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Old November 23, 2002, 07:03 PM   #1
CZ_
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History & The Colt Bisley?

Ok, it seems that the Colt SSA (Peacemaker and variants) and the Remington single action revolvers got the most use by gunfighters in the Old West? Is that perception true?

Where did the Colt Bisley come in? I know it was introduced very late into the Gunfighting period (1890's right?). Did any well known gunfighters use the Colt Bisley as their primary fighting revolver? If so, which men?

What advantages and disadvantages did each style of revolver have to a gunfighter (i.e please compare the Bisley style to the "hogleg" styled revolvers).
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Old November 23, 2002, 08:22 PM   #2
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The Bisley Model was another variant of the Single Action Army. It was introduced in 1894 and intended to be a target pistol (Hence the name “Bisley,” named after a famous British shooting range.) The difference between the Bisley and the regular Single action are the shape of the handle (including the backstrap, trigger guard and grips) plus a low, wide-spur hammer and wider trigger. The mainspring is also different. If you have these parts you can convert a conventional S.A.A. into a Bisley or the other way around.

It wasn’t long before Colt added a fixed sight model to go along with the target “flattop,” over the years the fixed sight gun substantially outsold the target model. Production ended in 1915 with 44,350 regular and 976 target guns having been made. For the most part barrel lengths and calibers were the same as Single Action’s of the same period.

Off the top of my head I’m not sure of any famous gunfighters that preferred Bisley’s but I’m sure there were at least a few. The shape of the handle is something you either like or don’t. There is no middle ground. But those who like it, like it very much. It is easier to control heavy recoil because the gun doesn’t tend to roll up in your hand.
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Old November 23, 2002, 08:38 PM   #3
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The Bisley was introduced in 1894, but few would have been available until mid to late 1895.

By 1895 the day of the gunman was definitely over. The West was pretty well won and settled, and tolerance for gunman was about over also.

By 1895 the smart gun people were going with the large frame Colt double actions, and the early automatic pistols.

Since the Bisley was sold as a formal target pistol, cost more than a standard SAA, and the fixed type sight wasn't introduced until still later, it's use by a real gunfighter was probably unlikely.

It's almost certain that some people used a Bisley in the odd shooting, and a lot depends on what your defination of a "gunfighter" is. There are a few gunfighters today.
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Old November 23, 2002, 09:25 PM   #4
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Anybody besides Colt have records on the Bisley? Mine was converted to .38 back in the '50s or '60s when Colt produced the conversion kits. Might like to get mine restored to original caliber & bbl length.
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Old November 23, 2002, 09:36 PM   #5
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Quote:
Anybody besides Colt have records on the Bisley? Mine was converted to .38 back in the '50s or '60s when Colt produced the conversion kits. Might like to get mine restored to original caliber & bbl length.
Just curious, when was your Bisley made (what year)?

Do you have any pictures available to post?
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Old November 23, 2002, 11:02 PM   #6
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To go back to your original statement that the Colt SA and Remington SA got most of the use by the gunfighters in the Old West. I would suggest that many more S&W break-open revolvers were used than Remingtons and that cap&ball revolvers were used well into the late 1870s and early 1880s.
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Old November 24, 2002, 01:08 AM   #7
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The *Ruger* Bisley is loosely patterned on a grip design Elmer Keith did in the 1920s (or '30s?) on a gun called the "Number 5". It's a superb grip design for major recoil control.
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Old November 24, 2002, 01:25 AM   #8
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The *Ruger* Bisley is loosely patterned on a grip design Elmer Keith did in the 1920s (or '30s?) on a gun called the "Number 5". It's a superb grip design for major recoil control.


Yep, that part I knew (but I thought the dates were different?). This explains why the Ruger Bisley's grip is different than an original "humpback" Colt Bisleys.


I've followed your revolver knowledge (including the great post you made on inspecting used and new revolvers), and I find your knowledge very impressive and helpful. Have you any historical info on the Colt Bisley handy?
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Old February 15, 2012, 11:36 PM   #9
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I'm almost 10 years late in entering this discussion. I hope everyone is still alive. First of all a great article was written in the Oct 2007 issue of the American Rifleman by Gary Paul Johnston regarding John Wayne's Colt SAA that he generally used following his appearance in the movie Hondo. It turns out that his SAA started out as a Bisley manufactured in 1909 as a .45 with a 5 1/2" barrel. Someone not known cut the barrel which still says Bisley Model down to 4 3/4" and changed the cylinder to 44-40. In addition the trigger guard and grip straps were replaced by those from a SAA made in 1904. Those aged ivories are actually fake ivory and tea stained by The Duke to look old.

My reason for getting into this ancient discussion is because the only other converted Bisley that I know of is owned by me. I purchased it as a consignment gun that was brought into the gunshop by an elderly gentleman around 13 years ago. I was the first and only one to see it. When I contacted Colt for a letter the archivist told me that they wouldn't have records regarding it's return to Colt for the job of converting it. Also she never heard of a Bisley being converted to a SAA. Turns out my Bisley was manufactured in 1906 as a 32-20 with a 5 1/2" barrel. It is still the same calibre having the same barrel length with Bisley Model lightly stamped but has a SAA hammer and replaced trigger guard and grip straps from a SAA manufactured in 1904. It has beautiful aged beefy stag grips with an elk on the medallion and fits perfect. I'd say 95% of the finish remains including a nice amount of the case hardening. By the way it's the most accurate SAA I own and a pleasure to shoot.

Since I couldn't get much more information from Colt other than it was sent to Chicago I contacted a Colt expert by the name of John Kopec. While telling him about the gun his first question to me was whether or not there were any other series of numbers on the gun that matched. I told him yes. There was four places where 172 was stamped. It appears on the front face of the cylinder. It's down in the well of the loading gate and under the grips on the front and rear straps. He told me the work was done by Colt. Those numbers were stamped on the gun so as to prevent those parts from being mixed up with some other gun they may have been working on. My concern was that the barrel address was polished off and not restamped and no asterisk was stamped on the trigger guard which is usually Colt's practice when refinishing guns. Mr. Kopec told me nothing's written in stone and he had seen other guns that didn't have the usual markings that were sent to Colt to have work done. I wanted to send him my gun in order to get a letter from him but he told me that he was only involved with martially marked Colts.

I don't think it's quite so easy like someone had written on this thread to convert a Bisley to a SAA. If it were then there'd be plenty of them around. Some machining is done to the frame. Mine wasn't owned by John Wayne but the mating of the frame to the back strap was done far more professionally. I recently started to attempt to contact Mr. Johnston to see if he'd be interested in learning more about my gun perhaps for a followup story since mine appears to be the work of Colt and I know of no other. I'll see if American Rifleman puts him in touch with me. If anyone else knows of a similar Colt somewhere I'd love to know about it. Any further input would be appreciated as well. Hope I didn't write too much.
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Old February 15, 2012, 11:47 PM   #10
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I too didn't notice the age of this post until gunsmoke TPF pointed it out.
The only reference I can come up with using a Bisley for gun fighting is waht Elmer Keith wrote in Sixguns..he claimed the shape of the Bisley grip caused it to shoot low in fast draw shooting.
These are very interesting revolvers..especially when one considers the target matches of that day were 100 shot affairs..with black powder! and at the then official distance of 50 yds..one handed..arm extended.
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Old February 16, 2012, 02:03 AM   #11
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I just couldn't resist joining a 10 year old thread. I do love a Bisley though.
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Old February 16, 2012, 05:20 AM   #12
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You don't see S&W revolvers in the west as the company was busy making guns for a large contract in 1870 for the Russian army.
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Old February 16, 2012, 07:03 AM   #13
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"You don't see S&W revolvers in the west as the company was busy making guns for a large contract in 1870 for the Russian army."

Not true.

Smith & Wesson revolvers had significant penetration into the market in the west. While it's true that most of the production capacity was going towards fulfilling Russian contracts, the company was still churning out a significant number of handguns for the American market.
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Old February 16, 2012, 11:23 AM   #14
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I know the thread is old, but just want to note that converting a regular SAA to a Bisley and vice-versa is not that easy, since the frames are different where they meet the backstrap. The Bisley frame could be ground down to fit the SAA backstrap, but the SAA frame would have to be built up.

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Old February 16, 2012, 02:38 PM   #15
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I suspect a lot of folks didnt realize they were buying a bisley model back then. I think many may have just bought the first colt SA they could find and afford. I have to point out differences to my friends or they dont even notice. So i think some had them and used them their whole life thinking they had the classic SAA.
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Old February 16, 2012, 02:57 PM   #16
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I'm glad that others have gotten into this discussion after so much time has passed. All my guns are original except for a copy of a Bisley that I purchased years ago because of my love for this gun. Since my Bisley had been changed to the SAA configuration and I have a couple others I ended up buying the Cimmaron flat top target Bisley in 44-40 with 7 1/2" barrel. I'd recommend it to anyone cause it's well made with a terrific trigger and is dead on accurate. I don't believe that particular model is made anymore.When not being used to that grip it does feel a little strange in the hand but once you get used to it more than likely you'll get to like it alot.

As far as S&W's are concerned they were used a great deal in the west as well as Hopkins & Allens and Merwin & Hulberts which are almost unknown to most people. I have 2 S&W 1st model double actions in 44 Russian. One is a pristine mint 1st year production nickel with 4" barrel that I won't shoot. The other is re-nickeled with 6" barrel that I shot plenty over the years. I only use Black Hills smokeless ammo cause all the others shoot very high. They can handle low powered smokeless ammo which I wouldn't use in the Colt. These guns have been overlooked but in recent years are finally jumping up in value and deservingly so.

It's true that there would be gunsmithing skills and equipment required to convert these guns one way or the other and that no one is going to be converting these guns at their kitchen table just by switching parts cause like I said before there would be lots more of them around and I still would love to hear about another one like mine that someone else has.

Last edited by gunsmokeTPF; February 16, 2012 at 04:23 PM.
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Old February 17, 2012, 10:47 PM   #17
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Most "gunfighters" used a shotgun from an alley.
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Old February 17, 2012, 11:15 PM   #18
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"I suspect a lot of folks didnt realize they were buying a bisley model back then."

Gee, not a lot of respect for the intelligence of our ancestors! Hell, yes, they knew the difference between a regular SAA and a Bisley, and the target shooters who bought the latter certainly did.

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Old February 21, 2012, 12:24 AM   #19
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I thought I could revive this topic, but I guess I was wrong. Apparently less people are interested in the Bisley then I thought. I'll conclude by saying that anyone with a fondness for the Colt SAA and cannot afford an original 1st generation should definately consider a 1st generation Bisley. They're just as good and many less were manufactured. In recent years their price has been rising steadilly and that also goes for the Colt 1878 double action. These gems are an excellent investment for the future. Why only buy Italian copies when the original in shooting condition could be had in many instances for an affordable price, even if you must save a little longer? These guns are documented as being used by outlaws and lawmen alike in the 1890's and early 1900's. There's a big difference between holding an old gun in your hand and wondering who else held it, or fired it and where has it been compared to a newly manufactured copy. Guess I'm just a dinosaur!
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Old February 21, 2012, 04:46 PM   #20
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I've owned two Bisley-style revolvers manufactured by USFA and a Colt SAA, all in .45 Colt. They were interesting to compare, although I'd be hesitant at this distance in time to compare the finishes between the Colt and the copy. The copy in this instance was made in the original Colt building, I believe.

I'm not so sure if the Bisley grip improved on the regular grip or not. It may have had it's origin in the Colt 1860 Army revolver but I've never handled one of those, original or otherwise. I did own a Ruger Bisley, however, and I believed it had the best grip of any of them. Of course, Ruger had maybe 80 years to get the design perfect, even though it didn't take that long. Ruger also made small frame single actions with a similiar grip but I never had one.

One thing about the Bisley, I believe, was that it could not be fitted with a solid one piece grip like the SAA and neither could the Ruger, any Ruger single action for that matter. The SAA I had came with hard rubber grips and it left with the same grips. I'm afraid the USAA Bisleys both suffered cracked grips and I doubt it was because of my powerful hands holding it. But otherwise, they all worked fine. Not so with the one Italian made .45 single action, on which one of the springs broke almost right away. The shop replaced it with a Colt made spring.

I have seen Bisley models show up in movies. The movie the Grey Fox (with Richard Farnsworth) featured a Colt Bisley (which the character chose because it had more heft!), which the real Grey Fox, a real historical figure, actually used for a while in his train robbing days. The original is in some museum in Canada, near where the movie was filmed.

I don't know when the gunfighter days were, though they certainly weren't confined to the West, but other model guns were also used, including imported revolvers. Likewise cartridge conversions of cap & ball revolvers were popular for a few years, some in big bore rimfire cartridges.
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Old February 22, 2012, 01:47 AM   #21
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"It could not be fitted with a solid one piece grip like the SAA". I have an original Colt Bisley with one piece Elephant ivories.
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Old February 22, 2012, 09:01 AM   #22
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You don't say. Maybe it was just the Rugers I was thinking of. The USAA Bisley models I had came with two piece wood grips.
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Old February 27, 2012, 08:20 PM   #23
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I'll say it again, if anyone wants a 1st generation, or 2nd generation SAA and can't afford one, then buy an original Bisley, which may cost a little more than a 3rd the price of a SAA in good shootable condition. If the grip style is something you can't live with, then so be it. If it has to look pristine and character bothers you then go Italian. I don't own any Rugers and never have. I won't criticize them, but I have shot them and when you cock them they feel nothing like a Colt. They're strong and well made and even used in the movies, but I restrict myself to what I really like a lot. To each his own.

It amazes me that so many in the SASS don't use more original guns and settle for the repros, but I'll make an exception where the USFA guns are concerned. I think they're better made than the Colts made for the past 30 years. It really hurts me to say that. It's not that repros don't work well, or look bad, but some of these copies aren't much cheaper than the real thing. As an example, I purchased a '97 Winchester riot for $700 3 years ago. I got a letter for it from the Buffalo Bill Historical Society in Cody Wy. that said that the shotgun was indeed a riot mfg. in 1900. Why buy a chinese copy for four, or five hundred when you can get an original for seven? Just save a little longer and buy a real investment. You can't be lazy and gotta shop around. Sooner, or later you'll find something to your liking, which makes your efforts worthwhile.

Even though my Bisley was converted to a SAA it's the most accurate SA I own and I own a few that go back to 1891. I shoot them all the time at a 3ft by 3ft steel plate at 80+ yards with Ten-X black powder ammo and hit it all the time. I hit it with my Bisley also. I know they were made for target shooting, but most weren't bought for that and while they were being made they were actually popular. Mine is a 32-20, which was the most popular calibre for that gun and even though not considered a man stopper it is a pleasure to shoot and is Dead on. I think it's additional weight due to the small calibre, which leaves more steel remaining in the cylinder and barrel helps with that. Even my 2nd generation .45 SAA that I purchased for $185 in 1970 from Abercrombe & Fitch when they sold guns is not as accurate even though I gave it back and had work done on it. But it's been my favorite one over the years and looks great too.

There's just something about a Bisley!
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Old February 28, 2012, 07:47 AM   #24
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The west still hasn't been won. Just check out the signs on the border. Villa's gone but plenty have taken his place.
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Old February 28, 2012, 11:30 AM   #25
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I could be wrong, but I think the Bisley grip allowed a more consistent hand placement that the standard SAA grip. To me, it looks weird, but sometimes looks take a back seat to accuracy.

Look at a Savage Model 110!
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