The concept of what constitutes the ideal police handgun seems to be an ever-changing one. Here in the age of the polymer DAO auto, the era when the double-action revolver was considered the optimum piece of ordnance in law enforcement may seem like ancient history.
(This, of course, isn’t exactly true. Whereas the double-action revolver has been supplanted as the primary duty tool, small-frame snubnose revolvers are still extremely popular as backup guns.)
Prior to the 1960s, S&W’s biggest competition in the law enforcement market was, of course, Colt. The Python, Official Police and Trooper filled the big-frame (in this case .41-caliber) duty-gun niche. But two of the most popular Colt offerings were smaller and lighter. They were the aptly named the Detective Special and the Police Positive.
When the Police Positive was introduced in 1907, it was chambered in a series of calibers that would seem downright anemic by today’s standards–.32 Colt, .32 New Police, .38 New Police and .38 S&W. However, the Police Positive Special had a slightly longer and beefed-up frame to accommodate more potent chamberings such as the .32-20 and .38 Special.
By the time the Second Issue came along in 1927, the old hard-rubber grips were supplanted with wood ones (smooth at first, later checkered) and a serrated topstrap instead of the smooth one on the First Issue. A Third Issue appeared in 1947, followed by a Fourth Issue in 1977 that featured a shrouded ejector-rod housing. The last Police Positive Special came off the line in 1995.
Part of the charm of the Police Positive is its relatively small frame (like the Detective Special, it’s built on Colt’s “D” frame). Back in 1970, when Colt was still making its service revolvers with unshrouded ejector rods, a four-inch Police Positive Special was listed as weighing 23 ounces, while its larger-framed stablemate, the Official Police, weighed just under 34 ounces with the same-length barrel. At the time, incidentally, the guns listed for $93.40 and $110, respectively (oh, for a time machine!).
I’d always wanted to do some shooting with a Police Positive Special. I grew up shooting an Official Police and have shot plenty of Pythons and Detective Specials, but up until recently I’d never used a PPS — a situation that I felt was intolerable. Fortunately, our handgun editor, Garry James, happened to have a vintage four-inch specimen salted away in his vault. Since Garry has a real fetish for old stuff, I wasn’t too surprised when he handed me a First Issue in pretty good shape except for some pitting on the cylinder. It was tight as a tick and had those ultra-cool black hard-rubber grips. And it was chambered in .38 Special, a respectable caliber. Before I took the gun to the range, however, Garry made me swear a solemn oath not to bring any Plus-P loads anywhere within 100 feet of the gun. This made sense to me. The world is full of folks who can do a tune-and-tighten on an S&W, but there seems to be a definite shortage of guys who specialize in Colts, especially oldies like this one.
What I did take by way of ammo seemed appropriate. I dug up some old Peters “Rustless” 158-grain Lead Round Nose and, of more recent vintage, some “red box” Federal standard-pressure 158-grain LRN. Granted, this was the load that got the .38 Special most of the bad press it received back in the 1960s, but for good or ill, it was the service load for many years–certainly through most of the production life of the Police Positive Special.
My first impression of the Police Positive Special at the range was how quick-handling and user-friendly it is. Imagine if you’d been shooting an S&W L-frame and suddenly switched to a K-frame and you’ll get the idea.
I shot double-action at a gong for a while to get the feel of things. The DA pull isn’t what you’d call smooth; it was stagey and heavy. You can certainly hit with it if you’ve got any experience shooting old Colts–pull the trigger back until it stages, pause, then pull straight through.
The single-action pull was a different matter–delightfully crisp and breaking at a hair over four pounds. At 25 yards from a sandbagged rest I managed some very respectable groups — right at the point of aim — that ran just over two inches with the Federal stuff. The big fly in the ointment was the sighting arrangement, which posed a real challenge to my aging eyes. The fixed sights were, to put it charitably, pretty tough to pick up, consisting of a tiny V-shaped groove and a rather thin blade front. The arrangement was pretty much standard operating procedure when the gun was made. Indestructibly idiot-proof? Yes. Conducive to precision target work? No.
All in all, however, the First Series Police Positive Special fulfilled its role. Easier to carry than a large-frame Colt, reliable and accurate, it was an efficient defensive sidearm. In terms of double-action revolvers, Colt isn’t a force on the market anymore. And that’s a pity, because names like Police Positive, Cobra, Agent, Python, Official Police, Trooper and Detective Special still resonate with shooters — some too young to remember Colt in its heyday. Most of the classic models can still be found on the used market, however. And with a little TLC, they’ll keep running for a long, long time.