Most of the 20th Century was dominated by the medium-frame double-action revolver, most of which were chambered in .38 Special. Colt and Smith & Wesson dominated the marketplace well into the 1970s, and were still commonly police issue duty weapons into the 1990s in many departments both here in the United States and abroad.
In fact, it’s not even uncommon to see police in some foreign countries still carrying them.
The most common models were the Colt Police Positive , Smith & Wesson Model 10, and – to a lesser extent – the Colt Official Police. Standard features on all three models included six-shot cylinders and simple sights, often no more than a front sight blade and a notch cut into the top strap of the frame as the rear sight.
The Colt Police Positive was introduced in 1907, it was an innovative design, featuring a new ‘Positive Lock’ safety feature that made accidental discharges virtually impossible. While also offered in .38 and .32 Colt, the most popular chambering was .38 Special. The Colt Official Police was almost identical, but had a slightly shorter cylinder as the Police Positive was designed to be able to chamber .32-20 as the caliber was (at the time) popular enough to offer it as a factory option.
The Smith & Wesson Model 10 debuted originally in 1898 as the .38 Hand Ejector Model of 1899, the Model 10 quickly got the attention of police departments nationwide. Eventually, S&W’s nomenclature would change and the Model 10 moniker would be adopted. Today’s Model 10 is barely any different, except that it comes with a standard bull barrel.
4- and 6-inch barrels were the norm, though 2-inch snubby models and eventually 3-inch round butt (the bottom edge of the grip frame is rounded) for concealment by plainclothes police would become popular as well.
Some police would carry large-frame revolvers, either in the rare cases where they were issued or as a personal auxiliary weapon. The Colt New Service (offered in .44-40, .44 Special and .45 Colt) and Smith & Wesson Hand Ejector (aka “Triple Lock”) revolvers were the most common.
The .357 Magnum cartridge was invented in the 1930s, but few police departments would adopt them until the 1950s as few agencies (and even fewer officers) could afford the steep price tag of the Model 27 or Model 28 Highway Patrolman (over $1000 inflation-adjusted) or Colt New Service. Medium-frame magnums would arrive with the Smith & Wesson Model 19, Colt Trooper and – for the officer who could afford one – the Colt Python.
Smith and Wesson would later bolster its magnum service revolver offerings with the advent of the L-frame, a slightly larger medium frame with additional material to withstand constant magnum factory loads. The Model 19 was known for not being able to cope with a heavy diet of full-power .357, but the new L-frame Model 586 was purpose-built for it.
Round-butt models for concealment such as the S&W Model 13 would also be popular in police service; the Model 13 was the standard service revolver of multiple departments as well as the FBI from 1981 to 1991.
In the 1970s, Ruger emerged as a competitor with the Speed Six and Security Six revolvers, both in 4- and 6-inch service pistols and 3-inch round butt models, but even by then the writing was on the wall that semi-autos were going to replace them.
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