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Colt’s Official Police Revolver

by Paul Scarlata   |  January 3rd, 2011 34

Paul says no Colt personified the law enforcement handgun better than the Official Police Revolver


The Official Police was a rugged, no-frills revolver designed for hard duty.

Unless you are a complete newbie to firearms, or have been living on top of a mountain in Tibet for the last century, you are aware that from the 1870s until the middle of the 20th century the terms “Colt” and “revolver” were synonymous in the police world. Colt revolvers were the most popular law enforcement sidearms in the world, and no Colt product personified the law enforcement handgun better than the Official Police Revolver.

Colt’s first swing-out cylinder, double-action revolver, the Model of 1889, was adopted by the U.S. Navy, followed by the Army three years later. The cylinder was locked in position by a sliding latch on the left side of the frame, which was connected to a pin that entered a recess in the center of a rotating ratchet at the rear of the cylinder, locking it securely in place. The cylinder was mounted on a crane so it could be swung out to the left where pushing on the ejector rod activated a star-shaped extractor, extracting the spent cartridge cases simultaneously.

The Model 1889 was sold commercially as the New Army & Navy Model Revolver and proved to be quite popular. In 1899 S&W introduced its .38 Hand Ejector Military & Police revolver, which would be Colt’s main competition in the law enforcement market for the next 70 years. But just as important was the new .38 S&W Special cartridge introduced at the same time, which pushed its 158-grain lead bullet to a rated 850 fps producing 200 ft-lbs of muzzle energy and was significantly more powerful than the .38 Long Colt.

Since the 1870s American police forces had generally used .32-caliber revolvers. With the dawning of the new century, however, the trend began to turn towards larger calibers. By the second decade of the 20th century, .38-caliber revolvers were outselling .32-caliber revolvers among police by a considerable margin, and Colt products were the best sellers.

In 1908 Colt introduced the Police Positive revolver chambered for the “.38 Colt Special,” which was nothing more than the .38 S&W Special cartridge with a different headstamp. The Police Positive was very popular, and it and a short-barreled version called the Detective Special remained in production until the 1980s.


According to Paul, Colt’s Official Police was the first choice of American police agencies for one-third of a century.

Also in 1908 Colt introduced its New Army revolver, which was a redesign of the New Army & Navy. The frame and trigger guard were reshaped to make it more comfortable and attractive. Cylinder rotation direction was changed to clockwise, and lockup was improved with a single peripheral recess for each chamber engaged by a bolt at the rear of the cylinder. Also, the fixed firing pin on the face of the hammer was replaced with a pivoting unit.

While the Police Positive Special and New Army were both chambered for the .38 Special, the latter revolver was based upon Colt’s larger I-Frame and weighed approximately 10 ounces more. Whether the customer needed a holster-sized revolver or a lighter, more compact model, Colt’s pair of roundguns soon captured the lion’s share of the American police market.

With the U.S. Army’s adoption of the 1911 pistol, military sales of Colt revolvers dried up, so in 1927 the New Army received a facelift and was renamed the Colt Official Police Revolver. Cosmetic changes included a rounded, checkered cylinder latch; wider rear sight groove; matted topstrap; checkered trigger; and a better quality finish. Options included barrel lengths of 4, 5, and 6 inches and a choice of blue or nickel finish. While most of the revolvers were chambered for the .38 Special, Colt also offered it in .22 LR, .32-20, and .41 Long Colt. Also standard was the Colt Positive Lock, which prevented accidental firing by interposing a steel bar between the hammer and frame that stopped the firing pin from reaching a primer unless the trigger was pulled through a complete stroke. Unlike the Smith & Wesson M&P revolver, Colt claimed that the Official Police was strong enough to be used with the powerful .38-44 High Velocity load.


The Official Police’s cylinder swung out by first pulling the cylinder latch to the rear. Pushing in on the ejector rod simultaneously extracted all six spent cases.

The Official Police was a big seller, and the 1933 catalog bragged that the revolver had been adopted by the police departments of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Kansas City, St. Louis, Portland, and Los Angeles, in addition to the state police of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and Connecticut. Sales of the Official Police on the police and civilian markets boomed, and a few years later the FBI adopted it as the agency’s standard-issue sidearm.

The U.S. Army purchased small numbers of Official Police .38-caliber revolvers during the 1930s, but most of these were transferred to other Federal agencies (e.g., Post Office, Treasury Department, and Coast Guard). They were also popular south of the Rio Grande, and Colt sold large numbers to the armies and police forces of Mexico and other Latin American countries.

When World War II erupted, Colt, like most U.S. arms makers, was swamped with government orders. As manufacture of the Model 1911A1 pistol and other guns took priority, revolver production became secondary. Small numbers of the Official Police were produced early in the war years, and in 1942 a special version, the Colt Commando, was introduced. To cut production time and costs, the Commando came with a dull Parkerized finish, smooth trigger and hammer, plastic grips, and 2- or 4-inch barrel. Of the approximately 54,000 Official Police and Commando revolvers purchased by the U.S. government between 1941 and 1945, very few saw combat. Most were supplied to defense plant guards and government security agencies. Some of the 2-inch Commandos were issued to undercover Army personnel and high-ranking officers. Most Commando revolvers remaining in government service after the war were retrofitted with 2-inch barrels.

After the war Colt again began producing guns with the famous deep blue finish but continued to fit the Official Police with plastic grips until 1954 when it resumed using checkered wood with the Colt
medallions.

In those postwar years S&W began to overtake Colt as the world’s premier revolver maker. By the 1960s its M&P revolvers were outselling the Official Police by a significant margin. With total production topping 400,000 units by 1970, however, the Official Police ranks as one of the most popular U.S.-produced handguns in history.


The Official Police’s rear sight was a wide square groove in the topstrap, which
had a matte finish to reduce glare.

Several other Colts were based on the I-Frame, including the deluxe Officer’s Model target series and the .357 Magnum revolvers, which were basically the Official Police with heavier barrels, adjustable sights, and more substantial grips.

Economic, labor, and market forces pushed Colt into a period of decline, and little by little all of its fixed-sight, service-style revolvers were dropped. Production of the Official Police ended in 1969, although the name was briefly resurrected and attached to a revolver that used the much-simplified Mk. III mechanism, but sales were disappointing and manufacture ceased after only three years.

Shooting The Official Police
I borrowed fellow collector John Rasalov’s Colt Official Police for the shooting portion of this report. His Official Police has a 4-inch barrel and checkered wood grips. Its serial number indicates that it was manufactured around 1929. The revolver shows a bit of holster wear, but considering its age, the overall condition is very good. Cylinder lock up is nice and tight, and it is graced with a very practical set of sights and the typical Colt double-action trigger pull with a distinct hesitation at the end of the stroke.


The 76-year-old Official Police revolver that Paul test-fired shot to point of aim and produced some very nice groups.

I thought test-firing should be performed with the type of ammunition that was most commonly used during this revolver’s career. Accordingly, Federal supplied a quantity of its American Eagle .38 Special loaded with traditional 158-grain LRN bullets, and Black Hills provided some 148-grain LWC target loads. When fired from a rest at 15 yards, the Official Police printed dead-on to point of aim and produced some very respectable five-shot groups.


SHOOTING COLT’S POLICE .38 SPECIAL
FACTORY LOAD MUZZLE VELOCITY (fps) 15-YARD ACCURACY (inches)
Black Hill 148-gr. LWC 681 2.13
Federal 158-gr. LRN 775 2.38
NOTES: Accuracy is the average of thee five-shot groups fired at 15 yards from a benchrest. Velocity is the average of five rounds measured 15 feet from gun’s muzzle

To evaluate its offhand shooting capabilities, I set a USPSA target out at seven yards and proceeded to send 158-grain lead bullets downrange, firing the Official Police both one-handed and supported. I found the grips a bit too small for my hands, so I installed an aluminum grip adapter during this stage of my evaluation. The shooting resulted in a properly ventilated target. Thanks to the Colt’s weight, recoil from the sedate .38 Special loads was very mild and fast follow-up shots were easy to make.

To my way of thinking, Colt’s Official Police personifies the fixed-sight, service revolver. Despite lacking the “bells and whistles” demanded by today’s shooters, it was a breed that for over a century showed itself capable of performing just about any task demanded of a defensive-type handgun. And did it darn well in the process.

Thanks go to John Rasalov, Charles Pate, Federal Cartridge and Black Hills Ammunition for providing materials used to prepare this report.

  • Steve

    Can anyone tell me about a Police Positive #89836 J.

    I appreciate all help!

    • Brien

      Contact Colt in Hartford Ct and they will tell you everything you need to know about your firearm.
      http://www.coltsmfg.com/

  • Ron Clark

    Can anyone help me with a set of the wood grips like above. I have a nice revolver but need the grips.

    • sixgun_symphony

      Numrich Gun Parts Corporation will have the grips and other parts you may need.

  • Ron Clark

    my email is ronc@nctv.com

  • CaptVanO

    Ron,

    Go to GunBroker.com they have listed for auction all sorts of grips for all sorts of handguns

  • Philip Clifford

    I inherited my dads Colt Official Police 38 cal revolver,I know these were fixed sight weapons,but mine has two threaded holes on the topstrap above the cylinder,Am I missing a part,and if so where can I get it ?.

  • Philip Clifford

    Also the front sight is not rouned like the one in your photo,It is ramped !!,I cant seem to be able to find any info or parts lists on the net.Please help me with this.

  • John

    For all that dont know the 38 police positive was the gun that lawman cary to inforce proabeshon and it was a varry good handgun I own my own 38 pp and i love it its on target light and just enof power behind it to kill something but what you have to look at is this police in chicgo and NY thay must have really hated licor or thay needed a job because thay where going up aginse goons whith a Tommy gun in there hands and them whith a 38 pp hideing behinde a car so the odds are kinda agenst them and pluss lots of ppl like to drink so they where like in the middle of everyone that was for it and thats that if you think i missed something right back.

  • john

    well what helps me right is my knowlege i own a 38 police pos so i study it and know the facks but how i right is just clear my mine on any thing but what i am righting about so if this helps you becom a butter righter im glad i could help thank you

  • Jim Farmer

    I realize this article pertains to the I-Frame Colt .38 Special Official Police Revolver (1927-1969) which
    remains a historical, venerable, and versatile handgun, though now long discontinued from production.
    The D-Frame Colt Police Positive Special is mentioned in comments. One advantage to the latter is
    a Colt PPP (D-Frame) in .32 Colt New Police (.32 Smith and Wesson Long) and likewise .38 Special
    with 4" barrel ,weighs only 23 ounces. An S&W (K-Frame) Model 10 .38 Special Military and Police with
    same barrel lengtht weighs 30 oz, and an S&W Model 15 (K-Frame) .38 Special Combat Masterpiece
    with 4" barrel unloaded at 34 oz. This is a 10 oz. weight difference. This perhaps remains an advantage
    for women who have smaller hands as they can wield, aim, and maybe shoot better vs. a heavier handgun.
    Generally women's hands are smaller than mens. These are my thoughts though. Yet, it is certainly something to consider for a female desiring to purchase their first or only handgun. Bear in mind "Dial 911
    and Die!" via http://www.jpfo.org.

  • Parr Reed

    jim – I am looking for a part for a Colt Police Positive 32 cal. The part is the ratchet at the end of the cylinder for the 32 cal. Rounds. It advances the cylinder for the next round. It is for a gun for a Christmas present so I am Pretty disparate. The serial number is 180874. I want to Thank you in advance for your assistance and advice. Could you direct me in a friendly direction to help me find this part? Call any hour of the day. Thanks again for your great service. Parr (I have spent two hours on the net with no success.)
    Parr Reed
    4840 Farmington Road
    Gas City, IN. 46933
    parr_reed@olemiss.k12.in.us
    (765) 506-3097

  • Essam saad Eldin

    Can any one advise me I can use pullet of 9 x 19 mm in my colt plolic special .32

  • essam saad eldin

    Can any one advise me if I can use pullet of 9 x 19 mm in my colt police special .32

  • frank

    I just purchased a Colt 38 police special with the marking on the bottom of the handle S.P.D.21.
    I am looking to find out if anyone has information as to what police department this gun might have been assigned to. I purchased the gun in Wildwood, Fl.
    the serial # is 899040.
    thanks for any information

    • greg

      what i have found is it was issued by the Syracuse New York P.D. also would you be interested in selling this gun as i have a interest in these stamped S.P.D. No. please email me at ghorton@windstream.net

  • steven hamilton

    I have a colt 1889 38 police reviver double action with a heavy barrel stamped in exellent condition used by the new york city police department , can anyone tell me the value of this gun?

  • morris

    anybody? serial number 598344 has black plastic grip with colt on both sides

  • Foster

    Theres a colt proofhouse site anyone can look up the serial numbers of most colt pistols. Colt serial number index or lists.

  • ron

    i have offical police 38 special ctg serial number847952 can anybody tell me when it was made

  • jason

    Hello all, i was recently given a brand-new-in-box never been fired Colt 38 special official police revolver, serial 915XXX, i searched proofhouse for the number but was not able to find it. I was told it was at least 30 years old by the original owner and it is in PERFECT condition, just curious where i can find the manufacture date or if there is any information on this weapon.

    • John

      1967 is what I found on proofhouse. I was looking cause I just picked up on and found out it was from 1929.

  • Albert

    looking on how to trace the owner of a .38 colt police special dated l940 with Arlington VA police dept printed on the backstrap internet hx tells of a police force of only 9 officers in 1940.

  • gerhard

    No: most emphatically no!! The 9mm is too big by 1.5mm. The 32 is about 7.65 mm.

  • john logan

    do not fire any 9mm in it. only 32s&w

  • BLUE

    DOES ANYONE HAVE ANY INFO ON SERIAL 564233 ON A OFFICIAL POLICE SPECIAL IN AN ORIGINAL BOX AND MAY HAVE NEVER BEEN FIRED I WOULD LIKE TO SELL IT

  • frank

    I have a colt new police 32 with a 4" barrel. I don't knhow where to find serial#.On the barrel it has Pat'd Aug 5 1884 june 5 1900.Also would like know value and where to find right side grip and knob for ejecter shaft. Thanks Frank

  • Randy

    I have a 1955 Colt Official Police Special 38 Caliber CTG and I need some parts for it. Is there a good site to go to for these parts?

  • http://www.facebook.com/bruce.l.herron Bruce L. Herron

    I have a colt 38 revolver police protector s# 150419 would appreciate any and all info. in great shape what to do to fined the value of this..

  • Mike C

    Nickel Plated 38PP SN: 34630 with “S.P.D. No.4″ on bottom of handel. Looking for the Agency, any info would be great THANKS! Email me: redsoxnpatz88@gmail.com

  • CJ Cheramie

    I have an official 38 Police special Serial # 735063 O, can anybody tell when and where manufactured?

  • john07554

    I have 4 Official Police revolvers. I shoot in our club’s monthly pistol shoots, I use a 1937 Colt Official Police for most of our shoots. It is an excellent shooting gun, I out shoot guys with nicer S & W’s and Colts, I do very well with it. They are very well made handguns. No bells and whistles, but extremely accurate. The Model 10 S&W is also a very nice service gun

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