January 03, 2011
By Jim Wilson
A grand gun from a grand old man of sixgunning, Mr. J.H. FitzGerald.
By Sheriff Jim Wilson
The years prior to World War II produced some of the most memorable characters that the shooting sports have ever seen. Not the least of these was an old handgunner by the name of J.H. FitzGerald. For quite some years, Mr. FitzGerald was a valued employee of Colt. He became somewhat of an exhibition shooter and nearly always had a booth at the National Matches at Camp Perry to work on Colt handguns that belonged to the shooters.
Elmer Keith wrote that he often hung out at FitzGerald's tent and enjoyed the gun talk that was always present. And on at least one occasion, Keith and FitzGerald worked together to put on a fast-draw demonstration for the Camp Perry crowd. But FitzGerald's main claim to fame was a custom revolver that came to be known as the "FitzGerald Special."
Sometime prior to 1926, FitzGerald came to realize that the Colt Police Positive Special could be improved if it had a two-inch barrel, a bobbed hammerspur, a rounded butt, and the front of the trigger guard cut out. The resulting revolver would be more easily carried in a pants or coat pocket and should be quicker to get into action. At that time the shortest barrel length for the Police Positive Special (chambered for .38 Special, .38 New Police, .38 Smith & Wesson, and various .32 revolver cartridges) was four inches.
According to his theory, FitzGerald cut the revolver's barrel to two inches and reinstalled the front sight. At the same time, he bobbed the hammerspur, rounded the gun's butt, and cut out the front of the trigger guard. The result impressed FitzGerald so much that he made up a pair of these guns for his own personal-defense use. And then he cast his eye on the big Colt New Service revolver.
The Colt New Service was chambered for just about all the centerfire handgun cartridges of its day. FitzGerald used a pair of .45 Colt-chambered New Services and bobbed the hammerspurs and cut out the front of the trigger guards. Colt double-action (DA) revolvers of that era had a center section in their grip frames that served as an anchor point for the revolvers' V-shaped mainsprings. The area below this center section could be easily cut, reshaped, and rewelded without the need to relocate the mainspring. Needless to say, the actions on FitzGerald's pair of Police Positive Specials and New Services were slicked up very nicely.
FitzGerald had come up with one of the earliest and slickest of the belly gun concepts. FitzGerald was a big fellow and cut out the front of the trigger guards in the belief that it would speed his acquisition of the trigger for quick DA shooting.
The demand for snubnose DA revolvers, especially in .38 Special, was so great that Colt brought out such a gun in 1926. The two-inch-barreled, round-butt revolver was given the name "Detective Special." The concept became so popular that something like 400,000 guns, in various configurations, were manufactured over the years.
The FitzGerald Special Catches On
There's no way of telling how many lawmen and defensive handgunners used a FitzGerald Special revolver. We do know that Col. Charles Askins, while serving in the U.S. Border Patrol, carried a four-inch Colt New Service in .38-40 with the hammer bobbed and the front of the trigger guard cut out. He reported that he had also rigged up a two-inch New Service in .45 Colt for off-duty carry.
Some time later, Askins was instrumental in getting the Border Patrol to adopt the Colt New Service in .38 Special as its primary handgun. Askins's own .38 Special New Service was tricked-out with a King ramp, adjustable sight, ivory grips, and a four-inch barrel. This is also the handgun that Askins carried during most of his World War II duties.
Col. Rex Applegate was another shoot-ist who favored the FitzGerald Special. Colonel Applegate cut the barrel of a .45 Colt New Service to two inches, bobbed the hammerspur, and cut out the front of the trigger guard. During World War II, Applegate was involved in training special agents for the O.S.S., the forerunner of the CIA, and he figured that the FitzGerald Special was just the ticket for the fellows who often had to work behind enemy lines.
Apparently, Applegate liked to just stuff his FitzGerald Special into a front pants pocket. In fact, a story is told that he was once interviewed for a special assignment by President Roosevelt, and the Secret Service asked him to remove his revolver before going before the President. It was a request that Applegate declined. (I would have loved to have heard that little exchange.) Later when asked about his choice for the assignment, President Roosevelt is supposed to have replied, "Yes, get me that Army officer with the revolver in his pocket!"
One of the most colorful of the Texas Rangers was Capt. M.T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas. He entered the Rangers in 1920 and retired in 1951, with some time in between serving as a federal agent. Gonzaullas took particular delight in owning, and using, several pairs of custom handguns. And his pair of Colt 1911s is the only set of auto pistols that I know of to get the FitzGerald treatment. This pair of guns was finely engraved, had custom ivory grips, and had the front of the trigger guards cut out. In fact, Gonzaullas may have used one of these guns in his last gunfight against a wanted criminal in Gladewater, Texas, in about 1950. Gonzaullas may have dressed fancy and carried fancier guns than other lawmen, but he could cover the ground he stood on. Make no mistake about that.
Although the cutout trigger guards have a mean and business-like look, we now know that such alterations are not necessary. Without the protection of the trigger guard, some obstruction conceivably could contact the trigger and cause a negligent discharge. And we also know that such alterations are not necessary for speed, either. The late Bill Jordan (longtime lawman, exhibition shooter, and Shooting Times Shooting Editor), who had hands the size of dinner plates, merely thinned the front of the trigger guards on his S&W Model 19s. Since he was recorded drawing, firing, and hitting in about .37 second, the trigger guard issue was solved forever.
The FitzGerald Special is an interesting symbol of the prewar era. It was a grand gun from a grand old man of sixgunning, Mr. J.H. FitzGerald.