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Colt Cowboy Single-Action Army SAA Revolver Review
The Cowboy - Colt's Single-Action Sixgun - By Dick Metcalf, Technical Editor, Shooting Times.

Colt made some major changes to its famous Single Action Army, and the result is the Colt Cowboy single action; a modern revolver with classic Colt traits at less than half the price of the original.

Introduced in 1873 for the U.S. Army, the famed Peacemaker is without question the most familiar and immediately recognizable revolver ever manufactured. And its popularity as a gun to own and shoot remains unabated, even as the 20th century draws to a close. Many other more "modern" handgun designs have come and gone, yet customer demand for Colt’s SAA remains enduringly strong - so strong, in fact, that the dozens of look-alike guns on the current market, from Ruger’s premium Vaquero to the economical European American Armory Bounty Hunter, are among the largest-selling handguns made. And as the sport of cowboy action shooting has grown, the interest in single actions has increased.

The only shadow over the SAA in recent years, in fact, has been that supply from Colt has been limited in number (actually, the SAA has not been a standard catalog item for some years; it has only been, and remains to be, a Colt Custom Shop offering). Not to mention its fairly expensive price ($1590 base price). Currently offered in 45 Colt and 44-40 with 4 3/4- or 5 1/2-inch barrels (38-40 and 7 1/2-inch barrel length are available on occasion - call the Custom Shop for availability; phone: 800-962-2658, ext. 1437) and choice of color-casehardened/blued or overall bright nickel finishes, the original has lately been a very slow seller surrounded by a fast-moving flood of imitations, as even the most passionate fan finds it hard to pay as much as five times the price of a similar-featured alternative brand just to own the Colt label. But Colt has at last moved decisively to rectify this situation.

Strikingly Similar To The SAA
First announced at the January 1998 SHOT Show and now finally in production, the new Colt Cowboy single-action revolver is specifically designed for the cowboy action competitor, Colt collector, and casual recreational shooter. It preserves virtually all of the styling, handling, and historical design characteristics of the original Single Action Army while incorporating several modern internal features and manufacturing techniques. And at a suggested retail price of $599, the Cowboy is less than half the cost of a “real” Colt SAA. It is initially offered only in 45 Colt chambering with 5 1/2-inch barrel and blued finish, but Colt spokesmen expect that additional chamberings, finishes, and barrel lengths will be warranted by demand.

Two very interesting things about this new gun are how much it’s like the original and how very different it is from the original. Confused? Described simply, the new Colt Cowboy revolver is a Single Action Army featuring an investment-cast steel grip frame (compared to the forged original), a downscaled yet still classic-type finish, and a modern transfer bar ignition system. (The investment cast technology and less premium finish are what primarily account for the new gun’s more competitive pricing.)

Put side by side, it is difficult to tell the new Colt Cowboy from an actual SAA, and there is no question but that Colt has taken great care to ensure that the handling characteristics, balance, style, and overall flavor of the classic original have been preserved in the updated gun. The shape and size of the frame, cylinder dimensions and fluting, grip configuration, barrel length, caliber, sights, and flat mainspring hammer function remain the same. The artificial “case-hard” finish on the frame closely resembles the appearance of true casehardened steel, and while the satin blue finish on the grip frame, the cylinder, and the barrel is not as high polish as the original, its overall effect is the same. I have to say the current finished product is much superior in this regard than the first prototypes I handled at the initial new product announcement over a year ago. The wait has been justified.

SPECS
Colt Cowboy
.45 Colt SA Revolver
Manufacturer ..........Colt’s Mfg. Co. Inc.
Box 1868
Hartford, CT 06102
Model .........................................Cowboy
Type .......................Single-action revolver
Caliber........................................ .45 Colt
Barrel length .........................5.5 inches
Overall length ...................10.25 inches
Weight, empty ...................38.5 ounces
Safety ...........Transfer bar ignition system
Sights .......Square topstrap channel rear;
classic SAA-type blade front
Sight radius ........................6.75 inches
Rifling ........................6 grooves, LH twist
Stocks ...............Checkered black plastic
Cylinder capacity ...................6 rounds
Finish ........................Casecolored frame;
satin blue cylinder, barrel,
and grip frame
Price ...............................................$599

A number of parts are actually interchangeable between the Cowboy revolver and the current SAA—including trigger, barrel, ejector rod assembly, and grip frame. Non-interchangeable parts include the cylinder, cylinder frame, hammer, grip panels, and (of course) the transfer bar ignition parts. One of the SAA’s strengths has always been the low number of parts used in its construction, and Colt has been successful from an engineering point of view in incorporating the transfer bar ignition with a minimum design disruption and minimum additional parts.

Of course, there are some differences between the SAA and the Cowboy that are visible on close inspection. The checkered black plastic grip panels on the Cowboy have the same molded-in rampant Colt logo at the top as does the current SAA, but the eagle seal and motto that appears on the original’s grips is nowhere to be found on the Cowboy. The Cowboy’s hammer is slightly smaller in actual dimension, has a slightly different shape, and utilizes horizontal grooves on the top of the spur rather than the crosshatch pattern on the SAA. The base pin bushing inside the cylinder is fixed on the Cowboy, whereas it was removable in earlier versions of the SAA. The base pin itself is the same diameter as on the SAA, but it is a bit shorter and has a spring-loaded plunger in its rear tip (due to the presence of the transfer bar system). The frame thickness of the Cowboy (measured at the topstrap) is about 0.02 inch thicker than the SAA’s (a nominal .730 inch compared to .710 inch), again due to the requirements of the transfer bar system.

The Major Difference Is The Transfer Bar Ignition
The new transfer bar system is by far the most important aspect of the Cowboy’s design, solving what has always been the least desirable aspect of the original SAA mechanism. The SAA design allows the hammer at rest to put the tip of the hammer-mounted firing pin directly against the primer of any cartridge that is loaded in the barrel-aligned chamber. In this position any external blow against the hammer will likely discharge that cartridge. Hence the century-old stricture against carrying a revolver with a loaded chamber under the hammer (making all those frontier six-shooters actually five-shooters).

In contrast, a transfer bar ignition system, such as pioneered by Iver Johnson and popularized by Ruger, places a trigger-activated steel bar between the face of the hammer and the rear of a spring-loaded firing pin in the frame, a bar that does not move into place until the trigger is pulled all the way to the rear in actual deliberate firing. At rest the bar is withdrawn and the hammer face rests directly against the frame, making no contact with the firing pin at all. So the new Colt Cowboy can be safely carried with six rounds loaded while the SAA cannot. This is a major advancement and truly brings the Colt single-action configuration into the 20th century—just as we get ready to enter the 21st century.

“This is a major advancement and truly brings the Colt single-action configuration into the 20th century—just as we get ready to enter the 21st century.”

Colt is to be commended for having incorporated its transfer bar design into the Cowboy mechanism with so little disruption of classic SAA characteristics. Some necessary changes include the absence of the firing pin from the face of the hammer, and the handpiece that engages the ratchets on the rear of the cylinder has a different shape. There is no separate hardened firing pin bushing around the pin hole in the firewall of the frame. And, of course, the classic four clicks always heard when cocking a true Colt Single Action Army are now just three clicks on the Cowboy, as the initial slight “safety notch” on an SAA hammer just rearward from full-rest position is no longer there. Purists will miss it.

But purists will also appreciate the fact that Colt did not go the two-click route by making the loading gate the active part in freeing cylinder rotation for loading like Ruger did with its single actions. Instead, the Colt Cowboy’s cylinder rotates free at the halfcock notch, independent of loading gate position, and that all-important third click is preserved. All four clicks still remain on the current SAA—which will likely be justification enough for some Colt fans to continue paying more than twice the price of the Cowboy just to hear them.

The Cowboy Is A “Real” Shooter
Firing the Cowboy side by side with a “real” SAA quickly demonstrated that all the “flavor” of the original remains intact. Not one person out of the half-dozen shooters who test fired the review sample could tell any difference. The fit and workmanship on the Cowboy is every bit as tight and fine-line as the real thing. According to computerized Triggerscan analysis, the test gun offered a 5.234-pound trigger pull with 10.5-millisecond locktime—which is typical of any box-stock SAA—and pistolsmith Richard Heinie, a member of Shooting Times’ “Ask The Experts” panel, regards the Cowboy every bit as “tunable” as the SAA itself.

I fired a series of review groups with a variety of commercial cowboy action ammunition loads and personal defense loads at the common 50-foot target distance generally used by cowboy action competitors. As a look at the accompanying chart reveals, the results compare very well to any other single-action-type revolver on today’s market and are actually better than many. As a point of information, the new Cowboy is factory-specced for point-of-aim/point-of-impact intersection at 50 feet when firing traditional SAAMI-spec 255-grain lead roundnose ammunition. So some of the ultra-light cowboy factory loads on the market (as well as many popular competition handload recipes) will therefore shoot above or below. Low-impact rounds can be “zeroed” by lowering the height of the front sight; high-impact rounds present more of a problem for adjustment, given the Cowboy’s frame-channel rear sight notch.

Colt fans have been waiting a long time to see if the grand old gunmaker would ever bring forth a modernized Single Action Army that did not sell out on the appeal of the original. Well, I believe it’s here.

Shooting Colt’s .45 Colt Cowboy

Factory Load

Velocity (fps)

Velocity Variation (fps)
50-Foot Accuracy (inches)
CCI Blazer
200-gr. JHP
843
29
2.13
Black Hills
250-gr. RN/FP
679
46
2.00
PMC
250-gr. Lead FP
714
35
2.38
Remington
250-gr. Lead FP
775
38
2.50
Hornady
255-gr. FP
726
32
2.25
Overall
average accuracy
2.25
NOTES: Accuracy is the average of five six-shot groups fired
from a sandbag benchrest at 50 feet. Velocity is the average
of six rounds measured 15 feet from the gun’s muzzle.

This article was originally published in Shooting Times magazine in August, 1999.

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