Colt Single Action Army .32-20


by Mike Cumpston

photography by Mike Cumpston

December 28th, 2003




By the early 1880s, the Winchester Model 1873 rifle and the Colt Single Action Army Revolver represented the state-of-the-art personal arms of the western frontier and elsewhere.  The short, low- pressure Winchester Center Fire cartridges of the 1873 lent themselves well to interchangeability. The .44 WCF set the trend being very well received in the Colt Frontier Six-shooter so, in 1884, Colt began chambering the Single Action Army for the 38-40 and .32-20 as well. 

The overall handiness of the concept kept the WCF rounds popular into the second third of the 20th Century.   Colt production figures as recorded by R.L. Wilson (Colt, An American Legend) indicate that of the 310,386 (not including Flat top target, Bisley, etc.)  first generation Single Action Army revolvers produced, 29,802 were chambered for the 32-20. The original loading was a nominal 20 grains of black powder behind a lead 117- grain bullet. Actual factory loads ranged from the rather anemic rounds suited to both revolver and rifle to the later factory high velocity loads that were reported to be dangerous if fired in a revolver.  Current hand loads often approach the .30 carbine in pressure and velocity while older references indicate that the original rounds often contained less than the claimed 20 grains of black. 

The .32-20 revolvers enjoyed some popularity in the remnants of the American Frontier.  Elmer Keith made early, frequent reference to the round and records that his father was quite disgusted with him when he traded a .22 rifle for one of these “pop-guns.”   He modified his stance considerably when Elmer collected a few cottontails for the table. 

Johnny Bates’ .32-20 was manufactured in 1918 and was one of four shipped to Wyeth Hardware & Mfg. Co., St. Joseph, MO on Oct 2, 1919.

The revolver has resided, sans grips, in the bottom of Bates’ gun safe since 1992. He has some elephant ivory ear-marked for the revolver but, lacking the time for grip making, he attached a set of modern eagle patterns for our shooting session.  The revolver has a 4 ¾” ejector rod length barrel often called the “civilian” or “gunfighter” model.  It is very mechanically sound with new looking bore and chambers.  The trigger pull, typical of first generation SAAs, was quite heavy until Bates put a leather shim between spring and frame, reducing the trigger release and creating the perfect imitation of a custom tuned Colt. Much of the original blue and traces of casehardening remain.  The sights are of the old pattern – u-notch and narrow blade.  Our load was the traditional flat point 115 grain plain base bullet- these coming from a Lyman 3118 mold .313 as-cast and tumble lubed –over 3 grains of Bullseye. Five rounds averaged 761 fps with a 49fps extreme spread.

Our shooting range is a mesquite patch not far from Ft Parker, Texas.  Special conditions included a side wind that gusted twenty miles per hour and did not augur well for pretty groups.  We did some close range shooting that established point of impact as center for windage and a bit low.  Bates had brought along a CD/ROM from a notorious Internet service and I proceeded to doctor this standing, two handed from a paced off 25 yards.  One round was a narrow miss but the other four landed in a surprisingly nice 3” spread with two of the rounds printing a figure eight.

Giving in to the buffeting wind, I sat down and rested my back against a mesquite and tried to lay in a photogenic 25- yard group.  Nothing doing.  Four shots hit the 6” black but the tree was moving with the wind and I threw one round out at six o’clock.  Disgusted, I stood up and fired four off-hand rounds from the traditional NRA one- handed stance. Point of aim was 12 o’clock about 1” over the black.  I fully expected the results to resemble the efforts of a paint sniffer trying to pitch a baseball but the excellent trigger and a bit of luck came to my rescue and the rounds landed in a tight little group.  I needed two more rounds to print a full ten in the black and these landed in the same happy little clump.

Several observations emerge from shooting this and other well preserved Colt Single Actions of the first generation.  The original sights, which gave way to a square notch and wider front blade during the 1920s, provide little or no hindrance to decent shooting- as long as visual correction and good lighting allow you to see them. The value of a crisp, light trigger cannot be overstated.  Given the action set-up for a smooth, surprise release, the Single Action Army hangs steady on target as the hammer describes its long arc toward ignition. It is easy to call the shots and the revolvers are fairly forgiving of shooting errors.   Parts breakage is a rare (and generally easily repaired) occurrence- giving rise to the conjecture that the Colt metallurgy was better than that of the present day foreign replicas.  While oddball barrel, throat and chamber measurements are common in the first generation Colts, it is not unusual to find them displaying accuracy equal to the most modern designs. 

Mike Cumpston


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This revolver was shipped to a hardware store in St. Joseph, Missouri in October, 1919.

The same year, the Treaty of Versailles was on its way to ratification. The 18th Amendment was passed establishing national prohibition of alcohol. The 19th Amendment provided that women would have the vote in national elections. The country was emerging from a deadly flu epidemic. The electric starter became an optional accessory on the Model T Ford.



The old Colt can still shoot!



We're glad to see Mike found a use for those Internet Service Provider CD-ROMs!