The Colt Peacemaker: Hollywood’s Shooting Star

posted on January 25, 2023

William Boyd (above, l.), as Hopalong Cassidy, carried two 5½"-barreled, nickeled Colts in an elaborate double rig designed by the late Bob Brown. Hoppy’s sixguns were actually in mismatched .45 and .44-40 chamberings—but that didn’t matter, as only 5-in-1 blanks were fired in them. Richard Boone (above, r.), as Paladin in “Have GunWill Travel,” carried a Stembridge-rented re-blued SAA with black painted stocks.

For many of us, our first exposure to the Single Action Army wasn’t on the shooting range—it was on the silver screen at Saturday matinees, and, later, on television. After all, you can’t film a Western movie or TV Western without sixguns. Before the advent of mass-produced replicas, they were all original First and Second Generation Colt single-actions—many of which, in Hollywood’s early years, had actually “been there, done that” in the real West but were now eagerly corralled by studios and prop houses such as Stembridge Gun Rentals and Ellis Mercantile.

The first Western movie, “The Great Train Robbery,” was filmed in 1903 and featured Colt single-actions used by both good guys and bad, and set the stage, so to speak, for every Western that came after it. Multiple shots without reloading soon became Tinseltown’s contribution to the many other attributes of the Model P. In the 1930s and ‘40s, fancy Colts and gun rigs became the norm for romanticized riders of the silver screen such as Tom Mix, Buck Jones and Bob Steele. Later, in films such as “Shane,” “High Noon” and the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, single-actions often had co-starring roles with the actors. In fact, many of the earliest motion-picture performers, producers and directors were real-life fans of the SAA, so it is not surprising that when the Peacemaker was brought back in 1955, the first two consecutively numbered SAAs were purchased by famed producer-director Cecil B. DeMille.

Arvo Ojala, Frank Sinatra
Hollywood fast-draw coach Arvo Ojala (l.) instructs Frank Sinatra on the use of his SAA on the set of the 1963 movie, “4 For Texas.”

But nothing propelled the Single Action Army into stardom so dramatically as the television Westerns that ran from the 1950s through the ‘70s. The fancy double rigs of home-screen heroes such as “Hopalong Cassidy” (whose nickel-plated sixguns were actually mismatched .45- and .44-40-chambered guns—a fact of little consequence when only 5-in-1 blanks were being fired) evolved into James Arness, portraying Marshal Matt Dillon, thrusting his 7½"-barreled SAA into a close-up during every opening sequence of “Gunsmoke.” Meanwhile, Richard Boone’s “Paladin” added mesmerizing drama to the otherwise simple act of holstering his SAA in every prologue to “Have Gun—Will Travel.”

Not only was the TV Western responsible for introducing the SAA to a whole new generation of shooters, it turned at least one legend into reality—that of the Buntline Special. Colt archives confirm that approximately 19 Peacemakers with longer-than-standard-length barrels were made between 1876 and 1884—all within the 28801-28830 serial range. They were called “Buggy rifles” by the company. But Stuart N. Lake’s 1931 semi-fictionalized book, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, conjured up five “Buntline Specials” commissioned from Colt by dime novelist Edward Zane Carroll Judson, whose pen name was Ned Buntline. These 12"-barreled SAAs were allegedly presented to five Dodge City lawmen, including Wyatt Earp. Decades of research have concluded this probably never happened, but for Hollywood, it was too good a story to ignore.

Consequently, in the TV series, “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp,” which ran on ABC from 1955 to 1961, an early episode depicted Marshal Earp (played by Hugh O’Brian) being presented with a 12" Buntline Special. Worn by O’Brian in a long-holstered double rig along with a standard 4¾" SAA, the Buntline Special was featured throughout the rest of the six-season series and created so much viewer demand that Colt was compelled to bring out a 12" Buntline Special in 1957. It remained in the line until 1975, outlasting the TV series by decades. Thanks to reruns, DVDs and cable TV, in 1981, Colt again made a short run of Third Generation Buntlines. Although the Buntline is no longer in production, the legend lives on, as does Hollywood’s fascination with the Single Action Army.


S&W Model 350
S&W Model 350

S&W’s Model 350: The ‘Mild-Mannered’ X-Frame

The 350 Legend-chambered Model 350 represents quite a departure for S&W’s family of X-Frame revolvers, but it is no less capable of taking medium-size game—and it’s a lot easier to shoot and keep fed.

Product Preview: Infinity X1 Hybrid Power Flashlight 5000 Lumen

We are currently experiencing an arms race among flashlight companies, with each seemingly trying to out-lumen the competition with increasingly powerful models.

The Armed Citizen® Feb. 6, 2023

Read today's "The Armed Citizen" entry for real stories of law-abiding citizens, past and present, who used their firearms to save lives.

New For 2023: Bond Arms Stinger 22LR

Following the success of the company’s lightweight Stinger derringers in several centerfire chamberings, Bond Arms has developed what is certainly the most easily shootable derringer in the bunch with its .22 Long Rifle Stinger.

Australia’s Lee-Enfield 'Jungle Rifles'

While the British No. 5 Lee-Enfield “Jungle Carbines” are well-known guns, the Australian No. 1-based jungle rifles have languished in obscurity. They never went beyond the trials phase and are commonly faked. Here’s the real story on what are likely the rarest versions of the World War II Lee-Enfield.

Suppressor Ownership Growing in Popularity

The number of applications for a National Firearms Act (NFA) tax stamp—federally required for lawful ownership of suppressors, short-barreled rifles and similarly configured shotguns, among others—has more than doubled in the past four years.


Get the best of American Rifleman delivered to your inbox.