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.
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.
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.
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.
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.