Colt started to put adjustable sights on its single-action revolvers around 1890 to fill a need for target shooters. Most single actions of the day, and, in fact, to the present, feature simple fixed sights; a blade front and rear consisting of a groove milled along the top strap. These sights suffice for most shooters, though some Kentucky windage and elevation are required with some models that did not shoot to point of aim. Adjustable sights take out the guesswork since they can be adjusted to any load being fired. Colt named the single action with adjustable sights the Flattop Target Model, and these First Generation revolvers were shipped from 1888 to 1896 with fewer than 1,000 made. Obviously, they are quite rare. Bisley models were also offered as Flattop Target Models, and even fewer of these models were produced. What these first Flattop revolvers featured was a replaceable front-sight blade to adjust elevation and a rear sight that was drift-adjustable for windage. Since the rear sight groove was not needed, the top strap of the frame was machined, flat hence the name “Flattop.”
The two flattops we tested recently were a used Third Generation Colt New Frontier and a new Lipsey’s exclusive Ruger New Model Blackhawk. Both wore aftermarket grips, and from outward appearances, looked nearly identical. What piqued our interest in these two revolvers was they were also convertibles with an extra cylinder. One cylinder was chambered in 45 Colt (sometimes called Long Colt to ensure it doesn’t get confused with a shortened pronunciation of Automatic Colt Pistol) and the other was chambered in 45 ACP. Both cartridges are very popular, and 45 ACP made these six-shooters compatible with ammo normally used in a semi-automatic pistol.
The operating systems of each revolver are what distinguish them. The New Frontier is an old-school single action with no built-in safety, so it must be carried with the hammer resting on an empty chamber to guard against discharges if dropped. The Ruger New Model Blackhawk incorporates a transfer-bar safety mechanism that allows the revolver to be carried with all chambers loaded. The Colt uses a flat mainspring and flat springs throughout, and the Ruger uses a coiled mainspring as well as coiled springs throughout.
We used a revolver range rod and rod head combo from Brownells in 45 Auto/45 Colt (080-617-045WB, $42) to check each chamber for alignment with the bore. We found no issues. Next we looked at headspace—the space between the recoil shield of the frame and the rear of the cylinder—and assumed all would be fine since the Ruger was new the Colt looked unused. Again, our assumption was confirmed with Clymer No-Go gauges from Brownells in 45 Auto (184-000-041WB, $60) and 45 Long Colt (184-100-511WB, $30). Both cylinders for both revolvers have non-rebated cylinders. The headspace check process was a bit different for each revolver. For the Colt, we put the hammer on half-cock and opened the loading gate; for the Ruger, we just had to open the loading gate and drop the No-Go gauge into a chamber. If correct, the gauge stops the cylinder’s rotation. This was repeated with all 24 chambers;12 for both 45 Colt cylinders and 12 for the two 45 ACP cylinders. With the Colt, the No-Go gauge is removed only after removing the cylinder. The process is tedious, but it’s warranted to ensure the safety of a used revolver. The Ruger has a reversing pawl, like Ruger’s Vaquero models, so the process is quicker. So is unloading the Ruger, but we’ll get to that. Finally, we checked the cylinder-to-barrel space, aka cylinder gap, using a Brownells feeler gauger (606-950-252WB, $28). The space should spec out between 0.004 to 0.006 inch. We found the dimension on the Colt was 0.007 inch for each cylinder. On the Ruger, the 45 Colt cylinder gap measured 0.005 inch and the 45 ACP cylinder was 0.006 inch.
With the pistols all checked out, we were then able to get to the fun part and begin shooting them. Here’s how that went:
Colt New Frontier Model No. P4840 45 Colt/45 ACP, $1818
The Colt New Frontier appeared in 1961 with Colt’s Second Generation single-action models made from 1956 through 1975. It debuted when John F. Kennedy was president and the “New Frontier” meant outer space and space exploration. Colt latched onto the national mood and dubbed the new single-action revolver with adjustable sights the New Frontier. It was originally chambered in 38 Special, 357 Magnum, 44 Special, and 45 Colt with three barrel lengths: 4.75, 5.5 and 7.5 inches. All New Frontier revolvers have a serial number prefix of “NF” followed by the serial number. The gun writer Skeeter Skelton evangelized the New Frontier, especially in 44 Special. Third Generation Colt single-action revolvers began production in 1976 and continue to this day. The New Frontier was re-released in 1978 and is currently cataloged in either 44 Special or 45 Long Colt with barrel options of 4.75, 5.5, and 7.5 inches. The New Frontier is popular with collectors and shooters and commands top dollar, even for well-used specimens.
The Third Generation New Frontier we acquired for this test featured a 4.75-inch barrel and was in pristine condition. Original grips were made of smooth walnut inset with a gold Colt medallion, but our New Frontier had aftermarket laminated stag-horn grips that look like they were made by Jay Scott, which was owned by Colt. Jay Scott grips have a wood backing that is used to secure the grips so they do not crack under recoil. The grips overlapped the frame at the butt a bit and felt a bit chunky compared to traditional single-action grips.
The metal bluing was deep and comely, contrasting with the casehardened-color frame. The New Frontier normally did not come with an extra cylinder, but one is available for an additional cost of about $290 through Colt’s Custom shop, making the total cost of the New Frontier as tested $1818. Cost for just the New Frontier is $1528.
This New Frontier was well built and solid, with no wiggle in either cylinder and excellent timing. We saw no ring around the cylinder, even after test firing and cocking. The ability to shoot both 45 ACP and 45 Colt through both revolvers was a substantial plus because the calibers are so popular and available. We did anticipate a difference in accuracy as we have seen in other convertible revolvers, mainly due to the rifling twist rate, which in this case is 1:16, perhaps not being the right choice for both rounds. The 45 ACP also has a bit of jump through the chamber that the longer 45 Colt doesn’t, and we thought that might show downrange. The nit we had with both the Ruger and Colt cylinders is they need an easier way to tell them apart visually. The Colt 45 ACP cylinder has a tiny stamp between two the chambers that was difficult to see and could only be seen with the loading gate open, and then only when the cylinder was in the right position. We would like a ring machined around the rear of cylinder or longer flutes, or no flutes, to differentiate between the chamberings.
The Colt loads the old-school way by first having its hammer pulled to half cock or two clicks of the hammer. The loading gate is then opened and a round is inserted into a chamber, the cylinder is rotated to skip the next chamber, then the remaining chambers are loaded. This ensures the hammer rests on an empty chamber. Because the Colt has no safety device except common sense, the revolver might discharge if accidentally dropped on the hammer over a loaded chamber. We needed to pay attention when handling the Colt; if we rotated the cylinder too much, we couldn’t load a chamber because there was no access and the cylinder cannot be rotated backward. That chamber needs to be skipped and picked up next time around. Of course, this is not news to traditional SAA shooters.
The four clicks a Colt SAA makes upon cocking are music to some testers’ ears. The New Frontier was smoother to cock than the Ruger, but the hammer locked back closer to the back strap, which could be an issue for meaty-handed shooters by catching the web of their hands between their thumbs and first fingers. The checkering on the hammer spur was elegant and functional, and testers thought it was nicer looking than the Ruger’s serrations, though the serrations were well executed. The trigger had no creep at all and broke crisply on average at 3.5 pounds, which we thought was optimal.
The sights of the Colt were well executed. The front ramp had deep serrations, so it cut glare, and we encountered plenty of glare on the test days, with the sun high in a clear blue sky. The rear sight offered nice, positive clicks for windage, but no clicks for elevation. We did like that the direction was indicated “UP” on elevation and “L” for windage, a feature the Ruger lacked.
Using a two-hand hold and rest, we found that the Colt liked nearly anything we fed it, in particular, Winchester Super X 45 Long Colt ammo loaded with a 255-grain LRN bullet. It consistently printed 1-inch five shot groups at 15 yards. The Colt did best with the Atlanta Arms 45 ACP, with a best group at slightly over half an inch.
Loading and unloading were easy tasks, with the ejector rod only needed toward the end of our testing session. Swapping cylinders, we found the 45 ACP cartridge loaded and unloaded as smoothly.
Our Team Said: We found we liked the Colt a lot. It is definitely a more traditional SAA with no safety features that needs to be carried with only five rounds loaded. The price is what really turned off shooters when directly compared with the Ruger, though we all surmised the Colt would hold its value better than the Ruger. The grips were a little too B-movie Western for some shooters, but the front sight was done right with serrations. The Colt had a steep cost compared to the Ruger, but it was still an investment some would make.
Part of the reason why Colt introduced the New Frontier was the wild success of Bill Ruger’s Blackhawk single-action revolvers with adjustable sights that first appeared in 1955. Ruger’s revolvers were and still are super popular with shooters. Another noted gun writer, Elmer Keith, was a fan of the Blackhawk.
The Blackhawk debuted in 357 Magnum, and like Colt single actions with adjustable sights, the Blackhawk was originally produced as a flattop. Ruger made the flattop Blackhawk from 1955 through 1962, then modernized the design by bulking up the top of frame to protect the sides of the adjustable rear sight. Since the design change, Ruger has made small runs of flattops as commemoratives as well as distributor exclusives. We tested a 50th Anniversary New Model Blackhawk flattop a few years ago in 357 Magnum and gave it an excellent rating. We hoped we would be equally happy with a flattop convertible.
We were able to wrangle a Lipsey’s exclusive New Model Blackhawk that incorporated all of the retro-styling of the original Blackhawk flattops plus the added features of the New Model Blackhawks, such as the safety transfer bar and reverse indexing cylinder of the Vaquero. The grip frame was also made of steel—original flattop Blackhawks had an aluminum grip frame—and the grip was similar to a Colt grip rather than the chunkier and slightly longer grip of current New Model Blackhawk. The owner replaced the white faux ivory grips with a pair Buffalo Brothers (BuffaloBrothers.net) polymer finger-grooved grip in antique ivory coloring. The grips were well fitted and felt thin, and to our shooters they offered a better grasp for right-handed shooters due to the finger grooves. The Ruger had a well-executed blued finish over the entire revolver, while the trigger and hammer were left bright stainless, contrasted nicely with the polished-blue metal surfaces.
The Ruger locked up tight and the timing was spot on. No cylinder ring appeared even after extensive range sessions and even after changing out cylinders multiple times over the course of testing. The front of cylinder had a nice bevel that allowed for easier holstering.
Those accustomed to handling a Colt SAA or clones had ramp-up time learning to load the Ruger. Out of habit, they placed the hammer at half cock. That is not required. Just open the loading gate, and the cylinder will rotate freely and all chambers can be loaded or unloaded. This New Model Blackhawk incorporates the safety-transfer bar, which all testers agreed gave the Ruger a level of safety the Colt lacked. The reverse indexing pawl also allowed users to slightly rotate the cylinder back to load or unload more easily, something the Colt did not allow.
Out front, testers said the serrations on the Ruger’s front sight should be slightly deeper to cut glare better. The adjustable rear sight had positive clicks for both elevation and windage adjustments, but there was no visual direction on up/down or left/right, as there was with the Colt. In use, the sights of the Colt had a slight edge over the Ruger’s, but both were well executed and quite serviceable.
The hammer of the Ruger took slightly more effort to cock than the Colt. Most liked the Ruger’s wide trigger and felt they could press the trigger better. The trigger on the Ruger did have some creep — meaning there was some slack in the trigger before the trigger and hammers sear engaged — so most liked the Colt trigger better. With the hammer fully cocked, there was more space between the hammer and the back strap on the Ruger. Big-handed testers liked this feature over the Colt because there was less, or no, hammer bite.
Swapping out the cylinder was faster with the Ruger because all that was required was to open the loading gate, press the left side of the base-pin latch, pull the base pin, and the cylinder could be removed. There was no need to place the hammer on half cock, as was required with the Colt. We also felt the Ruger base pin gave the operator more grip to pull it out from the frame. The Ruger did not use a cylinder bushing like the Colt. This bushing is a holdover from black-powder cartridge days that allowed the cylinder to rotate even if fouled with black-powder residue. We suppose this could pose an issue with the Ruger if it is extensively fired using only black-powder cartridges. Testers with SAA experience preferred the bushing design of the Colt.
Also, the ejector head was small compared to the Colt, and it slid very close to the barrel. After an extensive shooting session, users had to make sure they did not burn their fingertips on the hot barrel when using the ejector. The Colt’s ejector system pivots away from the barrel and prevents singeing a finger.
At 15 yards, both pistols shot well and were accurate. There were no misfires, and all the ammo performed well. With Herter’s 45 Colt ammo in the Ruger, one tester was able to create one large hole with five shots at 15 yards using a rest. With the Winchester Super X 45 Colt, it was easy to keep all five shots inside a 2.5-inch-square aiming mark. We enjoyed shooting both revolvers.
Our Team Said: The Lipsey’s New Model Blackhawk was a good product, and our team noted that it was possible to buy two Ruger revolvers for the price of the Colt.
Written and photographed by Robert Sadowski, using evaluations from Gun Tests team testers.