Back in March of 2018, I wrote about my custom Fitz’ed Colt Official Police .38 Special here in these pages. Fellow RevolverGuys can tell from my story that I have more than just a passing interest in revolvers that have received the Fitz treatment.
Darryl Bolke wrote about Fitz-style revolvers here at RevolverGuy, in April of 2020, as well. For a more in-depth discussion of what made a real Fitz, a pseudo-Fitz, and a re-created Fitz, please refer to these previous presentations.
In this piece, I’m going to share the story of my latest acquisition. It goes like this: Once upon a time, I was perusing Gunbroker—that online temptation site, that presents occasional deals, outrageously speculative prices, humdrum and common firearms, and, every once in a while, a really neat item that just strikes a person’s fancy.
I don’t go on Gunbroker often, unless I’m actually looking for a particular item. But, the way many things happen with the internet, I found myself going down that rabbit hole, and I was six degrees separated from my original search. This particular time, I wound up typing “Fitz” in the search box. This resulted in the usual one-page return of new, old-stock Fitz-brand grips, and newly-manufactured Fitz-Colt embroidered patches.
But on this occasion, one more item was displayed on the screen—a match for a Colt 1917 double action revolver. This wasn’t just any 1917 though, it was one that had been Fitz’ed at some time during its 102-year lifetime. According to the serial number gleaned from one of the photographs in the auction, this Colt was made in 1919.
The US Army Model 1917 was the military designation of two different revolvers—one made by Colt, and the other by Smith & Wesson. The Colt New Service (in .45 Colt) and the S&W Second Model .44 Hand Ejector were commercial production revolvers in 1917, when the USA entered WWI. While the Colt 1911 .45 ACP semi-automatic pistol was the official handgun of the US military, there weren’t enough of them to go around, despite the increase in production that came from contracting with other companies. As a result, the two US revolver manufacturers were asked to help out by converting their large caliber revolvers to handle rimless, .45 ACP semi-auto pistol ammunition.
Smith & Wesson came up with half moon clips made of spring steel, that held three rounds each. Two of these in the cylinder filled all six chambers, and allowed a pump of the ejector rod to expend all six fired cases at the same time.
Lanyard rings were attached to the butts of the 1917 pistols and both had “United States Property” stamped under the barrel.
In more recent decades, Smith & Wesson has produced modern revolvers chambered for the .45 ACP pistol cartridge, and full moon clips allow all six cartridges to be loaded and ejected quickly in these guns. Full moon clips serve as speed loaders that stay in the cylinder, and reloading with them is very fast.
What About After the War?
Many of the military 1917s were mothballed, then resurrected for use again in WWII. When they came out of storage, they were refinished with a parkerized, matte gray/black/blue in place of their original, 1917-era, gorgeous polished blue.
Both the Colt and S&W 1917 revolvers had 5 1/2-inch long barrels. They were big revolvers, chambered in a defensive cartridge for which plenty of military surplus ammunition available—perfect for civilian use.
At some point, many of these 1917s made it out into the civilian market, with their old-world, handsome Colt blue still intact. This is how the one that popped up for auction during my accidental online search was finished. It’s easy to tell the difference between WWI use and WWII use due to the two different finishes.
Bidding on the Auction
This particular Colt 1917 already had its barrel professionally cut to 2 1/2-inches, and a new Colt front sight attached. The hammer was bobbed, to avoid snagging during a draw from a pocket, and the trigger guard’s front portion had been removed.
These were all typical features of the classic Fitz style, as performed by countless gunsmiths—both accomplished professionals, and basement/garage types. This revolver had its lanyard ring removed, the hole in the bottom of the grip was plugged, and the markings were removed there as well. The sharp corners on the bottom of the butt had been reduced to gentle curves, and the original walnut stocks (serial numbered inside to the gun) had also been re-contoured to match.
It appeared that the original bright blue finish was retained in the online photographs, although plenty of speckling and handling wear was obvious. The rampant Colt horse on the left side of the frame, and the Eagle-over-S20 ordnance acceptance mark both appeared sharp, and the screws looked “un-boogered.”
I considered the gun and clicked the “Watch” button. I kept coming back to it, as the auction wound down over the next several days. The description stated that it locked up tight and had a smooth action and good bore. The cost of a shooter-grade Colt 1917 would be around $800, and shipping it to a quality gunsmith—like Bobby Tyler at Tyler Gun Works—to have all of this custom work performed, would have likely tripled the cost.
And it still wouldn’t be as cool as this one! When was the Fitz style work done on this 1917? Maybe in the 1930s or ‘40s? Maybe even the ‘50s? Who did the work? None of it really matters. To some, it’s a “ruined” gun, or its collector’s value has been “destroyed.” I didn’t want it for that reason, I wanted it because it just seemed really neat to me. I wanted to shoot it. On steel. Up close. From a holster. The way it was designed to be shot, with its Fitz attributes.
I Got It!
I waited until very near the auction’s end, and then I bid on this big bore snubby and won it. When it arrived at my local, small shop FFL, he was a bit confused as to what I had bought . . . and why. I tried to explain it to him. He’s a relatively new gun guy (some would say gun culture 2.0) and he didn’t know the history of John H. Fitzgerald. When he asked, I enlightened him. I think he felt like Groucho Marx, as I went on and on with my answer, and perhaps he wanted to shout, “I withdraw the question!”
Newly-acquired guns, no matter if they’re new from the manufacturer, or old used guns that are new to you, should be throughly cleaned and oiled before shooting. Upon inspection, I realized I got a really good deal on a real sweet old Colt. The gun functioned perfectly and the action was as good as the day it left the Colt factory. The finish was original, except for where the gun had been cut on the hammer, the trigger guard, the bottom of the grip, and the barrel. All of these spots had been re-blued and the job was done well.
While the left side of the barrel retained the Colt D.A. 45 marking, the front sight had been placed over the remaining patent date writing on top of the barrel, and the underside stamping now only read, “STATES PROPERTY.”
My big hands just do not fit the factory grip, and the idea of shooting 230 grain factory ball ammo out of this snubby with that grip profile made my hand hurt, before I even let a single round go downrange.
Replacing the old walnut stocks with custom oversize grips would be a crime. The answer was a grip adapter—either an old Tyler T-Grip (no relation to Bobby Tyler), or an even older Mershon (later Pachmayr) “Sure Grip” out of Glendale, California. I found one of these for sale on eBay. It fills the grip perfectly and matches the style of this revolver well, while retaining the uniquely rounded wood stocks (which may be just slightly shortened as well, since the bottom of the right grip is missing a tiny bit of wood where the locating pin can be seen—this may be a result of polishing out the bottom of the grip to remove the markings).
Gotta Have a Holster
While Fitz style revolvers were most often carried in big suit or coat pockets, back in the day, a holster is how I wanted to carry this 1917.
I go on daily walks here on our property in Tennessee. The only real danger is of the slithering kind, and I’m currently up to seven venomous snakes that I’ve needed to dispatch. Cottonmouths and copperheads have reared their triangular shaped heads too close to the cabin and our dog, and while the two varieties of rattlesnakes (at least they would give us a noisy warning) have yet to be seen during the almost three years since we purchased our home, we know they’re close by. CCI shot shells in .38 and .44 caliber have worked well, and now I need to find some .45 ACP versions for the new Fitz.
Rob Leahy at Simply Rugged Holsters is not only a super nice guy, he is also very knowledgeable when it comes to firearms. He knows all about vintage revolvers and pretty much everything else. His company offers many different styles of leather holsters for every type of firearm carry anyone would ever want. From concealment, to field carry, to hunting, Rob has you and your gun covered. His specialty arose from necessity, in that he created field holsters that protect the gun’s finish, with high sides that flare outward for quick and easy re-holstering.
I contacted Rob and asked him which of his offerings would be best suited for my 2 1/2-inch barreled Colt. He replied that his Eldorado would work well. I ordered through his website and chose a tan, right-hand draw Eldorado with just a little bit of extra fanciness. I requested border stamping around the edges to add a little style, worthy of this Colt’s personality.
When the holster arrived, it fit perfectly (keep in mind that the Colt 1917 was never made in this barrel length at the factory). The holster is molded to the revolver’s shape and it sort of “snaps” in and out, deleting any need for a retaining strap or thong to keep the gun in place.
Let’s Go Shoot!
Drawing a Fitz’ed revolver from a holster provides the shooter who is paying attention to such things with the reward of a speedier first shot on target. Fitzgerald had huge hands and fingers and getting his index finger deep on the double action trigger was made easier with the trigger guard cut away. This also provided easy access while wearing winter gloves. While we’re only talking about the smallest improvement in timed draw, I can still tell that I can get that first shot off quicker because my finger goes to the trigger faster when the handgun clears leather.
The front sight on this Colt is too high and I may take a big file and carefully shave it down, then touch up the blue. I shot a steel silhouette at five yards. That’s pretty close, and this .45 shoots way low at that “up close and personal,” Fitz-style distance. If I aim at the chest, I get hits in the groin at that distance. To correct that, I just pull the trigger when the front sight is sticking up in the middle of the rear fixed sight channel around an eighth of an inch. This works to get shots where they need to go. I’m not an advocate of point shooting (not using the sights at all), so using the sights to get a flash sight picture like this works well at such a close distance.
The Colt’s double action pull is long, and not easily staged like a S&W’s trigger pull. This Colt needs to have its trigger pulled quickly, consistently, and straight through, while maintaining the sight picture. Hits in a tight group were easily accomplished after a couple cylinders of practice to become accustomed to the revolver’s traits and personality.
Recoil with 230 grain ball ammo, basically the same stuff used in WWI and WWII, is certainly not light in this big gun. It’s not a .44 Magnum, but it’s subjectively equivalent, in my opinion, to shooting full-house 158 grain .357 Magnums out of a 4-inch barreled revolver. The muzzle doesn’t rise much, and there’s some flame, from ejected powder that’s still burning, when you shoot. The gun pushes back into your palm, more than the muzzle rises.
After around thirty fired rounds, the inside of my shooting hand’s thumb started to throb from riding up alongside the edge of the grip’s hump, under the hammer. The last twelve rounds out of a fifty round box of factory ammo actually hurt. I was done at that point.
During another shooting session, I concentrated on keeping a firm grip that was low on the wood stocks, and gave my trigger finger straight back movement. This grip stopped the edge at the top of the grip panel from hurting my thumb again, but I had to readjust my grip after each shot, as recoil moved it in my palm, due to the lack of traction from the smooth wood stocks.
Lighter weight, 185 grain hollow points had less perceived recoil, and Liberty Civil Defense 78 grain cartridges seemed to have the least amount of recoil. My hands sure liked shooting them much better than the ball ammo.
The .45 ACP cartridges can be loaded in the cylinder chambers just like rimmed revolver cartridges. This Colt will fire them because the chambers are shouldered, and this keeps the rimless cases from falling through the cylinder. Apparently, some early 1917 Colts did not have this feature, and those guns must use moon clips to headspace the cartridges.
I found that the fired cases either fell out from gravity when the gun was held upside down, or could easily be plucked out with my fingernails. If any got stuck, a pencil/pen/small screwdriver could be used to punch them out from the front of the cylinder face.
I bought full moon clips, but found that some of them were slightly too thick for the cylinder to close, or they bound the rotating cylinder when I pulled the trigger. Some online research appears to indicate that full moon clips work great in S&W revolvers chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge (including the 1917, the 1937 Brazilian contract 1917s, and modern S&Ws), but they’re just not a good fit for the Colts. Oddly, one full moon clip worked fine. Maybe it’s just microscopically thinner? My dad had a “box o’ gun parts” that I still have, and inside was one half moon clip. I tried it and it worked fine. Finding original half moon clips is not easy however.
I also purchased a knurled, blued steel device for unloading the fired cases from the full moon clips, without bending the clips. Made by Innovative Industries, the Moon Clip Extraction Tool sells for only ten bucks. It works extremely well, and I used to use it when I had a S&W 1937 Brazilian contract 1917 .45 ACP revolver, but I sold it when I sold the revolver.
Of course, this is not a gun that will be carried for actual self defense—although it would work quite well in that regard, I would think. For me it’s a range gun, a piece of history, and a snake killer. That’s its honest use today. It was likely Fitz’ed back in the ‘30s or ‘40s for someone who actually carried it in a pocket for self protection—maybe a police officer, who wanted something more powerful than the .38 he was issued? Perhaps a gumshoe private eye, right out of a Mickey Spillane novel?
This Colt 1917 .45 makes me happy, and makes me smile, and I think that’s the best use for it, of all!