By John Butler
Everybody has that one gun that got away. The one that you pass up at the time, thinking that you’ll get it later, and that heck, they’ve been making them forever. They’ll still be around later when you want one. Except, of course, they aren’t. For me, that gun was a six-inch barreled Colt Python .357 Magnum revolver in high polish stainless steel. I had some good reasons for not buying it . . .
I was in the US Army at the time, stationed at Ft. Carson, Colorado. The Python was at the Wal-Mart on the corner of Pike’s Peak and Academy Blvd. The year was 1989, and I was a PFC assigned to a motor transport company. Retailers like Wal-Mart, Kmart, Sears and JC Penny still carried handguns in the days before the Brady Bill.
The ticket for it was $300 and some change, before taxes. It was within my means on a private’s salary, since Uncle Sam provided my room and board, but owning a personal firearm was a regular pain in the butt for an enlisted soldier living in the barracks. Your gun had to be registered with the company and secured in the armory. It had to be checked out and turned back in like any other weapon, and personal concealed carry has been strictly forbidden on stateside military bases since the Nixon administration.
So after thinking about it, I decided against getting the gun. By the time I got into firearms in a serious way, the Python had been discontinued by Colt and prices had soared to more than $1500 for a decent example in 2006 and have only gone up since then with a near mint Python going for north of four grand as of early 2015.
The Python was created by adding a full under lug vent rib barrel and precision adjustable sights to Colt’s venerable “I” frame in 1955, the same frame used for the .38 Special Official Police and the .357 Magnum Trooper. The Python was precision made and hand fitted and was essentially a mass produced custom gun. It was intended as a precision target revolver, but law enforcement and the public at large fell in love with the Big Snake.
There were blued models, .38 Special only Target Models with eight-inch barrels, high polish nickel models and the one I lusted after, a high polish stainless steel model. Colt produced the Python as a regular production item until 2000,and as a custom shop special order item until 2003.
And there will never be another Python. Oh, if Colt’s management were to pull their collective heads out of their collective fourth points of contact and realize the the company can’t survive on dwindling military contracts and civilian sales of their existing lineup, there might be a revolver with “Python” on the barrel. But it won’t be a real Python. And here’s why.
Colt pretty much bet their existence on selling the AR platform to the military. This isn’t a new strategy for the company that Sam built. Samuel Colt would pursue government contracts above all else, even if it meant passing up more lucrative civil sales. By the time of his death at the age of 47 in 1862, Colt was in a desperate state of affairs. Sam had spent lavishly wining and dining potential military clients in the US and abroad, and had let several crucial patents expire. Colt’s Manufacturing pulled themselves out of financial difficulty by selling guns to the US government during the Civil War.
While Colt, as a company, thrived on government contracts for the better part of the following century, there were some stumbles along the way, such as when the .38 Long Colt chambered New Army was deemed insufficient against Moro Juramentados and the .45 Colt Single Action Army was pressed back into service, and when when they lost a new service handgun contract to rival Smith and Wesson against the now famous .38 Special M&P K Frame revolver.
For the most part, though, Colt thrived. They sold the US Government John Browning’s legendary M1911 during WWI and supplemented it with the .45acp chambered 1917 New Service revolver. They Adapted the .41 Colt I frame to .38 Special and it supplemented the S&W M&P in government and military service, and when WWII came around, Colt again sold the improved M1911A1 as well as the .38 Special I frame to the military. In the 1960s, Colt got the contract to build ArmaLite’s AR-15 in its service configuration, the M-16. Colt hummed right along, and like so many other US industries, got complacent as the 1970s rolled around.
The 1980s were disastrous for Colt. First, Colt lost the contract for a new military side arm to Beretta in 1984, then in 1988, they lost the contract for the new upgraded M-16 to FN. Colt looked around and realized that its stalwarts in civil law enforcement, the 1911, the .38 Special Official Police, and .357 Magnum Trooper, were being replaced by Gaston Glock’s polymer wonder in police departments around the country. Colt realized without military contracts, it needed to recapture the civil market. They introduced the Colt 2000, a polymer framed 15 round wonder nine in 1990, which flopped, and got around to finally introducing a big frame .44 Magnum revolver, the “AA” framed Colt Anaconda, thirty five years after rival Smith and Wesson had introduced the Model 29.
Colt continued to flounder and was finally snatched up by New York financier Donald Zilkha in 1994 for the low price of 27 million dollars. Zilkha, who had never owned a gun in his life, appointed Ron Stewart as CEO. In 1998, Stewart announced that Colt was working on new “Smart Gun” technology and also opined that hand guns should have to be registered at the federal level. Sales tanked as gun owners and buyers began avoiding Colt like the plague.
Now, to be fair, Colt wasn’t alone in this. Manufacturers were running scared in the wake of the Brady Bill and the 1994 assault weapons Ban. They thought that a UK style disarmament was on the horizon and, having learned nothing from the antics of Neville Chamberlain on the eve of WWII, went into full appeasement mode. There are still people who refuse to buy a Ruger because of Bill Ruger’s “No honest man needs more than ten rounds,” statement, even though Sturm, Ruger & Co. will now happily sell you an AR-15 variant with a standard capacity thirty round magazine.
Smith and Wesson caught hell from gun buyers as well when they cut a deal with the Clinton administration in 2000 that resulted in S&W being driven to bankruptcy and, ironically, being bought up by Saf-T-Hammer Corporation, which promptly began slapping the much maligned Hillary Hole on all their revolvers.
So how does this affect the storied and much-loved Python? The Big Snake remained in production through it all, and was sought after and prized. But in 1999, Zilkha had to save his failing company, so he fired Stewart and hired former general William Keys. Like a lot of the brass at the top of the US military, Keys had a decided dislike of armed civilians, and promptly announced that Colt would discontinue regular production of all but a few civilian models to concentrate on military and Law Enforcement sales. (Yes, I know law enforcement officers are civilians, but I don’t think Keys saw it that way.) The Python, Anaconda and Peacemaker were dropped as regular production items in 2000, but were offered as special order items from Colt’s Custom shop.
And in the wake of 9/11, Keys’ strategy worked. He used his contacts at the Pentagon to get Colt new service rifle contracts for the M4 carbine and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and used them to stomp out a trend in Iraq to equip squad-designated marksmen with reconditioned M14 rifles, and instead got the Pentagon to equip the SDMs with an “accuriuzed” M-16A4. The logic being that the different report of the .308 rifle made the Squad Designated Marksman a target. Colt rode high on military contracts.
In 2003, the Python and Anaconda were retired entirely. The master craftsmen who built the Python retired, or went to work on the Single Action Army Peacemaker. The Anaconda could be resurrected. It was a modern design based on a scaled up King Cobra frame and required minimal hand fitting. With modern CNC machining, a new Anaconda could be made even less labor intensive.
The Python, on the other hand, isn’t coming back. Despite its futuristic good looks, the Python, and the other I-frame guns it was based on, were from an earlier era, when technology was relatively expensive and labor was comparatively cheap. The Python hails from a time when every part was hand fitted to the gun and was and buffed to a high finish. Those skills are lost, the machinery that made the guns was scrapped and they aren’t coming back.
Now, at the beginning of 2015, Colt is in financial straits again. The War on Terror, at least the ground phase in Iraq and Afghanistan, has wound down, and the US military no longer needs a steady supply of M4 carbines. There are tons of AR pattern rifles in the inventory now, and unless there’s some major breakthrough in firearms technology that convinces the Pentagon to drop the select fire, intermediate cartridge rifle as a main issue weapon, selling military small arms to the US government is a losing proposition. Colt’s only real path forward are robust civilian sales.
The problem is Colt’s main competitors already have a lock on the market. Worse, the four guns Colt is famous for, the AR15, The M1911, The Single Action Peacemaker and the Colt .380 Mustang, are already being made by somebody else. All of the guns but the Mustang were originally military contract guns, so while the companies that make the AR-15, 1911 and Peacemaker can’t use Colt’s trademarked name. Or in the case of the Peacemaker and the AR-15, they can’t even use the name of the gun, they can sure as hell build them.
AR-15s are built by just about every manufacturer, from the Bushmaster beaters to high-end Noveskes. The same is true of the M1911. You can buy a Rock Island Armory 1911 for under $500, or pony up the cash for a Les Baer Custom 1911. The Peacemaker is built by several Italian firms, and there are the “upgraded” Ruger single actions in the form of the Blackhawk, Single Six and Vaquero. Even the mini 1911-style .380 Colt Mustang trademark was allowed to lapse, and SIG SAUER started building a copy, the SIG 238. Sig even upped the the ante by building a 9mm version, the 938.
So Colt faces the problem that the four guns it builds are being made by other companies, sometimes cheaper, sometimes better, and sometimes both at once. Surviving on putting the rampant stallion on guns that can be had elsewhere is not a viable survival strategy. Oddly enough, Colt has defended the trademarks of their double action revolvers and licenses their use.
The path forward seems clear. Bring back the Anaconda, and since it can take the pressures, chamber it in a modern big bore magnum cartridge, like .475 Linebaugh or .454 Casull in addition to the traditional .45 Colt and .44 Magnum. Or maybe .500 JRH, to cut into the back end of the S&W 500 by offering another .50 caliber revolver cartridge for regular production. The point of this would be to use a revived big bore Anaconda as a “halo” gun to bring the shooting public back to Colt double action revolvers, the way Chevrolet uses the Corvette to lure people in to buy minivans. And yes, bring back the Python.
I know what I said. That there will never be another Python. At least not like the Snake that was made up to 2003. But the engineers could build something that looked like a Python and was almost as good. They could make it at a price that’s competitive with Ruger and Smith & Wesson’s double action revolvers, and then bring out an entire line of Snake-themed guns.
Everybody and their brother makes a five-shot snubbie. Build one and call it the “Ball Python” or something. Then sit down and design a good poly framed pistol and put the snake name on that, too. It’s a strategy that worked for Magnum Research with the Desert Eagle. Just about everything MRI makes has the “Desert Eagle” or “Eagle” name on it. And they sell a lot of “Desert Eagles” that aren’t four and a half pound gas-operated hand cannons. That strategy could work for Colt, too. After all, at this point, what do they have to lose?