December 21, 2015
By Rick Hacker
Although I was barely a teenager at the time, I remember 1955 as the year of the first Ford Thunderbird, a sophisticated two-seater that a kid with a Schwinn bike could only fantasize about. It was also the year Bill Haley and His Comets recorded "Rock Around the Clock," Quaker Oats invented instant oatmeal and "Gunsmoke" and "Davy Crockett" debuted on TV.
But equally as important to a kid who liked to shoot and would eventually become a gunwriter, I also remember 1955 as the year three legendary handguns made their appearances to rave reviews in the firearms press. After a 14-year hiatus, the Colt Single Action Army was resurrected.
That same year, Smith & Wesson's Model 29--basically a beefed-up .44 Hand Ejector Fourth Model--was teamed with the equally new .44 Magnum cartridge. And finally, what undoubtedly became the most elegant double-action .357 Magnum of the 20th century, the Colt Python, was unveiled.
Of these three, only the Colt Python was a radically new design, even though it could trace its ancestry back to the Army Special, a popular .38-caliber double action that had been in the line since 1908 and was rechristened the Colt Official Police in 1927. But the Python was a dramatic change from anything Colt had done before. In essence, it was a window into the future, encapsulated in a hand-honed steel sculpture that depicted a revolver's ultimate destiny.
It is somewhat ironic that the Python was born the same year as Smith & Wesson's .44 Magnum, a dynamic gun-and-cartridge duo that immediately challenged this new Colt's superiority. But while the .44 Magnum was the strongest kid in the neighborhood, the .357 had been around since 1935 and during the ensuing years had built up legions of followers, primarily among hunters and lawmen.
The .357 Magnum had already proven itself to be accurate, powerful and, as many would soon discover, far more pleasant to shoot than the .44 Magnum, with less muzzle blast, noise and recoil. Besides, the Colt Python could also chamber the more moderate .38 Special.
Yet until World War II, the only .357 Magnum offered by Colt was in the Single Action Army, of which only 525 guns were made in that caliber. Interestingly, when the SAA was reintroduced in 1955, it was in .45 Colt and .38 Special--and not .357 Magnum.
It wasn't until 1953 that Colt brought out its first modern double action in this caliber, a relatively scarce model named simply the Colt .357 Magnum, which stayed in the line until 1961 with a total of only 15,000 guns manufactured. In addition, in 1954--just one year before the Python's appearance--Colt introduced the .357 Magnum Trooper, which was discontinued in 1969. Thus, by 1954, with only two revolvers for what was then the most popular cartridge in the country, Colt clearly knew it had to do something dramatic to capture the attention of the shooting public.
"I was working with Al Gunther, who was superintendent of the factory and oversaw all production," recalls Al De John, who started with Colt in 1946 as a gunsmith, was subsequently promoted to service manager and eventually became superintendent of the Colt Custom Shop before his retirement in the 1990s.
"At the time, Al and few of the powers that were wanted a modern gun that would handle the .357 Magnum. In those days you were either a revolver man or semiautomatic man. You never did both. I was working on revolvers, so I made the suggestion that we take the Officer's Model Match and strengthen it."
Al could not have picked a better gun on which to base the .357 Mag. The Officer's Model Match was still relatively new, having been introduced in 1952 as a target version of the Official Police, the most popular .38 Special in the Colt stable. "In fact," recalls Al, "most of the police guns in use at that time were Official Police revolvers."
That had been true for decades, as the January 1, 1934, Colt catalog confirmed: "The Colt Official Police Revolver is without any question the world's outstanding police arm. This popular service revolver is famous for its ruggedness and its ability to stand up under the severe abuse it receives at the sides of police officers the world over."
Both the Official Police and its adjustable-sight counterpart, the Officer's Model Match, had a sturdy, yet smooth lockwork that combined the best (albeit scaled-down) features of the hardy New Service revolver. And even though it was chambered in both .22 rimfire and .38 Special, the Official Police and Officer's Model Match were built on larger .41-caliber frames to better absorb recoil.
"So I started to tinker around with the .38 Special Officer's Model Match," says Al. "That meant beefing up the cylinder and frame, including the topstrap. We had a lot of problems with blowback and the firing pins. In our initial testing of the new gun, the excessive pressure from the .357 Magnum kept hammering the recoil plate, which was a separate piece set into the frame (and necessitating frequent replacement). So the recoil plate was eliminated by putting the firing-pin hole directly into the frame and beefing up the topstrap. We also beefed up the crane to make the gun even stronger."
Another--and more visually dramatic--development was the muscular bull barrel, made even thicker by a fully shrouded ejector rod and topped by a ventilated rib. Allegedly, according to many gunwriters of the time who eagerly soaked up Colt's publicity, this rib was meant to dissipate the sight-obscuring optical mirage generated by heat waves from firing the "hot" .357 cartridge. But anyone who has fired an unvented .357 Magnum knows that the heat refractions are hardly intense enough to interfere with aiming. In truth, the reason for the ventilated rib was purely cosmetic.
"We'd get together and talk about what we wanted to do [with the design of the Python]," recalls Al. "It might have been Al Gunther who first suggested we put a vent rib across the top of the barrel. It didn't do anything, but it sure looked good. I also remember there was a controversy over the look and finish of the muzzle," Al goes on.
"At Colt, we had always had a radius on the muzzles of our guns, but with the Python, we ended up getting our best groups with a flat muzzle that had a countersink to it. They used to polish this flat surface of the muzzle, so that the metal would contrast with the blued barrel. But that polishing left a little 'dish' that produced an optical illusion and made the muzzle look lopsided instead of round, which it really was. So finally, I said, eliminate the polish, and leave [the muzzle] blue so that it looked normal."
As for naming Colt's new .357, Al simply states, "[The Colt company is] into snakes for some reason," obviously recalling Colt's first reptilian christening of the Cobra .38 Special back in 1950. Thus, the Python became the second serpentine moniker in Colt's lineup. But thick, slithery imagery aside, what finally emerged was a sophisticated magnum that was as accurate as it was handsome.
Initially made only with a 6-inch barrel, a more compact 4-inch came along soon afterward. Later, a 2 1/2-inch barrel was introduced, "which was the shortest barrel we could make and still fit a vent on the rib," remembers Al.
The Colt Python featured a fully adjustable white-outline Accro rear sight and a 1/8-inch front ramp with red inset. A wide spur, checkered hammer and grooved, curved trigger provided maximum control and fast lock time.
Initially, only a blued finish was offered, but, befitting the gun, it wasn't just any blued finish.
"The Python was the first time we used the Colt Royal Blue finish," says Al. "That was brought about because we buffed the gun just as smoothly and brightly as we would for nickel plate, which was the highest polish we could get. But then we blued the gun instead."
Not surprising to anyone who has ever shot or even handled a Python, polishing was a hallmark of Colt's midcentury magnum, not just for the exterior but for the interior as well. In fact, the Python was as close to a mass-produced custom gun as any factory gun ever created.
"We had to hone all the parts, including inside the sideplates," Al remembers. "It was the only gun we did that on. We polished everything, including inside the hammer strut. There were only two of us allowed to work on the Python, myself and Don Bedford."
Indeed, because of all the intricate hand fitting and polishing involved, Colt used only its most highly skilled workers for the Python and the Single Action Army. Consequently, the trigger pull was lighter on the Python than even the Officer's Model Match and ranged from a minimum of 2 3/4 pounds to not more than a 3 1/2-pound pull. By way of comparison, the trigger pull on the Official Police was 4 1/2 pounds.
"Usually, a Colt worker would be able to go through four guns an hour on the average," says Al, "but for the Python, because of all the extra hand work involved, it averaged about three guns per hour to build and fit everything just right. Then we conducted shooting tests at the company range for accuracy and extraction. And if the gun wasn't accurate enough, we'd have to take it back to the factory and rework it first thing in the morning, which meant we couldn't start on any other guns until that one was fixed."
All of this extra attention to detail paid off. Initially priced at $125--the same as the reintroduced Single Action Army--the Python was an immediate winner. Decorative engraving was also offered, starting at $245 and going up from there. "This gun could only be built by Colt," lauded the company's full-page introductory ad. "A limited number of gun connoisseurs will mark 1955 as a distinguished year in handgun history, with the purchase of this Colt masterwork."
Indeed, "limited number" was the operative phrase since only one Python was produced that first year. And by the end of 1956 just a scant 300 guns had been shipped to a more than eagerly awaiting audience. However, by 1969 slightly more than 100,000 Pythons had been meticulously built--evidence of a legacy in the making. But in the beginning, not everything went smoothly.
"We had leading problems with the Python when shooting unjacketed bullets," recalls Al. "Because the cartridge was so hot, the pure lead literally melted going down the barrel. So we recommended that only jacketed bullets be fired in the Python, and that pretty much solved the problem."
In addition, the fully checkered, full-width grip design on early production guns was too thick,
interfering with shell ejection. The solution was to thin out the top of the checkered grips with a slightly dished-out, smooth scallop--which many referred to as a thumbrest--to provide clearance for shell extraction. This, in turn, gave the gun an even more refined look. Later, some Pythons would be custom-ordered with smaller grips that followed the older-style Official Police configuration.
Throughout its long lifespan, the Colt Python has undergone a number of cosmetic changes. Soon after the Python's initial introduction, a nickel finish was added, and together with Royal Blue, these remained the two primary factory finishes. A small number of Pythons were gold and silver plated for various commemoratives and special orders throughout the years.
In 1981, Coltguard, a proprietary electroless weather-resistant plating, was also made available. The stainless Python was reintroduced in 1984, followed in 1985 by the super-polished stainless Ultimate Python, which was fitted with an Elliason target front sight.
Al De John remembers the company having to buy new tools to create these stainless steel guns because the Python's intricate design played havoc with the cutting surfaces of the machinery.
An 8-inch-barreled Python was introduced in 1980, made doubly unique as in addition to .357 Magnum, it was also chambered for the .38 Special--not to be confused with the Python's smaller look-alike Diamondback in that same caliber. The next year the Colt Python Hunter was unveiled, which was basically the 8-inch-barreled Python with Pachmayr grips, topped off with a 2X Leupold scope and packaged in an aluminum Halburton case with cleaning rod and tool kit.
In 1982 the 8-inch Python's ongoing popularity was evident by the Silhouette, which came with a Leupold scope and Pachmayr grips, all of which were housed in a black case with nickel trim. There was also an 8-inch-barreled Ten Pointer Series with a 3X Burris scope, wooden grips, an extra set of neoprene composition grips and a carrying case.
In 1997 manufacture of the Python was switched from the main assembly line to the Colt Custom Shop, and the gun was offered in both highly polished and matte stainless steel and renamed the Colt Python Elite. It remained in limited production, off and on, until 2004.
Although the Python is no longer cataloged, technically Colt's premier .357 Magnum has never gone out of production. Even in 2004, according to Joe Canali, head of Colt Custom Shop Sales, a limited number of Pythons were made. And this year--perhaps by the time this is read--to mark its 50th anniversary, one specially engraved Python will be produced, thus equaling the production run of its first year of manufacture. Adhering to tradition, you can be sure that only Colt's very best craftsmen will be permitted to assemble that gun.