Colt Official Police .38 revolver
Photo credit: Charles Bennett
S&WK-38 Combat Masterpiece .38 revolver, later known as the Model 15.
Photo credit: Charles Bennett
This month I present to you two firearms that are near and dear to me personally AND to law enforcement and military historians alike. Nearly every current revolver design has evolved or been spawned from these two sidearms. They are nothing more than the evolution of previous designs and they, through the luck of history and conflict, have become two of the most well-known revolvers on the planet. I give you the Smith & Wesson K-38 Combat Masterpiece and the Colt Official Police.
Both of these firearms are medium framed revolvers chambered in .38 Special sporting fluted six shot cylinders and double-action triggers. Police and Military firearms generally had 4 inch (100 mm) barrels. The .38 Special round evolved along with the revolver and was generally regarded as an upgrade to the .38 Long Colt.
Colt introduced the Official Police in 1927 as an improved version of the Army Special. By checkering the cylinder release latch and the trigger along with a superior polished blue finish (previously the bluing was dull) Colt created an upscale service revolver that would be directly marketed to police departments throughout the United States. Colt’s marketing department had as much to do with the revolvers popularity as the pistol itself. In 1930 Colt advertised that their Official Police was capable of handling the new .38-44 rounds while the same sized S&W offerings could not. (Note: the .38-44 was also known as the .38/44 high-speed and was essentially a hot loaded .38 Special pushing rounds weighing 158, 150 and 110 grains of coated lead or steel jacket. This was developed for police departments in response to the need for a heavier round to penetrate automobiles. Think of them as the predecessor to the +P and +P+ rounds today.) S&W was forced to up their game and developed the N frame pistol to compete. Of course this would leave S&W room to develop an even more powerful cartridge in 1934; the .357 Magnum, but that’s another story.
Either due to marketing or the quality of their product, Colt literally owned the Police market in the early 1930s. Of course Colt had to do something with all those revolvers; their own 1911 Model was adopted by the United States Army in 1924 replacing the revolver. Their sales brochures listed several large city departments as carrying the Official Police including Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, St. Louis and Portland. State Police departments followed suit as Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware made the OP the official sidearm. Those states were followed shortly by the FBI.
At the onset of World War II the revolver was sold to the military but likely saw no combat. The majority were issued to government agencies such as the Treasury Department, Postal Office and government security agencies. Many of the war years’ guns were finished in a dull blue or, more likely, a parkerized finish with plastic grips. Following WWII production continued with the return of the deep blue finish and, in 1954, wood checkered grips returned. Colt’s production of the Official Police is somewhere north of 400,000 pistols and it remains one of the most popular handguns in history.
Following the war Smith & Wesson began to gain traction in the revolver market with their medium sized K framed handgun. Having evolved from the 1899 K frame Military and Police model, the K-38 Combat Masterpiece (eventually referred to as the Model 15) would go into production in 1949. Available first as the Target Masterpiece model with a six-inch barrel, narrow ribbed sight plane, micrometer adjustable rear sight, partridge front sight and a short-throw adjustable trigger, it was extremely accurate. Due to this accuracy, S&W received requests from the FBI as well as several police departments for a 4 inch barreled version with a Baughman Quick Draw front sight. This was the beginning of the Combat Masterpiece. Also available in a 2 inch barrel from 1964-1988 it was also available as the Model 67 in stainless. Like the Colt, the Combat Masterpiece is chambered in .38 Special but will handle +P rounds without issue. The same firearm without the target sights is known as the Model 10 (with the Stainless variants as Models 66 and 64). Nearly identical in appearance is the .357 Magnum models 67 and 65 (with and without target sights respectively).
Prior to the proliferation of the semi-automatic pistol in police work, the S&W Model 15 (Combat Masterpiece) was used by an enormous number of police departments across the country including: Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, Tennessee Highway Patrol, Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, Honolulu Police Department, Nassau County Police Department, Florida Department of Corrections as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and United States Treasury Department. Even the United States Air Force issued the Model 15 as their standard sidearm from 1962 until 1992 (replaced by the Beretta M9).
In 1999 production of the venerable Combat Masterpiece was discontinued. A few limited runs of “Heritage Series” or commemorative models were released in 2001 and 2002 and, according to customer service, S&W was recently brought back the Model 15 in their Classic Revolver line.
As to why these two handguns are special to me personally… I owned an early Colt when I was, um, younger and my father was issued a K-38 as an officer in San Jose, CA. I also made my first handgun purchase of a Model 64 back in the 1980’s which I still own today (Note: our Editor-In-Chief purchased a 64 at the same time but I’m pretty sure his was swapped out for something or other.) Both of these fine revolvers can be had for a deal at your local gun store. I’m glad I’ve hung onto the Model 64 and I look forward to passing my father’s K-38 down to my child. Plus they’re a blast to shoot and I’ve got tons of .38 ammo!
Editor's Note: The first revolver I ever bought was a Colt Official Police .38. The first revolver I ever purchased for duty use was a Smith & Wesson Model 15. Both were 4" barrel .38s. The Model 64 I purchased at the same time as the author was indeed sold to get $$ to purchase another off-duty handgun. Now I'm in the market for a stainless steel .357 Magnum with a barrel between 4"-6".
About The Author:
Charles Bennett was born in our Nation's Capital and grew up in the Maryland suburbs. Mr. Bennett has been working in all aspects of the publishing industry since the late 1980s primarily in the fields of commercial photography and magazine production. Moving to California in 1992 to attend college resulted in B.F.A and Masters degrees. California also supplied Mr. Bennett with his wife. The two of them are avid sports persons and participate in shooting, scuba diving, surfing, running and bicycling. As a long time hobby Mr. Bennett has studied the legends of American law enforcement which led to his writing these columns.