January 04, 2011
Encountering a .41 Colt is rare. Encountering two in separate crimes is positively amazing.
By the time I started at the Crime Lab in 1971, the .41 Colt was a dead issue. My shooting buddy Fred had a Colt Single Action Army originally in .41 Colt that his dad sent back to Hartford for conversion to .38 Special because .41 ammo was getting hard to find. That was done in the 1950s! Thus I had no expectation as a firearms examiner of working a .41 Colt crime; I ended up working two.
The Case Of The Perilous Purse
"Miss Smith" enjoyed evenings at a local tavern. It was a simple place — the wine list was a liquor store receipt — but had a live band and typical neighborhood ambiance. The latter compelled our lady to carry a little heat in her purse. Actually it was big heat: a long-barreled Model 1892 (or so) Colt DA .41 that predated the 20th-century Colt double-action lockwork most of us know.
The primitive lockwork design worked well enough new; however, after years of abuse and a couple of bad reblue jobs inside and out, the rudimentary system that prevented the firing pin from contacting a cartridge before you squeezed the trigger was pretty much useless. Trouble was brewing.
The author never expected to have a Crime Lab case involving the .41 Colt, but as rare as it is, he had two cases. Prior to Starline's reintroduction, .41 Colt unprimed cases were rarer than the ammo.
She had placed her big purse on the bar where she was drinking. When she turned to address a friend, her elbow knocked the purse to the floor. It hit not with a thud but with a room-freezing "KABOOM!"
Everyone looked to see if all was okay. It wasn't. On the bandstand, the drummer was down, bleeding from the head. He was pronounced DRT ("dead right there"). The purse emitted curls of smoke from a big, ragged hole. There was gunshot residue on the purse's inner lining, and a freshly fired case was under the Colt's hammer.
From the spot where the purse fell to the drummer's stool was just over 40 feet, and no one else was even grazed. This was an amazing example of bad luck. After examining the revolver, I found it had such bad cylinder alignment that I doubt you could hit a head-sized target at 40 feet in one carefully aimed shot from a machine rest.
Test bullets from the revolver matched the autopsy bullet. We did not have to drop-test the revolver — the internal safety system was so compromised by the reblue jobs that modest thumb pressure on the hammerspur would push the firing pin fully forward, more than enough to discharge any cartridge at 12 o'clock.
This case raised an interesting legal question. At the time, carrying a handgun was a misdemeanor, but if you did so in a bar, it was a felony. The Texas capital-punishment law had a provision that if you caused a death while committing a felony, it became a capital crime with a maximum punishment of life in prison or death by "Old Sparky."
Miss Smith could have been in a world of legal hurt but was saved by the obvious lack of a motive. She was charged with negligent homicide — the same as if she'd killed someone in a car wreck — a just decision considering the blatantly exotic circumstances.
The Case Of The Underachieving Robber
There weren't too many robberies in the numerous "transient" lodging facilities in the poorer parts of town. If you stayed in one, it was prima facie evidence that you were broke. We were surprised to get an armed robbery and shooting from one of these so-called "flophouses."
A transient reported that someone broke in his room while he was in bed, shot him in the thigh, and tossed the room while he was writhing in pain. Nothing was taken because the victim had nothing.
Firearms for the .41 Colt (left) and the .38-40 Winchester (right) shared the same 0.401-inch bore diameter, but the .41 was less powerful and scaled for smaller revolvers.
The leg wound was "in and out," so the crime scene officer autopsied the mattress, recovering an odd-looking lead bullet. He also found a fired cartridge case on the floor of the room. It was .41 Colt.
Our first thoughts were, "Who unloads only one spent case from a revolver at a crime scene?"
We were glad they did because the spent case's primer showed strong markings transferred from the breechblock of the gun that fired it. We had a very good chance of matching the case to a gun. That was good because the soft lead bullet was useless after its journey through victim and bedding.
No suspects immediately developed, and the case started sliding toward the "unsolved" bin. About a month later, there was a break when a gun-toting robber held up a gas station.
The bad guy caught the attendant off guard, and the victim did as he was told, handing over maybe $20 in cash. As the robber turned to leave, the attendant threw off victim status, drew a .357 Magnum revolver from under the counter, and scored an X-ring hit in the middle of the suspect's back. Another DRT.
Crime scene officers found an old Colt DA .41 on the suspect. They did not immediately connect it with the earlier shooting of the transient, but the rarity of .41 Colt shootings certainly jogged my memory of the transient's shooting. I went straight for the cartridge case match; the mangled bullet from the mattress was a lost cause.
None of the ammo we had in our "stash" would produce enough pressure to mark the primer with breechface impressions, so I dragged out a latex impression kit we kept for toolmark cases. The material could cast the finest details of a metal surface, and I slapped a glob of it on the old Colt's breechface.
Twenty minutes later, the casting material was set, and I had it on the comparison microscope with the evidence case from the flophouse. In seconds it was clear that the old Colt had been fired at the first robbery.
The ex-felon was connected to several other "low-yield" robberies by fingerprints and witnesses' identifications. He apparently never went for the big score; all his jobs cumulatively produced only a few hundred dollars over a period of several years. Definitely an underach
That made two .41 Colt cases I handled during my 16 years in the saddle. And that was two more than I could have imagined.