F.lli Pietta

Commemorating the 140th anniversary of the Colt Peacemaker. Part 1 of 2

F.LLI Pietta celebrates the 140th anniversary of the Colt Single Action with a Buntline model, with black powdered and hand-engraved castle, shown here for the very first time. The limited edition weapons will be available from 2012 exclusively through Dixie Gun Works. The engravings are based on the work of Cuno Helfricht and the 18 SAA revolvers engraved on request and made for the 1876 American Centennial Exposition.

1872 – 2012

William Mason’s “improvement” that changed the course of American gun production

In one of the first books written in the early 20th century on the history of the Colt manufacturing company, Patent Fire-Arms, A History of the Colt Revolver by Charles T. Haven and Frank A. Belden with Stephen V. Grancasy, then Curator of Arms and Armor for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the authors described the Single Action according to its original factory classification, the “new model revolver with metal cartridges.”

A complex description generally shortened around 1873 in “Peacemaker,” the new Colt also known as the “Frontier Six-Shooter.” Soldiers often used the abbreviation SAA for Single Action Army, but no matter what name was used, the new Colt was destined to become the most successful and longest-lived single-action revolver in history.

The first technical description of the Single Action Army showed the differences with earlier Colt revolvers. “The front of the castle was connected to the bascule via the top of the frame (top strap) above the drum, and the barrel was inserted into it. The drum was held in place through a removable pin that passed through working in and out of the front of the castle under the barrel.”

Interestingly, this same formula could have been used almost literally in 1858 to describe the Remington revolver. The only technical differences were in style and the use of a single perforated drum and metal cartridges, rather than percussion capsules. Colt had, in fact, made a better Remington. The architect of this weapon was none other than Colt’s Superintendent of Armory, William Mason, who was granted a patent for its design on September 19, 1871.

A second patent was granted on July 2, 1872, and a third on January 19, 1875. Since almost all deliveries of SAAs were directed to the Ordnance Department for distribution to the U.S. Army, the civilian market had yet to get the benefits of the new Colt revolver in 1873.

Most people carried revolvers from the Secession War period or Richards and Richards-Mason conversions, few outside of soldiers would have even had a chance to see a Peacemaker until 1874 or 1875.

Many Americans first glimpsed the new Colt revolvers in May 1876 at our nation’s International Centennial Exposition, held at Fairmont Park in Philadelphia. The exhibition was opened by President Ulysses S. Grant and Dom Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil. By the time thousands were waiting to enter they could see, nearby, the vast Main Exhibition Building.

The luxurious Pietta Single Action, with gold and nickel finishes, showcases some of the company’s best work in advanced laser engraving technology, producing guns with greater depth and detail than traditional laser engraved revolvers. All Pietta models also feature finely tuned actions.

Beyond this were the towers and vastness of Machinery Hall, the Gothic barns of Agricultural Hall, the intricate arabesque architecture of Horticultural Hall, the art galleries of Memorial Hal, and twenty-four states and other buildings covering 236 acres. At the time it was the largest exhibition in the history of America.

Just over a month after the exposition opened, the country was in shock and saddened by the spread of news about the death of Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his men of the infamous 7th Cavalry Battalion on July 26 at the Battle of Little Big Horn-a tragic event that brought a dark cloud over the nation’s centennial celebrations.

For the Centennial Exposition, Colt had prepared a revolving display of 18 specially engraved Single Action models with ivory elements as the centerpiece of the company’s impressive presentation display. The weapons were all handmade in the store of Cuno A. Helfricht. When he began working for Colt in 1869 he was 20 years old and was following in his father’s footsteps as a contract engraver. The workload began to increase for Helfricht’s store when Gustave Young left Hartford.

Within a few years Cuno Helfricht would become master engraver, a position he would hold at Colt for half a century, from 1871 to 1921. Between May and November 1876 more than eight million people from the United States and around the world visited the Philadelphia Exposition, at that time nearly 20 percent of the American population. Thousands of people were amazed by Helfricht’s work, assuring him a place in Colt’s history as its most prolific engraver.

The Peacemaker – A weapon of design

In the design of William Mason’s Single Action there was an element of both elegance and simplicity. In addition to the castle, barrel, drum, and grip, the Peacemaker’s mechanism was related to a minimal set of operations: mainspring, hammer rest, hammer and striker pin, short sear, short sear spring, long sear, spring-loaded lifter (which operates the trigger and long sear), trigger, and the trigger spring.

Cuno Helfricht engraved Colt Centennials elaborate floral-themed decoration work (scrollwork) on the drum, castle, hammer, barrel, and bands, along with elaborate animal scenes on the side of the castle. These were made in a method reminiscent of the engraving style of the Italian Bolino. The master engravers at F.lli Pietta have captured the essence of Helfricht’s designs in the Buntline Centennial, which pays tribute to both the 140th anniversary of the original 1872 Peacemaker patent and the 1876 Colt Centennial exhibition colts.

The main remaining components include the drum pin assembly and retaining screw, hammer screw, trigger and extractor. Only three bolts were visible on one side of the castle, in addition to the retaining screw for the center shaft, a pair of bolts for the rear of the frame, and one for the handle base.

When the one-piece handle was replaced by the two-piece handle, a screw was also added to the list of components.

With Single Action passing Ordnance Department tests in Springfield in 1872, Washington requisitioned 8,000 revolvers to be delivered to the U.S. Cavalry in 1873. In his summary of the National Armory’s tests, John R. Edie captain of armament wrote, “I have no hesitation in stating that Colt revolvers are in many respects superior, and much closer to the requirements of the Army than Smith & Wesson.”

It is important to note that both, the 1874 S&W (as improved by Major George W. Schofield) and the 1875 New Model Remington, cartridge revolvers were also used by the Cavalry, but that the Colt Single Action remained the dominant sidearm in the military throughout the late 19th century and even into the early 20th.

Part two of the article in the next issue…

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