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July 22, 2020

How to Function Check A Colt Single Action Army Revolver

By Ryan F. Sullivan

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During the lead up to a sale, Rock Island Auction Company fields a lot of questions. Without a doubt, the most popular is “how is the bore,” followed immediately by “does it work?" This idea of “basic function checks" as an assessment of fundamental mechanical operations has been discussed before, however, due to limitations in facilities (absence of a firing range), Rock Island Auction Company cannot always guarantee complete functionality.

David F. Clark sub-inspected Colt SAA revolver with Gold Seal Kopec letter.

What follows is a basic procedural rundown on function checking a Colt Single Action Army (SAA) revolver. Barring aftermarket alteration, this procedure would be applicable to all major variants of the SAA, such as the Bisley, Buntline, Flattop and others, as well as faithful reproductions made by a number of firms both foreign and domestic. This does not fully apply to weapons that copy the exterior of the SAA but modified the internal mechanics (such as Ruger's single action line), or to SAAs and faithful copies that have been subjected to significant modification.

Step 1: SAA Basics

As always, begin by confirming that the revolver is unloaded. With a Colt SAA, there is enough space between the rear of the cylinder and the recoil shield to permit a check for cartridges before adjusting the hammer. An important second step before proceeding is to check the cylinder for drag lines. Found on the exterior of the SAA cylinder, drag lines are caused by unwanted rubbing or contact against the cylinder during rotation normally caused by dirt or debris. The most common drag line is between the cylinder stop notches, either as a set of six short lines or a continuous ring around the entire diameter, but can also be found in other locations.

A vintage SAA with no visible drag lines does not require any further function testing. Confirming function on a pristine revolver doesn't merit justifying the risk of harming that untouched surface, which can dramatically increase the value for collectors due to the extreme commonality of drag lines on even well cared for pieces.

Lot 2466: David Harris Engraved 1st Generation Colt SAA Revolver with examples of drag lines

Step 2: The SAA Hammer

Next comes the hammer, often posed to us regarding SAA revolvers as “how are the clicks?” These clicks (known as the “four clicks") are a distinctive set of sounds made when drawing back the hammer of the gun from the fully lowered position to the fully cocked position. If working properly, the first click should be heard when the safety notch on the hammer engages, the second click when the half-cock notch engages, the third when the SAA cylinder stop pops up to engage the notches (note: the stop pops up before the cylinder has completed its rotation, hence why partial drag lines are found even on otherwise nice SAA revolvers), and the fourth when the hammer reaches full cock and the stop drops into the appropriate cylinder notch near simultaneously.

A 1891 production Colt SAA Cavalry Model in near mint condition.

Failure to produce an audible click at each stop, too many clicks, or other noises produced during cocking are all signs of possible damage. While the SAA hammer check is performed, be mindful of the mainspring; looseness or excessive resistance both indicate trouble, the former from a badly worn, broken, or absent mainspring, and the latter a mainspring that is losing ductility, which could potentially become brittle and break during operation.

Hammer resting position on a Colt Colt SAA revolver.

Click One

The SAA safety notch, which produces the first click, is a short distance back from the resting position of the hammer. The design is meant to keep the firing pin from protruding through the recoil shield and potentially contacting the primer of a cartridge. While, in theory, a live round could be kept under the hammer set on the safety notch, the best practice for revolvers not equipped with a transfer bar or similar safety device is to leave an empty chamber in line with the hammer until shooting is just about to begin. When the hammer is on the safety notch, three things should be true:

  1. The firing pin should not be visible through the recoil shield when viewed from the side with a good light source.
  2. The hammer should not move if the trigger is pulled.
  3. The cylinder stop should still be engaged to the cylinder, preventing rotation.
Hammer stop on first click typically seen on a Colt Colt SAA revolver.

Failure on any of these points indicates that something is wrong with your SAA. Point one and point two would both suggest damage, while the third would suggest that the safety notch is completely gone, and the first click was actually the half-cock.

Click Two

Click number two, the half cock notch, is about halfway between resting and full cock. This is the loading position for the SAA, permitting access to each chamber in turn without having to fiddle with the hammer during the process. When checking the half cock, note the following:

  1. When pressure is let off the hammer, it should not travel a significant distance forward.
  2. The hammer should not move if the trigger is pulled.
  3. The cylinder stop should be disengaged and the cylinder free to rotate in a clockwise manner as viewed from the rear.
Half cock position of hammer on a Colt Colt SAA revolver.

Much like with the safety notch, failure at any of these points indicate notable wear or a flat out loss of function of the notch. While a failure in the safety notch is more or less made irrelevant by best handling practices, a failure in the half cock notch is more ominous, as it can make the loading process complicated or even dangerous, increasing the chances of a negligent discharge. An SAA with a disordered half cock notch can be physically capable of firing, but is not recommend.

Click Three

Click number three, the SAA cylinder stop, happens shortly before the full cock notch. At this stage, the hammer has not engaged; if released, it will drop back to the half cock (if the trigger is not being held down), the safety notch (if the trigger is not held and the half cock is excessively worn or damaged), or all the way to the resting position (if the trigger is being pulled, or both notches are damaged). Letting the hammer down in a harsh or uncontrolled fashion is sometimes a cause of excessively worn or damaged notches and should be avoided.

Click Four

The final click is actually two clicks at once, as the cylinder stop engages the cylinder at about the same time as the full cock notch engages. Being able to hear a “fifth click” suggests that one or the other has gone a bit out of order. With the full cock, note the following:

  1. The hammer should be as close as possible to the maximum possible rearward travel, with no significant “let down” once thumb pressure is removed.
  2. The cylinder stop should be fully engaged, possibly with a small amount of “play” in the cylinder, but not permitting any significant rotation.
  3. When the trigger is pulled, it should move without an excess of force, and the hammer should drop cleanly to the resting position without friction or interference from the other notches, and the cylinder stop should continue to be engaged.
Full cock position of hammer on a Colt SAA revolver.

Failure at this stage could indicate the SAA is non-functioning or is one that is dangerous to shoot. A hammer that hangs up could result in a later-than-expected discharge, and a cylinder that fails to remain properly locked could cause a misfire as the hammer fails to hit a primer. Even worse, it could hit the primer while the bullet is positioned to strike the edge of the barrel throat instead of straight on, causing the gun to explode in the shooter's hand.

Step 3: The SAA Cylinder

Once the hammer is checked, the cylinder comes next. On a well made revolver (Single Action Army Colts never left Hartford if they weren't), the cylinder is a subtle yet critical demonstration of precision engineering. The proper engagement of the cylinder to the working parts of the frame is a complete necessity in terms of revolver function.

Typical cylinder found on Colt Colt SAA Revolvers.

In order to make sure the SAA cylinder hasn't suffered wear or alteration that would affect function, rest a thumb of the off hand against the side of the cylinder, applying light pressure, and then ease the hammer slowly back to full cock. Once the revolver is cocked, try moving the cylinder clockwise and counter-clockwise with said thumb. The cylinder should remain locked, no new clicks should be audible, and there should not be an excess of play in the cylinder.

Gently ease the hammer down, and repeat the process five more times, each time maintaining light thumb pressure and slowly cocking the hammer. An audible click on the clockwise rotation indicates that the cylinder didn't fully advance to the appropriate stop. Continued rotation clockwise indicates that the cylinder rotated too far, and the stop failed to engage the appropriate notch.

Moving the cylinder of a Colt SAA Revolver using thumb.

A failure in these tests on one or two chambers suggests that the problem is with the SAA cylinder, with an individual stop notch or tooth on the sprocket experiencing wear or damage, but a failure on all chambers suggests that the problem is in the guts of the revolver instead.

SAA Function Check:

Colt Single Action Army revolvers are some of the finest quality and engineered pieces of weaponry ever to be developed by the company. Because of their reliability, durability, and relaxed maintenance, these firearms became insanely popular among collectors and enthusiasts alike as the models became older and older. Not only a dependable method of self protection, but these revolvers are also light, strong, and stunningly beautiful at the same time. The responsibility of owning a Colt SAA mirrors that of a fine watch; careful and meticulous steps must be taken to ensure the firearm performs, appears, and feels authentic.

This rare Colt SAA revolver is only one of four shipped personally to Bat Masterson.

By following these steps, a proper understanding of the functionality and aesthetic of the firearms can be deduced to determine if any further restoration, maintenance, or cleaning is needed. However, every case is different and an inexperienced attempt to function check an SAA could result in serious bodily harm to yourself or others. As with handling any firearm, proceed with extreme caution. If there are any question regarding these methods, purchasing a model, or selling one please contact Rock Island Auction Company.

Historic, finest Known "Lot Five" Ainsworth inspected Custer Battle U.S. Cavalry Model Colt SAA revolver with holster and Kopec Gold Seal letter.

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AvatarDavid MieschDecember 07, 2022

Hello. Not finding an answer in my Kopec book. I read that the very first SAAs were in 44 Russian & 44 S&W American. I've been offered one in 44 Russian with a 3-digit serial & lots of pitting. Having trouble seeing a recoil plate. Did the very first SAAs have a recoil plate in the recoil shield? THANKS!

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