This week we’re going to take a look at a timeless classic that’s appeared in countless films and never killed anyone on set – until Alec Baldwin decided play Russian roulette with the Rust production staff: the Colt Single Action Army.
Colt introduced the Single Action Army in 1873, and it one of those weapons that perfectly marries appearance and function. They sold by the hundreds of thousands and Colt kept them in continuous production until World War II. Afterwards, the popularity of western films caused Colt to pick up where it left off. Since the patents had by then long since expired, competitors also emerged, offering variations on the original design and new chamberings. Also known as the Peacemaker, it is the archetypal ‘six shooter’ and has become synonymous with gunfighters and the Old West.
The mechanics of the SAA are simple by modern standards. As the name implies, it is a single action revolver. That means that pulling the trigger accomplishes only a single action – releasing the hammer in order to fire a cartridge. If the hammer is down, pulling the trigger accomplishes nothing. In order for it to fire again, one has to cock the hammer, which rotates the cylinder so that when the trigger is pulled, the hammer will fall on a different chamber. With the double action revolver, pulling the trigger both cocks and fires the weapon, that is two actions.
The Peacemaker was a relatively safe design for the period, but there was a notable weakness. This was that if one places a live round in the chamber under the hammer, it could be fired if the hammer was struck with sufficient force (such as being dropped). The solution was to keep the chamber under the hammer empty, resulting in most six-shooters typically carrying only five rounds.
These weapons could also perform a sort of rapid fire if one held the trigger down and then rapidly slapped the hammer back with the other hand. “Fanning the hammer” features prominently in many movies, but in an actual shootout, it isn’t safe or accurate.
Unlike modern revolvers, the Single Action Army doesn’t swing out its cylinder like a Dirty Harry’s Smith and Wesson Model 29 or break open like Sean Connery’s Webley-Fosbery. Instead, it has a loading gate on the right side of the frame.
[Sidebar note: if you look at the photo where Connery is pointing his revolver at the camera, you can clearly see that it is unloaded. Safety, people!]
Back to the Peacemaker. To load, one opens the gate, places the hammer in a half-cock position, and then feeds individual cartridges into the cylinder. Unloading spent rounds works in a similar way, save that there an extractor rod beneath the barrel which is used to push the empty casings out. This means reloading is hard to do under time pressure (say during a shootout), which is why people often elected to carry more than one revolver – though contrary to the movies, these were intended to be used in sequence, not simultaneously.
A Genre Unto Itself
While we typically think of Peacemakers as being chambered in .45 Colt, they come in just about every conceivable caliber and finish. There are also modernized versions with improved safety features that greatly reduce the likelihood of a dropped weapon going off.
That means that the recoil, accuracy and feel vary greatly. Ruger Single Six revolvers chambered in .22 Long Rifle are easy to shoot and quite accurate. On the other end of the spectrum, there are versions chambered for insanely powerful Magnum cartridges.
They remain popular because the look, the feel and the function just work.
For example, the shape of the grip is designed to let the recoil ride over the user’s hand rather than go straight into it. This not only makes it more comfortable to shoot, it places the hammer spur closer to the thumb to make cocking it faster and easier. For people who learned to shoot on modern auto-loaders (like John Wick’s Glocks), it feels strange, but with practice one can truly appreciate it.
These Guns Don’t Fire Themselves
This brings us back to Alec Baldwin. As we discussed above, one cannot fire a Single Action Army without first cocking the hammer. The notion that one could pick it up and it would just “go off” is physically impossible. If the hammer was lowered, pulling the trigger would do nothing. This is why these firearms are so wonderfully dramatic – cocking the hammer means the owner is getting serious about shooting.
We already discussed all the basic safety violations Baldwin committed, but it’s now come to light that he also violated movie industry protocols.
These rules are elaborate and comprehensive and like the basic safety rules, they reinforce each other, so breaking just one isn’t enough to cause injury or death. Baldwin broke a bunch. Even if we accept the physical impossibility that a single action revolver can cock and fire itself unaided, he was still pointing a real weapon at another human being without checking to see if it was loaded. The guidelines clearly state that when an actor receives a weapon, the armorer is required to demonstrate its status. As a veteran actor, Baldwin knew this and as a co-producer of the film, he was responsible for how the production was conducted.
Simply having someone tell you a firearm is unloaded is not good enough – they must show you that it is unloaded, and if you’ve ever watched actual gun guys examining a firearm, they inevitably will, one after the other, compulsively check and recheck its status because that is what is taught.
Based on media reports, I can see only three possible scenarios for what happened.
The first is that Baldwin cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger, thinking he was clicking an empty gun but wanting to annoy the staff because he’s a hot-headed jerk. It wasn’t empty and Halyna Hutchins died as a result.
The second is that being inexperienced, he held the trigger down reflexively when he drew it (this happens a lot) and then thumbed the hammer back, but because he had the trigger down, it simply fell forward on the chamber and touched off a round. This would explain his “it went off” claim because he likely didn’t realize he had the trigger down and so was doubly surprised.
The third, which is even less likely, is that his weapon looked like a Single-Action Colt but was actually double-action. Such things exist, (I’ve fired one) so in this case he could have just pulled the trigger and it would have gone off. However, double-action triggers are very stiff both because of the energy needed to cycle everything and also as a safety measure. The key is that it would not fire unless the trigger was pulled and the strength required for this would require it to be a deliberate action.
Regardless of which of these is true, Baldwin is fully culpable for the death of one person and the serious injury of another.
The fact that this killer is still able to move freely and do interviews tells you everything you need to know about the corruption of our justice system.