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A Tale of Revolver Decline and the Rebirth of the Prancing Pony

Colt’s SF-VI & Cobra, both chambered in .38 Special.

Colt is a name that’s synonymous with the .38 Special six-shot snub nose wheel gun. Going all the way back to 1927, with the introduction of their D-Framed Detective Special, they colt made made a series of variations of this gun as it went through four generations during the twentieth century.

2nd & 3rd Generation Detective Specials.
Colt ad from the 1977.

After attempting to recover from a crippling labor strike that ended in 1990 and filing for bankruptcy protection in 1992 due a range of issues including a 1990 leveraged buyout. There was also a downturn in the arms sales following the end of the Cold War, and an overall loss of market share due the widespread adoption of automatic pistols like those from HK, GLOCK, S&W, SIG, and Beretta.

Colt attempted to regain some form of market share with a number of products. Guns like the M1991A1 Series 80, Double Eagle Series 90, and the All American 2000. But Colt also wanted to regain some share in the revolver segment.

With the explosion of shall-issue concealed carry permit systems sweeping the nation and the Clinton “assault weapons” ban, the revolver was still a very popular choice for concealed carry and personal defense. Smith & Wesson along with Ruger and Taurus were doing fairly well with their compact carry models. Colt saw the market as a way to get their brand back out there.

Starting in 1993, Colt released the fourth generation of the Detective Special. Marketed as the DSII, this gun was a radical departure from the prior three lines of D-Frame guns. It was modernized for easier production and lower overall costs. But sales were only OK as it was a blued-only gun. So in 1996, Colt released the SF-VI; the stainless steel version of the DSII.

Colt SF-VI advertisement from 1995.

My SF-VI was purchased at Lou’s Police Supply in Hialeah, Florida on a whim many years ago. I recall that at the time I thought someone had messed with the gun because it had the best trigger I’ve ever felt on a compact carry revolver.

When I took it apart, I was shocked to see everything was in perfect order. I don’t recall what the gun’s exact cost was, but I do remember it was under $400 at the time. These days, if you search “SF-VI” on GunBroker, you’ll see them going for over $1,000.

The gun is a solid chunk of stainless steel and mine has a born-on date of 10-31-1995 underneath the grips.

Internally, it doesn’t use the coil spring that the DSII did, but instead went back to the leaf spring of earlier models. The front sight is machined as part of the barrel. Making it non-adjustable. The rear sight is a simple affair, the normal thing you find on just about every fixed rear sight wheel gun going back to the start of the twentieth century.

The muzzle has a nice recessed crown to protect the rifling and, as mentioned, all the parts on it are stainless except for the leaf spring. Grips were Colt branded Pachmayrs.

The gun, unfortunately, was a commercial flop and production was ceased in 2000. A number of people ask why it was such a poor seller. A combination of things contributed to the failure.

There was poor management, with Colt emphasizing government contracts over the civilian market. The market had shifted towards concealable compact semi-automatics like the GLOCK 26, SIG P239, and Kel-Tec P11. Finally, Smith, Ruger, and Taurus produced competing revolvers of similar quality for lower prices.

At the turn of the century, Colt pretty much bailed on the civilian market and shuttered their entire revolver line except for a puny output of Single Action Army revolvers in very low numbers.

Up to the mid 2010s, no one thought that Colt would ever get back into the revolver market. I know because I was one of those people.

In 2016, however, the rumors started flying that the Prancing Pony would be back to making a double action revolver. In 2017, the rumors became reality when Colt announced the Cobra.

Colt Cobra advertisement from 2017.

Colt took everything that was the SF-VI and modernized it for easier production. The quality of the gun was vastly improved, though personally, I’m not fond of them using the Cobra name. The Colt Cobra was always a lightweight aluminum D-frame .38 Special six shooter. It was never a steel framed gun, let alone stainless steel.

But I understand why they went with that name. It harkens back to the collection of Colt’s snake guns and the Cobra was always a popular one. So for branding and marketing purposes, it made more sense to label the spiritual successor of the SF-VI the Cobra.

The new gun is entirely stainless steel, but when cracking it open, you find a lot of MIM parts. The hammer, the cylinder hand, the transfer bar, etc. . .

This isn’t a bad thing if the parts are made right. It’s just a sign of the times. Metal injected molded parts are a reality. The idea of a forged block of steel being machined to make every part is gone for the most part.

Practically speaking, the new Cobra and SF-VI are pretty much the same. The parts don’t swap due to dimensional differences, but mechanically the guns are twins.

SF-VI on the top and the Cobra on the bottom.

The front sight is not part of the barrel though, it can be replaced. It comes from the factory with a red fiber optic front sight that I replaced it with a more classic brass bead.

Cobra on the left, SF-VI on the right.

The barrel profile is different, too, as is the trigger guard.

SF-VI on the left and the Cobra on the right.

The grips are Colt-branded Hogues instead of the Pachmayrs from years past. Trigger-wise, the gun feels just like the SF-VI; extremely smooth and light.

So why did Colt release the new Cobra in the first place? The carry market is now dominated by concealed automatics. In fact, the micro-compact 9mm revolution is in full swing, started by the SIG P365 and followed by guns like the Springfield Hellcat, S&W Shield Plus, Ruger MAX-9, Taurus GX4, Kimber R7 and more.

I think the resurgence was due to nostalgia and non-gun people. A lot of gun folks missed out on Colt revolvers back when they were affordable. Due to pop culture like The Walking Dead, popularity in guns like the Colt Python, becoming popular outside of the traditional revolver collecting community. That lead younger gun collectors down the rabbit hole that is a century’s worth of Colt double action revolvers.

Non-gun people is another reason. The revolver market, while smaller than it was in the past, it is still very good. S&W, Ruger, Taurus, and Charter Arms all stayed in it and Kimber jumped in with completely new designs. With it’s revolver heritage, Colt saw the opportunity and decided they couldn’t just sit it out.

Revolvers are still very popular with novice shooters and folks just getting into concealed carry. Plus, some jurisdictions with draconian gun laws, revolvers are still legal and easier to get.

A six shot snub nose stainless steel D-frame Colt chambered in .38 Special is still very viable for self-defense and concealed carry. Especially since places like California, with millions of gun owners, make it hard to get a handgun. So a gun like the Cobra still makes a lot of sense.

gun store california
(AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

By modern tacticool standards, the Cobra may seem to be an outdated paperweight. But in reality, where any gun is better than none, the Cobra is an eminently capable self-defense tool. It’s easy-shooting, reliable, concealable, and capable of being a gun a novice non-gun person can take to the range and enjoy.

The D-frame Colts are in that magical sweet spot. Small enough to be good concealed carry guns, but big enough to be handy for home defense and turning money into noise and smiles at the range. They fit the vast majority of hands and the weight of a steel frame isn’t unbearable while heavy enough to tame recoil.

I’m a fan of the new Cobra, so much so that I purchased a King Cobra. too. But that’s a story for another article. Prior to the new line of Cobras coming out, I was very much a fan of my SF-VI. It made a great carry piece and was a fun shooter. The new Cobra took what was great about the SF-VI and made it better.

SF-VI (top), new Cobra (bottom)

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