Friday, January 13, 2017

Featured Gun: The Seven Serpents of Colt

A lot of people have written about the Colt snake revolvers, but most only cover one model and don't get into comparisons of all the "snake guns".

Of course the most famous is the Colt Python, but it was not the first of the seven Colt Snakes. Some of the "serpent" revolvers were nothing more than dressed up standard models, while others were true works of mechanical art. 

You could categorize the snake revolvers in to three categories: Service, Target and Hybrid, or if you prefer into two categories: 1. Hand built and 2. Assembly line built or even old lockwork vs new lockwork.

The Service guns would include the Cobra and Viper, The Target guns would be the Python, Diamondback and Anaconda, while the Boa and King Cobra would fit in between. Of using the hand built vs. assembly line, only two of the snake guns were truly hand built, the Python and the Diamondback. 

For those not familiar, the list of Colt snakes include (in order of their introduction):
  1. Cobra
  2. Python
  3. Diamondback
  4. Viper
  5. Boa
  6. King Cobra
  7. Anaconda

I tried to keep this brief and fit it into one post, so forgive me if I leave out any important details as I am by no means an expert on Colts.

Colt Cobra: 1950-1981*

We'll start with the Colt Cobra. I don't think the folks at Colt knew that they would be making a series of guns named after snakes back in 1950, but the Cobra was the first. 
The Cobra was built on the "D" frame, it was essentially a Detective Special with an aluminum alloy frame. The cylinder held six cartridges and was chambered in .22 Long Rifle, .32 Colt New Police (.32 S&W Long) and most commonly the .38 Special. 
Barrel lengths were 2", 3" and 4" (even a 5" on the .38 Special guns only). Chambered in .38 with the 2" barrel length it weighed just 15oz, 6 ounces less than the all steel  Detective Special.
In 1972 the D frame was revamped, usually distinguishable by the ejector rod shroud, that included some changes to the lock work.
After 31 years in production, the Cobra was discontinued in 1981.
Values have increased, but not near as much as the other snake guns, perhaps because of its aluminum frame or its status as a working mans gun. If you are not rich and want a Colt snake, this is probably your best bet.

The most famous Colt Cobra? The one used by Jack Ruby to silence Lee Harvey Oswald would probably win that award
Breaking news....The Colt Cobra is making a return, although now made from stainless steel and has a different grip frame...

Colt Python: 1955-2005

By far the most popular of the Colt Snake guns, the Python has a cult following unlike that of any firearm ever made. 

We can thank a man by the name of Bill Henry for the Python. Bill was Colt's top West Coast salesman and had noticed the trend of customizing revolvers for competitive shooting. He convinced the management that making a custom target revolver was a good idea, but it was not just any target revolver, it would be the best a person could buy.
According to legend an internal contest was held at Colt to name the gun with the winner being Python, submitted by then Vice President Phillip Schwartz.

The Python was introduced in 1955 as a target  revolver. Colt had no intention of the gun being used in law enforcement (Colt had other models more suited for that work), yet at least three states issued them as sidearms to their state troopers.

The Python has been called the "Rolls-Royce of Colt revolvers", I think that probably says it all.
Pythons were built on the medium-to-large sized "I" frame, which it shared with the original Trooper model. Finish options were originally Royal Blue (the finish was named royal blue due to it being a special high polish blue, not because it resembled the color royal blue) and bright nickel (see pic above). There was also an electroless satin nickel option called "Royal Coltguard", see below:

The nickel plated option was eventually replaced by satin and high polished stainless versions.
Barrel lengths were 2.5, 3, 4, 6 & 8 inches, the weight varied by barrel length from 38 to 48 ounces.

The cylinder held six cartridges and was only chambered in .357 Magnum (except for a few .38 Special models). The lock-work was based on old technology from the late 1800s, which were forged and then hand fitted to make them work.

Everything on the Python was put together by hand, which is what gave the gun its allure and ironically its demise. Hand fitting cost a lot more money than assembly line production. In the fall of 1999 Colt announced they could no longer produce the Python due to cost of production and lawsuits (the lawsuit part struck me as odd....). The Colt Custom Shop continued to produce the Python by special order until 2005, most of these guns had the title "Elite" added to the barrels roll mark.

When introduced in 1955 the MSRP of the Python was just $125, in 2005 when the last ones were being built in the Colt Custom Shop, the price was $1,150.

The prices for the Python have gone out of control, Rock Island Auction Company reports average prices for a Python at auction went over $3,000 in 2013 and continue to rise. They have seen pristine Pythons sell in excess of $12,000!
The "Holy Grail" of the Pythons is probably the 3" barrelled version in bright nickel or perhaps the very few "Python Target" models that were chambered in .38 Special.

This ridiculous pricing has caused the folks at Colt, who have been struggling to keep the company afloat, to think about building Pythons again. Rumor has it we may see the Python go back into production.....

The most famous Python? That is a tough one to chose, I would have to guess the statue of the one outside the UN building in New York. Though not a real gun, it is definitely a Python. It is a little more than ironic that a gun as rare and expensive as the Python is characterized by the leftists as an enemy to peace....

Colt Diamondback: 1966-1988

The Colt Diamondback has been called a "scaled down version of the Python" and that is a pretty good description. Introduced 11 years after the Python it was built upon the Detective Special's "D" frame. The cylinder, chambered in .22 LR, .22 Magnum and ,38 Special, held six rounds. The Ventilated barrel came in lengths of 2.5", 4" or 6" and the weight varied from 26 to 38 oz depending on caliber and barrel length.
The Diamondback came in Royal Blue or Bright Nickel and benefited from the same hand fitting from the craftsmen at Colt as its larger brother the Python.
Value escalations for the Diamondback have mirrored that of the Python, only at lower price point.

The most famous Diamondback is perhaps the one used by Steve McQueen in the 1968 movie Bullitt

Colt Viper: 1977

The Colt Viper was a one year production run of an aluminum framed Colt Cobra equipped with a 4" barrel. The .38 Special was the only offered chambering and the finish was either blued or bright nickel (as above).
Prices have also increased for the Viper, driven no doubt by their scarcity.

Colt Boa: 1985
Never advertised in a any Colt catalog, the Boa was produced in 1985 for the Lew Horton Distributing Company.

The Boa was a Colt Trooper MkV with a Python barrel. The Trooper MkV & Boa were built on Colt's "V" frame and were slightly smaller than the Python, closer in size to the S&W K frame revolvers. It was a precursor to the King Cobra, which was introduced the following year.

The Boas were not hand fitted like a Python, but did feature the same Royal Blue finish (although many will state the Boa's finish was not comparable to the earlier Python's). 
The internal lock-work also differed from the earlier Colt revolvers. The parts were cast and were universally interchangeable, so production time was cut dramatically.

All of the 1200 Boas were chambered in .357 Magnum with 600 having the 4" barrel and 600 having the 6" barrel. 100 of them were sold as matched sets. 
The MSRP in 1985 for the Boa was $525.

The Boa does not command the same prices as the Python, which makes sense, but the tide is rising with any Colt revolver, especially one of the snake guns. 

The matched pair pictured above sold for $12,000 at the James D Julia Auction in 2015.

Colt King Cobra: 1986-1998

Five years after the original Colt Cobra was disco'd Colt introduced a new snake revolver, the King Cobra. As with the Boa the King Cobra was built on the Trooper MkV frame and equipped with a full under-lug barrel sans the vent rib of the Python, Boa and interestingly the Trooper MkV. Originally only available in the Royal Blue finish, the matte stainless option was added in 1987. After 1992 you could only get them in stainless, in either matte or bright polished. 
Barrel lengths offered were 2", 2.5", 4", 6" and 8" depending on the year.
The cylinder held six cartridges and was available in .357 Magnum only. The model was discontinued in 1992 and brought back in 1994, only to be dropped for good in 1998.

The King Cobras have gained considerable value in recent years and are now routinely selling for more than $1,500.

Colt Anaconda: 1990-1999

We saved the largest snake for last, it also happened to be the last snake gun introduced by Colt.
Colt was late to the .44 Magnum game when they introduced the Anaconda in 1990. I am not sure what motivated Colt to finally get into the big bore game as it was some 45 years after the cartridge was introduced by rival revolver maker Smith & Wesson. 
Even the Dirty Harry franchise had released its last movie, The Dead Pool, two years earlier.

The Anaconda, named for the largest breed of snakes,  was built on a larger version of the Trooper MkV frame called the "MM" frame. It featured the newer, mass produced lock-work that made it cheaper and quicker to produce as well as easier and cheaper to repair.
The six-shot Anaconda was originally available in .44 Magnum only and in a satin/brushed stainless steel finish. 

In 1993 a .45 Colt option was added to the catalog in addition you could order a high polished stainless finish known as "Ultimate Stainless" through the custom shop.
The barrels featured vents and full underlugs like that of the Python, Boa and Diamondback and came in lengths of 4", 6" and 8". The weight was 47oz, 53oz or 59oz respectively. 

Prices for the Anacondas have also risen steeply, so much so that I doubt I will ever get the chance to own one. Even if I did stumble across a REALLY good deal on one, how could I (or anyone else for that matter) resist flipping it for an enormous profit?

I created this chart to help you see the options and frame sizes used

Model Years produced Caliber(s) Frame Size Barrel lengths
Cobra 1950-1981 .22LR, .32CNP, .38 Special Aluminum D Frame (same as Detective Special) 2, 3, 4, 5
Python 1955-2005 .38 Special, .357 Magnum I Frame (same as the original Trooper) 2.5, 3, 4, 6, 8
Diamondback 1966-1988 .22LR, .22 WMR, .38 Special Steel D Frame (same as Detective Special) 2.5, 4, 6
Viper 1977 .38 Special Aluminum D Frame (same as Detective Special) 4” only
Boa 1985 .357 Magnum V Frame (same as Trooper MkV) 4” & 6”
King Cobra 1986-1998 .357 Magnum V Frame (same as Trooper MkV) 2, 2.5, 4, 6, 8
Anaconda 1990-1999 .44 Magnum, .45 Colt MM Frame 4,6,8

Rock Island Auction 
American Rifleman 
Colt Fever 
American Handgunner