Colt New Service .455 Eley

    Colt’s New Service Revolver was for many years one of the biggest, most powerful revolvers available to sportsmen, law enforcement and the military. They were made from 1898 to WW2 (some sources state 1897 to 1943) and chambered for a wide variety of calibers during its long production run. The New Service was a large, heavy, double action, swing out cylinder revolver and most were manufactured with barrel lengths from 4” to 7.5” with fixed sights. The New Service Target and Shooting Master came with adjustable sights and were some of the finest target guns of their day. The New Service was different from its immediate, double action predecessors in that the cylinder turned clockwise, which was the opposite of the .38” caliber New Army, Navy and Marine. As stated by James E. Serven in Colt Firearms 1836-1960, Colt chose this method because “in anticlockwise rotation, the pressure of the hand against the cylinder tended to push crane away from the frame” which Colt considered “undesirable”. In theory, it may be true but I have often wondered if this was just another way for Colt to differentiate its products from its main competitor, Smith & Wesson. I’ve owned several Smith & Wesson revolvers over the years and they have all been very accurate if they were fed good quality ammunition, which in my case is mostly handloads. Still, it was a point that Colt chose to single out and I’m sure it helped them sell a lot of revolvers.



    This particular New Service is chambered in .455 Eley and is in remarkably good shape considering its age. The .455 Eley was the standard British service cartridge for much of the 20th century and was used widely throughout Britain and Canada. The British military referred to it originally as the .455 Revolver Mark I (.455 Enfield) and eventually, as various changes were made to the cartridge, as the .455 Revolver Mark II. It was originally a blackpowder cartridge loaded with a 265 grain lead bullet at a muzzle velocity of approximately 700 fps with a muzzle energy of about 289 ft/lbs. Later versions were loaded with Cordite and fired a 265 grain full metal jacket bullet at 600 fps with a muzzle energy of 220 ft/lbs. Frank C. Barnes in Cartridges of the World, 11th Edition lists the later cartridge as the 455 Revolver Mark II/455 Webley Revolver Mark II. While not as powerful as the .45 ACP, it is still a good defensive cartridge. Fiocchi and Hornady currently offer ammunition and it is, at this time (February 2009) readily available from Graf’s. Fiocchi ammunition is loaded with small pistol primers while Hornady loads their cartridges with large pistol primers. RCBS makes a bullet mould that drops bullets that are essentially a duplicate of the original load and is a good choice for shooters who want to cast their own bullets.

    British cartridge nomenclature can be a bit confusing and this seems to be especially true with the .455” pistol and revolver cartridges used by the British military. Technically, as pointed out by Col. Robert D. Whittington III, Ordnance Corps, U.S. Army in Colt .450, .455 and .476 Caliber Revolvers, .455 Eley is not the correct designation but Colt marked the barrels of the New Service as such. According to Whittington, Colt did this because the ammunition Colt acquired for testing New Service revolvers was made by Eley. The guns were very popular among British and Canadian Army officers and thousands were purchased by their respective governments and individual officers. If you would like to learn more about British service pistol and revolver cartridges, a good place to start would be to read British Military Cartridges --- Pistol, Revolver, SMG by P. Labbett. You can find it in the 1971 Gun Digest or in Gun Digest Treasury, New Seventh Edition. Whittington mentions an explanation given by Gordon Bruce in Webley Revolvers as another excellent reference to use when researching British handgun cartridges.

    The Royal North West Mounted Police (forerunners of the RCMP) also bought large numbers of New Service revolvers in .455 Eley. The U.S. military adopted it as the 1909 U.S. Army, 1909 U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Model 1909, all chambered in .45 Colt and as the Model 1917 U.S. in .45 ACP. A large number of law enforcement agencies, the most prominent among them the U.S. Border Patrol, bought them for issue to their personnel. Col. Charles Askins, Jr. was one of the most famous users and proponents of the New Service at that time and (as noted by Bob Murphy in Colt New Service Revolvers) didn’t like Smith & Wesson revolvers at all. Since Askins was the chief firearms instructor for the Border Patrol at the time, it was only natural that he would make the New Service in .38 Special the official issue sidearm for the U.S. Border Patrol. Elmer Keith used a New Service chambered in .38-40 in his early experiments with high pressure handloads, a process which led to a lot of guns being destroyed by him and others, but which also helped to eventually create the .44 Magnum cartridge.

    The most common New Service calibers are .45 Colt, .455 Eley and .45 ACP. The list doesn’t end there though. They were also offered in .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .38-40, .44 Russian, .44 Special, .44-40, .450 Boxer and .476 Eley. There were also a few made with smoothbore barrels, all of which are considered short-barrel shotguns under NFA regulations unless a Curio and Relic exemption has been granted by BATFE. Colt also made a few in the experimental .41 Special cartridge which was Colt’s answer to suggestions made by J. Henry Fitzgerald (Colt’s ballistics expert and traveling salesman) about what would be a good sidearm for police use. The cartridge was designed by Remington and as documented by Bob Murphy, one of the experimental .41 Special New Service revolvers was manufactured on July 19, 1932 for Frederick T. Moore, Colt’s factory superintendent, who was involved in the project. It was felt by some that it would be the ideal gun for law enforcement, an idea espoused in the 1960’s by Smith & Wesson with the .41 Magnum, but the idea never got off the ground. A very rare and desirable Fitzgerald brainchild was the “Fitz Special”, a 2” barrelled, .45 Colt New Service that had the front of the triggerguard and the hammer spur removed to create a discreet carry gun. He often carried a pair of them in his front pants pockets while making sales calls. Very few of them were made although some standard guns were made into “Fitz Specials” after leaving the factory. Col. Whittington has also identified a New Service Target chambered in .22 Hornet and a Shooting Master in .38-200 (.38 S&W) which would make them some of the rarest variations in existence.

    The New Service was an excellent design and was very well regarded by all who used it during its day but in comparison to modern revolvers, it is a bit dated. The double action trigger pull is quite heavy and unless it is a New Service Target or Shooting Master, there will be no easy way to adjust the sights. The adjustable sights of the New Service Target and Shooting Master were a bit crude compared to modern target guns but they were good enough to post some impressive scores in their day. Theoretically, the relatively slow lock-time would be detrimental to accuracy but unless you compare it to a modern, semiautomatic or single-shot target pistol, the New Service will hold its own against most anything comparable made today. The key thing with getting the best out of any firearm is to use good ammunition and practice, practice, practice. An interesting footnote that today’s shooters and collectors may want to ponder is that during its long production run, anyone not legally prohibited from owning a firearm could order a New Service directly from Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Co. and have it shipped home or have arrangements made to pick it up at the factory. Try doing that today! It was also possible to have guns made to special order back in those days so it isn’t impossible to find a non-cataloged New Service that is still factory original. The only way to be sure of any Colt firearm is to obtain a factory letter, although even that isn’t foolproof since some of the more advanced collectors of Colts have found errors or gaps in the factory records. This makes the collecting of Colt firearms particularly attractive to collectors but it also leaves the field ripe for the unscrupulous so please keep in mind the old admonition of “caveat emptor”.

    Like all old guns, there is a finite supply available to the shooter or collector so if you are interested in owning a New Service, I would suggest that you buy the best one you can afford as soon as you can. The finest examples will be out of reach of all but the wealthy but is is still possible to buy a good one for a fairly reasonable amount. I personally wouldn’t want one that is pristine since I like to shoot my guns and doing that with a rare, unfired original will reduce its value. It also seems likely that there will be an increasing amount of restrictive regulations on the ownership of firearms so like most of the good things in life, if you wait too long the opportunity will pass you by. While it may be possible that Colt will bring back some sort of large frame, double action revolver, it is unlikely it will look anything like the New Service. The guns were made in an era when skilled craftsmanship was cheap and readily available and the guns required what today would be considered an inordinate amount of hand fitting. Colt made the best product they could for the day with the best methods available but the economics of today’s market would never allow anything but an expensive, custom, handmade firearm to be made that way. As I said earlier, if you want a New Service, get it now rather than later. I would also suggest you take proactive steps to safeguard your gun rights. Join the NRA and give to organizations like The Firearms Coalition. Better to stand up now and let your voice be heard than to reminisce in old age about the guns you had or should have had. -- John Swikart

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