The United States of the 19th century was legendary for its colorful characters and the exciting historical events that largely defined the American West. Even today, countless legends about the dangerous adventures of lonesome cowboys and brave lawmen of the Old West, marked by clashes such as the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, continue to capture our imagination.
When we talk of cowboys and other figures of the Wild West, we immediately picture a man on horseback, wearing a cowboy hat. But no cowboy would roam the West without a gun. Such a gritty figure covering the terrain would most likely wield a distinct long-barreled revolver.
Guns were most certainly widespread on the frontier, but no gun in the history of the Old West left a mark as the Colt Single Action Army Revolver, also known as the Colt Peacemaker, did. The Peacemaker was popularized in popular culture–namely the Western genre of the 20th century–but its historical significance is undeniable.
Beginning in the Wild West era through the American Civil War, all the way to the sets of some of the most iconic Hollywood Western movies, this legendary gun shaped the entire culture. The Peacemaker was so much more than just one of the best-designed guns of the era. It was this weapon that made the difference in the westward expansion by providing the much-needed protection of pioneers in the West. Additionally, it paved the way for the production of multi-shot firearms, which eventually would transform the United States into a global power.
The Peacemaker, also called the Frontier, the Model P, and the Equalizer, had its first wide use in the army. During the mid-1860s the army was looking to replace its slow and fragile percussion pistols, so the .44-caliber Colt revolver was tested, and rejected for being unreliable. However, during the 1870s William Mason and Charles Brinckerhoff designed and created the .45-caliber centerfire Colt Single Action Army. The army immediately recognized the gun’s potential: It was used it as the official service weapon until World War II.
Colt quickly began producing the gun in a variety of calibers: the .32-caliber version was very popular because it used the same rounds as the popular Winchester rifle. The Peacemaker became every man’s dream despite being expensive, as its reliability and elegance made it legendary. Some of the most famous outlaws of the Old West, including Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and Butch Cassidy, carried this gun. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday carried a Peacemaker during the famous 30-second shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and Butch Cassidy carried them too.
The Peacemaker even earned the nickname “the gun that won the West.” This nickname was popularized by the showman and bison hunter Buffalo Bill, who traveled around telling stories about the gun’s divine accuracy.
By the 1950s, Hollywood cowboys were almost exclusively equipped with the Peacemakers, as the gun became a national icon. John Wayne carried a custom-designed ivory-gripped Colt, and Clint Eastwood and Kirk Douglas also used the legendary revolver.
Although the Peacemaker was the most popular and most reliable gun, it wasn’t mass produced.
While only around 300,000 units were made between 1873 and 1941, and the lesser-known company Harrington & Richardson manufactured over three million revolvers by 1908, the Peacemaker remained an icon and the Harrington & Richardson’s guns drifted into obscurity.
The production of the Peacemaker ceased after World War II, but the gun was reintroduced in 1956 due to its on-screen popularity, and it is still being produced.