Range Report: Testing Practical .45 Colt Accuracy at 100 Yards

By Dave Dolbee published on in Firearms, Range Reports

In warfare of the day, horses were an important part of the equation. In many of the battles on the plains, more horses fell than men. The revolver served alongside the saber for cavalrymen. These men often fought as dismounted troops.

Traditions pistol right lying atop a Custom Bar T holster

The Traditions revolver proved accurate and reliable as well as comfortable to use and fire.

No matter how intriguing the history of the firearm, I want to see how it performs first hand. That is what this report is about. The Colt SAA was designed around 1872 and delivered the next year. Colt designed a new revolver and chambered it for the most powerful handgun cartridge of its day.

Colonel Benet of Army Ordnance wanted his men to have the best possible cartridge. An important consideration was the ability to drop an Indian war pony at 100 yards. The standard .45 Colt loading used a nominal 250-grain bullet over 40 grains of black powder. (There were other combinations.) This loading generated 900 fps from the Colt’s standard 7 ½-inch barrel.

Besides many thousands of civilian and overseas sales, the revolver was purchased by the U.S. Army in over 37,000 examples by 1890. These revolvers were delivered with one-piece wood stocks and a nicely blued finish. I was curious as to how these revolvers met the need for 100 yard accuracy.

The Gun

An original SAA, while quite expensive, might also be well worn. A modern clone seemed the best test mule. A Pietta revolver in .45 Colt with a 7 ½-inch barrel is well finished with a blue grip frame, cylinder, ejector rod and barrel, and case hardened hammer and frame. The revolver uses a modern transfer bar system that allows carrying six cartridges. The Pietta locks up tight and seems well made of good material.

Ammunition Velocity Group in inches
Winchester 250-grain 707 fps 2.6 inches
Fiocchi 250-grain 715 fps 2.0 inches
Handload –Unique Powder
250-grain Magnus hard cast 860 fps 1.9 inches
250-grain Magnus hard cast 900 fps 2.25 inches

I have fired the revolver extensively at ranges of up to 25 yards with good results. It will group five shots into 2 ½ inches at 25 yards with good loads. While hard cast bullets do not lead, and deliver good accuracy, original conical soft lead bullets are well suited to personal defense. Testing shows that they tend to tumble in media. For this test, I was leaning toward handloads. Initial testing showed some of the following results at 25 yards.

Ejecting a spent shell from the Traditions .45 Colt pistol

Every load tested slid smoothly from the Traditions cylinder.

The handload was more accurate than the factory ammunition, but statistically that did not mean much. There are factory loads geared toward defense use, with 185- to 225-grain bullets, which are quite speedy. However, a light bullet sheds velocity more quickly over a long range. The problem would be trigger press, sight picture, and the human element.

A difference between the modern revolver and the original is sight regulation. Most revolvers were sighted to strike high at 25 yards to give troopers a fair chance of connecting at longer range. Today, we like revolvers sighted to strike to the point of aim at 15 to 25 yards. The Traditions revolver is well regulated in that regard.

Screws if the frame of an 1873 SAA pistol

Be certain to check frame screws when using a SAA as heavily as the author did!

Watch those screws! It is S.O.P. to check the small screws in the grip frame and trigger housing for looseness. The SAA—especially with heavy loads—tends to work itself loose. I knew that but somehow forget. I usually check the screws every couple of shooting sessions. One hundred heavy loads accelerates the action! No problem. Simply tighten the screws, and you are back in action.

Calculations showed that a 250-grain bullet at 900 fps and striking 2.5 inches high at 25 yards would be about 7 inches low at 100 yards. The handgun holding a 2.5-inch group at 25 yards should group into 10 inches at 100 yards—but it isn’t always that simple. Some handguns fall apart after 50 yards, others hold their accuracy better than expected.

I began at 50 yards with a realistic shooting position, keeping my back against a heavy post and setting the revolver between my knees in a solid sitting position. (Be aware of cylinder flash!) I fired three full cylinders of 250-grain handloads at the plate at 50 yards and connected with each. I was feeling pretty good about my combination.

Man in sitting position firing a single action pistol with elbows resting on his knees

The setting firing position proved most accurate.

At 100 yards, using the PPC shooters trick, I held on the neck and carefully pressed the trigger. After firing a cylinder, I began the long walk to the target. I had struck the target five times. The group was about 8 inches below the point of aim and measured 9 inches. Next, I tried another long-range handgun trick.

Since the hold over obscures the target, it is best to hold the front sight high—providing you know how high to hold, which means fieldwork. Also, the front sight will subtend several inches of the paper at 100 yards. Holding at the middle of the target, the front sight was raised as high as possible. I kept my concentration on the front sight and carefully pressed the trigger.

Recoil wasn’t a real factor but keeping the sights aligned and working the trigger becomes tiring at this level of concentration. I fired three cylinders at the target. The 15 shots were clustered near my point of aim and fell into a 16-inch group.

I fired well over 120 cartridges that day. These experiments confirm that the .45 Colt is plenty accurate for 100-yard antipersonnel and anti-warhorse work. The 250-grain bullet retains a degree of authority as well. While the practical merits of the shooting are debatable, the fun factor was huge. The good ol’ Peacemaker has legs and can be useful at longer range than most would credit it.

What’s the longest distance you have shot a pistol for groups? Are you a fan of the Single Action Army pistol? Share your answers or questions in the comment section.

SLRule

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 Shooter’s 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.

View all articles by Bob Campbell

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Comments (13)

  • Elton Green

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    Being able to take down a war pony or a cavalry horse at distance was an important thing during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Up until WWI, all armies used cavalry to scout, to strike behind enemy lines, disrupt supply lines and as rapid attack and response forces. Cavalry continued to be used in these roles until WWII, and if the opposing forces couldn’t counter them with their available issue arms, the cavalry (horse) could and did create havoc in the rear areas of various armies. Charging cavalry is also very fast. Most of the rifles which the U.S. Army carried were single shots, so you only got one shot with a rifle. If you missed, or had multiple targets, which one nearly always does when it drops in the pot, your back-up had better be able to do the job. So yes, the .45 Colt was designed to drop a horse out to around 100 yards. So was the .45 Schofield, which the Army also adopted as a side arm. And John Browning developed the .45 ACP to do the same thing. If you check the record, you’ll see that the Ordinance dept. tested the .45 ACP by shooting steers to see how many hits it took to drop one. The 9X19 sometimes took 6 or 7 hits, and the 45 took one to two. It was a simple equation. Stop the horse and you stop the rider. The .45 Colt, Schofield and ACP along with the .455 Webley and the .44 Russian, which the Imperial Russian Army used as one of their sidearms, would do this very well indeed.

    Reply

  • M Reyna

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    I personally have been a pistol shooter for about 45 years. I have shot birds flying and Jack Rabbits running with a Ruger Single six 22. I also used to go to turkey shoots and having shot at 200 watt bulbs on top of 3 liter bottles at 100 yards with my S&W Mod 19 357 and consistently hit the bulb. To this day at age 68 I still shoot and haven’t lost my touch. Love shooting long range with a hand gun.

    Reply

  • Elton Green

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    Back in the late ’70’s, I belonged to a club that shot metallic Silouette in Perryton, Texas. The classes were what determined what positions the shooter could shoot at, but if you shot in the production class, most shooters shot in the Creedmoor position as described by Bob. The first production revolver to clear all the targets in competition was a Dan Wesson in 10″ barrel chambered for .44 Remington Magnum. If I remember right, the chicken targets are from bantom roosters, the pigs are havelina silouettes, and the turkeys and rams speak for themselves as far as size goes. You had to hit the targets in order, right to left, and if one was missed, you went to the next one. This contest was why Dan Wesson brought out the .445 and the 357 maximum revolvers. Its a lot of fun. I watched a shoot off at a regional match in Lubbock Texas once where the final contestants had shot three iterations without a miss using Thompson Contenders, and the shootoff was done at the chickens at 200 meters. One hit 6 in a row, one hit 7.

    Reply

  • Trevor

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    I have a Ruger Blackhawk in .375 Mag and I love it! There is no better shooting in my opinion than using cowboy actions. I also have a Winchester Model 94 in .357 Mag. Last weekend I went out shooting with some friends and set up 50 clay pigeons at 30 yards. The Idea was to shoot the clays and when you missed your turn was over. One friend had a Glock 17 and another had a FNX in .40 ACP. Neither was a match for my Blackhawk.

    Reply

  • Dark Angel

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    Not surprised at the .45 Colt’s long range ability. Hunted with a S&W 25-5,
    when I was going through a ‘handgun hunting phase.’ Though not the Colt SA w/ 7 1/2 but a S&W DA 25-5 in w/ 8 3/8, using off the rack .45 Colt semi-jacketed hollow point loads, put venison in the freezer and on my table plenty of times. Have fire original SA Colts and reproductions. Loved both, but the newer was far more accurate, but then, it wasn’t over a 100 yrs. old, either

    Reply

  • Bob

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    To get a good look at single action revolvers and what they can do at distance, take a look at the shooters at a handgun metallic silhouette class match. With the turkeys at 150 meters and the ram at 200 meters, the higher class shooters would seldom miss a ram using open sights. Using the old position where the revolver is rested against the side of your leg (with a blast shield) there are some impressive groups. I used to shoot a Super Blackhawk in 44 mag and when I was on, could keep my shots in a 12 ” circle at 200 meters. Some of the better ones would keep every shot inside of a 6″ circle.

    Reply

    • Vincent

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      Bob, Do you have any idea what barrel length they were using to makes these extreme distance shots with s revolver? My Ruger Blackhawk 357 Mag is only 6.5″ and I think I would have trouble hitting those marks at 150/200 yards with just the sites on the gun. I would have to rest my hand on something solid and figure out the distance as well. But hitting anything would require a spotter scope or something very high powered.

      Vincent (01-21-2017)

      Reply

    • Bob

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      Hi Vincent,
      Most of the wheel gun shooters would be using 10.5″ barrels and shooting a modified creedmore position. This is where you sit down and lean back and rest the firearm along the outside of your leg. In the case of revolvers, you would have a blast shield between your leg and the revolver. I used a Ruger Super Blackhawk in 44 mag. You generally shoot with a spotter who calls your shots but as I said, the better shooters would clear the targets. The big bore handguns would be shooting chickens at 50, pigs at 100, turkeys at 150 and rams at 200 meters. They also have a class for standing. Do a search on line for IHMSA match pictures and you’ll see some great pictures. I don’t know where you are but you can search for IHMSA matches and maybe there is one around you. As I said, watching a shooter shoot a clean match, 40 out of 40 is amazing with iron sights.

      Reply

    • Vincent LaVallee

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      Bob, thanks for the response and the info. 10.5″ barrel is quite long, and no doubt hard to hold steady if it is not resting on something, such as your knee. I live in the phoenix, AZ metro area and shoot at the outdoor Rio Salado Sportsman club shooting range. You can shot just about any weapon, and up to 100 yards, or 200 yards, or even 300 yards. But the 200 & 300 yard distances are so great, it slows down everyone’s shooting time since it takes so long to setup and retrieve your targets. So, I shoot 25 and 50 yards, and use my own spotting scope. I just might try 100 yards once, but my targets are on 12″ in diameter, so I would need to mount four of them all taped into a big square.

      But I doubt I will be able to come close to anywhere near the accuracy you have described, even with high powered ,357 Mag ammo for my Ruger 6.5′ Blackhawk.

      Again, Thanks for your feedback.

      Vincent (01-23-2017)

      Reply

  • Liston

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    I once shot a refrigerator at 100 yards with a Beretta Minx. A long time ago, but I believe I hit it 3 out of the magazine (6?). .22 short

    Reply

  • Rich K.

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    I love the SAA myself, though my “pet cartridge” is the .44-40 Winchester. I went through a phase, when I first got into CAS, when I did not want an “inauthentic” rifle/pistol pairing. To me, that meant it had to be .38-40 or .44-40, since .38 Special/.357 magnum did not exist in the “wild West”, and there were no rifles chambered in .45 Colt (the original cartridge did not have an extractor groove, and just enough of a rim to keep it from falling through a revolver’s chambers, as it was solely meant for use in single-action revolvers). The .44-40 ended up being my choice because ammo was slightly more available than .38-40 (and, again with practicality in mind, I wanted to use my carbine as a brush rifle during deer season – the .44-40 was the most popular deer hunting cartridge in the US until the .30-30 Winchester cartridge was introduced in 1895 – yes, 1895 – for the 1894 Winchester rifle). I like to load with FFFg KIK black powder and a 200 grain RNFP from a Lee mold.

    Reply

  • Vincnt LaVallee

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    Bob, great article and test! I have responded to your articles before, and I am an owner of two Ruger Blackhawks: .357 Mag 6.5″ blued, and a .45 LC/ACP flattop stainless. I use to use my 357 Mag for hunting and would shoot muskrat mounds (in MN) at well over 100 yards, and could tell where I hit by seeing the water splashes, on none. So, this is not very scientific or rigorous testing, but good enough for general knowledge.

    I now go to the outdoor shooting range in Phoenix, AZ (located just under the ‘Phoenix’ letters in the hill side) and shoot 25 and 50 yards. For accuracy, I rest my hand on the shooting table for hand stability and aim each slow, and slowly pull the trigger. With single action handguns, you can be quite accurate due to very low trigger pull pressure. So, at both distances, I can shoot 2-4″ variances fairly easily.

    But I have not yet stepped up to the 100 yards, partly because my targets are only 12″ squares. I do have a spotting scope, but at 100 yards that is hard to set and use also. So, would there be a chance for you to try the accuracy tests with a modern 45 LC with modern higher powered ammo? The loads you used are fairly weak, although no doubt appropriate for that handgun, and of course, what you were trying to simulate.

    I have put together a very elaborate ballistics file, and in it the average MV for today’s 45 LC manufactured ammo is about 1,000 fps, with some a bit lower, some right there, and some a bit higher. Of course, there are some very hot 45 LC loads that rival the 44 Mag (in velocity and power), where the MV ranges from about 1,300 up to 1,500 fps. But these may be too hot for any systematic tests, so my suggestion would be to use loads with MV between 1,000 and 1,200..But most of the loads with a MV of just 1,000 fps are with bullets only around 200 gr. The loads with the 1,200 MV are with bullets weighing 225, 260, 300, and 360, from various manufacturers, so you have quite a range there to choose from.

    Vincent (01-08-2917

    Reply

  • gwdean

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    Fun read. Reminds me of my short comings from my PPC days with a six inch Trooper, then a six inch S&W K frame. 50yds max with 7, 25 & 50 stages. strong and weak hands at the barricades. Although I qualified Master & won a lot of trophies–I was never smart enough to perform drop tests from the 25 & 50. It would have been the smart thing to do and probably explains the edge the larger dept.s shooters had on us suburban kids. We worked & shot, a lot of them spend most of their time in their dept’s training div’s, with all the time and free ammo they wanted. We received plenty for matches, but bought all of our own practice ammo at dept. discount

    Reply

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