On Colt parts in general
Great Western is said to have used some Colt parts, at least early in their production. This detail is frequently related when enthusiasts discuss the company. It has followed that those revolvers seen as containing Colt parts can have a greater intrigue. They will at times even be held in higher esteem because it’s assumed they were factory built with the ‘better’ Colt parts.
These assumptions are erroneous most of the time. Great Western used surplus internal parts and hammers from Colt early on (below serial GW1000 or so for the Colt hammer with firing pin). After that, the Colt hammer was offered as an upgrade option. It is extraordinarily doubtful however that Great Western revolvers ever left the California factories with Colt barrels, cylinders, grip assemblies, or black rampant Colt grips. Great Westerns that have these are almost always parts guns, those having been modified in the aftermarket by independent gunsmiths or amateurs.
Note the reverse, the case of Colt frames with Great Western barrels, cylinders, or grip assemblies. These are diminished Colts, also parts guns, but may have a Great Western connection. Hy Hunter, E&M, and Great Western all took in Colts for repair and refurbishing. Over 1954-56 such guns may have been rebuilt into functional shooters at the Great Western factory on Miner Street in west Los Angeles.
On the early Great Western cylinder frame
Collector discourse over the years noted that Great Western’s early cylinder frames, especially those on the Sheriff models, had an external shape more like Colt’s than most Great Westerns. The Blue Book notes the Sheriff model cylinder frames have a lower forward corner edge that is rounded. The typical Great Western frame is somewhat squared off there. From this comparison there’s been a notion that Great Western’s early frames were actually gotten from Colt’s mothball inventory, where a parts trove was tucked when the SAA was initially retired in 1940. However many cylinder frames this might have been, Wilson ostensibly bought them. In California he built them into Great Western’s first guns, including the Sheriffs model run.
Or so the tale goes. There is no actual documentation that supports an observation Great Western ever used Colt cylinder frames. Particularly, there’s no documentation for this to emerge from Colt. Don Wilkerson’s book, Pre-War, Post-War Model, tends to obviate the idea. The proper implication from Wilkerson’s research is probably that Colt safeguarded its stash of SAA parts to build Peacemakers when occasions arose for them over 1940-56. They didn’t sell good components to Wilson.
The ‘Colt shaped’ Great Western cylinder frame does exist, and is seen far more often than on Sheriff models. It is actually used almost universally on revolvers under serial GW5000. This is probably all of Great Western’s first year production. What’s known about the first year is that Great Western got most of its raw castings from Arwood before making a Ruger forced switch to FerroCast (Dougan). No Great Western parts have foundry source insignia or makers mark, but the FerroCast cylinder frame is solidly understood as the square bottomed style seen approximately GW5000 – GW22250. Knowing this, it is reasonable to deduce that the preceding style is merely one provided by Arwood at first, and that these are not of Colt origin.
Visual inspections of early Great Westerns led me to other, technical conclusions that cast doubt on the notion of ‘Colt framed’ Great Westerns:
- With blue examples, early Great Westerns turned plum color like so many of the later production guns. The ‘plum’ is understood to afflict investment cast parts that were tank blued at imprecise temperatures, a mistake Great Western seemed to make habitually as most of their ‘blue’ guns are ‘plum’. But those early Great Westerns would probably not have plum oxidized if they had been built from a Colt forging.
- I have torn down numerous low serial Great Westerns in contemplation of the company’s early ‘quality problem’. Typically, I think these are marked by a lack of spec or finish machining that is “Un-Colt like”. Which is to say, I would expect these frames to be more perfect if they actually came from Colt. I adore Great Westerns, but I do think that statement properly acknowledges Colt’s superior craftsmanship.
- I’ve torn down early framed Great Westerns and discerned flashing, sprues, and incompletely removed casting gates that remained from investment cast molds. Colt frames were forged, they would not have remnants of sprues or casting gates are gates
- The early Great Western cylinder frames sometimes have a left recoil shield edge that extends past the cylinder, rather than be flush. I can’t think of a technical explanation that could allow this imperfection to be rendered in a Colt, hammer forged cylinder frame.
- I discern that backstrap ledges on the early Great Western cylinder frames are too steep for them to be Colt frames.
- On the early Great Western revolvers, the cylinder windows often aren’t perfectly true and rectangle. In the worst cases, the revolvers may function but the inner frame contacts the cylinder and galls the blue. Great Western’s problem with imperfect cylinder windows was detailed in the May 1955 Guns magazine article about the company. Wilson is quoted that Great Western subsequently bought a broach mill to correct for imprecise windows. Imprecise cylinder windows could really only exist as a problem with investment cast frames taken to assembly with no spec machining, a manufacturing method Great Western was probably reliant on in its first year. These defects would not have been encountered with Colt type forgings. With Colt’s method of forging the cylinder frame, a hammer drop creates the window in an orange hot billet. After the forging, a thin middle remains in the window, but it is removed with a cutter that also trues the window to spec. With Colt’s forging method, there is no way the window is not finished off properly before the piece goes on for further machining.