Classic Gun Test

Colt New Service Target in .45 Colt


by William Bell

Photography by William Bell

December 26th, 2006




The moon was bright in the gunmetal colored sky of the Arizona desert country.  It was a “Smugglers Moon” and the small group of prohibition agents and customs mounted inspectors waited in the arroyo about 50 yards north of the border fence, about a mile west of Nogales.  This is where their “snitch” said the load of illegal “hooch” would be coming through.  Among the contingent of federal officers was a crusty old Customs man known as LaVista Bill.  Bill scanned the fence and saw some movement by a big mesquite bush.  The lookout for the “rumrunners” edged up to the fence slowly, looking all around.  In his right hand was a big pistola and in his left a pair of wire cutters.  He deftly clipped the five-strand barbed wire fence separating the U.S. from Mexico and stepped through the gap.  He moved forward stealthily about 10 yards than turned and gave a low whistle.

More figures appeared out of the gloom and a soft “glug, glug” noise could be heard as the liquor sloshed about inside the 4-1/2 gallon jerry cans the cargadores carried in their hands.  In the rear of the line of 10 smugglers was the head contrabandista, he carried in his hands what looked like a rifle or scattergun.  Slowly the whole group came through the downed fence onto United States soil.  The federal officers in the arroyo waited silently, guns held tight in their hands.

LaVista Bill carried a Winchester Model 1907 rifle in .351 Winchester S.L. with a special 10-round box magazine.  At his side was a big Colt New Service Target Model revolver in .45 Colt.  The big six-gun rode in a high-ride holster designed by a prohibition agent over in El Paso name of Tom Three Persons.  Bill knew when the smugglers came to within 10 yards of their position they would have to identify themselves and the shooting was likely to start.  He also knew that a large truck waited up on the border road for this load of booze and that one of the gringo smugglers had a “Tommy Gun”.  They’d have to watch their backs too if the contrabandistas decided to fight.

Now was the time.  İ Parase cabrones, no se moueve; somos officiales!  Despite the order to stop and not to move, the lookout immediately raised his gun and fired at the direction of the voice.  The cargadores, some of whom had pistolas stuffed in their waistbands, dropped their load of hooch and a few ran south as others drew their guns and fired blindly towards the officers. 

With their targets silhouetted in the bright moonlight, the prohibition agents and customs officers picked their targets and opened up a fusillade from the protection of the arroyo.  Contrabandistas pitched to the desert sand.  LaVista Bill intended to stop the hombre bringing up the rear.  He snapped off two fast shots and sent one smuggler sprawling, but when he took a bead on the outlaw in the rear and pressed the trigger, nada!  “Dern, this automatic” he muttered, “I shoulda kept my old 95 Winchester lever-action!”  As quickly, as the thought went across his mind, his right hand clawed for the big Colt New Service and freed it from the leather.

The contrabandista in the rear was keeping up a hot fire with what must have been a Winchester lever-gun.  Bill cocked the hammer of the Colt and let the post front sight settle on his target and started his squeeze on the trigger, just like at the shooting range.  Boom!  The smuggler dropped his rifle and crumpled to the ground.  “Adios pendejo”, LaVista Bill growled as the remaining smugglers ran back into Mexico, leaving their downed compadres for the officers.  In the distance, a motor rumbled to life and the sound of tires on gravel faded off into the distance.

The foregoing little war story was typical of the action U.S. authorities working the Border saw during the years of Prohibition in the 1920’s and 30’s.  Over in El Paso it wasn’t unusual for officers to become engaged in a gun battle an average of once every 17 days!  When you got in a gunfight in those days, there was no call for backup on your portable radio and a SWAT team racing to assist you, it was you and the bad guys and you shot it out.  For that reason officers wanted a reliable handgun that fired a big bullet.  The Colt New Service was just such a gun.

A few weeks ago, I walked into Russ Elmore’s gun shop in Greenwood, Indiana, and Russ said, “Hey Bill, hang a right and look into that first display case”.  Knowing Russ I immediately complied and there under the lights of the glass cabinet was the nicest Colt New Service Target Model I’d ever seen.  Even better, it chambered my favorite, the .45 Colt.  Russ conceded that the big Colt had been refinished, but the job had been done so well that it looked like a factory restoration.  He removed it from the case and handed it to me.  Nirvana.  I pulled back on the cylinder release latch, swung out the cylinder and looked down the heavy, slightly tapered, 5-1/2” barrel.  The bore was perfect.  So too were the chambers in the cylinder.  I “clicked” the cylinder back into place.  The Patridge front sight was set into a housing not much wider than the 0.12” blade.  The sight could be moved up or down by the use of two screws in the right side and front of the sight base.  The rear sight was mounted in a dovetail and was a rather low-riding square-notch blade, which could be moved laterally for windage by loosening a set screw on the upper surface of the sight and then turning a screw on the right side of the frame to the left or right.  Five graduation marks were cut into the top strap to help in sight alignment and the top strap and rear sight were sand blasted to a matte finish.

The massive hammer was polished bright on the sides and finished so nicely that the rivet holding the firing pin in place was barely visible.  The hammer spur was nicely checkered.  I cocked the hammer slowly and heard the “click” as the bolt snapped up into place.  The blued trigger was smooth-faced and the single-action pull was an incredible 3 pounds.  The double-action pull was long and butter smooth, having a weight of not more than 8-9 pounds.  Like all Colts of that era, the trigger return had just a slight hesitation before returning the trigger to its rest position.  This revolver couldn’t have seen much use, the walnut grips were fully checkered and there was no visible wear or damage.  The silver “Rampant Colt” medallions shone brightly.  The front and back straps of the grip frame were checkered, making for a very secure grip.  A lanyard ring was affixed to the revolver butt.  I liked the heft of the big revolver and did not feel its 40-ounce weight to be excessive.

The New Service was introduced by Colt in 1898 and was their first large-frame revolver.  Its somewhat blocky appearance was streamlined and enhanced in 1905 and that design remained mostly unchanged until production ceased in 1944.  All total, some 356,000 were produced in a myriad of variations.  During the years in was manufactured, the New Service was chambered for everything from the .38 Colt Short and Long cartridges, all the way up to the .476 Eley.  The most popular calibers included .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .44 Special, .44-40, .45 ACP and .45 Colt.  Barrel lengths ranged from 2” to 7-1/2”, with fixed or adjustable sights, and round or square-butt configurations.  Of course back then you could special order almost anything, from exotic barrel lengths, to ivory and pearl grips or hand engraving.  Even the names given some of the guns were confusing.  I have a reproduction of a Colt 1936 catalog that shows two almost identical New Service models with adjustable sights and one has stamped on the barrel Shooting Master and the other says New Service Target.  The 1925-era revolver I got from Russ Elmore’s gun shop had been stamped simply New Service .45 Colt.  I noted the most distinguishing difference between this revolver and the ones from 1936 pictured in the catalog, was the cylinder release latch on the older 1925 gun was the L-shaped variety that is a sure thumb gouger.

The U.S. Military adopted the New Service in 1909 chambered for the .45 Colt cartridges.  It replaced the Model 1892 Colt in .38 Long, which had earned a bad reputation for stopping power during the Philippine Insurrection and in later years fighting Moro tribesmen and “Juramentados” on Mindanao.  The Model 1909 was replaced in 1911 by the Colt Government Model semi-automatic in .45 ACP; however, the New Service chambered to fire the .45 ACP load was back in 1917 to help arm American Expeditionary Forces shipping off to France to fight with the Allies in WWI.  The big New Service was also a favorite with law enforcement.  Both the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the New York State Police carried the New Service for many years chambered for .45 Colt.  Surplus 1917 Models in .45 ACP were among the first issue revolvers of the U.S. Border Patrol, which was organized in 1924.  A notorious young Border Patrol Inspector named Charles Askins hired on in 1930 and was a great fancier of the New Service.  He carried adjustable sighted models in .45 Colt and .44-40 while on patrol in the New Mexico desert and had a 2” barrel .45 with all the cut-back trigger guard and other features of a “Fitz Special” that he used in plainclothes assignments.  PI Askins later became the Border Patrol firearms instructor and talked the USBP into adopting the New Service in .38 Special as standard issue.  This heavy-duty sidearm was so rugged that its service life extended from the mid-1930’s all the way up in the 1950’s.

The large framed New Service was one of Colt’s first revolvers chambered for the hot .357 S&W Magnum, that was introduced in 1935.  In the New Service Target configuration it was very popular with target shooters and hunters.  The Target and Shooting Master versions had a large following at Camp Perry, especially in .38 Special and .44 Special calibers.  In those days hand-fitting of revolver actions was the rule and skilled craftsman at the Colt factory made sure each and every revolver had a crisp single-action pull and a silky double-action that is almost impossible to duplicate today outside of a custom shop.

Fortunately Russ didn’t have any problem with me putting some rounds through the New Service, so I took it along with me to a Cowboy Action Shooting (CAS) Match to do a little target work and plinking.  As I was already shooting my “Peacemakers” in .45 Colt, I had plenty of ammo on hand.  To shoot the New Service Target I decided to use Winchester Cowboy loads in their distinctive blue box.  This load with its 250 gr. bullet has been a favorite of mine and is very accurate in all the firearms I used it in.  It was no different with the New Service.

I set up a box to use as a target stand and attached some self-adhesive Birchwood Casey Shoot-N-C oval shaped targets to the front of the box.  One of the CAS stages had a big oak barrel on the firing line that I used for a bench and I brought along my sandbag rest.  From a range of 25 yards, shooting single-action, I had no difficulty keeping my shots in the oval bulls-eyes.  As you can see in the photo, one 5-shot group measured just a little more than an inch and the rest ran 2-3 inches.  No doubt the gun was clearly capable of out-shooting the shooter, who was already a bit tired from a full day of shooting the Cowboy way.

Next I did a little plinking at some of the steel CAS targets on the stage and as I shoot “Duelist” (one-handed) anyway, that’s the way I shot the big Colt.  With its smooth DA trigger pull, I had no trouble clanging and knocking over the steel targets at anywhere from 5 to 25 yards.  The gun was easy to control in rapid fire due to the checkering on the grip panels and the grip frame.  It did note that after about 25 rounds, my hand was starting to feel the effects of the sharp diamonds pushing back into my palm when I touched off one of those thumb-sized .45’s.  I believe some nice ivory eagle or steer-head grips would be my choice for this revolver and possibly a grip adapter, if they still make ‘em for the old New Service.

Sadly, Colt is mostly out of the DA revolver business.  They came out in the early 90’s with the large frame Anaconda, that chambered big rounds like the .45 Colt and .44 Magnum, but it, like most of the other Colt six-guns, has faded into history.  I sure would like to see Colt make a comeback in the civilian market.  As Smith & Wesson is now doing with their Heritage Series, bringing back look-alike revolvers, made on modern frames, but made to look like the .45 Hand Ejector or Model 1917; wouldn’t it be grand to see Colt come out with a modern look-alike of the New Service, Officer’s Model Target, Police Positive, and others?

Well, now it’s decision time.  Do I take the New Service back to Russ’ shop or do I rummage through my gun safe for some traders, break the piggy bank, search under the couch cushions for loose change…hey Honey, you got a few extra bucks?!

William Bell

Classic Colt New Service Target Specifications

Caliber:                     .45 Colt (Also available in other calibers such as .357 Magnum, .38-40, .44 Special, .44-40, and .45 ACP).

Capacity:                  Six cartridges.

Barrel Length:         5-1/2” (6” and 7-1/2” and others on special order)

Overall Length:       10-3/4” with 5-1/2” barrel.

Weight:                      40 ounces with 5-1/2” barrel.

Sights:                      Windage adjustable rear blade and elevation adjustable front, Patridge or bead available.

Grips:                        Checkered walnut with Colt medallions, front and backstraps of grip frame also checkered.

Finish:                       Blue, top strap and rear sight matte finished to reduce glare.

Features:                  Large .45 frame, extra smooth double action, checkered hammer spur and smooth trigger (checkered trigger was also available).


Product Chart

Birchwood Casey (Targets)

7900 Fuller Road   

Eden Prairie, MN  55344     


El Paso Saddlery Company (Holsters)

2075 East Tandell

P.O. Box 27194

El Paso, TX  79901


Winchester Ammunition (.45 Colt)

427 N. Shamrock St.

East Alton, IL  62024-1197



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Click pictures for a larger version.


LaVista Bill, mounted Customs inspector and terror of Southwest Border contrabandistas, takes a bead on an armed “Rumrunner” with his trusty Colt New Service Target model in .45 Colt.



The Colt New Service was introduced in 1898 and was Colt’s largest DA revolver until production ceased in 1944.  It was a favorite of target shooters and lawmen and could be had in calibers ranging from .38 Long to .476 Eley.



In the photo is Patrol Inspector Charlie Askins, who was the first Border Patrol firearms instructor in the mid-1930’s.  He favored the New Service and carried custom adjustable sighted models in both .44-40 and .45 Colt.



The adjustable rear sight on the Target model was low profile and it and the top strap were sandblasted to reduce glare.  The sight could be adjusted for windage only and graduation marks were cut into the top strap to help in lining up the sight properly.



Shown in a leather rig from El Paso Saddlery, the New Service was a favorite of the U.S. Border Patrol and Customs officers.  On the holster are replicas of the 1st USBP badge and an early Customs Mounted Inspector badge.



Test shooting was done from the bench on a sandbag at 25 yards.  The author used Winchester Cowboy loads to try out the New Service Target and they proved to be very accurate and pleasant to shoot.



Here you can see the 5-shot groups fired from the bench, single-action.  The group on the lower left measured just over an inch and the rest ran 2-3 inches; the gun was definitely more capable than the shooter!