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Discussion Starter #1 (Edited)
"1902 or 1912?"

The question of, "What kind of ammo should I shoot in my old Colt?" gets asked repeatedly on the Colt forum. This thread is intended as public service announcement to save those old guns for future generations, nothing more.

Read on if you have ever needed to ask the question.

"Find a Colt SAA built after 1902 with a VP proof mark if you want to
shoot smokeless. No VP and more importantly built prior to 1902 shoot BP." Build date is a lot more important than the VP if you have a questions on what ammo is appropriate.

During the first half of the 1900s Colt often rebuilt very early
guns (as early as 1874 production dates) with smokeless parts (in both 38 Special and 45 Colt) that were then proof marked during the factory rebuilds. It would seem obvious, now 50 plus years later, that the early cross pin latch frames and single screw, or even earlier base pin retainer guns, shouldn't have been proof marked for smokeless powder when rebuild. Original condition guns prior to 1902 even with a VP for smokeless are best shot with BP. Those Colts made after 1902 that also sport the VP should be fine with shooting smokeless powder."

The caveat is, "Just use some common sense as to condition and age."

More to the point:

May 19, 2016 the Colt Forum by Old Colts
"Seemingly the only Reference book that gets it right is A Study. Ron
Graham suggests 1905 and any earlier single actions with the VP proof
either went back for rework after 1905 and was stamped during rework or
wasn't shipped until late 1905 or after. I've been tracking this and I've
maintained a database of serial numbers of single actions from 1902
through 1906 that I've examined and from my database I've narrowed it down to somewhere between serial number 268097 (no VP stamp) and 269201 (has VP stamp). All serial numbers in my database from 268097 and lower didn't have a VP except for three and they had Colt rework ampersands. All serial numbers in my database from 269201 and higher all had the VP stamp. I keep trying to narrow it down."

Old-Colts, a Colt Forum Member


Comments below by the master SAA gun smith, Jim Martin sez, 8/19/2020

"I found this (the info posted above) to be as accurate as anything I've seen posted lately, but to add a little more to it Colt did continue improving on the metallurgy until around 1912. Another bit of trivia about shooting blk pwdr ammo it was still being sold in hardware stores & general stores well into the early 50's because there were a lot of turn of the century colt's still in use on farms & ranches owned by people that knew that was what was supposed to be used in these guns. When WW 2 started all the ammo makers stopped making ammo for the 44/40's, 38/40's etc. because of war production. After the war the only ammo available was .45 & .38 which is what prompted a lot of the owners to have them converted by Colt & Christy but what they didn't take into consideration was the wear on the rest of the gun in some cases, nobody knew how much stress they had been thru over the many years that it had been used as a tool & that resulted in sometimes other damage occurring, wear on the base pin hole in the frame for instance could cause a slight bit of bbl cyl mis-alinement which could cause a pressure spike, there are so many unknown facts about the old guns that could cause pressure spikes that it's not worth the risk to use smokeless. There's an old cowboy saying that was used a lot & should be used here about blk pwdr vs. smokeless, it describes what "horse sense" is.

It's GOOD STABLE thinking."

Jim Martin Colt forum Member 8/19/2020
708822
 

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Discussion Starter #2 (Edited)
Interesting bit of personal trivia for me after looking into the subject further, Discussing it with Jim, I remembered this. I have family guns going back several generations. One Colt from 1912 that was my Grandfather's. When I started shooting it as a kid, both BP and smokeless ammo was available. By the mid 50s Black Powder ammo was hard to fine and 32, 38, 44 WCF ammo almost unavailable to us except by special order through our little country store.

That "dry spell" on ammo, during and after WWII, and virtually all the current cowboy calibers being unavailable, had to be experienced to be appreciated. That didn't change significantly until SASS arrived.

My mother and Grandfather were both adamant about using only BP in that 1912 Colt. I really wanted to shoot the gun. It wasn't long before I found the written documentation that the proof mark on the trigger guard "proved" to all involved that smokeless was OK in the family Colt. "Proved" by Colt it turns out is a risky concept.
 

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1905 is generally accepted as the cutoff between using smokeless vs black powder, but some say 1910 just to be on the safe side. Certainly 1912 as the first post in this thread discusses should be safe EXCEPT FOR the LONG FLUTE model (1913 to 1915) which was fitted with cylinders originally destined for the Colt Model 1878. This model was discontinued in 1905 and some cylinders used in the Long Flute model could date even from the late 19th Century but certainly no later than 1905.
 

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Discussion Starter #5
Agarbers said:
My CFSS was made in 1902, serial 227273. I don't see a VP on it. So, I assume that means BP or a sub like APP.
Yes, your gun is a classic example of what most would consider a BP only gun. No proof mark would mean to me BP only. What has been lost in many conversations is that not all BP substitutes are equal. A good many of them were designed to give you the smoke and ability to load the case full (Trail Boss is a good example) but have totally different pressure curves than the original Black Powder loads. My suggestion is skip the substitutes all together in the older guns and stick with actual BP.
 

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Interesting information posted above. I know I read a that at serial number 192,000-196,000 the Colt Single Action was certified for use with smokeless powder. I believe that was around 1900. Although sometimes see it listed as 1896 but I always felt that was to early. I think it's also close to the time Colt switched to the spring-loaded, cross-pin screw which in turn appears to lead to a lot of confusion for many.
This post makes me want to go back and look at the serial number on my 1909 SAA.
 

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Discussion Starter #7 (Edited)
Agreed. Many decades ago when I first started shooting Grandpa's Colt the common definition was "cross pin frame was a smokeless gun". We still get the question here on the forum, likely one or two every month, for years.

Cross pin frames first became available on the Flat Top Target and Bisley guns....in 1893 and 1894. And the traverse pin was in all the guns by 1896. As we know better now, those early guns should all be used with BP only loads.
 

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Hmmm, Being the novice to SAA's that I am, I've away assumed the 192,000 - 196,000 smokeless rule-of-thumb was gospel? Seen it on this Forum numerous times..... So my 1904 SAA # 255521 in 32-20 - not VP marked should be BP only? I've been using Black Hills Cowboy loads with great success. Someone please tell me I haven't yucked things up on my gun??
 

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Discussion Starter #9
32-20 guns are typically real shooters. No surprise you are having "great success" with any 32-20 ammo. The 32-20 guns also have the most metal in the cylinder walls and at the barrel throat by comparison all while using the lightest bullets and lightest powder charge to any other Colt cartridge short of a 22 rim fire. You see the dates and numbers being suggested above as "safe" bench marks for smokeless powder ammo.

Now you know a little more about your gun. Your decision on what ammo you shoot.

32-20 Factory specs
115gr bullet @ 1000fps from a 20" in rifle

Black Hills Cowboy ammo?
115gr bullet @ 800fps from a 7.5 inch SAA (I called and checked)

Black Hills was adamant when I asked, "Do NOT use their 32-20 Cowboy ammo or any of their Cowboy loads in a weapon built prior to 1920.

Their suggestion.
 

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Discussion Starter #10
Another PSA inside this thread.

Black Hills Ammunition makes high quality smokeless ammo for many calibers. They also make a line of ammo they call, "AUTHENTIC COWBOY ACTION".

For those that are unaware, Black Hills "Authentic Cowboy Ammo", is smokeless and not suggested for any BP firearm. "Black Hills goes further and suggests their Authentic Cowboy Ammo not be used in any gun built prior to 1920 as the pressure curves of smokeless and BP are drastically different. That makes their ammo unsafe in any early gun."
 

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Does anyone have any verified documentation that the metallurgy of SAAs was improved after 1900, or any other specific date. Could it be that the metallurgy was improved earlier than 1905, and someone at Colt just had the idea to apply a VP in 1905. Sometimes markings come later, when someone gets the the bright idea. Up until about 1910 44-40s were marked CFSS, after that time Colt decided to clarify the caliber by marking the guns CFSS 44-40. Someone at Colt just got the idea to clarify the matter.

The historically written information is contradictory. Look up this topic on previous threads and you will find some of the people here have expressed a different opinion on the topic in the past. One person commenting here said this in a previous thread on topic
"My impression was Colt started proofing (though unmarked) the SAA for smokeless in 1900 and serial number 192,000 but the safe and prudent cut-off is at serial number 196,000. John Taffin among a few others have listed those same 1900 dates and numbers. I've seen the 192,000 number repeated many, many times."



John Taffin wrote this-
The company did not guarantee their revolvers for use with smokeless powder cartridges in catalogs and other forms of advertising until 1898. A notation in Colts’ shipping record specifically states that Single Actions serial numbered between #175,000 and #180,000 are NOT guaranteed for smokeless powder use." (A Study Of The Colt Single Action Army Revolver, by Graham, Kopec, and Moore, 1976).
We could conclude from this the #180,000 of 1898 began the smokeless powder sixguns.

I don't even shoot BP anymore in my early SAAs. My definition of "early" has changed over the years. Early SAAs are historical artifacts, there are enough strong modern SAAs for shooting.








the
 

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I find the beliefs on safely shooting old single actions changes over the years. When I was shooting CAS in the 90s, my 1902 Bisley was considered fine with smokeless. I shot it with Titegroup light loads in many matches. I'm sure it was shot with smokeless for generations before me too. After all, smokeless powder came out long before the 1915, 05 or 02 dates that are now mentioned. I doubt Colts were blowing up in 1903, like some high pressure 03 springfields were. Which were written about, often. Today I say if it's marked Verified Proof by Colt, that's good enough for me to shoot occasionally, with light smokeless loads.
 

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Discussion Starter #14 (Edited)
I wasn't trying to make a historical document dictating the change from BP to smokeless or the changes in metallurgy at Colt. Not sure anyone has ever gotten it right in print how ever. Colt sure isn't telling now.

Thread was to help those wanting to shoot their earlier guns and making the right decision on ammo.

The (VP)? One should likely look at when Winchester starting proofing their guns for smokeless to get an idea what Colt was also doing in their metallurgy.

"Another discernable change occurred on the Third Model in October 1908; The Winchester proof mark was stamped on the receiver. This change would have begun to appear around serial number 309,800.... [Footnote 6, i.e. C.E. Blizard to M.A. Robinson, June 5, 1941, Winchester Repeating Arms Company inter-company correspondence, Winchester Arms Collection Archives, Cody forearms Museum.] "

I also was surprised at the clarity and the caution that Black Hill Ammunition related to me on the subject from their point of view...1920.
 

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Different companies used different steels. Rather relying on what people "wrote", or comparison with other manufactuers, it should be based on science. Hardness and fatigue testing of different era Colts would answer the questions on pressure handling, but that's kind of what proof testing did too.

Interestingly, this US Army Ballistics Lab test from the 80s showed Colt steel weaker than Smith and Wesson. Applies more to the Det Special, +P discussions, but this is what would be ideal for early 1900s SAAs.

"...carry the Colt cylinder very near its estimated fatigue limit, while the Smith and Wesson cylinder remains well below ...The Colt averaged a Rockwell "C" hardness of 37.5+ .8. The Smith and Wesson averaged a Rockwell "C" hardness of 45.7+ 1.2. ..."
 

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I have a 32-20 from 1905 that I have held off shooting for this very reason. I have some Black Hills ammo that came with my third generation 32-20 when I bought it, and have always been tempted to shoot my 1905, but it is so nice that I can't bring myself to risk a problem (although the likelihood of a problem is low with the generous cylinder walls and barrel thickness of 32-20) and don't want to mess with having to give it a "bath" after shooting Holy Black. If I ever seriously wanted to put some rounds down the barrel, I would probably roll a small batch (I have all the components) with a light load of Trail Boss.
 

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I have an SAA, 212,675 which Colt shows as 1901. The seller, a Houston based gunstore with good knowledge of the gun,said it had a replacement barrel and cylinder installed. My guess is that these were done at the time the rib was added. The finish looks different on these. I have no reason to doubt they were replaced but I am a novice when it comes to SAA identification.

The cylinder is unmarked, no serial or other markings. This is what the barrel looks like. I don't know if the barrel can be roughly dated by the marking style/font but if anyone can roughly put a date on that barrel I would appreciate it.

If the cylinder and barrel were replaced this of course does not include the frame itself.

708896


I just got it back from the gunsmith. There were quite a few things wrong with it, the base pin was wrong and the action itself neglected. The smith replaced screws, the base pin and lightened the trigger to under 2lbs for me. I intend to shoot my own handloads (on the weaker side) smokeless 38 special through it.

The King rib would have been done, at the earliest, probably 1920s to 1930s I'd guess.

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Discussion Starter #18
Maximum suggested pressure in early (smokeless) Colt SAA guns is 14K cup in 45 Colt, 13K cup in the 44-40. In a modern Colt SAA 35K cup shooting a 357 magnum load. 45 Colt is still listed by SAMMI at 14K cup, the 44-40 is still at 13K cup. 45acp is 21K cup.

It isn't the peak cup pressure that is at issue. It is the duration of the peak cup pressure that bends or breaks these old guns with smokeless.
 

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I would say that I cannot remember an early SAA that I encountered with a blown cylinder. That said, at least through the 1960’s ammo manufacturers loaded down their .45, .44-40 and .32-20. They were well aware that less knowledgeable people would shoot smokeless in old revolvers.
 
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