.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.

Classic.

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.

Specifications:

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)

RATINGS
(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.

OVERALL RATING *  *  *
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.

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About Don Gammill Jr.

Don Gammill, Jr. is a freelance writer, educator and part-time musician living in the metropolitan Atlanta area. He acquired his interest in firearms from his family, with his WWII combat veteran grandfather being the most instrumental in fostering both a keen interest in, as well as a healthy respect for, guns and how they are situated in society. Although he is a proud gun owner and a practitioner of legal concealed carry, he doesn’t consider himself a “gun person” per se; with a greater interest involves how people relate to guns – especially people who see guns as foreign, often scary/over-politicized icons of danger.

18 Responses to .38 Special Comparison: 2nd Place – Colt Cobra

  1. avatarLynn Munson says:

    Well researched and well written. I own one of the earlier Cobra revolvers, mfg. in 1972 per the RL Wilson Colt date booklet. I agree that a steady diet of +p .38 would be too much for this nice revolver, in fact I doubt I’d ever shoot any “hotter” rounds thru it. I recall hearing one of the “small” ammunition manufacturers has a non +P load, that is still a very effective defense round. I could handload some 110 or 125 gr. bullets, however Massad Ayoob and others recommend strongly against using handloads in a carry gun, as juries are not fond of home-brewed “killer” loads. If you know who the name of the manufacturer who loads effective, non-+P .38 Special, and/or have any experience with these cartridges, please reply and share their name and phone number, along with your thoughts on their effectiveness, I would really appreciate it.

    Thanks, Lynn

  2. avatarTom says:

    I’ve owned a Cobra for nearly forty years. For me, I would have no difficulty choosing it over either the S&W or the Taurus. Frankly, given the long history of Taurus’ horrid quality control, any test that includes a suggestion to buy Taurus renders such an evaluation extremely suspect. I have had Taurus revolvers that, even after 4 tries by Taurus, still couldn’t be “fixed” in order to maintain reliability beyond 100 rnds. As far as accuracy issues and the Cobra, that is simply a matter of practice; nothing more. My Cobra continues to shoot out the middles of targets, with standard 158gr LRN cartridges, and I wouldn’t consider carrying less than 6 rounds.

  3. avatarOld Cop says:

    My Cobra was purchased new in 1968 and is the most accurate snubbie I’ve ever owned. The nickle Cobra featured here is a newer version, probably early to mid 70′s. It had the underlug barrel and the front sight was much harder to see, at least in my experience. I’m guessing that is what contributed to the accuracy difficulties mentioned. Anyone looking for a quality snubbie could not go wrong with a used Cobra in good condition.

  4. avatarMatt says:

    I always wanted to get a New Service/1917 .45 chopped and worked into a full house Fitz Special, but am thinking I could get it affordably and more practical use out of a Cobra .38, (old, unprotected ejector rod). Handled one a few years back when buying a Winchester 1910 first year prod .401 WSL, man it was light as a feather. About the same as a LCR, and holding 6 rounds.

  5. avatarMatt says:

    BTW the only 2 DA revolvers I’ve owned were a 8″ Anaconda and a 4″ blue Python, so have gotten myself used to and prefer that cylinder release.
    I like the Ruger Six series and Centennials though too

  6. The Cobra was the alloy (aluminum) frame version of the Colt Detective Special. The Dick Special was essentially a cut down (barrel shortened) Colt Police Positive. The Colt revolvers were somewhat more popular with police from the ’20s into the ’50s because they were less expensive.

    The central problem with all the Colt double action revolvers was the design of the internal lockwork. The geometry of how the parts move against each other is complex and marvelous. The result is two fold, the double action trigger pull is long and uneven. It starts out hard, then eases off, then bumps a couple times, stiffens up again and then lets the hammer loose in a sort of ‘did it break?’ feeling. The second result is the parts wear unevenly and the cylinder timing goes out with little provocation.

    Single action, they’re not so bad. But I always get a giggle reading about the ‘buttery smooth’ action of a Colt DA revolver. For a smooth DA function, try a Smith & Wesson revolver with a pinned barrel. The trigger pull may be heavy or light, but it will be uniform from beginning to end; and that’s what makes for a fast and accurate double-action firing stroke. (I guess the current S&W revolvers are fair – but they’re still cheap copies of S&W revolvers.)

    In terms of frame, cylinder and barrel strength, the Colts are quite robust. But they go out of time like a cheap watch.

    I have a 1948 (according to the serial number) Detective Special. The timing is so bad I don’t even try to shoot it anymore. I have shot it; the timing so bad it wouldn’t reliably fire – firing pin did not hit primer squarely – and when it did fire, the lead spitting was breathtaking. To be fair, that revolver was carried and shot some prior to me getting it. I keep it as an exemplar of its type in my ‘cop gun’ collection.

    If one has a Colt revolver and it is in time, don’t shoot it much and don’t dry fire it much, either.

    Sorry to be a wet blanket and all, but reality cannot be ignored.

  7. avatarJack says:

    I owned a Cobra from 1975, I purchased it from a fellow officer. After about 500 factory loads the timing went out. I sent it to Colt and it’s been perfect ever since. After that I carried it plain clothes, I still use it for home defense. I only shoot it for proficiency and use standard .38 factory loads. It has soldiered on all these decades without a hiccup after it came back from Colt. Suggestion, if you buy one find out how many and what kind of loads went through it if you can.

  8. avatarArt says:

    Greetings,
    I just purchased a Cobra .38, in nickel. According to the Colt serial query, it was made in late 1967. It came with the box and packing paper. I paid $300.00 for it. It is in superb condition, with minor wear marks on the front sight and the top of the grips, which I figure came from bolstering. The exposed extractor has a slightly different nickel finish, which makes m wonder if it might have been replaced, somewhere along the way.

    Due to licensing restrictions, timeframewise, I will not actually take possession of it until later this month. However, when I do receive it, is there anything I should look out for, or do, before taking it out to the range? I am fairly new to revolvers, having spent the majority of my shooting time with Sigs, in IDPA. I do have (2) Smith’s, including an early K38 Masterpiece Target, and a current 438, which I carry, but this is my first foray into the Colt world.

    This new, to me, revolver is very pretty, and I want to make sure I treat it right. My Sigs, all of which I bought used, were each sent back to The Sig Custom Shop, in Exeter, NH, to be checked out, re-sprung, and tuned, before I shot any of them. Does Colt have similar services, and is that something which I should do?

    Any advice you can give me would be much appreciated,

    Thank you.

    • avatarOld Cop says:

      Art: You should be able to shoot and carry your Colt as is unless you have some sort of problem at the range. My guess is that it will run fine. My 1968 Cobra was purchased as my first off-duty gun and still runs fine, I qualify w/it annually for my LEOSA certification (I’ve qualified with this gun annually for my 30 year LEO career too). In addition I own a slightly newer (1984) Det. Spl. that also runs great. Enjoy your Colt.

  9. avatarJasonT says:

    Great article. I love the Colt’s and own and carry an Agent c. 1982. I never seem them mentioned or advertised. It is a Parkerized finish with Pachmayer grips. Good shooter though I am skittish about feeding it +P ammo at the range. Any comments? Thanks.

    • avatarOld Cop says:

      Jason: I carry the +P FBI load in both my Det. Spl. & Cobra but do not shoot many through them for fear of stretching the frame and fouling up the timing. My thinking is: If I have to use my gun in a self defense situation it’s going into police evidence, probably for a long time. If the weapon does its job that’s all I care about.

  10. avatarTed says:

    I too have had a Cobra for 45 yrs. and enjoyed it since the day I got it. It was a gift from my grand dad on my 11th birthday. Now before people get the wrong idea my dad keep it put up till I was 15 or sixteen but we would go plunking cans quite often while I was young. I learn to shoot it early aged so accuracy and hitting the target has never been a big issue for me. It is still today the first one I’ll grab to throw in my pocket. Light and like the man said reliable, pull the trigger it go bang. How many of you remember the Melvin T grips (metal), still have those on it. :>)

  11. avatarDaren says:

    Interesting thread. I’ve been very concerned about +P in my 1955 (2nd generation, I think) Cobra. Firstly, because the FBI load could stretch the alloy frame, and secondly, because the recoil could cause me to throw rounds. My solution is this: the first three rounds are Federal 110 grain Hydra-Shok, and the last three are Remington 158 grain LHP +P. I figure I can hopefully place the first three shots well. If I can’t, I can dump the FBI load into an attacker at probably closer range. It’s my bet that the Cobra can handle that. I would be very grateful to hear any opinions of this strategy.

    • avatarOld Cop says:

      Daren: Your Cobra should handle +P in a self defense situation but your solution makes sense to me (see my earlier post). My 1968 Cobra is carried w/the FBI +P load and if used to save my life, will go into police evidence for a long time. If it did its job that’s all I care about.

  12. avatarKev says:

    I have often wondered how a gun like this such as the one used by Jack Ruby to kill LHO when fired at such a close range to the the target the bullet did not pass through his body and injure the officer behind him. would such a gun not have this power?

  13. avatarMountieFan16 says:

    I own 2 Colt Cobras, one with underlug and the other without. The article was a pretty good review of the Cobra. However, I have to take exception with accuracy. I admit that the Cobra’s sights are not made for target shooting. However, from a rest, and I can hold my aim both of my Cobras shoot point of aim. Do yourself a favor and read Chuck Hawk’s review of the Cobra. He calls it the Rolls-Royce of snub barreled revolvers.

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