Many handgun enthusiasts’ blog entries recount how they stumbled onto a local gun show table only to find a dull-finished revolver that clearly bore the impression “Colt Commando .38 Special” on the left side of the barrel. The revolver’s inclusion in the realm of World War II handgun ordnance remains an ongoing curiosity almost 75 years after the firearm’s introduction.
Choosing the M1911: The Military Service Replacement for the Revolver
Although Samuel Colt did not invent the revolver, his designs played a major role in the popularization of it with the ensuing shift away from earlier single-shot pistols. Colt received a British patent on his improved revolver design in 1835 along with two American patents the following year. For a variety of reasons, Colt’s early production companies from 1837-1842 ended in failure. In 1846, during the Mexican War, Colt designed a new revolver prototype that was further revised by Captain Samuel Hamilton Walker.
This larger caliber Colt Walker was manufactured at the armory in Connecticut. The Colt Walker was initially ordered and used by a group of mounted law enforcers in Texas that later spawned the famous Texas Rangers. With the success of the Colt Walker, Samuel Colt started yet another of his own business ventures in 1848, which seven years later became the Hartford, Connecticut-based Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company, now shortened to Colt’s Manufacturing Company (CMC).
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Colt worked closely with and profited from his relationship with the famous gun designer John Moses Browning, producing his many models of machine guns, the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), the Model 1903 and Model 1908 .45-caliber semiautomatic pistols and, the most famous .45-caliber Model 1911. Because of its incredible stopping power, the M1911 became the standard sidearm for the U.S. Army in World War I and as the M1911A1 in World War II. By 1918, CMC had produced and sold 425,000 of the famous Browning-designed M1911. During both world wars, CMC delivered approximately 2.5 million M1911 and M1911A1 semiautomatic pistols to the U.S. government alone.
Prior to U.S. entry into World War I, orders for the M1911 pistol from both the United Kingdom and Canada had become backlogged up to three years. Since the CMC could not furnish enough semiautomatic pistols to keep up with the demand, during World War I the U.S. Army decided to accept the Colt New Service revolvers chambered for the .45 ACP round. Thus, out of necessity, the M1917 revolver was developed as a substitute weapon. This revolver manufacturing pattern would repeat itself 25 years later, pertinent to the evolution of the Colt Commando, as World War II unfolded.
The Colt Army Special 38: A Popular Police Pistol
From the 1870s until the middle of the 20th century, the terms “Colt” and “revolver” were synonymous in the police world. With the U.S. Army’s adoption of the M1911 semiautomatic pistol, military sales of Colt revolvers were waning. The Colt Army Special 38, produced from 1908-1927, was somewhat of a misnomer since it was utilized mainly by police forces and not the U.S. Army. Part of the Colt Army Special 38 appeal to police departments was that the revolver allowed for the use of more powerful ammunition like the .38 Special round. The term “.38 Colt Special” is nothing more than the .38 Smith & Wesson (S&W) Special cartridge, which was produced in 1899 and was a more powerful shell than the .38 Long Colt, with a different headstamp. In 1927, since the Army had never bought the Army Special 38 but many police departments had, the CMC made some minor alterations to this revolver, changed the name to the Official Police revolver, and continued making it until 1969.
Colt revolvers were the most popular law enforcement handgun in the world with the Official Police revolver being emblematic in that role among municipal and state police forces, becoming a huge commercial success for the CMC. Before U.S. entry into World War II, the Official Police model was bought by the U.S. Army to issue to military police. Other armed federal agency workers in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Treasury Department, Coast Guard, and Postal Inspection Service also adopted the Colt Official Police revolver as their standard service weapon. This handgun utilized a six-round cylinder as its feed system. The double-action revolver was chambered for a variety of cartridges including the .22 Long Rifle (LR), .32-20, .38 Special, .38/200, and .41 Long Colt. The Official Police revolver was manufactured with four-, five-, and six-inch barrel lengths.
In 1927, the modifications made on the 1908 Colt Army Special 38 for the Official Police revolver included a rounded, checkered cylinder latch; wider rear sight groove; matted topstrap; checkered trigger; and a better quality, highly polished blued finish. Also standard was the
Colt Positive Lock, which prevented accidental firing, unlike the S&W .38 revolvers. This was achieved by interposing a steel bar between the hammer and frame that stopped the firing pin from reaching a primer unless the trigger was pulled through a complete stroke.
A Handgun For Guards and Aircrew
The production of the Official Police revolver would be interrupted with the advent of the Colt Commando at the outbreak of World War II. The necessity arose for the Colt Commando as the CMC was deluged with government orders for the M1911A1 pistol and other guns, and a desperate need developed to cut production time and costs in the manufacture line of the Official Police revolver. Little is known about the role of the Colt Commando during World War II as a variant of the Official Police revolver. According to gun historian Charles Pate, “Many more [Commandos] were used by the military than is commonly known.”
Due to appeasement and delayed rearmament, along with the debacles in northwestern Europe with staggering loss of personal sidearms during the Dunkirk evacuation and others, the British Purchasing Commission bought and had shipped to the British Isles almost 50,000 Official Police revolvers between May 1940 and June 1941. These weapons bore British markings, were chambered for the .38/200 cartridge, and typically had five-inch barrels as well as a military-style lanyard ring on the butt of the handgun.
When the U.S. became a belligerent in World War II, the Army recalled all of the modern weapons, such as the M1911A, from the National Guard and then later equipped the various state units with nonstandard guns such as older model revolvers and a series of 12-gauge pump-action shotguns. A large number of contracts for newer model .38 revolvers were awarded to gun manufacturing firms to arm the National Guard units as well as security personnel to protect vital armament plants, boat-building facilities, and federal buildings. The Defense Supplies Corporation (DSC) had the role of providing arms for these state military and nonmilitary personnel as the enormous war matériel-generating process after December 7, 1941, grew exponentially.
While the standard sidearm for three decades had been the M1911A1 .45 semiautomatic pistol, the War Department had a stock of old 1917-era S&W and Colt .45 ACP revolvers that took moon-clips. The growing war machine was still in need of a good .38-caliber revolver for prisoner of war camp guards, aircrew, criminal investigators, counterintelligence personnel, factory guards, and other personnel.
The Commando: Colt’s $25 Revolver
The initial order for 2,500 Official Police .38 caliber revolvers with four-inch barrels was given by the DSC to the CMC just four days after the Pearl Harbor attack. An additional request for 2,500 Official Police revolvers was submitted to the CMC, but the delivery of the order was tardy, largely because priority had to be given to production of the M1911A1 .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol. In August 1942, the U.S. War Production Board issued an urgent request to the DSC for 20,000 Colt Official Police .38 Special revolvers with four-inch barrels. Some of the DSC orders were ultimately diverted to S&W, the major CMC competitor. About 70,000 S&W pistols were procured by the U.S. Navy during World War II. This revolver, the Victory Model, was a version of their Model 10 Military & Police (M&P) .38 Special handgun. These revolvers saw extensive action overseas in the hands of Navy pilots and became the standard issue for naval air crews and shore-based personnel alike.
The CMC responded to the War Department that it could commercially provide more four-inch barreled Official Police revolvers at $28 apiece. However, the government balked and wanted to pay about $25 per gun. The problem with the Colt Official Police revolver, although it was perfectly suited for its role as a service sidearm, was that it required extensive hand finishing, which necessitated a lot of skilled labor and time. This made the Colt Official Police Revolver rather expensive and slow to produce.
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.