July 2003

.45 Single-Action Colts and Clones: USFA’s Rodeo Is Our Pick

In this four-way test, the Rodeo was historically accurate and shot great. AWA’s Peacekeeper ran a close second, followed by Uberti’s Regulator. But we found Colt’s high-priced SAA too tight.

From left, the 1904 Colt reigns over the AWA, Rodeo, Uberti, and modern Colt. The fine and period-correct holster is by Old West Reproductions of Montana.

One hundred and thirty years ago Colt’s brought out its Model P, also known as the Single Action Army revolver. (For those who wonder, Sam Colt never saw the Model P. He died in 1862.) The company is still making the old thumb-buster, and a host of companies are producing clones of it in what seems to be ever-increasing numbers. The game of Cowboy Action Shooting must surely be one of the main driving forces behind the continued onslaught of fine and finer single actions, but the fact remains that these revolvers are viable sporting, hunting, and even self-defense firearms, and serve their owners in as many capacities as they did in the 1870s.

In this report we look at four new single-action .45s, plus an original Colt from 1904 in a sidebar. The guns are a 4.75-inch-barrel American Western Arms Peacekeeper ($835), a 4.75-inch-barrel USFA Mfg. Co. Rodeo (about $500), a Uberti-made 5.5-inch-barrel marked “Regulator” (about $400), and a third-generation, current production Colt Single Action Army with 5.5-inch-barrel barrel (about $1,700). All were in .45 LC and were new-production guns. Finishes in three cases were blued and case-colored, the odd man out being the Rodeo, which had glass-bead-blasted steel and matte bluing over that. All the guns had hard-rubber grips (or plastic that looked like it) except the Uberti, which had a one-piece walnut stock.

We shot them all with two types of commercial ammunition by Ultramax and Black Hills, and with one of our handloads of Unique powder with a cast bullet, assembled on our Dillon RL 550 press. Here’s what we found.

American Western Arms Peacekeeper, $835

This Italian-made six-shooter was the slickest-actioned of the lot, almost too slick for some hands. It apparently had lots of internal work done at the factory to get its easy-cocking hammer and fine trigger. The hammer required by far the least effort to cock of the four test guns, yet all rounds fired perfectly, so it clearly had enough spring force. We’ll get to that again when we discuss the Colt sample. Fit and finish were excellent, with outstanding polish and bluing to the barrel, cylinder, back strap and trigger guard, and with excellent polish and attractive case colors to the frame and hammer. This gun was done in the Colt style of the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, with rounded trigger guard, period checkering on the hammer inside a border, and with beveled fronts to the cylinder. The contour of the trigger guard and the bevels on the front of the cylinder were a close match to our 1904 Colt.

The grip panels had an eagle at the bottom (different from Colt’s) and a galloping horse at the top, instead of Colt’s rampant horse with arrows. We took a grip panel off, and found they were an eighth of an inch shorter than all the rest of the guns, front-to-back at the very bottom. The checkering was fine, similar to early — not current — Colts. Although the hammer had a cone-shaped firing pin, correct for the early period, the hammer shape was not quite correct, nor was the frame as seen from the rear, but we’re getting really picky to point them out. The gun looked great, and felt and balanced like another old Colt we had on hand with a 4.75-inch-barrel. One bad point was a gouge in the finish on the left side of the hammer that destroyed the case coloring there. The gouge came from a burr left in the hammer raceway on the back of the frame. The edges of that cutout were left too sharp, we thought.

It was easy to take out and replace the cylinder. There was the Colt-designed separate bushing in the cylinder, and in fact all four handguns had that feature. The cylinder locked tightly when the hammer was at full cock. Loading the cylinder was as it should be, in that backing the cylinder against the hand indexed the chambers perfectly in the loading opening. The gate had about the right amount of tension to open and close. All aspects of the gun seemed to have been done correctly. There were thankfully no additions in the form of “safety” devices to destroy the aura of the gun. In short, it was pretty close to just right.

On the range, the Peacekeeper did well. Its trigger was clean and broke at just under 3.5 pounds. The sight picture was essentially like old Colts, which is to say entirely adequate, and not at all modernized. The front sight was slightly wider than early Colts, and was flat-topped as seen by the shooter. This is how the early Colt front sights began life, though they were quickly rounded over from holster wear. The conventional gouge in the frame top ended in a V-notch rear sight. We were able to shoot 15-yard groups on the order of 1.5 to 2 inches with ease. The ejector rod worked smoothly as well. There were no functional problems with this gun at all.

Click here to view "Accuracy and Chronograph Data."

USFA Mfg. Co. Rodeo, about $500

We’ve had more questions about this company’s single-action handguns than for all other makers combined, and we finally were able to obtain a copy of the Rodeo, which is theoretically as well made as USFA’s more finely finished Colt clones, but much less costly because of its simple finish. The metal finish was overall matte black except for the hammer, which was case colored. Our first impression was that this was a good handgun. The gun looked great. Its finish was applied to what was obviously carefully fit and polished steel, with again what appeared to be an effort to capture the turn-of-the-century Colts, with rounded trigger guard, cylinder bevels, etc. We thought the Rodeo succeeded in that effort as least as well as the American Western Arms Peacekeeper. The contours of the Rodeo’s frame were everywhere very close to those of the early Colt. The front of the ejector rod had the same contour as that of our 1904 Colt, though the hole was slightly larger on the Rodeo. The Peacekeeper’s ejector housing was not quite correct at the front.

The Rodeo’s grips were finely checkered, and at their top was a bold “US” on both panels. Most impressive to our eyes was the care taken in polishing the frame to keep its sides dead flat, and to avoid rounding contours where they were supposed to be cylindrical, not buffed round. In that respect, the Rodeo was the closest to the contours and polishing of the original 1904 Colt. Not even Colt’s did that job on its new gun as well as USFA, though we’re probably nit-picking again.

Another good indication to the Rodeo’s overall high quality was in its handling. It was well balanced, and cocking it gave a strong impression of operating a finely machined mechanism. The timing of the cylinder was perfect. It locked tightly on all six cylinders, and the effort to cock the gun was a good balance between too heavy and too light. It had essentially the same feel, during cocking, as our 1904 Colt. The rifling twist was left-hand, just like early Colts. The six lands were high enough to catch most lead bullets well, we thought.

The front sight appeared as a wide, flat-topped post to the shooter. The rear notch in the frame was also flat-bottomed, and the sight picture was the easiest to see of all four handguns. It was not at all traditional, but would serve the modern sportsman well, we thought. The trigger pull was excellent at 4 pounds. The hammer had a cone-shaped firing pin, and its checkering was contained within a small panel. The cylinder base pin was tiny, just like on early Colts, and would be just as hard to pull if things got sticky. However, the base pin came out and went back in easily in our experience, even when we didn’t clean the gun.

Because of its careful fitting, we were not too surprised to see the Rodeo produce small groups on the range. We had no problems with the gun at all. Almost everyone remarked how good the gun looked in the bright light of day, despite its non-traditional finish. It looked right, they said, even though it was not a classic Colt-like finish.

Uberti Regulator, about $400

At first glance we liked this gun. It looked great with its one-piece wood grip and case-colored frame and hammer. But as we looked into it, handled and shot it, it lost a little of its initial charm.

The metal polish and bluing were more than acceptable, though not as nicely done as on the Peacekeeper. The one-piece grips looked and felt great, though they seemed to be slightly larger than the grips on the other guns. This may be due to the abrupt upward angle at the bottom of all the other grips, which made them seem smaller than they were. That, however, is what one expects of Colt grips.

One nasty bit was the rear edge of the loading port, which was too sharp. It would cut the fingers in extended shooting, we felt. But a few minutes with a stone could fix that. Once again we had a gun that attempted to copy the early Colt look with beveled cylinder front, and rounded trigger guard. The very first Colts, and the latest Third Generation sample tested below, had a flat contour on the bottom of the trigger guard. Shortly before 1900 until about 1917, the bottom of the guard was rounded. Then Colt changed it back to the flattened bottom. Some collectors, and our shooters too, prefer the rounded look.

Our 1904 Colt had pronounced rounded bevels on the front of its cylinder. All the modern copies we tested had smaller bevels, and the new Colt had none. We recently had Hamilton Bowen alter a modern Ruger Bisley Vaquero, and Bowen put big bevels on the cylinder. This helps holster the gun and adds class to the overall look, we thought. All four of the test guns could have had bigger bevels, we felt, and would have looked better.

The Uberti was marked beneath the barrel with the Tristar Co. name, which is the Kansas City importer of these guns. The frame sides were respectably flat, with no dishing. The back edges of the grip strap, where it joined the frame, had some screwdriver marks, burrs, and sharp edges. The bottom of the grip strap between the grip panels was flat, side-to-side, as it is supposed to be. The only guns in the test to have that area perfectly flat, both side-to-side and crosswise, were the Rodeo and the 1904 Colt. All the rest were rounded to some extent.

The Regulator had a long base pin that could be inserted deeper within the frame to block the hammer. The hammer had checkering about like the above two guns, contained within a panel. The firing pin was late-Colt like, curved rather than cone-shaped. The cylinder had a base-pin bushing, but though it was loose, we could not easily get it out of the cylinder. Cylinder lockup was not as tight as it could have been. The cylinder rotated slightly but noticeably when the hammer was all the way back. Fore-and-aft fitting of the cylinder was tight, as were all four guns, by the way. We didn’t expect stunning accuracy when we took the Regulator to the range.

We achieved about 2.2-inch average groups with all rounds, which was not at all bad. The Regulator printed significantly to the left, the only gun to do so. It shot close to the correct elevation, however. (The Rodeo and Colt printed close to where they looked. The Peacekeeper shot high. All three were perfect for windage.) Our biggest real gripe was the sharp loading gate. We thought we could live with most of the other little problems, including some creep on the 4.0-pound trigger. But getting the Regulator to shoot farther to the right would involve bending the front sight to the left. One often-touted means of correcting windage on this type handgun is to screw the barrel into the frame some more. This, however, can cause the ejector-rod housing to fit poorly, and probably isn’t the best fix for the problem.

Inside the barrel we found very shallow rifling, right-hand twist, and significant lead left behind from our limited shooting. None of the other guns showed leading. Fire-lapping, or some serious sessions with jacketed bullets would polish the barrel, and most likely get rid of the leading problem.

Colt Single Action Army, about $1,700

We saved the worst for the last. Not quite, but almost, as you’ll see. The beautiful Colt SAA, the real thing, icon of cowboys of today and (pardon us) in the thrilling days of yesteryear, the gun Bat Masterson or Wyatt Earp would pick, the gun every cowboy wants…how can we not like it?

The thing felt like it had a truck spring behind its hammer, for one. There was a burr inside the base-pin bushing that required a reamer to fix, for another. The front of the base pin bushing was rough, chewed out without finishing, for a third. These are all things that a genuine Colt ought not to have, in our opinion. The Colt SAA is supposed to be the best of the best, all hand fitted and carefully put together so you can take it out and win battles with it. This one was not.

Nit-picking, maybe, but the lettering on the side of the barrel stood proud of the steel. It did not do so on any of the other three test guns, nor on the 1904 Colt. If you got the light just right you could see the disturbed steel surrounding the imprinted letters. This was also visible, though not easily, on top of the barrel where the Colt name and address were imprinted. A real blunder was the forward-most screw head on the left side of the frame. It stood out from the frame, clearly a misfit to our eyes.

The front sight blade was buffed so it no longer had a flat top. In case you’re wondering how Colt did ‘em long ago, the top of the 1904’s front blade was flat, crisp and sharp. The hard-rubber grip panels of the new gun stood nearly a tenth of an inch above the frame on each side. Both panels had sharp corners and sharp edges sticking out. All the rest of the guns had their grip panels within 10 or 20 thousandths of the frame. Does Colt’s expect its grips to shrink?

Colt’s did some good things here, the most obvious being the overall fine look to the gun. Only the American Western Arms Peacekeeper could hold a candle to the Colt’s rich appearance, at least at arm’s length, and the Colt alone had the slightly muted yet rich case colors that define the gun. The colors can easily be too gaudy, but this Colt’s colors looked great. The Colt also had balance that was truly matched only by other Colts. The fit and finish, with the exceptions mentioned, were excellent, though some areas were rounded by buffing that ought not to have been. The lockup was tight. With the hammer cocked, the cylinder was snug with no slop, on all six chambers. The Colt didn’t pretend to be anything it was not. It had Colt’s current preference for a squared-off trigger guard, and the cylinder was simply beveled at its front, not rounded. Neither treatment did anything for the charm of the gun, in our opinion, but at least the treatment was consistent with that company’s history.

On the range we had fits loading the Colt because everything was so tight. Another problem was that the cylinder would back up too far against the hand, and that made cartridge insertion less than super-easy. Ejection was fine, though the ejector rod was stiff and needed breaking in, we thought. There was absolutely no excuse for a hammer spring as stiff as the one in this Colt. The AWA gun had a spring that took 4.5 pounds of force to bring to full cock. That gun worked perfectly. The Colt took just under 11 pounds to bring to full cock. The Colt’s trigger pull was the worst of the four new guns, breaking with distinct creep at about 5.3 pounds. Colt’s ought to be ashamed, we thought, to bring out a gun so obviously in great and instant need of a gunsmith’s services.

The Colt shot close to where it looked, and was about as accurate as the Rodeo, which ought not to be a surprise, considering the Colt sells for over three times the price. One final complaint needs to be addressed. One common handling practice among single-action fanciers is to dangle the gun on the trigger finger when done firing. This isn’t considered polite at a shooting match, but we’ve done it often on private ranges. The Colt’s trigger cut the bejeezus out of our trigger finger when we tried that. The bottom edge of the trigger was razor-sharp, one more thing that needed correction, in our opinion.

Gun Test Recommends

American Western Arms Peacekeeper, $835. Buy It. We thought the AWA Peacekeeper was an excellent handgun, one of the finest Colt clones we’ve examined. It would be a fine choice for Action shooters or for all general shooting where a light, accurate, powerful, attractive, and sturdy single action can fill the bill. It looked as good as the latest true Colt, was tuned for ease of use, and cost nearly a grand less. Is that Colt name really worth nine hundred dollars?

USFA Mfg. Co. Rodeo, about $500. Our Pick. In light of the fine impression made by the Rodeo, we’d like to test one of the finer-finished USFA arms, and hope to do so in the not-too-distant future. The Rodeo was one of the most rewarding of all single actions we’ve seen. It looked great, shot great, felt great, didn’t cost a fortune — though more than some entry-level clones — and appeared to be well enough made that it would last through many cowboy shoot-outs, or for many years on your hip as an all-around outdoorsman’s gun. Though some might not like its utilitarian finish, we couldn’t fault the Rodeo in any way.

Uberti “Regulator,” about $400. Buy It. We thought this was a good-looking gun that was worth consideration, especially if the shooter is new to the cowboy-action game, or on a budget. We would guess that a little careful work by the owner, and some well-selected loads would get the gun shooting a lot better. A good gunsmith could tweak that front sight to the left to get the gun shooting where it looks, and you’d be in business.

Colt Single Action Army, about $1,700. Conditional Buy. Should you buy a Colt? A whole lot of clones, some of them truly outstanding handguns, make the choice of a costly new Colt SAA an extravagance for many, if not most, shooters, we feel. Yet no other handgun of its type will hold its value over vast stretches of time than those marked as real Colts. This has been especially true of older Colts, and some believe you’d spend your money more wisely buying an early Colt in excellent condition — at least if investment value is important to you. While a good old Colt will cost more than a new one, the old ones have held value well and probably will continue to do so. But old Colts probably aren’t the best choices for serious shooters.

Despite the many excellent clones available, a lot of shooters won’t be truly happy until they have the real thing. Those who just have to have a genuine Colt in their hands can be happy with this latest SAA, but we think some aftermarket tuning is necessary to make it truly shootable. That will add significantly to the Colt’s already high price. We think you should have a qualified gunsmith, such as Peacemaker Specialists (530-472-3438) or Hamilton Bowen (865-984-3583), work over the Colt to make it right.

Also With This Article

Click here to view "An Ancient Colt Lives."