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"The Colt Python"
by Massad Ayoob
The Accurate Rifle, November 2003
(Precision Shooting, Inc.; used with permission)
Famous for its distinctive profile and top-flight craftsmanship, the flagship of the Colt fleet also incorporated unique performance-enhancing engineering innovations.
According to firearms historian Larry Wilson, "H.M. (His Majesty) Hussein I of Jordan ordered a limited number of Pythons, in 4" and 6" bar- rels, as gifts to his selected friends. Casing and barrel were embossed with His Majesty's crest. The Python for King Juan Carlos of Spain bore his name in flush gold on the side- plate. Among other celebrated recipients: King Khalid and Prince Fahed (Saudi Arabia), King Hassan (Morocco), Sheik Zyed (United Arab Emirates), President Anwar Sadat (Egypt), and President Hafez Assad (Syria)." (1)
Elvis Presley, a gun collector, loved Pythons. Actor David Soul used a 4" Python to outshoot Dirty Harry for the department championship in "Magnum Force," a film that caused a brief spurt of Python popularity in the marketplace, and a 6" version as the character Hutch on TV's "Starsky and Hutch." In the real world, Paul B. Weston, ace handgun expert of the NYPD, often used the Python in matches. He sang its praises, calling its famously smooth mechanism "a friction-free environment." Bill Jordan, well known for his preference for Smith & Wessons, owned and liked the 4" Python. Reeves Jungkind, pistolsmith and Texas state trooper, won numerous police combat championships with the Pythons he tuned, as did many of his customers.
A Brief History
From the beginning, reviewers called it the "Rolls-Royce of handguns”, though official Colt historian Larry Wilson was a little more reserved and said, "The Python is the Rolls-Royce of Colt revolvers." (2)In the "1953-54 Gun Guide," General Julian Hatcher predicted, perhaps unknowingly, this forth- coming evolution in double action Colt revolvers. "From time to time and from year to year, changes and improvements have been made in the (Colt) Officers Model target revolver," he wrote. "Some of these are minor improvements, due to new processes of manufacture or new materials available; but the major model changes have usually been the result of suggestions made to the company's experts by outstanding target shots." (3)
The firm had noticed that many serious shooters slug lead weights or welding rod under the barrels of their target revolvers to add stabilizing weight, and that King's Gun Works had made a cottage industry of installing ventilated ribs on top with target sights. Both features would be added. A redesigned mechanism done originally for the service grade "Three-Fifty- Seven" and .38 caliber Trooper service revolvers announced in 1954 would be integrated into the new gun, featuring a flat-faced ham- mer and a spring-loaded firing pin that "floated" in the frame. It would have the most deluxe finish Colt could put on a handgun, the lustrous Royal Blue.
When factory insiders gave me the scoop on the Python, they said the key to its fabulous finish was in the polishing operation, not the bluing tanks. The most skilled polishers were put to work on the Pythons in a process that finished with 400 grit emery, which they described as roughly the texture of talcum powder. The polish showed up better on blue guns than nickel, and even better on bright stainless, such as the Python Ultimate and the exquisite limited run Double Diamond.
Almost as an afterthought, it was decided to chamber the Python for .357 Magnum. Demand for that round seemed heavy, and after all, the gun would be perfectly accurate with the shorter, milder .38 Special target ammo they expected most customers to use in it. A contest was held within the factory to name the new entry. Colt's Cobra, the first aluminum frame .38 snubnose, had been a best seller since its introduction five years before. Perhaps thinking serpentine names were lucky, the firm chose the entry of an employee whose identity seems to have since been lost to firearms history. The name was "Python."
The gun was an instant hit. While dedicated target sixgunners like Weston flocked to it, the Python had the misfortune to arrive just before the bullseye shooters switched en masse to autoloaders for the center- fire events where the .38 revolver had previously ruled. But if this market was foreclosed by changing tastes, others opened invitingly. The police saw it as a prestige service revolver, and their clamoring for a 4" version was soon answered. The Python had first been offered with 6" barrel only. Meanwhile, police combat revolver combat competition was about to start up, and the Python was virtu- ally made for it, with the heaviest barrel then available giving more up- front weight to steady the gun against the double action pull demanded by the rules for more than half of the PPC sequence. Finally, people who loved guns were instantly taken by the obvious quality, superb workmanship, and unique appearance evinced by the Python. Despite a price tag of $125 at introduction, the guns sold as fast as Colt could produce them. In 1955, the highest priced prestige revolver on the market before the Python was S&W's big .357 Magnum, later to be designated the Model 27, which then sold for $110.
A nickel finish was soon added, and much later, the Python was offered in stainless. A small number were produced chambered for .38 Special. The market for the Python in that caliber was bifurcated. Some went to police officers who could buy their own guns but couldn't have a caliber more powerful than .38 Special. Some went to target shooters who were certain that a .38 Special chamber delivered more accuracy than a longer .357 chamber firing .38 ammo, a hypothesis that has never quite been proven or disproven since. At least one Python each were made experimentally in .256 Winchester Magnum and .41 Magnum, but neither ever left the factory. I saw them both in Colt's so called "black museum" in the late 1970s.
A 2 1/2" barrel version was introduced later, though it never sold well; the stubby tube seemed incongruous on the large .41-size frame. Colt had more success later when they offered an 8" barrel aimed at the handgun hunter market. Rarest of all was the special-run 3" barrel. There are rumors of a 5" Python, but I've never seen documentation of one leaving the Colt factory.
While it was a mark of prestige to carry one's own Python on duty, few police departments could justify its high cost when revolvers were usually bought on bid. Still, there were exceptions. The Colorado Highway Patrol issued 4" blue Pythons until their switch to the S&W .40 caliber autoloader. Georgia State Patrol and Florida Highway Patrol at various times bought small quantities of Pythons, but the deluxe Colts were never standard issue agency-wide for either. Both, like Colorado, have since adopted .40 autos, the Glock for GSP and the Beretta for FHP.
The price continued to soar over the years. In 1980, Smith & Wesson introduced their own .41 -frame .357, the Model 586, which they dubbed the L-frame. This was a brutal blow to Python sales. Copying the Python so slavishly that both brands would fit the same holster and use the same speedloader, the L-frame was a Pythonized S&W with solid instead of ventilated barrel rib, and much more affordable than the Colt. Dan Wesson had copied the distinctive Python silhouette a decade earlier, and the Ruger GP-100 soon shared the same configuration. The Colt Python was no longer unique.
Today, produced as the "Python Elite," the flagship of the Colt revolver fleet comes out of the pricey Colt Custom Shop and carries a suggested retail ten times higher than its original price.
Shooting the Python
"The pride of the (Colt) line is the Python, a big-frame .357 service target revolver with a distinctive ventilated sight rib. At 43 ounces, in 6-inch trim, this is a heavy pistol, excellently suited for target shooting with the .38 cartridge, or hunting with full loads. It is very popular on the PPC circuit, where target shooting is restricted to revolvers. Its single action release is usually superb, combining with its weight and fine sights to provide excellent controllability. The Python is expensive, and it should be." (4)
Those are the words of Jeff Cooper in his classic "Cooper on Handguns," and many users saw the Python in the same light as he did. However, some others saw it as one thing more than a hunting revolver or target .38: the finest quality self-defense revolver that money could buy.
From the range to the street, the added heft at the front was appreciated by knowledgeable shooters. One of the handgun gurus of the time, Chic Gaylord, wrote in 1960, "...I rate Colt's .357 Python as the top performer in its class. The increased weight at the end of the barrel balances the gun in such a way that a very close grouping of shots can be fired with extreme rapidity. This could prove to be a lifesaver in the field." (5)
Some gunsmiths felt the Colt went out of time sooner than the S&W. I can attest from personal experience that when firing .357 Magnum rounds, the Python stood up better than the K-frame S&W, and compared well with the bigger frame Smiths. Jerry Moran told me of one Python he owned that had passed 100,000 rounds of Magnum ammo and was still perking along with only minor tuning. Gun expert Stan Trzoniec has said in print, "The Python is an expensive revolver to be sure, but it will outlast the shooter." (6)
In many years of active use of Pythons, I only found one mechanical weakness in them. I personally broke two of their "unbreakable" floating firing pins. Particularly when the firing pin spring has been lightened by a custom gunsmith, you want to dry fire your Python with snap caps to cushion the impact.
S&W fans hated the two-stage Colt double action pull, no matter how light and smooth. When a master 'smith could make it one-stage, even they got on board with the concept. My old friend John Taffin is a connoisseur nonpariel of the revolver. When others compared the Python to a Rolls, John allowed that at most it was a Cadillac. In his splendid book "Big Bore Sixguns," the scrupulously honest Taffin readily explained how he came to upgrade his opinion of the Python. "The Colt Python is a superb sixgun to be sure," he wrote. "I have always been partial to the double action feel of Smith & Wesson sixguns, however, a dear friend recently went Home and it was his wish that I have his prize Python, an older 6-inch .357 that Fred Sadowski tuned to perfection.
My friend's family concurred and now I have a Python with a double action pull that is as fine as ever found on any slicked-up Smith & Wesson. It is all in knowing how and Sadowski certainly knew how." (7)
Fred Sadowski's breakthrough was turning the two-stage Colt DA pull into a single-stage. Joking at his own heritage, he called the secret "the Polack kink." The Colt pull “stacks” toward the end because of the way the V-shaped leaf main- spring presses against itself at that point. First using a 1911 firing pin and later special tools, Fred would insert the object between the leaves and work the trigger until the spring leaves had stretched apart and no longer pressed against one another. But that's just the tip of the iceberg: he subtly altered the geometry of the Python's insides in many other ways to create his extraordinary double action.
He was joined by two other smiths at the height of the Python customizing art: Jerry Moran of Michigan and Reeves Jungkind in Texas. These men could lighten the DA pull down to an incredible five- or six-pound range without compromising ignition. The secret lay in the Colt design: its longer action and longer hammer throw gave more mechanical advantage, allow- ing less force to be necessary to drive the trigger-cocking and firing mechanism. The floating firing pin helped, too; by lightening its spring slightly, a hammer falling more lightly (and therefore, driven by less double action trigger pressure) could still reliably ignite even Magnum primers. All of them, of course, enhanced their work with exquisite polishing of moving parts. The result is a combination of lightness and smoothness in the DA stroke that even the finest custom S&W or Ruger simply cannot equal with reliable ignition.
Fred Sadowski's untimely death occurred in 1987at age 50. Jerry Moran has left gunsmithing for other pursuits. Reeves Jungkind, already retired from police work, is at an age where he'll probably soon retire from pistolsmithing if he hasn't already. Today, I can personally attest to the work of only one other, currently active craftsman who can equal their results on a Colt Python: Grant Cunningham, West Linn, OR.
The rumor is passed around at gun shops that Colt only nickel-plated those Pythons that came through with second rate polish jobs. I never saw that substantiated. The few nickel plated Pythons I've handled and fired felt as good as their Royal Blue counterparts. However, this "urban gun legend" continues. Since relatively few Pythons bore the nickel finish - which tended to obscure the superb polish evident on the Royal Blue models, a big part of the whole "pride of ownership" thing - you'd think that the nickel models would command a premium price. Not so. A leading expert on the value of used guns, Ned Schwing, observes: "it is possible that the nickel- plated specimens would bring a 10 percent premium. In my experience this is not always the case as many potential purchasers have a definite preference for the blued finish." (8)
One of the big keys to the Python's popularity among serious shooters is its famous accuracy. It tends to exceed its competitors, Ruger and S&W, and is equaled only by the Dan Wesson in this regard. What makes the Dan Wesson so accurate is its unique barrel system, held under tension front and rear, and the tight lockup of its crane- mounted ball detent. What makes the Colt more accurate encompasses a longer list of achievements in the revolver-maker's art.
Going into the Python project, Colt already had two accuracy advantages over its arch-rival, S&W. One was a "double hand" mechanism that now goes back more than a century. As the hammer begins to fall, a second cylinder hand rises against the pawl and locks the cylinder absolutely dead-nuts solid into place. This gives more consistency in chamber-to-barrel alignment at the moment of the shot. Also, the Python kept Colt's traditional one turn in 14" rifling twist for .38 Special and .357 Magnum. Across the board, but particularly with .38 wad- cutters used by target shooters, this seems to deliver more accuracy than the 1:18.5 rifling twist of the black powder days, used by S&W and Ruger.
In the late 1970s, I did a three part series on the Python for American Handgunner magazine that involved days at the factory debriefing the engineers. They told me that Python bores were tapered by .001" toward the muzzle, to drive the bullet deeper into the rifling. This is, if you think about it, quite a feat of engineering. It may be one reason why for so many years, people who preferred other revolvers paid gunsmiths to install Python barrels on them, creating a "Smolt" when the tube was joined to an S&W and a "Cougar' when mated to a Ruger.
Sadowski would install a massive Douglas barrel if the customer insisted, but only to make it even heavier and steadier up front. He told me that his tests showed no custom barrel to be more accurate than the Python's own. By contrast, he did a land office business putting Douglas barrels on PPC Smiths, not just to weight them but to accurize them. Jungkind, Moran, and Cunningham likewise refused to put an aftermarket barrel on a Python.
How accurate? From a Ransom rest with Match ammo, the Python will generally deliver about 1 3/8" groups at fifty yards. This is about what you get out of a custom made PPC revolver with one-inch diameter Douglas barrel. My 8" matte stain- less Python with Bausch & Lomb scope in J.D. Jones' T'SOB mount has given me 2 1/4" groups at 100 yards with Federal's generic American Eagle 158 grain softpoint .357 ammo. The same gun, with Federal Match 148 grain .38 wadcutters, once put three bullets into a hole that measured .450" in diameter when calipered. That's three .38 slugs in a hole a couple of thousandths of an inch smaller in diameter than a single .45 auto bullet.
I shot my first PPC match, and won my first "police combat" trophy, with a 6" Python borrowed from my friend Tom Stackpole more than 30 years ago. In the mid-70s, I hunted at the Y-0 Ranch in Texas with Hal Swiggett. Hal lent me his 6" Herrett- stocked Python, tuned by a young Jerry Moran. I couldn't believe the smoothness. I killed a trophy Corsican ram with two .357 slugs fired from it double action, the first through his chest as he ran and the second breaking his neck at a measured 76 yards. I went home, ordered a brand-new Python, and sent it to Moran without even firing it.
Time went on. The 6" Moran gun won me First Master at the Fraternal Order of Police national shoot in Rhode Island circa 1977. A year later, I put a 4" barrel on it to carry on duty. It's one of the few handguns I've carried on all three police departments I served over the last three decades. Loaded with 125 grain Magnum hollowpoints, I knew it would never let me down. Soon, I owned two Morans, 4" and 6", and two Jungkind Colts, 2 1/2" and 6". My 8" was tuned by the Colt Custom Shop.
I can't say I won every match I shot with a Python, but I won a disproportionate number. Our state shoot for cops used to require a 4" .38 or .357 service revolver with sights and barrel produced by the gun factory, before everyone went to autos. I won the title every time I shot with a Python, once with the stubby Jungkind gun and the rest with the 4" Moran. All wore Elliason sights, a Colt factory option much superior to the Accro sight that came standard on the Python, let alone the sights furnished by Colt's competitors.
I found the Python to be a superbly accurate gun with functionality that went far beyond its pricey prestige. It could help mediocre shooters like me win matches, and its performance made good shooters truly great. Prices are up in the used market these days, but a Colt Python - especially when tuned by some- one like Grant Cunningham - is a high performance revolver that earns its keep with far more than looks and prestige.
(1) Wilson, R.L., "The Colt Heritage," New York City: Simon & Schuster, undated, P. 272.
(2) Wilson, R.L., "Colt: An American Legend," New York City: Abbeville Press, 1985, P 272.
(3) "Pistols and Revolvers of American Make," by Julian Hatcher, in "Gun Guide," 1953-54 edition, published by The Gun Digest Corporation, Chicago, 1953, P. 103.
(4) Cooper, Jeff, "Cooper on Handguns," Los Angeles, Petersen Publishing Co., 1974, P. 189.
(5) Gaylord, Chic, "Handgunner's Guide," New York City: Hastings House, 1960, pp. 59-60.
(6) Trzonlec, Stanley W., "Modern American Centerfire Handguns," Tulsa: Winchester Press, 198 1, P. 65.
(7) Taffin, John, "Big Bore Sixguns" Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 1997, P. 61.
(8) Schwing, Ned, "2003 Standard Catalog of Firearms," Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002, P. 302.