Among the happiest times I have had when shooting is the time I have spent with single action revolvers. Those true to the Old West in appearance and function are my favorites. When properly finished and well fitted, the single action revolver is a joy to own and use.
Cowboy Action Shooting is a great shooting sport. However, many more revolvers are sold that will never be used in CAS. The cowboy guns are fun shooters, pleasing to own, and have practical applications in today’s world.
I often carry a single action revolver when hiking or traveling. It may be the best tool for some outdoors use. The cartridges they chamber are powerful and well suited to taking medium-size game to 35 yards or so with proper loads. They are far from the worst choice for protection against dangerous animals.
When carrying the revolver in a holster, if a branch catches the hammer it doesn’t raise it enough to fire the piece if 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. 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 over 30 calibers, from .22 to .476 Webely. The revolver was originally supplied with a 7 ½-inch barrel length. A 5 ½-inch barrel length was offered later and then a 4 ¾-inch version and even a Sheriff’s Model with a shorter barrel. The Colt SAA has been in and out of production and very expensive.
Today, Italian-made revolvers offer high production values, excellent fitting, and even greater safety than previous revolvers. 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. The revolvers illustrated are modern SAA handguns with much to recommend.
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 back strap 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. A very few well-heeled shooters such as Annie Oakley and Wild Bill Cody owned such revolvers. 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 feature of some renown. 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 of 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 who lived in the Old West, his is not a life you would wish to have lived.
The Tilghman revolver features good, but subtle, engraving. The piece is very well done. Hand engraving is horribly expensive and the 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 peace officers. The big 255-grain slug tumbled in flesh and produced an impressive wound.
The revolver was accurate enough for firing at horseback warriors far past conversational distance. The primary advantage of the 4 ¾-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 4-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.
I unboxed the Traditions revolver and wiped away the packing grease. The revolver is 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 pounds and crisp. An excellent loading for general practice and cowboy action shooting comes from Black Hills Ammunition.
The .45 Colt has a voluminous cartridge case that was originally loaded with black powder. It isn’t always easy to get good results with modern gunpowder. Black Hills has done its testing and research, and given us an accurate and pleasant shooting load. With a 250-grain bullet at 700 fps, the Black Hills Ammunition loading is pleasant to fire and accurate.
The balance of the revolver calls for fast snap shooting. It isn’t difficult to strike the target in the x ring at 7 and 10 yards firing quickly. Unlike most SAA types of a generation ago, the Traditions revolver is properly regulated with the 250-grain BHA load striking about an inch above the point of aim at 15 yards. By allowing the muzzle to rise in recoil and then catch and cock the hammer, before sighting again, the revolver is capable of excellent practical accuracy.
Another choice from Traditions is the Liberty. This revolver is chambered in .357 Magnum in my example. While the .45 Colt is traditional, some of the other western calibers (.38-40 and .44-40) are more expensive to obtain and more difficult to handload. The .357 Magnum revolver also accepts .38 Special ammunition.
With a 158-grain bullet at 805 fps, the Black Hills Ammunition .357 Magnum cowboy action load is mild to fire and very accurate. This loading is usually more accurate than a similar .38 Special loading. Black Hills Ammunition also offers a .38 Special 158-grain load at 700 fps.
The .357 Magnum chambering is by far the most practical for cowboy action shooting and perhaps for all around shooting. The .38 Special offers light recoil and excellent accuracy. Each of the Pietta revolvers is capable of grouping five shots into 2.5 inches or less, from a solid bench rest firing position, with the .357 Magnum revolver having about a .5 inch advantage in practical accuracy.
The Liberty offers much the same extensive engraving as the Tilghman revolver. This engraving is extensive and attractive. The design is excellent and rivals any laser engraved revolver, and betters most. These engraved revolvers are excellent all-around shooters. Based on utility and pride of ownership, they are also among the best choices in cowboy shooters.
The .45 Colt cowboy load is a fine all around choice for most chores. For personal defense or protection against dangerous animals Buffalo Bore Ammunition offers heavy loads that are powerful and accurate. The Buffalo Bore 225-grain hollowpoints break almost 1,000 fps in the SAA. While recoil is greater than with standard loads, the plow handled SAA rolls in the hand and doesn’t sting the palm. For hunting or defense against the big cats and bears, Buffalo Bore offers a 255-grain SWC at 1,000 fps.
An individual who practices with the SAA is well capable of defending their person with a revolver. CAS shooters are pretty sharp. There are many good defense loads in .38 Special for your liberty revolver. A strong choice in .357 Magnum is the Black Hills Ammunition 125-grain JHP at 1,438 fps from the Liberty’s 4 ¾-inch barrel. For defense in the wild, the Buffalo Bore 180-grain flat point offers excellent penetration. This .357 Magnum loading breaks 1,350 fps in the Liberty.
While more than 95% of the ammunition I fire in these revolvers is cowboy action-type, if needed, these outdoors and personal defense loads are on hand, and ride in the chambers when I am hiking and sometimes far from home.
There are many options for cowboy action shooting and it is easy to spend thousands of dollars on custom leather with silver buckles. Among the finest first class holsters of the type are those from Rocking K Saddlery. You have at least a dozen styles to choose from. But one of the most useful holsters is a modern Yaqui belt slide. I have never seen another for the SAA and believe this is the only maker offering this type for the SAA. This is a handy holster with much to recommend.
Galco offers high quality at a fair price. Galco offers the SAA for single action revolvers. This is a field holster that offers a security snap. The reversible and adjustable Wheelgunner features a hammer thong for security. I like the SAA for long barrel revolvers but the Wheelgunner for 5 ½ inch, and shorter, barrel SAA types. Each offers good service.
The Tilghman isn’t an ordinary handgun and demanded extraordinary leather. I may search the best deal for the money on most things but when it comes to leather, I am hopelessly tied to beautiful exotic gear—at least for occasional use. Bullard Leather is a family owned and operated business with a small core of craftspeople spear headed by David and Renee. I wanted a concealed carry general purpose holster for the 4 ¾-inch barrel .45. The result was a combat style in chocolate elephant. The holster will last a lifetime and is resistant to aging, scuffs, and tears. It doesn’t get any better. With this type of investment, I am going to keep the Traditions revolver a long time—yet the holster and revolver cost less than a new Colt SAA.
I love Old West revolvers and firing them. They are a pleasant diversion from serious training and new polymer pistols. If you handle one, you may be hooked as well.