The Colt Detective Special

Posted | By:  

Twenty years before Smith and Wesson gave the world their Chief's Special, Colt pioneered the snub-nosed revolver. A handy six-shooter with a 2-inch barrel, the Colt gun was revolutionary for its day and is still viable nearly a century later. Colt called it the Detective Special.


In the 1920s, a new wave of Prohibition criminals such as John Dillinger, Machinegun Kelly, and Clyde Barrow captured the public's imagination. They also scared the crap out of law enforcement. With these criminals being equipped with high-powered Thompson subguns bought over the counter, coupled with weapons stolen from National Guard armories, law enforcement needed to upgrade their sidearms. Plainclothes detectives either had to carry full sized revolvers or pistols, or were forced to tote small and ineffective European revolvers in tiny calibers such as the Velo Dog. What they needed was a handgun capable of being carried concealed, yet still chambered in an effective caliber.

The Colt Detective Special - christophereger - coltdick-1023.jpg


Colt, looking to cash in in this need introduced the Detective Special in 1927. Taking their 1908-vintage Police Positive revolver, a double-action revolver constructed with a carbon steel frame and six-shot swing out cylinder, it was equipped with a "Positive Lock" safety that prevented the firing pin from hitting the primer unless the trigger was deliberately pulled, they created a new gun. With the Positive's proven design that was already popular both with law enforcement and civilians, Colt streamlined and shrunk it down until it was only 6.75-inches overall length with a 2-inch barrel. Weight with fixed sights and wooden grips was just 21-ounces.

The Colt Detective Special - christophereger - colt-detective-1024.jpg


The Detective was one of the first 'belly-guns', so called because its short barrel and resulting small sight radius led to resulting long-range accuracy issues. Even with this held against it, this classic snubby became fast popular with legions of law enforcement officers who needed to be armed, just not with a full sized handgun.

The Colt Detective Special - christophereger - 2-and-3-colt-1025.jpg
(Although seen most often in 2-inch barrel form as the revolver above, the Colt Detective was also made in a 3-inch version like the gun seen at the bottom of the above picture)

The Dick proved even more popular with civilians who found themselves in harm's way. Postal clerks, shop owners, taxi cab drivers, and railway workers bought the new Colt like hotcakes. It was the Baby Glock of the 1920s and there was no competition. So many bank tellers bought these handy little guns that Colt even released the Banker's Special model in .32 and .22LR.

George S Patton, known to be a collector of premium hardware, had a Colt Detective. When he turned over the command of the Third Army to Lt. General Lucian K. Truscott, Patton wore his Colt Dick. Eisenhower also carried a Detective Special concealed on his person during the war. With SS commando boogeyman Otto Skorzeny supposedly tasked with taking Ike out, it's easy to imagine who why he would carry such a thing, just in case.

Relevance today

The Colt Detective Special - christophereger - 100-0622-1022.jpg
The Colt Detective today, coupled with a speedloader or two, and loaded with modern ammunition still makes a decent CCW piece, home defense gun, or small town detective's sidearm.

Colt stopped the line on the Detective Specials in 1986 as the Smith and Wesson Chief's Special, Charter Arms, Rossi, and Taurus snubbies in both price and functionality had surpassed the gun. They brought the gun back briefly in the 1990s and then let it die for good. These old Colts are not only collectable, but are often still very shootable. With a short barrel that produced a good muzzle flip and resulting ball of flame, many of even 60-70 year old Dicks are 'low-mileage' handguns. They just weren't that enjoyable to shoot with full power loads, which means that they were carried far more than they were used.

You can often come across a worn, but still mechanically perfect Colt Detective, Agent, or Cobra (other variants of the same revolver) for $300-$400, which are still just as great a carry gun now as in 1927. Minty models with the right grips and great original finishes run about double that for collectors.

If you come across one in good shape, it is worth a look, and you do not have to be a gumshoe to figure that one out.

Posted in
  Email   Print
February 23, 2013  •  11:38 AM
I love my (46-47-?) S&W Victory model .38 revolver. I try to avoid these maxed out +p loads. An average load is fine for self defense. I do have supplemental help for the ole Victory.
February 25, 2013  •  12:41 PM
bought a detective special at the LGS about 2 months ago. Made in the 1990's. Looks like it spent most off the time guarding a dresser drawer.
February 27, 2013  •  12:35 PM
Rock Island Armory bought the patent for the Colt Detective. The RIA model 200 retails for around $200. The spring kits for the colt detective fits without modification. My gunsmith got stuck with a RIA 200. At first he was trying to sell it. After shooting it a few times in demonstrations he decided to keep it for a truck/desk drawer gun.
March 6, 2013  •  01:21 AM
Great history lesson. I never leave home without my 38 snub in my pocket.