50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
COLT NEW SERVICE
You’ve got to admire a beefy, no-nonsense handgun, and this revolver, which is almost too big for my medium-sized hands, has got an “I gotta have one” countenance about it. Looking at its classic, husky profile, it is hard to believe the Colt New Service was introduced in 1897. Yet, with its smooth and reliable action, it remained in the line until 1943 and, in fact, helped inspire the Colt Python many years later. Indeed, the Colt New Service had a long and colorful career and was a favored sidearm of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (which ordered more than 3,000 of the guns between 1904 and 1942), numerous municipal police departments, and Colt’s exhibition shooter John Henry FitzGerald, who carried two cutaway New Service “Fitz Specials” in special leather-lined trouser holsters. Not surprisingly, the New Service, as it name implies, also owes its existence, in part, to the armed forces, as it helped us win two World Wars in the guise of the Model 1917. But more about that later.
By the turn of the last century, Colt’s double-actions had finally found acceptance by the military in the New Model Army and Navy revolvers of 1892 through 1903. But those mechanisms were complex and fragile, which caused springs to break and actions to get out of time. Nevertheless, the New Model Army and Navy Model had been adopted by the Army, which soon learned that the gun’s .38 Long Colt chambering proved to be less of a man-stopper than the gun and cartridge it had replaced, the Single Action Army chambered in .45 Colt.
As a stopgap, the Army refurbished and reissued surplus single-actions, but it was clear the double-action was a superior choice for battle. Riding to the rescue was the New Service, the largest “self cocker” Colt’s had ever produced. Fully loaded, it tipped the scales at a hefty three pounds. With a revamped and strengthened lockwork that would become the basis for the liquid-smooth Colt Python action many years later, this hefty sixgun proved an immediate success, especially in its larger chamberings.
Initial calibers included the “holy trinity”—.38-40, .44-40, and .45 Colt—but also encompassed the .44 Russian, .450 Eley, .455 Eley (which the Mounties adopted), and the .476. Three standard barrel lengths were offered, 41⁄2, 51⁄2, and 71⁄2 inches. A milled topstrap served as the rear sight, while the front sight was a “shark’s fin” blade with a scalloped rear edge to reduce glare. Although a few guns were nickeled, the majority were finished in a luxurious polished blue, with case hardened hammer, trigger, and ejector rod tip. A lanyard ring on the butt added to the authoritarian bearing of the New Service.
In 1909, the U.S. Army selected the 51⁄2-inch barreled New Service chambered in .45 Colt as its official sidearm. That same year the lockwork was improved with a Positive Lock, which prevented the gun from firing unless the trigger was pulled completely to the rear. Triggers for the Army guns were blued instead of case hardened, and hammers were fire blued with polished sides. Rather than the checkered rubber grips found on civilian guns, military versions featured smooth walnut; “U.S. Army Model 1909” was stamped on the butt. There was also a Navy variation, along with a Marine Corps version that featured a slightly rounded butt configuration and hand-checkered walnut grips. In all other respects, including hand fitting and finishing, these military arms were standard New Service revolvers exhibiting the highest level of workmanship.
The Army’s pre-WWI adoption of the New Service as its official sidearm is not often recounted, perhaps because that association lasted only for two years, as the revolver was soon replaced by the Government Model 1911. Still, the military enlistment of the New Service was actually just beginning. On April 2, 1917, the United States entered World War I. With a shortage of Government 1911s, both Smith & Wesson and Colt’s were contracted to supply large-framed revolvers chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge. For Smith & Wesson, it was its Second Model Hand Ejector, while the New Service was the obvious choice from Colt. Regardless of manufacture, both guns would be officially designated as the Model 1917. Thus, the Colt New Service, which had briefly been the Model 1909, now became the Model 1917, a title it would hold for 26 years, eventually creating an entirely new category for collectors.
Unlike the luxurious blued finish of the Model 1909, the Model 1917 did away with external polishing, resorting to a brushed blue or matte finish. Also, the 51⁄2-inch barrel was given a graceful taper and the cylinder was shortened for the squatter .45 ACP round. To accommodate this rimless cartridge, Smith & Wesson and Springfield Armory had developed a three-round half-moon clip that could be engaged by the extractor. Thus, two clips were required to load six cartridges. According to Bob Murphy in his book Colt New Service Revolvers, the earliest 1917s had bored-through cylinders that mandated the use of clips, but machining changes eventually enabled .45 ACP rounds to be loaded and fired without a clip, although spent cases had to be individually punched out.
Instead of being stamped with the viewed and proofed “VP” of civilian guns, Model 1917 revolvers were marked with the initials of the inspectors, GHS for Col. Gilbert H. Stewart, or JMG for Lt. Col. J.M. Gilbert. Later, the inspectors’ initials were replaced by a stamped eagle’s head over a one- or two-digit number. The bottom of the barrel was stamped “United States Property” and the butt was marked, “U.S. Army Model 1917,” followed by the Army service number, which had nothing to do with the revolver’s serial number.
World War I ended on November 11, 1918, and the last Model 1917 was shipped on February 19, 1919. In all, 151,700 guns were produced. Of these, 96,530 were returned to government warehouses. In addition, leftover parts were eventually assembled for the civilian market. In fact, during the 1920s and ’30s the NRA offered surplus M1917s to members for $15 each. Other M1917s were issued to agencies such as the Border Patrol and the U.S. Post Office.
Although the Model 1917 had been retired from active duty, it was mustered back into service with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II. Both Colt and Springfield Armory were charged with the task of overhauling these WWI veterans and getting them back into action. One of the easiest ways of spotting such guns is by their Parkerized WWII finish.
Most of these reconditioned Colt 1917s were issued stateside, or to the Military Police, which explains why many examples found today are in comparatively well-maintained condition. However, as Bruce Canfield notes in his excellent book U.S. Infantry Weapons of World War II (Andrew Mowbray Publishers; www.manatarmsbooks.com), Colt Model 1917 revolvers were also deployed overseas during WWII, primarily for use by Signal Corps and crew served weapons personnel, as well as by headquarters staff. One such gun was issued to a young officer in France, Captain Harry S. Truman, who went on to become President of the United States and, it is rumored, kept his Model 1917 after his tour of duty ended.
Even though by then it was out of production, post-war movie-goers got to see the New Service in the hands of the bandidos in The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1946), used by Steve Kanaly in The Wind and the Lion (1975), and brandished by Jack Nicholson as Jack Napier/The Joker in the original Batman (1989).
Although World War II effectively halted the manufacture of the Colt New Service, in both its civilian garb and military guise as the Model 1917, it has served our country and its citizens far longer than anyone had ever envisioned.