Apr 6, 2016
Steve Gomez - Chief Investigator

What Makes A Detective Special So Special?

colt snubnoseHe walks down a long, dark alley because the story wouldn’t be the same if he didn’t. Garbage lines the edges of the alleyway, washed to the side by a fresh rain. The rain is only a temporary fix at the best, and soon the garbage will be back, because the setting also wouldn’t be the same without it.

Dim neon illuminates the cement trail, but only barely, and just enough to make the long shadows seem longer. As he reaches the middle of the alley, “No-Man’s Land” as it were, he hears the grate of a shoe on the concrete behind him. He almost turns, but that would mean taking his eyes off the dark figure in front.

It would mean death.

It’s a bad place to be, and it was a bad decision that led him here. As he sees the man in front go for his coat lapel, he can only imagine the guy behind him doing the same. His hands are in his pockets already, to protect them from the bitter cold and the rain.

As the men reach for their guns, our man is already warming his fingers on his trusty snubnose, ready to greet lead with lead.

And why a snubnose? I’m glad you asked.

In the late 1800’s revolvers ruled the land, and one of the most popular, for both military and law enforcement, was the Police Positive Special revolver, created by Colt. Colt had the lead in the market from the upstart Smith & Wesson, but by 1877 both companies had double-action revolvers on the market, meaning the hammer would cock automatically during the trigger pull.

They also had the advantage over single-action revolvers in that the cylinder of the pistol swung out, and all shells could be unloaded at the same time. To reload a single-action revolver, each chamber has to be cleared and then advanced to the next chamber.

smith & wesson snubnoseThere were some advantages to a single-action Colts and S&W’s. They were lighter, and they had a lighter trigger, meaning that it took considerably less time and force to pull the trigger.

The main concerns regarding early double-action pistols were that they were slower than single action, heavier, and another mechanism to the pistol would cause it to malfunction when you needed it the most, which would be any time you drew them.

The chief proponent of the double-action revolver, however, was Billy the Kid, and he pretty much made a reputation out of making the American West think the double-action Colt just might be a reliable handgun.

The person who engineered the first snubnose is lost in time to us. It probably happened in the old west, and it was probably done just by having a blacksmith cut off a few inches of barrel from a military or Police Special. The smaller barrel had quite a few effects on the Colt, but one of the flaws was that having a smaller barrel, the pistol was less accurate.

So why make a snubnose in the first place? Well the dirty truth of the matter was that most gunfights weren’t like the movies. No one shot a gun out of the other guy’s hand. In fact, they were lucky if they even hit the other guy.

What was needed was a “belly gun.” This was a gun you could easily conceal, get free of a pocket (or holster) in a pinch, and use in close quarters. If you had to, you could even fire the gun from inside your coat.

In short, it was a gun you could press up against a man’s belly and just pull the trigger.

Training and skill weren’t a necessity.

colt snubnoseThe most popular snubnose (or snubbie) was the Colt Detective Special, first produced in 1927 with Smith & Wesson producing the 2-inch Military & Police in 1938. The snubnoses were originally offered in .32 calibers, the most common were the larger .38 caliber with a two-inch barrel.

Both had swing-out action with Colts offering six shots to the S&W five shot. Eventually a “speed loader” was developed, allowing the shooter to swing out his action, drop out his brass, and drop in six fresh rounds.

Again, speed was the main concern, and while six bullets were usually enough, sometimes they were not.

The heyday of the Detective Special was from 1927-1946 and the Colt went through four generations of designs, but stayed pretty faithful to the classic snubnose design we all know and love… or at least respect.

Production on the detective Special was stopped when Colt could no longer remain competitive with S&W version. While there are still snubnose revolvers in production, they are certainly rarer than their modern counterparts.

Just don’t tell that to our detective.


  • Nice work, Steve. My guy, Jimmy Quinn–Jimmy the Stick, Everybody Goes to Jimmy’s–prefers the Detective Special, because it doesn’t mess up the drape of his jacket when he carries it in a pocket. And, seeing as how he is on the short side and doesn’t have large hands, it’s easy for him to handle. His books are set in the ’20s and ’30s in New York where, among other things, he runs a speak. In the new one, Jimmy and Fay (out in October), he uses a nice little Banker’s Special.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mike. The snub-nose was perfect for a guy who wanted a revolver for any situation. The Banker’s special was a nice one as well. Good luck with Jimmy and Fay. I had a peek on Amazon and can’t wait to see more!

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