THE .45 COLT WAS FIRST introduced in 1873 for the 1873 Colt Single Action Army revolver. It fired a 255-grain lead bullet using 40 grains of black powder for a muzzle velocity of 900-plus feet per second. It was, and is, a powerful cartridge.
The true name of the cartridge is .45 Colt, but it has been called the .45 Long Colt for generations. There is no reason for it to be called “Long” Colt, because there never was a cartridge called the .45 Short Colt as was the case with the .32 S&W Short and Long, the .38 Short and Long Colt, and others.
On the surface, that’s true. However, there was one good reason for calling the old round the Long Colt. A short round was also labeled the .45 Colt, which was, probably, originally the .45 Smith & Wesson Schofield cartridge. This cartridge was much shorter than the .45 Colt.
The U.S. Army purchased a number of Schofield revolvers, which would not chamber the .45 Colt cartridge. However most Colt SAAs would chamber and fire the .45 Schofield cartridge.
So, according to the 15th Edition of Cartridges of the World, to make matters simple the army provided a cartridge called the .45 Colt Government, which combined the length of the Schofield and the rim of the .45 Colt. This .45 Colt ammunition was shorter, and much less powerful than the original cartridge, but was, nevertheless, head stamped .45 Colt. Thus it was necessary to differentiate between the two .45 Colt rounds, and the original longer cartridge became the .45 “Long” Colt.
The original load for the old cartridge was powerful, but the bullet was poorly designed. It worked very well on outlaws, hostile Indians, and rustlers, but was less successful on deer, elk, bears, and such. Then along came Elmer Keith.
Elmer was a cowboy, originally from Missouri, later of Montana, and finally from Salmon, Idaho. He was a gun nut, shooter, guide, rancher, writer, a fine pistol shot, and an inveterate tinkerer and experimenter.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Elmer was unhappy with the bullet designs of the day, so he came up with a series of handgun bullets for big-bore, large-frame revolvers. These bullets were so much better than anything else on the market that they became popular almost instantly and have stayed popular until today.
With these big, square-sholdered, flat-nosed, 250- to 255-grain “Keith” bullets and a stiff charge of modern smokeless powder, such as Unique, 2400, or H110, it’s no trick to get a thousand feet a second. So, the old .45 Colt finally became all it could be—and that is a whole lot.
I currently own two .45 Colt revolvers. One is a Smith & Wesson Model 625 Mountain Gun with a 4-inch barrel. The other is a Ruger New Model Vaquero with a 4 3/4-inch barrel.
I carry these guns a lot. I especially like them for rambling in the brush around my little spread because they are great snake guns when loaded with shot capsules using #9 shot. The cartridge holds a lot more shot than a .38 Special.
Also, with a mid-range load of Unique with a Keith bullet they have plenty of power for a wild hog and are still pleasant to shoot. I also have a Model 629 S&W .44 Magnum, but the 625 is lighter to carry, more pleasant to shoot, and has nearly the knockdown power of the Magnum.
I make almost all my own bullets for the .45s and .44s. I generally prefer a good, heavy, cast lead, semi-wadcutter of the Keith design to any of the jacketed soft points and hollow points. I have shot deer with both kinds of bullets and can see no difference in performance, except that penetration is much better with the cast bullets—and they leave a better blood trail.
The Lyman Cast Bullet Handbook shows only about a hundred feet per second difference between the maximum loads for the .45 Colt (in Ruger Blackhawk and Thompson Center handguns) and the .44 Magnum.
Of course if a handloader wanted to hotrod a cartridge, the .44 Magnum is the best choice, because the cylinder walls are thicker and stronger. However, with a 255-grain bullet at 1,000 to1,100 feet per second, the .45 Colt doesn’t have to bow down to any of the common handgun rounds.
I often carry my .45 Mountain Gun with heavy loads of hard cast Keith bullets when I am in the mountains trout fishing in country where bears and mountain lions are known to roam.
The moral of this story is this: The .45 Colt is truly an old cartridge, but there is no moss growing on it. Even today it is effective for just about anything a standard handgun round will be called on to do.
I wouldn’t take one on a brown bear hunt, but there are very few brown bears where I do most of my roaming. I have complete confidence that the old .45 will do anything I ask of it with pizzazz. It is almost 150 years old, but I expect it will be popular for another hundred.
Email Steve LaMascus at [email protected]