June 1998

Colt DS-II Tops Other Six-Shot .38 Special Revolvers

The Colt was more compact and ejected better than the Smith & Wesson Model 64-4 or the European American Armory Windicator.

Thirty-eight snub-nose. The phrase brings to mind old detective stories with sinister characters, clever plots and strange intrigues from the pens of Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie and Mickey Spillane. One can’t help but think of Joe Friday on Dragnet, Cannon the fat man, and a host of other characters, some fictional, some real, all of whom used a snub-nose .38 to good—or other—purpose. The .38 snubbie might be considered an icon but, romance aside, the gun type is something of an anomaly. It suggests a hide-out gun, yet they’re not the easiest guns to conceal. Also, if you want to hit something, you’d think a longer barrel would be preferred. However, there’s another name for them: belly gun. Long shots are not always called for, and this name says it all.

Today, one would assume that anyone wanting a hideout handgun would think in terms of semiautomatics, not revolvers. Fact is, lots of people today still want a 2-inch .38 Special revolver. Several manufacturers make ‘em, and they sell enough guns to keep production going.

We have, within the confines of this test sequence, another anomaly. While all our test revolvers are all six-shooters, they are not really in the same class at all. The Colt Detective Special (for that is what DS stands for) is and always has been in a class with the five-shot J-frame Smith & Wesson Chiefs Special snubbie. The Colt has the advantage of one extra shot, but weighs a few ounces more than the small Smith. By the way, back in 1980 the Colt Detective Special cost 53 percent more than the S&W Chiefs Special ($170 vs. $260), if anyone wonders why Colt stopped production of the original DS some years back.

Our test Smith & Wesson is built on their mid-size K frame, and is actually a short-barrel version of the tried and true Military & Police, introduced in 1902. Hence its greater size and weight than the Colt. This, however, is the gun you must buy if you want a six-shot 2-inch revolver bearing the S&W name. The European American Armory (EAA) Windicator is more of a size with the M&P, but its aluminum alloy construction gives it a slight weight advantage over the Smith.

The Guns
Our Smith & Wesson was the 2-inch stainless Model 64-4 with a brushed finish and case-hardened trigger and hammer. It was fitted with two-piece rubber grips with finger grooves. Next was the 2-1/8-inch Colt DS-II, again of stainless with a brushed finish and two-piece black rubber grips, but these omitted the sometimes useless (because of differences in hand and finger sizes) finger grooves; instead they had a single finger-notch at the bottom, which promised to be somewhat more generally useful. The Colt’s hammer and trigger had the same gray stainless finish as the rest of the gun. Our third gun was the EAA Windicator, with 2 1/4-inch barrel, blackened aluminum alloy construction and one-piece hard rubber grips having not only finger grooves, but also thumb-rests molded into the sides of the grip.

Concealed carriers: please note that your clothing can stick to rubber grips, which does nothing for your presentation (draw), and can also give away the fact that you’re carrying a gun. If this is a problem with you, try wood grips.

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now and then we won’t have to mention it again. If ever there was a homelier pup than the Windicator, we don’t know what it is. It remains to be seen if beauty is as beauty does.

All three guns had internal hammer-block mechanisms that positively prevented the guns from firing unless the trigger was fully rearward. No other safety system was provided—or needed. All three had correct indexing and timing.

The short ejector rod of the Smith & Wesson was secured at the front end by a spring-loaded plunger. The much longer Colt ejector rod was in a housing to protect it from the bumps and dings of daily abuse, but the cylinder rod was not secured at the front end. The Windicator’s ejector rod was also shrouded, and was midway in length between the Colt and S&W. It featured a catch at the front end, similar to that of the S&W.

All of our test handguns’ grips had molded-in checkering. They also all had fixed sights with no adjustments possible. Smith & Wesson alone assumed the shooter would actually want to use the sights sometime, for they serrated the rear face of the ramped front blade to make it easier to see, and it worked. The other two makers left the front blade smooth on its rear surface, which caused them to be difficult to see. The rear sight of the Colt and Smith were notches milled into the top of the frame, and their front blades were integral with their barrels. The Windicator’s front was integral with the barrel shroud, but its rear sight consisted of a sheet-metal blade secured to the top of the frame by two hex-head screws.

It is necessary to be able to see the front sight of a handgun at all times, because that is how to hit your target, no matter if the range is a few feet or a hundred yards. Almost any short-barrel handgun is capable of hitting a man-size target consistently at 100 yards, if the shooter can clearly see the sights. We wish some of our handgun designers would attend one or another of the good shooting schools available in this country to find out how their products are actually used. The result would be vastly improved products across their entire line. Smith & Wesson has a shooting school within their offices, and that unquestionably contributes to the quality of their products.

First Impressions
The Smith & Wesson and Colt give off an aura of quality. They looked good and both were essentially free from visible manufacturing defects. The German-made Windicator had some design innovations and a price so much lower than the other two guns that one might be able to overlook its looks. The grips on all three guns were adequately fitted to their frames. The S&W’s grips fit truly well, but the Windicator’s and Colt’s had minor gaps. The Colt ejector rod housing had some very sharp edges that needed to be dealt with; we suggest painting the front sight black or red at the same time.

We rated the metal-to-metal fit of the Smith & Wesson as very good to excellent. There was little or no excess play in the moving parts and the sideplate was tightly mated to the frame. Opening the gun to load or unload involved pressing the new-style latch forward and swinging the cylinder out. That new latch design came about because the old one used to hit the thumb during recoil. More on ejection later.

Click here to view the Smith & Wesson Model 64-4 features guide

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The Smith & Wesson was the heaviest gun (30 ounces) of our test, in spite of its having the shortest barrel. Its slightly greater muzzle heaviness than the Colt gave the Smith good stability and reasonably fast target acquisition, and it pointed naturally to wherever we looked. The well-fitted grips were comfortable and hand-filling, and afforded a solid grasp on the gun. At 3 1/2 inches, trigger reach was perhaps too long for those with small hands or short fingers. However, replacing the grip with one that doesn’t wrap around the rear of the frame would solve that problem. We measured the Smith’s single-action pull at a clean 4 3/4 pounds; double action it broke at 10 1/2. It was quite smooth, though it felt a bit heavier than it measured. There was minimal overtravel in either mode. We measured barrel-to-cylinder gap at 0.004 inch, the tightest of the three. The Colt’s was 0.005 inch; the Windicator’s, 0.006 inch.

The Colt DS-II’s metal-to-metal fit was not quite as close as that of the S&W. There was a slight gap along the bottom edge of the sideplate. Most of the Colt’s moving parts had small amounts of discernible play. We soon found minor rub marks on the right side of the hammer, and discovered the hammer was off-center slightly to the right. The compact grip felt slim to our testers. Although they could get a good grip on the gun, a shooter with large hands might want a bigger grip. The present Colt grip might be ideal for women as-is, though trigger reach comes into play here also. We found it easy to reach the Colt’s trigger. We measured the reach to be 3 3/8 inches. There’s always a tradeoff between concealability and grasping ease. We’ve found that huge hands can often accommodate a small grip, but the other way around usually presents problems.

Click here to view the Colt DS-II features guide

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The Colt was the smallest and lightest (24 ounces) gun of the test. It was the least muzzle heavy. There-fore, getting the gun on target was fastest. We thought it pointed a bit high, however. Opening this gun required pulling the latch rearward, the reverse of the action required with the Smith and the Windicator. There was no slack and a clean release to the single action trigger pull, which measured 4 1/2 pounds. Double action was just 11 pounds. Both modes had some overtravel.

The dull black finish of the Windicator made this gun the no-contest easiest to keep hidden on dark nights. This design had no removable sideplate. Instead, the hammer and the grip frame assembly were pinned to the frame. We found superficial tool marks in all the cylinder flutes. The barrel assembly consisted of a steel insert within an aluminum alloy shroud that incorporated both the integral front sight and an ejector rod shroud. Most moving parts had some moderate play, and there was play in the cylinder in all directions. We rated overall fit as average to below average.

Click here to view the EAA Windicator features guide

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At 27 ounces, the EAA Windicator was lighter than, but nearly as large as, the Smith Model 64. This was the most muzzle-heavy gun of the test, and thus was the most sluggish to get onto target. It tended to point a bit low in our hands. The grip was big enough —barely— for medium-size hands, but too short for large hands. In spite of that, it was reasonably comfortable. The trigger reach was the shortest of the three test guns, measuring just 3 inches. We found the 1/4-inch-wide trigger had no slack, but a mushy 5 3/4- pound release in single action mode. Double action, it had a rather heavy and not-at-all-smooth 15-pound pull. Overtravel was moderate.

One loads and unloads the EAA by pressing the catch forward, like on the Smith. The latch thumb-piece is smaller than on the other two guns, but it worked well enough. One limitation of this gun is that it is not rated for +P ammunition, and its use will void the warranty.

Shooting
At the range, the Colt’s trigger gave us blisters, we couldn’t get the empties out of the Smith & Wesson easily, and our Windicator actually outshot the Colt with some of the test ammunition.

Both the Smith & Wesson and Colt are rated for +P ammunition, but note that continued use of this type ammunition will accelerate wear on the guns. The Windicator, with its aluminum alloy parts, does not allow the firing of +P ammunition. Accordingly, we shot all three guns with Winchester Silvertip 110-grain HP and Federal Nyclad 125-grain HP, but had to leave the EAA out of the tests with the +P Remington 158-grain LHP load. There were no malfunctions with any of the guns, but there were a few problems with the S&W and with the Windicator in getting spent cases out.

The heavy Smith & Wesson Model 64-4 with its hand-filling grip was, as expected, the mildest recoiling and easiest to control of the three. It also provided the best accuracy with all ammunition tested. However, the very short ejector rod moved empties out of the cylinder only 1/2 inch, and even when we elevated the muzzle and gave the ejector rod a good swat, some empties hung up and had to be plucked from the gun. The .38 Special case is about 1 1/8-inch long, so you can see the problem with that short ejector.

The Smith’s best groups were fired with the 110-grain Winchester ammunition, averaging 1.87 inches at 15 yards. This load left the gun at 866 feet per second (fps). The Federal 125-grain and the Remington 158-grain +P loads got about the same average accuracy of just over 2.30 inches. The gun shot where it looked, the sights being easy to see and centered for point of impact at 15 yards.

Click here to view the Performance Table

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Our Colt DS-II was fitted with a 1/4-inch-wide trigger that had sharp edges. One of our testers developed a blister on his trigger finger after he fired 75 rounds from the gun.

There are simply no excuses for sharp edges on any of a gun’s surfaces where they contact the hand. Remember what we said earlier about shooting schools and their influence on handgun design? The Smith & Wesson had a smooth, wide and comfortable trigger, in stark contrast to that of the Colt.

The Colt did its best shooting with the 125-grain Federal load. It exited the DS-II at an average 817 fps and shot into 2.50-inch groups at 15 yards. The Winchester 110-grain load was the worst at 2.90 inches average, and the hot Remington 158-grain +P averaged just over 2.60 inches. The Colt’s moderate kick and muzzle jump didn’t make it at all difficult to control, but it shot 2 inches to the left of the point of aim at 15 yards with all ammunition types. The 13/16-inch long ejector stroke (best of the test guns) did a fine job of getting the spent cases out of the gun.

Our EAA Windicator shot the Winchester 110-grain ammo into an average group size of 2.40 inches at 15 yards, better accuracy than we got with any ammunition from the Colt. The Windicator shot the 125-grain Federal load into 2.60-inch groups on average, and that’s not bad at all, considering the very heavy trigger. The EAA has an ejector stroke of 3/4-inch, making it easy to get cases out—once the recoil shield is cleared. There was, however, a problem with ejection that translates into a design flaw. With the cylinder open to a certain position, one of the empties hit the recoil shield (see photograph) when moved rearward, and none of the cases could be ejected. The shield was too big for the gun at that point.

Comparison with the Colt and S&W recoil shields shows that the Windicator’s shield probably doesn’t need to be all that big. A quick fix can be made with a file, but it should be fixed at the factory.

Felt recoil is about like that of the Colt, but with less muzzle jump. We thought it was easy to control the gun. However, after 200 rounds, we found some minor erosion of the underside of the frame’s topstrap, above the forcing cone. Keep an eye on that area if you plan to shoot the gun extensively.

Our Choice
We strongly suspect that most buyers of a snub-nosed .38 will buy it for one huge intangible reason, having nothing to do with common sense: They look cool. If that is the case, if aura has more to do with ownership than performance, either the Smith & Wesson or the Colt will grab the consumer’s money, because they have aura in spades. Of these three, the Colt has more than the Smith, because it more closely epitomizes the small 2-inch revolver.

Our pick would be the Colt Detective Special II because of its un-finger-grooved grip, ease of ejection, light weight, and, yes, aura. It wasn’t the most accurate, but good enough. We’d paint or serrate the front sight and deburr the gun where needed, and consider it to be a fine icon of the old mystery-story school, just the sort of .38 Special any detective would want!