Thursday, August 28, 2014

When Revolvers Ruled: The Colt Official Police/Colt Commando

It’s a fact of life: we live in the Age of the Plastic Fantastic, the ubiquitous black polymer semi-auto . I’ve complained about this before and won’t bore you all with doing it again, but things weren’t always this way. No sir, for most of the 20th century, indeed up until the mid 1980s, it was rare to see anything but a traditional double-action revolver in the holster of a law enforcement officer.  I have a certain appreciation for the revolver, one that goes past mere romanticism and nostalgia. A revolver, and a man who trains with one, is worthy of respect. It takes determination, skill and practice to shoot one well, and to reload it under stress. Those who take the time to really master the revolver can do some pretty amazing things with it, and you'd be a fool not to consider them well-armed men.

Jerry Miculek does things with a revolver that most folks can't do with a machine gun.

Back in the day, if you wanted the best American made revolver, that meant you wanted a Colt. Colt's Manufacturing had a long history of supplying the US military with revolvers, going back to the mid 19th Century. The arrival of John Moses Browning’s immortal M1911 cooled the military’s demand for wheel guns, so in the aftermath of WWI Colt was looking for an alternative market for its excellent revolvers. Fortunately, this was nothing a little creative marketing and re-badging couldn't fix. Colt already had a solid medium frame revolver it had released in 1908, known as the Army Special (which the Army didn't use and didn't want). So, in 1927, the Army Special was slightly modified and renamed the Colt Official Police.

A pre-war Colt Official Police in its original box.

Obviously targeted at law enforcement (no pun intended), the Official Police was a traditional, medium frame, six shot double action revolver with fixed sights. It could be had in several calibers, finishes, and barrel lengths, but the most common configuration was a blued model with a four inch barrel chambered in .38 Special.  In this chambering, the 4" Official Police launched a 158 grain lead round nose bullet at about 780 fps.  That’s considered a bit pokey today, but at the time it was considered more than adequate firepower for the average constable. Law enforcement quickly took to the "new" revolver, and as its name suggested, the Official Police became the de facto standard issue sidearm for police departments across the nation. Even J. Edgar Hoover’s boys adopted it. Colt produced over 400,000 Official Police revolvers, almost edging out donuts as the nation’s most popular cop accessory.

Stereotypes. They exist for a reason, folks.

Like all guns produced in the early twentieth century, the Official Police was a looker. Checkered walnut grips with Colt Medallions and high polished blue finishes (the famous Colt “royal” blue) were factory standard.  Nickel was an option as well. It’s unheard of for a cop gun to get that kind of treatment these days, and I suppose it was really kind of superfluous even then, but the pre-war Colts are really beautifully made pieces. This beauty was matched, if not exceeded, by its functionality.  In the days before Jeff Cooper’s Modern Technique, police officers were trained  to shoot one handed, single action, “bullseye” style. Here, Colt was king. Its single action trigger pull was peerless, as its firing mechanism was hand-fitted and honed to perfection by skilled craftsmen.  

Andy Garcia (aka George Stone, The Untouchables) demonstrates a 1930's style police officer shooting stance with a Colt Official Police

In addition to having great accuracy, the Official Police was strong, being +P rated before there was such a thing as +P rating. In 1930, a good 5 years before anybody had heard of a “magnum” revolver cartridge, Remington introduced the .38 Special High Speed (or .38/44). This was nothing more than a souped up .38 Special with increased velocity, ostensibly to give police better penetration against barriers like car doors. Smith and Wesson’s Military and Police revolver (Colt’s main competitor) couldn’t handle the pressures generated by the new round, so they only approved its use in their heavier N frame revolvers. Colt, on the other hand, tested the round and simply announced that all Official Police revolvers were good to go with the new cartridge…no new gun needed.  Score another point for the Colt.

Smith and Wesson's 38/44 Heavy Duty. Pretty, but Colt didn't need no stinkin' N frame. Further tweaking of the .38 Special would bring about the .357 Magnum in 1935.

At the outbreak of WWII, the Official Police had been in production for 14 years and was still going strong. The advent of the war was about to change things, though. As the country geared up for conflict, the US Government identified a need for revolvers to arm security personnel at critical factories, warehouses, and defense installations.  Colt was contacted to supply these guns. The Official Police was perfectly suited for this role, but it had a problem: all that hand fitting and spit and polish required skilled labor, and lots of it. This made the revolver rather expensive and slow to produce. The Army Ordnance Department balked at this, so Colt made some cosmetic changes to the gun for economy’s sake. The high-polish blue was eschewed in favor of a matte Parkerized finish, checkering on the trigger and cylinder catch was removed, and the nice walnut grips with medallions were replaced with brown checkered plastic stocks. Colt's marketing department creatively referred to these stocks as “Coltwood” (which I liken to me painting a hunk of lead yellow and calling it “Jimgold”, but I digress). The end result of these changes was that Uncle Sam's cost for an Official Police dropped from $28 to under $25 (that’s $410 vs.  $365 respectively in today’s dollars).  At a roughly 11% discount, the savings added up quickly. Given its military intent, Colt christened the “new” revolver the Commando, and began shipping orders in late 1942. After two new names, the old 1908 "Army Special" had finally made the big time.

My Colt Commando. It's in remarkably good shape, with only minor finish wear on the high points.

There aren’t any cool Sergeant York stories about the Colt Commando. To my knowledge, nobody ever earned a Congressional Medal of Honor using it. It was never used to kill 20+ Germans at close range, and nobody stormed the Atlantic Wall on D-Day with one.  That’s not to say they didn’t see any action: General Dwight D. Eisenhower reportedly carried one in Europe, and Colt made 2” and 4" barreled Commandos that were issued to the OSS.  But it’s true that most of the Commandos that were produced served out the war quietly at home, in the holsters of security guards at various defense plants, or on merchant marine vessels.  In total, Colt produced about 50,000 Commandos, ending production in late 1945.

For many years, the Commando was overlooked in collector circles, and could be had for a song. With the surge in demand for pretty much anything WWII related, that’s since changed, and prices have gone up. Since most Commandos spent more time being carried than actually shot, they tend to be in pretty good shape. I’ve seen decent examples go for north of $700 at gun shows. I picked up my Commando in an online auction years ago for considerably less than that. My Commando appears to have had an easy life: it has about 97% of its original Parkerized finish, a sharp mirror-like bore, tight lock-up, and yes, the “Coltwood” grips are in mint condition. I don’t often shoot it as I find the grip to be a bit small for my hand, but the last time I had it out, it shot some 158 grain lead semi-wad cutters quite well. The single action trigger breaks like glass. The double-action is smooth and quite serviceable, but the pull gets heavier toward the end, which can contribute to diminished accuracy.

Note the GHD and "Flaming Bomb" Ordnance acceptance stamps. GHD stands for Guy H. Drewry.

After the war, Colt resumed production of the Official Police with the high polish blue finish and some minor tweaks, but for some reason they kept the Coltwood grips until the mid 1950s. Regardless, the revolver never recaptured the same success in the post-war period. Smith and Wesson’s Model 10 was making inroads with law enforcement due to its lower cost and better double action trigger. By the 1950s, combat pistol training was coming into vogue, with Weaver stances and two handed grips, and the Colt’s excellent single action trigger was rendered irrelevant. In 1969, Colt discontinued production of the Official Police, citing rising production costs and sagging sales. The good news is that these guns are still readily available on the secondary market, and are some of the more affordable Colt double action revolvers out there. More than just an “old cop gun”, the Official Police is one of the quintessential revolvers of the 20th century, and is sure to delight history buffs, firearms enthusiasts, and yes, cranky old men who sigh wistfully about the days when craftsmanship meant something. And frankly, I love that.

Part of the old Colt factory in Hartsford, CT, where American craftsmanship helped win wars.

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