The .455 Colt New Service and the RCMP

The .455 Colt New Service and the RCMP


When I was a kid back in the 1940s and '50s, there was a great program — first on radio and then on television — called "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon." Each week, the show's eponymous Mountie and his trusty Alaskan malamute sidekick, Yukon King — a canine prodigy that made Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin look like obedience school dropouts — brought us thrilling tales of derring-do set in the days of the Great Klondike Gold Rush.

A troop of Mounties circa 1906. They are armed with .303 Mark I Ross Carbines and .455 Colt New Service revolvers.

Even now I can't listen to the drama's theme song, von Reznicek's "Donna Diana Overture," without visions of the intrepid lawman mushing across the frozen wasteland in pursuit of some evil-doer, urging his sled team with the immortal words, "On, King! On, you huskies'¦"

It turned me into a lifelong North West Mounted Police junkie and led to my acquisition of any number of bits and pieces of NWMP, RNWMP and RCMP memorabilia for my collection, not the least of which is the force's ultra-romantic Colt New Service revolver.

In the middle of the 19th century, Canada's Northwest Territory, and its more than a half-million square miles, was one of the most wide-open areas on the North American continent. There had been virtually no law in the area up to its transfer from the Hudson's Bay Company to the Canadian government in 1870, and Indian massacres, thievery and murder went unpunished. It was clear that this Canadian "Wild West" would have to be brought under control.

State-of-the-art swing-out circa 1898: The Colt New Service is the quintessential large-frame bigbore service revolver. In .455 Mountie trim, it features a 5.5-inch barrel.

On May 23, 1873, the Canadian Parliament, acting on earlier recommendations by Lieutenant W.F. Butler and the advice of Adjutant General Colonel P. Robertson Ross, established the North West Mounted Police. Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald wisely suggested that the organization be in the nature of a mounted police rather than an actual military force, recognizing that the United States might object to a large army north of the border. So that they might not be mistaken by the Indians for the blue-coated American soldiers, scarlet was chosen as the uniform color.

Parliament approved a complement of 300 men. Pay was low — $1 per day for a constable and $.75 a day for a sub-constable. The term of service was three years. Three hard years.

Classic Colt loading procedure: Pull — don't push — the cylinder release latch with your thumb (left), and swing out the cylinder to the left. Insert cartridges into the charge holes (right), and gently close the cylinder. That's all there is to it.

Initially, the constables were issued with Snider breechloading carbines and Mark I Adams revolvers — conversions of older percussion Beaumont-Adams revolvers — chambered in the British .450 service caliber. To say the officers and men were less than thrilled with their handguns was something of an understatement. In a report, the NWMP's Commissioner Colonel G.A. French noted, "The [Adams revolvers] received by us had been packed in a very careless manner, and the long journey by steamer and rail shook many of the screws loose. The chambers of some would not always revolve without applying both hands'¦"

After complaints and testing of some other arms, a supplemental issue of superior Mark III Adams was eventually approved, though all of them didn't make it into the constables' hands, as many were stolen en route.

Eventually, the Mounties would receive superior, if rather ungainly Mark II Enfield revolvers chambered in .476 caliber, and their single-shot Sniders would be replaced with much more practical Model 1876 Winchester repeating carbines chambered in .45-75.

rcmp-colt-new-service-3Unlike the Adams, which had to have its empty cases poked out of the chambers one at a time, the Enfield had simultaneous extraction, whereby one simply pressed a latch at the rear of the topstrap to free the barrel assembly and allow it to be dropped downward. This action pulled the cylinder forward against a stationary star extractor and freed the empties.

It worked well enough, but sometimes the cases would become jammed in the frame. Some felt it was badly balanced and an ugly-looking brute into the bargain.

As there was a large supply of .450 ammunition on hand (which could also be chambered in the Enfield), it took some time before the men were issued with the more powerful .476 round. Plus, the guns were found to be prone to malfunction and parts would wear and rattle around in the holster. Still, the Enfield continued to be standard issue for more than two decades despite complaints and requests for a better sidearm.

Finally, after testing several American and British revolvers, it was decided that Colt's rugged New Service, chambered in the British .455 service round, would be the ticket.

The "NWMP" stamp as well as the issue number appear on the backstrap. After 1920, the "RCMP" designation became standard.

This large-frame six-shooter was Colt's most robust double-action design to date. Initially offered in 1898, the New Service featured a swing-out cylinder that was opened by means of a catch on the left side of the frame that was pulled to the rear to unlock it.

It saw considerable civilian use, and it was carried by the Canadian Service, chambered in .45 Long Colt, and by U.S. soldiers as early as 1909 when, during the Philippine Campaign, the .38s then in service were just not stopping fanatical Moro tribesmen. At the beginning of World War I, the British also ordered a bunch of them chambered in .455, and eventually the Americans fielded many thousands, in .45 ACP, during the Great War. Civilian New Services could be had in a number of different calibers, finishes, styles and barrel lengths. After producing a line of very mediocre double actions, Colt at last had come up with a rugged, robust self-cocker that was up to the rigors of hard usage — a fact that would be proven time and again by the red-coated Mounties.

new-rcmp-service-6An initial issue of 700 North West Mounted Police New Services and a supply of .455 ammunition were received in late 1904 from Lewis Brothers & Company in Montreal. The guns were marked "NWMP" on their backstraps, along with a special issue number. Designations would change over the gun's half-century service life. Some were simply marked "NWMP" on the backstraps without an issue number, and when the unit became the Royal North West Mounted Police in 1904, subsequent arms were stamped "RNWMP." After 1920 "RCMP" (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) became standard. Some New Services were identified with a simple "MP" on the bottom of the butt behind the gun's oval lanyard ring.

Finish was blue, grips were standard Colt checkered hard rubber panels, and the barrel measured 51/2 inches. Weight was 42 ounces.

The .455 service load (far left) propelled a 265-grain bullet at 600 fps. It was significantly less potent than the .45 Colt (left).

While the .455 (265-grain bullet, 600 fps, 220 ft-lbs) was considered an adequate round for most work, it was still quite inferior to the .45 Colt, with its muzzle energy of around 400 ft-lbs. Eventually, a number of New Services were ordered in that caliber and issued to select RCMP units.

I've had an early NWMP New Service in my collection for some time. The Colt company historian affirmed it was one of the guns from the initial shipment of 700 sent in 1904.

Condition is good, and there is a considerable amount of finish still on the frame, but it does show good, honest use. Mechanically, it's perfect and the bore is excellent. The New Service revolver, in general, has always been one of my favorite handguns, and the NWMP version, with its great history, ranks right at the top.

I've shot it many times over the years, using a variety of .455 ammunition including handloads, British WWII-vintage Mark VI .455, Fiocchi Mark II 262-grainers and Dominion 265-grain .455 Colt.

While the double-action pull is long and a tad on the heavy side, the single-action is a crisp four pounds — not target grade, admittedly, but just fine for the work the gun was asked to perform.

new-colt-rcmp-service-7While the piece performs well with most .455s I've tried, I have to admit the Canadian Dominion stuff seems (appropriately enough, I suppose) to give the best accuracy. From a rest, I'm able to keep groups within a four-inch spread, slightly above point of aim. Sights, by the way, are your standard non-adjustable blade front and notched groove-in-the-backstrap rear.

The New Service is simply one heck of a revolver, and perhaps that's the reason that it remained in service with the NWMP/RCMP longer than any other revolver — from 1904 to 1954.

I'm sure Sergeant Preston would agree.  â– 

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