Colt Police .38 Special – Compact Powerhouse of the Revolver Era

Made for a time when cops and citizens carried a pistol in their pocket, this handgun served for decades before semiautos became more popular


I’ve made a habit of perusing the website’s Surplus Corner to see what gun bargains they’ve turned up. Recently I found a deal that felt like a time warp back to the 1980s. They had a bunch of clean, well-kept, 1960s vintage, police turn-in Colt Police Positive .38 Special revolvers at really reasonable prices.

At a gun show, prices at that level get Colt collectors handing over their money as fast as they can. I bought one for the sheer pleasure of shooting this great-handling piece and it got me thinking about their long history.
The Colt Police Positive Special revolver is nearly forgotten today, except among collectors (and shooters over 70), but at one time – and really for a long time – it was a big deal. In its heyday, the .38 S&W Special cartridge, with its 158-grain bullet moving at 870 feet per second, was regarded as a very potent defensive load, and revolvers were the most popular handguns for lawmen and private citizens alike.
This was a pistol that gave S&W fits, as they never had a comparable product to challenge its niche as the smallest six-shot revolver chambered in .38 Special. If you didn’t mind a bigger .38 Special, the medium-framed, six-shot S&W Military & Police Revolver generally trumped Colt’s medium-framed, and slightly clunky, Official Police Revolver.
But if you wanted a six-shot that you could keep in your front pants pocket, the Colt’s Police Positive Special had no peer. Pocket carry was once very common, especially before the Second World War. In old photographs of city policemen, you’ll often note the absence of a visible weapon. They have one. It’s just in a pocket holster, rather than hanging from a gun belt.

Colt’s Police Positive Special revolver was chambered in .38 Special, .32-20 WCF and, later, .32 Colt New Police caliber. It was in continuous production with few changes for 68 years. It’s the older brother of the still famous Detective Special snubnose introduced in 1927. They share a common frame, named the D-frame after WWII. It was Colt’s most widely used frame and the basis for the Diamondback and Viper revolvers, as well as the snubnosed Agent, Cobra and Commando. According to the serial number data, over a million Police Positive Specials and Detective Specials were produced with virtually no significant changes until the 1970s, when larger grips and heavier barrels with integral ejector rod shields changed the character of the guns dramatically.

THOSE LAST D-FRAME guns are outside the scope of this story. Our focus is on the Police Positive Special and what made it so special. In the 1908 Colt Catalog, the first year it was offered for sale, it was advertised as “The most compact and also the lightest revolver ever produced to take this powerful ammunition.

The most effective pocket and house arm on the market.” The emphasis on “compact,” “lightest” and “effective” were in the advertisement. These qualities translated to mass consumer appeal. That probably sounds crazy to younger shooters, reared in the present era dominated by semiauto handguns, but those were different times.
By the turn of the 20th century, the double-action, swing-out cylinder revolver had already emerged as the premier fighting handgun. The newly devised autoloading pistols were marvels to be sure, and some models were immensely popular (like the .32 ACP Model 1900 Browning), but the double-action revolver was perceived by many to have a major advantage over the autoloader.
This attitude persisted longest in law enforcement, finally losing favor in the 1980s. However, then as now, the revolver was reliable, regardless of variations in ammunition, and it was simple to use. Revolvers didn’t jam and if the hammer fell on a dud round, the shooter simply pulled the trigger again. There were no slides, or safeties or magazines to manipulate. The revolver was ready to go the moment a loaded cylinder was closed, and the firing drill was always the same: aim at the target and squeeze the trigger.

In the revolver market of the last century, Colt and Smith & Wesson were the major players, and fierce competitors. Each drove the other to continually improve their technology in a battle for military, police and civilian sales. The result was traditional revolver design (barrel on top firing from the top chamber of the cylinder) and manufacturing quality reached the peak of its refinement before the first decade of the 20th century had passed.
The caliber spectrum was topped by .45 Colt, but the majority of revolvers were chambered for various .38 and .32 cartridges. Future design modification would be driven by consumer demand for adjustable sights, lighter weight or ballistic improvements requiring stronger, heavier guns, but the physical forms and mechanisms took shape over 110 years ago.
By 1908, the Colt and S&W product lines were more alike than they were different. Both had a large, medium and small frame for their revolvers. Colt’s large-frame New Service was akin to S&W’s .44 Hand Ejector. Colt’s medium frame used on the Army Special (the Official Police after 1927) was comparable to the S&W Military & Police .38 Hand Ejector, the latter becoming the most successful revolver in the world. Colt’s small frame, which they adapted to the compact rounded-grip Pocket Positive and square-gripped Police Positive, was mirrored in S&W’s little .32 Hand Ejector frame. However, Colt had something that S&W didn’t.

IN 1907, IN a move that showed astounding prescience, Colt brought out a new revolver based on a new frame. It was the Police Positive Special. The gun was basically a square-butt Police Positive with a stronger, ¼ inch longer frame and cylinder to accommodate what Colt saw as the new up-and-coming police cartridge, .38 S&W Special. It was also chambered in .32-20 WCF, a popular small game cartridge for Winchester rifles.
In 1900, the police and personal defense market was dominated by .32-caliber cartridges (.32 Short and Long Colt, .32 Colt New Police, .32 S&W and .32 S&W Long). Though they lacked stopping power, the revolvers chambered for them were small, had short cylinders and frames making them easily concealable, and were quite light to carry in the pocket. Actual pocket carry, rather than holster carry, is what these guns were intended for.
The recoil was mild, making them easier to shoot well too.

As the first decade of the new century progressed, the law enforcement caliber trend shifted to more powerful .38 cartridges, which included the .38 S&W, .38 Colt Police Positive/New Police (Colt’s shameless copy of the S&W cartridge), and S&W’s new .38 S&W Special, introduced in 1899 for their medium-framed Military & Police Hand Ejector.
The .38 S&W Special promised and delivered better terminal ballistics than any .38 before it. It was a lengthened .38 S&W, upcharged from 18 to 21.5 grains of powder, with its bullet weight increased from 150 to 158 grains. Compared to the short .38s, the .38 S&W Special had about 200 foot-pounds of energy compared to their 150 foot-pounds, and 755 fps to their 700 fps. There was really only one drawback with it.

None of the small-frame revolvers of the time could chamber it. If you wanted the stopping power of the .38 S&W Special, it came at the price of the extra size and weight of a medium-framed revolver. The .38 S&W and .38 Colt New Police rounds were quite stubby (about 1⅛ inches overall length), so they were a perfect fit in the short cylinders of the compact, small-framed Colt Police Positive and S&W’s Regulation Police revolver, though because of the S&W’s tiny cylinder, it could only hold five rounds to Colt’s six.
Colt’s frame sizes were just a little bit bigger than the S&W’s and that good fortune allowed the Police Positive the growing room to be adapted to .38 Special. The resulting Police Positive Special had the small size and easy carrying characteristics of a small-frame pistol but packed the punch of a medium-frame revolver. To put it in perspective, a 4-inch-barrel Police Positive Special weighed 22.3 ounces and was 8¼ inches long and 4⅜ inches high. The round-butt S&W Military & Police, their smallest .38 Special, weighed 28.7 ounces and was 9 inches long and 4⅞ inches high. The Colt had a smaller grip and a thinner, unsupported ejector rod, which contributed to its slim feel.

A 1940 Stoeger catalog showing four different loads for .38 Special. Colt claimed all could be used in the Police Positive Special, though author Frank Jardim has his doubts about shooting the .38-44, which was the +P of its day. Colt’s .38 Colt Special used a flat-nosed bullet that turned out to be a more effective man-stopper than the round-nosed S&W 158-grain loading.
FROM THE PRACTICAL standpoint of size, weight and power, the Police Positive Special was already the perfect policeman’s gun, but Colt also had a safety advantage in their “Colt Positive Lock.” The action included an automatic acting metal bar that immovably blocked the forward movement of the hammer unless the trigger was pulled, making the revolver drop safe, a rare feature at the time. This safer action is where the “positive” in the model name was derived from.

S&W’s double-action trigger pull was smoother than Colt’s, which by design stacked slightly at the end of the pull as the hand held the cylinder tightly against the bolt. Although I personally prefer the double-action trigger pull of S&W over Colt’s, after shooting both I’m convinced that any effect on practical accuracy is more imagined than real.
The Police Positive Special has small grips by today’s standards and usually gets criticized for them by modern shooters. I actually like them, and especially those on the pre-1928 Police Positive Specials, before they widened the space between the front grip frame and back of the trigger guard. The space fits my fingers perfectly and I can wrap my hand fully around the slim stocks for a firm hold. I have average-sized hands and I can see why those with bigger hands and thicker fingers might hate the grip ergonomics. Looking at it from the manufacturer’s perspective, big hands can handle small grips, but small hands can’t handle big grips.
A bigger grip also defeats the purpose of keeping the revolver as small as possible for concealment and ease of carry. The graceful minimalism of the Police Positive Special is something never seen today in revolver design, despite the availability of stronger materials and CNC machining.
The beauty of this little pistol is in its function. It has everything it needs and nothing it doesn’t. S&W criticized Colt’s unsupported ejector rods, but to me this has never rung true. The nature of Colt’s action design and clockwise rotating cylinder hold the cylinder more tightly in position while firing than a S&W does.
If bending an ejector rod was a significant problem, Colt probably would have supported theirs before 1976, when they were producing their fourth issue (a collector term) of the Police Positive Special. At that time, they renamed it simply Police Positive. It turned out to be the beginning of the end for this venerable design. Two years later, in 1978, production of that variant ceased.
The 1970s design changes were significant because the extra weight and bulk imparted by the barrel with integral ejector shroud and oversized grips ruined two of the gun’s key attributes – lightness and slimness. Perhaps it really didn’t matter by then because true pocket carry was, like Colt’s major role in the police revolver market, pretty much over.
The Police Positive Special’s D-frame survived a little longer in the revised snubnoses until 1986, and was briefly resurrected in the 1990s for a final run of snubnoses and a final, fifth issue of the Police Positive Special called the Police Positive MK V. It sported a new and even bulkier full underlug barrel and Packmeyer rubber grips.

The popular semiauto tide was flooding over revolvers by that time, so perhaps the MK V never really had a chance, but I wonder if the original slim and graceful Police Positive Specials might find a new market among women shooters. Women are the fastest growing demographic in the shooting sports these days. That was not the case during the entire production history of the Police Positive Special. It so happens, my wife laid claim to my new acquisition from Century Arms shortly after I got it and I don’t expect to see it again. I hope they are happy together.