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Boyds Gunstocks Blog

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150 Years of the .45 Colt

by Jim House

            It seems as if new cartridges are announced on a rather frequent basis.  As illustrations, we have recent new developments such as the .350 Legend, the .350 Buckhammer, 7mm PRC, 6.8 Western, and 6mm ARC among numerous others.  When it comes to handgun cartridges, attempts to improve the performance of the .45 Auto and 9mm Luger led to handgun calibers such as the 10mm Auto, .40 S&W, .45 GAP, and .357 Sig.  Although new options are nice and may serve useful purposes, in many cases real need has nothing to do with such developments.

            I am interested in new products for the shooting sports, but I also have an appreciation of what has endured the test of time.  This year, 2023, marks one and a half centuries since three of the historically important cartridges were introduced.  These old timers are the .45-70 Government, .44-40 Winchester and the .45 Colt.  Rather than trying to address three subjects at once, I will consider the cartridge with which I have the most experience, the .45 Colt.  The cartridge and handgun served as an official military arm for 14 years.

            My first interaction with a .45 Colt came about almost 70 years ago when a close friend had a Colt Single Action Army in that caliber.  At that time, the list price for that model was $125.00 so you know it was long ago.  I had a very inexpensive .22 handgun and we had some enjoyable sessions of informal target shooting.  For keeping things interesting and fun, we exchanged guns at times.  That Colt .45 was something special and I have wanted one ever since.

            Although a Colt Single Action Army never came my way, a highly polished stainless Ruger Vaquero (the original heavier model, not the newer, lighter version) did.  I never utilize really potent handloads that some handbooks specify for the older Vaquero and Blackhawk only, but the Ruger is a brute of a gun.  It has accompanied me on enough trips to Wyoming and various other outings that I feel great comfort in its presence.        

            The next .45 Colt to come my way was a Smith & Wesson Model 25.  It is nickel plated and has a four inch pinned barrel making it relatively compact, at least as much so as an N-frame S&W can be.  With its wide trigger, target hammer, and adjustable sights, it is a beautiful and versatile handgun.  As a defensive tool, it needs no explanation, but it can also serve for hunting applications under suitable conditions.

            The third .45 Colt to enter my realm is a Ruger Blackhawk convertible with the 4 5/8 inch barrel.  It is the standard blue version that has cylinders chambered for the .45 Colt and .45 Auto.  With its mid-length barrel, adjustable sights, and fine handling characteristics, the Ruger Blackhawk is a most versatile handgun and it is the one that I use most often.           

            For many years, .45 Colt revolvers were produced with cylinder throats that often measure approximately 0.454-0.455 inch, but the standard bullet diameter for the caliber is typically .452 inch, the same as the .45 Auto.  As a result, older loads featured soft lead bullets that sometimes had somewhat concave or hollow bases so that the bullets would expand to fit the throats of the chambers.  With bullets that have solid bases, accuracy is sometimes less than stellar.  Although accuracy is good enough for most purposes, my S&W Model 25 has rather large throats, but is at least as accurate as is this shooter.  Most of the older .45 Colt revolvers do not have oversize bores.  Ruger and other makers produce .45 Colt handguns that have chamber throats that are slightly smaller than .452 inch and as a result they generally deliver fine accuracy.

            Firing 250-255 grain (almost 0.6 ounce!) bullets at approximately 875 ft/sec, the .45 Colt has sufficient power for most handgun uses even with standard factory loads.  Handloading .45 Colt cartridges can increase the versatility of the caliber.  I most often load 250 grain cast bullets to equal the velocity of factory loads using powders such as Alliant Unique or Hodgdon CFE Pistol.  With my Ruger Blackhawk having excellent adjustable sights, I can sometimes get five-shot groups at 50 yards that measure around four inches.  The accuracy is limited by my eyes and hands rather than the gun.

            Excellent .45 Colt ammunition can also be produced using jacketed bullets in the 185-200 grain range.  If desired, these lighter bullets can be driven at velocities of up to around 1000 ft/sec.  However, lighter bullets in the .45 Colt result in less recoil so they will usually strike lower on the target than do heavy bullets.

            One should not overlook the utility of shot cartridges in the .45 Colt.  The CCI load features 150 grains (0.343 ounce) of No. 9 shot with a muzzle velocity of 1000 ft/sec.  Keep in mind that some shells for a .410 bore shotgun contain only one-half an ounce of shot.  A .45 Colt with shot shells does not equal a shotgun, but it is potent at short range.  I keep a few for use on troublesome pests and for social events. 

            The old .45 Colt is still an excellent choice for many situations.  It may not be available in a pistol that features a 17 round double stack magazine, but with the .45 Colt you would not normally need such capability.  Other than a .22 handgun which is a necessary tool, a .45 Colt is my most versatile option.  I just hope that it stays popular for another century. 

Boyds Blog Colt 45 1

This elegant Colt Single Army is a special version from Colt’s Custom Shop that belongs to my son.

Boyds Blog Colt 45 2

The Ruger Vaquero is similar in appearance to the Colt but has many modern features.

Boyds Blog Colt 45 3

Throats of the cylinder of the Ruger Vaquero are smaller than old .45 Colt revolvers.

Boyds Blog Colt 45 4

Cylinder to barrel gap is an important consideration for revolvers and my Vaquero has a very small gap.

Boyds Blog Colt 45 5

For sheer elegance, this nickel plated Smith & Wesson Model 25 ranks high.

Boyds Blog Colt 45 6

This Ruger Blackhawk convertible came with cylinders for the .45 Colt and .45 Auto making it a very versatile handgun.

Boyds Blog Colt 45 7

For handloading, many bullets are available for use in the .45 Colt including (left to right) a .225 grain Speer JHP, 250 grain Hornady XTP, 250 grain Magtech, and 255 grain hard cast.

Boyds Blog Colt 45 8

For some uses, the Hornady Critical Defense load is an excellent choice for .45 Colt revolvers.