April 2014

Old-School 38s — S&W M10 And Colt Police Positive Special

A few generations ago, these revolvers were common and popular sidearms for law-enforcement officials and civilians interested in self defense. But can they still do the job today?

We had the opportunity to review two old-school 38 Special revolvers, a pair that was a staple with the military, law enforcement, and civilians a century ago. The condition of the S&W Model 10 rated about 90%, while the Colt Police Positive Special rated about 80-85%. The price for each was reasonable for a gun we knew we would probably just collect and plink with rather than conceal carry or keep in the night stand. Testers did have a definite preference between the two and would rather lay down their money for one over the other.

The Smith & Wesson Model 10 ($295) and Colt Police Positive Special ($300) were rival revolvers a dozen or so decades ago. This sample target from 15 yards has typical results we achieved with each revolver. Both revolvers are still viable protection weapons and should not be considered has-beens, but the designs are certainly long in the tooth compared to current self-protection options. One of these revolvers we would not hesitate to buy and use; the other we felt was a definite C&R candidate suited best for fair-weather plinking.

Our initial assessment of the revolvers included checking for wear other than the obvious worn bluing from being holstered. We checked for play and any wiggle in the cylinders while in battery by moving them forward and rearward and trying rotating them. We looked at the forcing cone for lead build up, which might indicate the cylinder was out of time. The hand, cylinder stop, ratchet, cylinder latch, and other parts where examined to see if they were worn. The cylinders were rotated to see if the ejector rods wobbled.

Other than the S&W’s cylinder latch being slightly loose, both guns were in good shooting shape, so we took them to the range. Here’s how they stacked up.

Colt Police Positive Special 38 Special, $300
The Police Positive Special was a variant of a long line of Colt double-action revolvers that was manufactured from 1908 through 1978. The Police Positive Special model went through four different issues and is notable for its small D frame and being chambered in 38 Special. It was also chambered in less powerful cartridges like 32-20, 32 Colt New Police, and 38 Colt New Police. According to the Colt website database, the model we had on hand was manufactured between 1932 and 1933.

This looked like a revolver our great-great-granddaddy might have owned when running boards were standard on cars. It was a blued all-steel revolver. To get the Colt ready to shoot, we first removed the wood grips to keep them from getting damaged. Then we scrubbed out the bore.

We then carefully removed the side plate and cleaned out the varnished oil in the mechanism. The Colt did not look like it had hard use, and the lock up was still tight. The seam between the yoke and frame was almost indistinguishable the fit was so tight. A range rod with a 38/357 Service head gauge (.345 inches, (Brownells.com #080-617-038WB, $40) confirmed the chambers of the 82-year-old Colt were in time. The range rod is placed into the muzzle and should easily pass through the bore and into each chamber. A cylinder-gap gauge (#080-633-668WB 60/68 Cylinder Gauge, $36) was used to verify the headspace, and the 38 Special D-frame revolver should be within .060-.065 inches. The gauge is slipped between the back of the cylinder and the frame. It was still in spec. The Colt and S&W use systems that prevent accidental discharge should the revolver be dropped. Back in the day, Colt called the system the “Positive Lock” safety, which prevented the firing pin (which is built into the hammer) from hitting the primer of a cartridge unless the trigger is pulled.

The barrel was skinny, and the ejector rod had no underlug or shroud for protection against bending. The cylinder swings out by pulling back on the cylinder latch, which was nicely checkered. The frame had a squared butt. The grip was checkered walnut with a nickel-plated Colt medallion inset. The grip was more round than flat. Testers did not like the grip.

It felt skinny in the hand, and there was a gap between our index finger and the cut behind the trigger guard when we gripped low on the revolver. If we gripped higher up, the hammer spur stuck us in the web of our hand. It is no wonder that Tyler T-Grips (t-grips.com) are a popular aftermarket part for such revolvers. The trigger was well curved and smooth, and the pull in double action felt lighter than it measured. The hammer spur was checkered, too, and allowed the revolver to be fired single action easily.

The old Colt was smaller and lighter than the S&W.
The front sight was a round blade that was shiny in sunlight; the rear sight was a skinny groove in the top strap. The sights were hard to align quickly. Those testers unfamiliar with the Colt soon learned that the cylinder of the Colt rotated clockwise while the S&W rotated counter clockwise.

At the range with only standard 38 Special ammo — no +P rounds for these old revolvers, we put the Police Positive Special through its paces at 15 yards and found this old wheelgun had game. Using a rest, we were able to shoot some pretty tight groups, even though the gun felt tiny in our hands and the sights were difficult to use compared to current revolver sights. The ejector rod fully ejected the cases with ease and the chambers were easy to load.

Our Team Said: The Colt was an interesting piece of history, but it has had its day. No doubt the revolver is quality construction made in bygone era, and it proved its accuracy. But testers felt they would rather have the S&W.

Smith & Wesson Model 10 38 Special, $295
Like the Colt, the Smith & Wesson Model 10 has a storied past. It descended from the 38 Hand Ejector model and Military & Police (M&P) first introduced in 1899, then the Victory Model followed in 1942 and after WWII it was the 38 Military & Police or “Pre-Model 10” from 1946 to 1957. Since 1958, it has been called the Model 10, and, in fact, this K-frame is still being manufactured today. Some 6 million have been produced in total, making it one of the most popular and long-lived revolvers ever manufactured. S&W’s Classic line offers a blued model, and the S&W Model 64 is a stainless version with modern rubber grips. Both sport a heavy bull barrel.

Our Model 10 was manufactured between 1969 and 1970 and wore a gorgeous deep blue finish. The trigger and hammer were case-hardened. The barrel was tapered, and the squared-off grip featured checkered walnut stocks inset with an S&W medallion. Like the Colt, the steel-frame backstrap was exposed.

The front sight was a serrated ramp that cut glare. The groove rear sight was wider. It was much faster to acquire the target with the S&W than the Colt, our testers said. The revolver also felt bigger in hand and thus, more hand filling, which our testers liked.

The trigger was nicely curved and grooved for a more secure grip with the trigger finger. The hammer spur had toothy checkering, as did the cylinder latch, which is pushed forward to swing out the cylinder. The Model 10 was another example of a beautiful revolver from the past.

The ejector rod mated to a lug under the barrel, making it more secure and snag free than the Colt. A pin snapped into the end of the ejector rod when the cylinder was swung into the frame. Like the Colt, the end of the S&W’s ejector rod was knurled for a sure grip. The Smith ejected the empties freely. The front of the S&W’s cylinder was not chamfered like the Colt, so that means there will be more resistance when holstering the revolver.

The Model 10 uses a hammer-blocking bar, which moves out of place as the trigger is pulled, allowing the firing pin in the hammer to hit the cartridge primer. The Smith also had an additional safety feature which the Colt lacked. With the cylinder open, the trigger cannot be pulled nor the hammer thumbed back. This is to avoid the gun discharging should the hammer be cocked and the cylinder swung back into the frame.

The slightly bigger Model 10 allowed shooters to stay on target easier in rapid fire. It also proved to be accurate. This version of the Model 10 is not rated for +P loads. The recoil was minimal and the smooth S&W double action felt tight and operated slick. A Brownells Recording Trigger Pull Gauge was used to measure the DA and SA strokes, and the Smith measured 11 pounds, but it felt lighter. In single action, the trigger pull was crisp. Our testers preferred the trigger pull of the Model 10, and they really liked the SA let off.

Our Team Said: The S&W would make a good defense weapon with the right 38 Special load. The wood grips and skinny barrel gave the gun a retro look, and some would swap the wood with aftermarket rubber grips. But if you’re interested in a bargain-priced revolver that can still do a job of self defense despite its age, the Model 10 keeps on going, and going, and going.

Written and photographed by Robert Sadowski, using evaluations from Gun Tests team testers. GT

Colt Police Positive Special (Second Issue) 38 Special

Smith & Wesson Model 10 38 Special

Range Data