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Old January 27, 2013, 09:28 PM   #1
geosully
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Colt DA 38 Revolver

Hello:I am hoping to find an expert who can tell me more about a revolver that my neighbor inherited from her father.
She thinks that it might have belonged to her grandfather, who was once in the timber industry in Cuba before Castro.
It is a Colt, marked Colt DA 38 on the left side of the barrel. On top of the barrel, the markings are
Colts PT FA MFG CO
Hartford CT, USA
Patented Aug 5 1884 Nov 6 88 Mar 5 95
There is a four digit number in two places, one on the cylinder release, which is flat, and the other inside the frame I believe. A lightly imprinted stamp on the bottom strap seems to have the date 1895 and WW.
(I am typing from my handwritten notes, not the gun, which is back in a cardboard box.)
The cylinder will rotate freely counterclockwise with the hammer fully forward.
Lock up is fairly tight. It has a slim jim type holster that is a perfect fit, missing a strap.
The gun is of course blue, with some rust, about 70%. I cleaned and oiled it and returned it to her, but it peaked my interest.
Also in the cardboard box is a full box of remington clean bore non corrosive 158 grain lead round nose .38 special cartridges, which will chamber, but I believe this gun is probably chambered in 38 Colt, not S&W Special. My gut tells me this is a civilian version of the Colts the Marines were using in the banana wars and in Philipines, but you tell me.
Any help is appreciated.
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Old January 27, 2013, 10:27 PM   #2
James K
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You are correct, that gun is a civilian version of the Colt which was the standard service revolver from 1892 to 1909 in several different military model numbers.

A civilian gun would have the butt marked with the serial number in two lines, but nothing else from the factory except by special order. A picture would help a lot. The gun was probably made after 1903, since that is the year Colt removed the chamber shoulders to allow .38 Special* to be fired in that revolver. Prior to that, shoulders restricted use to .38 Long Colt (the U.S. service cartridge).

The four digit numbers are assembly numbers; the serial number should be on the butt in two lines. The grips should be hard rubber with either the word COLT in an oval or the rampant Colt in a circle.

The cylinder free-wheeling sounds like the cylinder lock (the part that fits into the front row of notches) is missing, broken or missing its spring. Few parts are available for those guns and few gunsmiths want to work on them because they are so different from anything else Colt made.

Jim

*Smith & Wesson introduced the .38 S&W Special in 1899 and, hoping for a military contract, made it the same case diameter as the .38 Long Colt mililtary cartridge, but longer. Colt would not put "S&W" on their guns and chose not to change their "COLT D.A. .38" marking, but public demand forced them to make their guns accept the "Special" cartridge, though they insisted in calling it the ".38 Colt Special" for a while. The cartridges are the same except the .38 Colt Special had a flat nose bullet.

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Old January 28, 2013, 09:55 PM   #3
geosully
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Jim:
Very helpful thanks very much. I will try to get some good pictures of it next weekend. She also has a Colt Baby .25, in similar condition.
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Old January 28, 2013, 09:57 PM   #4
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Jim:
How dangerous is it to fire .38 S&W Special in this revolver?
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Old January 28, 2013, 10:16 PM   #5
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It could be pretty bad for the revolver. Don't do it. I don't know if they would fit in the cylinder, but even if they do, the .38 Special works at higher pressures than the .38 Long Colt.
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Old January 30, 2013, 10:16 PM   #6
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About 1903, Colt removed the shoulders from the chambers and changed their advertising to say that .38 Special could be fired in those revolvers. They changed the military contract guns at the same time. In fact, the cylinder and frame are the nearly the same as the Colt Army Special, which picked up the New Army and Navy serial numbers. We don't know the serial number of the revolver in question, but if .38 Special will fit, it should be OK to fire it.

Of course, that is the so-called "standard" .38 Special, the factory round-nose lead bullet or equivalent, NOT +P, +P+ or some super hot hand loads.

Jim
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Old January 31, 2013, 07:30 AM   #7
Mike Irwin
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"About 1903, Colt removed the shoulders from the chambers and changed their advertising to say that .38 Special could be fired in those revolvers."

Uhm, I may be wrong about this, but it's my understanding that when Colt did that they also started heat treating the cylinders to allow them to be used with .38 Special, something S&W didn't do for nearly 20 more years.

If it was originally chambered for .38 Long Colt, but has been reamed to accept .38 Special (apparently not uncommon), I wouldn't risk it with any loads other than those matching .38 Long Colt.
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Old January 31, 2013, 08:49 PM   #8
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With the Army Model 1903 and civilian models starting around number 225xxx, Colt reduced the barrel diameter and reamed the chambers to accept .38 Special. They didn't move the shoulder forward, they removed it entirely.

I have heard that they heat treated the cylinders at that time, but have not found anything in writing to that effect. The pressure increase is large in terms of percentage, but not so much in actual pressures - the .38 Long Colt runs 12k psi, the .38 Special 17k, and the cylinder would be perfectly adequate for the .38 Special even without heat treatment (as S&W proved).

FWIW, the S&W Model 1899 M&P cylinder is actually smaller in diameter than the Colt Army & Navy cylinder, 1.44" to 1.52".

I will note that the drilled through chambers will accept some factory .357 Magnum rounds, and that that cartridge has been fired in some of those guns without bursting the cylinder. Definitely NOT recommended, though!

Jim
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Old January 31, 2013, 11:15 PM   #9
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You misunderstand me, Jim.

The OP's gun.

Was it originally chambered for .38 Long Colt and then gunsmith converted by reaming the cylinder?

The barrel markings could possibly indicate that.

If it WAS originally chambered in .38 LC, but then post-factory altered, I do not believe it would be wise to fire it with .38 Special ammunition of any flavor.

I'm not particularly worried about a sudden catastrophic failure. I'm more worried about the possibility of greatly accelerated wear trashing what could be a fine handgun.


"FWIW, the S&W Model 1899 M&P cylinder is actually smaller in diameter than the Colt Army & Navy cylinder, 1.44" to 1.52"."

And, for what it's worth, without knowing anything about the properties of the steel that was used, trying to gauge inherent strength on the diameter of the cylinder alone isn't particularly wise.
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Old February 1, 2013, 09:24 PM   #10
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My comments were based on the presence of .38 Special ammunition with the gun. Of course, it might not fit the gun at all, but I was pointing out that some of those revolvers came from the factory made for .38 Special and that IMHO it would be safe to fire standard .38 Special loads in such a gun.

Since I have never seen the OP's gun, I did not carry out extensive metallurgical tests of the steel in the cylinder or the frame. But the standard .38 Special is not exactly on the cutting edge of high pressure technology, though it might be too much for extensive shooting in guns not intended for it.

As for cylinder diameter, it is not the sole and only determinant of strength in a revolver, but it is a useful one. The specifications for the Colt cylinder simply say "medium steel" with no heat treatment.

Colt barrel markings remained the same throughout production, "COLT D.A. .38". The only way to tell if bored through cylinders are factory is by the serial number or military model number.

Jim
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Old February 18, 2013, 08:44 PM   #11
geosully
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Thanks for all the help. This pistol is marked only Colt 38 DA on the barrel, but the .38 SW spec cartridges with the gun will chamber smoothly and the cylinder closes.
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Old February 20, 2013, 09:19 PM   #12
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On the bottom of the buttstrap:
38DA
No.
R
WW.K (I read that this means it is a USMC piece)
1895
(I have been told this is where a two line serial number should be, I see none.)


On the cylinder release:
*3369
Inside the crane, on frame and on crane:
3369
3369
J
(there is another, very faint 3398 in both places, superimposed by the 3369 number, which was a harder stamp.) I have read that these numbers are designed to keep the sets of hand fitted parts together.

Across the top of the barrel:

COLTS PT. F A MFG, CO HARTFORD CT USA
PATENTED AUG. 5 1884 NOV. 6, 88 MAR. 5, 95


Close to frame on Barrel
COLT 38 DA

Any help? Is this chambered for 38 S&W Spec, which will fit in the chambers?
Any idea on value? The cylinder will rotate with the hammer at rest, but locks up fairly tightly when cocked. I read that the free rotating cylinder was considered a design flaw, but since the last patent date is 1895, it seems like it should have been corrected by this date. It would appear this pistol was made after Mar 1895
Wooden grips appear military, with three small notches on the bottom right. The is no lanyard ring on the butt.
The history: The gun belonged to a man from Lousianna, whose father owned a Timber operation in Cuba, before the communist revolution, around the time of the banana wars.
Thanks everyone!
Attached Images
File Type: jpg 2013-02-20_17-27-14_716.jpg (241.2 KB, 26 views)
File Type: jpg 2013-02-20_17-27-50_185.jpg (242.6 KB, 17 views)
File Type: jpg 2013-02-20_17-29-58_349.jpg (242.6 KB, 16 views)

Last edited by geosully; February 20, 2013 at 11:16 PM.
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Old February 21, 2013, 01:12 AM   #13
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It is a Navy contract gun. WWK was [Navy] Lieutenant William W. Kimball, the inspector for the first Navy contract. But there are some areas of apparent contradictions. Lt. Kimball left that job in the spring of 1890 and did not return. So he never did any inspections as late as 1895, which is the date on the barrel as well as the date on the butt.

So, FWIW, I think you have a Model 1889 Colt Navy contract revolver that was rebuilt and upgraded in 1895. The internal lockwork was upgraded and the barrel and cylinder replaced. (Barrels were not normally replaced; the original was probably in bad shape.) I believe the butt date under close inspection might show that the "95" is an overstamp of the original last two digits of the year 1889 or 1890. The guns were also refinished by Colt at that time, which could account for the good condition.

The butt should read (barrel facing down) U.S.N./anchor/38DA/No./line/xxxx/line/P/WWK/1895. (The bold indicates literal numbers or letters; the xxxx indicates the serial number.)

You indicated that below the "No" is the letter "R" not a number. If that is correct, I have no idea what that means or why there is no number. On that contract, the number on the butt is the Navy Registry Number, which is also the Colt serial number, so there is no separate Colt serial number as there is on later Navy contract revolvers.

That early, the cylinder, even one made for rebuilding those revolvers, would have had the shoulders for .38 Long Colt, so it may have been altered later.

Jim
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Old February 21, 2013, 07:19 AM   #14
geosully
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Jim:

So, the buttstrap is missing the anchor, USN and two lines of serial number?
It seems odd. On closer inspection, the symbol I thought was R is actually P, so it reads:


38DA
No.


P
WW.K
1895

I have tried every trick I can think of to get more information from the butt strap, but no luck.

Last edited by geosully; February 21, 2013 at 07:57 AM.
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Old February 21, 2013, 04:24 PM   #15
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Is there any chance of posting a good clear picture of that butt marking?

It sounds like the butt was "cleaned" at some point and the markings that were less deeply stamped were removed. But at least a picture would help determine if there could be anything there and if the spacing is correct.

There would not be two lines of serial number, just one, as the guns inspected by Kimball never went past four digits. Further, the number was not as deeply stamped as the Colt serial numbers on later guns. When I said
"line", I meant just that, two crosswise lines bracketing the serial number.

I would send you a picture, but it would require violating copyright since it would be out of a book. I have several of the New Army and Navy revolvers, military and commercial, but no Model 1899.

Jim
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Old February 21, 2013, 09:39 PM   #16
geosully
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Here is the best I can do photographing the buttstrap and markings.
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Old February 21, 2013, 10:46 PM   #17
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As I suspected, most of the original marking has been eliminated due to rust and over cleaning. It doesn't look like deliberate removal of most of the markings, just the effect of time and hard use.

The "P" proof mark was heavily stamped at a later time than the other markings, and the "95" was, as I said, stamped over the original last two numbers of the date when the gun was refurbished, so that mark is newer and heavier.

I found this old picture, which I think will show you what the markings originally looked like, and you can see that they were not heavily stamped.

Jim
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Old February 21, 2013, 11:07 PM   #18
geosully
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I see the same four assembly numbers on the frame, bottom of the barrel, cylinder release and crane. Are you still certain that it was rebarreled and given a new cylinder? If so, it would have gone through reblueing, right?
If so, is it now a .38 S&W Spec?
I'm trying to figure out if this has more value as a collector, or if I can use it as a shooter. (And how indebted I am to the gifter.)
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Old February 21, 2013, 11:51 PM   #19
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It was rebarrelled at some point, probably when it was rebuilt in 1895, and the barrel would not have the .38 Special dimensions so it would probably not be very accurate with those cartridges. I think the cylinder was probably reamed at a later date.

It had to have been rebarrelled, else how could the barrel have a patent date five years after Kimball left Colt? And since he inspected it, it had to be made before he left in 1890, which means it had to have started out as a Model 1889. Since the Model 1889 had no cylinder notches, the cylinder had to have been replaced and the inside of the gun reworked for cylinder stop notches.

Colt stamped the assembly number on replaced parts when they rebuilt those guns.

As to value, it is an interesting gun, and had it still been as originally made it would have been more valuable. But as I said before, without a good picture of the gun, it is hard to even guess at the value. And without a serial number, it is not going to be easy to sell, antique or not. If the overall finish is no better than the butt, I would say $250 or so.

Jim
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Old February 22, 2013, 07:26 AM   #20
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"the barrel would not have the .38 Special dimensions so it would probably not be very accurate with those cartridges."

I thought that all of the Colt revolvers made after 1890 used the modern-style bullet with a hollow base, dispending with the old-style heeled bullet, and that as earlier guns were refurbed, the barrel was replaced with one with modern dimensions.

I know the early Navy .38 Long Colt cartridges were heeled, but again, I thought that had been stopped by the early 1890s.
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Old February 22, 2013, 04:22 PM   #21
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That is one of the strangest things about that whole series of revolvers. The original bullet diameter was .376" and that is what the Model 1889 was made for. In 1893, the Army specified an inside lubricated bullet of .357" diameter. The Navy apparently continued to use the old outside lubricated cartridges until the supply was exhausted. Yet, Colt didn't modify the barrel inside diameter until the Army contract Model 1903 and the concurrent commercial production, as part of the change to accommodate the .38 Special cartridge.

This explains something I learned, but didn't understand, many years ago - those guns just don't shoot very well, or at least the ones I fired didn't.

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