Few handguns are as instantly recognizable as the 1873 Single Action Army- The legendary Peacemaker. These were first seen at the US Army trials in 1872 with a 7-1/2″ barrel and chambered in the still-popular .45 Colt cartridge. The Army wound up adopting the guns and the cartridge. There’s a whole story about .45 Caliber ammunition used by the army in the 19th C., but that’s another topic.
The 1873 was introduced to, and quickly found favor with, the American public. By 1875 Colt offered three standard barrel lengths, the original 7-1/2″, a 5-1/2″ and the 4-5/8″, which has been, overall, the most popular barrel length ever since. The factory would, however, provide a barrel of any length for the sum of $1/inch on a custom basis.
In 1882 Colt shipped the first of the ‘ejectorless’ 1873s as a non-custom gun. These had a 2-1/2″ barrel and, as the name suggests, no ejector and the ejector housing on the frame ground off. the term ‘Sherrif’s Model’ was not used by Colt at this time; showing admirable imagination, Colt referred to them as ‘Ejectorless’ Models.
These were available in any barrel length, but 3, 4, 5″ barrels were more or less standard, and eventually the 3″ length established itself as the most popular. In the ‘first generation’ of SAA production some 1400 or so were known to be produced by the Colt factory- out of 376,000 total guns that’s a drop in the bucket. It is not known how many more were provided by the factory on a custom basis. Other guns were modified after-market by local gunsmiths and even some retailers.
The guns were known variously as ‘Sheriff’s Models,’ ‘Shopkeepers’ or ‘House Guns’ by the public, but Colt did not officially adopt the term Sheriff’s Model until well after World War Two, referring to 3″ guns by this name and 4″ guns as Shopkeepers. These models have come and gone over the years, and in the most part have been marketed to collectors.
Since I have a thing for snubbies I’ve always had a hankering for one of these guns, but both the originals and modern versions have been too expensive for me. Since I’ve taken up gunsmithing as a hobby I have been on the lookout for a suitable donor gun to do my own conversion. When a Hawes Western Marshal .45 presented itself to me for the princely sum of $275 (including a spare cylinder in .45 ACP) I snapped it up.
I’ve dealt with this gun in detail in a previous blog, so suffice it to say these are good quality revolvers built on a beefed up frame, the same one they used for their .44 Magnum guns. While I wouldn’t say one should shoot ‘Ruger-only’ hot-loads through them, I feel no hesitation to feed it stout, even +P, loads.
I kept the gun stock, but after I procured a rather nice Armi San Marcos 1873 I succumbed to temptation and converted it. I cut the barrel to 3-1/2″, re-crowned it and ground off the ejector housing. I bored out the .45 ACP cylinder for .45 Colt because I liked the look, and was pretty pleased with the results.
Testing the gun I found it could use a taller front-sight, and the bored-out chambers needed honing; a couple of them were quite sticky. I got distracted by other projects, but a few weeks ago I revisited this gun and really enjoyed it. I replaced the front sight and, while the gun was built as a fun project and range-toy, began to appreciate that it might actually have a useful role.
Typically when hunting I carry a long-barreled, large-frame revolver as a side-arm. These aren’t intended particularly for handgun-hunting, more for occasions when I have to go into thick brush and as a ‘just in case’ weapon. The thing is these long-barreled guns are heavy and occasionally awkward, and I am unlikely to encounter a dangerous animal that would require a .44 Magnum to put paid to them. Most likely the worst I might encounter is a Black Bear, and most of those run 200lbs. or less. OK, there could be a two-legged predator, but a large-bore revolver certainly won’t work less well on them that it would a large animal. It seemed that my Sheriff’s Model might just fit the bill.
Shorter, lighter and less awkward than a full-sized gun when sitting etc., and in a good holster it would certainly be quicker to get into action than a 7-1/2″ barreled gun. Loaded with a hard-cast 250gr. Kieth bullet stoked to around 1000fps. it would do handsomely for my uses. True, it can only safely carry five shots (it does not have a transfer bar or similar safety) but it’s difficult for me to imagine any plausible scenario where I would need more than that.
Still… it would be nice if the gun didn’t require a separate rod or some such to eject the empties for reloading. An online buddy suggested what he had down- cut a scallop at the edge of each chamber so that the cartridges can be flicked out with a fingernail. It might not have been the best idea in the days of balloon-head cartridges stuffed to overflowing with black powder, but a modern casing is solid brass where the rim would be exposed, and it worked for my friend well enough. I had the spare cylinder for the gun, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ The modifications were quickly accomplished with a carbide burr and a sanding drum in a Dremel-style flex-shaft tool, and it seemed to work out rather well.
The question in my mind was whether the sort of stout loads I intended to use would extract easily enough, so I came up with some pretty strong loads to see. I didn’t have any 250gr. bullets on hand, so I used some 200gr. HG68 SWCs over 9.0gr of Unique and brought the gun along on my next range trip. I was also interested in how well I would handle the recoil from these loads in the short gun. Pretty well as it turned out; I was able to fire one round per second at seven yards with reasonable accuracy–
The fat grips of this gun made the recoil quite bearable; not at all unpleasant, in fact. I’m shooting a hair low, but I want to test it with the heavy-bullet loads before I go adjusting anything. I’d like to get it set up for a six-o’clock hold at twenty-five yards with those loads.
To my relief the shells were easy to extract with a fingernail. I still need to purchase and load the heavy bullets and test them, but I am quite confident that there won’t be any problems.
It seems that I have my new hunting companion. I’ll be needing to make a holster before the season gets underway.
Michael Tinker Pearce 16 September 2018