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56 Years Ago, Crosman Gave Us a Sense of Reality

Welcome to the “Was”

This was as good as it got in the 1960s when it came to an authentic-looking CO2 model of a centerfire handgun. And it was a Smith & Wesson-style revolver. In the 1960s and 1970s the vast majority of uniformed and plain clothed police, state and federal lawmen, even the FBI, were still packing double action revolvers, mainly Smith & Wesson models, along with various Colt revolvers like the Detective Special. Most everyone learned to shoot back then with a revolver (unless you were in the military where the Colt M1911A1 was the primary sidearm). Even so, revolvers had proven to be the best choice in learning gun handling skills. Crosman knew this in the 1960s, but not for the reason you might suspect.

Sometimes we get so excited about what’s new, we forget about what was old and how some things haven’t really changed as much as we think, in fact, they may not be as good! Where can you find an authentic-looking CO2 revolver chambered for .22 caliber pellets? You have to go back to what was, the Crosman Combat “38” introduced in 1964. (Gun courtesy Dr. Michael Rosenfeld)
Back in the 1964, this is as authentic as CO2 revolvers got. The Crosman “38” ’s were first designed for use as .22 caliber pellet training guns for the U.S. Air Force and law enforcement, after which they were released to the public chambered in either .177 caliber or .22 caliber. Crosman knew what they had and said in the ad “ – Lawmen, Military personnel, Target shooters and other handgun enthusiasts can now compete and practice for proficiency, simulating .38 firearm shooting for less than a penny a shot.”

In a 2009 article for the New Zealand firearms publication NZGUNS (NZG&H), writer and airgun collector Trevor Adams did an extensive review of the Crosman Model 38C and 38T, and their heritage as training guns, which in 1960s were made by Crosman for use by law enforcement and the U.S. Air Force, which relied more heavily on revolvers than semi-autos. In fact, this was the initial reason that Crosman developed the 38T and 38C because the Air Force used S&W .38 Special revolvers. Crosman made the .38 series pellet models in both .177 and .22 caliber, the latter as training guns used in a program for the USAF and law enforcement. Of course, the idea of using airguns for military training had been around since before WWII; today it has just become more practical with modern blowback action CO2 models that are virtual 1:1 matches to their centerfire counterparts. Half a century ago, the manufacturing technology used today simply did not exist. Crosman made remarkable inroads with the 38T and 38C models as training guns and civilian pellet pistols that were reasonably authentic copies of .38 Special Smith & Wesson revolvers.

Although the S&W in the picture at top is the larger N-Frame, a Model 57 in .41 Magnum, you can see how well Crosman copied the contours of an S&W for their 38 series. The .22 caliber, 6-shot pellet pistol was no lightweight either with a cast alloy frame and steel parts that brought the weight of the air pistol up to a hand-filling 39 ounces.

The training program devised by Crosman was called the Moving Picture Combat Target System, which became the basis for today’s high-tech visual training programs, only in the 1960s it was an 8mm film being projected onto a paper screen where the holes from fired pellets could be reviewed for accuracy. As Adams wrote, “Scenes depicting clear and present danger and/or doubtful situations flashed on the screen before a trainee officer armed with the Crosman 38 revolver. He would shoot or hold his fire according to how he assessed the scene before him.” Crosman’s situational training program was so successful the FBI starting using it in 1960s. With that kind of acceptance by the military and law enforcement, Crosman had no problem selling the 38T (Target with 6-inch barrel) and 38C (Combat with 3.5 inch barrel) models to the civilian market, whether they just wanted a pellet pistol that looked like am S&W or for training purposes. 

In another ad, Crosman touted the comparative weight, style, size and balance of popular .38 firearms, but never went so far as to call them copies of an S&W model. The .22 caliber pellet model was the most desirable, and something you won’t find today in a CO2 revolver, which are either BB firing or .177 caliber pellet firing guns. Crosman called the new models “38 Simulators”.

Crosman Was Always a Leader

Established in 1923, over the past 97 years Crosman has become one of the best known names in airgun manufacturing, and just to point out how significant the company is, all the way back in 1931, Crosman CO2 guns were showcased at the National Camp Perry Matches.

Crosman was breaking ground in other areas we enjoy today as well, like western single actions. In 1958, Crosman was selling the Hahn “45” or more popularly, the Model 45, a 6-shot, BB firing copy of the Colt Single Action Army revolver, (more about that in a forthcoming article).

Where things quickly changed from centerfire to CO2 was in the 12 gram CO2 cartridge loaded into the grip frame, and the fact that the Crosman did not have a swing out cylinder. It did, however, have a 6-round pellet cylinder that was built in front of the fixed metal cylinder.

Having initially built S&W-style pellet revolvers for the military, state and local law enforcement agencies, and the FBI (a fascinating story of its own in the 1960s), Crosman eventually produced the 38T and 38C in three variants over a period of 17 years. The original designs used as training guns were built from 1964 to 1973, like the example pictured with the metal rear sight and cylinder; the second variant, with plastic rear sight and cylinder, from 1973 to 1976, and the third versions, manufactured until 1981 (38C), with the 6-inch barrel (38T) remaining in the Crosman line until 1985.

The patent for the Crosman design was filed in 1963 and granted on Oct. 19, 1965.

From the onset, Crosman recognized the S&W-based CO2 models were not toys, and sold them as adult air pistols, even noting in one ad from the 1970s, “A 38 shooter can use our gun and get the perfect feel. You can practice at times when you can’t get to the range! Six .22 caliber pellets in a revolving cylinder…about the only difference from the real thing is that there’s no brass to eject. The price of shooting? About a penny a shot. The price of the gun? Low enough so that every kid over 30 deserves to own one!”

Pellets were loaded into each chamber by sliding back the Pell Loader, inserting a pellet into the loading port and then loading it into the chamber by sliding the Pell Loader forward. This was done with the hammer on half cock, allowing the forward cylinder to be rotated to the next chamber until all six were loaded and the Pell Loader closed to the forward position.
One thing that has barely changed in 56 years is inserting CO2 into the grip frame of a revolver. The beautifully crafted plastic wood grain checkered grip panel on the left was designed to lift off and clamp into the sides of the grip frame and over the CO2 when inserted. It was doubly secure.

Although the Crosman 38 series air pistols were designed in the early 1960s, there are still elements of those pistols in use today on both Crosman and other CO2 revolvers. Like many of today’s CO2 revolvers, the Crosman used a 6-shot rotary magazine in front of the cylinder which rotated from chamber to chamber. The frames were cast zinc alloy with internal parts made from steel, brass and copper and the guns were nicely finished and fitted with plastic grips that had a very realist wood grain and checkered grip panels like an S&W. Plastic grips were already in use on centerfire guns, so this was not a big deal.

One little thing that has changed is seating screw design, which back in the day required a coin, a nickel fit perfectly, to lower and then tighten the CO2 seating screw. Also note the hammer mainspring in the grip frame.
The hammer release on the old Crosman is very similar to the one used on the current Triple Threat revolver. The trigger pull is designed to cock the hammer and rotate the cylinder but the hammer itself is actually triggered by the small lever protruding from the back of the trigger guard. This is depressed by the back of the trigger as you pull through. This design is used on a number of air pistols today as it simplifies the operation, just as it did when the design was conceived by New York arms maker E.T Starr in 1858. It was used on Starr’s double action and single action percussion pistols.

Taken in the context of the 1960s and 1970s, these models represented groundbreaking airgun technology that would last well beyond the life of the 38T and 38C Crosman models.

Our special thanks to Dr. Michael Rosenfeld for the loan of his Crosman 38C for this series of articles.

author avatar
Dennis Adler
Dennis Adler has been an author and contributor to Blue Book Publications since 1997 and was co-author of the First Edition Blue Book of Airguns. He is an airgun collector and enthusiast for over 20 years and wrote the Air Show column on air pistols for Combat Handguns magazine and other publications before joining the Pyramyd Air writing team. His articles appeared in the Pyramyd Air Airgun Experience blog and provided readers with expert reviews and in-depth articles.

5 thoughts on “56 Years Ago, Crosman Gave Us a Sense of Reality”

  1. Having already expressed here my wish for a.22, 5fpe, N frame S&W copy, all I can say is wow; I didn’t know about its existence. My dreams are coming back for such a revolver, along with a Colt Army 1860 off course.

  2. In the early 2000s Daisy was persuaded to offer a limited run of spring powered Single Action Peacemakers for SASS members, so retro guns can be made. Crosman should consider a Classic Series reissue if these and the sorely missed 600 semiauto. If not , a modernized version of this revolver using pellet cartridges 177 in the frame size pictured here , and a scaled up 2/ to replicate theS&W N frame. Make our day

  3. While there may be more modern looking Airgun revolvers today , none captures the look and feel of the revolver that Legendary Lawman Bill Jordan called a peace officer’s dream revolver, the S&W Combat Magnum, as well as this old Crosman. Forget the rails, polymer, optical sights. Walnut and steel, the real deal. As you will see , this revolver loads slow but it shoots fast, hard and accurate.

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