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).