Concealed Carry & Home Defense

Gun Test: Colt Cobra

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By John Taffin, GUNS Magazine

It is said St. Patrick ran all the snakes out of Ireland. However, he has nothing on whoever removed the “sixgun snakes” from the Colt stable. But what was most missed by many seeking a 6-shot snubbie for concealed carry, of course, was the .38 Special Cobra. And now it’s back. But first a bit of Colt’s “pocket pistol” history.

The market for CCW handguns is no new thing. Colt first answered the call with the 1848 Baby Dragoon and 1849 Wells Fargo. Unlike the Walker .44, these two percussion .31’s were easy to carry and conceal.

And in the early 20th Century, Colt was again at the CCW forefront. Their DA revolvers included the Police Positive, the Army Special and the Official Police. It was about this time Colt’s John Henry “Fitz” FitzGerald began shortening barrels, bobbing hammers, “round-butting” grip frames, and removing the front of triggerguards on Colt DA sixguns (including the .45 New Service) to turn them into custom pocket pistols.

But Colt saw the need for a production DA pocket pistol. So in 1926—using the .38 Special Police Positive as the base—Colt cut the barrel back to 2 inches, then eventually rounded the grip frame to give us the Detective Special, which would set the tone for all future snubbies.

Fifty years separate John’s nickeled 1st Generation Cobra (left) from the new version (right).

From bottom left clockwise: First Generation Cobra, Second Generation Cobra, current Cobra.

First In A Stable Of Snakes

Then in 1950, the Colt factory began to be inundated with snakes (see sidebar). It was only natural for the first one to be a pocket pistol. Looking to the Detective Special, Colt went with an alloy frame and named the new lightweight .38 Special the Cobra. It lasted until 1972 when the 2nd Generation Cobra arrived with an enclosed ejector rod and hand-filling grips. It would last until 1981. Not only were all the snakes gone, so were all the other double-action sixguns Colt had built its reputation on. The explanation of the demise is simple. All DA Colt sixguns were made the old-fashioned way at a time when CNC machinery was becoming king as far as firearms go. Every one (especially the Python) required hand fitting (expensive hand fitting). Colt found it cost more to produce a gun than they could sell it for and the DA Colt revolver of legend and history disappeared.

John has long favored the Black Hills 125-grain JHP +P .38 Special load (top). Buffalo Bore’s standard-pressure 158-grain soft cast HP (bottom) also has great potential.

A Hopeful Harbinger

No one ever really expected to see a DA Colt sixgun again and yet now it’s here. Colt has resurrected the Cobra. Perhaps, resurrected is the wrong word as the stainless steel Cobra of 2017 bears only superficial resemblance to my 50-year-old nickel-plated original alloy-framed Cobra.

To come up with the modern Cobra, Colt started with a fresh new page—designing a revolver that could be easily assembled instead of taking hours for costly hand fitting. For the most part all DA revolvers today—no matter the manufacturer—are assembled and CNC machinery is so refined now the process really works.

These guns may not come from the factory as smooth as the old classics from the 1950s, however, they do work and work well, and they seem to be getting better all the time. For those not satisfied with current DA revolvers as they come from the factory, there’s a relatively long list of talented sixgunsmiths who can tune a double (or single) action to make a sixgunner’s heart sing for joy. It’s a win/win situation.

John shot these groups at 7 yards with a variety of loads.

Old/New Comparison

Let’s take a quick look at the new Cobra compared to my classic original. Aesthetically speaking, I want to say the original Cobra is more pleasing to the eye, however, I won’t say this too loud as the new one is also quite attractive in a 21st Century way.

Obvious differences are the all-stainless steel construction of the 2017 Cobra compared to the nickel-plated steel and alloy components of the original. The new gun has an enclosed ejector rod, a larger triggerguard which allows easier use with gloves on. The new trigger actually feels smoother and has a much-better-feeling 4-1/4-pound single-action pull. Colt attributes the smoothness of the double action of the 2017 Cobra to what they call the “linear leaf mainspring.” It works. Not only is the SA pull excellent, the DA is also quite smooth at around 8 pounds.

I was surprised at how comfortable shooting the Cobra now is. There is no way I could spend several hours shooting my original Cobra. Two major factors are the 25- vs. 15-ounce weight difference, as well as the new grips. Instead of the standard checkered original panels, the new Cobra is fitted with fingergroove rubber Hogue overmolded stocks that do a good job of reducing felt recoil without being overly bulky.

The new sights are also a large improvement as the square notch rear sight matches up with a red fiber-optic front sight giving a very-quick-to-acquire sight picture. Another plus? The new Cobra is also more robust—being rated for +P loads for which the original is not.

More of John’s 7-yard efforts. The Cobra seemed to like all bullet weights and configurations—standard pressure or +P.

Revving Up The Cobra

In the course of testing the New Cobra, I used standard-pressure loads, Cowboy Action loads and +P loads. As far as bullets go, I had at my disposal cast bullets of standard configuration, lead hollowpoints, jacketed hollowpoints, full wadcutters and FMJ’s.

No matter what I tried the Cobra performed flawlessly. I was actually disappointed when I ran out of different loads to try. I ended up using just under two dozen different ones. Since this is a 2-inch pocket revolver designed for self-defense, all loads were grouped at 7 yards. With my eyes, hands and hold, the Cobra is basically on for elevation with 158-grain bullets and shoots about 1-1/2 to 2 inches to the left. The latter can be easily corrected by simply turning the barrel in about one degree.

Over the past 20 or 30 years, my most used .38 Special load has been Black Hills’ 125-grain JHP +P. This proved to be the most accurate loading for this particular Cobra with 5 shots going into 5/8-inch at a muzzle velocity of 871 fps. Of all the loads tried, all but two were in the 1-inch neighborhood. (Since all the loads performed so well, I’ll let the chart speak for itself).

I appreciate the fact this Cobra performs well with virtually anything I tried. The highest velocity was obtained with the Black Hills Honey Badger +P which features a 100-grain bullet of the new polymer “Phillips screwdriver shape.” It clocks just under 1,070 fps while placing 5 rounds in a 1-inch cluster. Buffalo Bore also has a most interesting standard-pressure load—a soft-cast 158-grain hollowpoint at just under 900 fps from the Cobra’s 2-inch barrel.

Colt wisely chose to reenter the DA sixgun market with the most popular style, the pocket pistol. Dare we hope this Cobra is just the beginning of modern iterations of other classic Colt DA revolvers?

Cold-Blooded Chronology

Six more Colt snakes followed the 1950 introduction of the Cobra:

The Python (1955-2006), Diamondback (1966-1991), Viper (1977 only), Boa (1985 only), King Cobra (1986-1998), and finally the Anaconda, which ran from 1990 to 1999 and then was resurrected in 2002. It finally had its head cut off permanently in 2006.

Before the first decade of our present century had passed, all the snakes were gone. So you can understand why the resurrected Cobra is a big deal to many Colt connoisseurs. MSRP $699.

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