February 11th, 2010 04:09 PM
.41 Long Colt, Obsolete and Forgotten Self Defense Cartridge
A rare Colt New Navy .32-20 revolver came my way late last year. Mis-identified on a GunBroker auction that also featured unappealing photographs, I picked it up for a song. It needs some parts but will be a decent old revolver when all fixed up.
Purchased As An Inexpensive "Parts Gun"
Now, yet another New Navy has has come my way, this one in .41 Long Colt. Originally acquired for cheap, my intention was to utilize this one as a parts donor for the .32-20 revolver. The old .41 revolver's serial number indicates a 1901 production date.
This Colt also suffered from poor photography and an unimaginative and excessively negative internet auction description so no one else bid on it. Leave it to me, the newly crowned "Colt New Army/Navy king," to come to the rescue. Upon receiving it though, the revolver was determined to be in decent mechanical shape and the finish, while worn and neglected in the past, has a certain patina of respectability about it. Only a electro-penciled number scribed on it's left side marred the pleasing effect. The fine original grips, correct to the revolver, were worth the purchase price. A disassembly and thorough scrub-up relieved it of at least half a century of gummed oil and genuine cobwebs. The cylinder would properly index and the timing was about as good as it gets on any of these revolvers. The bore had been described as "rifling strong with light pitting," and indeed there were a couple of foreboding looking spots in the very dusty old bore. It appeared as old pitting to me as well but surprisingly, the application of a dose of Hoppe's No. 9 and a .41 bore brush completely removed the spots to reveal a really mirror-bright bore. How many .41 Long Colt revolvers out there can claim a fine bore since the cartridge's heyday predates the advent of non-corrosive priming?
A reappraisal of the revolver after the clean-up made me reluctant to rob it of parts. Besides, I've long wanted a .41 Long Colt for some reason. The notion of .41 Long Colt fired my imagination since I was young. Long ago I found a nickel .41 Long Colt chambered Army Special from the 1920s in a pawn shop and became curious about the round. I watched the revolver, debating on purchasing it for a year or more and then one day it was gone. I never could get that revolver or the .41 Long Colt cartridge out of my head after that. I've even hoarded a small cache of .41 Long Colt ammunition through the years.
I'd wanted a .41 Long Colt in a Colt Army Special or Official Police though rather than a creaky old New Navy.
Couldn't resist the experience of firing a .41 Long Colt for the first time so my wife and I took this new revolver out to the lake to give it a try. While at the San Angelo, Texas gun show I obtained a box of the Western .41 Long Colt ammunition that was from a batch produced years ago.
This old Colt revolver is a sho' 'nuff shooter! The .41 Long Colt had a reputation as a dud in the accuracy department but my experiences refute that rumor, at least with this gun. The bore checks out to be .405 inches in diameter. It possesses a heavy but crisp single action trigger with no creep. I shot it for group from 10 yards distance and then assaulted a gallon Coleman fuel can at 7 yards. It hits a little high and to the left but groups very well.
Frankly, This Isn't the Greatest Design Colt Ever Fielded
The lock work of these late 19th century designed Colt swing out cylinder models is absolutely fiendish! Also, despite the obviously fine workmanship and fitting, the design must be one of the worst to have ever been fielded. I can't imagine that the U.S. Military of the late 1880s actually selected this turkey of a design as its issue handgun. Flimsy in the extreme, every part performs multiple roles. One would think that this feature would cut down on the number of internal parts but nope, there are plenty of parts in there and some are strange looking indeed. It is completely powered by flat springs which perform multiple functions as well. And these can't be simply adequate springs. They have to be able to double as leaf springs for the rear suspension of a '54 GMC flat bed truck. The action is terribly stiff, unnecessarily so in my view. The first generation Smith & Wesson K-Frame Model of 1899 is also powered by flat springs including trigger return, but gives an action feel so light, smooth, and so positive that the later Smith & Wessons pale by comparison. This model Colt is a clunker by comparison.
The Colt New Navy has a couple of redeeming qualities despite its undeniably primitive design however the trigger isn't one of them. Its single action trigger, crisp if somewhat heavy, may be easily mastered once one becomes familiar with it. The double action trigger gives an extremely poor pull. Finger-straining heavy, one gets the feeling that something inside the revolver will break before the hammer finally drops. The revolver would best be employed double action at powder-burning point blank range only.
The .41 New Navy does point well and almost seems to steer itself onto target. It is well balanced and the grip frame, with factory panels, fit my hand very well. Recoil, while brisk, is very controllable and shooting the revolver gives a gratifying sensation.
The .41 Long Colt Would Still Be Effective
I'd expected the .41 ammunition to be very mild but it was surprisingly potent. It gave a loud, deep, and full throated report. The revolver recoiled smartly. I was expecting it to behave tepidly, much like my U.S. Army issue Model 1901 .38 Long Colt but it was considerably more robust. The Western factory 200 grain Lubaloy ammunition gives the impression of being a potent loading. One comes away from shooting the .41 Long Colt feeling like it could have still been a useful cartridge for personal self defense. I'm going to have to chronograph this ammunition to find out what sort of velocity it gives.
The .41 Long Colt originated in 1877 as a chambering for the Colt Model 1877 double action revolver. Nicknamed the "Thunderer," this revolver had an appearance much like the famed Colt Single Action Army but in 3/4-size and with birdshead grip frame. The .41 Long Colt successfully made the transition to smokeless powder but was hampered in its ability to survive by being loaded with oddly designed bullets, some of which were of sub-diameter dimensions. Colt clung to this heel bullet concept beyond any necessity for their use and accuracy problems ensued. Also, Colt apparently didn't adhere to strict manufacturing tolerances in the dimensions of its chamber throats and bores, as diameters are reputed to vary considerably. The .41 Long Colt was offered in two slightly different lengths during its lifetime. In addition to the two lengths of the Long Colt, a .41 Short Colt was once offered, loaded with black powder and a 160 grain bullet.
No other firearms manufacturer took up the .41 Long Colt, a fact which likely limited its overall popularity. Colt offered it up until World War II but very few of the then current Official Police models were chambered for .41 Long Colt. It is said that the 200 grain round nose lead .38 Special offers the same ballistics as the .41 Long Colt. Don't know about that but the .38 Special probably crowded out the .41 Long Colt.
The Western .41 Long Colt 200 grain copper plated lead round nose (left) shown with a nickel plated Winchester .38 Special +P 158 grain lead SWC hollow point.
I never intended to get into these primitive Colt double action models. They just don't seem very sound. Still, well over a quarter of a million were produced and one supposes that they served well during the first part of the 20th Century. The lines of these revolvers are lovely to look at in my view and the finish on nice originals rivals any fine firearm ever made. They do have an elegant and appealing appearance.
Doomed To Remain Obsolete Yet It Could Have Remained Viable
Some handgunners only consider handgun cartridges beginning with a 4 and possessing bullets weighing at least 200 grains as appropriate for self defense. The .41 Long Colt sits squarely on that threshold. Some old loading manuals show handloads reaching 900 fps with the 200 grain bullet, a revolver version of .40 S&W performance. The .41 Long Colt could have had a new lease on life if, in the immediate post-World War II era, it had been offered in a revolver creation built on the Smith & Wesson K-Frame M&P but featuring a 5-shot cylinder and an abbreviated grip frame on the order of the old Colt Agent. Colt itself might have been able to create a 5-shot Detective Special. Such revolvers and any derivatives or improvements could have achieved a degree of popularity until at least the 1980s and the .41 Long Colt could have still been with us today.
Imagine a S&W Centennial or Bodyguard styled K-Frame .41 Long Colt with a 2 to 3 inch barrel. How about the same thing with an alloy frame? Colt could have fielded a revolver much like their Magnum Carry in .41 Long Colt or could have created a .41 Long Colt Cobra. I don't know if Ruger could squeeze five .41 Long Colt rounds into their SP 101 but it's a neat idea.
The spirit and intent of the old .41 Long Colt has been resurrected in the .41 Special, a custom revolver cartridge formed by shortening the .41 Magnum case.
It's too late for all that now and too late for the .41 Long Colt. There are too many wheezy old revolvers out there to develop improved factory loadings. Besides, any new revolver offering will be overshadowed by the prevailing popularity that the semi-auto pistol currently enjoys.
Firing the first cylinder-full through the .41 Colt.
A group fired from 10 yards. I'd taken a 6 o'clock hold on the numeral "10" in the middle of the target so the revolver shoots a bit high and to the left.
Primers appeared fine and fired cases gave normal extraction.
An aggressive Coleman fuel can that came to grief from 7 yards out is shown with the .41 Colt New Navy.
The final shot from the fusillade struck the neck of the can, bowling it over.
February 11th, 2010 04:26 PM
An attempt to link to a video of the actual assault by the Coleman fuel can.
Don't know if the 4th shot was a miss or not. One of the holes in the can is more opened on bottom and dirt appears to kick up behind the can.
February 11th, 2010 04:54 PM
Great writeup. Always nice to see old guns taken care of.
February 13th, 2010 11:35 AM
Good shootin' there amigo!
Love your posts on the old classics (are we considered classics, or relics? ).
"The pistol, learn it well, carry it always ..." ~ Jeff Cooper
"Terrorists: They hated you yesterday, they hate you today, and they will hate you tomorrow. End the cycle of hatred, donít give them a tomorrow."
February 13th, 2010 12:06 PM
Great report. Is that a SeaBee cover?
Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around laws. Plato
February 14th, 2010 05:15 PM
It's a Marine Corps utility cover that my son recently gave to me. He's a new Marine, currently undergoing second phase training at Camp Pendleton. His MOS is machine guns. Talked to him yesterday and he said that he spent most of last week in class learning nomenclature, operation, and maintenance of the M240. He said he got to shoot 800 rounds on Friday on various targets from 100 yards to 800 yards. Said the M240 was "punchy" but effective and he loved it. The M2 and Mk 19 are next on the training list. I guess he's already trained on the SAW but he has not said anything about it.
Here's the .32-20 Colt New Navy project gun that got me involved with the .41 version. The first photo is taken from the Gunbroker auction and shows the old revolver in sad shap with it's trigger all whopper-jawed, and missing the grip screw, crane lock and screw, along with a missing ejector rod head. The second photo shows the revolver basking in a coating of RIG after a thorough cleaning and installation of some replacement parts I already had on hand. It still needs a firing pin (or complete hammer), and a cylinder stop. Some repro grips may have to do until I can locate some decent originals that don't cost an arm and a leg.
The old revolver may shoot decently. The bore is uniformly frosted but doesn't have deep pitting. The .32-20 chambered Colt New Navy was just an afterthought, produced in tiny quantities just before the New Army/New Navy production was mercifully ended in 1908 in favor of the very much improved Army Special. The Army Special was renamed in the mid-1920s and became the familiar Official Police which soldiered on until 1970. The vaunted Python is only a gussied-up Army Special/Official Police revolver.
The U. S. military contract models are the most popular variations of the Colt New Army/New Navy series which holds the distinction of being the first successful double action revolver to feature the swing-out cylinder. Beginning in 1889 the U.S. Navy took delivery on 5000 of these revolvers in .38 Long Colt. The Army soon followed suit. The basic design underwent a number of minor revisions, the most important of which was in 1892. Army revolvers are variously termed models: 1892, 1894, 1895, 1896, 1901, and 1903. It's all the same revolver with only minor design tweaking.
Even the military contract models weren't well respected for many years and only now are beginning to be of interest to collectors. They served through the Spanish American War and Philippine Campaign, being in on a lot of action during an interesting period in American military history.
Here's a garden variety U.S. military Colt Model 1901 .38 Long Colt and a military .38 Long Colt cartridge with a Frankfort Arsenal 4-11 headstamp. I think I gave either $70 or $75 for this revolver back in the early 1980s which shows how little they were regarded.
Should have wiped the RIG off before taking this shot of the butt markings.
In case anyone wants to be able to ascertain the difference between the Colt commercial New Army and New Navy revolvers, it amounts to nothing more than the style of grips. The New Army models will normally feature hard rubber grips with the prancing Colt molded at the tops or else feature the walnut grips of the military contract guns. The New Navy models will feature hard rubber grips that spell out "Colt" at the tops. I just learned that the New Navy can also be identified by opening the revolver to see an "N" on the inside of the front of the frame where the crane fits when it is at rest. These are the only differences that I can find. Otherwise, they are the same basic revolver.
The .32-20 New Navy has a lot of "meat" around the chambers in the cylinder and a thick forcing cone. The .41 Long Colt revolver has a paper thin forcing cone. I think the old .41 Long Colt cartridge would be a lot of fun to handload but there is no way I'd stray from minimum charges in one of these very old revolvers.
I hope to locate a mid-1920s Army Special or even a scarce 1930s Official Police chambered for .41 Long Colt for some fun handloading experimentation with the old round.
Anyway, there's now more information posted here about these old Colt revolvers than any reasonable person could care about.
February 14th, 2010 05:22 PM
Excellent writeup and pictures. I enjoyed it. Thanks for posting it. I never get tired of learning new things about guns.
I would rather stand against the cannons of the wicked than against the prayers of the righteous.
AR. CHL Instr. 07/02 FFL
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February 14th, 2010 05:23 PM
Hah, '57 Chevys are considered classics. I happened along that year too but am more "relic grade."
Originally Posted by OD
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