So Light it was Unsafe: The Colt M13 Aircrewman Revolver

Strategic bombers being shot down over hostile territory was still a real concern in the 1950s. Standoff systems were still in the future and, even then, policy might dictate direct attacks by bombers, as it did in the skies over North Vietnam. So, in 1951, the US Air Force, specifically Strategic Air Command, contracted with Colt to produce a lightweight emergency sidearm for the aircrew of its strategic bombers.

B36 Peacemaker and Colt M13 Aircrewman revolver
The B36 Peacemaker was the frontline American strategic bomber when the Colt M13 was ordered by Strategic Air Command.

The result, as Ian McCollum of Forgotten Weapons tells us in the video linked below, was the M13 “Aircrewman” Revolver, also produced by Smith & Wesson. Curiously, the Colts and the Smiths received the M13 designation, despite being different designs whose parts were not interchangeable. The only thing they had in common was the M13 Aircrewman moniker and the fact that they both met the same specs laid out by the Air Force. Colt eventually built 1,189 M13s in 1951 and 1952, though Smith & Wesson, brought into the contract in 1953, ended up producing the vast majority of Aircrewman revolvers.

Colt M13 Aircrewman Revolver
The Colt M13 Aircrewman came in at a feather light 11 ounces.

So, how light was the Colt M13?

Ian’s video deals with the Colt since that’s the model he has to hand. The Aircrewman is a modified version of the lightweight Colt Cobra. It was chambered in .38 Special with a capacity of 6 rounds. It weighed an astounding 11 ounces fully loaded. The secret to the light weight was the aluminum alloy frame and cylinder. The only steel component on the gun was the 2-inch barrel. As Ian notes, “It is just incredibly lightweight, and I can only imagine how unpleasant it is to shoot.” But he does allow that pleasant handling of your emergency sidearm is likely of little concern if you should have a strategic bomber shot out from under you somewhere over the Soviet Union.

Colt M13 Aircrewman Revolver cylinder open
The M13’s aluminum alloy cylinder and frame were the secrets to its light weight.

Ian believes the requirement for such a light gun came from calculating the G-forces imposed on a pilot or crewman ejecting from a jet aircraft. America’s front-line strategic bomber in 1951 was the six-engine prop-driven B-36 Peacemaker, but SAC knew the jet powered B-52 was on the way. They may have wanted to minimize the stress those increased Gs put on the airmen’s bodies.

Colt M13 Aircrewman Revolver sights
The sights are a simple groove in the top strap and front blade. The top strap does have some anti-glare texturing.

What to Look For

The M13 Aircrewman is one of the rarest modern Colt revolvers out there because most were recalled and destroyed by the Air Force. That means they are often faked by unscrupulous sellers. Here are some high points to look for if you run across a Colt version:

Colt M13 Aircrewman Revolver US Air Force stamps
The M13 has US Air Force stamps on the backstrap and the bottom of the butt.
  • The backstrap is stamped “Property of U.S. Air Force.” Some legit guns may have this stamp ground off because people were afraid the guns were stolen from the government, but most will have it. (See photo)
  • The bottom of the butt will be stamped “A.F. No.” followed by the Air Force serial number. The numbers will be 1 (perhaps 001?) through 1,189. Ian’s example is “A.F. No. 413.” (See photo)
  • The Air Force serial number is not the Colt serial number. You can find that stamped on the frame and crane when the cylinder is opened. (See photo).
  • The M13 is not represented by a particular batch of serial numbers. They fall within the range of other Colt lightweight revolvers, which is 2901 LW through 7775 LW. (See photo)
  • The grip medallions feature the US Air Force shield instead of the Colt emblem. (See photo)
  • The left side of the barrel is stamped “Aircrewman” and “.38 Special CTG.”
Colt M13 colt serial number
The M13’s Colt serial number can be seen on the frame and crane when the cylinder is opened.

“You’ll put your eye out.”

Which brings us to the main problem of the M13: the aluminum alloy cylinder. Being aluminum, the cylinder couldn’t handle regular .38 Special loads. So, the Air Force developed a special cartridge designated the M41. It was a low-pressure .38 Special load with a 130-grain full metal jacket projectile that traveled at 725 feet per second. The M13 was perfectly safe to fire with this ammunition.

grip medalions featuring US Air Force shield. Colt icon on the frame.
The grip medallions on the Colt M13 feature the US Air Force shield. Note the Colt icon on the frame.

The problem was that someone might try shooting regular .38 Special ammo, which was very unsafe since it was much too powerful for the aluminum cylinder. The Air Force ultimately decided that the risk was too great and recalled the guns. Most were recovered and destroyed in 1959.

They didn’t get them all though. Ian speculates that, over the course of the eight years the guns were in service, many guys retired and kept their sidearms. The record keeping was apparently not what it might have been. Some guys may have just neglected to turn them in or consciously decided not to. Whatever the reason, some found their way into private hands, where they remain today. As we said earlier, they are rare, but they do exist in the wild.

Aircrewman Revolver 2-inch barrel
The 2-inch barrel is the only steel component in the M13 Aircrewman.

The Air Force replaced the M13 with a similar gun equipped with a steel cylinder. Turns out the weight increase didn’t really matter much after all. They did continue to issue the guns with the M41 ammo, but they could also handle regular .38 Special loads.

Aircrewman Revolver
An interesting gun, just be sure you have the right ammo for it.

So, there you have it. A pretty cool little gun that might put your eye out if you fire it with the wrong ammo. Anyone ever seen one of these? Let us know in the comments, and happy shooting y’all.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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