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Blackhorn Powder
Rifle Magazine
October - November 2000
Volume 35, Number 5
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 207
On the cover...
The Kimber Classic Stainless Gold Match .45 ACP is
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From the time I was just a toddler, I have always had a fascination with guns - practically all guns! Certain types, however, have earned a place very close to my heart, such as the great single-action revolver. While I am very fond of the modern Ruger Blackhawk and it variations, the old Colt Peacemaker or Single Action Army receives special honors. Over the past 25 plus years I have owned and shot several hundred Colts that date from 1873 to the present. I have even taken big game with .44 Specials and .45 Colts, including deer, black bear and elk, not to mention an unknown quantity of small game, varmints and pests. While there are certainly better defense guns, Colts have taken me through a tight spot or two - because they were what I had at the time, and with practical skills, I was far from being unarmed!

The historical prewar (first generation) Colt SAA offers a certain fascination to shooters and collectors that no other handgun seems to equal. They were in the hands of 7th Cavalry soldiers when Gen. George A. Custer fought the Sioux at the Little Big Horn in 1876. On a hot July night in 1881, Pat Garrett used a 7 1/2-inch Frontier Six Shooter (.44 WCF) to stop the bloody trail of Billy the Kid, who also used Colt SAs throughout his career. Later in that same year, at possibly the most famous gunfight on the American frontier, the shootout at the OK Corral, the Peacemaker was used by the Earp and Clanton/ McLaury clans. The list of famous nineteenth-century lawmen, outlaws, frontiersman, soldiers, cowboys and exhibition shootists who used the famed Model P is nearly endless.

Well past the turn of the century, when the eastern U.S. had become “civilized,” western citizens and lawmen continued to fight rustlers, stage and bank robbers and the sort, and the old “Thumbuster” remained the sixgun of choice! In 1916, as a young officer, Gen. George S. Patton ordered a Helfricht engraved SAA .45, which was the same famous gun he carried and used in World War II in spite of many more modern revolvers and pistols being available.

In the 1920s a young cowpoke by the name of Elmer Keith began experimenting to improve the SAA with the addition of better springs, sights, bullets and heavy handloads, first in .45 Colt, then later in .44 Special. While he was not the only one experimenting along these lines, it was ultimately Keith’s efforts as an experimenter and writer that led to the promotion and development of the great .44 Magnum in the mid-1950s.

Oh, yes, the famed Colt Peacemaker has a long and colorful history, but in spite of this nostalgia, it is still very practical, particularly for those who spend time kicking around in the hills and need a powerful big-bore sixgun. I find the size and weight about perfect, as it is easy to shoot well, yet light enough to carry all day without becoming a burden. The grip frame seems to fit a wide variety of hand sizes and points naturally. When chambered in .44 Special or .45 Colt and properly handloaded, it is generally capable of most handgunning needs. If properly timed, tuned and maintained, the Colt SA is a very reliable sixgun. Furthermore, when eating lunch under a shady tree, it is satisfying to unholster a historic Colt, study its clean lines, artistic beauty, fine workmanship, antique finish and reflect on its rich history - then shoot it!

Unfortunately, the Old World craftsmen who built the fine Colts during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century are long gone, and today’s fast-paced disposable thinking has taken its toll on most products, including Colt SAAs that require fine fitting and handcraftsmanship. While the current production Colt is a good gun, it is certainly overpriced with a manufacturer’s suggested retail of $1,590. Antique Colts in reasonable condition are very high priced, difficult to find and, occasionally, because of odd throat or bore sizes, are sometimes not the best shooters. So where does today’s handgunner turn to get a top-quality, shootable SAA-style sixgun at a reasonable price?

In 1993 a newly formed company, United States Fire Arms Manufacturing Company (USFAMC) began building a copy of the celebrated Colt Model P or Single      Action Army revolver. A few years prior, Colt’s Manufacturing Company had moved its operations to West Hartford and the historic building that had served from 1867 to 1989 was subsequently leased to Doug Donnelly, president and owner of USFAMC. In its early years, USFAMC was simply taking Uberti revolvers in the white and applying a deluxe finish. While Ubertis are a good value, its barrels, cylinders, triggers and hammers sometimes lack the quality that demanding shooters look for.


This has changed and USFAMC is now building a top-notch Single Action Army, mostly from scratch. They begin with a rough forged frame, backstrap and trigger guard and match each part perfectly by hand! As we will discuss later, the barrel and cylinder are of fine quality and American made. The end result is not just good, but is, in my opinion, the best built SAA sixgun available today.

Three guns were received for testing and evaluation and each was chambered for the venerable .45 Colt. The first one is an Omni Potent Six Shooter with a 5 1/2-inch barrel. This particular model is unique as it is USFAMC’s own creation and is not a reproduction of any historic firearm; however, it carries a nineteenth-century appearance. It is basically a Colt SAA Bisley-style cylinder frame but with a grip frame that resembles the 1878 Colt Frontier. This certainly gives it a very unusual appearance but is nevertheless attractive. It also features a long fluted cylinder, a large Bisley-style trigger guard and hammer. The entire frame, trigger guard, backstrap and hammer are finished in beautiful case colors, while the barrel, ejector housing and cylinder are blued. Unfortunately this sample gun had come from the SHOT Show with a “shortened” firing pin and therefore had to be omitted from the test-fire sessions.

The other two guns are in the standard SAA configuration with the popular 4 3/4-inch barrel. The first one, serial number 21xxx, known as the New U.S. Pre-War, features beautiful case colors on the frame and hammer while the balance of the gun is richly blued in what USFAMC calls Armoury Blue. This finish work is performed by Doug Turnbull of Turnbull Restoration and represents a very authentic late nineteenth century-type finish commonly referred to as charcoal or carbona blueing. His case coloring process even includes the traditional use of bone meal and hardwood charcoal, which results in a blue/case color combination that is nothing short of striking!

The third handgun is the China Camp model with serial number CC2xx, which is named after five-time SASS World Champion Dennis Ming and built to his specifications. It is basically the same as the Pre-War model, however it is left in the white, which USFAMC refers to as its Silver Steel Competition Finish and is polished semi-bright. This finish will need maintenance to prevent rust; however, with use and wear it should take on an antique looking patina. The China Camp also features a wider front sight, and the rear sight is wider and deeper to allow for a fast sight picture. Finally an action job and a carefully tuned trigger complete this package.

The base pin of the Pre-War model is secured by the so-called blackpowder style setscrew, while the China Camp features the more convenient cross pin. The frame screws are beautifully shaped and fit correctly to the frame, backstrap and trigger guard. Each gun features the bullseye ejector rod button (shaped like a doughnut), reminiscent of early Colt SAAs, which is large and comfortable to use.

Besides the striking finish, there are other external features that give this sixgun the look and feel of a prewar Colt SAA, such as the hard rubber grips that are shaped exactly like the prewar Colts without the eagle. Rather than the rampant colt on the upper panels, there is a US marked within the oval. The front of the cylinder has been beveled and features large style flutes. The barrel is marked 45 COLT on the left side with the maker’s small two-line address on top. The front sight is small and rounded - also correct for prewar Colts. The firing pin is fixed, rather than floating like current production Colt SAAs.

The serial numbers are marked on the frame, trigger guard, bottom of backstrap and the cylinder, which are not just for cosmetic purposes as each part is fitted and matched to that individual gun. Not only is the trigger guard gracefully shaped, but it is also thin, slightly rounded and looks correct. The patent dates are marked on the left side of the frame in the three-line style - the same markings Colt used during the late 1870s and 1880s, prior to the two-line address with the circled rampant colt.

While the factory USFAMC mainspring is much lighter than the spring used in prewar Colts (which I’m pretty certain were the same springs used on buckboard seats!), I would like to see yet a lighter spring. Even with reduced weight springs, there is plenty of hammer weight for reliable primer ignition.

The knurling on the hammer is in the early prewar Colt pattern, but it is not well defined and appears to be rolled on. A true deep cut knurling would be pleasing to the eye and offer a better surface for the thumb to contact. Furthermore, the hammer cam could be a bit larger, which would make it last longer while reducing wear on the bolt.

The last complaint, also very, very minor, is that there is a slight amount of silver solder showing at the base of the front sights, which were beautifully installed! While this is hardly noticeable, especially on the China Camp model, it is a slight imperfection. In defense of USFAMC, I contacted the company spokesman Kevin Mooney, who responded basically that, “Many first generation Colt’s had silver solder showing around the base of the front sight . . .” and didn’t feel this was an imperfection.

Externally the USFAMC sixguns are very appealing, but what about steels, barrel quality and internal dimensions where it really matters? First, the USFAMC frame window is approximately .020 inch larger than the Colt SAA, which also allows a slightly larger diameter cylinder. This increases the chamber wall thickness approximately .008 to .010 inch over a Colt SA of the same caliber (depending on how tightly chambered a given gun is). While this might not sound like much, in .45 Colt caliber this is approximately a 13 to 15 percent increase in chamber wall thickness. The actual weak link in a Colt style SA cylinder, however, is found at the bolt notch. While this is a difficult spot to measure exact chamber thickness, my best estimates seem to indicate the USFAMC bolt notch is cut to about .006 inch less depth than a modern 3rd generation Colt SAA. (I measured more than a dozen Colt SAAs including 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation guns, which varied considerably, to obtain this information.) In other words, there is approximately .014 to .017 inch more steel at the bolt notch of the USFAMC cylinder than that of a Colt, which is a large percentage and a very welcome improvement.


The cylinder is also slightly longer, about .013 inch, than a Colt SA cylinder. While a little extra room or length is beneficial, its advantage is minimal. To detect the slightly larger USFAMC frame and cylinder versus a Colt SA by sight or feel is virtually impossible, even when holding the two makes side by side.

Finally the cylinder is American made, from heat-treated 4130 steel, which is machined beautifully and is comparable in strength to 4140 steel - the steel Ruger uses in its strong and very durable Blackhawk. The USFAMC cylinder has been tested with a Rockwell hardness of 35.

The chambers are smooth, tight and very uniform with no detectable “orphans” or misalignments! The chamber mouths measure a perfect .4525 inch, just like a custom built gun. There is a removable cylinder bushing, like 1st and 2nd generation Colts, so if excess cylinder end-shake develops, a new bushing can easily be installed. Both guns are very tight with practically no side movement and minimal cylinder end-play.

The barrel, also American made, is of match grade quality with six lands and grooves in a right-hand twist. The forcing cone is cut at 11 degrees, which in my opinion is the best choice for top accuracy with a variety of bullet styles and velocities. This cut is very smooth on both sample guns. The barrel/cylinder gap is set tightly, yet reliably, at just .003 inch and .006 inch, respectively, for the China Camp and the Pre-War versions. A hardened and removable firing pin bushing has been installed - the same as Colt SA’s. Trigger pulls were slightly heavy at 4 pounds but were crisp with no detectable creep. While I prefer a lighter trigger pull, in today’s lawsuit happy world, this was not at all bad. Timing was very good on all three guns and never once was there even a slight indication of the bolt dragging between cylinder notches or dropping prematurely, and the bolt was shaped correctly to fit the cylinder notches.

I headed to the shooting bench with a variety of factory .45 Colt loads from Black Hills, CCI, Federal, PMC, Remington and Winchester, along with several handloads, which included commercial cast bullets as well as my own. After firing a few shots offhand to foul the bore, I settled down on sandbags with paper targets set at 25 yards. Both sixguns were very accurate with virtually every load. Functioning was flawless throughout the tests.

Both handguns printed most loads in line with the point of aim, but they were slightly low with 250- to 255-grain bullets. The cowboy loads from Black Hills, PMC and Winchester, which all use a 250-grain flatnose bullet, printed about 11Ú2 to 21Ú2 inches low. The two traditional .45 Colt loads from Remington and Winchester that use 250- and 255-grain bullets, respectively, and were driven to velocities of approximately 850 fps, grouped 3 to 4 inches low. This is perfect as a shooter can fine tune the sights to a specific load without having the difficulty of trying to increase the front sight height. (Since I tend to shoot with a firm grip, these guns probably shot lower for me than most other shooters.) Because of the reduced barrel time, the CCI Blazer loaded with a 200-grain JHP bullet and the Federal 225-grain SWC-HP each grouped much lower; accuracy was still very good.

The best accuracy for both guns came from a handload that duplicates the old traditional factory load from Winchester. It consists of the Lyman bullet 454190, which from my mould casts bullets weighing 255 grains from wheelweight alloy (before the bullet lube has been applied) and is sized to .4525 inch. It is seated over 6.0 grains of Alliant Red Dot and crimped over the ogive using a Lyman crimp die.

The overall cartridge length is 1.575 inches and has a very similar profile to the traditional factory loads from Winchester and Remington. Seated deeply in this manner, as this bullet was designed, it takes up much of the excessive powder capacity of the big .45 Colt case and makes it better suited to uniformly ignite small charges of fast-burning powder. It is not uncommon for this load to have an extreme spread of less than 10 fps, depending on chamber and throat uniformity of the gun it is fired in. When I managed to get enough shade on the shiny sights, the China Camp put five shots in less than one inch at 25 yards.

For those wanting that special touch, USFAMC offers a complete custom shop wherein any reasonable option can be executed. For example a personalized serial number, special finish or an unusual barrel length can be furnished. Grips of fancy wood, stag, mother-of-pearl or ivory can be installed and fitted precisely. Carved ivory is available in traditional (and some non-traditional) nineteenth-century patterns such as the popular ox head, buffalo head or Mexican emblem.

Factory Master engraving is offered, being performed by the very talented Dennis Kies. I have examined several guns decorated by Dennis, and he is a true artist in the purest form with quality nothing short of remarkable! In addition to his own style, he has studied Colt engravers from the late nineteenth century to present day and can duplicate many of the old patterns that are once again becoming very popular.

To illustrate my confidence in Dennis’s skills and knowledge, I am in the process of restoring an 1894 vintage Colt SAA that was factory engraved by Cuno Helfricht! As most prewar Colt collectors know, factory engraved Peacemakers, especially those by Helfricht, are rare as hen’s teeth and extremely valuable. My particular sixgun is a 4 3/4-inch .45 with factory nickel plating and ox head carved pearl grips! Unfortunately it has seen much frontier use and has been poorly refinished. After the necessary restoration work is performed, I plan to have Dennis clean up and recut the engraving where necessary.

The USFAMC single actions are very impressive, and I feel they offer the straightest, best fitting, finest finished, most accurate SAA-style sixgun available today. In fact, about a year ago, I contacted Hamilton Bowen of Bowen Classic Arms (PO Box 67, Louisville TN 37777) to build a pair of very high-grade (and very, very expensive) SA revolvers that would be based on either a Colt SAA frame or a copy thereof. We decided to start with USFAMC frames, because they were the straightest ones available! After I had purchased the two frames in the white, with .44 Special cylinders, I sent the works to Hamilton, who promptly informed me that the cylinders were near perfect and that making new ones would be superfluous!

Manufacturer’s suggested retail prices start at about $950, which when we look at the competition or the cost of an antique Colt, the USFAMC guns are, no question, a true bargain! Currently there is a 10- to 12-week lead time for the standard style, while custom options, such as engraving, carved grips, etc. will take longer. I’m sure it is worth the wait, as I have already placed my order - for two!

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