Retro Review: The Colt Army Special .38

HISTORY

In 1889 Colt jumped-started the new age of revolvers with their New Army/New Navy models. These established the template for the modern double-action revolver was we know it today, with the ability to be fired either double or single action and a swing-out cylinder with it’s own ejector.

Colt New Army/New Navy in .38 Colt Long

Many claim that the swing-out cylinder is Colt’s invention, but this is patently untrue. Some Belgian gun makers were making swing-out cylinder double action revolvers as early as the 1860s, but Colt can certainly be credited for refining this into the revolver we recognize today.

The Navy was quick to adopt Colt’s new revolver, and the Army followed shortly after. Yes, these were the Colt .38s that famously failed to stop charging warriors in the Philippines. This lead to the rapid development of the New Service in larger calibers, though it is unclear that this had the desired effect. These native warriors were hard to stop with a .30-40 Krag rifle, so adding a few hundredths of an inch to pistol bullet was unlikely to have had a significant effect.

Colt continued to develop this revolver, giving a new year/model designation to each upgrade, resulting in one gun with a bewildering variety of model names.

Colt introduced the Army Special in 1908, with an improved mechanism based on the New Service and New pocket models, and it was an instant success with both law enforcement and civilians. This new models was stoutly made and able to handle more powerful cartridges like the .32-20, .38 Special and .41 Colt Long.

This model formed the basis for every medium-framed Colt up to the Python. So few changes were made during this period that some parts from a 1908 Army would function in a Python made nearly a century later.

My Colt Army Special, made in 1911

The Army Special could be had with a blue or nickel finish, with barrels ranging from 4-6 inches. The original grips were hard black rubber, but these were changed to checkered walnut in 1923.

The Army never officially adopted the Army Special. There are some indications that some were purchased as ‘second standard’ revolvers, but I have been unable to verify this. In 1927 Colt changed the name to the Official Police, and it remained popular with law enforcement well into the 1980s.

These are a quite robust revolver; Colt claimed they could fire .38-44 loads, and this claim is to some degree substantiated by the introduction of .357 Magnum models based on the same frame.

CONTEXT

It’s important to judge these guns as artifacts of the period in which they were introduced. 19th Century Americans were slow to embrace double-action triggers on service pistols, though they were common on pocket revolvers, and both Colt and Smith & Wesson had double action service revolvers. In 1908 the orthodoxy for police agencies was that these guns were treated as single-actions, with double-action reserved for point-blank emergency use. It is not surprising then that these guns are at their best when used as such. Any fair review should take this into account.

The New Service revolver was notorious for a heavy double-action trigger pull. The famous Fitz cutting away the front of the trigger guard was not as reckless or dangerous as it seems today; there’s very little likelihood that this trigger can be pulled by anything but a fair amount of deliberate effort! The single-action pull isn’t light either, but there is no creep and very little over-travel.

There were early pioneers of double-action gunfighting, but it was not uncommon for some police departments to treat their revolvers as primarily single actions as late as the 1950s.

REVIEW

Our specific review gun is a 6″ barreled example in .38 Special, manufactured in 1911. Little is left of the original blue finish; there is an overall uniform patina and no evidence of rust or pitting. The timing is excellent, but there is some slight endplay and sideplay in the cylinder. Nothing unsafe, mind you, or even close to it. Certainly not out of the ordinary for a well-used gun of this vintage.

Not much finish left, but what do you expect on a 109 year old gun?

Grips are of the correct type for it’s year of manufacture; no way to tell if they are original to this gun. The bore and forcing cone are excellent; the gun appears to have been well maintained.

The trigger pull is… well, let’s not mince words here. It’s bloody heavy. Heavy enough that a modern trigger gauge couldn’t measure it, placing it at something over 12 lbs. On the other hand it’s glass-smooth, with no stacking, so while it is heavy it’s not difficult to achieve accuracy. This single action pull is also heavy; I’d put it at around 6 lbs., but it has no take-up or creep, and very little over-travel.

The fixed sights are typical for it’s era, that is to say awful. A narrow half-round front sight, and a narrow groove milled into the top of the frame above the hammer. Not easy to pick up quickly, and not very precise; the front sight almost completely fills the rear aperture. The good news is they shoot dead-on to point of aim at 7 yards, and a six-o’clock hold gives good results at 25 yards.

The Army Special is a robust gun. The K-frame looks almost delicate by comparison. Not surprising, as the frame was designed to accommodate six .41-caliber cartridges.

The grip works well for my rather large hand and the gun balances nicely. I was shooting some peppy (but not +P) loads, and while recoil was easily manageable, I found that if I wasn’t paying attention my hand would slide upwards on the grip. I expect that this is owed to the lack of significant re-curve in the back-strap of the grip frame. Once I realized it was an issue it was easy to counter. Your results may vary, of course, depending on your hand.

So, accuracy…

First group at 7 yards, fired at a brisk pace.
Five shots at 25 yards, fired two-hands, double action. Not impressive, but not tragic. I suspect a small improvement to the sights would shrink this group right down… and more practice wouldn’t hurt!
Rapid fire and double taps at seven yards. I’d love to blame the dispersion to the right on the sights, but that’s all me. I suspect, again, that practice would improve this.

A funny moment in conjunction with that last target. Since I am now a member and have been qualified I can now shoot as rapidly as I like, and on that last target I did. A fellow from another lane saw what I was shooting and did a double take. “You’re shooting a revolver?!” He’d been sure it was a semi-auto. I’m no Jerry Mikulec, but I do alright…

SUMMARY

This is my second Army Special, and that fact alone is revealing; I like these guns. Within their limitations they shoot well and hold up to heavy use. You’d pay twice as much, or more, for a comparable revolver new… though you’d definitely get better sights! Parts are not a problem owing to the longevity of the design, nor are aftermarket grips.

Despite the ultra-optimistic Gunbroker sellers, if you shop around you can probably find a gun in this condition for $275- $400. Nicer guns are liable to run more, and top-end collector pieces with letter, box etc. will probably put you into four-digit prices.

For an affordable fun shooter with some character you could do a lot worse. If the price is right and the gun is sound I can’t think of a single reason not to pick one up, and I doubt you’ll be disappointed if you do.

I ‘Fitzed’ the first Army Special I bought- in fact I bought it for that purpose. Of course a buddy of mine back east fell in love with it, so… Anyway, not going to do that to this one. An idea that does intrigue me is to get a .41 Colt Long barrel and ream the chambers for .41 Special. Might make a fun and interesting gun…

Michael Tinker Pearce, 13 February 2020

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2 thoughts on “Retro Review: The Colt Army Special .38

  1. Brett

    I shoot an Army Special in .41 Colt. With black powder and heel bullets I find it to be accurate. The .408 diameter bullets weigh 200 grs and are followed by a lube cookie and a card wad. Muzzle velocity is 650 FPS. If I were carrying a gun in 1900 this would be my choice.

    Reply
    1. tinker1066

      .41 didn’t really get a bad rep until Colt started loading the undersized hollow-base bullets with smokeless. Before that it was a popular and effective cartridge. .41 Special is sort of the modern equivalent.

      Reply

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