Loading for the .45 Colt

By Wilburn Roberts published on in Reloading

I have used most of the popular old west calibers at one time or another, including the .32-20 and .41 Colt. Some have more merit than others. My favorite, hands down, is the .45 Colt. I began shooting long before Cowboy Action Shooting became popular. Most of us loaded for economy and with a certain number of loads put up for performance.

Colt, Ruger, and Cimarron single-action revolvers

Colt, Ruger, and Cimarron revolvers have given excellent results with handloads.

When cowboy action became popular, there was a long learning curve and eventually most competitors settled on the .38 Special. The majority of single-action revolvers sold today are chambered for the .357 Magnum cartridge. These revolvers handle .38 Special as well.

The .38 offers low recoil and real economy. Kind of like a 9mm 1911 for revolver shooters. Easy to shoot well, low recoil, good accuracy, and down right cheap to load. That is all good, but I like the .45 Colt. After all, Frank Hamer’s Old Lucky Colt SAA was a .45, and so was Tom Threepersons modified Colt SAA. I own a few good double-action magnums, but my favorite SAA revolvers are .45s.

When firing the .45 in cowboy-action shooting, there is a different motivation than when loading for general use. The shooter tries to load the .45 down to recoil levels similar to the .38 to remain competitive. As an example, the .45 Colt with a 250-grain bullet at 800 fps will kick more than a .38 Special with a 158-grain bullet at 800 fps. Cowboy shooters often load down to 700 fps or so.

The .45 Colt and single-action revolver are a powerful and useful combination.

The .45 Colt and single-action revolver are a powerful and useful combination.

I have fired .45 Colt loads with a 165-grain bullet at 650 fps. These loads are OK, I suppose, at shooting paper and serve a purpose. They are seldom as accurate as full power loads for several reasons. First, the .45 Colt has a giant cartridge case. This case was designed for 40 grains of black powder although modern cases with their solid heads will only hold 38 grains of FFFG black powder.

There is some precedent for lighter loads. On the frontier U.S. Marshals had access to Federal stores for the U.S. Army and probably used the 34-and 36-grain loads, often supplied in the shorter .45 Schofield case. These loads may break closer to 800 than 900 fps. The full power UMC 40-grain load was another matter, breaking well over 900 fps and with impressive wound potential. After all, this load was intended to drop an Indian war pony at 100 yards. While an estimable load, this level of power isn’t necessary for target practice or CAS competition.

A problem when lowering the bullet weight or the powder charge with the .45 Colt is blow by. The cartridge case doesn’t adhere to the chamber as much as with full power loads and with less expansion there is some gas escape. The powder isn’t always in the same position on ignition and this results in poor accuracy.

Ruger single-action revolver with a cartridge being removed

With modest loads, the spent case simply slides out.

The lighter projectile doesn’t have enough bullet pull to cause pressure to build up from the powder burn. A good alternative is to use Trail Boss powder. This powder has nearly the volume of black powder and provides consistent powder burn and good accuracy. I have not been able to achieve good results or sight regulation with the lighter bullets but using 200-grain RNL, and SWC bullets I have achieved better accuracy.

Titegroup has given excellent results. WW 231 and Clays have also given good results. I use so much Titegroup in other calibers I may as well use it in the .45 Colt! The lighter loads make the .45 Colt into a docile and accurate caliber well suited to CAS matches, if not quite as light kicking as the .38 Special.

I have used the Hornady 255-grain cowboy load as a baseline for my loads. At 720 fps, this is an accurate, reliable, and pleasant loading that gives good results in every single-action revolver. Finding a pleasant loading using a 250-grain RN or 255-grain SWC that mimics this load, makes for an accurate and pleasant shooting handload.

There are also demands for a strong .45 Colt for field use. The Buffalo Bore 255-grain SWC breaks at over 1,000 fps from my personal Colt SAA. This is a powerful and often brilliantly accurate number. I have used 6.5 grains of Winchester 231 powder for 820 fps under an Oregon Trail Laser Cast 250-grain bullet for general-purpose use. At 820 fps, this is an excellent loading, powerful enough for anything you need to do with a handgun.

Buffalo Bore and Hornady Critical Defense .45 Colt ammunitions

These factory loads provide good results. Handloads may be versatile and economical.

A heavier load uses 8.0 grains of Unique to jolt the 255-grain SWC to 890 fps. The sharp-shouldered SWC with its broad nose hits hard and penetrates straight and deep. This is a superior game and animal defense load than the original .45 Colt loading. I have tested the original and the soft lead bullet tumbled in water. The .45 Colt had a reputation for tumbling in the bad guys as well. This is good for soft targets. The hard cast SWC is better for breaking heavy bones.

The .45 Colt is one of those cartridges that doesn’t need a hollow point bullet. A lightweight JHP in many cases may limit penetration and lack the momentum and shock of a heavy bullet. I have experimented with the Hornady 250-grain XTP. The Extreme Terminal Performance bullet offers exceptional accuracy. I began with a modest load using Titegroup powder to achieve 780 fps. On a hunch, I fired this bullet into my usual test medium, water jugs. Expansion was modest, but the 250-grain XTP penetrated 42 inches of water!

The .45 Colt is a great cartridge. History and performance come together in an unequaled confluence of good features. Take time to learn the .45 Colt and your handloads will be versatile, accurate, and powerful.

Do you have a favorite .45 Colt load? Share it in the comment section

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Comments (24)

  • Vincent

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    Randy, Thanks for all the reloading costs and list of items. I assume your numbers are cents per round, but it is a bit hard to calculate the total per round. It appears to beat least $.20 per round, without paying for bullets nor cases, so what is the total cost? And what would it be if you had to buy bullets (which I suspect most people do), and cases? I did look into all of this, and I counted the costs of everything for reloading. And then there is the cost of the reload equipment as well! I came to the conclusion that reloading was almost as expensive as buying already manufactured ammo, let alone the reload equipment in the first place. Of course, if you are doing black power, you may not have much of a choice.

    As for using black powder, it sounds like it may have some advantages since it is not as hard on the cases, nor the guns themselves. But I bought a Ruger Blackhawk so I could shoot anything, and not be worried. Besides, they are quite reasonable prices. But the nice thing about the Ruger .45 Blackhawk is that I can shoot very mild ammo (low velocity and low power, like Cowboy loads or similarly low powered ammo), all the way up to hunting loads. In addition, I can also shoot .45 ACP ammo (with a cylinder swap), which is a lot of fun too.

    So, when I decided to get a .45 LC handgun, I choose NOT to get a 44 mag, which was at one time the most powerful handgun in the world (alla Dirty Harry!). But the .45 LC has a vastly bigger range of ammo AND at much lower cost per round as well. Nor did I try to make the Colt .45 a 44 Mag – it is by design almost already there on its own. You can get a heavy 44 mag load up to about 1,482 ft. lbs. and the .45 Colt to only about 1,350 ft. lbs. The difference is about 130 ft. lbs., which makes the max 44 Mag about 9.5% more powerful than the max 45 Colt ammo. Keep in mind, that these figures vary with barrel length. These specs are for a 5.5″ barrel. Both of these heavy loads are made by Buffalo Bore.

    Vincent (08-14-2018)

    Reply

  • Vincent

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    Randy, thanks for the explanation on how you are measuring fps, and hence power. But 1050 fps is not particularly fast, although considerably faster than the 750 or so fps of Cowboy loads. But the power you get at 1050 fps would depend on the size bullet you are using at that MV. In my ballistics Excel file I have many manufactured cartridges with an fps from 1000 to 1526, and with the bucket varying from 200 gr all the way to 325. I have a Ruger .455.5″ Flattop, and I have been warned not to shoot the most powerful loads, which is a bullet of 260 gr shot at 1526 fps, resulting in 1,344 ft. lbs. (Buffalo Bore). I have shot 260 gr bullets at 1,450 fps, resulting in 1,214 ft. lbs.(Buffalo Bore again), which is extremely powerful and requires holding it with 2 hands!

    So, what grain bullet are you shooting at 1050 fps?

    Vincent (08-14-2018)

    Reply

    • Randy Donk

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      in my original post I stated I used a custom mold to cast a close approximation of the original 255 gr hollow base bullet

      Reply

  • Karl

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    You might consider Starline brass in 45Colt or 45 Schofield.They are a reputable outfit.Assemble a dummy load sans powder and primer and see if it will fit in -all- the chambers.A roll crimp will ensure no projectile moving forward,but on a light[only]load you -might-be able to omit the crimp

    Reply

  • Karl

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    Yes I’d be interested in some load data.I’ve got a stainless Blackhawk convertible 45ACP/45Colt[has the conversion done by Ruger]as well as 3 screw 7.6″blued 45ACP/$5Colt[conversion to transfer bar,but with original parts]for sale,ditto a 4-5/8 blued: 9mm/357Mag .Frankly I like my Redhawk more.For heavy hunting loads I use 300gr JHP or LBT 330gr hard cast with 2400 or H110 powder and[new]Starline brass.I may go up to a LBT 390 gr hard cast load.
    Gotta get out of NY and gotta get my NICS back after 4 years c/o ex-wide/Ontario county/NYState/feds.When-or if??I get the NICS back,I’d like to get the 5″ SuperRedhawk 454 Casull.
    refuge0417@gmail.com

    Reply

  • Mike

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    Having just purchased a Schofield replica, I am new to .45 Colt. Shooting the first 2 boxes of factory ammo was a very pleasant experience except at the checkout counter, so I prepared to handload (I load for numerous other calibers anyway). I purchased 230 gr round nose hard cast bullets, supposedly .452 (I haven’t miked them). The first problem I experienced was loading data. My loading manuals don’t even give info for lead bullets. I was able to get some loads online. I chose 7.0 gr of Unique mainly because I had it and didn’t have any of the other powders listed. Everything went fine until I tried to chamber the rounds in my Scofield. They go about 3/4ths of the way into the cylinder and then become very tight. I would appreciate if anyone has any idea what the problem is or how to fix it. I also look forward to seeing what others use for loads since I still have little info on that.

    Reply

    • Norman Morris

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      Mike, try just feeding a sized case into the cylinder and see what you get. I hate to sound obvious, but it seems to me your (once fired from those new rounds?) cases were not full length resized correctly if you’re not getting fully seated in the cylinder. You can pull the bullets and save your powder, but you’re taking a chance decapping live primers, so you might want to start fresh with new brass.

      Reply

    • Mike

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      Thanks. I did run them through the carbide sizer die but maybe it isn’t set up properly. I do have some new cases I can try

      Reply

    • Mike

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      Well I had a chance to get home last night any work with my loads. Brand new brass seats in the cylinder perfectly. I resized a couple of my fired brass and they seat perfectly. I reduced the amount of flare for the bullet. I switched from a taper crimp to a slight roll crimp. I dropped a bullet into the cylinder and it drops down to the end. I even tried some lead bullets I used for my .45 Auto that mike about 0.449. No loaded round will seat in the cylinder. They go in about 2/3rds of the way and then seem to scrape the walls of the cylinder. I am at a total loss to explain it or correct it.

      Reply

    • Randy Donk

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      Mike, Schofield revolvers are usually chambered in .45 Schofield which is a slightly shorter .45 colt. that would account for chambering issues. check to make sure its chambered in 45 colt. a 45 Schofield will accept an empty 45 colt case, but when a bullet is seated the bearing surface exposed on the bullet (driving band) makes it a little too long

      Reply

  • Karl

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    Try finding -actual- black powder in New York State.If mail ordering,one gets hit with the hazmat fees].Yes I want to be out of NY !
    The Rugers have longer than typical industry cylinders,so one can have a cartridge overall length of 1.800″]with a heavy separate roll crimp.I like Redding dies/presses and they’re two hours from here.

    Reply

  • Vincent

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    Very interesting info on reloading the .45 LC ammo for revolvers. I own both a 45 Ruger Convertible Blackhawk (5.5″) and a .357 Blackhawk (6.5″). My .357 is over 50 years ago, and when I first bought it I got into reloading heavily. Back then the reloading equipment was not expensive at all, nor were primers, bullets, and powder. But today this has all gotten rather expensive. I looked into getting the equipment for my .45 Rube Blackhawk, but decided it was a lot less costly and less hassle with reloading my own.

    To prove this, I have an Excel file that lists ammo from many suppliers for 30 handgun calibers, and 18 rifle ones. This gives real online links to purchasing ammo, giving the ballistics for almost all the ammo as well. This way you can find the desired ammo for whatever purpose you want.

    As for the .45 LC ammo, I have several cowboy loads list, which is what is discussed in detail in this article. While some are low cost, other loads are more often lower in cost, cost per round, which is shown in this Excel file as well. For instance, the Hornady LFN Cowboy round at 255 gr and with a FPS of 725 (298 ft. lbs.) currently sells for $1.00 a round at Midway. Whereas, the LAX copper plated new ammo in 255 gr with an fps of 887 (445 ft. lbs.)sells for $.41 per round. If the LAX load is till to much, then look at the Remington LRN round at 250 gr with an fps of 750 (312 ft. lbs.) for $.60/round.

    While I have not shot any specific ‘Cowboy’ loads, I have shot a lot of the lower cost .45 LC rounds just to keep the cost down. I feel that in general, the official ‘Cowboy’ rounds are over priced for what you get. Of course, if you do your own reloading, then your cost per round may be different. But are you able to get down below $.41/round? Remember to include the cost of the brass as well, and the cost of the reload equipment, and amortize that over however many loads you expect to make.

    Furthermore, if you reload heavier loads, or are thinking about getting into that, then my Excel file will show you what these higher powered rounds cost as well as their ballistics characteristics. I have shot all the way up to loads with a bullet of 260 gr at 1450 fps, resulting in 1,214 ft. l.bs. of power (very powerful). This round definitely takes two hands to shoot, while everything I shoot I do with one arm extended.

    The one thing very nice about my .45 Ruger Blackhawk is that it is a ‘convertible’, which allows me with a cylinder change to shoot .45 ACP as well. I get buy online ammo as low as $.30/round for this caliber, such as Sellier & Bellot .45 ACP with a bullet at 853 fps, giving 372 ft. lbs. of force. So, I do more plinking with the .45 ACP rounds then with the .45 LC ones, just mainly due to the cost. But shooting the more powerful .45 LC rounds is a bit more fun, although not necessarily going all the way to the top power levels! Those are really for hunting or doing serious damage.

    As you can tell, I am very interested in the cost of shooting, and some of you are more interested the fun of doing things with your firearm, so reloading can certainly be a part of your shooting experience. But for those interested in getting my free ballistics file, which has over 250 entries (200 for handguns, 57 for rifles, just email me at vlavalle@ ix. Netcom. com.

    Vincent (08/12/2018)

    Reply

    • Randy Donk

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      since you are shooting a Blackhawk, you can get away with heavy loads of smokeless, but anyone shooting a colt, or Uberti clone CAN NOT. The 1873 Colt model P was designed around Black Powder and it low pressures. loading smokeless over 900 fps will likely damage or destroy a Model P. as for loading costs I have broken down what it costs to load .45 Colt, if you cast your own bullets.

      Black Powder

      5.72 powder
      2.00 lead
      1.75 primers

      9.47 box/50 or 19 cents/round

      Smokeless

      1.04 powder
      2.00 lead
      1.75 primers

      4.79 box/50 or 10 cents/round

      you can buy once fired cases online, and they last a long time since the working pressures are low, adding very little cost to the final price.
      one other thing to think about loading hot loads for a Blackhawk though safe for your gun, would be dangerous if loaded in a friends lighter revolver. if you need a .44 magnum, or 454 casul BUY one, don’t try to make a 45 Colt one.

      Reply

  • Randy Donk

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    I load my .45 colt with a 255 gr cast lead bullet (custom mold to approximate the original bullet) over 40gr of FFFG Goex black powder.
    I get awesome power, way more than smokeless without the pressure.
    shooting those lets you experience the 45 colt as it was intended. Its clear to see why it got it well deserved reputation as a man stopper. The accuracy from these loads is mind blowing. The only downside is cleanup!

    Reply

    • Vincent

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      Randy, I am a bit curious about your statement that you get “awesome power, way more than smokeless without the pressure”. Are you measuring power somehow, and if so how? Or is it just the feel of the gun kicking? Are you just comparing with when you used non-black powder, or against preloaded purchased ammo?

      Reply

    • Randy Donk

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      I am measuring awesome power with a chronograph. I am getting just over 1050 fps. the 45 colt was originally a black powder round and has a large case capacity. smokeless generates way more pressure, and fills around a quarter of the case, you can’t use the case capacity with smpkeless without over pressuring it. to get 40 grains of black powder in a 45 colt you must be pretty good at using a drop tube. compared to full 40 gr Black powder loads smokeless loads are pretty anemic.

      Reply

  • Frank Liso

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    Thanks for writing this article as I am starting to reload and learning about loading.

    Reply

    • Karl

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      My favorite revolver cartrdge is the 34 COLT,but I load in Ruger Redhawk and Blacvkhawk for hunting i.e 300gr JHP or 330[and eventually 390 gr ]hard cat projectiles.I may load lighter charge/projectiles in my Taurus Thunderbolt slide action rifle.One can always go down to a round ball load too.
      Eventually I’ll go up yo a 454 Casull in a SuperRedhawk. I find the 45 Colt offers more options than the 44Special/44Magnum loadings.
      My loads excepting using roundballs are more geared for hunting or silhouette
      By the way,one can also use a round ball load in 38/Special/357 Mag and the 44 Special/44Mag.
      For 38Spec/357 Mag in a Ruger GP100 I go 170/180gr-less muzzlelblast. than light er wieght projectiles.

      Reply

    • Vincent

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      Karl, I quite agree with you about the .45 LC cartridge! I have an Excel file which lists many, many handgun and rifle loads and their respective ballistics, and it shows that the .45 LC is almost as versatile as the .357 Mag/38 Special loads. The variation in power for the .45 LC is 4.3 (ratio between the weakest preloaded load to the highest). With just the .357 that ratio is about 3.5, but once you add in the 38 Special (since ALL .357 revolvers can shoot the .38 Special as well), this comes to a ration of 5.4.

      Vincent

      Reply

    • Hondo

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      Did you mean to say 45 Colt instead of “34 COLT”?

      Reply

    • RKC

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      Frank

      Keep in touch this is a fascinating subject. I love reloading.

      I do not get to do it as much as I would like.
      Bob Campbell

      Reply

  • paul

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    I find that it is strongest in the early afternoon. When fired quickly, before any food, it helps get you there and will cover the misery from last night’s imbibing.

    Reply

    • Karl

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      [unfired]Starline brass,17.0gr H110 or 2400 and a 300gr JHP or 330 gr hard cast slug,will result in a significant load.I do concur about using a drop tube with black powder.Note I’m refferring to a Ruger Redhawk or Blackhawk.Same actually applies to some bulky smokeless powder loads.

      Reply

    • Karl

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      One caveat re Rugers,check the smoothness of all the chambers.In the 40 years I’ve had Rugers,sometimes one or more chambers is rough,resulting in sticking cases and extraction.With a Ruger Super Single Six I sent it back to the factory for deburring.If there is fouling buildup in specific chambers this could be another sign of a rough chamber[s].
      Also some brands of [new]brass may stick more than others. Compare the dimensions and those than don’t work in your revolver,discard or only use for revolvers where they do work.
      Re Schofield style revolvers,they aren’t as sturdy as a Ruger Redhawk or Blackhawk.Load accordingly.

      Reply

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