The Police Revolver ... It Ain’t Dead Yet!

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There are still cops wearing the Colt Detective Special as a primary
duty weapon. This one, produced in 1930, is in perfect working order.

“There,” I yelled triumphantly as I stabbed the “send” button. “Take your damn high tech cyber-pictures, Huntington!” I had just e-mailed my first column with digital photos to the editor. He told me I was the last of the Handgunner staff writers to give up our faithful old friend, 35mm film. I felt like the last dinosaur to leave Jurassic Park Island.

A couple thousand New York City cops know exactly how I feel.

When a cop draws this Ruger SP101, he knows it will go bang every time.

A Wheelgun Patina

According to New York Times story at the time, that’s how many of the city’s Finest were still packing .38 Special revolvers as primary duty weapons. They stood out among the more than 30,000 officers there, most of whom wear DAO 9mm autos to work. More, of course, are using small .38s for backup and off-duty carry. The commissioner, an old head himself, packs a Colt Detective Special in his ankle holster.

When I was a young cop, we saw the occasional old constable or deputy who still wore a single action, sometimes an antique Peacemaker, sometimes a Ruger Blackhawk. We snickered politely but cruelly. Hell, even Barney Fife had a double action Colt Official Police. That’s the way these cops are being treated now by some who spot their old “police specials.” One related that during a planning session with the Feds before the Republican convention, they noticed the .38 on his plainclothes belt and all wanted to see it. It was, he said, as if he had been carrying a flintlock.

Others reported the gun gave them a more positive aura insome circles, more of a patina. They would hear, “Wow, you must have some years on,” when people observed the revolver in their uniform holster. Or, “You must be gettin’ close to retirement, huh?” Well, being in the same age group, I suppose that’s better than hearing, “What kind of a geezer are you, old timer?”

The old harness bulls themselves explained to the Times reporter why they carried the “old-fashioned” guns. They had seen 9mms jam on their range, but it was well-known institutional history in the department that no revolver had ever malfunctioned in the hands of an NYPD officer in a gunfight. Revolver or auto, they had been taught in refresher training that the average shootout in the city was over in five rounds or less.

Some 2,000 4" service revolvers, like this M&P, are still in duty
holsters on New York City streets.

Faithful Old Friends

In ancient times when people like me were fighting to get autos instead of revolvers for police duty, we kept hearing the phrase,
“Our faithful old friend, the revolver.” Today, we have a generation of cops who’ve never held a revolver unless they confiscated it from a suspect. In 1972, the first job the chief gave me was to show our officers how to safely unload the automatics they were taking off the street. Now, I have lived long enough to hear a young patrolman ask his supervisor, “Hey, Sarge, how do I open this revolver to unload it?”

The revolver was a faithful friend and still is. Some departments, including mine, still issue small revolvers for backup. I know a cop who has shot ten or so people in the line of duty. He thinks a .38 Special revolver is all a policeman really needs. At work, he wears the department issue Glock 17 with 18 rounds of 9mm; off duty, he clips inside his waistband a 1950 vintage 2″ S&W M&P.38. You tell him he doesn’t have enough bullets. I’ll wait for you here.

A cop who works near where I live dropped by my place today to ask a question, in uniform and wearing his department-standard Glock 21. “I shoot this okay, and it’s never jammed on me,” he said, gesturing at his 14-shot .45 auto. “But I carried the wheel-gun for so long, and I just won the Stock Service Revolver class at the IDPA match, and I’d just feel better with my Smith 625 and about four
spare .45 moon clips. The sheriff says it’s okay. You think I should?”

Before I told him it was a decision only he could ultimately make, a thought ran through my mind: maybe the 21st Century is a time for a return to the old values. One thing is clear, though. Coposaurus-Rex is not extinct. He walks among us even as we speak. And it’s probably not wise to mess with him.

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