And The Winner Is…?
By Ethan Johns
I recently came across a handgun I hadn’t handled before lurking in the case at a favorite gun shop. It was a medium frame Colt .38 Special having the patina of steady use over a long time. It was an Officer’s Model .38 whose serial number put it leaving the Colt factory just over a hundred years ago. It had been easily overlooked in the case by most browsers, but the trace remnants of the old Colt royal blue grabbed my eye.
Once I handled the carefully shaped and hand-checkered walnut stocks and thumbed the hammer back feeling the silky smooth action I was done — and the old Colt had a new shooter. At the time I was doing quite a bit of shooting with a Glock 34 9mm and it increasingly hit me the Glock 34 is today’s version of the old Colt. Kind of.
At first glance these two handguns appear to have very little in common. However, each has much alike and the differences are each testament to their times.
The Colt Officer’s Model .38 and the Glock 34 may seem to clash, but
served similar roles in their time. We shot them head to head for grins.
Both the Colt and Glock have their roots as service handguns. The Officer’s Model got its start as the deluxe version of the then military issue New Army .38, the first swing out cylinder double action revolver. The second issue was the deluxe target version of the Army Special, the improved Colt DA in .38 Special which became the predominant police arm for many of the first decades after its introduction in 1908.
The Officer’s Model had refinements such as a checkered trigger and backstrap, adjustable sights, a flattop and hand-checkered stocks to go along with extra hand fitting of the action. The Officer’s Model was arguably the first revolver designed specifically as a target gun to enjoy wide popularity, earlier efforts seeing limited market penetration. The Colt came on the market just as handgun target shooting was exploding in popularity, with leagues popping up nationwide and leading shooters receiving regular coverage in national periodicals of the time. Sure don’t see that today.
The Glock 34 was developed from the Model 17, already in wide police and military use across the globe. The 34 was more or less made to give maximum advantage while fitting within the rules of the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA). In doing so it quickly became a regular fixture in the winner’s circle in those competitions and quickly swept the other action shooting sports.
The 34 is currently in wide use as the go-to sidearm by both new and top bracket shooters in the rapidly expanding sport of 3 Gun too. The 34 gives the shooter a little extra barrel length and sight radius, a slightly better trigger from the factory, and adjustable sights, compared to a vanilla Model 17.
Timed Fire group with the Colt at 25 yards with Winchester wadcutters.
One hundred years on it still delivers!
It’s no accident the cast centerpiece of this ’50’s era bullseye trophy
bears the likeness of the Officer’s Model .38, a tremendously popular
handgun among serious shooters from its introduction until autos largely
replaced target revolvers in the sport.
The Officer’s Model was largely used by the masses to shoot one-handed, single-action at the Standard American Pistol and Revolver bullseye target at 25 and 50 yards. It excelled in this application. In fact, an Officer’s Model was used by American Captain A.P. Lane to win five gold medals in the 1912 and 1920 Olympics. That Colt is on display at the National Firearms Museum and looks essentially stock, with the exception of the hammer being lightened.
The bullseye competition reflected the popular thinking of the era, with police training emphasizing single action fire from one hand. In this mode the Colt excelled. The hammer rests easily under the thumb and the smooth action cocks easily. Double Action was reserved for emergency use at near contact distance with un-aimed point shooting in training orthodoxy. The hand fitting and stoning of the Officer’s Model made for a long but exceptionally buttery DA pull. Ed McGivern’s early double action record speed shooting feats were accomplished using an OM .38 by shooting six shots in 3/5ths of a second into a group he could cover by hand — in 1920.
Of course, the Glock was designed in the two-handed action shooting era, where the great majority of 34’s are used to shoot some type of steel or cardboard silhouette target. One of the signal qualities of the Glock has always been its low bore axis and fast yet soft recovery from recoil, suiting it well for service and competition. The 17-round capacity of the Glock is often improved by competitors to hold five or six more rounds by extended magazine baseplates. This reflects not only the norm in competition but also speaks to the change in tactics over the last 100 years. The cutting edge officer in 1915 with his Colt OM expected each shot to dispatch a problem, where the last century has shown placement is still key, but capacity equates to options and insurance in an uncertain world.
The Glock 34 is nearly universal equipment in several current shooting
sports with beginners and winners alike, combining reliability and accuracy
with wide availability of accessories and customization.
Old World Craftsmanship Meets Mass Production
The Officer’s Model literally oozes guild-level craftsmanship. It was a deluxe offering at a time when every standard gun was hand fitted to a degree which would be considered custom today. The lines are smooth curves, seamlessly blending into tasteful edges and angles. The hammer, trigger, cylinder release latch and backstrap are all checkered. The stocks have subtle curves enhancing fit in the hand and seem to be a seamless organic piece of the revolver — more so than something shaped and screwed onto it.
Even 100 years later the remnant of the bluing on this well used Colt is beautiful, speaking to a level of finish no longer available in the factory marketplace. The action must be experienced to be appreciated. The trigger breaks with no movement at four pounds of pressure. It’s worth noting the legendarily smooth Colt Python action is a direct descendant of the action in the OM.
The Glock revolutionized the industry by offering performance at a price point unheard of in auto pistols at the time. The allure of the Glock is the ability to squirt out interchangeable, essentially weatherproof parts. Virtually anyone can watch a couple of YouTube videos and assemble a detail-stripped gun into a reliable gun in less time than it takes to change a tire. There is no joy in the finish — it will be as dull in 2115 as it is today, but it will likely have no corrosion. I don’t know for sure but suspect Glock could churn out a police department’s complement of 34’s in the time Colt took to finish one of the Officer’s Models.
Each handgun with its natural pair; the Colt with a traditional 25 yard
bullseye and the Glock with the IDPA silhouette.
Even after who-knows how many owners and thousands of rounds, the old Colt still has the accuracy to hold the ten ring. Twenty five yard groups with both Winchester and Black Hills 148 grain wadcutters ran a little over 2″ for five shots. Not “wow” territory, but solid given the age and use on the piece. However, this is one of those gifted handguns suggesting maybe we fret overly about group size, because those 2″ groups came about as easily standing as they did from the bench.
Many inherently precise guns printing tiny groups just aren’t put together in overall form to let the shooter easily get to that performance in-hand. The Officer’s Model hangs on-target just-so until the hand-honed action releases the hammer to launch the bullet. It’s no coincidence the plaques and trophies from the heyday of Bullseye competition commonly feature a cast likeness of the Officer’s Model Match.
Shooting the old match revolver was a distinct pleasure. The Colt “I” frame handed the mild .38 recoil easily while just heavy enough to stabilize without effort or fatigue. Cocking the Colt for single action use was exceptionally smooth and effortless, even with the “old school” hammer profile. Firing at a timed fire cadence of five shots in 20 seconds it was easy money to put all five in the black of a B8 bull at 25 yards, with five “10’s” rewarding good form. Full disclosure: Hitting with the old champ brought a rewarding smile hard to suppress.
The Colt Officer’s Model .38 was a high end offering at a time when every
revolver was hand-fitted to a degree considered custom today.
The Glock 34 is at its best knocking over steel plates at warp speed or launching pairs into silhouettes, but it still does quite well on the bullseye. This 34 groups around 1.5″ with ammo it likes, such as the Hornady 115 grain Critical Defense. Firing the same timed fire strings at 25 yards it was equally simple to hold the 5.5″ black for five shots shooting two-handed. The polymer gun’s trigger breaks at 4.5 pounds, through there’s some movement after a weighted pre-travel. It has a bit of over-travel as well.
A direct comparison of the trigger quality between the two target arms is almost cruel, however, the popular auto is still very easy to hit with and even lay down “bragging rights” type groups. Swapping to a one handed stance to give the Glock a taste of the Colt’s purpose, the 9mm bullets still tore into the black, but the trigger differences were much more evident.
Turn about is fair play, so I also shot both guns at speed against an 8″ target at seven yards. The Glock was on its home court, ripping out five shots consistently between 1.52-1.56 seconds. The real surprise was the elder Colt spun its cylinder nearly as fast, launching .38 wadcutters at .24 second intervals into the target, for five shots in as little as 1.69 second.
Since this was an initial attempt to run the Officer’s Model at speed I was floored by how well it handled in a contemporary “tactical” sense. No sponsored competitor or SWAT guy is likely to reach for the old Colt, but the average shooter can enjoy the old masterpiece and use it recreationally; or just as “seriously” as the day it left the factory, probably in a horse drawn cart.
The Colt was largely intended for single action fire, the influence of the
Bisley Model Target evident in its shape. This specimen broke with near
perfect crispness and weight after a century of use. The Glock 34 is a
staple in the growing action shooting sports such as USPSA, IDPA, and 3 Gun.
In recognizable ways each gun is a reflection of the values and priorities of its time. The Colt is a proud testament to skilled craftsmanship applied to a specific pursuit, with man-hours piling up until the end product echoed the effort. Meanwhile the 34 is a marvel of manufacturing efficiency, producing benchmark reliability, durability and accuracy at an everyman’s price point reflecting the minimal labor required.
The current craze of Glock customization has helped the target 9mm proliferate, bringing in a bevy of new shooters to the popular contemporary pistol sports. The Glock is likely to be a viable competitive choice for a long time to come, with decent odds a future shooter is hefting the 34 pictured here 100 years forward in a gun game of that time.