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Big Game Rifle
Rifle Magazine
August - September 2004
Volume 39, Number 4
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 230
On the cover...
The Turnbull Cowboy Classic features color case frame and carbona blue on the barrel, cylinder and grip frame. Ivory stocks are by Jim Alaimo (www.nutmegsports.com) and engraving is by Adams and & Adams, PO Box 66 Vershire, VT 05079. Photo by Gerald Hudson.
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Turnbull Restoration is now offering a superb copy of the pre-World War II Colt Single Action revolver known as the “Cowboy Classic.” It is absolutely the finest fit and finished SAA-type handgun available today and is chambered in .32-20, .38 Special, .41 Colt, .38-40, .44-40, .44 Special and .45 Colt. These sixguns are more than just pretty faces, as they are crafted from premium steels with correct tolerances and 100 percent made in the U.S.A.

Before getting to all the particulars, let’s take a brief look at the original, prewar Colt Single Action manufactured from 1873 through 1941, so we understand just how good this Turnbull sixgun is. The Colt SAAs from 1873 through about 1883 were crafted from iron, mostly scrap left over from the Civil War. (If a gun from this period is in good working condition, it can be fired with black powder, but it should not be used with smokeless loads. Furthermore since they are clearly the most collected handgun in the world, these ancient Colts have become so valuable, often ranging between $10,000 to $60,000, that it’s best to retire them.) Many of these arms were used to fill government contracts for our cavalry, where they gave remarkable service (and the .45 Colt cartridge set a stopping standard that would be carried over into the famous Model 1911 .45-caliber Government pistol).

While honest, unaltered examples from this period, both civilian and military, display good craftsmanship, they lacked the remarkable fit and finish that was yet to come. By the mid-1880s, the SAA was well on its way to becoming the standard sidearm of anyone needing a reliable and powerful sixgun. Colt continued to improve quality with better steels, but began focusing on the artwork potential of the gun by offering engraving and a variety of special order features, such as plating and carved stocks from mother of pearl and ivory.

By the 1890s, quality was reaching its pinnacle, which would last for the next two decades. Guns from this period generally show superb fit and finish, as even plain non-embellished “working guns” that came with blue finish, case-colored frame and hammer and hard rubber stocks show excellent hand fitting and polishing. For example, where the backstrap connects to the frame (or the “ears” beside the hammer), the line (across) is perfectly straight, and where the trigger guard connects to the frame, side surfaces of both are perfectly flat, no overhangs or uneven surfaces. The trigger guard is rounded rather than flat on the lower surface with gracefully shaped edges, and even the trigger is trim and elegant. The hammer fits precisely inside the milled frame slot with no large gaps on either side, and the contouring corresponded exactly with the “ears” of the backstrap. The front sight is gracefully rounded and tapered to correspond with the V-shaped notch rear sight. The cylinder flutes are large and beveled, offering a more attractive appearance than later guns.

Volumes on this subject could be written, but seeing is worth a thousand words. If you get a chance to examine a 100 percent original Colt SAA manufactured from around 1890 to 1910, study its lines and hand workmanship, and it will become clear why there’s so much fuss over Colt’s workhorse “Frontier” sixgun.

The Doug Turnbull revolvers are manufactured by U.S. Fire Arms Mfg. Co. (PO Box 1901, Hartford CT 06144; toll-free 1-877-227-6901; www.usfirearms.com) but are delivered unfinished in the “white” so Doug can apply the final fit, polish and finish to duplicate the wonderful Colts of yesteryear. Doug has spent many years developing and perfecting correct finishes of many firearms from the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth century and provides a restoration service that was not previously available.

Correct finishes begin with good metalwork. The metal must be carefully filed, fitted and polished with the same methods that were used on vintage guns, or it never looks exactly right. Turnbull has certainly perfected this process for most period guns such as Winchester, Marlin, Parker, L.C. Smith, Smith & Wesson and many others, but especially the Colt SAA, so it seems natural to apply his talents to the USFA revolver. The “Cowboy Classic” features a rich carbona blueing, while the frame and hammer receive a brilliant bone and charcoal-style color casehardening process. Both are correct for a turn-of-the-century Colt SAA revolver and offer striking color.

For those not familiar with the USFA revolver, it is a top-rate single action made entirely in the U.S.A. This company began business in 1993 in Hartford, Connecticut, importing Uberti SAA revolvers and applying final polish and finish. They were nice looking guns, but the company soon began using American-made cylinders and barrels and machining its own frames from forgings. In 2002, USFA finished construction of a new manufacturing facility that is equipped with state-of-the-art CNC tooling and began machining complete guns from raw steels.

The cylinders lock up exceptionally tightly with very little side-play and practically no endshake, both of which aid in accuracy. (Every chamber of the two sample handguns was visually checked for alignment, and a Brownells Range Rod Kit was tried, which confirmed every chamber was aligned correctly with the bore.) The barrel cylinder gap usually runs between .003 and .005 inch.

Timing is flawless, and the trigger engages the sear notch just as the hammer is brought to the full cock position. (The trigger pulls of the two sample guns broke at 3 1/2 pounds, typical of other USFA guns.)

Every part of the USFA revolver is fit individually to a particular frame, then numbered, so they can be correctly mated after final finish work is completed. Surfaces are flat where appropriate, like early Colt revolvers, and they haven’t been “buffed to death” or rounded where they shouldn’t be.

There is an important feature engineered into the USFA single action sixgun that adds significantly to its strength and durability when compared to a Colt. The frame window is slightly “taller” than the Colt; the cylinder is .020 inch larger in diameter, while the measurement from the center of the base pin to the center of the bore remains the same as a Colt. This substantially increases the amount of steel just over the locking bolt notches, always a weak spot on the Colt SAA cylinder, and is a welcome improvement. The cylinder is constructed from 4140 series steel, heat treated to a Rockwell hardness of 37, while the barrels are made from 4130 steel. Clearly there have been no shortcuts in manufacturing this sixgun.

In spite of the extra strength, the USFA sixgun is not suitable for heavy handloads intended for Ruger single-action revolvers that generate something around 30,000 to 32,000 psi. It can, however, handle loads that generate 15,000 to 20,000 psi with ease. Cast bullets weighing 255 to 285 grains can reach velocities of 1,150 and 1,050 fps, respectively.

Besides the above-mentioned frame/cylinder differences, there are a few small differences between the Turnbull/USFA guns and the prewar Colt Single Actions. The top strap is a bit thicker, and the grip frame is a trifle narrower - front to back - and longer. The front sight is straight, rather than tapered, measuring .10 inch wide, offering a square sight picture. Purists may not care for this, but others find it offers a more precise sighting system. Again, it must be emphasized that the above differences are minor. These guns are certainly not prewar Colt Single Actions, but they are much closer than any other single action around today and are readily available at a fraction of the cost.

Two consecutively serial numbered Turnbull Cowboy Classic .45 Colt revolvers with 4 3/4-inch barrels were tested and evaluated. Before they were completed, the backstraps were sent to Master Engraver Dennis Kies (34 Deerfield Ave., Suite 3, East Hartford CT 06108) to have my name engraved; and Kies, I might add, did a beautiful job. The guns turned out absolutely striking with brilliant case colors and rich carbona blueing. These are unquestionably the best Colt-type single actions produced today and the finest USFA has ever produced.

Before range tests, the throats were measured and the bores slugged, measuring .452 and .4515 inch, respectively. These close tolerances are a great combination for accuracy with either cast or jacketed bullets.

Beauty is as beauty does, and I was eager to see if these sixguns performed on the range as spectacularly as they looked. All accuracy and velocity testing was conducted using the lowest serial numbered revolver, but when both sixguns were fired side by side in off-hand and sitting positions at long range on impromptu targets, there was no appreciable difference in accuracy.


The first load tried consisted of a 255-grain cast bullet from Lyman mould 454190 driven 855 fps using 6.0 grains of Alliant Red Dot. Both guns were hitting 2 to 3 inches low at 25 yards, allowing the front sight to be filed (very slightly) to bring the point of impact exactly where desired. Groups with the above load were consistently running around one inch. (One gun was hitting slightly to the left - an easy problem to correct - while the other gun was centered.)

A bullet from RCBS mould 45-270-SAA gave excellent results. Weighing 285 grains when cast from wheelweights, this bullet was designed by Editor Dave Scovill specifically to improve upon the original Keith design and maximize the performance of Colt SAA revolvers. The driving bands have been increased in width to allow the rifling a better hold, and the overall loaded length is maximum in a Colt SAA or copy. The bullet is seated out as far as the cylinder length will allow, maximizing the powder capacity. When the RCBS/Scovill bullet is driven with 11.5 grains of Hodgdon HS-6, for almost 1,000 fps, it groups just under one inch at 25 yards. This is fine accuracy suitable for all field shooting, and I would confidently use it on game up to the size of deer.

Jacketed bullets from Speer and Hornady also made a good showing. The 250-grain Hornady XTP driven 850 fps by 9.0 grains of Alliant Unique grouped into 1.2 inches. Likewise the 260-grain Speer MAG-JHP traveling almost 900 fps using 11.0 grains of Vihtavuori 3N37 produced nearly identical groups. It’s interesting to note that both the above jacketed loads shifted their points of impact a couple of inches to the left when compared to points of impact for the 250/255-grain cast bullets.

When trying a variety of loads in a given revolver, accuracy often varies considerably, especially when using jacketed, plain base cast and bevel base cast bullets. I have a Colt Single Action that won’t group bevel base bullets under 4 or 5 inches at 25 yards but typically clusters jacketed bullets into 2 to 3 inches, and select plain base cast bullets often group into 1 1/2 inches at 25 yards. The Turnbull/USFA revolver certainly preferred some loads over others, but the accuracy difference between the best and the worst was not particularly great. Even the least accurate loads turned in good    performance. This can probably be traced to a combination of close throat tolerances (.452 inch), minimal cylinder endshake and side-play, correct chamber alignment with the bore and a quality barrel cut with an 11 degree forcing cone.

Besides being chambered in many calibers, the Turnbull/USFA Cowboy Classic sixgun is available with many options including ivory stocks, engraving and special order finishes - just like the prewar Colt SAA, and it’s a real shooter. To say that it stands head and shoulders above its competition is an understatement. Suggested retail prices begin at $995. For more information, contact Turnbull Restoration, PO Box 471, Bloomfield NY 14469; or online at: www.turnbullrestoration.com.

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