COLT’S NEW SERVICE

BY JOHN TAFFIN

            Ask shooters to name Colt's most popular large frame sixgun prior to World War II and most will come back with the answer of the Single Action Army with more than 357,000 having been produced from 1873 to 1941. However, when it comes to the number of units produced, the Single Action Army comes in a very close second to a Colt whose production life actually lasted 25 years less than the beloved Peacemaker.

            In 1869 Colt, still producing percussion revolvers, was caught off guard as Smith & Wesson introduced the future. It was the Model #3 .44 S&W American chambered not for ball and powder that loaded from the front of the cylinder, but in actuality was the first big bore cartridge firing revolver. Eight years later it was now Colt’s turn to lead the way with the first successful double action revolver, the Model 1877 in two versions. Chambered in .38 Long Colt it was known as the Lightning, which was then followed by the Thunderer as the .41 Long Colt was known. One year later the Model 1878 DA arrived which would be chambered in both .45 and .44-40. Three years later, Smith & Wesson countered by adding the double action feature to their Model #3. By the end of the 1880s, the ball was back in Colt’s court as they began a line of Army and Navy double action revolvers that were the first to have swing out cylinders. By the end of the century both Smith & Wesson and Colt had introduced their versions of the double action sixguns that would dominate much of the 20th century. From Smith & Wesson came the first Military & Police in 1899, however, it had been superseded one year earlier by Colt's New Service. Smith & Wesson's modern revolver was built on a .38 platform that would become the K-Frame; Colt went much larger. The New Service holds the distinction of not only being the largest revolver ever offered by Colt, it was also the largest cartridge firing revolver period until the coming of Ruger’s Redhawk and Dan Wesson's Model 44 in the 1980s.  Ten years after the introduction of the New Service, Smith & Wesson would counter with the first N-Frame, the 1st Model Hand Ejector. For the first 40 years of the 20th century, Colt's New Service and Smith & Wesson's Hand Ejectors would be worthy rivals. I’ve considerable experience with both and the Smith & Wesson grip frame is better suited to my large but short fingered hand. If the New Service had any drawback it was the fact that it was definitely made for those with large hands and long fingers.

            While the Smith & Wesson Hand Ejectors were going through the process of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Models that would eventually lead to the .44 Magnum in 1955, Colt was also following an evolutionary path of standard models and several variations thereof.

Collectors now apply special terms to distinguish the various models of New Services from 1898 to 1941. The Old Model, the name applied to the first 21,000 New Services, was rather ungainly looking with a straight stovepipe shaped barrel and a trigger guard that looked like it was added on as an afterthought. After the Old Model, approximately 2,000 Transitional Models were offered with mainly interior improvements including a hammer block safety. Next came the Improved Model, which would go to serial number 328,000, and is of course the New Service most often encountered. The barrel now had a larger collar where it screwed into the frame and the trigger guard was also larger and shaped to now look like it was actually part of the frame. We can thank the United States Army for the collar on the barrel as all Model 1917s were ordered with the collar to provide a snug fit of barrel to frame. Designed for better function, it also resulted in a better form. Sometime around 1928 the Late Model New Service arrived with a change in the shape of the top strap to give it a more flattened appearance at the same time that the rear sight was milled to a square notch.

            In their 1940 catalog Colt offered three versions of the New Service with barrel lengths of 4 1/2”, 5 1/2”, and 7 1/2” and either blue or nickel finish in both .44-40 and .44 Special. Colt's advertising read, "The New Service is essentially a holster Revolver for the man in the open--Mounted, Motorcycle and State Police; the Hunter, Explorer and Pioneer.  It is the Arm adopted as Standard by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and hundreds of city and state Police Organizations throughout the world…” The Colt was definitely a sixgun for both outdoor and duty use and it was adopted at the north and south ends of the country as the official sidearm of both the RCMP and the United States Border Patrol. However both ignored the .44 with the Mounties choosing the .45 Colt, while our officers on the southern border had the New Service in .38 Special.

The second offering, one of the finest double action revolvers ever offered by any manufacturer at any time, was the New Service Target Revolver. This beautiful version of the standard model was available in .44 Special in a choice of either a 6” or 7 ½” barrel. Stocks were checkered walnut, the trigger was checkered, as were the front and back straps, finish was a deep blue, sights were adjustable with a choice of a Patridge or bead front sight. My friend Allan Jones has a 7 1/2” Tareget Model .44 Special that I definitely lust after. Several years ago we shot it together at a Shootists Holiday gathering in Colorado and it shoots like it has radar. Hitting paper plates off-hand at 100 yards was no problem whatsoever.  The final version of the New Service was the deluxe target revolver, the .44 Special Shooting Master. This 6” barreled revolver featured a “velvet-smooth” hand-finished action, and sights and a top strap that were finished to eliminate glare. The Shooting Master represented the highest quality revolver that Colt could build.

            Two sixguns that I have yearned for a long time have been a New Service Target in .44 Special and a Fitz Special. I found a .44 Special a few years ago that someone had started to convert to a Target Model by installing an adjustable rear sight. It was not in the best of shape mechanically and the original front sight, which was too low for the rear sight, was still in place. This 4 1/2” New Service was sent off to Milt Morrison at Qualite Pistol & Revolver for total rebuilding and the installation of a proper front sight. It is not a New Service Target but thanks to Morrison's touch it will certainly do.

            The last time I saw the late Col. Rex Applegate I was accorded the rare privilege of a personally guided tour through his private museum. Actually there were three of us being hosted by the Colonel as I had traveled to the Oregon Coast with fellow writer Pat Cascio and we stopped on the way to pick up another friend and fellow writer, Chuck Karwan. All of us were personally acquainted with Col. Applegate and I had presented him with the coveted bronze as Outstanding American Handgunner in 1996.

I knew his private museum held sixguns, which had formerly belonged to special friends such as Col. Doug Wesson, Col. Charles Askins, Elmer Keith, and Bill Jordan. There in front of me were the first two Smith & Wesson .357 Magnums, one a 6 ½” and the other an 8 ¾”, which had been used by Col. Wesson to promote the first Magnum as a hunting handgun; Keith’s custom heavy barreled 4” .44 Magnum; two of Askins’ target pistols, and the three 8 3/8” Smith & Wesson Magnums that had been especially engraved to commemorate Bill Jordan’s varied career.

All of these handguns were special and a treat to see and hold, however the Colonel’s favorite possession as far as firearms go was found immediately inside the door of the museum and the first item viewed.  Actually it was one of two first items as this sixgun was resting upon the base of the Outstanding American Handgunner Awards Foundation bronze. The highly modified revolver had started life as a standard Colt New Service .45 Colt probably with the same 5 ½” barrel as found on the well-known Colt revolvers of World War I, the Model 1917 .45ACP. Then again, considering Col. Applegate's many contacts, this revolver could be one of the very few that were specially manufactured as it now appeared. On the side plate were the words “To Rex From Fitz.”

           Col. Rex Applegate was one of the original members of the O.S.S. during World War II. After I got to know him he sent me taped copies of the original footage of the training the men went through, the same training advocating a style of self-defense shooting known as point shooting. Until the day he died he stayed with his original theory of point shooting which was definitely not hip shooting but rather employed with the handgun brought up, arm straight, and the handgun "pointed" at the target. Applegate was an expert on riot control, and a colonel in the United States Army, however, he also held the rank of general in the Mexican Army spending much of his time south of the border. It was during one of these excursions after World War II when his old S&W "Lemon Squeezer" chambered in .38 Smith & Wesson, which he always carried in a shoulder holster, nearly failed him requiring all five shots to stop his attacker. After this experience he was highly responsible for the advent of five-shot Smith & Wessons chambered in .38 Special, especially the hammerless versions.

That’s a little about Col. Applegate, what about Fitz? John Henry Fitzgerald was Mr. Colt between the two World Wars traveling to all the large pistol matches, shooting and fixing Colts, and being a genuinely good ambassador for Colt. Fitz was considered a firearms expert, and spent much time lecturing and instructing both target and defensive shooting. Before Clint Smith; before Mas Ayoob; before Jeff Cooper; even before Col. Applegate there was Fitzgerald teaching principles and practices of quick shooting with a revolver. Not only was he a top shooter, he was also the designer of the Fitz Special.

I first encountered the Fitz Special as a teenager in Col. Askins book printed in 1939 (No I was not around to read it at that time!)  Askins said, "The grandest defense gun I have ever had was a Colt New Service with the barrel cut down to two inches….  The hammer had been dehorned… the trigger guard was cut entirely away in the front… the grip was shortened… it was a  whiz for the purpose intended."

Actually the Fitz Special started more than 40 years earlier as Fitz started experimenting with the then new Colt New Service. "Perhaps some would like to ask why I cut up a good revolver and here is the answer: The trigger guard is cut away to allow more finger room and for use when gloves are worn…. The hammer spur is cut away to allow drawing from the pocket or from under the coat without catching or snagging in the cloth and eliminates the use of thumb over hammer when drawing….The butt is rounded to allow the revolver to easily slide into firing position in the hand…. The top of the cut-away hammer may be lightly checked to assist in cocking for a long-range shot." It was common knowledge among his contemporaries Fitz always carried a pair of .45 Colt Fitz Specials in his two front pockets. He definitely knew how to use them.

           I've wanted to have a Fitz Special ever since I was the kid learning to shoot big bore sixguns of the 1950s. No, I did not want an original, which would be very rare and very expensive, and definitely a collectors’ item. I would be happy simply to have a top gunsmith build one for me on a Colt New Service. I earlier found what I thought would be the perfect candidate for a Fitz Special, a 5 ½” Late Model New Service in .45 Colt. Although having considerable pitting on the right side of the barrel and part of the cylinder, it was mechanically perfect and the interiors of both barrel and cylinder were like new.  There was one major problem-- it shot much too well to touch. A .45 Colt that places five shots, fired double action standing at 50 feet, in less than 1 ½” is not to be messed with!

           Then a second Late Model New Service surface chambered in .44 Special. Although it had some problems it came at a very good price. Learning my lesson very well, I did not shoot this New Service first but instead sent it off to one of the premier gunsmiths in the country, Andy Horvath. Horvath has built more than a half-dozen single action sixguns for me, and he said of this New Service: "It's got a few miles on it and somebody got a little carried away with the buffing wheel. I bushed the cylinder to get out most of the endplay, and installed a ball lock on the crane to help with the lock-up. Instead of cutting the old barrel I just made a new one using up a piece of Douglas barrel blank too short for anything else.  The side plate screws are made from a Ruger base pin, as the old screws were polished until they were ugly. The grip frame has been shortened and rounded and fitted with fancy walnut grip panels, and the top the hammer serrated for shooting single action by starting the hammer back with the trigger and then grabbing the hammer with your thumb.”

         Andy polished and re-blued the little .44 Special with the result being I now have what has to be one the finest Fitz Specials in existence built by one of the finest gunsmiths ever, and unlike the original Fitz Special mine is in .44 Special not .45 Colt. Andy Horvath can do it all. It shoots like the proverbial dream and is very easy to handle using Speer’s 200 grain Gold Dot HP .44 Specials. These clock out at just under 750 fps in the two-inch Fitz Special, while my most used every day working load for .44 Special sixguns, the 250 grain Keith bullet over 7.5 grains of Unique registers 830 fps, or just about the perfect equivalent of Fitz’ .45 Colt loads.

            The 1940 Colt catalog mentioned touted the Colt New Service and the Colt Single Action Army as two of the finest sixguns ever offered. They were, of course, correct. However, one year later both models were dropped from production to make way for war-time needs. The New Service was never to be seen again.

 

 

14-1 & 14-2) Engraved and ivory stocked .44-40 Colt New Service represents

the epitome of Colt's double action sixguns.

Photo courtesy of Jim Martin and Rick Talacek.

 

 

14-3) This New Service .44 Special was totally rebuilt by Milt Morrison of QPR.

 

 

14-4) The Colt New Service .44 Special was slightly larger in size than the

N-frame S&W .44 Special.

 

 

14-5) A century of service—1906  7 1/2”  New Service .44-40.

Photo courtesy of Allan Jones

 

 

14-6) This is one of the last of the New Services, a .44-40 produced in 1940.

Photo courtesy of Allan Jones.

 

 

14-7) There are some sixguns that certainly shoot like the rifle.

This New Service Target .44 Special is one of them. 

Photo courtesy of Allan Jones.

 

 

14-8) Colt did their finest work with the Shooting Master which is very rare in

.44 Special.

Photo courtesy of Jim Supica’s ArmsBid.com.

 

 

14-9) One of the finest shooting .44-40s ever produced is the New Service Target.

Photo courtesy of Jim Supica’s ArmsBid.com.

 

 

14-10) Colt's excellent double action reputation was well deserved as represented

by these .44 New Service Flat-Top Target Models.

Photo courtesy of Jim Supica’s ArmsBid.com.

 

 

14-11) The finest target revolvers available prior to World War II were Colt

Shooting Masters.

Photo courtesy of Jim Supica’s ArmsBid.com.

 

 

14-12) Although the Fitz Special was easy to pocket it was quite a bit larger

than the Detective Special.

 

 

14-13 & 14-14) Sixgunsmith Andy Horvath re-created this Fitz Special in

.44 Special. John Henry Fitzgerald of Colt normally carried a pair of Fitz

Specials in his front pants browser pockets.

 

 

14-15) The standard 5 1/2” Colt New Service .44 Special before being turned

into a Fitz Special by Andy Horvath.

 

Chapter 13      Chapter 15