The Colt Python .357 Magnum

By Chuck Hawks

Colt Python
Illustration courtesy of Colt's Mfg. Co., Inc.

The Colt Python was officially introduced in 1955 as Colt's top-of the-line revolver, although I believe production actually began sometime in 1954. Originally intended to be a large frame, double action (DA), .38 Special target revolver, it was decided to chamber the new gun for the .357 Magnum cartridge instead, as all .357's can also use .38 Special ammunition. This fortuitous decision resulted in what was arguably the best all-around revolver ever made. Almost immediately the Python gained a reputation as the premium American revolver.

It was built on a .41 caliber size frame (Colt called it their "I" frame) for extra durability. The action was fitted and hand-honed in the Colt Custom Shop to insure superior fit, smoothness, and a good trigger pull.

The Python had several special features. Like all Colt revolvers (but unlike most other brands) the cylinder rotates into the frame for an extremely tight lock-up when the trigger is pulled all the way back. The Python barrel had a ventilated rib on top to break up heat waves coming off a hot barrel and a full length underlug beneath for superior stability. Inside, Python barrels were bored with a very slight, full length, taper toward the muzzle. This unique touch gently squeezes the bullet into the rifling for superior accuracy.

All Pythons came with excellent adjustable sights. The front sight was usually a "quick draw" matte black steel blade with a red plastic insert. This was pinned to the full-length ramp atop the ventilated rib so that it could be changed (at the factory or by a gunsmith) if desired. The rear sight was an Accro with a square notch (Patridge type) that was click adjustable for windage and elevation. These sights are durable, reasonably low profile for convenient holster carry, and can be very accurate. A good shot can do almost as well at ordinary handgun ranges with a Python's iron sights as with an optical sight.

The full-length lug beneath the barrel was hollowed-out for what was felt, at the time, to be superior balance on very early Pythons. As progressively heavier barrels became more popular for target shooting, Colt soon began leaving the underlug solid.

Even the finish on the Python was superior. Colt's Royal Blue was the ultimate finish for blue steel guns. The secret was the ultra high polish the gun receives before it was blued. No other blued production revolver could compare to the beauty of Colt's Royal Blue Python.

For many years the ultimate in beauty and protection was the bright nickel finish. This was a very smooth, very durable, nickel plating of the highest quality applied over a copper base. The nickel finish was eventually retired after Colt perfected the mirror polished Ultimate stainless steel Python.

Colt offered two finishes for stainless steel Pythons, a conventional "brushed" finish, or the mirror-like Ultimate finish. The Ultimate was a stainless steel Python polished to degree similar to a Royal Blue gun. The stainless steel Ultimate Python was left in the "white" because, of course, it needed no protective finish. The visual effect was much like a nickel plated Python. I wax mine occasionally with ordinary automotive paste wax because I have found that it makes it easier to remove powder residue, especially from the cylinder flutes. This is a trick that also works with nickel-plated guns.

Pythons have been produced with four standard barrel lengths, 2.5 inches, 4 inches, 6 inches, and 8 inches. In 1998 the 6-inch barrel was made standard and all other barrel lengths were only available by special order. At the 1998 SHOT Show I was told by one of the Colt factory reps that all of these Python Elite (as they were called at that time) revolvers were produced entirely in the Custom Shop, rather than just hand tuned in the Custom Shop, as had been done previously. By the 2006 SHOT Show, the Python had been dropped from the line. Good shooting examples are, however, available on the used market.

The 2.5-inch barrel is the easiest to conceal, but the Python is a large, fairly heavy gun and shortening the barrel does not change that. It is not an ideal concealed carry weapon for the average person. The 2.5-inch barrel is the least common Python barrel length and the most sought after by collectors.

The 4-inch barrel is probably the optimum length for uniformed personnel to carry on duty, and also makes a very fine civilian self-defense weapon. The 4-inch barrel is also an excellent length for a back-up gun in the field. It was second in popularity only to the 6-inch barrel.

The 6 inch barrel lets hot .357 loads achieve higher velocity, while still retaining good portability and versatility, and was the most popular barrel length. A 6-inch Python remains the ultimate all-around handgun, useful for target shooting, plinking, hunting and self-defense.

The hunter's special was the 8-inch barrel. This delivered top .357 Magnum performance and gave the longest sight radius for superior accuracy with iron sights. Scope mounts were and still are available for mounting optical sights on all Pythons.

The accuracy of the Python revolver is legendary, and Python barrels have frequently been fitted to Smith & Wesson Target revolvers by top competitors to improve their accuracy. I have owned Pythons with 4 inch, 6 inch, and 8 inch barrels and all have been literally more accurate than I can shoot (this has frequently not been the case with other handguns, I might immodestly point out). Custom Shop Pythons came with targets fired on the Colt range to demonstrate that individual gun's accuracy and it is pretty hard for most shooters, including me, to equal these groups. The one that came with my 4" Ultimate Python was a 3/4-inch, 6 shot group fired by hand at 25 yards, from a rest, with factory loads. (I called the good people at the Colt Custom Shop to verify this.)

The basic general specifications for the majority of Pythons as produced over the years are as follows.

Material: All steel
Finishes: Royal Blue, Nickel, Brushed Stainless, Ultimate Stainless
Action: Single/double
Caliber: .357 Magnum
Capacity: 6 rounds
Barrel lengths: 2.5, 4, 6, or 8 inches with ventilated rib and full-length underlug
Hammer: Checkered target type
Trigger: Serrated service
Front Sight: Serrated ramp
Rear Sight: Fully adjustable Accro
Sight radius: 7.5" with 6" barrel
Grips: Target type; walnut, checkered walnut, or Colt/Pachmayr black rubber
Weight: 43.5 ounces (with 6" barrel)
Overall length: 11.5" (with 6" barrel)
Special features: Hand-honed action

Subjectively, this finest of all revolvers is a "soft" shooter. By which I mean that most shooters feel that the Python kicks less than other DA magnum revolvers of comparable weight. It seems to be the most perfectly balanced of all .357 Magnum revolvers. Its target style grip fills in the area behind the trigger guard and completely encloses the grip frame. This grip is well proportioned to minimize recoil for single action target shooting or hunting. The only complaint I have is that the standard Python target grip makes the trigger reach excessively long for double action shooting (unless you have large hands), but thinner combat style grips are available for those who want them. I use the genuine Colt/Pachmayr target style rubber grips on all of my Pythons, which also helps to minimize the effect of recoil.

The style and features of the Python have been extensively copied by other gun makers, particularly the frame size and the full-length barrel underlug. For example, an "L" frame S&W will fit perfectly in a holster designed for a Python. However, no one has succeeded in combining all of the features of the Python in any other gun.

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Copyright 2001, 2009 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.