Sunday, April 15, 2012

Scenario Consultation: American Police Sidearms in the 1950s

An author presented me with the following plotline query:  A Tulsa, Oklahoma police sergeant is murdered in 1957.  The murderer is another Tulsa policeman, and the murder was committed with a handgun connected to the murderer's police duties.  For the sake of historical accuracy, the author is interested in knowing what handguns were prevalent among police agencies during the late 1950s.

The Revolver is King

Colt Single Action Army
For about a century, from the late 19th century through the mid 1980s, the double action revolver reigned supreme as the law enforcement sidearm of choice in the United States.  While some law enforcement agencies opted for single action revolvers such as the Colt Single Action Army (or "Peacemaker"), or semiautomatic pistols like the Colt Government Model in either .45 ACP or .38 Super caliber or the Colt Model 1903 and Model 1908 "Pocket Hammerless" pistols in .32 ACP and .380 ACP respectively, these were very much the exception.  As a rule, the preponderance of American policemen, of all ranks, were armed with revolvers made by industry giants Colt and Smith & Wesson.
Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless

Mid-Bores Predominate

At the end of the 19th century, it wasn't uncommon to find police service weapons chambered for relatively small bore or low powered cartridges such as the .32 Smith & Wesson Long or the .38 New Police.

(Trivia point:  The .38 New Police and the .38 Smith & Wesson are the same cartridge.  Colt, understandably, did not want to provide free advertising for their rival, Smith & Wesson, and so coined a new name!)

.38 Special Cartridges
This was to change in 1899 with the introduction of the smokeless propellant variant of the .38 Smith & Wesson Special (or .38 Special) cartridge.  It's important to note that prior to its respecification in 1972 by the American firearms industry standards organization, the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute (SAAMI), the .38 Special was a significantly higher performing cartridge.  The traditional loading for a .38 Special is a 158 grain lead round nose (LRN) bullet.  Ballistics on the modern, post-1972 loading have a muzzle velocity of between 750 and 780 feet per second, for a relatively mild energy of about 205 foot/pounds, approximating that of the .38 Long Colt and .38 Smith & Wesson cartridges it theoretically made obsolete. The pre-1972 loadings for the .38 Special were an entirely different matter.  They propelled the same 158 grain lead bullet about 200 feet per second faster - between 930 and 970 feet per second, and generated a muzzle energy of between 310 and 320 foot pounds.  While this level of performance certainly isn't .44 Magnum territory, it is respectable and  comparable to the performance of the 9mm Parabellum cartridges adopted by American police agencies in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1930, Smith & Wesson began offering a variant of its large frame .44 Hand Ejector Third Model revolver chambered for a variant of the .38 Special called the .38/44 Heavy Duty.  The new cartridge, developed in cooperation with Remington, was called the .38/44 High Velocity. It used the .38 Special's case, but pushed the 158 grain bullet at around 1,115 feet per second, generating about 440 foot-pounds of energy.  In doing so, it offered direct competition to Colt's .38 Super pistols.

S&W .38/44 Heavy Duty
The .38/44 Heavy Duty sold well, and equipped many law enforcement personnel in the early to mid 1930's, but in 1935 Smith & Wesson and Winchester rendered the .38/44 obsolete with the introduction of the .357 Magnum cartridge.  This cartridge was similar to the .38 Special, but used a case 1/8" longer, and operated at almost twice the pressure, propelling the 158 grain bullet to almost 1,500 feet per second and generating a whopping 770 - 780 foot pounds of energy.

American law enforcement was thus well served with the medium bore .38 Special for everyday work and .357 Magnum when greater range or penetration (automobile doors for example) was required.  Consequently, both Colt and Smith & Wesson offered a number of revolvers chambered for these cartridges and geared toward law enforcement.  These revolvers would dominate the American law enforcement market until they were supplanted by semiautomatic pistols in the 1980s and 1990s.  The following is a brief survey of Colt and Smith & Wesson offerings that would have been popular with American police agencies in the late 1950s:


Colt Detective Special
Detective Special:  The Colt Detective Special was a small frame revolver chambered for  the .38 Special cartridge.  It was produced between 1927 and 1986, and was marketed as an easily concealable handgun suited for use by detectives, plain clothes policemen or other law enforcement requiring easily hidden firepower.  It was typically found with a two inch barrel and had a six round cylinder.

Colt Official Police
Official Police:  The Official Police was Colt's offering for the uniformed policeman's standard service weapon market.  This medium frame revolver was extremely prolific in the 1950s, and was produced between 1927 and 1969.  It could be found with barrels of four, five and six inches and had a six round cylinder.

Colt Police Positive Special
Police Positive Special:  The Police Positive Special was another Colt offering for the  standard service weapon market.  It was based on Colt's small frame (like the Detective Special) and, like the Official Police, was extremely prolific in the 1950s.  It was also long lived, being produced between 1908 and 1995.  It could be found with barrels of four and six inches and had a six round cylinder.

Smith & Wesson

S&W Military & Police
Military & Police Model 1905 4th Change:  The Smith & Wesson Military & Police (M&P) revolver could be the single most prolific revolver in history with some six million examples being produced.  This medium frame revolver was introduced in 1899 and is still in production.  In 1957, Smith & Wesson stopped using names for its products and assigned model numbers to existing products.  The .38 Special M&P became known as the Model 10.  Model 10s are found with two, two and a half, three, four, five and six inch barrels.  The M&P/Model 10 cylinder holds six rounds.

S&W Model 19
Model 19:  The Model 19 uses the same medium frame as the Model 10, but is chambered for the .357 Magnum cartridge.  It barely makes it into the running for this list as it was introduced to the Smith & Wesson line in 1957 (it's still in production).  Generally found with either a four or six inch barrel, the Model 19's cylinder holds 6 rounds.

S&W Registered Magnum
Model 27:  The .357 Magnum Model 27 was the first "Magnum" handgun ever produced.  It was introduced in 1935 as the "Registered Magnum," retitled in 1939 to the ".357 Magnum," and again in 1957 to the "Model 27." It is based on Smith & Wesson's large revolver frame and has been produced with three and a half, four, five, six, six and a half and eight and three eighths inch barrels.  Registered Magnum and .357 Magnum variants with three and a half inch barrels were very popular with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other law enforcement agencies in the period from the 1940s through the mid-1960s.

S&W Model 28 Highway Patrolman
Model 28:  Originally introduced as the "Highway Patrolman" in 1954, the Model 28 is identical to the Model 27 with the exception of the gun's finish.  Offered as a lower cost alternative to the Model 27, the Model 28 lacked the former's highly polished, mirror blued finish, opting for a matte finish on exterior surfaces that were not as polished.  Mechanically the two were identical, as was performance.

S&W Model 36 Chief's Special
Chief's Special:  The Chief's Special (the Model 36 after 1957) was Smith & Wesson's small frame response to the Colt Detective Special.  Introduced in 1950 and still in production, variants found in the mid to late 1950s would have been chambered for the .38 Special and equipped with a one and seven eighths inch barrel.  Unlike the Colts, the small frame Smith & Wessons have a five round cylinder.  The Chief's Special, ans the name implies, was marketed toward higher ranking police officers who wanted a smaller, lighter sidearm.


  1. Thanks for this information, Adam. It's helped me a LOT!

  2. Fascinating. I will be checking back often. There is so much to learn about firearms, I have the utmost respect for those people who are experts. Great, informative post.