Thursday, October 6, 2011


By Kathy Otten

This short article is Part Two of last month’s blog, Gunmen and Peacemakers. It comes from information I accumulated for my newest work-in-progress.

Movie hero
John Wayne
In my new WIP novel my hero carries a brand new 1873 Colt Single Action Army revolver. At one point the heroine tries to shoot someone with it, but when she pulls the trigger nothing happens. In order to write this teensy part of the scene I needed to learn how to load and fire this gun.

The term single-action simply means that there was only one way to fire the gun, by first cocking the hammer then pulling the trigger. Cocking the hammer was done with the second joint of the thumb and not the ball of the thumb. Because my heroine knows nothing about guns, she doesn’t cock the hammer and the Colt does not fire.

Colt Single Action
I remember being a kid and hearing John Wayne say in one of his movies that only five cartridges were loaded in a six shooter. This is because the firing pin, (the pointed part on the inside of the hammer which strikes the bullet’s primer), rests very close to the chamber beneath the hammer. A fall from a horse or a sharp blow or bump would cause that firing pin to strike the primer and the gun would go off.

Which is also why your hero would probably have the outlaw set his gun down carefully, not toss it out a window or throw it on the ground. Nor would he nail wanted posters to a tree with the butt of his gun. The villain probably wouldn’t pistol whip anyone. To do either the gun would have to be held by the barrel, which wouldn’t be too smart if a sharp blow caused it to fire.

To properly load the five cartridges, the hammer was pulled back to the half-cock position. This freed the cylinder so it could rotate. With the thumb, the loading gate was flipped open. This was located behind the cylinder on the right side of the revolver.

One chamber was visible, and the bullet was gently pushed in. Then the cylinder was rotated clockwise to reveal the next chamber. This chamber was skipped and the cylinder rotated. The next four bullets were loaded. So it went, one--skip one--one, two, three, four. This way when the hammer was de-cocked it rested on the empty chamber.

To fire the Colt, the hammer was fully cocked, which tightened the springs inside and rotated the cylinder to a loaded chamber. When the trigger was pulled, a spring released the hammer. The hammer slammed the firing pin into the primer at the back of the cartridge. The primer detonated, igniting the gun powder inside the cartridge and propelled the bullet out of the barrel.

A misfire could occur if the primer was defective. If a bullet was old or stored where there was dampness, moisture or corrosion could foul the powder, making it unable to burn and go off.

If a misfire occurred, it was best to wait sixty seconds with the barrel pointed in a safe direction in case there was a delayed firing. This was known as a hang fire.
If nothing happened, then the round could be ejected.

To unload the gun, the hammer was again pulled to half-cock and the loading gate opened. The barrel was pointed up. Unfired bullets dropped out by their own weight. Empty cartridges need to be pushed using the spring-loaded ejection rod. This was found under the barrel and was pushed into one chamber at a time, as the cylinder was rotated.

Colt Single Action Army
Despite inside mechanisms that were easily damaged, the Colt’s one advantage was that it could still be made to shoot. If the hammer notches broke, the shooter could thumb his shots. If the pawl (ratchet) or springs which rotate the cylinder broke, the cylinder could be rotated by hand. And if the mainspring broke, it was possible to pound the hammer with a rock.

Though I now have way more information on Colt’s Single Action Army revolver than I’ll ever need for my story, it was fun finding it. And hopefully I’ve passed along some tidbit you might find useful for one of your stories.


  1. Many thanks Caroline for helping me with the intricacies of blogger. I should be able post all by myself next time. :)

  2. Kathy, I see I did a lousy job with the type color. Sorry. It's a great post from you, though. I learned a lot about the gun.

  3. I love this article, Kathy. My heroes all have Peacemakers LOL although I did use a rather obscure "Baby LeMat" in my first book.

    I got to fire a Colt at a range while attending The Wild Rose Press retreat in Bandera Texas last year. Great fun...and I had three kill shots. YIKES.

    Good one! oxox

  4. Kathy, Interesting post. If you would like any more info about Samuel Colt and how he came to invent the Single Action Revolver, I also wrote a Sweethearts blog post (May 2011) about the Peacemaker and its innovative inventor Samuel Colt, as well as his other pioneering revolvers. I love guns, especially revolvers. :)

  5. I love the part that if the gun doesn't go off, wait sixty seconds. Doesn't sound feasible if someone's life is hanging on firing the gun immediatley.

    Great post. Guess nothing was safe in those days.

  6. Caroline,
    Well I appreciate all your help. I think the color is fine. It's easy to read, so that's all that matters.

  7. Tanya,
    I wish I could have fired one. Have you shot many guns or are you naturally skilled? Three kill shots is pretty amazing to me.
    In Lost Hearts my hero Rab, carries a Smith and Wesson Top Break.
    I always have fun picking out guns for my characters. Maybe you could do a piece on the Baby LeMat. I love to learn about it.

  8. Ashley,
    I'll have to go check out your article on Samuel Colt. From what I understand, he died before the Peacemaker came out. Kind of sad in a way.

  9. Hi Paisley,
    I guess that's why they had to be sure to keep their ammo dry. So more than likely they wouldn't swim across a river along side their horse still wearing their ammo belts. One of the differences between Hollywood and reality.

  10. Kathy, thanks! I knew only 'some' of that info just by watching all those Westerns growing up. But, I sure didn't know about hitting it with a rock.

  11. Kathy,
    Great post. We should all know our stuff with your help and Ashley's help. :-) Would be nice if Hollywood would pay attention. ;-)

  12. Hi Kellie, thanks for taking the time to stop by. Glad you enjoyed the post. :)

  13. Savanna,
    I loved the old westerns. Growing up with them is what drew me to writing westerns. And Sam Elliot as one of the Sacketts was my favorite.

  14. Hi Jeanmarie,
    I suppose the Hollywood westerns are us western writers as CSI is to crime writers. Sometimes the audience expects that version, like six shots in a shoot out. Others like to learn.

  15. This was very interesting thank you. The gun looks big & heavy.


  16. Hi Marybelle,
    Thanks for stopping by. I'm not sure how much the original 1873 Colt weighed. I do it came in two different lengths. The artillery model had a 5 1/2 inch barrel and the cavalry model had a 7 1/2 inch barrel.

  17. Kathy,
    I loved this post. Don't know why I've always been fascinated with guns, maybe because of being raised in a family of girls. LOL This was so informative, and you can bet I will be using some of your tidbits in my stories. You really explained it clearly and I could "see" it in my mind's eye.
    Cheryl P.


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West! We are very sad to require comment moderation now due to the actions of a few spam comments. Thank you for your patience.