140 years… stop and think about that. About the only other American invention which can make that claim is the Transcontinental Railroad.
The Union Metallic Cartridge Company developed the .45 Colt cartridge in 1871-1872 with Colt’s Patent Firearms Company, for Colt’s Single Action Army revolver. The joint effort was aimed at securing a contract to produce side arms and ammunition for the US Army. It was awarded the following year. To say this collaborative marvel of ingenuity was a ‘success’ would be an understatement.
The 45 Colt’s case held 40 grains of black powder and it heaved a 250 grain bullet to nearly 1000 feet per second. Soldiers, cowboys and frontiersmen soon discovered its effectiveness against their antagonists and the horses that carried them. Men on both sides of the law quickly learned that the 45’s bite was just as deadly as its bark. Changes in loads and components settled the velocity around 850 fps, which is still plenty of thump. In fact the 45 Colt proved so effective that its ballistics were mirrored in the .45 Automatic Colt Pistol, 39 years later.
If you’ve ever listened to Tom T’ Hall’s Faster Horses, you’ll understand what happened next. Between 1904 and 1935 high-speed cartridges like the 9mm, 38 Super and 357 Magnum were introduced and in 1956, the .44 Magnum arrived amid fanfare. Aside from a core of Colt aficionados, the 45 Colt cartridge was all but forgotten. Colt discontinued production of the Single Action Army in 1940 and there was a long dry spell without significant numbers of any new .45 Colt revolvers being produced. The development of good semi-wadcutter .45 bullets was about the only bone the poor old cartridge got thrown.
Cowboys to the Rescue!
The .45 Colt saved many a good cowboy’s hide and it is only fitting that in the end, cowboys returned the favor. America viewed the cowboy as an icon of rugged individualism, strength and perseverance. He was a staple of American entertainment. By 1951, television service reached from coast to coast. Western TV series proliferated like rabbits and the ‘Colt 45’ figured prominently in about all of them. This created a demand for single action revolvers and in 1953, Great Western Arms Company began marketing a respectable copy of the Colt. In 1955, William Ruger introduced the Blackhawk and in 1971, they finally began making it in 45 Colt. By 1956, Colt was making them again too. Firms like Iver Johnson, Interarms and J.P Sauer and Sohn fielded their excellent single actions and Americans no longer had to wish for a .45 Colt Single Action revolver.
The introduction of Ruger’s 45 Colt Blackhawk was the landmark development as far as the cartridge was concerned. With its improved lockwork and heavier cylinder walls, handloaders began to explore the potential the cartridge. Modern cartridge cases, jacketed bullets and slow-burning smokeless powders enabled them to come within striking distance of the .44 Magnum. John Linebaugh experimented with bullets of 300 grains and heavier in the 45 Colt and before long, “Ruger Only” load data was available for it.
A few years back I decided I was loading for too many guns. I took a hard look at what I was shooting and some stuff got cut. The 45 Colt landed squarely in the ‘keeper’ category and it beat out the .44 Magnum to do this. Why? I’ve hot-rodded both cartridges in suitable guns and killed game with both of them. I can’t tell a nickel’s worth of difference on deer sized game. I load the .45 ACP as well, and bullets for that cartridge can be loaded in the 45 Colt. In fact, I load both cartridges with the same set of dies. You just can’t beat that kind of versatility. And speaking of versatility… you can even get a .45 Colt Derringer that shoots .410 shotgun shells. Top that, .44 Magnum.
I have settled on four .45 Colt loads that cover any use I’m likely to put it to. Keep in mind that my go-to gun in this caliber is an old large-frame Vaquero with fixed sights, so all these loads must all shoot to the same point of impact at useful distances. This isn’t quite as challenging as it sounds. Some of the targets shown were shot right after I bought this gun, and they reflect a windage error that has since been corrected.
My general use load is a MO Bullet 255 grain RNFP over 7.1 to 7.2 grains of W231 powder, for about 825 fps and groups under an inch at 25 yards- when I don’t screw it up.
My ‘second gear’ load is an adaptation of one of John Linebaugh’s personal loads; 13.0 grains of Hodgdons HS6 powder with MO Bullet’s 250 grain SWC. This load is a little above Hodgdon’s max for standard pressure, but it’s a pussycat in a big framed Ruger. Five of them went into 2 9/16” at 50 yards.
Third gear is handled by the same powder charge under Hornady’s excellent 250 grain XTP It made a nice, light-kicking hunting load for Peggi’s Rossi 92 trapper. It did 1050 fps from the 5 1/2″ Old Vaquero and grouped like it was designed for this revolver. Penetration in water was 24″ from both guns and the bullets turned into toadstools at either velocity.
My ‘serious’ load is a 325 grain Keith SWC and enough W296 to move it 1200 fps, give or take. You’ll just have to hunt that one up yourself. I’m not giving the recipe for fear someone will try to use it in a Colt, clone or one of the new, smaller-framed Blackhawks. Suffice it to say that it will shoot through anything walking around North America.
There are other good revolver cartridges out there, but in my book, the 45 Colt tops them all. The cartridge and guns available for it are just top-notch.