Colt M13 Aircrewman Revolver: So Light it was Unsafe

In 1951 and 1952, Colt supplied a small number of extremely lightweight revolvers to the US Air Force, designated the M13 Aircrewman. These guns were very similar to the commercial Colt Cobra; .38 special 6-shot guns with aluminum alloy frames and cylinders with a loaded weight of just 11 ounces. Only 1189 were made, and they were issued with a special low pressure loading of .38 Special ammunition. It was designated M41 and fired a 130 grain FMJ bullet at just 725 fps. This reduced pressure loading was safe in the aluminum cylinders of the guns, but nothing prevented a person from loading and firing standard .38 ammunition – which was definitely not safe. In 1959 the Air Force decided that the potential hazard from standard ammunition was not worth the slight weight reduction of the aluminum cylinder, and recalled the guns for destruction. Only a small number survived to get into the commercial market today, making the Colt Aircrewman a very scarce revolver indeed.

46 Comments

  1. Talk about lack of common sense. Why not issue a semi-automatic compact gun in .380 ACP instead, like the Colt 1908?! That wouldn’t risk exploding if loaded with commercial ammunition. Oh, wait, they don’t want to add the extra weight of spare magazines! The next idea: 22 rim-fire revolver capable of firing overcharged jacketed ammunition without exploding… any objections?

    • Air Force culture dictates always having “special” stuff which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it gave us the AR-15.

    • The point of this gun is to be light-weight, perhaps ridiculously so; a 1908 Pocket Hammerless is over double the weight. Spare magazines or not, I’m skeptical that even a skeletonized aluminum-frame version could be made as light as the M13, and retain enough mass in the slide to function properly.

      Modern .380 pocket pistols such as the Keltec P3AT, Ruger LCP, or S&W Bodyguard 380 have approached and even surpassed the M13’s 11-ounce loaded weight, but they generally are locked-breech designs, thus getting away with a lighter slide than a blowback pistol would need for the same cartridge. (They also use polymer frames that weren’t practical in the ’50s, but aluminum is stronger than plastic as well as heavier — skeletonizing the frame to take advantage of this should leave it similarly lightweight.)

    • I had a six shot S&W model 12-4 which I bought here in the DR. Had a crack as I later learned was endemic. Guy I bought it from had smeared carbon in the crack. My bad

  2. “definitely not safe”
    Well situation where there are two different service cartridge which allows one to be loaded in wrong weapon and causing it broken is bad situation, but it is even worse if you have two same-looking-same-geometry-but-different-loading situation.

    “M41 and fired a 130 grain FMJ bullet at just 725 fps”
    If they were accepting that they need introduce “new” cartridge, then better situation might be usage of .38-200 British Mk I https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.38_S%26W
    with virtually identical bullet diameter and much shorter case length as well bit smaller overall length. First fact means, it could use rifling same as used in .38 Special revolvers (c.f. S&W Victory model revolver), second fact means, that with properly machined chambers it would prevent loading of .38 Special by mistake, third that cylinders might be bit shorter thus further reducing mass [maybe not big deal, but if they wanted smallest mass it is logical solution]. Regarding ballistic:
    M41: 130 gr at 725 fps
    .38-200 Mk I: 200 gr at 620 fps
    sadly do not know barrel length used to obtain these data, so these values might deceptive.

    • Good point, but this requires the development of more tooling for the new cylinders to avoid production problems. That, coupled with having to use the .38 British style round can cause some headaches with regards to making another cartridge set, requirements of which need even more tooling and training of factory workers to prevent mix-ups from happening. I could be wrong…

      • Back in the Eighties, Ruger made a run of their Police Service Six in .38 S&W for the Indian national police, who had a huge store of 0.380 in ammunition, and plant to produce it, but whose Enfield and Webley revolvers in that caliber were nearly worn out.

        Having had a chance to shoot with one, I can state that recoil is next to nothing, and accuracy in fast double-action work is easy with a little practice.

        I still maintain that the .38 S&W is unfairly derided as a service and self-defense cartridge. Given good shot placement, it is more than powerful enough to get the job done, and with its low recoil impulse, it’s much easier to learn than some more powerful rounds are.

        cheers

        eon

      • “That, coupled with having to use the .38 British style round can cause some headaches with regards to making another cartridge set, requirements of which need even more tooling and training of factory workers to prevent mix-ups from happening.”
        Well, most ammunition plant anyway produces different cartridge at one time, so adding one more should not result in huge organization problem.
        Finally, we are talking about 1950s Air Force, saying “rich” would be… mild, for someone buying 118 flying machines known as B-58:
        http://randolphbrewercom.fatcow.com/b58/history_operations.php
        each B-58 literally worth more than its weight in gold

    • Those were the quoted ballistics for the .38-200 from the 5″ barrel of the Enfield MK I DA revolver. Interestingly, due to the Geneva Convention, the .38 Enfield, Webley MK IV, and S&W Victory Model during the war all used a 178-gr. FMJ at 725 F/S, delivering roughly 200 FPE at the muzzle, or about the energy of the old .455 Webley with a 225 grain bullet at 650.

      Most Commonwealth personnel using the above stated that Axis personnel shot with the .38 fell down about as fast as those shot with the old .455.

      The only real safety issue with the 0.380in revolvers was that they would chamber and fire 9 x 19mm ammunition. While this was actually done “on purpose”, notably by resistance personnel when no other ammunition was available, it is highly inadvisable due to the gross disparity in breech pressures (14,500 PSI for .38 S&W vs. 35,000 PSI for 9 x 19mm).

      cheers

      eon

      • From reading a novel (very credible, actually a diary) capturing events relative to air-raids on German territory during WWII, I remember the air-crew were equipped by compact .38 caliber revolvers.
        I do not recall however, a story of anyone within the time-frame and involved units (Czech and Slovak crews flying Vickers Wellingtons) ever had chance to use them in self-defence. They were flying in first part of war at night only.

        For most part, those struck with bad fortune died (mostly badly burned) right in the air or landed so badly injured that they could not use their sidearm anyway. To use such means in enemy territory would be practically suicidal anyway. I even doubt that the token amount in German currency and area map as part of the kit would be of much use.

        But I realize talking about guns is lot more fun.

        • “To use such means in enemy territory would be practically suicidal anyway.”
          Depend on situation, it might be useful to prevent being lynched by roused crowd.
          Keep in mind that surrender to German military might be better option that being instantly lynched. Surely this did not guaranteed survival, but at least give chance.

          • American bomber gunners and fighter pilots were mob-lynched in Japan as revenge for the towns they fire-bombed. I should mention that school kids constituted the majority of the victims per bombing raid, so their parents retaliated by killing the stranded airmen with kitchen knives. Not joking!

          • On 26 April 1943 (Easter Monday, in Italy a traditional holiday), in the operation “easter egg” 45 B-17 attacked the city of Grosseto between 14:00 and 14:30, killing 205 people, 40 of them children, many of them among the crowd that was attending a fairy. One of the bombers, shot down by AA fire, crash landed near the site of the fairy. Of the two pilots survived, one made the mistake to draw pistol and threaten the raging mob. He was knocked down by a fireman and lynched on the spot. The one that didn’t touch the pistol survived.

          • That was later in the war when the populace was completely hostile to the “Luftgangsters.” Early in the war when British airman and author Eric Williams of “The Wooden Horse” fame was shot down and captured, the civilians gave him beer and sausage and sang songs with him. Once the Americans joined this fraternization ended.

          • That was later in the war when the populace was completely hostile to the “Luftgangsters.” Early in the war when British airman and author Eric Williams of “The Wooden Horse” fame was shot down and captured, the civilians gave him beer and sausage and sang songs with him. Once the Americans joined this fraternization ended.

    • The specs of the M41 are similar to those of the .38 Long Colt too (US service cartridge 1892–1909 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.38_Long_Colt ). Production-wise the .38 LC is simply a shorter case .38 Special (so no special tooling needed) Having the .38 LC a shorter case than the .38 special, the cylinders could have been easily made so to make the loading of standard .38 Special ammos in it by mistake impossible (the case of the .38 Special was longer exactly to avoid this).

  3. Couldn’t one just replace the cylinder with a steel one from the Cobra or other lightweight model and use commercial 38 Special ammunition? As opposed to destroying the whole revolver.

  4. This comes on the tail end of an era where the Air Force was briefly seen as the absolute of US military doctrine. If the Navy had been allowed that same latitude, we’d be drooling over brass and monel 1911s.

  5. The .38 Long Colt dates from the 1870’s, originally with a heeled bullet, of around .360 diameter. Sometime after 1900 it was decided to use a more standard bullet that seated inside the case of .357 diameter, but with a hollow base to fire more accurately in the older larger bore revolvers. Around the same time S&W lengthened the case by about an 1/8 inch to get the .38 Special. Why wasn’t the M41 made with a shorter case?

    • See “Colt Police Positive” and “Banker’s Special”. Forerunners of the Colt Police Positive Special and Detective Special, chambered for .38 Colt instead of the later .38 Special.

      Both can easily be spotted by the fact that the front end of their cylinders is exactly even with the front end of the trigger guard; the .38 Special revolvers’ cylinders finish up 3/16″ ahead of the front of the trigger guard. (.38 Colt cartridge OAL is 1.32″ vs. 1.55″ for the .38 Special; case length is 1.03″ vs. 1.16″.)

      In fact, if the old Banker’s Special jigs and etc. had been available, simply making new all-aluminum ones in .38 Colt and issuing standard .38 Colt max chamber pressure psi ammunition for same (150 gr RNL at 770 for 195 FPE and 12,000 CUP), would have made better sense, especially considering that a little later (1959-61) the Air Force was issuing .38 special ammunition with a 130-gr. FMJ at 950 (6″ barrel) to Air Police and aircrewmen armed with the later all-steel S&W M15 revolver.

      Unfortunately, it was also designated M41, just like the light-loaded .38 Special intended for the Aircrewman all-aluminum revolver. And yes, firing it in that one would have unfortunate results all around.

      It should be noted that at the time (1955 or so) the old .38 Colt was still loaded commercially by American manufacturers, and in fact is still around today, loaded by specialty ammunition makers.

      cheers

      eon

  6. Back then the air force was worried about a couple of ounces in an ejection seat weapon. Now the Air Force packs a full M4 and 120 rounds into the ejection seat. Most interesting thing is the Air Force made it a takedown gun entirely with off the shelf AR modifications.

    • In that era SAC was operating the B-36 bomber. The last propeller-driven bomber in the US Air Force. An intercontinental bomber that operated without aerial refueling. 24+ hour long flights were typical.

      It was chronically under-powered, even with 6 engines (later supplemented with 4 jet engines — for 10 engines in all). It was staffed by a crew of 15. There were no ejection seats–they wore their chutes and jumped out of the nearest window if the bell rang to evacuate.

      Wonder if cutting the weight on 15 revolvers on that under-powered plane had anything to do with this Colt?

  7. This is another gun I’d be wary of buying without some documentation that the Government wouldn’t come after it.

    • I’d be more worried that some nitwit would load it with overcharged ammunition, stick it in a vise, point it at himself, and pull the trigger via string to prove that government-order guns would sooner explode than launch any bullets down their barrels.

      • Once again, what is the point of this nonsensical crap? Are you having fun coming here and trolling every single post with your dumb, pointless idiotic comments?

        • Does “T” stand for troll? Because if you’re into insulting people to the point that they commit suicide, go back to Tumblr.

    • Let’s not worry so much about the government coming after it. If the weapon has been sold, it’s likely been boxed with papers to indicate its decommissioned status. After all, what danger could one rather anemic and horribly fragile 6-shot revolver pose against thousands of M4 Carbines and hundreds of armored police vehicles?

  8. .380-200 actually ended up with a 178 jacketed bullet. The older ‘Colt Super Police’ had a 200 gr slug. And was a knockoff of the .38 S&W.

    The S&W Terrier was made in old .38 S&W for quite a while after WWII, it shouldn’t have been such a huge leap to produce an ultra-light version that couldn’t be exposed to .38 Special.

  9. If I wanted the lightest weight possible for a handgun and was willing to use a cartridge which offered ballistics inferior to the .38 Special, and was limited to early 1950s technology and cartridges, I know what I would do.

    Take the all aluminum snubs already described, but chamber them in .32 S&W Long. The extra material in the cylinder should enable it to easily handle those pressures.

    Load the cartridge with a full metal jacket bullet. 71 grain FMJs were already being made for .32 ACP. (Which, with a full moon clip, would be even better).

    It should be lighter, still penetrate as well, and probably do as much damage as a lightly loaded .38 Special did.

    I am surprised that this was not considered. I wonder what other countries in this time period chose to do?

  10. My understanding was that the M41 cartridge was adopted in 1956, long after the Aircrewman Revolver program terminated.

    https://books.google.com/books?id=njAeBQAAQBAJ&pg=PA145&lpg=PA145&dq=us+cal+38+m41+ball+cartridge&source=bl&ots=QPTCWyXkry&sig=ACfU3U3rgrohfyPG319k0vG6M3Emjo3L4w&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj_toj82uzgAhUP8YMKHTT4Duk4ChDoATABegQIBBAB#v=onepage&q=us%20cal%2038%20m41%20ball%20cartridge&f=false

    The M41 ball cartridge had a chamber pressure of 13,000 psi and a later edition went to 16,000 psi–but I’m not aware of when the switch happened or even if the light cartridge was forced on the other branches while the Air Force used the improved load. There had been a WW2 FMJ projectile of 158 grains weight and something like 755 fps muzzle velocity from a standard test barrel–going to 130 grains and 725 fps from the test barrel (and much less from the short Aircrewman revolvers) was for the purpose of dropping chamber pressure.

    My understanding was that even with the 13,000 psi chamber pressure, the Aircrewman revolver had a service life of just 50 rounds. Talk about “carried often, fired little.”

    • David Drake was tapped by his publisher to create a protagonist who would sell back when Tom Clancy was red hot. That protagonist carried one of these.

      Thanks to Ian, now I know it was a real gun.

  11. Why aren’t you putting links to RIA page on this and other guns any more? I use to truly appreciate the direct links but even here on your own website you no longer do this, why? It’s a bit frustrating trying to match-up RIA gun your reviewing over in RIA’s site… please post links again, thank you

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