50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
In the surreal world of Hollywood, one of the greatest accolades for an actor is when a toy company produces a doll in his or her likeness, usually based upon a character they’ve played. By that same token, I’ve always thought that one of the hallmarks of a classic firearm was when a toy manufacturer deemed it worthy enough to design a cap gun after it. At least, this is the way it was with the Dick Special, a compact, pot metal snubbie made by Hubley, I believe, that fired a red-paper roll of caps in the hands of many a would-be childhood detective, back in the 1940s and ’50s. Of course, back then, “Dick” was synonymous with “detective,” those trench coat-clad sleuths who lurked in the back alleys and shadowy lairs of the city streets. It was the urban answer to the wide-open spaces of the Wild West, and the snub-nosed revolver was the citified counterpart to the Colt Single Action Army.
The role model for all those pocket-sized snubbies—indeed, the first of the twentieth century’s eventual long line of compact, swing-out cylinder revolvers—was the aptly named Colt Detective Special. First introduced in 1927, it was really a short-barreled Colt Police Positive Special, a double-action handgun that had been introduced in 1907 and remained in the line until 1946. It proved to be an extremely popular sidearm for law enforcement personnel; among its .32- and .38-caliber chamberings, the .38 Special version was most in demand. This all-around self-defense round had been developed by Smith & Wesson for its Military & Police revolver back in 1902, but, soon, any handgun manufacturer worthy of the name was chambering revolvers for it. That, of course, included Colt’s and its Police Positive Special.
The six-shot Police Positive Special was normally outfitted with either a four-, five-, or six-inch barrel on Colt’s .38 caliber D frame. However, there was obviously a need among lawmen and undercover cops for an easier to conceal “pocket pistol” with a shorter barrel. As evidence of this, in my collection I have a Colt Police Positive Special made in the early ’20s and issued to a detective working for the Union Pacific Railroad. That lawman had taken his Police Positive Special to the railroad’s machine shop and had its original four-inch barrel shortened to two inches. This may very well have been one of the first “non-factory” versions of Colt’s ubiquitous snubbie, although John Henry FitzGerald, a Colt’s firearms tester and exhibition shooter, had been lopping the ends off of his Colt’s revolvers for years and, in fact, is credited with convincing Colt’s to come out with the first regularly cataloged snub-nosed revolver.
In any case, evidently there was sufficient demand for a snub-nosed .38 Special revolver like my UPRR pocket pistol, because, in 1926, Colt’s began producing a small number of Police Positive Specials with two-inch tubes. But by 1927, demand was such that the little gun received its own apropos designation, although it continued to share serial numbers with its longer-barreled brother. And, thus, the Detective Special was born.
Initially, it was only chambered in .38 Special, but, after 1946, less effective self-defense cartridges—the .38 Colt New Police, .38 S&W, .32 Colt, and .32 S&W—were added. No doubt this was done to boost sales and reduce recoil in the little 21-ounce gun. In addition, a very scarce variation with a three-inch barrel was made for a short period after World War II. Stocks were checkered walnut with an inset gold-colored rampant Colt medallion. The gun was primarily offered with a blued finish; a scarcer nickel finish was an option, though it was not favored by lawmen due to its reflective qualities. Let’s face it, the Detective Special was strictly a hideout gun, and Colt’s marketed it as such. Quoting from its 1936 centennial catalog:
More power is packed into the snub-nosed Colt Detective Special, than in any other arm of its size. This model is especially popular among Plain Clothes Detectives, Police Officers off duty, Bank Messengers and Payroll Clerks. The small size of the Detective Special—it is but 61⁄4 inches overall—makes it possible to carry it ready for instant action, in the pocket or shoulder holster … . The Detective Special handles all .38 Special ammunition, including the High Speed. Although primarily for “close quarters” service, the Detective Special is surprisingly accurate at distances of 25 yards and more.
And indeed it is. Using Federal’s 110-grain .38 Special Hydra-Shoks, my 1950s-era Detective Special prints 31⁄2-inch groups at 25 yards, exhibiting deadly accuracy for a self-defense snub-nosed revolver in which most shots would likely be fired at substantially closer distances. But an even more dramatic demonstration of the Detective Special’s capabilities was performed many years ago by the crack exhibition shooting of J. Henry FitzGerald. “Fitz” worked as a ballistician and trick shooter for Colt’s for 27 years, first joining the company in 1918. He was known for shooting tiny wafers and blocks of wood out of the air with amazing speed, using a pair of Colt Detective Specials that he had modified by bobbing the hammers and cutting away the front half of the trigger guards for gaining easier access to the triggers and thus, being able to draw the guns from his leather-lined pants pockets with lighting speed without snagging. Although FitzGerald personally made approximately 35 of these special guns, many more were subsequently copied by numerous gunsmiths and have since become known as “Fitz Specials.”
Even without alteration, the Detective Special was emblematic of the almost-custom quality that was the hallmark of all pre-war Colt’s handguns. Parts were polished and hand fitted, and the flat mainspring offered much less resistance than many of the coil springs that would come later. In addition, and like the Police Positive Special, the gun featured a Colt Positive Safety Lock, which in essence was a 1⁄10-inch steel finger that kept the hammer from touching the frame unless the trigger was pulled. Finally, and no doubt inspired by FitzGerald’s bobbed hammers, an optional detachable hammer shroud was offered later in production.
There are four distinct variations of the Colt Detective Special. The first had a sharply defined square butt that was changed to a more ergonomic butt and grip combination with slightly rounded corners, in 1933. The second issue, which ran from 1947 through 1972, saw the replacement of wood grips with plastic and the addition of the lesser-powered post-war .32- and .38-caliber choices mentioned earlier. Wood grips were brought back in 1954. The third issue, which ran from 1973 until 1986, saw a tweaking of the lock work, the addition of wraparound grips, a front sight with an elongated ramp that ran the length of the two-inch barrel, and a more practical but less attractive shrouded ejector rod. A short-lived fourth series, which lasted from 1993 until 1995, included a last gasp for the little gun by its being offered in stainless steel, as well as with an alloy frame, plus in a double action-only mode with bobbed hammer.
Clearly, it is the pre-1972 guns—the ones without the shrouded ejector rod—and, more specifically, those from the 1950s and earlier, that are now capturing collectors’ attention. They invoke not only an era of high-quality belly guns, but a period of film noir and images of tough-talking guys like Mickey Spillane, Robert Mitchum, and Richard Widmark, regular Joes who didn’t know where their next check or their next meal was coming from, but who could crank off six well-placed shots in a darkened room, thus striking a winning blow for law and order with their Colt Detective Specials.