As a young police officer, my introduction to the short-barrel, double-action revolver came when a salty field training officer bent down and pulled up his pant leg, revealing a blue steel revolver strapped in a black holster over his white sock.
"Kid, get yourself a snub .38 as a backup and consider it inexpensive life insurance," he said. His street-wise advice sent me searching, and I heard that a Chicago homicide detective was retiring and selling his gear. The list included a six-shot, lightweight Colt Cobra he'd carried on countless cases, and I bought it for $100. After a combined six decades of service, that Cobra still stands guard, and its attributes of reliability, accuracy and concealability exemplify why this snubnose revolver continues to be a favorite for personal defense.
Finding a Cobra has been a problem since Colt discontinued it was in the early 1980s and originals became collector items. That changed this year when Colt reintroduced a newly redesigned Cobra.
Unlike the original's aluminum frame, the new Cobra is built from stainless steel. It has a dull matte finish and weighs 24.8 ounces; my old-timer weighs just over 15 ounces. That weight differential proved to make a big difference in shootability.
I spoke with two of the Colt designers who worked on the Cobra project and learned that the frame and barrel are forgings, the cylinder cut from bar stock, and the only fitted part is the hand that engages the ratchet and turns the cylinder. This reduction in hand-fitting allows the revolver to be built and offered at a reasonable cost.
Does this mean we are getting a less capable or reliable handgun? Just the opposite, says a Colt designer. "We built this revolver to take thousands of rounds of use and be passed down to your children without having to see the factory for a rebuild," he said.
The Cobra is a six-shot gun chambered to .38 Special, and it's rated for standard and +P ammunition. The barrel is 1/8 inch longer than the original's two-incher. It has a removable front sight with an effective fiber-optic insert, and the rear sight is a classic, simple square notch milled into the frame's topstrap.
The frame is slightly longer than the earlier Cobra D-frame, and the trigger guard is enlarged to permit easy finger access when wearing gloves. Grips are Hogue rubber wraparounds with finger grooves and a pebbled surface.
The trigger is smooth faced and has less curve than the original serrated one. The trigger has also been redesigned internally, and the result is a glassy-smooth double-action trigger pull. According to my RCBS trigger scale, the double-action pull on my sample was nine pounds and the single action was 3.5 pounds.
There is almost no stacking or loading at the end of the double-action pull, which was not the case with previous Colt double-action revolvers, and I think this new trigger design is the best Colt has produced. Compared side by side, the double-action trigger is superior to my 1960s Python. This is due in large part to a new mainspring Colt is calling its Linear Leaf Spring or LL², which is a modernized and slightly thicker leaf spring.
The Cobra's cylinder rotates clockwise, a patent feature of the earliest days. To open the cylinder, pull back the serrated cylinder latch on the left side of the frame. Gently swing out the cylinder to the left side to load.
Colt warns never to attempt to open or close the cylinder when the hammer is cocked because both the cylinder locking bolt and hand are engaged in an upward position and can be damaged. And if you have seen old gangster movies where a detective checks his cylinder and then snaps it shut with a flip of the wrist, don't do it. Treat the cylinder and crane that connects it to the frame gently. Press the cylinder into the frame with direct finger pressure.
If you're new to revolver shooting, pressing the trigger in double-action mode both cocks the hammer and releases it to fire. When you get the feel for the length of the trigger press, you can "stage" the trigger by pressing it about three-quarters of the way to the rear, which takes up most of the pull weight. Then you can slowly press what's left to fire the gun. Some people find this a more accurate way to shoot double action.
Single-action firing is accomplished by manually cocking the hammer, usually done with the thumb of your non-firing hand. Once the hammer is cocked, the remainder of the now-shortened trigger press performs only one action: releasing the hammer to fire.
The .38 Special cartridge has been a favorite of target shooters and for defensive carry for more than 100 years. It is known for its inherent accuracy, and today's .38 ammo provides a lot more terminal performance than the old standard 158-grain roundnose ever did.
Ammunition for the Cobra test included both standard velocity and +P rated .38 Special from Black Hills, Federal, Speer and the new Super Vel. You may not be familiar with the new HoneyBadger load from Black Hills. It features a solid copper bullet that's scalloped to produce sharp cutting edges and works in large part via fluid displacement- much like the Polycase ARX.
In multiple shooting sessions, I fired more than 1,000 rounds with about 800 being +P. Accuracy and chronograph results are shown in the accompanying chart. After the initial inspection, I did not lubricate or clean the Cobra for the test period. I don't recommend this treatment, but I wanted to see how crud resistant the Cobra is. There were no issues.
Prior to the review, if you had told me I would be firing 1,000 rounds out of a snubby, I would have laughed or, more likely, cried. Lightweight alloy frame revolvers, like the original Cobra, are a joy to carry but painful to shoot. The new Cobra is just the opposite. The all-steel construction, combined with the excellent Hogue grips, made even the stout 135-grain Federal +P load manageable and painless.
The match 148-grain wadcutter and the 158-grain lead roundnose were the softest loads and among the most accurate. While I certainly wouldn't recommend either of these loads for defensive purposes- there are so many better options for this use- you could easily spend the day training with 200 rounds of either load.
As you can see in the chart, most ammo types grouped within four inches at 15 yards, which I consider darned good for a gun of this kind. Snubbies are considered short-range defensive handguns due to their short barrels and attendant short sighting radii, but don't think that longer distance shooting is outside reality. Firing single action, I put nine of 12 rounds on a 4x6-inch card at 25 yards, and the other three rounds were just outside the card.
The Cobra has the key attributes for a sporting and defensive carry revolver: simplicity of operation, accuracy, reliability and concealability. It is heavy for a snubnose revolver, and in my view, it's not a true pocket pistol.
However, I expect we will see additions to the Cobra line and with them added versatility. An easily replaceable front night sight is coming soon. I'd also vote for a lightweight version, a hammer shroud or bobbed hammer, a three-inch barrel and chamberings in .357 Magnum and .22 LR. The possibilities are many.
The newest Cobra is not as polished as the early model of 60 years ago, but its real beauty is found in a design built for a lifetime of service on demand. That's what defensive handguns are all about, and Colt is back with a contender in the snubnose revolver category.