American Rifleman | The Colt New Service: A Look Back
Colt was working on the concept of a double-acting revolver as early as 1857. The company even patented a design for a trigger cocking revolver, but that design was never produced. William Mason, a model maker and engineer in Remington, patented a swing-out cylinder with a star ejector operated by a rod in the center of the cylinder that ejected all of the cylinder’s housings in 1865, patent number 51,117.
Mason joined Colt from Remington in 1866 and began 16 years as one of the company’s foremost engineers and gunsmiths. Together with Charles Richards, he developed the Richards-Mason conversion of percussion revolvers in 1871. Mason and Richards are also credited with developing a top strap for added strength to the “Open Top” model 1871-72 revolver, which in 1873 became the famous peacemaker. A few years later, he patented a double-acting design that became the Model 1877 Lightning.
Mason later teamed up with Carl J. Ehbets to combine the double-acting revolver with a swing-out cylinder and an integrated star ejector. Although he left Colt in 1882, Mason receives credit for helping develop the Colt Model 1889 double-action revolver.
This was the first double-acting revolver with the well-known profile of such revolvers – one with a flatter and lighter recoil shield, a pivoting cylinder operated by a sliding thumb lock on the left side of the frame, and a handle frame contour that directs the recoil into the Shooting hand transferred. A year later, the US Navy adopted the .38 caliber. Revolver model 1889, and three years later the army adopted it.
Riflemen, lawyers, and especially the army, were simply not satisfied with the .38 Long Colt cartridge. A 150 gr. Lead ball at 777 fps produces a paltry 210 ft.-lbs. of energy at the mouth and cannot depend on to stop an attacker, be it a Moro tribe or a living being larger than a rabbit.
To address these concerns, Colt introduced a new, high-impact, double-action revolver in 1898, available in the more popular and effective cartridges such as the .38-40, .44-40, .44 Russian, .44 Spl., And .45 Colt. Colt named the revolver New Service. The run lengths ranged from 4 “to 7 1/2”. The supplies were rubber or walnut, and the metal was available in blued or nickel-plated. In overseas markets, Colt has discontinued the New Service in .450 Boxer, .455 Webley and .476 Enfield.
The new service was an instant success. Backcountry travelers and lawyers liked the sturdy revolver and its powerful cartridges. By 1909, Colt had made some changes to the lock, replacing some of the smaller leaf springs with coil springs, which minimized breakage.
A steel bar – Colt called it the “Colt Positive Lock” – was added between the hammer and the frame to prevent unwanted discharges in the event the hammer was struck or the gun was dropped. The army adopted this model 1909 revolver in .45 Colt with a case that had a slightly larger rim to allow extraction. After making a small change to the handle profile, the Marine Corps ordered a small amount of this iteration of the new service.
Due to the pathetic failure of the .38 Long Colt cartridge and the limited manufacturing capabilities in making the 1911 pistol, the New Service was designed as a military pistol during World War I. The 1917 Colt model was similar to that of the 1917 Smith & Wesson – a large frame and fixed sight revolver chambered in .45 ACP and fitted with crescent clips for easy extraction from the barrel of a revolver.
At first the cylinders were pierced straight through, and these revolvers could not fire a cartridge without the crescent clamps. Some time later, a “lip” was machined into the barrel, which allowed the housing to have head space on its mouth like the 1911 pistol. The cylinders of these last 1917s were also machined at the back to accommodate the crescent clamps. This change was made to allow 1917 firing regardless of whether the soldier had crescent clamps or not.
By 1918, Colt had sent 151,700 Model 1917 revolvers to the Army. Between the world wars, the 1917 revolvers – both Smith & Wessons and Colts – were in storage, although some were used by federal agencies, including the border, post, justice, and treasury departments. During this time Colt dropped the .44 Russian, .450 Boxer, and .476 Enfield chambers and added the .38 Special. In 1936 the .357 Magnum was included in the New Service cartridge stable.
The New Service was very well received outside of the United States. In Canada, the New Service replaced the less than outstanding Enfield Mk II revolver. The hoplophobic British yearned for New Service revolvers during World War I, and of course for the correct British .455 Webley cartridge.
Once the hostilities ceased, the British could not get these revolvers back to the US quickly enough, hence the surplus market for new services in .455 Webley. Even the Cuban government bought New Service revolvers housed in .45 Colt before and after World War I to surrender their army and Guardia Rurales.
As World War II rolled around, as is typical, arms caches were searched for anything that fired and more than 96,000 Model 1917 Colts were overhauled and given to military police and training units. Production of the new service ceased in 1946 and approximately 357,000 revolvers were made.
Colt has also created a target version of the new service. It was produced from 1900 to 1940 and featured adjustable visors on the front and rear on a flat frame. It was chambered in .44 Special, .44 Russian, .45 Colt, and .45ACP. Most were made with a 7.5 inch barrel, but some were assembled with 6 inch barrels. The trigger and back strap have been checked in the target version.
The handles were made of black rubber until 1913, then of checkered walnut wood with an inlaid silver medallion until the end of production. Nickel ready new service targets are very rare, but some have been created. A very popular variant, the New Service Shooting Master, was a high-quality variant of the Target. Made from 1932 to 1940, the Shooting Master was an example of the best gunmaking and craftsmanship Colt has ever made. It had a 6 “barrel and was chambered in .38 Spl., .357 Mag., .44 Spl., .45 Colt and .45 ACP.
Colt did not offer a jacketed ejector rod for one of its double-acting revolvers until the 1970s. The New Service was Colt’s only large-frame double-action revolver until the Anaconda was introduced in 1990. Like all vintage Colts, the New Service offers quite a premium to collectors of art that shoots.