.32 Colt Police Positive Special


by Mike Cumpston

photography by Mike Cumpston

April 7th, 2003




Where to start? The Chicken or the Egg- the Revolver or the Cartridge? Both the Old Colt revolver and the .32 S&W Long cartridge have played important roles in handgun history but are largely ignored by the popular press.  Nevertheless, they have a cadre of dedicated enthusiasts and become the subjects of frequent discussion on the Internet boards.

What I have been shooting is a Colt Police Positive Special - a revolver in production from 1908 until the late 1970s.  Its antecedents include the Colt New Police of 1896, the Pocket Positive and the short cylinder Police Positive of 1905.  Its progeny includes the Detective Special and the target sighted Diamondbacks - sporting revolvers much valued by collectors and connoisseurs.  It is built on the small .38 platform that, in latter years, became known as the “D” Frame. All of these revolvers employ the 1905 vintage “Positive Safety”, a hammer-block that permits safe carry with all chambers loaded.  It is the most –produced revolver in the Colt line, encompassing some 750,000 units with room for confusion occasioned by shared serial numbers.

The designation “Special” Comes from the lengthened cylinder which allowed it to house its most popular cartridge - the .38 Special / Colt New Police and incidentally, the 32-20 WCF cartridge.

What makes my particular example “Special” is that it is chambered for the .32 Colt New Police Cartridge.  This is the politically correct name for the .32 Smith and Wesson Long when chambered in a Colt. Colt did this - both with the .32 and the .38 Special - named them the “Colt New Police” to avoid advertising the Smith and Wesson developments. The Police Positive Special will fire the old .32 S&W cartridge as well as the Long and will not do at all well with the old .32 Colt and Long Colt Cartridges.  These rounds use the same nominal .312-313 bullet that are of the full case diameter, heeled variety like the modern .22 rimfires.  Firing them in 32 S&W Long chambers will over expand the smaller cases ripping them from Dan to Beersheba in the process.  The .32 S&W and S&W Long cases are too large to fit in the older Long Colt chambers. This is a good thing.

Another special aspect of the revolver on hand is its production vintage of 1949-50. It is a mechanically pristine example of mid-century craftsmanship and engineering.  Its smooth action, well defined sights and light trigger combined with a 4” barrel go far toward reducing (but not eliminating) the difficulty I have in hitting things with small, pocket-portable revolvers. The features make for pleasurable casual shooting at moderate ranges. The double action stacks and feels strange to the shooter used to a Smith and Wesson, but this revolver proves very accurate in that mode - reliably bouncing cans out to fifty feet or so.

The .32 Smith and Wesson Cartridge dates from the late 1870s and was a ubiquitous presence in the various single and double action pocket pistols manufactured up until World War II.   The Long variation came along in 1896 with the introduction of Smith and Wesson’s first hand ejector revolver.  It received a jump-start as a police cartridge when Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt acquired the Colt New Police revolver as the standard arm for the New York City Police Department.  Roosevelt was deeply impressed by the extremely poor marksmanship of the NYC officers and it seems likely that he chose the .32 for its light recoil rather than any great regard for the small bore as Man-Stopper.  Whatever the reasoning, the Colt and Smith .32 Longs were quickly adopted by several northeastern police agencies and the cartridge remained a police standard for some time to come.  The round proved very accurate and gained worldwide acceptance as a target cartridge.   Colt, Smith and Wesson, Charter Arms, Taurus and others produced substantial numbers of .32 S&W Long /Colt New Police revolvers right up until the development of the .32 H&R Magnum Cartridge.   In the late 1960s, Dean Grennell experimented with uploaded rounds in his K 32 while promoting development of a .32 Magnum as a small game cartridge - an event that didn’t take place until about 20 years later.  In the 60s, handbook entries carried 100- grain bullet loads up to the 1,000fps mark and into the low-magnum performance range.

In the present day, there is a general dearth of truly small-framed .32 Magnum revolvers and the old quality Colts and small-framed Smiths continue to cause considerable excitement among handgun enthusiasts.  Even those who like the little revolvers frequently regard it as a novelty and disparage the .32 Long as a practical round.  Several factors combine however, to give the cartridge an excuse for being:

A 90 to 100 grain bullet pushed by 2.0 grains of powder is going to produce less recoil than 148 grain .38 wadcutter shoved along by 2.8 grains of the same powder to near-equal velocities;

The .32 Long Cartridge loaded with fast-burning powder delivers more on-target energy than the .22 rimfire rounds regardless of barrel length;

The .32 generally performs more efficiently from the oft-encountered 3-4” barrels than do the .22 Long Rifle or Magnum rounds delivering less round to round variation and often exhibits better accuracy;

The .32 Long is different enough to be different - an important consideration whenever you get tired of everything being the same.

My exploration of the Colt Police Positive Special in .32 Long is informed by several realities.  On the positive side is the abundance and variety of reloading components suitable to the cartridge. On the negative vector, are my personal limitations in regards to actually hitting anything with a small framed, short barrel revolver. I address the latter by limiting my expectations to a realistic practical range for shooting such things as small game and other targets of opportunity. This would seem to be about 50 feet.  The former factor - the availability of suitable reloading components - comes into play as I develop loads that hit reasonably close to the fixed sights at the 50 foot distance. These loads must group suitably well to dispatch something the size of a cottontail rabbit.

The .32 S&W factory loads were accurate enough for government work but hit several inches low.  The same was true of the not-very-accurate Aguilla .32 Long 98-Grain Round Nose.  The PMC version of the same load grouped very well from a casual field rest at 50 feet and hit an inch or a bit more under point of aim. Unlike the Aquilla load, the PMC fodder ignited reliably with no misfires.  I quickly learned that 90-100 grain bullets driven to slightly over 800 fps would consistently group well under 2” and hit usefully close to the sights.  The Lyman 3118 115-grain bullet designed for the 32-20 grouped about 1.5” and hit point of aim loaded to just over 700 fps.  I obtained excellent results from the 100 Meister cast double-ended wadcutters loaded to 800 fps and got a very decent 1” group from the Hornady HBWC from about 25 yards. 

Loading hollow-based wadcutters reversed often produces profound expansion in .38 Special revolvers.  In .32 and .32 Magnum both the Speer and Hornady bullets tumble badly when loaded in this manner.

In a small case like the .32 Long, minor changes in components, powder charges and loading procedures make a big difference over the chronograph.  Fast-burning powders clearly show the most consistent velocities. Bullets that take up a large portion of the case, like the wadcutters or the long-shank 90-grain semi-wadcutter from Hornady, likewise produce small shot to shot velocity variations.  It is not particularly hard to produce good, accurate hand loads in this caliber but the importance of minor variables make it hard to depend upon published loading data for a reliable prediction of what your home concocted loads will actually do.

In my own case, I found that there would not be any particular advantage in straying from Alliant Bullseye and the wadcutter bullets from Meister and Hornady. 

I’ve used these bullets loaded to the 800 fps range in both .32 S&W Long and .32 Magnum and find that they are efficient collectors of game. I’ve validated this by collecting a few cottontails, a couple of jackrabbits, and one galloping armadillo. I suspect that some stopping power enthusiasts will pronounce the wide, flat aspect of the .32 wadcutter a more efficient “man-stopper!” than the .38 Special RNL. Wild guesses of this sort are unlikely to be refuted by any extensive real-world database.

Given suitable load selection, this Colt Police Positive Special provides a practical alternative to the rimfire “Kit Gun.” It provides an interesting foray into a little-chronicled chapter of handgun history.  

Meister Cast Bullets are available from Dillon Precision and online at http://www.meisterbullets.com/.

Mike Cumpston

NOTE: All load data posted on this web site are for educational purposes only. Neither the author nor GunBlast.com assume any responsibility for the use or misuse of this data. The data indicated were arrived at using specialized equipment under conditions not necessarily comparable to those encountered by the potential user of this data.  Always use data from respected loading manuals and begin working up loads at least 10% below the loads indicated in the source manual.


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Click pictures for a larger version.


.32 Colt Police Positive Special



The PMC factory 98-grain round nose at 50 feet from a seated field position.



.32 S&W, 50 feet seated, using knees for a rest.





Comparison of .32 Smith and Wesson and .32 S&W Long.



.32 S&W Long / Colt New Police handloads.





50-foot groups, Meister 100-grain .312 DEWC over 2 grains of Bullseye with CCI 500 primer.



Two-handed standing from 50 feet, five rounds with Hornady 90-grain HBWC over 2 grains of Bullseye (827 fps).





Lyman cast 115-grain .32-20 bullet at 50 feet.