There are convincing advocates of individual handgun cartridges. Legendary writers such as Skeeter Skelton and Bill Jordan carried the .357 Magnum professionally and felt it was the ideal outdoors and personal defense cartridge. Elmer Keith favored the .44 Special, but then, when he got the .44 Magnum, he was vocal in praises of this cartridge too. There are individuals who use a variety of calibers for certain chores, and then there are those that choose a handgun caliber early on and use it for a lifetime, but who is championing the .45 Colt?
One of the most powerful, useful, and under sung in my opinion is the .45 Colt. Bat Masterson, Frank Hamer and Tom Threepersons had faith in the cartridge, and this confidence was well placed. The .45 Colt does what it does without fuss and bother and Magnum pressure. Even modest loads offer good wound potential for personal defense and plenty of penetration for taking game animals. With highly developed handloads and modern specialty loads from custom shops, the .45 Colt is a real powerhouse. (Just don’t fire these loads in a vintage revolver!)
There are solid competitors such as the .44 Special. The .44 Special is a great, all-around low-recoil target round when properly loaded. It is also a decent choice for personal defense and hunting. However, for short-range effect—and handguns that are packable and reasonably light are short-range handguns—the .45 Colt has more weight and diameter with the best loads. Among factory loads, it was laughable to compare the 246-grain RNL .44 Special at 750 fps to the 900 fps 255-grain .45 Colt. Sure, the .44 was intended as a mild mannered, big-bore target cartridge. I think everyone understood the difference in 1920 or so.
Before you throw slings and arrows of outrage at me, I use both calibers. But the .45 Colt was developed to give mounted troopers a cartridge capable of knocking down an Indian war pony at 100 yards. That is a big animal and nothing in the day came close in power. In many engagements against aboriginal tribes, more horses than men were killed. Those using the .45 Colt on the front line were many.
It is noteworthy that both Frank Hamer and Tom Threepersons carried the .45 Colt long after the introduction of the .44 Special double-action revolver and the .45 Automatic. They chose to carry the proven, fast handling and powerful .45 Colt SAA. With full power handloads, or the Remington Peters 40-grain black powder load, the .45 Colt was impressive.
Many .45 Colt loads used only 28 to 30 grains of black powder and were really .45 Schofield loads. We don’t know how many gunfights in the old west centered on which load, but since U.S. Marshals could use Federal stores; probably the lesser .45 Colt load was often used. Just the same, the big 250- to 260-grain bullet got the job done.
The .45 Colt was the most respected stopper of its day in handgun cartridges. The 255-grain conical bullet—per my research with modern ballistic media—tumbles in contact with the body. It will track relatively straight in the body, but the bullet tends to tilt off its axis, and the result is more damage than even a hollow point bullet.
The .45 Colt may be loaded for excellent penetration. As an example, while working up handloads, I loaded the .45 Colt 250-grain Hornady XTP to 825 fps. That isn’t a heavy load, but I was looking for top accuracy for a 100-yard experiment. I fired the XTP into a line of water jugs and had a surprise. The 250-grain XTP did not expand much but penetrated 42 inches of water. Compared to the .45 ACP 230-grain hollow point at 18 inches, that is a lot of penetration!
Sometimes we have to compare cartridges with the handguns that housed them. Smith and Wesson double-action revolvers were well fitted and accurate. The .44 Special factory load was among the most accurate every produced. The .45 Colt was not as accurate.
The .45 Colt was delivered with .456 to .457 chamber throats. Original soft lead bullets easily bumped up in these throats and were accurate enough for most uses to 50 yards. Hard cast bullets, usually very accurate in modern revolvers, were not so accurate in the older .45 Colt revolvers. Early barrel grooves were usually .454 inch and modern barrels are closer to .451 inch.
The modern revolver, particularly the Ruger Blackhawk, are much more accurate. The .45 Colt is most accurate with bullets that are cast a little softer than most. Unlike the .44 Special, the .45 Colt (35 years the senior) was originally a black powder cartridge.
Another problem has been the relative quality of SAA clones and the original SAA’s accuracy potential. Compared to the well made Smith and Wesson revolvers accuracy was simply poor. Some of the foreign revolvers I have examined have chamber throats as large as .458 inch. I think the problem may be in adhering to cowboy-type revolvers.
The modern Ruger Blackhawk revolver is another matter. For those wishing to maximize the .45 Colt, the Ruger Blackhawk is easily the most accurate single action revolver every made. This revolver will exhibit at least comparable accuracy to any double action revolver. It is also strong and will take loads that would wreck a SAA revolver. This is why the loading manuals have a section labeled RUGER ONLY.
If you want an original loading that is accurate, affordable, and hits hard if need be, the Fiocchi 250-grain ‘cowboy’ load is a great choice. At 800 fps or so from most SAA types, this load uses a bullet of a specially formulated composition that is both accurate and leaves little lead. This load is clean burning. It is offered in 50 round boxes.
If you own a good, tight, Pietta revolver such as the Taylors Cattlebrand you keep for home defense, there are other choices. Quite a few Cowboy Action shooters keep the familiar type at home ready, a few carry the piece concealed. They are formidable shooters. Buffalo Bore offers a full wadcutter that cuts a clean cookie cutter hole and makes for a formidable combination. This load is accurate in the Ruger Blackhawk. Another good choice for personal defense is the semi wadcutter hollowpoint. The .45 Colt is far from outdated. It just may be the outdoors cartridge you are looking for.
The .45 Colt was designed to take down an indian war pony down at 100 yards. Would you use it for self-defense? What is your favorite cowboy action pistol? Share your answers in the comment section.
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I bought a set of Kirst conversion cylinders to extend the use of my Ruger Old Army 5-1/2″ barreled bp handguns.
The 45 Colt conversion to that extraordinarily stout single action and my Beretta/Uberti 20″ 1873 lever carbine filled the bill for the venerable 19th century cartridge.
I am taking what I learned here to the range with my brand new Cimarron 1873 tuned army! I will be testing Magtech, Hornady, Blackhills and Fiochii! Let’s see how it goes!
I carry a Pietta short barreled .44 Army with a Howell conversion cylinder in 45 Colt. It fits in my front pocket and makes one feel confident. I practice drawing from my pocket (from a leather pocket protector) and shoot at a target maybe 5 yds away. You can well get the gun out and into action way under a second. The alterations required were I took the 3 inch snub barrel down to 2 1/4 inch. I also shortened the hammer just a little to make pocket draw more snag free. I can place my hand in my pocket, hand on gun, thumb on the hammer back and as I draw cant the revolver forward for the draw and thumb the hammer to help rotate the gun up and on target. Works for me.
Have carried a Colt SAA .45 for years.
Robert Stephenson says
I carry a custom smith and Wesson 25-5 with a 3 inch barrel. It has been a great comfort in the outdoors of Montana. It is accurate and is a tool I have great confidence in. The 45 colt is an excellent all around choice.
Michael E. Arnold says
Been carrying a .45 Colt since I was a kid (I’m 61). It’s never failed me. Have been loading my own for while… both BP and smokeless. Aside from a lot of smoke…can’t say BP has ever been an issue for me, as well. I live in an OC/CC state, so that 5.5″ isn’t a problem carrying. Good article. Good to see I’m not the only one using this old war horse for PD.
R P says
I would love to try the buffalo bore 45C Anti-personnel rounds but I’m afraid that It may be a bit too hot for my 58 remmy Taylor’s conversion cylinder. Anyone have any thoughts on this?
I personally love my Colt 45 for SD. I carry it and a snubby 38 as a backup, just in case. Sadly I haven’t been able to get to the range lately but the first thing I plan on doing is taking both guns out once I get the chance.
It takes a large firearm to house large ammunition, which 45lc obviously is.
Concealed carry? A Ruger Redhawk 45lc is considerably difficult to conceal, but my choice for self defense.
Buffalo Bore 45lc+p is my choice of ammo in my Ruger Redhawk.
Know your stuff though, this ammo is too hot for some of these girly guns!
Wile Coyote says
Versatility galore – I reload the 45LC to 1200 fps for my Ruger Bisley and also shoot these in my Rossi lever action. This is an amazing hunting round and easily handled by both. For home defense the Judge with a combo of 410-00 and factory hollow points or cowboy loads is good. The low recoil on factory loads is friendly for my wife who also carries a Bond Arms Ranger (double shot derringer). She uses 410 birdshot around the property for snakes. A cowboy load and 410-00 for concealed carry and staged on her night stand. The extra space in the cartridge accommodates the powder requirements to make big game loads for use in high pressure weapons. However, the recoil on hot loads is significant when compared to factory ammo.
I wouldn’t run the Buffalo Bore round in that particular firearm. I have a few repro guns myself…some 1873s and an 1875 remington clone (Uberti). Standard pressure, like 250 gr at 850 fps is the strongest I’ll go. Just my two cents.