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Cut-down Revolvers

by Ed Buffaloe

FitzGerald

J. Henry FitzGerald circa 1930

John Henry “Fitz” FitzGerald was born in 1876 and grew up with a fascination for guns. He taught himself both shooting and gunsmithing. Early on, he worked in the revolver department of the Iver-Johnson Sporting Goods Company in Boston, and was the shooting master at the Boston Rifle & Revolver Club. He later worked for the Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company from 1918 to 1944. He says he spent nearly thirteen years “in the testing room or shooting gallery of that company.” Eventually he became an expert witness in regard to firearms matters and served as a firearms instructor for police departments in the U.S. and Canada. During his later life “Fitz” was always found at Camp Perry and other shooting competitions, where he was known for making repairs and smoothing the actions on competitor’s Colt revolvers.

I’m certain most of my readers are familiar with the “Fitz Special,” which is usually a cut-down Colt revolver, though sometimes a Smith & Wesson is used. Fitz called them “cutaways.” Fitz’s interest and enthusiasm for short-barrel revolvers eventually led Colt’s to offer the Detective Special in 1926, followed by the Banker’s Special in 1928. The Cobra and Agent did not appear until 1951 and 1955 respectively. However, Colt’s never made a large-caliber revolver with a very short barrel, such as Fitz was famous for. Fitz was a big man and he often carried two cut-down Colt New Service pistols chambered for .45 Colt—one for each hand—offering some serious firepower.

Fitz's-Colts-2-S

Fitz’s Pair of Cut-down New Service Colts

In his 1930 book, Shooting, FitzGerald relates the following:

    I believe I am the pioneer butcher of revolvers for quick draw, for thirty-two years ago I tried out my first two-inch barrel and this was followed by the cut-away trigger guard, cut-off hammer spur, rounded butt, cut-off ejector rod, straightened trigger, etc. I choose the .38 Colt Police Positive Special in the small model, because it is the most powerful revolver of its weight and a very fine balanced arm. I choose the .45 New Service because it is the most powerful hand gun...

    The trigger guard is cut away to allow more finger room and for use when gloves are worn. The .45 really has plenty of finger room without cutting the guard, but I prefer my own cut away and it does decrease the weight and change the balance. The hammer spur is cut away to allow drawing from the pocket or from under the coat without snagging or catching in the cloth and eliminates the use of thumb over hammer when drawing. The ejector rod end and part of the ejector rod is cut away to prevent rod end from catching or wearing through cloth in the pocket. The butt is rounded to allow the revolver to easily slide into firing position in the hand. The trigger is straightened as far as the rear of guard will permit and cut off at the bottom to allow it to swing inside the guard to give a flatter surface for the finger to rest on.

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A Colt New Service Fitz Special Revolver

Ed McGivern, in his book on Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting, rails against such modifications, which he calls “mutilations,” as being unnecessary or even counterproductive, with the exception of shortened barrels. However, Fairbairn and Sykes, in their book Shooting to Live, express the opposite opinion:

    Let us consider first the case of the detective or plain-clothes man. Here the weapon must be carried concealed and the wearer must be prepared for the quickest of quick draws and an instantaneous first shot, most probably at very close quarters. For that purpose, our own choice would be a cut-down revolver of heavy calibre.

    The weapon shown ... started life as a .45 Colt New Service double-action revolver with a 5-inch barrel. The hammer spur has been cut off, the barrel length reduced to 2 inches, the front part of the trigger-guard has been removed, and grooves have been cut on the left side of the butt for the middle, third and little fingers.

    Now for the reasons for this drastic treatment. The big New Service revolver was chosen, primarily, because the butt is of adequate size for the average man’s hand to grasp in a hurry without any fumbling. Secondly, it is one of the most powerful weapons possible to obtain.

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A rare cut-down Colt Police Positive Special Revolver in .32-20
once carried by a police detective in Corpus Christi, Texas.

    The removal of the hammer spur and the smoothing over of what remains prevent the weapon from catching in the clothing when drawn in a violent hurry. As the hammer cannot be cocked by the thumb, the weapon has to be fired by a continuous pull on the trigger. With a sufficiency of practice, very fast shooting is rendered possible by this method.

    The shortening of the barrel is for speed in drawing. Obviously, it takes less time for 2 inches of barrel to emerge from the holster than 5 inches. Contrary to what might be expected, there is no loss of accuracy, at any rate at the ranges at which the weapon is customarily used.

    The front part of the trigger-guard is removed in order to eliminate yet another possible cause of fumbling when speed is the order of the day. The index-finger, no matter of what length or thickness, wraps itself in the proper position round the trigger without any impediment whatever. The grooves on the butt are there to ensure that the fingers grip the weapon in exactly the same way every time.

Hardly anyone does such modifications anymore. I, nevertheless, have a fascination with cut-down revolvers, though I generally prefer guns where the trigger-guard is left intact. Still, I could not resist this Smith & Wesson Model 1917 cut-down gun which I found a few years ago at the Tulsa gun show.

S&W-M1917-119141-L4-S

A Cut-down Smith & Wesson Model 1917 Revolver in .45 ACP

Gunsmiths usually cut the Smith & Wesson barrels off just in front of the barrel lug, making for a three inch barrel, but this one has a 3-5/8” barrel. The gun is big and heavy, as it needs to be to absorb recoil from the .45 ACP cartridge, though it is considerably lighter than the Colt New Service. When I got the Smith, the double-action trigger pull was upwards of 14 pounds. I installed new springs and adjusted it down to a more manageable 11.5 pounds. The Smith & Wessons are usually cut down with a hump on the bottom of the frame to accommodate the cylinder stop screw, but in this case the angled screw was simply cut through and polished over, fixing the spring and plunger in place permanently.

I also couldn’t resist this cut-down Colt Pocket Positive that some talented gunsmith turned into a snub-nose. I only wish it were not chambered for .32 Colt, a far inferior round to the .32 S&W Long.

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A Cut-down Colt Pocket Positive in .32 Colt


Colt-New-Serv-L-S

A Cut-down Colt New Service in .45 Colt

References

  • Askins, Charles. “Belly Guns.” Guns Magazine, May 1955.
  • Fairbairn, Capt. William Ewart & Sykes, Capt. Eric Anthony. Shooting to Live With the One-hand Gun. Reprint of the 1942 edition, by Paladin Press, Boulder, Colorado: 1987.
  • FitzGerald, J. Henry. Shooting. G.F. Book Company: 1930.
  • McGivern, Ed. Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting. Follett Publishing, Chicago: 1975.

Links

My Fitz Colt Official Police by Steven Tracy
Rex Applegate’s Fitz Special by Michael Janich
The Singular Fitz Specials by John Taffin
The Utterly Unique Fitz Special by Jerry Lee

Copyright 2021 by Ed Buffaloe.  All rights reserved.

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