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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
Hi all. Some time ago I came into possession of a lovely and mysterious Colt revolver. I never got around to making a post about it, but I have slipped in a photo here and there you may have seen. We got to talking about these unique revolvers in the DS photo section, so I decided to finally make that post. It's been a while since we had a good thread about these curious revolvers, and there is a chance a few members here don't even know they exist, so I'd love to shed light on them. As well, if you have any information or photos of your own, feel free to share! I'd love to see and hear from everyone.

Some history:
For those that don't know, these are often referred to as a Pre-Detective Special, although more correctly they are a 2" Police Positive Special. They are properly the 'patriarch' of the snub-nose family, and one of the only guns Colt ever made that doesn't have a name or patent information anywhere on it.

So what exactly is a Pre-Detective Special? As the collector given nickname would suggest, it is the model that immediately preceded the Colt Detective Special. In 1926, the Detroit Police Department and a couple of others wanted to arm their plainclothes detectives with a powerful, compact revolver, but no such thing was commercially available. There were short barreled revolvers, but nothing quite like what they were looking for. So, as Colt is famous for doing, they built a gun to fit the need. In reality, they took their already popular Police Positive Special revolver, produced a new 2" barrel, and began to fit the same gun frames with the shorter barrel.

Immediately the gun proved a huge success, not only with the police, but civilian market too. So much so that around mid year of 1927 (I believe May), Colt began to market this revolver as its own model, coining the famous name, the Colt Detective Special, after the men that used them.

Apart from being the forerunners of the snub nose family, what makes these early type Detective Specials particularly unique are their features. Other than just the name, they stand out from your average Detective Special. They were produced from 1926-1927 on special order before the Detective Special name came into use, so the barrels are simply hand-stamped ".38 Special" and they have no patent information on the reverse. Other details differing them from standard Detective Specials and an easy way to identify one is that they will often have smooth triggers, a smooth top strap, and a "skinny" 1-9/16" square butt. Interestingly, many also have a 'fouling cup' on the underside of the top strap where the barrel meets the frame. Also, because these were a special run of guns, Colt took a future serial number range and allocated them for these new short-barreled revolvers. They will almost always serial number to 1928 even though they are from 1926-1927. As always though, with Colt, nothing is definite, but these are the average and most common traits of a Pre-Detective.

Even with all of that said, there is still a fairly blurred line between what is officially considered a 2" Police Positive Special versus a Detective Special, due to the fact that Colt was never great at leaving exact records, and they never listed when they started producing the Detective Special as its own model compared to when they stopped producing 2" Police Positive Specials as factory special order items. There's a lot of overlap in production between the two, and speaking with Paul at Colt Archives, he shared with me that the official cutoff date they use is 10/21/1927. If it shipped after that date, it would be considered a Detective Special. However, after doing some digging, they also found a ton of matching factory orders that went with guns shipped before & after the date for Detective Specials. So, it's still a bit muddy and unclear, but the best way to identify one is if it has the features I listed above and whether or not it shipped before 10/21/1927.

As an example of how confusing it can get, officially mine is considered a Police Positive Special. It has all of the Pre-Detective features and was shipped 10/18/1927 (three days before the cutoff date), but it does NOT have a factory order associated to it, which is curious for a 2" Police Positive Special, as they were never standard production. In Paul's own words, "With the earlier thinner grip frame diameter, and .38 special marked barrel vs. detective special, I would be inclined to believe this is a pre-detective, that shipped after the detective special was introduced."
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And finally, after that mouthful of history and information, below is my own personal Pre-Detective.

Unfortunately, the grips aren't the originals and the finish is a bit worn in places, but all else she's in great shape. Originally shipped to Indianapolis in 1927 as a first year Detective Special, she's definitely one of my favourite Colt revolvers. Being a huge fan of early Detective Specials and Indianapolis being my second home, I'd honestly consider it a holy grail gun for me!
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Discussion Starter · #2 · (Edited)
Part of the mystery in these revolvers is properly identifying them, as they pass as both Detective Specials and Police Positive Specials, due to the lack of a name on the gun. Most of them get lettered as a Detective Special when in reality they should technically be listed as a 2" Police Positive Special. This was the case for mine, and Paul at the archives was kind enough to send me a new letter to correct the mistake.
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Good information. It is interesting that the "skinny grip frame" guns appear to have the same grip frame as the Police Positives and Banker's Specials, but of course those frames didn't have a large enough cylinder opening to accept a cylinder long enough for the .38 Special cartridge. Maybe Colt's had a small number of frame forgings produced with the smaller grip frame and larger cylinder window before deciding that the larger grip frame was a better idea with the harder recoiling .38 Special round ?
 

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Reposting some stuff from an earlier thread to give a boost to Keith's excellent new thread here on these very interesting revolvers.

The granddaddy of all Detective Special collectibles, the Police Positive Special with the 2” barrel. As our knowledgeable members know, this was the Detective Special at its inception, before it was given its soon-to-be-legendary name the following year. First marketed in 1926 and first catalogued as the Detective Special in 1927 in the A-70-9th catalogue. Characterized by the two-inch barrel; the lack of a model name, manufacturer’s name, and patent date; a barrel roll mark that reads only “38 Special”; and a narrow grip frame (aka “skinny butt”). Estimated total number of guns exhibiting all these characteristics is approximately 100 to 150. One anomaly here is the checkered trigger, which might be a replacement. I believe checkered triggers were first installed on the Detective Special sometime later (additional input welcome). What I usually look for with historical collectibles is some real character because of genuine use, but not abuse. That’s the case here. I rate the finish at about 85%. A few screw heads show some slight buggering but nothing significant. The grips have some nicks and scrapes, and the high points of the checkering have been smoothed from use. Bore and chambers are mirror bright. Unquestionably a daily carry gun, but one that was well cared for. The timings of bolt retraction, cylinder unlocking, and bolt return are excellent. However, final cylinder lockup shows a condition reportedly common with Colts wherein the bolt drops a bit late onto the ramp, and so the hammer reaches full cock slightly before the cylinder locks. Nonetheless, careful observation of this weapon, as well as sound and feel, during dry firing with snap caps indicates complete cylinder lockup on all six chambers before hammer fall, and with the hammer down at the completion of the cycle the gun exhibits the customary Colt “bank vault” lockup. I read in an excellent earlier posting (I believe by dfariswheel) that when these old Colts were shipped from Hartford they were sometimes undertimed and they eventually wore in to proper timing through shooting. This firearm looks as if it was often carried but rarely fired.

This PPS letters to the Citizens Savings Bank in NYC via the H & D Folsom Arms Company, with a shipping date of June 26, 1926. One of the facts I found intriguing, and a bit surprising, in the Colt letter was the shipment of six guns at one time to a single bank. That struck me as being quite an arsenal. So I conducted some research, and what I found proved far more interesting than I’d expected. The building had just been completed in 1924 and, incidentally, still exists and has been designated a New York City landmark. Evidently the bank directors felt that multiple armed guards were really needed, but not simply for protection against ordinary robbers. In fact, the general upsurge in bank robberies wouldn’t occur until the following decade. Rather, in this case the bank’s own customers were a major cause of concern. According to an article on the granting of landmark status to the building in The New York Times from 2011, “. . . the sturdy design was also meant to assure the bank’s officers that they would be safe from their depositors, at a time when the Bowery—a seething jumble of humanity in the perpetual shadow of the Third Avenue el tracks—was regarded as a less than ideal banking location.” In Architectural Record magazine of July 1926, Oliver Whitwell Wilson wrote, “The building is in the midst of an easily excitable population and riots are not unknown. The bank is thus protected against such a mob and could hold out until help arrived.”

The image of a phalanx of bank guards holding the line with their new Colt snubbies, of which this weapon would have been one, against an irate mob of bank depositors sounds like something flashed across the cover of one of the more audacious pulp magazines of the twenties, rather than an expression of the anxieties of a writer in a sober architectural journal, but there it is. Such delightful details don’t ordinarily emerge when one follows up the particulars of a Colt letter, and here they add another layer of flamboyant history to the tale of this classic firearm.
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My gun (above) in Gary Peer's classic study.
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The dealer to which my gun was shipped.
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The gun's ultimate destination (along with 5 others).
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The bank today.
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Something to bear in mind is that true “skinny butt” 2-inch Police Positive Specials are extremely rare. Gary Peer roughly estimates only about 100-150 were ever manufactured. He told me in correspondence in 2014 that he had seen only 2 (and he said he had "looked hard and long” for them) and bought both. One of them is the one pictured in his book that I purchased from him and posted above. True “skinny butt” PPSs like this one have a grip measuring 1 9/16 inches front to back, whereas the butts of the later, but not skinny-butt, guns measure 1 7/8 inches front to back. See photo below from page 53 of Gary’s book.
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Keith,
Thanks for starting this thread..and starting me on an information overload!! Here are the pix of my with the best I could do with the serial # being double stamped. It was not uncommon with S&W as I have a model 57 that a 29 can be made out underneath it. I guess when it comes down to it "parts is parts" at the factory. As I mentioned, I did the on-line letter app last night so lets see where this one comes in. And now that I have it out again I see it needs a good cleaning
 

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Re-posted from another thread, the "Peter von Frantzius" revolver. Letter says Detective Special, but definately a Police Positive Special.

The shipped to address is not shown, but von Frantzius operated Sports, Inc. at 608 Diversay Parkway in Chicago. He was known as the "armorer of gangland."

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Discussion Starter · #19 ·
Keith,
Thanks for starting this thread..and starting me on an information overload!! Here are the pix of my with the best I could do with the serial # being double stamped. It was not uncommon with S&W as I have a model 57 that a 29 can be made out underneath it. I guess when it comes down to it "parts is parts" at the factory. As I mentioned, I did the on-line letter app last night so lets see where this one comes in. And now that I have it out again I see it needs a good cleaning
Haha, you're welcome! I'm happy to have been able to write up what I've learned and gleaned from other threads about these unique little guns. Hopefully you learned something new. And thanks for posting the pictures of yours. I look forward to seeing what your letter says after you get it.
 

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Discussion Starter · #20 ·
Good information. It is interesting that the "skinny grip frame" guns appear to have the same grip frame as the Police Positives and Banker's Specials, but of course those frames didn't have a large enough cylinder opening to accept a cylinder long enough for the .38 Special cartridge. Maybe Colt's had a small number of frame forgings produced with the smaller grip frame and larger cylinder window before deciding that the larger grip frame was a better idea with the harder recoiling .38 Special round ?
Thanks! And yup, I thought the same thing was interesting. From further research, I believe the 'skinny grip frame' was actually standard production on first generation Police Positive Specials, making them similar to the Police Positives, albeit with a longer cylinder. Even though it's technically not out of place, it always seems weird to see the skinny grip on a .38 Special revolver.

You can see some examples over at ColtAutos.com in their Police Positive and Police Positive Special section.

I believe you're correct though, and Colt later decided that the larger grip frame was better for the hard recoiling .38 Special round, as in 1928, all guns were now produced with the larger frame diameter, along with some other new revisions.
 
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