This time, I had an opportunity to introduce Gavin to a cartridge he’s never shot before, though it’s been around for over almost 150 years, the .45 Colt.
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A Short History of the 45 Colt
Adopted by the Army in 1873 in the Colt Single Action revolver, the .45 Colt was originally loaded with a 255 grain lead bullet over 40 grains of black powder for an impressive 1,000 fps! That stout load was soon reduced to 28 grains, lessening the recoil but still maintaining impressive power at about 850 fps. The cartridge soon gained a good reputation against both man and beast.
The Army later adopted a Smith and Wesson revolver that couldn’t accept the full length .45 Colt. This led to the introduction of a shorter version of the cartridge which soon replaced the original in military service. The original became known as “45 Long Colt.”
The Army, with infinite wisdom, replaced the .45’s with an anemic .38 caliber revolver. These guns performed poorly in the Philippines and soon the .45 Colt was back!
The success of the .45 Colt indirectly led to the development of the .45 ACP 1911 and revolvers. These offered similar ballistics from a more compact cartridge.
Revolvers in .45 Colt continued to be used by outdoorsmen and law enforcement officers over the decades. Ruger started building the very strong Blackhawk in .45 Colt in the 1970’s and followed up with the Redhawk double action revolver. The inherent strength of these revolvers allow handloaders to explore more powerful .45 Colt loads. In recent years, it’s been used by Cowboy Action Shooter and is now offered in both revolvers and lever action rifles.
For this loading session we used a variety of Lyman products, including the Lyman beam scale and powder measure. The powder measure is especially handy as it has both coarse and fine adjustments. I also appreciate that with this type of powder measure, it’s easy to pour the leftover powder into its container. We also have the All American 8-station turret press, though I’m only using 4 stations.
Loading the .45 Colt
It’s vital to understand today’s loading manuals typically include .45 Colt loads at two different power levels: under 14,000 CUP and under 29,000 PSI. The more powerful loads are only suitable for strong handguns like the Ruger Blackhawk and the Thompson Center Contender.
Occasionally, loading manuals refer to old “balloon head” cartridge cases and warn against their use. These haven’t been produced in decades and are unlikely to be encountered.
My knowledge of this old cartridge began when I read Elmer Keith’s Sixguns, as a child. There are more up-to-date references available now you should consult prior to loading, but the volume is still a classic.
Older revolvers often have .452” to .454” bores. Newer revolvers typically have a .451” bore.
I handloaded all the rounds for this article on the Lyman Brass Smith All American 8 turret press. My old .45 Colt dies are from the 1980’s and the sizing die isn’t carbide, so I smeared a little Imperial Sizing Die wax onto each case prior to sizing. I only load about 100 of these a year, so I haven’t been in any hurry to upgrade to a carbide sizer.
I used a pair of seating dies — one to seat the bullet and another to apply a firm roll crimp. A taper crimp or factory crimp die could also be used, but I prefer a good roll crimp on revolver cartridges.
Loading for the .45 Colt New Service
This great old revolver has been mine for nearly 40 years. It was my grandfather’s and is marked NYST, for New York State Trooper, on the backstrap. The New Service was introduced in 1898 and production continued until 1941. Loads of this power level would also be suitable for the old Colt Single Action Army revolvers and their reproductions; the newer, smaller Ruger Vaqueros, and Smith & Wesson revolvers chambered for .45 Colt.
Out of deference for my 1930’s Colt New Service, I load it with .454” 230 grain to 255 grain lead bullets to the lower pressure standards. Even with lighter loads, a 255 grain bullet traveling 850 to 900 fps is a bit more powerful than standard .45 ACP loads. A favorite of mine is the 255 grain Hornady lead flat-point Cowboy bullet over 8.5 grains of Hodgdon CFE Pistol. I simply roll crimp right into the side of the lead bullet. Crimping over the “shoulder” of the bullet works too. Other bullets have a crimp groove which should be used for that purpose.
Though I prefer lead bullet loads for big bore revolvers, jacketed bullets such as Hornady’s 250 grain XTP can certainly be used. Berry’s also offers a 250 grain .452” plated bullet intended for the 45 Colt.
For this article, I used 8.5 grains of CFE Pistol, a standard large pistol primer and Western brass (which has been fired many times). Velocity averaged about 874 fps and recoil from both the Colt New Service and the Ruger Blackhawk was mild.
Loading for the .45 Colt Ruger Blackhawk
The Ruger Blackhawk is an interesting single action revolver with a brass grip frame, a 4 ⅝” barrel, adjustable sights, and two cylinders — one for .45 ACP the other for .45 Colt.
This revolver is an ideal companion while hiking or fishing in bear country. The Ruger Blackhawk is a very strong revolver, so I loaded it to the higher pressure level with a 300 grain Cast Performance gas-checked bullet. This bullet gets a firm roll crimp in the crimp groove to prevent the bullets from jumping forward from their cases during recoil. A flat-nosed hard cast lead bullet offers tremendous penetration and stopping power.
For this loading session, I selected 17.5 grains of Accurate #9, an excellent powder for magnum level revolver cartridges. I sized New Magtech .45 Colt cases before loading. My handloads averaged about 1,016 fps and the Blackhawk’s recoil was tolerable. Hodgdon’s online Reloading Data Center shows a maximum charge of 18.8 grains of Accurate #9 for 1281 fps from a 7.25” barrel. H110 and H4227 are other fine powders for magnum level .45 Colt loads. THESE LOADS SHOULD NOT BE USED IN WEAKER REVOLVERS! Jacketed bullets are available from all major manufacturers and shoot well from this Ruger.
Are these loads at magnum level? Yes, the Ruger-level loads can match (some say exceed) .44 magnum levels!
Mild or much more robust .45 Colt loads are easy to assemble. A vast array of .45 caliber handgun bullets offer a variety of choices. You may have to try a few to find the most suitable one for your revolver.
If you load for weaker revolvers as well as the robust Ruger’s, it’s important to clearly mark which loads are for which revolvers. A powerful Ruger-level load could severely damage a weaker revolver.
For an 150-year-old cartridge, the .45 Colt still has a lot to offer handgunners, particularly handloaders. It can be loaded mild for plinking, or stout enough to take on any big game in North America.
Also keep in mind the .45 Colt is also offered in lever action rifles, which substantially boost the muzzle velocity of this grand old cartridge via their 16” to 20” barrels. Perhaps this is in our future!
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