The first solid-frame, swing-out-cylinder revolver was patented in Europe. Colt–the world’s premier revolver maker–did not want to fall behind the loop and assigned chief engineer Carl Ehbets the task of developing such a revolver.
In 1888 Ehbets patented a mechanism whereby the cylinder was locked in position by a sliding latch on the frame that was connected to a pin that entered a recess in the ratchet at the rear of the cylinder, locking it in place. Pulling the latch to the rear allowed the cylinder to be swung open and pushing the ejector rod extracted the spent cartridges. All Colt swing-out-cylinder revolvers produced since then use the same basic system.
In 1889 and 1892, the U.S. Navy and Army adopted revolvers chambered for the .38 Long Colt cartridge (see Shooting Times May 2005). 1907 saw the introduction of the Colt Police Positive revolver chambered for the .32 Colt, .32 New Police, and .38 New Police.
Constructed on the medium-sized “D” frame, it was seen as suitable for both holster and concealed carry. The “Positive” in the name refers to the Colt Positive Lock hammer-block safety, which interposes a steel bar between the hammer and the frame that prevents the hammer from going completely forward unless the trigger is pulled through a complete stroke.
The competing S&W M&P revolver was smaller and lighter than Colt’s revolvers, and so Colt responded with the Police Positive Special, which used the medium frame mated to a cylinder lengthened 0.25 inch in order to handle the longer .38 S&W Special cartridge (a.k.a. “.38 Colt Special”).
Available with 4-, 5-, and 6-inch barrels, the Police Positive Special was of compact dimensions and moderate weight (25 ounces with 6-inch barrel), and it was an immediate hit with American police. It was adopted by many agencies as it was thought to be the perfect size for both uniformed and plainclothes officers even when fitted with the 4-inch barrel. According to a 1916 Colt publication, the St. Louis, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Chicago police departments all approved the Police Positive Special revolver as their issue sidearm. It was especially popular with Canadian and Latin American police forces and was used by the Ontario Provincial Police well into the 1980s.
At the time of the Police Positive’s introduction, the American civilian revolver market was still dominated by .32-caliber revolvers, and the .38 Spl. cartridge did not catch on with civilians until well into the 1920s. In addition, there was a specialized segment of the revolver market that Colt had been addressing for many decades. Colt had long offered revolvers chambered for the popular .32-20, .38-40, and .44-40 Winchester cartridges. The convenience of a common cartridge for one’s long arm and sidearm had obvious advantages, and the popularity of such rifle/revolver combinations grew quickly with American shooters. At the time, rifles firing the .32-20, and the later .25-20 WCF, were the most popular “varmint guns” because they provided accuracy and sufficient killing power with low levels of penetration, noise, and pelt damage. For those reasons, rifles and handguns firing these cartridges were very popular with varmint hunters, trappers, and farmers.
In 1905 Colt began marketing the Navy/Army revolvers chambered for the .32-20, and the popular Police Positive series was chambered for the .32-20.
The .32-20 Police Positive Special was available with 4-, 5-, or 6-inch barrels; fixed sights; and with a choice of blue or nickel finishes. At various times in the model’s production life, the grips were made from hard rubber, checkered walnut, or a synthetic material known as “Coltwood.” The grip frame had a distinctive forward curve common to most of the pre-World War II medium-frame revolvers.
Besides being a companion for .32-20 rifles, it offered .32 aficionados a cartridge with considerably more “oomph” than the .32 Colt New Police.
The only significant cosmetic change to the series occurred around 1926 when the grip frame was shortened slightly. Production was severely curtailed during World War II, and eventually it was discontinued in 1946. In the postwar years the modified Police Positive Special Second Model and Third Model were introduced, but sales were poor, and increased competition from S&W saw them dropped in 1978 after approximately 650,000 had left the factory.
A Practical Performer
My brother Vincent’s apparently bottomless gun collection contains a .32-20 Police Positive Special made in 1916 that is in very-good-plus condition. The cylinder locks up as tight as a new gun, and the DA trigger pull is more than acceptable. It has a 6-inch barrel marked “POLICE POSITIVE SPECIAL .32-20 W.C.F.” While the forward-curving grip frame felt a bit odd in my hand at first, it is a finely made and–thanks in great part to the longer barrel–well-balanced revolver. The sights are easy to see and fast to align, somewhat of a rarity on handguns of that era.
My friend Butch Simpson and I put the lightweight medium-sized revolver to the test using Black Hills and Winchester .32-20 ammo. Firing the gun across a rest at a measured 15 yards was a bit of a trial because the oddly shaped grips ensured that the trigger guard impacted the knuckle of the shooter’s middle finger with each shot. Regardless, we persevered and produced groups that ranged from 3.38 to 4.13 inches in size at 15 yards.
Before moving on to more entertaining forms of the handgun evaluation process, I ran five rounds of each brand of ammo across my chronograph, and the results are listed in the accompanying chart.
Because .32-20 revolvers
were traditionally intended as sidearms for hunters and trappers, in the case of the Colt, I devised a different method of evaluating its offhand shooting capabilities. Instead of perforating combat-type targets, I set up a pair of Outers prairie dog targets, and we plinked away at these imaginary vermin at a distance of 10 yards, firing the revolver in single- and double-action modes. We had no trouble putting all of our rounds inside the kill zone of the paper critter.
All in all, the Police Positive Special proved to be a practical enough revolver. Its light weight would have made it a pleasure to carry for extended periods of time, and the sights were above average for handguns of that day. But these were counterbalanced to a degree by the poorly designed grips. Fortunately, the intervening decades have seen a great deal of improvement in handgun ergonomics.