"Is the shooter ready?"
Those were the words I was waiting to hear. It was a day of firsts. I was the first shooter on the first stage of the match. This was also my first Cowboy Action Shooting match. And, as I sat perched on a saddle cinched to a 55 gallon drum named Old Paint, I could feel a lot of eye balls resting on my back. I was just a little bit nervous. The E.M.F. replica of an 1875 Remington in my right hand, and it’s twin resting on my left hip, were fine guns, but I’d only shot them once before. They performed well punching paper. Still, I wondered how they’d do in an actual match…I wondered how I’d do.
The timer sounded close by my right ear, and reflexes took over. Five rounds pistol…nine rounds rifle…five rounds pistol…and I’d cleaned the stage. Those 1875s did their job, and they’d continue to perform like that all day long. I never had to think about shooting them. They handled like they were shooting smart bombs, so I could just relax and enjoy the event.
And it was quite an event. Over 130 shooters turned out to burn powder with central Pennsylvania’s West Shore Posse, Cowboy Action Shooting club. Most of them were armed with look alikes of the Colt Single Action Army revolver. Whether they were made by Colt, Ruger or one of the Italian arms makers, they were everywhere I looked. Well, almost everywhere. There was a small, discriminating band of pistoleros who took a different path. Like me, they were armed with replicas of Remington’s 1875 Single Action Army revolver; the other Single Action Army revolver. As in the nineteenth century, they were few in number, but, like their nineteenth century counterparts, they were well armed indeed.
I’ve been a fan of Remington’s since shooting my first original during my college days in the mid ‘70’s…that’s 1970s not 1870s as my sons claim. It was an 1890 model, or, more likely, it was an 1875 faked to look like the more scarce 1890. A common practice, I’m afraid. It was the first original nineteenth century handgun I’d shot, and I definitely picked the right one to begin on. I was immediately impressed by the old sixgun’s balance, and by its accuracy, which would have shamed many a more modern hand gun. Unfortunately, as a college student, my limited funds had a higher priority than buying rare, beautiful old sixguns. I had to pay for books, tuition and beer. That didn’t leave enough dinero to make that old Remington mine. Luckily, with the popularity of Cowboy Action Shooting, all sorts of replicas of fine nineteenth century guns are available now at reasonable prices. If I was a college student today, I’d own an E.M.F. replica of an 1875 Remington and still be able to pay for tuition and beer…books you can borrow. The pair of 1875’s I had from E.M.F. Inc.(1900 East Warner Ave., Suite one D, Santa Ana, CA 92075) lived up to the standard set by the originals. They brought back memories, but, more importantly, when it counted, they delivered the goods.
The 1875 Remington SSA, sometimes called the Model 3, was the choice of a number of savvy nineteenth century shooters, and not just on the Western frontier. The 1875 Remington was respected world-wide. It was the personal choice of a fair number of British Army officers. That, in turn, played a part in it’s selection as the side arm in Egypt’s Army. Continuing the African connection, the famous newspaperman and explorer Henry Morton Stanley carried one across that continent. He was wearing it when he caught up to Dr. Livingston. Here in America, Frank James was a strong proponent of the 1875. But, despite it’s popularity with the people who bought it, the simple fact is, too few people did buy it. Over the 13 years of its heaviest production, Remington sold only 25,000 of these powerful sixguns, and 10,000 of those went to Egypt. During the same 13 years, Colt sold 110,000 of their Single Action Army revolvers, which made Colt far and away the predominant sixgun on the Western frontier. I can’t say why that happened though. In a lot of ways the deck was stacked in Remington’s favor. The company itself had a longer pedigree than Colt. Its roots went back to 1816 when Eliaphalet Remington, a barrel maker, and his sons, formed a company to build flintlock rifles. Eventually their firm entered the market for big-bore revolvers, and their .44 caliber New Model Army revolver became the second most widely used side arm in the Civil War. It gave the Colt 1860 Army revolver a real run for its money. That’s even more impressive when you realize that the Remington wasn’t even issued to troops until 1863, three years after the Colt entered the service. If the war had gone on a year or two longer, Remington would have been the most common revolver in that conflict. Percussion Colts, and even their early cartridge models, were open frame guns where the frame, grip assembly and barrel assembly were individual modules. The Frame and barrel were linked by a wedge, the same way Hawken rifle barrels were held to their stocks. In contrast, the New Model Remington featured a solid frame with a screwed in barrel for greater strength and accuracy. Colt’s sighing apparatus consisted of a crude but effective arrangement using a notch in the hammer nose as the rear sight. Remingtons have a more modern integral rear sight milled into the top of the frame. Close manufacturing tolerances made the New Model Army more accurate than the Colt, but those close tolerances also led to more jams from built up black powder fouling during battles. Those same close tolerances were also a hallmark of the 1875 Remington, as was its reputation for superior accuracy. By the post-war 1860s, a number of smart gunmen had switched their brand from Colt’s to Remington revolvers. Probably the most famous Colt man of all, James Butler Hickock, better known as Wild Bill, was actually using a pair of Remington New Model Army revolvers while keeping the peace in Kansas cow towns. At that time, Smith and Wesson still had a lock on cartridge revolver production in the USA. Their control of the Rollin White patent gave them the exclusive right to manufacture revolvers with bored through cylinders for cartridges. The only problem was that Smith and Wesson didn’t make large caliber weapons. Even though their .22 and .32 caliber guns sold remarkably well, they were usually carried as back-up. People putting their lives on the line wanted heavier artillery. Remington sensed an opportunity. They arranged a licensing deal with Smith and Wesson that let them legally convert their New Model Army percussion sixguns to fire .46 caliber rimfire, and .44 and .45 caliber centerfire cartridges. Colt was unwilling to pay a licensing fee, so Remington was the only game in town if you wanted a big bore cartridge revolver until the Rollin White patent expired in 1869. Remington’s rimfire conversions were especially popular on the frontier at the dawn of the cartridge era. They came with a spare percussion cylinder. If made up cartridges were scarce, you could put in the percussion cylinder and shoot cap, ball and loose powder until you could get in a fresh supply of cartridges. With all that going for them, Remington should have buried Colt, but it didn’t work out that way. While Remington was turning out cartridge conversions, and touting its handguns as far stronger than Colt’s archaic open-top design, or Smith and Wesson’s, hinged frame, Colt stole a march. They designed an entirely new gun, and, to add insult to injury, it blatantly copied many of Remington’s best features. The Colt 1873 Single Action Army, also called the model P, closely copied Remington’s frame design, though it maintained the Colt fascination with separate grip assemblies. That particular love affair would last until 1878. Colt’s best move was to develop a new, very powerful .45 caliber cartridge for the new sixgun. They managed to sell it to the United States Army, and, suddenly, converted percussion revolvers just weren’t the thing. Sales of the Colt Single Action Army model took off, and Remington couldn’t respond with a big caliber revolver of its own, designed specifically for cartridges until 1875. By then Remington had lost too much ground to Colt and Smith and Wesson. In 1886 the company went bankrupt. It was restructured by New York financiers in 1888, and they even launched a streamlined version of the Single Action Army in 1890. However, only 2,000 of the 1890 model were sold, and Remington withdrew from the revolver market, leaving the field to Colt and Smith and Wesson. I’ve often wondered why the 1875 Remington wasn’t more successful. People who used them, swore by them.
Frank James, Jesse’s smarter brother, was carrying a pair of 1875s chambered for .44-40 when he surrendered in 1882. He said, "…the Remington is the hardest and surest shooting pistol made…"
While I wouldn’t swear to that myself, they are remarkable guns. They have a unique look and feel that is quite different from the common herd of Colts and Colt wannabes. Visually, the most distinctive feature on an 1875 Remington is the triangular piece of steel under the barrel. This is usually called the web, and, less frequently, the sail. Like most Remington aficionados, the less common appeals to me, so I’ll call it a sail. You can call it whatever you like. The shape of the sail on cartridge firing Remingtons recalls the shape of the loading lever on Remington percussion pistols. On those pistols the web strengthened the loading lever. On the 1875, I think Remington stuck on a sail to promote brand recognition by harkening back their popular percussion and cartridge conversion sixguns. My guess is they thought the best thing about the sail was that Colts didn’t have any. But, as a lucky break for shooters, the sail really does serve a useful purpose. It weights the front end of the sixgun enough to affect its balance. That’s one of the reason the pair of five and a half inch barreled 1875s I tested balanced like ballerinas. Besides adding a little weight and barrel support, the sail also holds the ejector rod assembly, and that assembly is worth spilling a little ink. If you’re used to Colt ejectors, Remingtons are going to be more than a little strange to you. The principles are the same, but the execution is completely different. Like with most things in life, that’s both good and bad at the same time. Unlike Colt’s ejector, the assembly on a Remington is very flat to the frame. When you look down on an 1875 Remington, you’ll notice it nearly symmetrical. The ejector assembly hardly sticks out at all. A pair of Remington’s look balanced. In fact, they have a very modern cross section. Functionally, ejection is like Colt’s only you have to reach over the gun with your left hand to jack out empties rather than moving under the gun. I’d have to say the advantage here goes to the Colt. I find Remingtons to be a bit awkward to unload. These 1875 Remington’s use virtually the same lockwork as their percussion forbears, and, with the under barrel sail, they have a similar silhouette. But there are some significant departures from the old cap and ball revolvers. The most significant to me is the angle of the grip frame. The percussion Remingtons are very tight-gripped. The trigger guard is close to the grip frame, cramping me a bit. I find Colts to be more comfortable than Remington cap and ball sixguns. I think other people must have felt the same way in the 1870s because the 1875 Remington has a vastly different grip geometry. Where the percussion pistols were cramped, the cartridge gun is decidedly roomy. So, if you have paws that are bigger than the average bear’s, this is the pistol you want to shoot. If you are big handed, you probably think that Colt’s were made for cartoon characters rather than real people because cartoon characters only have three fingers. Well, Remingtons are made for people, not Mickey Mouse. In fact, on my replicas, the grip frame was about a quarter of an inch longer than on original Remingtons. That means even big fisted cowboys can get all their fingers on the grips. No more dangling pinkies. The better your grip, the better you hit, and Remingtons do like to hit. In the last century they had a reputation for exceptional accuracy, and the modern replicas seem to be living up to that tradition. On the originals, very tight tolerances contributed to that. On the replicas though, I’d have to guess that Uberti builds their Colt clones every bit as well as the Remington reproduction, so there must be something about the actual design of Remingtons that helps them hit so well. We’ve already mentioned the excellent balance 1875 Remingtons are blessed with, but they have some mechanical advantages over Colts as well. Remington actions are tunable with a screw driver. The mainspring has a tensioning screw in the front of the grip frame. A little tightening or loosening can really smooth out these guns. Usually backing out that screw a quarter turn will be the equivalent of an action job on a Colt clone. My test guns were the absolute smoothest, out-of-the-box single actions I’ve ever shot. And that’s not just my opinion. Quite a few shooters were curious about them at the match. When they tried the actions, they agreed with my assessment. As a consequence, the trigger pull is very light, and it feels even lighter yet. Remingtons have a very wide trigger. It’s just about as broad as the trigger guard. It make trigger control easy. Add to that the fact that Remingtons have a faster lock time than Colts, and you’ve got one accurate sixgun. At the range, these guns shot three and four inch groups at 25 yards with Winchester and Remington factory ammunition. In match shooting they brought home the bacon. I had four misses out of 60 pistol rounds fired during the match. Bad bullets I guess. It wasn’t the guns, and I’d hate to think it was me. They shoot good and they look good, but these replicas aren’t 100 percent true to original Remingtons. The most noticeable departure is the color case hardened frame. Original 1875s were made in nickel or blued steel. Only the loading gate and hammer were color case hardened. The color case hardened frames look good on the replicas, but the cross-bolt cylinder pin does not. The replicas use the smokeless frame Colt cross-bolt to hold the pin in place. This is completely out of place on a Remington. The originals had a spring clip in the end of the pin to hold it. Very elegant and effective. So they shoot hotter than a pair of F-18s, and they look slick as swim suit models. What more could a fellow ask for? Well, if the fellow is me, there are a few things I’d like to see. The pair of 1875s I tried were chambered for .45 Colt. Original 1875s were offered primarily in .44 Remington, with a fair number chambered for .44-40 after 1878. The company listed .45 Colt as a factory chambering in their catalog, but there is a dispute about whether any were actually produced in that caliber. The evidence suggests that a few were, but not many. At any rate, .45 Colt is a very popular caliber among Cowboy Action Shooters and E.M.F. is smart to offer it in the Remington replica. They also offer .357 magnum and .44-40. But if a genie offered me three wishes tonight, one of them would be for an 1875 chambered for .44 magnum, or at least .44 special. I’m a big fan of that whole family of cartridges from the .44 Russian on up. I shoot .44 magnum in Cowboy matches in my personal guns. Loaded with black powder, they are close to perfect for that game. By the way, if you’re curious about my other two wishes, one would be for an original style cylinder pin release. The final wish would be for a grip frame a quarter inch shorter so gutta percha grips made for original Remingtons would fit without resorting to hacksaw surgery. Dixie Gun Works sells a nice set for $20, and they are well worth it. If I buy an 1875, I’ll cut the frame to make them fit. In fact grips are my only gripe with E.M.F.’s Remington clones. They are simply too thick at the top. Originals I’ve examined are noticeably slimmer. Dixie’s gutta percha grips, also called hard rubber, are exact copies of the panels on original 1890 Remingtons. They feel great, and the Remington logo looks right on these guns. Fitting a set wouldn’t be hard to do, but I didn’t think E.M.F. would appreciate the frame modification. Other than grips, there isn’t much to complain about. Fit and finish was excellent. The chambers were well polished, so empties just dropped out into my palm at the unloading table. And boy could those babies shoot! It’s a good thing to, because in a Colt and Ruger world, a pair of 1875s draw attention. Other shooters were always watching me shoot and then asking to handle the Remingtons. The five and a half inch barrels drew comment. They were a rare option in the nineteenth century, and you don’t see many of them today either. But they were a hit with the shooters who handled them, so I’d say you’ll be seeing more and more of them as word gets around.
So, if you want to stand out from the crowd, and you want to hit what you aim at, make the same choice as Frank James. Go Remington.