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September 18, 2019

Uncovering the Colt Detective Special

By Danielle Hollembaek

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Colt firearms has been a titan in the gun industry for over 150 years, an absolute force to be reckoned from its inception in the 1850s until the mid-20th century in both the civilian and government market. One particular series of revolvers that was highly successful in the later years of the company and is now an unsung icon of police guns is the Colt Detective Special.

One of the most gorgeous Colt Detective Specials around, and with a fantastic story to match it's aesthetic.

Origins of The Colt Detective Special

The Colt Detective Special is a sized down version of the popular Police Positive Colt revolver chambered in .32 long/short. The Police Positive was released in 1907 and gained a loyal following almost immediately. It was the premier revolver for law enforcement with its positive lock safety to prevent accidentally firing, as well as a variety of barrel lengths. The gun was available in several calibers with the most popular being .32 New Police. Within a year, they introduced the beefed-up Police Positive Special revolver chambered in the significantly more powerful .38 special. Both revolvers were immensely popular.

A Wells Fargo Co. Police Positive DA revolver.

The Police Positive Special inspired Colt gun designer John Henry Fitz to create what he called the “Fitz Special” in the 1920s. The gun was a short “snub nosed” revolver, with the hammer spur removed to avoid snagging clothing as it was drawn. It also removed the front of the trigger guard so more quickly acquire the trigger. With an emphasis on drawing from concealment, it was still sturdy enough to use .38 special rounds. This innovation of a gun became the prototype for what would eventually be given the name the Colt Detective Special.

Manufactured in 1938. These FitzGerald Specials were hide away guns with short barrels, cut away trigger guards, and cut away (bobbed) hammers.

Colt Detective Special First Issue

The first issue Colt Detective Special debuted in 1927 and was produced until the late 1940s. It was very similar in design and power to the Fitz Special prototype, but without some of the more radical changes. As with many Colt guns in the 1900s, the naming of the firearms in certain series was clever and highly geared at marketing (snake guns are a perfect example). Using the name “detective” was geared towards appealing to police detectives of the time and it went in line with the law enforcement naming system of the gun series.

Rare, Historic and Excellent Factory Engraved Pre-World War II Colt Detective Special DA Revolver Inscribed to Famed Trap Shooter Frederick Rudolph Etchen with Factory Pearl Grips. Sold for $21,850 in September 2019.

The gun was originally used by plainclothes policemen and detectives allowing them to carry a pocket pistol to bring in to undercover operations, but the small firearm also gained popularity with other professions. Taxi drivers, small store owners, and mobsters took a liking to the petite pistol for close-range protection. As with any small arm, people who had a need for covert protection or a small gun with big firepower were bound to take a liking to it.

Two Colt Detective Special revolvers from two different eras. (Right) Manufactured in 1964. (Left) Manufactured in 1932.

The Colt Detective Special Design

The Colt Detective Special (to no one’s surprise) was a well-designed gun. The revolver was made as a double action with the ability to function as single if the user felt inclined to do so. The gun is an early modern factory production “snub nosed” revolver, meaning that it has a short barrel of about 2-inches designed for easy concealment, but reducing its range and power. Just like the Police Positive revolver, the gun also was equipped with a “positive lock” safety to prevent the firing pin from striking the primer while concealed.

Rare and Near Mint, Well Documented Factory Exhibition 'Deluxe Grade' Engraved Colt Police Positive Special Display Model Revolver with Pearl Grips Factory Letter and Original Box. Sold for $9,775 in September 2019.

In the seventy or so years of production of the Colt Detective Special, five separate issues or varieties of the gun were produced. Changes in design from the original to the second issue included the addition of a longer ejection rod and the incorporation of a 3-inch barrel option to customers. Both the first and second generation came in the radiant nitre blue finish that is a staple of Colt firearms. Toward the end of production of the second issue Colt Detective Special, the company released its new and similar small revolver the Colt Cobra also chambered in .38 special. The biggest differences between the two guns is the Cobra was lighter and a bit shorter in the grip than the Colt Detective Special. Both would be produced for many decades despite their similarities.

Documented Cole Agee Master Engraved Colt Detective Special Double Action Revolver. Sold for $2,875 in December 2017.

The Third and Fourth Generation Colt Detective Special

The third generation was not a far cry from the first two renditions. The main alteration was the frame had been shortened making the gun more “stubby” and shorter. The reduction of the frame lead to more cost-effective and quicker production of the gun.

Leonard Francolini Signed Master Engraved and Gold Inlaid Colt Detective Special Double Action Revolver with Box. Sold for $6,325 in June 2019.

In the 1970s, the fourth generation Colt Detective Special revolver was released and introduced many changes in design. A heavier barrel and new long ramped front sight were added with the addition of smooth trigger, as previous versions had grooved triggers. The grips were also altered to “combat style” walnut grips. Of all the changes in the revolver’s design throughout the issues, this one made the most additions and alterations. It was produced until 1986 when Colt ceased production of the Detective Special due to Smith & Wesson and its pocket pistol market takeover.

Documented Special Order Denise Thirion Master Factory Engraved Colt Detective Special with Box and Factory Letter. Sold for $3,163 in December 2018.

A short resurgence in production occurred from 1993 to 1995 with leftover parts. These were so snatched up so quickly Colt that released the stainless-steel SF-VI revolver, so named to avoid confusion with the existing Colt Detective Specials still in distributor pipelines. One those were depleted, remaining SF-VI models were referred to as the Detective Special 2.

Documented Colt Factory Firearms Collection Colt Detective Special II (DS-II) Double Action Revolver with Low Serial Number 3 and Factory Letter. Sold for $3,450 in September 2017.

The Colt Cobra

This last variation of the gun spawned a redesign and 2017 re-release of Colt Firearms' other popular small revolver, the Colt Cobra. The original production of the gun spanned from 1950 to the early 1980s, but in 2017 the revolver had a revitalization. The last issue Colt Detective Special ( the stainless-steel SF-VI) provided the foundation for the new Colt Cobra giving it a modern look and great durability. Colt is currently still making the redesigned Cobra revolvers in this style.

A Colt Cobra snub nosed revolver chambered in .38 Special. Manufactured in 1974. Provenance: The Collection of Jimmy Lane Frederick.

Ugarte (Peter Lorre) pleads with Rick (Humphrey Bogart) to help him escape Casablanca as he holds his Colt Detective Special from the Internet Movie Firearms Database.

Popularization of the Colt Detective Special started with film noir and mobster crime movies that romanticized the small pocket revolver. Films starting as early as the 1930s showed off the revolver. Early films featuring the gun include classic movies like Casablanca and The Thin Man.

Tom Selleck in "Blue Bloods" with his Colt Detective Special. Image courtesy of the Internet Movie Firearms Database.

Throughout the next 50 years, the many iterations of the gun would continually make appearances in feature films and television shows produced around the world. If you watch police dramas on network television, there’s a high chance you have seen a Colt Detective Special revolver before.

The Colt Detective Special is one of the more familiar guns of the Walking Dead.

The Colt Detective Special At RIAC

In all of our auctions at Rock Island Auction Company we have a wide variety of Colt revolvers, and Colt Detective Specials make an appearance in many of them.

Lot 108: Two Colt Revolvers Colt Detective Special Double Action Revolver and a Colt New Frontier Single Action Revolver with Accessories. Available this October.

This lot includes two kinds of Colt revolver favorites, a Detective Special and New Frontier Single Action Army revolver. The Colt Detective Special was manufactured in 1980 and is still in fine condition. This could be your chance to get a petite beauty of your own.

Lot 356: Two Colt Revolvers, a Colt Officer's Model Target Revolver and a Colt Detective Special Revolver. Available this October.

This next lot is the perfect law enforcement theme for Colt firearms. The guns included are a Colt Officer’s target revolver and a Detective Special. Both firearms are in working, good condition and look to be guns someone could have some fun with at the range. Check them out for yourself.

A magnificent cased pair of documented Alvin A. White master engraved Colt Detective Special Model revolvers.

The last lot that includes a Colt Detective Special is accompanied by a Smith & Wesson 36-7 revolver. The Smith & Wesson is all new and the Colt Detective Special is very close to it. If you want two nice looking pocket revolvers to add to your collection, these beauties are it.

Lot 825: Two Double Action Revolvers, a Smith & Wesson 36-7 and a Colt Detective Special. Available this October.

The Colt Detective Special Legacy

Over 1.5 million Colt Detective Specials were manufactured which is a true testament to the popularity and wide-spread use of the classic gun. Whether it was Colt Firearms marketing tactics or the nature of the functionality and concealability of the Detective Special, it is a gun that demonstrably affected in firearm history.

Denise Thirion signed, master engraved, and gold inlaid Colt Detective Special DA revolver.

The Colt Detective Special has been immortalized in film and American history. It’s also a favorite amongst collectors and those who use Colt firearms for practical protection.

A competitor to the Colt Detective Special, the Smith & Wesson Model 36 revolver chambered in 38 Special.

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