Colt Model 1894
By Robert Dunn
GCA Member, AGI Professional Course Graduate
and Video Producer
The Colt Model 1894 revolver is an important piece of history in the evolution of the modern handgun. This revolver is sometimes called the D.A. 38 for a good reason, as it is a double action revolver and is chambered for the .38 Long Colt cartridge.There are similar models of this handgun made by Colt: the Model 1889, 1892, 1895, 1896 and later the Model 1901 and 1903. The U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army primarily used these models, though there were civilian models as well.
This type of double action revolver represents a significant step in the evolution of the revolver, as it was Colt’s first swing out cylinder revolver. It was both double and single action, it utilized the spring-loaded ejector rod, and the later models could fire the new (at the time) smokeless powder cartridges. All of these features appealed to the armed forces. The earlier D.A. 38 guns, such as the 1894, were designed to fire black powder cartridges only. This leads me to mention that many unlucky folks have made the mistake of firing smokeless powder rounds in the earlier models and have ended up with broken parts and worse.
I must also caution you that many of these revolvers will perfectly chamber .38 Special and even .357 Magnum cartridges, as the chambers in the cylinder are bored straight through. Unless you want to remodel your face, these calibers are not to be kept anywhere near a D.A. 38 and should never be fired in one of these guns.
When I purchased this firearm, I asked the salesman if he was sure that the tag on the gun was correct, as it said that it was chambered for .38 Special. I told him that I was sure that these revolvers fired the .38 Long Colt. He promptly swaggered over to the ammunition counter and easily poked a .38 Special round into the cylinder and said, “See? .38 Special!” I looked at him a little closer to see if he had a glass eye or had any visible scars or burn marks on his face and then I figured that, along with being lethally ignorant, he was just lucky.
There are two sets of notches on the cylinder of the Model 1894. The notches closer to the muzzle end of the gun are for the bolt (or cylinder stop), which prevents the cylinder from moving when it is holstered or “at rest”, just like on a modern day cylinder. The other set of notches were added at the request of the U.S. Army. These notches are for the locking lever, which prevents the cylinder from moving when the gun is cocked and ready to fire. The Model 1889 (without the locking lever notches) had the bad habit of the cylinder rotating when the gun was cocked and ready to fire, which caused the chambers of the cylinder to be misaligned with the barrel . . . yes, that was a bad thing! Another safety improvement that was incorporated into the locking system of the Model 1894 prevented the revolver from firing until the cylinder was completely closed in the frame. All of the early D.A. 38 revolver’s cylinders rotate counterclockwise (like all quality guns such as Smith & Wessons – Ed.)
and this differs from the modern Colt revolver designs which rotate clockwise. The D.A. 38 and its .38 Long Colt cartridge get a bad rap in many history books for being underpowered. If we look back in time, we note that these Colt revolvers were used in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and in the Philippine- American War from 1899-1913. These revolvers were carried as a sidearm by the troops that fought the fierce and highly motivated Moro fighters in the Philippines. The .38
Long Colt’s bullet tended to go straight through the body and would not necessarily stop the attacker unless one inflicted a headshot or a shot to an immediately incapacitating area of the body, such as the spine. This must have been very disconcerting, as the Moros would lay in wait in large numbers before charging their enemy. Thus many complaints and letters were issued to the Ordinance Department about the “ineffective” revolver and its cartridge.
These events led to the temporary re-issue of the SAA Colts with their .45LC cartridge, and eventually to the development of my favorite pistol round, the .45 ACP, which has plenty of stopping power. I personally didn’t buy this revolver to stop Moro fighters or drug crazed lunatics in the middle of the night, so I’m not worried about its past reputation with the military. I find this firearm interesting because it came after the Colt Peacemaker and was the basis for all of the later models of Colt revolvers, like the Police Positive, the Python and the Detective Special, to name just a few.