The World War II
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This article is shown here without its photographs, captions, footnotes and serial number tables. While the magazine version is no longer available, you can contact our office for a photcopy of the article from October 1997. The author, Charles Pate, has written an exciting new book on the many different pistols of World War II, which is offered for sale elsewhere on this site.
Prior to World War II, Colt had long been the favored supplier of revolvers for the U.S. military, with the possible exception of Smith & Wesson revolvers used in marksmanship competition. Colt .38 caliber revolvers were first bought for the U.S. Navy in 1889. In 1890, the Army field tested 100 of these revolvers and purchased 100 to repay the Navy. An order for 8,000 Colts followed, and from that date until adoption of the .45 Automatic, the Colt .38 revolver was the standard issue sidearm for the Army, Navy and Revenue Cutter Service (early Coast Guard).
The primary .38 Colt used in World War II, the Commando, was an evolved version of that first martial .38 caliber cartridge revolver. In the years after adoption of the Model 1911 automatic pistol and its updated version, the M1911A1, the U.S. military made periodic small purchases of various Colt revolvers. But WWII purchases were almost exclusively of two models, the Detective Special and the Official Police. The Commando was simply a cheaper version of the Official Police.
Approximately 48,611 Commando revolvers were purchased by the government during the war, but the majority were bought for or by the Defense Supplies Corporation (DSC). The DSC had the role of providing arms for defense plant guards, police departments and security personnel of various government organizations. However, many more Commandos were used by the military than is commonly known. This article presents results of the author's research into the history of the Commando. This research was conducted as part of a book-level study of the "alternate" standard handguns (everything but the M1911A1) used by the U.S. during World War II. This work will soon be available from Man at Arms Bookshelf.
The DSC began procuring small arms for resale to approved users in October of 1941, when the agency bought 2,500 S&W Military and Police revolvers in .38 Special caliber. The first Colt order was given on December 11, 1941, for 2,500 Official Police revolvers. An additional 2,500 Official Police guns soon followed, but Colt was slow to deliver. Defense mobilization placed great demands on the Colt factory, and until late 1944, Colt frequently failed to meet production schedules. Priority had to be given to production of the M1911A1. Consequently, many of the DSC's Colt customers tired of waiting and switched to the S&W. No more inquiries to Colt were made until revolver production capabilities increased somewhat at the end of 1942. During that period, a significant change occurred in how the government obtained small arms.
In mid-1942, the Army Ordnance Department was given the authority to control production and distribution of all small arms. Therefore, when the DSC decided to obtain additional Colts, they did so through the Army's procuring organization, the Springfield Ordnance District (SOD).
The 1945 SOD Small Arms Branch Administration Section historical report relates the origin of the Commando revolver:
In August 1942, a request for the procurement of 20,000 of Colt's Official Police revolver [for the DSC] brought a price of $28, considered high by the District. Colt's insistence that this was the lowest price at which their regular commercial gun could be sold to the government led to a request to design a gun as near like the Official Police as possible which Colt's could make for $25 or less. Thus the "Commando" was born. It differed from the Official Police only in having a matted blued finish rather than the polished blued, and eliminated checkering on the cylinder latch and trigger, and the matting on top of the frame. It had plastic stocks. No polished surfaces were visible to reflect light.
On September 21, 1942, a revolver serial numbered 717520 in the Official Police serial number range was shipped to Joseph Lorch, the Colt representative, for delivery to Captain Baker of the War Department. This was the first revolver listed in the chronologically organized Colt Commando shipping records. It is not clear whether this revolver was ever charged to the government, and it may have been returned to Colt. Another, serial number 724348, was the second entry in the shipping book, with the entry reading "R.B. Price SOD" (Springfield Ordnance District) and a date of October 27, 1942. This entry was struck through in the shipping book, but a letter written to the Ordnance Department by Colt in 1946 stated the revolver was invoiced to the government on November 2, 1942. Colt shipping records suggest the first Commando revolver officially sent and billed to the Army was serial number 724347, which was shipped to the Office of the Chief of Ordnance on October 31, 1942, and invoiced on November 13, 1942. These three revolvers were probably prototypes, with one or both of the last two serving as models for the production Commando. The first revolver from the Commando serial number series that was shipped to the Army was serial number 1747, shipped to the Office of the Chief of Ordnance on November 26, 1942. Commando serial number "1" was assembled on November 12, 1942, and retained in the Colt museum. The first two-inch barreled Commando, serial number 2878, was shipped to the War Department on December 7, 1942.
At the end of the war, the Army Ordnance historical report, "Project Support Paper #39," summarized the Commando's military history as follows:
The Colt "Commando" revolver, Caliber .38 Special was produced in fairly substantial quantities, totaling over 45,000 revolvers through February 1945. This revolver gave a very good performance and was distributed through Defense Supplies Corporation to police officers, factory guards and other nonmilitary personnel. Military use of this model was not extensive.
In addition to misstating the number of Commandos procured by the Army, this summary understates the war contribution of the Commando. Although the overall number was modest, within the intelligence community the number of Commandos used was significant. Orders for the Counterintelligence Corps, Military Intelligence and the Office of Strategic Services totaled nearly 12,800.
Only about 1,800 Commandos went to the U.S. Navy, but this was not because the Navy didn't want them. During the mobilization period and the early war years, the Navy favored the S&W Military and Police. In addition to the 3,000 revolvers for Naval Civilian Police bought in the spring of 1941, the Navy bought 65,000 S&Ws directly from the factory and many thousands more through the Army. The S&W "Victory" model became the standard issue sidearm for Naval air crews and shore-based personnel. However, in early 1944, the accidental death of a sailor resulting from a dropped S&W led the Navy to request Colt revolvers instead of the S&Ws the service had been receiving. But Colt's inability to meet production demands and S&W's quick response in developing an improved safety device resulted in the Navy continuing to receive S&W Victory Model revolvers.
Some Commando revolvers were definitely used in the war zone. General Eisenhower is reported to have had one. OSS records indicate some overseas issues of Commando revolvers, and most of the early two-inch barreled revolvers were sent overseas. But for the most part, the Commando was bought for the DSC. The SOD historical report for April-June 1944 stated:
...all Commando Cal. .38 Special revolvers were being allocated to the Defense Supplies Corporation. During the period, this agency complained about the premium that was being paid to the Government as a handling charge. An agreement was reached that Defense Supplies Corporation was to deal directly with Colt's and Ordnance contracts with the company were canceled with no charge to the government.
This direct contracting by the DSC probably accounts for late-production Commando revolvers with no military markings. All Commando revolvers shipped before approximately mid-1944 have such markings. An Army document referring to early production Commando contracts stated that only a final inspection was performed on the revolvers. This inspection was signified by an Ordnance insignia (flaming shell or bomb) stamped on the upper left frame.
The Army also stamped S&W Victory revolvers intended for the DSC with only the Ordnance insignia, but the mark was placed on the butts of S&W revolvers. S&W revolvers intended for U.S. military use or Lend-Lease were also marked with acceptance markings, either "W.B." (Waldemar Broberg) or "G.H.D." (Guy H. Drewry), but for some unknown reason, early Commandos were not. Later Commando revolvers, particularly those delivered in the spring of 1944, have been noted with the insignia, "G.H.D." and sometimes a "P", all on the upper left frame. One would assume such arms were for military use, but some have been noted with additional markings associated with defense plant use. These revolvers may have been delivered with these acceptance markings or the markings may have been applied during the inspection process of a rebuild program, which started in early 1945. Many defense plant guns were turned over to the Army after completion of government contracts. A large portion of these revolvers were rebuilt and issued to the military. The author has seen one Official Police revolver that was delivered in March 1942, before Col. Drewry was assigned to the Springfield Ordnance District. It now has a parkerized finish, a "Commando" barrel, and the insignia, "G.H.D." and "P" markings typical of 1944 and later.
Based on factory records, the military used approximately 16,263 Commandos. Including those the Army bought for the DSC, approximately 37,906 were purchased through Army Ordnance contracts and should, therefore, bear Army inspection markings. Since it appears that military and DSC revolvers were marked the same, it is very difficult to determine which revolvers were for the military, given the meager official documentation that is available. In order to determine the status of an individual firearm, one must obtain factory shipping data. But, at least one conclusion can be made. Based on the March-September 1943 delivery dates of two-inch revolvers, contract W-478-ORD-3136 (for 3,000 two-inch Commandos) was exclusively for the military.
Factory shipping data does not specifically show any two-inch revolvers that the military may have obtained from the DSC. But, 3,450 revolvers with two-inch barrels were shipped to military users, while only 3,000 were ordered under contracts let against military requirements. The only other reference to two-inch Commando revolver procurement was in DSC documentation which requested that 500 revolvers already on order be provided with two-inch barrels. The military did, on occasion, obtain revolvers from the DSC, and this may account for the extra 450 revolvers with short barrels. Few shipments of two-inch revolvers to civilian destinations were noted in factory records and almost all were very late in the war.
Like the two-inch version of the S&W, two-inch barreled Commandos were intended primarily for intelligence personnel. Regular production deliveries of two-inch "Junior Commando" revolvers began in March 1943, at approximately serial number 9,000. The original two-inch barreled Commandos may be identified by their round front sight and the long company name marking with a "CONN" (rather than "CT") abbreviation for Connecticut. However, most of the two-inch Commandos encountered today did not leave the factory with short barrels. More than 12,000 four-inch Commandos were converted to the shorter barrel after the war. These revolvers have the later ramp sight and either the short company name ("COLT'S MFG. CO. HARTFORD, CT. U.S.A.") from the early postwar period, or the long name ("COLT'S PT. F.A. MFG. CO. HARTFORD, CT U.S.A.") using "CT" for Connecticut. It is interesting to note that the "CT"-style long name marking was used for all of the four-inch revolvers, the standard barrel length for the Commando.
The factory letter for one revolver shows that it was delivered to U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps in September 1943, and was factory stamped "U.S. PROPERTY" on the back of the grip strap. But not all Commandos now found with this marking were initially delivered to military users. In fact, most of the Commandos with a factory-applied U.S. property marking were shipped to the U.S. Maritime Commission and used as small arms equipment on U.S. merchant ships and ships provided to the Allies under Lend-Lease. Lend-Lease weapons were considered to be U.S. property being loaned to an ally. Still other revolvers with the property marking were probably stamped during rebuild. This is surely the case for those revolvers initially sent to defense plants and later turned in to the government upon contract completion.
The last military contract purchase of Commando revolvers was an order for 252 revolvers with four-inch barrels. These revolvers were shipped to the Army Military Intelligence Service on February 20, 1945. This shipment is especially interesting in that it also included 504 Colt Pocket Model automatic pistols in .32 caliber. The automatics were given the regular Army markings, but it appears the revolvers were not. One example of these revolvers has been found, and it does not have any of the normal military markings. It does have a Maltese cross stamped on the left frame near the cylinder release.
The last military two-inch revolver, serial number 24878, was shipped on June 6, 1945, to the OSS. The last military shipment noted by the author was the shipment of three four-inch revolvers (serial numbered 33974, 44358 and 44866) to the Army Air Force Intransit Depot, Long Beach, California, on August 20, 1945. These small, late shipments were probably bought through purchase orders rather than formal contracts.
DSC purchases appear to have continued throughout the war. The last shipment to a Federal government agency was a shipment of three guns to the Office of Price Administration on August 17, 1945. Some revolvers were apparently sold commercially without going through the DSC late in the war, and some revolvers were assembled during the war but not shipped until afterwards. Serial number 50145 was assembled on January 28, 1944, but not shipped to its buyer until February 18, 1946.
Serial numbers ran consecutively from 1 to 50145 and then skipped to 50203. The highest serial numbered guns were a group of 29 assembled on January 2, 1945, with serial numbers ranging from 50203 to 50280, the latter possibly being the highest serial numbered Commando shipped from the factory. These guns were shipped in January and February 1946. A note at the end of the factory shipping records states the last Commando serial number was 50617, but its status has not been determined.
While they are still widely available, Commandos have appreciated in price significantly over the last three years. It is rare to find a two-inch Commando for $500 or less, and the four-inch revolvers now bring $400 or more. If the revolver has an original box, instruction sheet and cleaning brush, one should expect to pay a $50-$100 premium. This appreciation has occurred with very little material having been printed on the revolver and, until now, almost nothing having been known of its role in World War II. The author believes the Commando to be something of a sleeper on the collector's market and would be a worthy addition to any U.S. military collection.
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