I’ve always felt that the high point in quality (and some design) in American handgun making took place between World War I and II. One only has to look at the fit, finish and mechanics of a 1920s-’30s vintage Smith & Wesson M&P or Colt Government Model to become a convert to this belief system yourself.
Even though the guns were largely made by machine, skilled labor (and time) was available to really go over standard out-of-the-box autos and revolvers and produce products that rival some of today’s finest custom work. No gun is more indicative of this lavish attention to detail than the pre-war Colt Match Target variant of the older standby .22 Woodsman pistol.
The Woodsman first appeared in the Colt catalog in 1915. Originally called simply the Colt Automatic Pistol, it picked up its more outdoorsy appellation a dozen years later. Based on designs by Colt engineers George Tansley and Francis Chadwick, with some possible John Browning influence, the premier product was a 10-shot blowback with adjustable sights, 6½-inch barrel and overall length of some 10½ inches. This was a handsome piece, with a rakishly canted grip flanked by checkered walnut panels. Marketed to “shooters, sportsmen, trappers and others desiring a high-grade pistol” (that bit of advertising verbiage doesn’t leave out too many potential buyers), it was fitted with a Safety Lock lever positioned on the left side of the frame, which could be easily flicked on and off by the user’s thumb. It could not be activated unless the pistol was cocked, thus providing an indicator as to whether it was ready to fire.
As with the case of early Colt 1911s, the magazine was half blued, half polished. It had a button-follower retractor, similar to that of the Luger, which allowed rounds to be easily inserted.
Spawning a Series
The pistol was an immediate hit and spawned a number of variations right from its inception up until the cessation of production in 1977. Over the years it was given different names (Woodsman, Targetsman, Huntsman, Match Target, Sport and Target) and, as of 1925, was available with an additional 4½-inch barrel length. In Woodsman trim, it could also be had with fancy grips, finishes and engraving.
In 1938, despite the Depression, the company decided to go all out and introduced what many (including yours truly) believe to be the most elegant variant of the line, the Match Target Woodsman. Colt ballyhooed it thusly:
“For more than a year, whenever .22 shooters gathered, conversation inevitably turned to the Colt Woodsman with heavy barrel. All agreed that such a gun would be a target ‘natural.’ So while shooters talked about it, Colt built it, leisurely, carefully, deliberately…a brand-new .22 that would make present records tremble… Just look at the features seven ounces more weight [total weight of the piece was 36 ounces] perfectly distributed just where it should be. Hand-finished, super-smooth action. One-piece, longer hand-filling stocks [standard grips could be had upon application]. Special sights with all adjustments on the rear sight. New straighter trigger. Heavy tapered barrel. Flat muzzle. Top of the barrel, slide and receiver all stippled to prevent glare. The new Match Target Woodsman is a finished product–a beautifully designed automatic pistol…heavier, sturdier and exceptionally accurate. It was built for one purpose…to enable shooters to shove present .22 scores off the map. That’s just what it’s going to do!”
Factory hyperbole aside, the Colt Match Target Woodsman was a stylish piece of shooting machinery, its unique barrel/frame silhouette and exaggerated “elephant ear” grips indelibly marking it as a product of the Art Deco 1930s. Stamped on the right side of the barrel with a target logo, the gun soon achieved the nickname “Bullseye.”
Selling for $41.50 (when the average weekly wage in 1938 was around $30), this was not a gun meant for the masses. Still, sales were brisk and before World War II forced cessation of production in 1942, some 15,100 had been produced, though they continued to be shipped to the military through 1945. As a result, some Bullseyes will be seen with more conventional checkered plastic grips and U.S. Ordnance markings and inspector’s initials.
An Original Find
I’ve owned and shot a bunch of Woodsmen over the years, but only recently did I have the opportunity to try out an original pre-war Match Target. Of course, quality, fit and finish of our almost mint-condition original was superb–in keeping with the normal standard of period workmanship and Colt’s endeavor to offer this as a truly special item. It even came with its original paperwork, target and a copy of the first owner’s 1938 Santa Barbara, California, concealed carry permit–although I can’t imagine this rather conspicuous piece of hardware to be particularly suited to clandestine defensive carry.
The offbeat extended grips are comfortable, if somewhat fragile. It is not unusual to find these broken or missing on original Bullseyes.
The rear sight has a pair of screws that allow it to be adjusted easily for elevation and windage. The front is a large, slightly tapered square blade double-pinned into a pair of lugs machined into the barrel. Other than that, there’s not much I can add to the description that has not already been outlined by Colt in the paragraphs above.
It does balance nicely, and the trigger is crisp, coming in at a flinty 2¾ pounds.
Perhaps my only criticism of the piece is that because of the extended flanges on the grips, the magazine, with its heel catch, can be a bit tricky to extricate. To be fair, though, the gun was not really designed for quick reloading.
Fieldstripping the Match Target is not difficult, but it can be a bit tricky if you don’t know the right moves. First, take out the magazine and work the action to make sure the pistol’s unloaded. Next, pull back the slide all the way to the rear with the right hand and press down–with the right-hand index finger–on the assembly lock plunger located on the top of the slide, just in front of the rear sight. While maintaining pressure on the plunger, move the slide forward to its closed position. When it’s fully closed, pull the trigger and release the pressure on the plunger. Now, with the thumb of the right hand, press in and upward on the knurled portion of the housing at the rear of the grip. This releases the housing from the frame. You can now also take out the magazine catch and sear spring and then pull the slide off the rear of the receiver. I must admit, this took me a bit of fiddling before I mastered the mechanics, but once you figure it out, it’s a snap.
I took the Bullseye to the range and set up a 50-foot target. Chosen ammunition was some vintage Western Super Match (for tradition’s sake) and current Federal Champion Target. Loading the magazine was a snap, though I found the first shot seemed to hang up. When I loaded the magazine with nine rounds, the problem was eliminated
The gun functioned well, was comfortable to hold and, even better, lived up to its reputation for accuracy. It can shoot a whole lot better than I can, with most five-round rested groups coming in at slightly less than one inch. My best spread of the day measured a scant half-inch, achieved with the Federal ammo.
Unquestionably, the pre-war Colt Match Target was an honorable addition to the esteemed Woodsman line, and its premature demise is just one more damn thing we can thank Hitler and Tojo for.