While I use modern 1911 .45 autos for personal defense, I am never happier than when I am firing single-action revolvers. If they are good quality, these revolvers are accurate, well balanced, reliable, and powerful. Those looking at the Traditions Bill Tilghman will not be disappointed.
I often carry a single-action .45 revolver when hiking or traveling—mostly because I can, but often enough, it’s the best tool for what I am doing. If a branch catches the hammer, it doesn’t raise it enough to fire the piece when the hammer rebounds. This is particularly true because I load five beans under the wheel, never leaving a loaded chamber under the hammer—even with modern transfer bar ignition revolvers. It is too late to break the habit now!
The Single Action Army has a storied history. Originally called the Top Strap revolver, the Peacemaker in civilian sales (and the Model P internally at Colt), and later the Frontier Six Shooter when chambered for the .44-40 cartridge, the Colt SAA was the most rugged, reliable, and powerful cartridge revolver of the day. The .44 Russian’s 200-grain flat point bullet at 750 fps was considerably less powerful than the .44 Colt Army cap and ball revolver.
The new SAA boasted a 250-grain bullet at well over 800 fps. 900 fps was common in long-barrel revolvers with the original 40 grains of black powder loading. They were able to meet the design parameter of dropping an Indian war pony at 100 yards. These new revolvers were of better steel compared to their iron and brass ancestors.
In time, the SAA was chambered for other calibers. Elmer Keith, like many outdoorsmen, regarded the SAA as Colt’s finest gun and preferred the .45 Colt. So did lawmen Tom Threepersons and Frank Hamer. The Colt action was reliable and left little to be desired.
The revolver was originally supplied with a 7 ½-inch barrel length. A 5 ½-inch barrel length was offered later, then a 4 ¾-inch version and even a Sheriff’s Model with a shorter barrel. The SAA has been in and out of production. Today Italian made revolvers offer high production values, excellent fitting, and even greater safety than their predecessors. The modern SAA revolvers offered by Traditions are made of good steel.
The actions are uniformly smooth, and the trigger is smooth and crisp. These revolvers are often very accurate. Cowboy action shooting is their natural application, but many of us simply enjoy using and firing a single action revolver for its own sake. Others like to carry a sturdy SAA when hiking or camping. As an emergency revolver for use for foraging and protection against animals, they are good to have.
A few years ago Pietta became interested in offering affordable engraved revolvers. A company in Italy had developed cutting edge lasers for both industrial and art applications. Pietta developed a special laser process unique to their company. The lasers offer deep engraving. Barrels, frames and even small parts are engraved with precision. The depth and precision of the work is excellent.
It is worth spending time looking over, touching, and appreciating the coverage. While I am no expert on the differences between Banknote, American, English, and Nimschke engraving, the effect is excellent. The barrel, ejector, frame, cylinder, and backstrap feature coverage. The result is a modern handgun with real pride of ownership and a unique look.
Hand engraving is expensive. Few shooters in the old west era carried engraved firearms, but some did. During the gangster era Frank Hamer—the man who killed Bonnie and Clyde—carried Old Lucky, an engraved SAA .45. Bill Cody and a very few well-heeled shooters carried such revolvers. Another famous gunner that carried an engraved SAA was General George S. Patton.
The revolver illustrated is named for famous lawman Bill Tilghman. Tilghman was a figure in the west for over 40 years. Like most lawmen and gunfighters of the time, he endured hardship and controversy. But he emerged as a historical fixture of some renown known, along with Chris Madsen and Heck Thomas the Three Guardsmen. He died in a gunfight at age 70, well into the prohibition era.
The circumstances of his death are still debated. From my own experience as a peace officer, I can state that most people are imperfect and juries are usually pretty smart and made up of good citizens. When a jury of the day provided with fresh facts and witnesses could not reach a verdict, who am I to say? Suffice to say Tilghman lived in interesting times and stood up to and prevailed against very bad men on many occasions. Like many men of the Old West, his is not a life you would wish to have lived.
I also own a Traditions Liberty engraved revolver. The Tilghman revolver features good, but subtle, engraving that is more akin to what seemed to be popular with lawmen of the day. The piece is very well done.
Hand engraving is horribly expensive and the modern laser engraved revolver is a good alternative for modern shooters. This revolver is chambered in .45 Colt. The .45 was the most popular cartridge for most western lawmen. The cartridge was more powerful than any other in common use. The big 255-grain slug tumbled in flesh and produced an impressive wound.
The revolver was accurate enough for firing at men on horseback far past conversational distance. The primary advantage of the 4.75-inch barrel SAA is balance. If there is a better-balanced handgun anywhere, I have not held it. This handgun is similar in size and weight to a typical four-inch barrel double action .38 Special revolver. While the swing out cylinder double-action revolver eventually replaced the SAA, many favored for the SAA for its power and balance.
The double-action big bores, by necessity of their need to enclose a more complicated action in the frame, were larger and heavier than the SAA revolver. While double-action revolvers and the 1911 .45 automatic were used during the late Western period, the single-action .45 was much in evidence.
I unboxed the Traditions revolver and wiped away the packing grease. The revolver was well fitted and finished. The white grips are not ivory but solid and provide a good gripping surface. The revolver locks up tight. Trigger compression is about 3.5 and crisp. I used Fiocchi’s 250-grain loading during the initial range work. This load uses a bullet of a hard alloy that provides good accuracy without leading. At 680 fps this is an ideal load for Cowboy Action.
I fired the revolver at 7 and 10 yards, quickly bringing it to eye level and dropping the hammer. Center hits were not difficult to obtain. By allowing the muzzle to rise in recoil and then catching and cocking the hammer before sighting again, the revolver is capable excellent practical accuracy. More often than not the .45 Colt does its job with one shot. By learning how to re-cock the hammer during recoil rapid accurate shots are possible.
I also fired my own handloads with a hard cast 250-grain bullet and enough Titegroup for 800 fps. I also used a slightly heavier load using a 255-grain SWC. Recoil was greater, but the Traditions revolver handled it well. The Tilghman revolver strikes to the point of aim at 15 yards with most loads. I also fired the Buffalo Bore 225-grain full wadcutter. This is an excellent defense load that breaks at an honest 1,009 fps. Recoil is strong, so be certain to take a firm grip. An advantage of the SAA grip frame is that the hand rolls in recoil, making for comfortable shooting.
As for absolute accuracy, I fired the piece from a solid benchrest at 25 yards. The revolver demonstrated some recoil with the Buffalo Bore load but excellent accuracy with a five-shot 2.5-inch group. The Fiocchi load delivered about the same, and my handloads ranged from 2.2 to 2.9 inches on average. For most uses, I will download the .45 Colt to 750 fps or so and enjoy good accuracy and modest recoil.
When hiking, the Buffalo Bore 255-grain 1,000 fps load will be deployed. I have carried the revolver primarily in one of my favorite leather holsters. This makes for an excellent rig for hiking and exploring. When all is said and done, the Bill Tilghman revolver is a tribute to a remarkable man and a useful revolver for our age.
Are you a fan of the Single Action Army? Which model is your favorite? Share your answers in the comment section.
Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooters Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.
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