt, but where top velocity is required, 16.5 grains of 2400, 13.0 grains of Blue Dot and 20.0 grains of H-4227 will do the job with 255- to 280-grain cast bullets. To duplicate factory loads with a 250- to 255-grain conical flatnose lead bullet from Winchester or Remington, it is difficult to beat 7.3 grains of W-231, 6.8 grains of Hodgdon TITEGROUP or 8.5 grains of Unique or Universal Clays.

For the most part, I size .45 Colt bullets to .454 inch. That’s still .002 inch or so smaller than Colt chamber throats but works out to a handy compromise between throat diameters and .451- to .452-inch barrel groove diameters. Assuming the alloy is tempered just enough to promote obturation of the base band and not allow wholesale distortion of the bullet when pressure peaks, accuracy is fine - usually around 1.5 inches at 25 yards, or inside 6 inches out around 100 yards. Something close to 3-inch, five-shot groups at 50 to 60 yards is a good standard to look for.

The one failing I have generally found with the .45 Colt is the lack of heavier cast bullet designs. Neither did I see any need for a 300-grain gas check design that can’t be pushed much beyond 800 fps from a Colt SAA without straining things. Early on, I did a lot of work with the Lyman 454424 semiwadcutter mould using pure lead. The resultant bullet weighed 273 grains. I like the added weight, but the bullet was too soft. The solution was to design a mould that would cast a 270-grain bullet from Lyman No. 2 alloy, or something slightly softer, like one in 15.

The mould project was put off for quite some time until RCBS decided to give the idea a try. The resultant mould is listed in the RCBS catalog as 45-270-SAA. Using moderately hard alloys like Lyman No. 2, the bullet weighs close to 270 grains, but a mixture of one in 15 bumps it up to 284 grains. For no-holds-barred penetration, a mixture of 96, 6 and 2 (lead, antimony and tin) produces a bullet that weighs in at 272 grains with a BHN of 16.

Nowadays the RCBS 45-270-SAA is the only bullet I bother to cast for the .45 Colt. Again, it is sized to .454 inch except for a few bullets that are reduced to .452 inch for use in a Colt New Frontier with .452-inch chamber throats. (The chambers were made with a custom reamer that produced .452-inch throats and .480-inch chambers.)

Since the RCBS 45-270-SAA mould produces a relatively heavy bullet that would normally shoot higher than 250- to 255-grain slugs, I put a custom Colt SAA together with a 4.75-inch barrel and a taller-than-normal front sight. Bolstered by 16.0 grains of 2400 or 13.0 grains of Blue Dot, the big RCBS bullet prints 2 inches high at 25 yards and about 3 inches over the point of aim out at 60 yards.

While there are a number of .45-caliber jacketed and cast bullet designs available for the .45 Colt in various weights - 200 to 300 grains - the lighter slugs appear to offer no redeeming value except to reduce recoil or flatten trajectory slightly. In either case, I rarely use them except for tests or pests. For those purposes, I keep the New Frontier .45 Colt on hand since the adjustable sights allow the use of any reasonable bullet weight. At that, the sights on the New Frontier are routinely set up for the RCBS 45-270-SAA bullet at 1,000 fps from the 4.75-inch barrel. Lighter bullets shoot up to a foot lower, depending on weight and velocity, but I have other sixguns set up for factory duplication loads with W-231 or TITEGROUP using Remington or Winchester swaged lead bullets.

The only Colt .45 sixgun I haven’t messed with is a vintage first generation (circa 1918) sixgun that - so the story goes - the previous owner (from whom I bought it) put in a drawer nearly 50 years ago and never fired. As it turns out, it couldn’t be fired because of a mechanical aberration. I put a new trigger in the Colt, removed a very offending burr that prevented the hand from turning the cylinder, and it functions perfectly.

I bring up this sixgun because contrary to what some might have read regarding pre-World War II .45 Colt barrels that reportedly measure .454 inch across the grooves, the barrel on this single action measures .451 inch. So, it would appear, you should actually measure early .45 Colt barrels to be sure of their diameter.

There are other Colt .45s as well; two are New Service double actions. One is a factory refinish job that is effectively as-new. It was worked over to produce a smooth double- action trigger pull, and that is what I use it for - double-action work.

The other New Service started out as a .455 Eley that was shipped to England sometime in the early part of this century. From there, after it was rechambered and proofed as a .45 Colt, it was shipped to Canada - to the Royal North West Mounted Police (R.N.W.M.P.). It shoots very well with factory loads corked with the standard 250- to 255-grain conical lead bullets.

The only Smith & Wesson .45 Colt I currently own might be one of the firm’s best big-bore sixguns. Known as the Classic with a full-length underbarrel lug, radius cylinders and a super single-action trigger pull, it also features snug chambers with .452-inch throats. Set up with a set of custom stocks by Rod Herrett (Herrett Stocks, Box 741, Twin Falls ID 83303), this sixgun is tuned like a Swiss watch. The only drawback is its weight, but that is a small tradeoff for match grade hunting accuracy.

There are other .45 Colts too, including a Uberti, U.S. Patent FireArms and a Cimarron. They required a bit of tuning and handwork to come up to par, but they shoot well with loads of interest and even go afield from time to time, just to whack a varmint or two.

Of the lot, I suppose the favorite is the sixgun that started it all - a 1906 issue that came to me as a .38 Special. It was obviously a hatchet job someone had buffed and reblued. Since the new .45 Colt barrel and cylinder were installed in 1973, it has taken more game than any other firearm I own. Dressed up in Herrett stocks with color casehardening and rust blue finish by Doug Turnbull, along with a glass-smooth action, it has logged countless miles in my hip pocket or secured in a custom holster and belt rig I made up some 15 years back. In some circles, it is still an obsolete antique, but I won’t even dignify the claim by debating the issue. Anyone who claims the .45 Colt is obsolete or out of date is probably just suffering from an overdose of refried beans.

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