June 11, 2020
The Colt Python has a long and tortured history. The story begins back in 1908, when Colt finished the improvements they had been doing almost annually to their medium-sized double action revolver, and combined them into one package called the Colt Army Special. A medium-sized DA revolver, (it seemed big at the time) it sold well, and in a couple of decades Colt finally figured out that much of the sales were not going to militaries, but going to law enforcement, so they changed the name to Official Police (OP).
This change also had the effect of most of the Official Police production being in .38 Special. They were also made in .22LR, .32-20, .38 S&W and .41 Long Colt. Official Police marked Colts in calibers other than .38 Special are rare, but I seem to have acquired one sometime in the dim past. It is in .22LR, which were done in a special, separate serial number run, and I cannot remember how it came to reside with me. Oh well.
During WWII, Colt made the Official Police in .38 Special for war time use, and called it the Commando. We had one of those pass through The Gun Room back in the early 1980s, and even the old timers and collectors remarked on not having seen one before, nor having seen one in such pristine condition. (No, I did not buy it. I was still in my 1911 phase then, alas.)
In 1955, Colt decided to offer an updated Official Police for target competition and law enforcement use. This was the Python. The slender barrel was replaced with one given a vented rib and a full-length underlug. The ejector rod was now protected from the outside world. The Python was given the expected Colt blue, with an even finer grade of polish as the last step, to produce the Royal Blue Colt finish. It was also chambered in .357 Magnum.
Oh, and the Official Police? Still in the catalog as late as 1969, but selling in such low numbers that I do not recall seeing one in at any time in The Gun Room, and I started working there a bare decade later. Indeed, research into production numbers indicate Colt made some 7,000 OP revolvers in the last year. That’s not enough to keep the doors open by itself, so in the Summer of Love it was adios Official Police, it’s been nice knowing you.
The Python was the epitome of the DA revolver from Colt. Built on the medium-sized “I” frame, which Colt referred to as a .41 frame (actually, pretty much the same size as the S&W K frame, seen only ever as a .38/.357 frame) it was much handier, and easier to shoot, than Colts New Service, that one a real brute of a revolver. The frame in the grip area of the Official Police was much better proportioned for the human hand than that of the New Service, no doubt a big part of the law enforcement interest in the Official Police.
The Python came with an adjustable rear sight, and this was for the competition shooters. “Competition” in the 1950s came in one of two forms: Bullseye or PPC. Bullseye was a known form of competition, with its final form dating back to the National Matches in 1907. PPC, Police Pistol Combat, came about in 1958. (One wonders if the Python had something to do with that or not. Everyone involved is probably long dead, so finding out would be a master’s-thesis-level inquiry.) The two differ markedly.
Bullseye is one-hand offhand shooting, with the revolver (many still used revolvers in the 1950s) thumb-cocked and fired single action. PPC, derived from the FBI combat course of the 1930s, was a strictly double-action course of fire. The Python was anticipated to be the best in both.
Alas, this was not to be.
Soon after the Python came out, Bullseye went through a sea change. The new breed of competitors had no interest in thumb-cocking revolvers, and developed pistols to fill the three categories revolvers had been competitive in. (The three were: Rimfire, Any Centerfire, .45 ACP. The Service Pistol category required a 1911 or 1911A1 until the adoption of the M9 in 1986.)
In PPC, the Python was found wanting in two regards. One was mechanical timing, and the other was durability. The timing issue was a matter of cylinder carry-up. Colts were timed in double action shooting so that the instant the cylinder bolt dropped into the locking slot, the trigger released the hammer. PPC competitors soon found that they could “stage’ the trigger on their S&W. This involved bringing the cylinder up and locking it with the DA trigger press, but not releasing the hammer. A small extra travel then dropped the hammer, allowing for a more-refined sight alignment.
The maximum score in PPC is 600 points, and even before 600 became a common score, shooters found they could improve their score by staging, compared to the Colt Python.
The durability had to do with design. The Python, as with all other Colt revolvers, did not have a forward locking lug, or any forward locking method. (On the S&W the forward locking point is the center of the ejector rod.) The Python cylinder, like all other Colts, used the hand, rotating the cylinder clockwise, to hold the rear of the cylinder tightly in place when firing.
The Python uses the hand, the lever that advances the cylinder, to lock things in place. When you pull the trigger in DA, the hand moves up and advances the cylinder. As it releases the hammer, the trigger goes fully to the rear and the hand moves up and pushes against the ratchet that advances the cylinder, holding it to the right. Test this with an unloaded Colt revolver. (It should go without saying but I’m saying it anyway.) You can see this if you first wriggle the cylinder of your Python (or Official Police, or any colt DA revolver) and notice it is loose. Now cock the hammer in single action. Still loose. Now dry-fire it and hold the trigger back. The cylinder should be locked up tight, with no wriggle.
The locking slot on the cylinder is offset from the chambers, set to the right, to allow the cylinder to be as small a radius as possible. This decreases the length of the lever arm available to the locking bolt, and the system, and is part of the reason Pythons can go out of time.
When run hard, Pythons tended to go “out of time” sooner than S&Ws did. This meant the cylinder failed to lock, spinning past the bore, and the firing pin striking a case rim or in-between cases. Well, that’s the story, anyway. The only Pythons I ever saw that went out of time had been subjected to large volumes of .357 Magnum ammo, and given that volume, any revolver would have required service.
The exemplar of durability is the Python Mike Karbon had at The Gun Room. He wanted to maintain his DA speed, so during slow times at the shop he’d be dry-firing his Python (a blued six-inch as I recall) as he walked around, or talked on the phone. Clickclickclickclick went the Python. It became such a common background noise I realized later I stopped hearing it, only noting its absence when Mike was off for the day.
One day he came back from the range, wanting to know where the phone number for Colt was. “The firing pin on my Python broke.” The firing pin on the Python is a spring-loaded part in the frame, not attached to the hammer. Hmm, let’s see now, three years that I knew of, hours a day, six days a week, I gave a rough estimate of half a million dry-fires. Yes, his was a buttery-smooth Python, and any firing pin would probably break given that workload.
By 2005, Colt had to call it quits on the Python. Every variable of the firearms market was against them, and it. Revolvers were no longer a big part of the firearms market, and the market had also split in two. There was a market for big, powerful, hunting revolvers, and for ultra-compact lightweight carry revolvers, but nothing in-between. The 9mm could do everything the .38 and .357 could do, except for the heaviest bullets, and those weren’t heavy enough for hunters. People wanted light weight for everyday carry, and the Python, at 41 ounces (with a four-inch barrel, the six-inch was 46 ounces) was too heavy for its six shots.
Then there was the cost. Proper polishing requires skilled hands, and skilled hands need to be paid commensurately. And that wasn’t even the costly part. The “V” spring action of the Python, derived from the Army Special and its predecessors (dating to the end of the 19th century) were designed at a time when steel was expensive and hand labor was cheap. Even experienced, trained labor was cheap back in the years before WWII. After WWII? No-one wanted to spend years learning a specialized skill like that, and no-one wanted to pay what it took to get others to learn it. The skilled people aged and retired. Even when I was new at firearms retail, the economic effect of that disconnect was being felt. It took years to learn how to build and service a Colt. The S&W Armorers course was two weeks at its most expansive. Heck, I taught myself how to build S&Ws, that’s how easy it was if you were paying attention.
In 1982, when I was just about to add double action revolver shooting to my repertoire, a Colt Python (blued, four-inch barrel) had a list price of $486. You could buy an S&W M-19 for $228, a Model 10 for $170, or a Ruger Security Six in stainless steel for $233. The price difference paid for a lot of practice ammo. $486 for a Python? In 1983, a Ford Ranger cost you $6,000, and the monthly note on that was $140. No way was I handing over three and a half months of truck payments for a revolver. I was not alone in that assessment, even if the raw numbers differed for other shooters.
So, with dwindling sales, and to the pained cries of the faithful, Colt dropped the Python. As you would expect, the collector’s prices went up. And then got stupid high. At the end, the list price for a Python (in the year 2000, the last I could find any catalog price or sale for) was $1,018, compared to an S&W M-19 at $457 or an S&W 686 at $494. Within fifteen years, we’d see Pythons sell at auction for $11,000 and $12,000. And they weren’t even rarities like first-year or pre-production samples.
People wanted the Python back, but unless Colt solved the problems mentioned, they weren’t going to sell very many of them. Which brings us to the current Python.
Two external changes, actually three. The frame is changed slightly so there is more steel underneath the rear sight. Not that this was a weak point in the original design, but since they were going to overhaul the sight as well as the internal design, why not do that? Also, the rear sight is improved, being more robust than the original. I may not have seen many Pythons out of time in the old days, but the rear sights sure took a beating. The new one promises greater durability. Colt also availed themselves of the advances in metallurgy since the Python was designed, and use stronger stainless steel for the new Python than was available back in the old days.
The muzzle is given a new, recessed crown, instead of the nearly flat original design. And just above that, the front sight on the new Python (and I wish they had called it the New Python, instead of just Python) the front sight is one that can be changed by the owner with an allen wrench, and not just by a gunsmith with specialized punches.
The cylinder still rotates clockwise, the cylinder latch still opens by being pulled to the rear, and the ejector rod still lacks a front locking lug, but inside the new Python is different. Oh, and a minor gripe: the ejector rod is still too short to fully eject empties. Really, Colt? It would have killed you to have lengthened the rod a quarter-inch on the new gun?
The Colt engineers managed to make the lockwork simpler, by eliminating more than a dozen parts. Inside, things are the same, but also oddly different. MIM-haters are going to hate the Python. Some parts are clearly MIM, but some changes are for the good. The mainspring is still a single piece of steel, but instead of being a “V” spring, it is a modern design with a U shape to the base of it.
There’s still the lever that cams the various parts, including the hand, and there is still the re-assembly problem it presents. Popping the sideplate off is not easy on the new Python. I don’t know if that is a matter of fit or geometry, but it took some real whacking with a hammer handle (you hit across the grip straps, to use inertia to lift the sideplate up. Never pry. Never Pry.)
Typically, the hand lifts up off of the long lever if you have been a bit sloppy in opening it up, or in cleaning, and when it does, it slips off of the lever. Then when you go to press the sideplate back on, the hand rides too high, it won’t press down, and you curse and struggle.
One of the attributes Colt is crowing about is the improved action, I used as a first comparison my made in 1936 Official Police, and found that doggone, the double action was actually better on the new Python. This, despite the hand-tuning and decades of internal burnishing the old Official Police had received, pre-War. The single action however, was not nearly as good on the new as it was on my old.
The single action on my Official Police was a crisp three pounds, where on the new Python it was five. Ouch. But on the double action, my classic target gun had a nine-pound DA, while the Python had a seven-pound double action. Lemme tell you, had there been an out-of-the-box seven pound DA back in the 1980s, I’d have been shooting it in PPC, had it been Colt, S&W or anyone else. There just weren’t such things back then. I also had a chance to compare the new Python to two old ones, both made in the 1970s. As with the OP, the Pythons had far superior single action pulls. They were three pounds, clean, crisp and perfect. The 1970s Python DA triggers, however, were worse than my 1936-made Official Police.
Now, in the scheme of things, a heavy single action trigger pull is a much easier thing to clean up, than a heavy double action. Even on an S&W, that is the case. So, had I a choice I would clearly want the new DA and the old SA. That you’ll have to take your new Python to a pistolsmith to get that is just too bad. But it won’t take pistolsmiths long to figure out how to make the SA pull what it should be.
The grips are walnut, they are traditionally shaped, and they worked for all the test shooters I handed it to. However, and this is due to a peculiarity of my grip, there’s a corner on the top of the grips that jabs me. I choke up on a revolver like there’s no tomorrow. So much so that the hammer will brush my hand in the DA stroke. That puts the corner right on my thumb joint. An afternoon of shooting got less and less fun as the jabbing continued.
One thing I can tell you about that Colt really got right is accuracy. Colt barrels were famed for accuracy back then, so much so that there were even pistolsmiths who worked out ways to install Python barrels (lord only knows how they acquired them) into S&W M-19 .357s. This one was a real tack-driver, even if the velocities from its six-inch barrel were not all that impressive.
I used a lot of .38s because that was what most people shot back in the day. And a steady diet of full-house .357s is no fun for shooter or revolver. One oldie I made sure to test was the Winchester 158 grain lead semi-wadcutter hollow point +P load. This is also known as the “FBI Load” and any savvy shooter or gun-carrying person back then would have had it high on the list of choices. As expected, the .38s were easy to shoot, and the .357s were more work.
So, should you jump on the new Python? That depends. The initial word is that there have been Pythons that stopped working, stopped advancing their cylinder. That sounds to me like a broken MIM part. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, I haven’t had a chance to do a post-mortem on a busted new-model snake. If it is as simple as a broken part, Colt should be able to get right on that, and replace them with new parts, and lean hard on the supplier to make sure they don’t break in the future.
As far as cost goes, the MSRP on the Python is not quite twice that of a comparable S&W, that latter being a 686. So, the ratio of the difference between the Colt and its competitor is better now than it was back in the old days, but not a lot. So, you don’t buy a Python on price. You buy it on style, history, the action, and to have the gun you always wanted, but aren’t willing to spend the several times this MSRP that an older model would run you. If you could find one.
And having found an original Python, new in the box for four grand, do you have the heart to shoot it, and knock a grand off the value?
No, you buy a Python for the same reason you buy a sports car; you want the looks, the attention and the sheer fun of shooting a classic.
Colt Python SpecsType:
.38 Special & .357 MagnumCapacity:
4.25" & 6"Length:
9.75" (11.5" for the 6" barrel model)Height:
41 oz. (46 oz. for the 6" barrel model)Trigger:
7 lbs. in double action, 5 lbs. in single actionFinish:
Semi-bright stainless steelGrips:
Colt Manufacturing, LLC, 800-962-COLT, Colt.com
Colt Python Accuracy Data