RETROSPECT: Smith and Wesson Versus Colt — What Happened?

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A lifelong fan looks at the two greats of the revolver world. READ MORE

colt vs smith and wesson
The Colt Cobra, top, and the Smith and Wesson Model 13, bottom are each fine all around defensive revolvers.

Bob Campbell

When Samuel Colt invented the revolver as we know it he turned the handgun world on its nose. Most handguns were horse pistols or pocket guns similar in design to rifles — simply shorter. The Colt revolver had to be designed to stabilize the firing hand to allow thumb cocking and to present the sights for proper aiming. The Colt revolver was an offensive firearm and a credible military firearm that hastened the western movement. In short it was an immensely important invention. Smith and Wesson’s original handgun was a lever action design that led to the Winchester repeating rifle, but that is another story. By the time of the Civil War both Smith and Wesson and Colt were manufacturing viable revolver designs.

colt vs smith and wesson
The S & W Perfected Double Action and Safety Hammerless are over 120 years old- and still function well, despite years of use.

After the war both companies manufactured distinctive revolvers. The hinged frame and later break top Smith and Wesson revolvers competed with Colt’s solid frame revolvers. The Colt sold better domestically while Smith and Wesson armed Russia and Japan among other armies. During the 1880s Colt began development of swing out cylinder double action revolvers that would bring the two companies products much closer in design and appearance. Colt’s revolvers such as the New Pocket featured a swing out cylinder, cylinder latch that pulled to the rear, and a smooth double action trigger. Smith and Wesson followed suit with the Hand Ejector, a similar size .32 caliber revolver. The Colt .32 Long is smaller in diameter than the .32 Smith and Wesson Long and will not interchange. At this point in time the companies were producing revolvers that in many ways were more similar than they differed.

colt vs smith and wesson
Once Colt perfected the swing out cylinder revolver the stage was set for revolvers for a hundred years to come.

In a few years there was another strong unifying movement in the handgun world. Preciously there had been proprietary cartridges for each maker. The .32 Colt, .32 Smith and Wesson, .38 Colt and .38 Smith and Wesson were among these. In general the .32 and .38 Colt cartridges were smaller and would chamber in the Smith and Wesson chambers but the cartridge case often split on firing. A big change was the introduction of the Smith and Wesson Military and Police .38 revolver. The .38 Colt was a dismal failure in action in the Philippines and at home as well. The US Army asked for a revolver more robust than the Colt 1892 and a more powerful cartridge. Smith and Wesson lengthened the .38 Long Colt cartridge slightly and improved performance from a 152 grain bullet at 750 fps to a 158 grain bullet at 850 fps. The .38 Special became the most popular revolver cartridge of all time. The older .38s were eclipsed.

colt vs smith and wesson
This Colt Army Special .38 had the barrel shortened many years ago.

While the Colt Single Action Army remained popular past its prime the primary spear point of competition for the two makers was in double action .38 Special revolvers. They traded in the top position in sales for some fifty years. During the 1930s the race was real with Colt having an edge. By the 1970s Smith and Wesson carried three quarters of the police market. Many felt that Smith and Wesson had the edge when they reinvested war time profits in new machinery and models after World War Two. Colt introduced some models such as the Python but Smith and Wesson introduced more models at more attractive prices. Eventually Smith and Wesson enjoyed a considerable price advantage over Colt for similar handguns. When I was growing up during the 1960s and beginning a life long interest in revolvers, my grandfather expressed a common opinion. He told me that he would not flip for the difference between the two. His favorite revolver was a Smith and Wesson Military and Police, but he liked the Colt Detective Special better than the Smith and Wesson Chief’s Special. I have pretty much the same preference.

colt vs smith and wesson
Top to bottom — A Colt Army Special, Colt .357 and a rare Colt Detective Special with 3-inch barrel.

I think that while the revolvers looked similar and handled the same there were differences in the grip and trigger action that had appeal to different shooters. The price point and good performance made Smith and Wesson the leader. There were many excellent revolvers manufactured during the heyday of this competition. The Combat Masterpiece, Shooting Master, Target Masterpiece, Trooper, Highway Patrolman, Python, Detective Special, Chief’s Special, Cobra, Python, and Combat Magnum were among them. Adjustable sights, ramp front sights, shrouded ejector rods, target triggers and hammers, trigger stops and red insert front sights were introduced. But just the same, the revolver manufactured in the greatest numbers was the plain vanilla Military and Police revolver.

colt vs smith and wesson
The Colt Army Special had the barrel cut at some time in the past — it was re-purposed as a snake charmer.

The differences in the revolvers were seldom based on quality of manufacture. While each may have had an occasional bad run this was rare. There were high points of production for each company. The Smith and Wesson Combat Magnum was probably the best balanced revolver of all time. Light enough for constant carry, durable in long use, accurate, smooth in operation, and firing the best man stopper we are likely to invent, this .357 Magnum revolver was a prestige revolver. The shrouded ejector rod and high visibility sights were important advantages. The K frame .38 has a skinny frame for use with Magnums but the development of target stocks and rubber recoil absorbing stocks went a long way toward taming Magnum recoil. The Colt action differed, and while smooth enough, the Colt was the more likely to go out of time after hard use. The Colt revolver cylinder rotates right into the frame, the Smith and Wesson to the left, and the rifling is also different. Today those who appreciate old iron are happy to find either revolver at a fair price.

colt vs smith and wesson
The Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum was the first Magnum and a classic handgun with excellent performance.

The heyday of the revolver may be over as far as law enforcement is concerned. But many of us find the revolver suits our needs well. Most are highly accurate and offer plenty of power. When I am hiking or traveling around Appalachia, the Blue Ridge and the Smokies I sometimes find myself in the vicinity of feral dogs and other dangerous wild life. The big cats are sometimes aggressive — I will never forget that my grandmothers’ cousin, a small child, was killed by a panther in the early 1920s. Fifty years later she recounted the story as if it were yesterday. I like something on my hip in the wild. A heavy loaded .38 Special or a .357 Magnum revolver just feels right. Will the revolver be a Colt or a Smith and Wesson? I own and enjoy both, more Colts than Smiths and would hate to part with either. Just the same, the gun on the hip is usually a Colt Python. But sometimes it is a Colt Single Action Army .45 or a beautifully smooth Colt Three-Fifty-Seven. I guess we know who won the battle with me — but lost the war.

colt vs smith and wesson
The author considers this 1917 .45 caliber Smith and Wesson N frame revolver among his front line working handguns.
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11 thoughts on “RETROSPECT: Smith and Wesson Versus Colt — What Happened?”

  1. LOL, What happened was Colt put the damn cylinder release on backward!
    Colts are great and all, but I ‘ll take manufacturers that understand how the thumb works buttons easiest! Why I own a few S&Ws (even a pinned 57..) and Rugers.

  2. Terry you are right about the cylinder latch. Maybe that is the reason some people are giving ridiculously high prices for the snake guns. At least it keeps them out of the S&W market.

    1. LOL, Not just Rick Grimes? Think it is like how a painter’s art gets more pricey after he dies. “They ain’t making them anymore!” type of thing. Still waiting for that to work better for this unfired Ruger .357 Maximum Superblackhawk I have in the gun safe!

  3. Owning both SA and DA, I have always felt that they handled differently. The single action, forcing thumb operation of the hammer, caused the hold to be higher on the grip. I realy enjoy both and always chose the revolver for casual carry in the woods. Also thanks for not calling them wheel guns.

  4. “When Samuel Colt invented the revolver as we know it he turned the handgun world on its nose. ”

    I never heard that expression before. I have heard “…turned on its head”, but never on its nose.

    An interesting historical point is that Samuel Colt’s revolvers first came out, they were intended to be used as horse pistols. Because they enabled multiple shots without reloading, they were instrumental in winning the war against the Comanche in the Southwestern US and Northern Mexico. Firepower made the difference, and the introduction of revolvers to the Indian fighters marked the beginning of the end of Comanche dominance in that part of the continent.

  5. Thanks for the article. As Zediker mentioned, Colt cylinders turn INTO the the frame, which always seemed to me to make more sense than turning OUT OF the frame. Colt never had any lock up, in front of the cylinder. Maybe they thought they didn’t need it, since the cylinder was turning the correct direction, into the frame. Also, fondling all my Colt’s, I discovered the cylinder is locked solid upon ignition, when the trigger is all the way back. This is mentioned in Kuhnhausen’s, “The Colt Double Action Revolvers” manual on page 204. Also, on page 203 is a picture of the “proper grip”, showing the right hand thumb resting on the back of the cylinder latch, holding it closed. I never know where to put my thumb when shooting an S&W. The recent new Colt’s are just like the old ones, clockwise turning and tight cylinder on ignition. I’m going to have to get me one.

  6. I have both semi-auto pistols and revolvers and enjoy them both…BUT if I were restricted to just one pistol, it would be a revolver, not a semi0-auto. Why? Revolvers are less ammunition-fussy. They will shoot anything that will fit in the rotary chamber array (the “Wheel”) and generally, they are far less prone to jamming than, say, a Glock or 1911. Yes, they don’t hold as much ammunition as a semi, but they are accurate and less likely to induce an “empty the magazine” panic when they are needed for protection.
    I LIKE my 1911’s and Glocks and Sigs, but if the chips were down, I’d go with my Model 10 Military and Police 4″ that is older than I am and in much better shape than I am. Simply, a pistol is the device used to protect yourself as you get to your long arm…and my S&W fill that bill nicely.

    1. They also do not leave brass behind I also like the Dan Wesson that you can change the barrel,s on 2 in up to 8 in there is a very few 10 and 12 inc hers out there

  7. What happened? Colt stopped caring about its civilian customers and relies on government contracts and Smith & Wesson took a wonderfully simple design and complicated it even by adding a key lock whether you want it or not. Transfer bar? There was nothing unsafe about the firing pin in the hammer design whatsoever. For revolvers that leaves Ruger only because of their strength and they didn’t change their design of the DA guns. Forced to on their SA by idiots who couldn’t understand the design.

  8. Both manufacturers are outstanding in my opinion. The revolver, in my opinion will never go out of style. They are very reliable and less likely to malfunction than the autos. From listening to popular opinion everyone is all about more rounds in the firearm than accuracy. I’m a bit old school. Give me a big bore revolver any day!

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