From America's Police To Military, Everyone Loved The Colt .38 Commando

From America's Police To Military, Everyone Loved The Colt .38 Commando

Approximately 49,000 Colt Commandos were purchased by the U.S. government during World War II.

The Army Ordnance Department was concerned about this, and CMC decided to make changes to the Official Police model to save both money and time in its manufacture. Concurrent with revolver manufacturing, there was an overriding need for the M1911A1, and this, too, was occupying much of the CMC factory’s time. These production requisites hastened the development of the initial Commando prototype, which was shipped by CMC to the War Department on September 21, 1942, with an Official Police serial number 717520.

At the War Department, a Captain Baker approved of the Colt Commando prototype. Two other Colt Commando prototypes with Official Police serial numbers 724348 and 724347 were shipped to the Springfield Ordnance District (SOD) and to the Office of the Chief of Ordnance on October 27 and November 2, 1942, respectively. Then, the full-scale production of the Commando began in earnest in late November 1942. When Colt Commando serial numbers were utilized, the first revolver was 1747 and was shipped to the Office of the Chief of Ordnance on November 26, 1942. The initial batch of Colt Commandos, including two-inch barreled Junior Commandos, was shipped to the War Department on December 7, 1942, the first anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

The CMC implemented several cost-cutting measures to meet the government’s price point as well as shorten the manufacturing time to meet the demand for revolver production. The Colt Commando was simply a cheaper version of the Official Police model made more quickly for wartime service. From a Commando manufacturing standpoint, CMC eliminated unnecessary exterior polishing, giving the revolvers a dull, parkerized finish instead of the usual high-polish bluing of the steel. The term “parkerizing” is synonymous with bonderizing, phosphating, or phosphatizing. It was a method developed by Richard M. Parker, Jr., as a means to protect steel surfaces from corrosion and increase the handgun’s resistance to wear through the application of a chemical phosphate conversion coating. Parkerizing is considered to be an improved zinc or manganese phosphating process.

In addition, the trigger, hammer, and cylinder latch of the Colt Commando revolver all lacked the usual metal checkering that was characteristic of the Official Police model. Checkered walnut grips with metal medallions were replaced with “Coltwood” on the Commando. These were essentially reddish-brown molded plastic grips, which early on were known for shrinking, leaving gaps in the fit to the handgun’s frame.

The cost of the Official Police model now fell from $28 to less than $25 per unit for a Colt Commando. This latter revolver would then be the handgun to arm military police and armament installation and security guards through the DSC and merchant ship crewmen via the U.S. Maritime Commission.

Weapon of Choice for the OSS

Approximately 49,000 Colt Commandos were purchased by the U.S. government during World War II. Based on factory results, the U.S. Army directly procured more than 16,000 Commandos, while only about 1,800 went to the U.S. Navy in the early war years. The remainder of the manufactured Commandos was purchased through Army Ordnance contracts. A total of 12,800 Commandos were issued to U.S. Military Intelligence, the Counterintelligence Corps, the newly formed Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and other intelligence organizations.

About 3,450, of the roughly 49,000 Commandos produced were in two-inch “snub” variants that were commonly termed Junior Commandos. These short-barreled revolvers would primarily serve overseas and behind enemy lines among the espionage agents and military intelligence liaisons of the OSS.  Only a few shipments of two-inch revolvers were made for stateside civilian use, and these were produced late in the war. Regular production of the original two-inch barreled Junior Commandos began in March 1943. These revolvers had a round front site and bore the marking “CONN” abbreviated for Connecticut, since the handguns were manufactured in Hartford.

The American officers of the OSS Special Operations (SO) branch had the primary missions of gathering military intelligence, conducting sabotage, and training local resistance fighters, while avoiding direct contact with the enemy. These operatives often carried just a small pistol for self-defense. Since detection of these handguns was immediately incriminating, the stronger desire was for these agents to carry the shorter and more compact two-inch barrel Commando concealed in a pocket. In addition to the Colt Commando of both two- and four-inch barrel lengths, the Colt M1903 and the M1911A1 semiautomatic pistols were also employed by OSS personnel.

Using the two-inch barreled Junior Commando was not problematic for gunfire accuracy since British intelligence operatives of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1940 began learning the Fairbairn-Sykes method of pistol shooting. William Fairbairn and Eric Sykes were both former pistol experts on the Shanghai Municipal Police Force.  As described by military and espionage historian Terry Crowder, an intelligence operative would assume a forward-crouched stance with “one foot placed in front of the other as if running or stooping.” The handgun was to be fired from the “hip level with a crooked arm.” This method was contrary to the orthodox military-type target shooting style of holding the pistol’s rear sight at “eye level with the arm fully extended and then taking aim.”

Both Fairbairn and Sykes trained future SOE agents to fire two shots quickly after drawing their hidden handgun on targets less than four yards away. OSS agents shortened many of the four-inch Commando barrels to two inches. Two shots fired in rapid succession without taking the time to re-aim the revolver enhanced the stopping power of the shorter barreled handgun and further disoriented the target at the reduced distance.

A variety of other markings also appeared on the Colt Commandos. Some had a small Ordnance Department “bomb” marking, which was similar in appearance to the number 8. Others were stamped with GHD, the Army inspector’s initials, Lieutenant Colonel Guy H. Drewry, on the left side of the frame. Later Commando revolvers sometimes had a “P” on the upper left frame that was associated with defense plant use.

The Colt Commando After the War

In 1945, the military realized that the end of the war was in sight, so the Commando revolver contract with CMC was ended with the factory still having about 1,500 guns undelivered. After the war, CMC resumed production of the Official Police revolver. The prewar highly polished blue finish reappeared, but the plastic “Coltwood” grips were maintained until as late as 1954, when the checkered wooden grips were reintroduced. Due to both competition and the costs of manufacturing, CMC ceased production of the Official Police model in 1969 with more than 400,000 of them having been made.

Many states that had received Commandos for their National Guard units passed them on to Civil Defense, prison staff, police, and military schools in the late 1940s-1950s. As an intriguing side note, early in World War II the U.S. Army withdrew the M1911A pistols from the Alabama National Guard to distribute them to regular U.S. Army soldiers. The Alabama National Guard immediately placed an order for Colt Commandos to replace the M1911A pistols, perhaps 200 in all. Before the Commandos were delivered, Army Ordnance reissued .45 semiautomatics to the state National Guard.

When the Colt Commandos arrived, they were placed in storage and never issued. They remained in storage for 68 years, from 1943 to March 2011. This batch of new Colt Commandos, still boxed in Cosmoline, was placed on sale as surplus by the Alabama National Guard.

The Colt Commando was produced during wartime for the sake of both manufacturing expediency and cost reduction in a booming rearmament economy. The revolver fulfilled its role in arming a broad swath of military and nonmilitary personnel. Today, the appearance of a Colt Commando generates curiosity among those interested in both the lesser known weapons of World War II and the nuanced history of revolver firearms production.

This article by Jon Diamond originally appeared on Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikipedia.

This article first appeared in 2017 and is being republished due to reader interest.