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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.