One of the two “guns that won the west,” the Colt Model 1873 Single Action Army, better known by its nickname “the Peacemaker” will forever be associated with cowboy hats, bucking broncos, and gun duels at high noon.
Chambered in .45 Long Colt, this six-round single-action revolver has retained its popularity as a reliable, hard-hitting platform for over a century. Originally, the production of what would first be known as the “New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol” was delayed on purpose because Colt did not want to pay royalty fees to Smith and Wesson, who held the patent for Rollin White’s “bored-through revolver cylinders for metallic cartridge use.” The patent, which is the basis for all modern revolvers, described a revolutionary weapons system that could be loaded with self-contained cartridges through the rear of a revolver cylinder, unlike the cumbersome black powder revolvers whose six chambers had to be primed and loaded individually.
When the Smith and Wesson patent expired in 1869, Colt got to work on producing their revolver using White’s patented loading design. The new Colt model eventually competed against the Smith and Wesson Model 3 “Schofield.” Both designs were accepted by the army, some of whom favored the Colt’s larger caliber and others who preferred the Smith and Wesson’s rapid reloading ability. The Colts quickly gained favor thanks to their looser tolerances, which made them less finicky rifles than their Smith and Wesson counterparts, whose complicated construction made them more prone to failure. In the early 20th century, shortened variants of the Colt Single Action Army were sent to troops fighting the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines.
Meanwhile, these military revolvers were gaining popularity in the civilian sector among both homesteaders and outlaws. It was here where it got its famous nickname “Peacemaker.” B. Kittredge & Co., a major Colt dealer in Cincinnati, began using this nickname in its print ads in 1874.
The reliability and accuracy of these new self-contained cartridge revolvers made them favorites of lawmen and vigilantes like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday as well as notorious outlaws like Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and Butch Cassidy. The legendary shooting prowess of these men catapulted the Peacemaker into Hollywood fame.
The first western film, 1903’s “the Great Train Robbery” put the Peacemaker on full display. The Peacemaker would appear in the palms of Hollywood cowboy legends such as Gary Cooper and John Wayne, and appeared on the silver screen as the favored weapon of Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) from the long-running western show “Gunsmoke.”
Gunsmoke, an iconic representation of a young America romanticized for the home audience, was the story of a hardened marshal keeping the peace in the then-frontier town of Dodge City, Kansas with his quick wit and quicker draw – a quick draw that was taught and honed by a real master shooter.
Every modern quickdraw shooter today owes a toast of whiskey to Arvo Oswald Ojala, a Finnish-American cowboy who grew up shooting the heads off of rattlesnakes on a ranch near Yakima, Washington.
Ojala noticed that western actors always had slow draws because the cylinders of their revolvers kept getting stuck on the soft leather of their holsters. Crafty as he was, Ojala rigged his own brand of holsters to be lined with metal, making the draws so smooth that Peacemakers with their 4 and 5/8ths inch barrels could be drawn and fired in less than a second. Ojala went on to be a Hollywood shooting consultant and was the man who taught James Arness to be as fast as he was. He also had a cameo as the man losing to Marshal Dillon in Gunsmoke’s opening credits.
The Colt Peacemaker has endured the passage of time and continues to be an icon of the old west to this very day. Although modern semi-automatics like the Glock and M1911 have overshadowed it, the sleek, elegant Peacemaker still appears in quickdraw competitions and private collections, forever known as one of the guns that won the west.