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Holding History: The Colonel’s Fitz

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Every discipline has its true relics, and in the world of combat handgunning, there are few that hold the history and consequence of Col. Rex Applegate’s “Fitz Colt.”

Well, it’s formerly the Colonel’s. It’s been on an interesting journey.

Col. Applegate’s “FitzGerald Special” currently resides in the private collection of Michael Janich, whose name you might recognize from these pages and whose face you may remember from countless magazine covers, book titles and video cases back in the Paladin Press days. He’s also the founder of Martial Blade Concepts.

Every discipline has its true relics, and in the world of combat handgunning, there are few that hold the history and consequence of Col. Rex Applegate’s “Fitz Colt.”

For any Millennials reading this, Paladin Press was where you had to go to get your odd tactical and military information in the pre-internet world. It was the organization from which you ordered books on knife fighting, combat handgunning, survival poaching, revenge, dirty tricks … all right, so maybe they didn’t always do themselves any favors in the PR department.

But Peder Lund, the co-founder, was a staunch free-speech advocate and of the opinion that information should be shared. He saw his titles as both entertainment and solid information about the real world, the kind of stuff that high school kids who dreamed of someday becoming Navy SEALs would order and enjoy as much as the man or woman who was looking to get into the mystery- or espionage-novel-writing game. Lund and co-founder Robert K. Brown (founder of Soldier of Fortune magazine) were interested in publishing what they referred to as “action topics,” and publish them they did.

Col. Applegate

At the onset of World War II, the U.S. Army realized that it needed to bring a few million men up to speed in all things fighting. Oregonian and military policeman Rex Applegate was recruited by “Wild Bill” Donovan to work with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the modern CIA, to organize a curriculum that could train the average American GI how to win fights quickly and decisively.

Applegate compiled what he could from combatives pioneers like William Fairbairn and anyone else who was willing to teach him how to stay alive in close-quarters battle. Applegate’s work was eventually published in Kill or Get Killed, a classic from 1943 that, after several updates, remains on the United States Marine Corps’ reading list to this day. If you’re a history buff, track down a copy.

The advancements he made and compiled in the world of self-defense saved innumerable lives, and there is little doubt that he can be called the founder of modern American military combatives.

ONE OF A KIND: The “TO REX FROM FITZ” Colt is pictured above with a charged moon clip and a holster in which Applegate often carried it.

The Fitz Special

The idea behind the “Fitz Special” was to streamline a revolver for defensive use. The man behind these unusual revolvers, John Henry FitzGerald, worked for Colt Firearms from 1918 until 1944. “Fitz” was also a New York State Trooper and firearms instructor, as well as a member of Colt’s sales team. Atop that, he invented the “Colt Police Silhouette Target,” the target system that folks who grew up watching black-and-white cop shows will remember as what appears to be the outline of a man with his left hand at his hip.

Depending on the source you consult, FitzGerald only crafted between 40 and 200 of these curiosities at the factory. As you could probably imagine, the combination of scarcity and these units being the great-grandfathers of modern fighting revolvers makes any extant specimen extremely valuable in both a cultural and monetary sense. The hallmarks of a Fitz Special are a shortened frame, a cutaway trigger guard, a bobbed hammer spur and a shortened barrel. There are other modifications, but none of them stand out as starkly as these.

The cut-away trigger guard was the most conspicuous modification and a product of Fitz’s time as a trooper. He was a thick, powerfully built man who’d spent time as a bare-knuckle boxer before the turn of the 20th century. As such, he had fingers that were larger than those on an average man’s hands. It was said that he preferred removing the front of the trigger guard from his revolvers because it was difficult enough for him to get his index finger on the trigger under normal circumstances, let alone while wearing patrol gloves during frigid New York winters.

It was said that he preferred removing the front of the trigger guard from his revolvers because it was difficult enough for him to get his index finger on the trigger under normal circumstances, let alone while wearing patrol gloves during frigid New York winters.

While this would be seen as an invitation to disaster in the modern world, back in the ’20s and ’30s, it was simply seen as a prudent measure on a fighting gun. After all, nothing was “safe” about being in a gunfight in the first place. Moreover, one of the draws used with the Fitz Special was an upside-down, fire-with-the-pinky technique that involved drawing from the front of the waistband and firing with the revolver inverted.

Next up, we have the bobbed hammer, which is a lot more socially acceptable in the modern climate than the aforementioned trigger-guard-ectomy. As you’ve probably already guessed, Fitz bobbed the hammer on his Special because doing so drastically reduced the possibility of the gun snagging on clothing during a draw. While this functionally made the gun a double-action-only, the inability to cock the piece for single-action fire was basically moot since Fitz was a strong proponent of rapid double-action shooting. He added checkering to the top of what was left of the hammer to allow for single-action shots on some of his conversions, but not this one.

The final of the most defining characteristics of the Fitz Colt is the docked barrel, usually to 2 inches. This specific unit began life as a 6-inch-barreled Colt New Service, and these optimizations for fast draws and bullets on-target at combat distances are why I consider Fitz the first true innovator of the modern snub-nosed revolver. His mods started the handgunning world down the road to carry pieces chambered in major cartridges reduced in size to packages that are quick out of a holster or a pocket.

Other modifications include a shortened ejector rod (since chopping the barrel to 2 inches would otherwise leave a decent section of the rod protruding past the muzzle), a reduced grip frame and smoothing out the factory trigger. The result was (and remains) a simply striking specimen of American firearm, the likes of which will probably never leave a factory again.

BIG IRON: Though Fitz considered his Specials “pocket guns,” that says more about trousers in the 1930s than it does about the size of this revolver.

Go Big

This particular FitzGerald Colt is chambered in .45 ACP and is charged with full-, half- or third-moon clips. While some in the modern shooting fraternity shun clip-fed revolvers, the fact remains that many shooting engagements conclude with fewer than six total rounds fired. Atop that, Applegate was an adherent to what could be called the “big bullet theory,” so I can’t help but think that he’d far rather have a moon-clip-fed revolver that allowed him to fire six rounds of .45 Auto in rapid succession, while maybe sacrificing a bit on the reload, than to run a revolver that sent a smaller bullet but could be reloaded faster. In fact, he had personal experience with that exact situation; more on that later.

FROM CUSTOM TO COMMON: The “Fitz Special” served as the prototype for the 2-inch-barreled Colt “Detective Special,” one of the most successful revolver platforms.

In-hand, the revolver reminds me that it was designed when even a normal man wearing cavalry gauntlets would put less hand to gun than I do today. Granted, had I been born in the same era as Fitz, I would have been sold to either the circus or a boxing trainer, but it’s worth mentioning. Men’s hands were smaller back in those days, so I’m getting nothing but a two-finger grip on this work of art. Even so, it is clear that this did not begin life as a small firearm and remains anything but dainty. Though Fitz shortened and smoothed it, it’s still a hefty piece of iron that is by no means a “pocket gun” by modern standards.

Between how it rolled off the line and Fitz’s trigger job, this is one of the smoothest triggers I’ve ever run on a double-action revolver and a prime example of what Colt was putting out in the pre-War years. The grip scales are ivory and emblazoned with the “rampant colt” logo, and the re-finish for which Rex sent it off to Colt sometime after the war remains excellent. On the right side of the frame, someone scrolled, “TO REX FROM FITZ.” As Janich will be the first to tell you, there’s no telling who had it engraved there — FitzGerald himself or, as something of a showman his entire life, Applegate — but either way, the provenance of the gun is unquestionable: This is a legit Fitz Colt, and it was given, by FitzGerald, to Rex Applegate, an American fighting legend.

RARE FIND: FitzGerald was also an author, and his 1930 book “Shooting” remains one of the most collected in the handgunning world.

“I got it from Peder [Lund] when he was helping Carole [Applegate] settle the estate,” Janich told me during his visit to the USCCA’s Content Creation Center in 2018. “Peder was going to help her sell the guns, and for his trouble, she offered him any two that he wanted, which included the Fitz and his old [Smith & Wesson] ‘Lemon Squeezer’ .38 S&W. That’s another interesting one; that’s the gun that made him lean on Smith & Wesson to make the Centennial.

“Back in 2003, [Lund] told me he was going to sell them. I’d been privileged enough to work with the Colonel for many years; been mentored by him; shot, edited and produced his videos; and was honored to co-author a book titled Bullseyes Don’t Shoot Back [with him]. I knew I wanted the guns, but I wasn’t certain I could afford them. I told him that I wasn’t comfortable taking possession of them until we worked out a price.

“One day, Peder set them on my desk in a plastic shopping bag and told me that he’d taken my past with the Colonel into account and decided that there was nowhere else he could think of that they should be.”

The understanding was that as long as Janich wasn’t going to sell them, they were his to keep. Lund passed away in 2017.

Either way, the provenance of the gun is unquestionable: This is a legit Fitz Colt, and it was given, by FitzGerald, to Rex Applegate, an American fighting legend.

History Class

A trip out to Janich’s residence checked off a lot of boxes for me as a lifelong student of self-defense and combat handgunning. Not only was I in the home of the man I remembered from the covers of so many magazines and from the books and videos I saw in so many catalogs, I also got to interact with artifacts from the evolution of the American fighting handgun. I was cycling the actions on revolvers that had passed through the possession of some of the most influential names in the tactical world, from instruction and technique to publishing and ethos. It was as if I’d been permitted to briefly reach back in time and shake hands with the men who formed the world in which I currently work.

Atop everything else though, Janich being kind enough to let me paw at a few of his historically important guns, knives and documents was a reminder that what is state-of-the-art today will someday be relegated to the oddity pile — proof that what is currently considered acceptable and prudent will not always be so. When you’re lucky enough to dig back into the past, these kinds of realities jump out at you, and they’re potent evidence that what is shall not always be and that what was may well be best left alone.

Either way, it’s a heck of a way to spend an afternoon, and I think even Peder, Fitz and the Colonel would have agreed on that.

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