For roughly sixty years, from the mid-1920s to the mid-1980s, the small-frame short barrel .38 Special revolver was the mainstay of American detectives and plain clothes officers, bodyguards, and armed private citizens. To this day, Smith & Wesson sells more J-frame snubbies than any other handgun in their catalog and many people still rely on this type of gun for daily carry.
I have never been a fan of the .38 snubby as a primary weapon. It has a smaller grip and smaller sights than a service size handgun, holds far less ammo, is difficult to reload quickly, and the .38 Special is not known for effectiveness on big, angry, doped up thugs. Although modern ammunition raises the effectiveness of the .38 Special round considerably, I consider it to be the minimum caliber I would choose for self defense. Also, if worn on the belt, the width of the cylinder makes the snubby little, if any, more concealable than a large caliber semi-auto with three times the amount of ammo in it. To me, the real niche for the snubby is as a second gun worn more deeply concealed than the primary sidearm it backs up. The small grip and frame, short barrel, and light weight of the snubby make it an ideal choice for pocket or ankle carry as a second gun. This makes it a prime choice as a backup gun (BUG) or for those occasions when clothing, activity, or environment make it just not possible to carry a mid-size to full size handgun discreetly.
For many years, Colt was the world’s preeminent manufacturer of handguns. In the early days of the 20th century, until after WWII, Colt was the main supplier of handguns to the US military, federal and local law enforcement agencies, and private citizens around the world. In response to demand for a more concealable handgun, in 1927 Colt introduced the Detective Special. This was essentially the very popular Colt Police Positive revolver with a two-inch barrel replacing the standard four-, five-, or six-inch barrel of the PP. The Police Positive was a very compact revolver, with a smaller frame than that of the Smith & Wesson Military and Police model or the Colt Official Police model. The Detective Special was an instant success. Weighing just 23 ounces, holding six rounds of .38 Special ammo in a sturdy, but compact package, the gun was soon in great demand.
After World War II, Colt and Smith & Wesson began experimenting with aluminum frames to reduce the weight of handguns, which up to that time had been of all steel construction. Smith & Wesson developed the Model 39, 9mm semi-auto, and Colt the Lightweight Commander, both with aluminum frames, in response to US military interest in a lighter service pistol to replace the venerable 1911 Colt. The military dropped the project, but Colt and Smith & Wesson saw the market value of lighter weight carry handguns and brought out several more in the next few years. In 1950, Colt produced an aluminum frame version of the Detective Special, dubbing it the Cobra, and a new era for snubbies began.
Although externally identical to the Detective Special, the Cobra dropped the weight from 23 ounces to just 15 ounces. Frankly, worn on a gun belt the difference is hardly noticeable, but in the pocket or on the ankle, the difference is immediately apparent. The first generation Cobra, made in the early 1950s, had a full length grip frame which extended all the way to the bottom of the wooden stocks. The front sight was narrow, and the rear sight notch was quite small. The ejector rod was short—too short to forcefully extract empty cases for a fast reload. All of these shortcomings were addressed in the mid-1950s when the second generation guns appeared. The front sight was made significantly larger, just like the ones on the Official Police service revolver of that day. The ejector rod was lengthened to improve extraction of fired cases. In 1966, the final improvement was made when the grip frame was shortened substantially. This allows very compact grips of various designs to be fitted to suit the user’s particular needs.
In 1973, the D-frame line, which included the Colt Detective Special, the Cobra, and the Agent were redesigned to “modernize” them. These last third generation guns have a heavier barrel, with a shrouded ejector rod and tiny, hard to see low ramped sights. To me, they are far less desirable than the second generation guns with their high visibility sights. My recommendation of the Colt Cobra as the premiere back-up gun assumes a second generation gun, which are easy to find and reasonably priced.
The second generation guns were made from the mid-1950s to 1973. Several hundred thousand were manufactured, so they are not hard to find. Cruise a few gun shops or check the various internet auctions, and you’ll find a number of excellent examples. I have found several over the past couple of years in the $375 to $500 range, depending on condition. These little guns often have finish wear, but are mechanically sound, as they have been carried much, but shot very little.
Why, you ask, would I hunt up these antique revolvers instead of just buying a new one from some other maker? Good question, and I have some good answers. First, the old Colt holds six rounds, not five. In essentially the same size package, more ammo is better. More importantly, the Colts have sights I can see. A front sight big enough to pick up quickly is the single greatest aid to high speed accuracy. If you only have five or six medium caliber rounds to fire, you’d better be getting hits with every one of them. That’s a lot easier with the Colts. The old-timers often preferred the Colts over S&Ws because on the Colt the cylinder rotates to the right, and the hand pushes the cylinder to the right (into the frame) to lock up just before a cartridge is fired. Theoretically, this gives a tighter, stronger lock-up to the Colt over a Smith & Wesson, which rotates counter-clockwise and is pushed away from the frame at lock-up. I doubt that this is a big deal, but I have noticed that my Colts shoot very well for small revolvers. Finally, the 1950s and 1960s production guns featured very good fit and finish. The old Colt revolver action required a bit of hand fitting at the factory, which made it more expensive than some of its competitors, but they are often much better made than current production guns.
Look up one of these second generation Colts and get acquainted with it. I think you’ll be pleased.