.38 Special Comparison: 2nd Place – Colt Cobra

From the economical choice (Taurus Model 85) to the upscale player. Part II of our .38 Special comparison focuses on a revolver known far and wide for its tough looks, buttery action, premium price and a name that’s the envy of malt liquor companies everywhere: The Colt Cobra .38 Special.

Produced from 1950 until 1981, Colt built the Cobra on their famous “D” frame, a larger platform than the familiar “J” frame used by Smith & Wesson’s compact revolvers (like this comparison’s Model 36). Not only does this make the Colt a more substantial gun than the S&W, it also provides for a larger cylinder. Hence the fact that the Cobra the lone six-shooter in our test.

Despite larger dimensions than its rival S&W, the Cobra packs another surprise: it’s 25 percent lighter than either of the other two revolvers in this test. Credit an ahead-of-its time aluminum alloy frame. This particular gun comes courtesy of my dear, sweet grandmother, who places her complete faith in it and its six jacketed hollow points for her personal protection.

And my, isn’t granny’s gun a looker? Although most Colt Cobras came from the factory blued, this particular one wears a bright-but-not-too-bright nickel finish, perfectly complimenting the medium-toned walnut grips. The combination is similar to (the inspiration for?) our handsome third-place Taurus Model 85. But the Colt’s non-checkered, pull-rather-than-push cylinder release catch and longer ejector rod make it look even better.


Grandmother always says beauty is but skin deep but this beauty was a joy to place against my skin. The Colt also fits well into my pocket and on my waist, via the use of various carry rigs. From a concealability point of view, the Cobra’s relatively light weight make it a bona fide packing pleasure even if – like all revolvers – the gun makes you wish its cylinder was narrower.

There’s something else about the Colt I wish was narrower, too, and it’s the reason that gram’s gun gave up the gold: the distance between the bullet holes on the target. They were by far the widest in this comparison test.

I’ve fired this gun throughout my life. For whatever reason, I’m typically more accurate with any other handgun than with this little Cobra. I’ve tried lower-pressure loads (even though recoil isn’t much of a problem in spite of the gun’s 15-ounce weight), various brands of ammo and different grips. All to no avail. The sides of barns have nothing to fear.

Adding to this disappointment: the Cobra is hands-down the most satisfying of the three guns to shoot. The double-action trigger pull is linear and predictable, muzzle flip is minimal and well-controlled, the sight picture is every bit as good as the others, and the overall ergonomic experience is truly a delight. But the groups on the target tell us that fun and results don’t always coincide. Bummer.

The Cobra has a terrific reputation. Over the years, good-condition used examples command high prices. The typical Cobra seems to change hands for upwards of $400 these days; some can go even higher. You don’t usually hear about .38 Specials being “investment-grade” guns, but a certain Mr. Ruby purchased his Colt Cobra for $62.50 in 1960. Two years ago someone bid $700,000 for the Kennedy-killer killer at an auction. It’s enough to make my grandmother swallow her snuff. (Note: she doesn’t really dip.)

Is Colt’s famous Cobra the perfect revolver? Nope. However, it is a very good revolver. Despite this particular gun’s accuracy issues, it still shoots well enough to stop approaching threats at typical self-defense distances within or around your home. But there is a better choice. Part III to follow.


Model:  Colt Cobra (2nd Issue)

Action type:  Double action/single action revolver

Caliber:  .38 S&W Special

Capacity: 6 rounds

Barrel length: 2.0″

Overall length: 6.75″

Weight: 15 oz. (unloaded)

Stock: Checkered walnut

Sights: Fixed; front ramp, rear notch

Finish: Nickel-plated

Current Value: $400 & up (depending on condition)

(Out of five stars)

Style *  *  *  *  *
Classic toughness in a small package; it’s the perennial prize winner in snub-nosed revolver beauty contests.

Ergonomics (carry)  *  *  *
Six rounds of .38 Special in a 15 oz. revolver carries very well. Still, a smaller overall size (and thinner cylinder) would make it better.

Ergonomics (firing)  *  *  *
One of the most pleasing revolver actions every bestowed upon a snubbie lives here.  Unfortunately, this example’s poor accuracy undermined its fantastic double-action trigger pull.

Reliability *  *  *  *  *
Even with +P ammo and the early aluminum frame, this piece is dead reliable.  Pull the trigger and it goes bang, every time, round after round, year after year.

Customize This *  *
Other than various grip options (some with built-in lasers), there’s not much available. Jack Ruby’s gun did have a nifty bolt-on hammer shroud, though.

This Colt Cobra is a five-star gun with two-star accuracy. But for the purpose of defending yourself from a sudden in-home threat, it’s silky trigger, well-managed recoil and six-round capacity make it a slightly better choice than the Taurus Model 85.