Colt Cobra .38 Special Review

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Colt Cobra .38 Special Review

Are you considering purchasing a Colt Cobra revolver and want to learn more about what it has to offer? If so, you’ve come to the right place. 

One of the most iconic snubnose revolvers of all time, the Cobra is a lightweight revolver that serves as a six-shot alternative to the five-shot snubnose J-frame revolvers from Smith & Wesson.

Discontinued in the early 1980s but formally reintroduced to the market by Colt in 2017, the Cobra is a perfectly viable offering for anybody looking for a .38 Special revolver for concealed carry, home defense, or as a backup weapon. 

In this article, we’ll dive into the history and development of the Colt Cobra, and how it was transformed into the entire new revolver it is today. 

Development of the Original Colt Cobra

The overall history and development of the Colt Cobra can be traced all the way back to the late 1880s. In 1889, Colt released their first swing out cylinder, double action/single action revolver chambered in .38 Long Colt and it was quickly adopted by the United States military.

The release of the Colt M1889 effectively ended the age of the single action revolver, which had been dominated by the Colt Peacemaker, Remington 1875, and the Smith & Wesson Schofield, among others. 

Colt (as well as Smith & Wesson) continued to produce new swing out double action revolvers for over a century, continuing to this very day. Swing out cylinder revolvers were widely adopted by militaries, law enforcement departments, and civilians all over the globe and continued to serve as standard police sidearms up until the 1990s.

In 1927, Colt unveiled their first official snubnose revolver, the Detective Special. The Detective Special was simply a shorter version of their Colt Police Positive Special model. 

The Detective Special is built on a steel frame with a six-shot cylinder, and became an enormously popular sidearm for American police officers and detectives throughout the country. It also found widespread use as concealable sidearms for gangsters in the Prohibition era and with American civilians. 

However, the steel frame of the Detective Special meant that it was admittedly a little heavy for such a small weapon. Many people openly pined for a lighter version of the revolver, and in 1950, Colt answered with the Cobra.

The Colt Cobra officially began the ‘Snake’ or ‘Serpentine’ line of revolvers in Colt’s lineup, which would continue with the King Cobra, Python, and the Anaconda.

The first three generations of the Colt Cobra were essentially identical to the Detective Specials, only they were built on a lighter, aluminum frame. For reference, the Detective Special weighed 21 ounces, and the Cobra just 15 ounces. 

The biggest plus to the Cobra was the fact that it was lightweight, which made it more pleasant to carry throughout the day. However, this came at the expense of weaker durability and lacking the ability to fire hotter +P ammunition. 

The Cobra nonetheless became an enormous success for Colt, and initially sold equally as well as the Detective Special. In 1973, the Third Generation model introduced larger grips and a shrouded ejector rod (along with the concurrent generation of the Detective Special). 

Colt also produced several alternative variants of the Cobra as well. These included the Colt M13 Aircrewman, which came with an even lighter frame for use with US Air Force crewmen, and the Colt Agent, which came with a smaller frame for easier concealment. 

Unfortunately, the Cobra’s main feature (its lightweight aluminum frame) proved to be its undoing. By the late 1970s, +P .38 Special ammunition was in high demand for self-defense purposes from law enforcement and civilians alike. The Cobra’s lightweight frame was simply incapable of handling this kind of ammunition, and sales subsequently began to decline fast.

By 1981, Colt completely halted production of the Colt Cobra. The Detective Special, meanwhile, remained in production until 1995. In 1999, Colt completely ceased manufacturing double action revolvers all together…at least for a little while. 

The New Colt Cobra

The Cobra remained dormant for the next several decades until early 2017, when Colt unveiled the Fourth Generation of the Cobra. The release of the new Cobra officially marked Colt’s re-entering into the civilian revolver market.

However, this new Cobra is notably different from the original model, both in terms of looks and functionality. Whereas the original Cobras were sold with aluminum alloy frames, blued finishes, and wooden grips, the new Cobras have stainless steel frames, a silver finish, and Hogue rubberized grips.

The new Cobra can therefore best be described as a modern day Detective Special because of its steel frame alone. Colt decided to go with the steel frame so the new Cobra could handle modern day hot +P .38 Special ammunition. There’s simply no denying that the new Cobra is much more durable and robust than its original counterpart.

Of course, the use of the steel frame naturally begs the question as to why Colt didn’t simply name this new revolver the Detective Special (and then make a lighter weight version called the Cobra, as had been done before). But it can best be assumed that the company has decided to stick with the Snake names for marketing purposes. 

The new Cobra also sports a matte satin finish over the stainless steel. This matte finish is admittedly not as nice looking as the more polished finishes on current production Ruger and Smith & Wesson guns, but still holds up well under repeat use.

Other standout features of the Cobra that contrast with the original include a fiber optic front sight, a redesigned trigger guard, and a redesigned trigger. The trigger pull in particular is very smooth 

But perhaps the most critical feature of the Cobra, especially in relation to other current production snubnose revolvers, is its six shot cylinder. 

For reference, most of the current competitors to the Cobra in the compact revolver market come with only five rounds in the cylinder rather than six. These include the Smith & Wesson J-Frame revolvers (Models 36, 637, 442/642, 60, 640, etc.), the Taurus J-Frame clones (Models 85, 850, 856, 605, etc.), and the Ruger SP101. 

Yes, the sixth round in the Cobra means that the cylinder and therefore the frame as a whole are a little bit larger. At the end of the day, you have to ask if you would rather defend yourself with just five rounds of .38 Special or with six. 

In addition to the standard model of the Cobra, Colt has unveiled several alternative models as well. 

The Bright Cobra is essentially the standard Cobra only with a nicer polished stainless steel finish and a wood grip. Meanwhile, the Night Cobra is a double action only  (DAO) version with night sights, a black finish, and a cut down hammer meant specifically for concealed carry.

Perhaps the most notable version of the Cobra is the new King Cobra. Unlike the old King Cobra, this new version is substantially smaller and more compact, as it’s simply a .357 Magnum version of the standard Cobra. The earlier model of the King Cobra, on the other hand, was built on a completely different frame than the old Cobra.

The standard model of the new King Cobra comes with a 3 inch barrel, but 2 inch and 4 inch versions are also available (as is a DAO variant). In addition, the new King Cobra has a nicer polished finish in contrast to the matte finish of the Cobra. 

It’s also worth noting that Colt has recently released a new version of their iconic Python revolver. The Python is built on a much larger frame than the Cobra and the King Cobra, and serves as a direct competitor to the Ruger GP100 and the Smith & Wesson 686. 

Why Go With the Colt Cobra?

The Colt Cobra is a handgun that was and is built for two primary purposes: concealment and self defense.

We now live in an age where semi-automatic pistols with larger magazine capacities are the primary sidearms of law enforcement and civilians alike. Nonetheless, snubnose revolvers remain viable defensive tools due to their small size and simple manual of arms. 

In essence, if you’re looking for a quality and dependable snubnose revolver for defense that carries six rounds in the cylinder rather than the standard five, the modern version of the Colt Cobra is a solid pick. If you find yourself going up against multiple attackers especially, that sixth shot could serve as the critical difference between life and death. 


Hopefully this article has served as a valuable resource to you on the Colt Cobra, its history and development, and the main differences between the older models and the generation that is currently being built and sold.

The older generations of Cobras are also valuable collector’s pieces that are only likely to increase in overall value. Meanwhile, the new Cobras represent one of the finest snubnose revolvers for self-defense that money can buy today. 

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