Click-click-click-click. You feel the cold steel against the back of your head. You’ll never forget that sound again… you know, if you survive. Back in the days of frontier life, hard winter nights and cattle drives the very distinct sound of a certain gun loading a bullet into the chamber encapsulated all the risks, restraint and recompense of the entire era.

Strange enough, the same can be applied directly to the head… the process, of product design. The interesting part of this is how you can see the progression of product design in a bullet being chambered. I’ll explain, but to start, it’s all set in motion by a modern day movie trailer, using product design from the 1800’s to reinforce the finality of a decision.

The Grit

Thanks to his love of westerns, minute details and single action shooting, my father (a Texas rancher) noticed an interesting aspect in the details of a recent motion picture trailer. A detail that illustrates the important process we go through in product design.

This December, the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Fargo) are releasing True Grit, a remake of the 1969 John Wayne classic where young Mattie Ross and one-eyed, U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn go after the man who killed her father. You’ll want to watch this trailer, perhaps multiple times. You’ll want to listen, not only to the errie cadence sung by the Peasall Sisters, but to a sound so unique it ripples through your eardrum like a bullet itself.

The four clicks at the end, just after “Retribution” appears… that means something. You’ll hear it in the full length trailer as well, FIVE times. The Coen brothers knew the significance of those clicks in the design of the gun, the action of the gun and the finality of the decision in cocking that gun. That gun, is the COLT .45 caliber Single Action Army… the “Peacemaker.”

The Gun

C-O-L-T. Click-click-click-click. Every time you cock the hammer back on a COLT SAA Revolver you’ll hear those 4 distinct clicks. They’re integral to the entire design, to what Colonel Samuel Colt envisioned as a gun with completely interchangeable parts that went on to become the first actual assembly line product in the United States.

The older Colt percussion revolvers, like the style shown in the True Grit movie trailers and used in countless other westerns, are most commonly the COLT Single Action Army (SAA) a.k.a. Peacemaker or Fronteirsman that hearken back to the even earlier .44 caliber COLT Dragoon revolvers. Th SAA hit the production floor in 1873 and had two qualities both law enforcers and outlaws desired, firepower and reliability.

An 1873 Colt SAA with a 7 1/2 inch Barrel (Image via
An 1873 Colt SAA with a 7 1/2 inch barrel (Image via

The Colt Single Action Revolver has a Distinctive Four Stage Hammer Lockup with a characteristic sound. When the hammer is cocked, it is said to symbolize the letters of it’s namesake, C-O-L-T. The clicks break down like this:

Click 1 – 1/4 notch -the trigger sear passing the quarter-cock notch
Click 2 – Half-cock – the trigger sear passing the half-cock notch
Click 3 – Cylinder lock – the cylinder bolt locking up against the cylinder
Click 4 – Full cock – the trigger sear engaging the full cock notch

The trigger sear is what catches and releases the hammer. Half-cock is when the hammer is partially cocked. The half-cock notch prevents it from firing early. (You may be familiar with the idomatic phrase, “go off half-cock” which refers to a decision or action made too early.) Half-cock is also when the gun can be loaded. The cylinder lock is when the firing chamber is rotated in line with the barrel. Full cock is when the hammer is locked and ready to fire. When the trigger is pulled and held down, the sear is thrown open and you can literally ‘fan’ the hammer for continuous firepower. Larry Potterfield of Midway USA, in the following video, explains it best when demonstrating the details in the design and function of the guns mechanics.

The design and function of the revolver is nothing but impressive. All the parts work together for the single purpose for which it was being used for. For some it was protection. For others, it was retribution.

The 4 stages of Product Design Retribution

There are strong similarities between the stages of the hammer lock on a COLT revolver and the stages we go though in product design. It’s a perfect metaphor for the process. In the same way the bullet is put into position for firing when the hammer is pulled back, the concepts we develop are put into position for launch. If you’ve been part of the process, you have to know what you’re aiming for and more than anything, you have to know what kind of commitment is involved.

Rooster Cogburn points his SAA. True Grit (2010) © 2010 - Paramount Pictures
Rooster Cogburn points his SAA. True Grit (2010) © 2010 - Paramount Pictures

There are four aspects of the design process that encapsulate that

Stage 1 – Safety
The first click in the process. The 1/4 notch in the gun serves as a safety. It keeps the gun from firing if the thumb slips. In the design process, the team review, early on, is there to prevent a slip up from blowing the whole project.

Stage 2 – Flexibility
The second click. The half-cock position in the gun allows the person to load or unload the gun, to freely turn the cylinder. In design, flexibility in the product development process is key to hitting the target. Too rigid and the whole process slows down.

Stage 3 – Commitment
The third click. Here, the cylinder lock lug engages the cylinder. Whatever is in the cylinder is what you’re firing. In the design process, there is that point when you’re committed to the final product outcome. It’s a mindset and a focus that forces you to the next stage.

Stage 4 – Ready
The fourth and final click. In the full cock, the trigger sear is engaged in the full cock notch. There is maximum spring tension on the hammer. At this point in the design process, everything is complete, the product is ready to launch, but the focus is still there.

All you have to do now is touch the hair trigger…

It’s not the most profound thought, but that the design of a product from over 130 years ago reiterates the design process we go through every day is pretty cool. And that it spills out into the subtle sound effects of a two-minute movie trailer makes it even more fun. As my dad said, “It’s thumb-busting product design in one helluva butt-busting movie.” I’d agree completely.

I’m convinced that modern day designers and engineers could be the cowboy outlaws of the old west, or at the very least the people designing the saddles – You’d be hard pressed to find anyone that gritty, minus the unshaven hispter with a bad attitude – which is to say, the engineers and designers that make products happen, they know, just like the guy starring down the end of a steel barrel, what it’s going to take to pull that trigger.

I’ll leave you with this. It’s another trailer. One for the movie Appaloosa, starring Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen. At 1:26 you see what happens after you pull the trigger. It’s a split second result of a decision and a display of how much power is there. Depending on what you’re dealing with and how you react, the next decision may be life or death.

Other interesting links:
The rundown of guns in the original True Grit [link]
The rundown of guns used in the remake of True Grit [link]
All the movies the COLT SAA has ever been in [link]


Josh is founder and editor at, founder at Aimsift Inc., and co-founder of EvD Media. He is involved in engineering, design, visualization, the technology making it happen, and the content developed around it. He is a SolidWorks Certified Professional and excels at falling awkwardly.