The Factory Shop

The Factory Shop

Back in the day when a man could order a Colt Peacemaker

By Dennis Adler

In 1873 the first Colt Single Action Army pistol was built. Serial No. 1 was the foundation for all Peacemakers to follow.

Every gun of the Old West has a story, sometimes it is a short story, sometimes it is a legacy. But every one has a story. About 148 years ago the Colt Peacemaker was a brand new gun. Colt’s Superintendent of the Armory, William Mason, had received the original patent for his design on September 19, 1871. A second patent was issued on July 2, 1872 and a third on January 19, 1875, all of which were assigned to the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Mfg. Co. The very first Colt Single Action Army, a 7-1/2 inch barrel model, was manufactured in 1873 and bore serial No. 1, the very gun you see pictured above. (In 2009 it sold at auction to a private collector for a record $862,500).

The third patent issued to William Mason and assigned to the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Mfg. Co. included minor changes to the design but guns built after 1875 bore three patent dates on the frame. Note in the drawing how the cylinder pin is held in place by a screw entering the front of the frame at a 45 degree angle. This design would not change until 1892 and the introduction of the transverse cylinder latch.

A total of 199 Single Action Army or “New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol” models were produced in 1873, and the choices in caliber and finish and barrel lengths were simple: .45 Colt, 7-1/2 inch barrel, blued finish with color casehardened frame and hammer. The guns also used a round ejector head and had the cylinder pin secured in position by a screw through the front of the frame. That was it and it remained the only model sold (most going to the U.S. military) from 1873 until 1875, after which Colt began offering different barrel lengths and features, both as standard models and at the request of individual customers (or retailers) at additional cost.

The Peacemaker was only offered with a 7-1/2 inch barrel when it was introduced. In 1875 Colt’s added 4-3/4 inch and 5-1/2 inch barrel lengths. Nickel plating, seen on these three original examples, became the standard finish in 1877 as a no additional cost option to a blued finish and color casehardened frame. Mother of pearl (lower left), ivory, (right) and walnut grips were all available, with ivory and mother of pearl costing extra. Hand carved mother of pearl as shown was an additional cost. Amazingly, it was not uncommon from the 1870s well into the early 20th century, but almost impossible to get done today.

Special features included 4-3/4 inch and 5-1/2 inch barrel lengths in 1875 (with longer than 7-1/2 inch barrels priced by the inch), shorter barrels, beginning with 2-1/2 inches (the first built in 1882), factory engraving, custom grips, generally offered in ivory, mother of pearl, or select walnut (after the introduction of hard rubber grips in 1882 as standard). Nickel plating had also become a no additional cost finish in 1877.

During the course of his career as a lawman, professional gambler, prize fight promoter and journalist, Bat Masterson ordered a total of eight single action revolvers from the Colt’s factory. The most notable was an order made from Dodge City and written on Opera House Saloon stationary on the 24th of July, 1885, which stated: Gents Please send Me one of your nickel plated short .45 calibre revolvers. It is for my own use and for that reason I would like to have a little Extra pains taken with it. I am willing to pay Extra for Extra work. Make it very Easy on the trigger and have the front Sight a little higher and thicker than the ordinary pistol of this Kind. Put on a gutta percha handle and send it as soon as possible, have the barrel about the same length that the ejector rod is. Truly Yours W B Masterson. P.S. Duplicate the above order by sending 2. According to Colt factory records, the guns were completed for shipping on July 30, 1885.
One of eight known Colt Peacemakers carried by frontier lawman Bat Masterson, this example with mother of pearl grips and a special order front sight was engraved for Masterson outside of the factory and in an unusual design not seen on many Colts. Masterson was often quoted on his belief in using the sights and taking aim.
Italian armsmaker Pietta copied the Bat Masterson gun pictured above and had it hand engraved to match the design on the original. Only one such hand-engraved copy is known to have been done by Pietta. The holster was duplicated by Chisholm’s Trail.

One of the most notable changes was the way in which the cylinder pin was retained. The original Mason design used a retaining screw in the bottom front of the frame to lock the cylinder pin; removing the cylinder first required taking out this screw. Something you did not want to misplace while cleaning your gun! Beginning in 1892 the screw was replaced by a built in transverse cylinder latch, which simply needed to be depressed in order to pull the cylinder pin forward and then remove the cylinder. Both minor and major alterations in the 1873 design were running changes from the 1870s until 1901.

This dazzling factory engraved Peacemaker with 4-3/4 inch barrel and hand carved mother of pearl grips was carried by Sheriff Hawley C. Allen of Tom Green County, Texas in 1916. This early 20th century model uses the improved transverse cylinder pin latch.
Ivory may seem like the most popular custom grip on a Peacemaker but it is interesting how many original guns from the later part of the 19th century had mother of pearl. These two examples, a 5-1/2 inch and a 4-3/4 inch both have factory engraving.

From 1873, when the sole chambering was .45 Colt, until 1940, when production of first generation Colt Peacemakers ended, prior to the U.S. being drawn into WWII, the factory had offered the Single Action Army model in a total of 30 different calibers and 23 different barrel lengths from 2-inches to 16-inches!

Louis Daniel Nimschke was a master engraver and along with his sons he established one of America’s preeminent engraving houses in New York City, creating a style that came to be popularly known as “New York Engraved.” One of his most famous works was a 7-1/2 inch model with nickel plating and gold cylinder, ejector housing, hammer and trigger. The style and combination have been copied by engravers for over a century.

Custom finishes

Everyone has an idea about what is appealing. For most cowboys, a blued or nickel Colt was more than enough, an engraved gun almost sublime. Others had more complicated tastes for finishes, and even combinations of finishes! Colt was more than willing to oblige, if one was willing to pay extra. The Colt factory, often through the auspices of its major retailers like Hartley & Graham in New York City, offered a variety of more exclusive Peacemakers with blued, silver, nickel, and gold finishes, along with combination of any of the aforementioned. The latter, however, gold, was the most preferred and usually combined with a nickel frame and barrel, gold wash or gold plating being applied to the cylinder, hammer, ejector housing, and even triggerguard, trigger and hammer. More often these guns were also hand engraved.

A rarely seen combination in Colt history was also duplicated by Pietta with this blued 7-1/2 inch model contrasted by a silver plated un-fluted cylinder, silver ejector, loading gate, hammer, trigger and screws.

Other known combinations (first, second and third generation Colt models) were all blued (no case coloring of the frame), blued with silver or nickel cylinder, ejector, hammer and trigger, and the occasional gun with an all gold finish. Other options were gold or silver inlays on blued guns. Most presentation Peacemakers though, were a combination of nickel and gold, still a tasteful choice today. 

Masterful copies of original Colt models, these five examples built in Italy by Pietta represent various engraving styles and barrel lengths, including Pietta’s copy of the famed Nimschke guns. History has repeated itself quite well in centerfire models. What would be nice is to see this same history repeated in CO2 models.

With only a brief lapse from 1940 to 1955, the Peacemaker has been built by Colt’s longer than any other revolver manufactured anywhere in the world, and remains to this day the indisputable icon of the American West.

The best CO2 example of recreating the past, was the limited-edition Umarex Colt 5-1/2 inch Peacemaker sold exclusively by Pyramyd Air as the Nimschke model. Here again the classic combination of nickel and gold on an engraved gun.

One can only imagine the possibilities had airgun manufacturers followed the same course, (the only exception being the very limited edition and expensive Pyramyd Air Umarex Colt 5-1/2 inch Nimschke-style, Adams & Adams hand-engraved model in nickel and gold). Almost 150 years later, ordering a gun from the Colt factory to meet one’s own desires still carries a premium. What has this to do with Umarex Colt Peacemakers? Perhaps history will repeat itself one day.   

Umarex went with a more traditional 7-1/2 inch model for their own limited edition in nickel and gold, but without engraving, making the gun much more affordable. This model sold out quickly. It would be nice to see it back again.

2 thoughts on “The Factory Shop

  1. Umarex apparently doesn’t know which models to offer, and has a propensity to offer limited runs that don’t sell well . Establishing a custom shop and producing models that customers want would be the way to go. I would start with a pair of 4 3/4 nickel revolvers, gutta percha grips , light on the trigger


  2. I’ve got one of the 7 1/2 inch nickel and gold CO2 models. I think I would like to pair it with a similar blued 7 1/2 inch model with gold cylinder, hammer, and trigger with walnut grips.

    “Perhaps history will repeat itself one day.”

    Is that a hint that that day is coming soon when Umarex will offer custom order Colt SAA revolvers?


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