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.45 Colt Ammo Match: Eight Cartridges Go Head-to-Head

One of the many draws of the shooting sports is the opportunity to enjoy historic products in nearly the same configuration as when they were created. Born in 1872, the .45 Colt cartridge was built to equalize opponents or handle even larger critters on the prairie. Today, reproduction Colt Revolvers are plentiful. And new firearms chambered in the classic .45 Colt cowboy ammo are being released every year.

.45 Colt Ammo Shows Its Versatility

With that, numerous loadings have hit the scene stretching its usage from simple target shooting to dispatching game. Specifically, game that would be out of bounds for the original soft-lead slow pokes.

In this Ammo Match, I rounded up eight different recipes that best showcased this versatility. Then I ran them through a curious new firearm that has what it takes to make them shine.

The Taurus Judge Home Defender

With a sea of old-timey wheel guns available, you might expect me to grab my favorite and run with it. The only trouble there is that I’d be limited to a crude set of iron sights. True, a compact lever action would provide the basis for a magnified optic. However, I didn’t feel that a long gun would best represent the average user’s experience.

Timed nearly perfectly, Taurus introduced its latest Judge—the Home Defender. Despite its unorthodox stature, it had everything I needed to conduct this test. The 13-inch barrel is plenty long for a .45 Colt to reach its potential. Additionally, the Picatinny rail allowed me to mount a wide-lensed EOTech EFLX red dot for a concise, repeatable sight picture.

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Aguila Cowboy

.45 Colt Ammo: Aguila Cowboy.

To better understand .45 Colt ammunition, it helps to know the lingo. In most cases, the adjective “cowboy” is synonymous with “tough” or “macho.” However, when a load is categorized with this moniker, it means “period correct.”

The first .45 Colt rounds were loaded with black powder, which is less efficient than today’s modern smokeless variety. To that end, the originals produced less downrange energy and overall recoil than similarly-sized cartridges loaded with modern propellant.

Aguila’s Cowboy ammo successfully replicates these lighter loads using a mild charge of non-corrosive smokeless powder. This makes them a joy to fire. These were the softest rounds I shot that day, and the recoil was on par with .38 Special.

That makes them a perfect introduction to centerfire ammo for a new shooter. Not to mention a good practice load for those with dexterity issues.

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Barnes Pioneer

Barnes Pioneer.

Hailing from the new-for-2023 Pioneer line, this family is built for easy loading into revolvers and lever-action rifles. Yet, it still delivers outstanding performance on game. The .45 load appears to feature a jacketed hollow point bullet. However, Barnes categorizes it as a jacketed flat-nose projectile.

Since we can’t cheat physics, you can expect some form of hydraulic expansion to be initiated by the empty cavity. So, let’s just call it a bonus. An average muzzle velocity of 922 Feet Per Second proved that they were being driven hard enough for the task. But it didn’t mean that they were unmanageable by any stretch.

Most, if not all, of my five-shot groups, came in at less than an inch. And the experience left me with a pile of high-quality Starline brass to reload.

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Black Hills Authentic Cowboy Action

.45 Colt Ammo: Black Hills Authentic Cowboy Action.

Interestingly, Black Hills Ammunition is the go-to for modern sheriffs, as thousands of lawmen carry it on their belts. Considering this, finding a Cowboy line in the company’s catalog isn’t much of a stretch for the premium ammo maker.

Somewhere between 6mm ARC and Honey Badger, you’ll find this baker’s dozen of period-correct loaded cartridges with .45 Colt reigning supreme. Again, the groups were phenomenal while being incredibly soft shooting. This is despite the additional 100 feet per second added by the extra barrel length on the Taurus.

Glancing at the read-out from the Caldwell G2 Chronograph revealed a 10-shot SD of only 10.76. This showed me that this was going to be one of the most consistent loads I would fire that day.

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DoubleTap Controlled Expansion

DoubleTap Controlled Expansion.

As Taurus reminds us that the .45 Colt is an excellent home defense round, DoubleTap delivers an optimal load to handle modern-day cattle rustlers and highwaymen.

Categorized as “Standard,” it will produce safe pressure levels for any good-quality revolver and is optimized for the Taurus Judge. This became apparent when we started to group-test it. It produced several five-shot groups that you could cover with a nickel.

Felt recoil wasn’t bad, and the fired cases dropped free with barely any influence from the extractor. An average velocity of 806 FPS ensures that expansion is controlled without fracturing the bullet or happening at a rate that limits penetration.

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Federal Champion

.45 Colt Ammo: Federal Champion.

While we view it as a fast-action shooting round, the venerable .45 Colt can be quite accurate as well. Its subsonic velocity, short powder column, and ballistically sound projectiles make it a great choice for cutting x-rings. And Federal makes the perfect round for that activity.

Its Champion load features a hollow-point lead semi-wadcutter bullet with a moderate propellant charge. This ensures it gets to your target without breaking your grip. The groups landed in the top half of all those tested that day. Likewise, our impacts were clean and concentric thanks to the wadcutter element found midway down the bullet.

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Hornady Critical Defense

Hornady Critical Defense.

Bullets need to stop within a threat to be effective. They transfer their energy into the target instead of carrying on to deliver it to what is behind them. The best way to achieve this is through expansion.

This function of terminal ballistics is shrouded in mystery, but it’s as simple as understanding one physical property. Specifically, liquid cannot be compressed.

When a bullet’s hollow cavity becomes filled with liquid, the only path of relief is outward. This mushrooms the point into that classic upset that we all know. However, if it is filled with a compressible material first (like fabric), then this will not happen.

Hornady’s Critical Defense is pre-filled with an elastomer tip that rolls away after it has passed through these failure-inducing materials. Thus allowing the tip to fill with liquid and expand as intended. The 185-grain load produced the fastest velocity of the day and was the only round to break the 1,000-fps mark.

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Remington Performance Wheelgun

.45 Colt Ammo: Remington Performance Wheelgun.

Building firearm-specific cartridges isn’t anything new for the big green monster, and Performance Wheelgun boldly reminds us of that. Using a solid lead-rounded bullet, this 250-grain load has the feel of an original with a distinct zest of modern performance.

Clocking an average speed of 951 feet per second, Remington’s Wheelgun load was the hardest-hitting “cowboy load” tested that day. This makes it a perfect in-between for those who enjoy a little kick but aren’t interested in slinging full-house defensive loads downrange.

I appreciated how the engineers built these to push the limits of the classic unjacketed bullet without causing it to lead the barrel. Pumping up the speed on these might have opened groups up by a few tenths of an inch. However, only a discerning shooter with a steady rest would ever know.

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Underwood Xtreme Penetrator

Underwood Xtreme Penetrator.

Getting penetration out of case-limited cartridges can be challenging. Although the guns can take a fair bit more pressure, the cases that comprise .45 Colt can’t stay together if we drive them much harder. Since we’re about maxed out on the case, the next place to look is the bullet.

Solid-copper monolithic projectiles are renowned for their ability to penetrate thick hides and intermediate barriers. The pinnacle of these specialty bullets just might be the Lehigh Defense Extreme Penetrator.

This load from Underwood is built with the 250-grain variant and left our Judge Home Defender at 954 feet per second. Despite their crazy-looking profile, they were darned accurate, too. Thus putting them in the top third of the chart that day.

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.45 Colt Ammo: Gel Report

After wrapping up accuracy and velocity testing, I pondered terminal performance. Solid-lead target bullets aren’t particularly exciting in gel. Likewise, at this stage in the game, neither are conventional hollow points.

This left me with the Underwood Extreme Penetrator load. And I wanted to do something different with my Clear Ballistics block this time.

With its limitations, the .45 Colt is not the king of poking through things. Some might even hesitate to carry it for woodland defense or hunting for this reason. Therefore, instead of obsessing over stopping a bullet and collecting it from the gel block, I pushed it back incrementally further to test the penetration claim.

.45 Colt Ammo: Gel Report.

At seven yards, the bullet passed straight through my 18-inch 10% FBI gelatin block as if it wasn’t even there. The same held true at 15 and 25 yards. Surely, ½-inch plywood would slow it down enough to stop—nope.

Needless to say, I was impressed. For this reason, I would put this cartridge up there with anything else I would carry into the forest or leave next to my bedside.


Typically, the wrap-up to an Ammo Match involves language that includes the phrase, “Just because it wasn’t accurate in one gun doesn’t mean it won’t be accurate in another.”

However, it’s hard to find disappointment in any of the groups that were fired that day.

Instead, we ought to focus on the usage. If nothing else, we can determine that the past 150 years have been quite good for the .45 Colt. Whether you’re defending the homestead, shooting a match, plinking tin cans, or taking an old classic out to fill the freezer, ammo makers have you covered.

The only thing left is to saddle up the four-wheel drive and ride off into the sunset with your favorite shootin’ iron.

.45 Colt Ammo Shows Its Versatility.

.45 Colt Ammo Performance

Load Velocity Accuracy
Aguila Cowboy 200 LRNFN  646 1.53
Barnes Pioneer 250 JFP 922 0.85
Black Hills Cowboy Action 250 LRNFP 827 0.74
DoubleTap Controlled Expansion 250 JHP 806 0.37
Federal Champion 225 LSWHP 921 0.63
Hornady Critical Defense 185 FTX 1090 1.23
Remington Performance Wheelgun 250 LRN 951 0.93
Underwood 250 Extreme Penetrator 954 0.68

Bullet weight measured in grains, velocity in feet per second, and accuracy in inches for best five-shot groups from 15 yards.

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