Colt Detective Special
Post-1966 Second series blued Colt Detective Special
|Place of origin||United States|
|Barrel length||2 in
|Cartridge||.32 New Police
.38 New Police
|Feed system||Six-round cylinder|
|Sights||Fixed open sights|
The Colt Detective Special is a carbon steel framed double-action short-barreled revolver, and is an example of a class of firearms known to gun enthusiasts as "snubnosed", "snubbies", or "belly guns". As the name "Detective Special" suggests, this model revolver was used as a concealed weapon by plainclothes police detectives.
Introduced in 1927, the Detective Special was one of the first short-barreled revolvers produced with a modern swing-out frame. It was designed from the outset to be chambered for higher-powered cartridges such as the .38 Special, considered to be a powerful caliber for a concealable pocket revolver of the day.
The Detective Special is by design a shortened and somewhat streamlined Colt Police Positive Special, sharing that revolver's slim 'D' size frame and six round capacity. The DS uses a slightly smaller frame than the Colt Official Police or Smith & Wesson 'K' Frame revolvers, but is larger than the compact 'J' frame used in Smith & Wesson five-shot revolvers.
The Detective Special went through several issues or series. The First Series was produced from 1927 until 1946. Compared to later production models, the First Series used a narrower frame, with reduced clearance between the frontstrap of the gripframe and the rear of the trigger guard. Other distinctive features included a shorter ejector-rod with an ungrooved, knurled tip; a checkered hammer spur and cylinder latch, a "half-moon"-shaped front sight, and an overlapping screw and locking pin set-up on the right side of the frame. Grip panels were wooden. A rounded butt on the metal frame became standard in 1933, but pieces with the original square butt (like that of the Police Positive Special) continued to be produced into the 1940s.
The Second Series ran from 1947 to 1972. The ejector-rod was longer and had a groove in its knurled tip; a three-inch-barrel variant was offered, with a yet longer ejector-rod. The cylinder latch was smooth, and the trigger spur serrated. The right side frame screw has no locking pin, and the rear half of the front sight is a serrated ramp. The grip panels were plastic in 1947, but were changed back to wood starting in 1955 (first with a silver-tone Colt medallion, and later a gold-tone). An optional hammer shroud was available from the factory to prevent the hammer from catching on clothing.
The transition from First to Second Series was gradual, with some post-WWII Second Series guns retaining short ejector rods and checkered hammers. Because of this, assigning a given revolver to a particular issue is best done by serial number.
During the 1960s, the grip frame of the Second Series Detective Special was shortened, matching that of Colt's other snub-nosed pistols, the Cobra and Agent. Despite this alteration, the Detective Special's overall grip size remained unchanged, as Colt fitted the Second Series with new, lengthened gripstocks that extended below the frame.
The Third Series ran from 1973 to 1986. A new shroud extended down from the barrel, enclosing and protecting the ejector-rod, and the front sight was changed to a full ramp. New, oversize wood gripstocks were introduced that covered the front frame strap. The Third Series featured improvements to the revolver's internal lockwork as well. As with the previous two Series, a few nickel-plated guns were produced, and a 3-inch-barrel variant was again offered. In 1986, facing stagnant sales numbers as well as rising production and labor costs, Colt discontinued production of the Detective Special.
Colt filed for bankruptcy protection in 1992. After reorganization, the company restarted production of the Detective Special in 1993. The post-1992 Detective Special is sometimes called the Fourth Series, and featured "composite" (rubber), wrap-around grips with a gold medallion. Only a two-inch barrel was offered, in blue or hard chrome finish. The new production run continued only until 1995, when Colt introduced its stainless-steel SF-VI as a replacement for the Detective Special.
From its introduction, the Detective Special used Colt's ‘Positive Safety Lock’ (hammer block), first featured on the Police Positive; the mechanism interposes a bar between hammer and frame until the trigger is pulled, preventing accidental discharge if the hammer is struck (e.g., if a dropped gun falls onto its hammer) with the trigger forward. First and early Second Series Detective Specials are becoming highly sought after by collectors, particularly if they are in prime condition and still have the famous Colt 'Royal Blue' finish.
Calibers and Finishes
The Detective Special was initially available in both bright blued and nickel finishes; a stainless steel finish replaced the nickeled option during the Fourth Series. For the Second Series, caliber options were .32 New Police, .38 New Police, and .38 Special; only .38 Special was offered for the other Series. The standard barrel length was 2 inches, but also a (rare) three-inch-barrel was offered during the Second and Third Series.
Submodels and Variants
One early variant based on the DS frame was the Colt Banker's Special. First produced in 1928, it was chambered in .38 Colt New Police (.38 S&W) and .22 Long Rifle. Few were made, particularly in .22LR caliber. The Banker's Special was popular with railway clerks, who often carried them on mail and parcel freight trains prior to World War II. During World War II production was discontinued, and the type was not revived following the war's end.
The Colt Commando Special was a version of the Detective Special with a matte finish and rubber grips; produced from 1984 to 1986, it was chambered in .38 Special and weighed 21.5 oz.
During the Fourth Series production run of 1993–1995, Colt offered the Detective Special with an optional de-spurred 'bobbed' hammer and double action only lockwork, direct from the factory. The DAO or 'Bobbed Hammer' Detective Special was otherwise the same as the standard Fourth Series Detective Special.
Interest has arisen over the use of higher-pressure (+P) .38 Special ammunition in the Detective Special. In their more recent owners manuals, Colt authorized limited use of +P ammunition in steel-framed revolvers (including earlier versions), citing 2000 to 3000 rounds before recommending the gun be returned to the factory for inspection. Many  believe that this is was due to potential liability rather than engineering requirements, as the standard pressure ammunition of yesteryear was about the same pressure as modern +P ammunition. SAAMI lowered the pressures in 1972.
The DS series was discontinued in 1995. While no longer manufactured, Colt still supports the DS with parts and repair services.
Due to the good concealment qualities of the revolver, the Colt Detective Special was used as a weapon mostly by plainclothes police detectives, though it was also a popular off duty and backup firearm for uniformed police officers. It was also used by bodyguards, and for personal defense and shooting sports.
The Colt Detective Special was a popular weapon before the semi-automatic pistol replaced the revolver in many police departments as well as law enforcement units and armies. Myanmar Police Force and some other countries are still using the batches as officers' sidearms.
Use in films and television
The Colt Detective Special has been widely used in films and television as the weapon of police officers, private investigators and criminals, appearing in such films and television shows as:
- Bullets or Ballots
- The Roaring Twenties
- The Big Sleep
- You Only Live Twice
- The Detective
- The French Connection
- The Godfather
- Taxi Driver
- Gangster Squad
- Dragnet (1951 series)
- Mission: Impossible
- Hawaii Five-O
- Police Story
- Cagney & Lacey
- The Walking Dead
- The Invaders
- The Rockford Files
Designated as the "9.65mm handgun", the Detective Special was used by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces along with the M1911 pistol designated as the "11.4mm handgun", only to be replaced by the Minebea P9 semi-automatic pistol, the Japanese license-made SIG Sauer P220.
The Colt Detective Special was also the first revolver issued to French customs agents, meant to replace the old Browning 10/22 and MAB D pistols. They were used from 1975 to 1988, being progressively replaced by Smith and Wesson revolvers (mostly SW model 13) along with French Manurhins and Sig Sauer SP 2022 in 2005.
- The Colt Detective Special
- Fjestad, SP: Blue Book of Gun Values, 29th Edition; Blue Book Publications, Inc., Minneapolis, 2008
- Tyler T-Grip, fitting chart
- 'Colt -- Colt Detective Special Pre-War .38 Special', item #8563218, www.auctionarms.com (pictures)
- The High Road: Colt Detective Special--What Generation Is It?
- Colt Detective Special, www.guncollectorsclub.com: Colt recorded serial numbers for every year of DS production through 1978; the serial number range for any given year is available from several sources.
- Trzoniec, Stanley W., Colt’s Detective Special, American Handgunner, March/April 1986
- Colt Detective Special
- Internet Movie Firearms Database listing for Colt Detective Special
- The Colt Revolver in the American West—Cased Presentation Detective Special Model
- Vampire Hunter Engraved Detective Special
- Official Safety and Instruction Manual (.pdf)
- The Snubnose Files
- Ballistics By The Inch tests including the Colt Detective Special.