There is no question that the Detective Special is a classic. It’s often credited with being the first production snub-nosed revolver, but the truth is it isn’t even close. Revolvers were sold with two-inch barrels almost as long as there have been cartridge-firing revolvers. I mean, what else would you call a Webley Bulldog? The small S&W top-breaks were offered in their catalogue with a 2″ barrel long before the dawn of the 20th C., as were guns from any number of smaller manufacturers.
The truth is that major manufacturers would always provide a short-barrel revolver by special order, whether from an individual or a distributor. But Colt was the first to produce a specific short-barrel model, the Banker’s Special. This was a Police Positive chambered in .38 S&W with a two-inch barrel. It was an uphill battle to sell lawmen on the snub-nosed gun, but Colt did a number of demonstrations to show doubters that the short barrel would not ruin the gun’s accuracy.
It is often said that J.R.Fitzgerald’s ‘Fitz’ conversions were the inspiration for the Detective Special, but as he made relatively few of these that seems unlikely. More likely of the Banker’s Specials and orders for two-inch barreled Police Positives and Police Positive Specials provided the impetus. In 1927 Colt introduced the Detective Special, a 2″ Police Positive Special in all but name, with the only real difference being a shortened ejector rod and ramped front sight.
The Police Positive Special was a Police Positive with a stretched and reinforced frame to accommodate more powerful cartridges, specifically the .32-20 and .38 Special. By the time the Detective Special was introduced the .32-20 was waning in popularity, so the new gun was offered in .32 Colt New Police (.32 S&W Long with a flat-point bullet) and .38 Colt New Police (.38 S&W with a flat-point bullet) and .38 Special.
Myths and folklore aside, it was the first service-caliber production model that came standard with a short barrel. It was a great success, and quickly became entrenched in American folklore via movies and fiction.
The grip frame continued to mirror the Police Positive’s changes right up until 1966, when Colt re-engineered the gun and gave it a much shorter grip-frame among other things. Despite the short, square-butt grip-frame they didn’t change the length of the handle, offering grips that extended past the new frame.
The photo above shows some of the more visible changes, the most obvious being the grip-frame. Not only was it much shorter, it was now made from a forged frame rather than being machined from stock. The smaller, rounded more elegant hammer of the earlier guns was replaced by a larger, squarer, less elegant and sharp-edged version. Lastly the cylinder-crane retention system was changed from the complicated retainer/screw combination to a simple screw.
These changes made a lot of sense. Colt needed to rationalize the design to make the gun less expensive and easier to produce. There were some internal changes as well, and by and large these affected neither the quality nor the function of the gun. My only real objection is that hammer. The corners are too sharp, it’s too big and frankly it looks cheap. I get that they need to maintain profitability, but seriously they could have done a lot better than this.
The Detective Special suffered from the general slump in revolver sales in the 90’s, and production ended in 1995.
My ‘New’ Detective Special
I went into Pinto’s Guns in Renton, WA. for… well, it doesn’t really matter, does it? I spotted this series 3 gun at a very attractive price. I actually wanted one to use as a model for custom grips. We looked up the date of manufacture and determined it was a C&R gun, so Linda brought down the paperwork and we snagged it.
First off the after-market grips had to go. They were badly fitted, badly designed and could move as much as 1/8″ back and forth even when fully tightened down. I’d seen photos of guns where people shortened the grips to the size of the grip-frame for greater concealability, so-called ‘stubbie’ grips. I decided to make a set in American Holly because I liked the black-and-white look of the Altamont grips. I was curious to see how they would perform on the range. We’ll get back to that.
As for the gun itself, it is apparent that this gun was not fired often if at all. There are no wear marks or turn-rings on the cylinder and the bore is like a mirror, nor was there the least trace of powder residue anywhere on or in the gun. There is minor surface pitting in several places. It seems apparent that this gun was fired seldom if ever and left sitting somewhere for many years. Despite this the gun is in very nice condition overall.
The installation of a red insert in the front sight of this gun is a welcome addition, and is highly visible even in dim light. Unlike S&Ws inserts I don’t see this one ‘fuzz out’ in strong overhead light. The DA trigger pull is very good, but not phenomenal. Single action is crisp and light with little overtravel.
OK, How’s it shoot?
In a word, well. In two words, very well. The DA trigger is a pleasure to use, the sights are highly visible and at defensive distances it shoots to point of aim. My first five shots at seven yards were constrained by my skill, not the gun.
The situation was less happy when I speeded things up. The small grip is just not big enough for my rather large hands. It shifted slightly in my hands between shots. The group size wasn’t bad overall, but it was noticeably less rapid than I usually manage, and there were more flyers.
I like the concealability but can’t abide the trade-off in shootability. New grips were needed… or were they? Remembering that I had a Tyler t-Grip adapter for a Colt D-frame in the shop I found it and went to work. I had to shorten it about 1/8″ so that it wouldn’t hang off the bottom of the grip-frame, and I deepened and rounded the finger grooves. It provides a much better grip that I am a lot more comfortable with. I’ll need to take it to the range and give it a work-out to be sure, but it seems like it might do the trick.
I’ll keep you posted on how it all goes.
Stay safe, and take care.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 14 August 2021