You may have never heard of J.H. FitzGerald, but if you are a handgunner then you probably owe more to him that you think. Not only is he responsible for the promotion, though not the invention, of the “snub nose revolver”, he is largely responsible for changing the ideas of police training with the invention of the Colt Practical Police Target – which is not at all a bad target even in today’s world of advanced thought. He also promoted “Practical Shooting” – a term almost unrecognized in his day.
Known simply as “Fitz” to his many fans and friends, J.H. FitzGerald was already well known in serious shooting circles by the time he gave into pressure to put his knowledge down on paper. Born in 1876, Fitz first became fairly well known as a prize fighter. He was a large man and very fit. He had an interest in firearms and eventually came to work for the Iver Johnson firearms folks in their outlet store in Boston MA. By 1918 he had moved over to Colt, where he became legendary.
By virtue of being an excellent shot he became one of their authorities not only on the use of Colt handguns but also on the mechanics of them.
Some will no doubt recognize at least the nick name by recalling the handgun that Fitz is most often associated with; “The Fitz Special” which was actually offered at times as a custom offering by Colt. Estimates of how many of these there actually are varies between 50 and 100 but of course there have been many copies and so dozens of examples are still out there. A well documented Fitz Special in the box can bring a fortune however.
While Fitz was an excellent shot and often served as an exhibition shooter for Colt he was so much more. While many today might not want to modify their handguns as drastically, the ideas behind the gun were meant to be practical in nature. Fitz liked big bullets and short barrels so normally shortening the gun was in order since there were not many “snub nosed” revolvers in that day and the ones that did exist in factory form were usually .32s or .38s. Fitz started normally with a Colt New Service in either .45 Colt or a 1917 in .45 ACP/Auto rim and cut the barrel to somewhere between 2 and 3 inches. The trademark modification was cutting off the front of the trigger guard and then often the grip frame would be rounded off and even shortened to promote concealability. The hammer spur was usually removed to make the gun snag free for concealed carry. Normally the single action (SA) notch was left stock in the gun so it could be cocked for a deliberate shot and often the top of the hammer was checkered or serrated to help facilitate cocking without slipping off the hammer. The hidden modification was, that being a past master at the workings of a revolver (and autos also by the way) he would perform an action job making the revolver more shootable.
Even though he leaned toward big bullets there are several .38s on both Police Positive and Official Police frames noted. It is claimed that Colt had two Official Police guns in “.41 Special” in their possession for many years but I have never seen a picture of these guns, let alone seen one in person.
The Fitz Special was actually so widely known in its day that Capt. William E. Fairbairn mentioned it as a favorite gun in his small but hugely important work Shooting To Live. Capt. Fairbairn, as the Superintendant of the Shanghai Municipal Police, formed his opinions of firearms in the crucible of hundreds of gunfights which occurred with that outfit, over 200 of them in which he or his second in command, Capt. Eric Sykes participated in personally. He too preferred big bullets.
While I am personally not much taken with the idea of cutting off the trigger guard of a revolver, the adherents claimed that it made for a faster draw and first shot. I may be skeptical on that but at the same time one must admit, the fellows in that era were actually much faster and apparently amazingly effective – Folks like Ed McGivern and Jelly Bryce and even Fitz himself put on demonstrations of what can only be described as phenomenal speed and accuracy not really equaled by anyone I am aware of today. If you think we can shoot today, try hitting 6 two inch glass balls thrown into the air simultaneously with your .45 caliber revolver – with bullets, not shot! Then catch all of them breaking in a 1 second time lapsed photo – as Ed McGivern did at the Montana State Fair!
But, as I indicated at the outset, there was much more to Fitz than just his gunsmithing work or his outstanding marksmanship. In his book Shooting, which was first published in 1930 (when Fitz was 54) a significant portion is devoted to his thoughts on what he termed “Practical Shooting”.
The mission as defined by Fitz himself was:
“Practical shooting is the placing of your bullets in the human body in such a manner that said human will be unable to shoot at you. The penalty for not being able to do this is the loss of your own life.”
Fitz was very familiar with sport shooting and even hunting with a handgun, but he felt it important to develop these practical shooting skills or, as he pointed out, being both fast and accurate on a relevant target. He developed the Colt Silhouette target which may not have been the first human silhouette but I sure haven’t seen any historical reference to others. Note that not only did he define areas of the target that were higher value he indicated a fairly small are near the heart that was the actual goal of the practical shooter. While it did not award higher points it was used as the “tie breaker” and so really was fairly important in scored drills. Personally, I would have given it twice as many points. I would also move it up a few inches but that is being picky.
Worth noting is that at a time when police trained to shoot on bullseye targets, shooting one handed, cocking the gun to fire it in single action, Fitz was an advocate of both DA revolver work as well as using the Colt 1911 .45 Auto. He also broke new ground with a preferred stance and two handed hold for shooting at further than bad breath distances. This may look familiar to you. It is worth noting that this picture was taken before Jack Weaver and Jeff Cooper were out of short pants! There is no implied criticism in that statement. Fitz worked with Colt up until 1944 and there is no indication that he had a wholesale impact on police shooting in general, other than perhaps a large number of departments were using his target in the 1950s.
It was indeed Jeff Cooper who changed the shooting world after his research of the practical use of the handgun in the late 1950’s and he was in the right place at the right time by having a popular venue to promote his findings. There is not a doubt in my mind that he is the primary reason we shoot with two hands, when we can, and on the whole are much faster and more accurate than the average folks of the past… but it is also good to remember that some folks, although rare, knew a thing or two quite some time ago.
John Henry Fitzgerald, we owe you a debt!