Colt Lawman “Air Marshal” Double Action Revolver a.k.a. Colt "Shields"
An experimental Colt revolver that was commissioned by Eastern Airlines
The early 1970’s – the “Golden Age of Travel” – was also period of time when airline hijacking happened OFTEN. During 1972 only, Eastern Airlines had lost 27 planes (that’s more than one plane every two weeks!!). Between 1968 and 1972, no less than 130 American Airliners and 45 Eastern Airlines planes went (or "flew") missing. This problem became so serious, Easter Airlines actually commissioned the design of a revolver – and a very special one! Eastern Airlines’ Security Director at the time, Jonathan Edward Shields, who not convinced that the Federal Sky Marshal program (which has been around since the 1960s) is the best solution against aircraft hijacking. Shields did not like the idea that Eastern Airlines would outsource its security to someone else in the plane and also give up a seat on each aircraft, each flight.
He apparently wanted to implement a more intense passenger screening pre-boarding, but that was only possible 30 years later when the technology finally evolved enough to allow for additional screenings without increasing the passenger processing time. Shield’s plan B was to arm the pilot and copilot with an Eastern Airline issued revolver. However, there were a number of concerns regarding this: 1. The first concern was, what if a bullet punctured the skin of the aircraft? Although today we know that this is a manageable situation (we have data and simulations – and sadly, experience too! – that proves this), back then it was a serious concern; there wasn’t enough data to show that if a bullet pierces the aircraft skin, nothing catastrophically happens. However, even nowadays, having all the data in, there is still a valid concern for over-penetration. 2. The second concern was what happened if the pilot / co-pilot missed the target? Airline flights are very, very target dense environments, especially in the Golden Age of Travel. If the pilot or co-pilot missed the target, a passenger might get hit. 3. The third concern was, what happened if the pilot / co-pilot did hit the hijacker, but the bullet went through right through and then hit a passenger? This seemed a reasonable valid concern as well, especially in a tight aircraft crowded by panicking people. At Mr. Shield’s request, in the early 1970s, Colt was commissioned by Eastern Airlines to develop a firearm that could be used safely onboard by the pilots, a firearm that would address all these concerns. So Colt started by addressing the bullet. The projectiles themselves were actually made out of plaster of Paris. Hence, they were very fragile - and that was the point. The way Colt addressed the concerns of the bullet going through the hijacker and hitting a passenger or the projectile producing an unwanted penetration in the aircraft skin was to make the projectile brittle enough to disintegrate on impact with basically anything. The projectile was allegedly found to be sufficiently powerful to “incapacitate” a hijacker, but brittle enough to shatter on impact and not go through the skin or the window of an aircraft.
But there are a couple of problems that come up using a plaster of Paris projectile. Plaster of Paris is a quick-setting gypsum plaster consisting of a fine white powder (calcium sulfate hemihydrate), which hardens when moistened and allowed to dry. Known since ancient times, plaster of Paris is so called because of its preparation from the abundant gypsum found near Paris. The other two types of plaster known are lime plaster (calcium hydroxide and sand), and cement plaster (a combination of plaster, sand, Portland cement and water). Plaster of Paris is the most commonly used plaster and is also called “gypsum plaster”. One of the big problems with using plaster of Paris projectiles is humidity. When plaster of Paris gets wet, it will absorb water that falls on its surface. The reason for this is that plaster of Paris is a very porous material when it is dry. Hence, water easily gets absorbed, even from the atmosphere. With regular use, plaster of Paris can be sealed. But in this case, the projectiles couldn’t be sealed because anything that would ordinarily be used to seal plaster of Paris (wax or low temp melting resins), has a lower melting point than the plaster itself and would have melted during the temperature change. So instead making an effort to seal the projectiles, these chambers of the single-use cylinder were originally sealed at the front to prevent moisture from getting in. The other problem was brittleness. These projectiles were brittle enough that if you fired one down a rifle barrel, it would disintegrate. The barrel of the Special Revolver for Airline Pilots is still rifled but in order to prevent the projectiles from disintegrating, they were housed inside plastic sabots so that they didn't actually have to be pressed into the rifling. That way, the projectile would still be spinning when it exited the bore, and it would then shed that plastic sabot and disintegrate when it hit whatever it ended up hitting. (In very basic terms, these projectiles functioned somewhat similar to miniature shotgun loads.) Next, Colt developed the right revolver to shoot these projectiles through. He fundamentally based the Eastern Airlines “Anti Hijacking Revolver” on the Colt Lawman revolvers. Colt started with the Mark III and Mark V Lawman snub-nosed revolvers designs, and replaced the cylinders with a new one made of Nylon, with six steel sleeves installed. Each sleeve held a sealed cartridge, with a plaster bullet inside a sabot. (One of the more common thermoplastic materials, Nylon is a stiff, very strong lightweight material, with outstanding bearing and wear properties.)
The part that I find to be particularly innovative is that the cylinder was disposable, meant to be discarded and replaced after use. The Nylon cylinder had these steel sleeves embedded in it, which you can see at both ends. The single use cylinder was going to be replaced after all six rounds were used. The Mark V in particular was developed by a company called "Colt Technik of Jericho New-York", which was a subsidiary of Colt. Technik converted a small number of Colt revolvers to testable prototypes. The final number produced was unknown, but at least three are known to exist. The original liability reduction plan of Eastern Airlines was to have these guns disassembled when not on board. When the pilot and copilot weren't actively flying the aircraft they would split up the gun and one of them would keep the cylinder and one would keep the frame. The idea was to prevent the inevitable situation of forgetting a loaded gun in the hotel room; and, of course, from Eastern Airlines perspective, this also limited their liability in case one of their pilots or co--pilots would get into a domestic disturbance and shoot someone illegally with their airline issued revolver. Once on board, the pilot and co-pilot would assemble the firearm together, place it in a little safe in the cockpit and hopefully leave it there and never have to use it. This was considered a safety feature; the revolver could not be loaded with a regular cylinder and vice versa – the cylinder is useless without its frame. If either component was stolen or taken from either of the pilots, they couldn’t be used with available replacement parts. One interesting design feature for these revolvers is that there is no ejector rod and there's no ejector star on the cylinder because there's nothing to eject; the chambers are integral to the cylinder. The inserts are firmly placed in the cylinder and can’t be replaced individually, loading and reloading the gun was done by replacing and disposal the used cylinder with a fresh one. The lack of the ejector rod might mislead one to think that that the cylinder cannot be taken out; there was no need to eject the spent cartridges, so the rod was completely trimmed. That trimming is even more noticeable in the case of the Lawman MK V conversion as it had a nice under barrel rod cavity left empty.
But the frame has a small stop incursion right at the bottom of the cylinder, and that is the only thing that will prevent the cylinder from coming off. If you take the cylinder crane off, the cylinder does come off very easily. That little stop incursion is the only thing holding it in. The same thing applies for putting it back in.
The guns and ammo were both tested, and indeed the brittle PoP projectiles were found to be suited to the task. The weapons were tested against goat corpses to evaluate their potential penetration into a human body, whether they would fragment (and not over penetrate), and stray shots would indeed shatter when impacting aircraft aluminum walls.
Technik submitted their designs, manufacturer drawings, and test results to Colt. Colt, however, never had the chance to deliver any of those guns the Eastern. The Eastern Airlines Board of Directors had been convinced to allow sky marshals to board Eastern’s airplanes, and thus found no point in arming and training their pilots to prevent hijackings. Especially when the airline was already paying the marshal salary and losing the ticket price of the seat.
The small number of converted revolvers eventually were sold to private gun owners and retailers. One interesting, and indeed ironic, plot twist is that whenever one of those gun or their cylinders surface to sell, they are labeled as the Sky Marshal or Air Marshal Revolver. To the best of my research efforts, I could not find if Colt ever proposed the gun to any Air or Sky Marshal program, domestic or foreign, let alone sell the gun to the public. It is likely that the name was part of creative gun retailer marketing strategy to associate the strange weapon with the well-known marshals. Ultimately, these revolvers were never put into mass production. Colt made a small number of them for trials and to show the Eastern Airlines the concept. His plan was to perfect the cylinder swap system – which was quite a time-consuming process with these first prototypes. But ultimately, the airline was convinced to accept the Sky Marshal Program instead of arming the staff. The few Colt Special Eastern Airline Revolvers that were produced were sold off relatively cheaply back then (around $9.95, which is less than $75 in our today’s dollars). When originally sold, each firearm came with one cylinder.
Nowadays, some airline pilots do carry guns in the cockpit but in order to carry a gun lawfully they must belong to a special program called the Federal Flight Deck Officers (FFDOs). This program requires special training and pilots who enroll have strict limitations on when they can use the firearm. The Federal Flight Deck Officer Program allows pilots to carry guns in the cockpit “to defend against an act of criminal violence and air piracy while attempting to gain control of an aircraft.”
The program is authorized by the 2001 Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act and is run by the Federal Air Marshal service. It was expanded to include cargo pilots in December 2003. Deputizing some pilots with firearms training as law enforcement officers with limited jurisdiction (aircraft while they are on duty) was part of the response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
While the Federal Flight Deck Officer Program has had its scrapes and embarrassments, its record remains better than that of the Federal Air Marshal Program. Indeed frustrations with the air marshals are the reason that these post-9/11 efforts to arm pilots were hardly the first time this was considered. Personal comment: These revolvers are really a great example of one of Colt’s commissioned experimental designs. I think these firearms could be particularly interesting to be developed further, especially since the technology of encasing gypsum projectiles and the capacity to work with plastic (for producing single-use cylinders) looks tremendously different nowadays. The cylinder release and replacement procedure would definitely need quite a bit of refinement, to shorten the time required in changing the cylinder. Six rounds are not too much when you have a plane hijacked. I can’t imagine not having to change the cylinder during an altercation, if these revolvers would have been mass produced. Hijackers usually work at least in pairs, if not in small groups. I would be very nervous to have a limited number of rounds, and to have to change the cylinder every six rounds. (The word on the street is that hijackers use real guns, with deadly ammo, and show little to no concern regarding firearm safety protocols and live background unintended targets or over-penetration... ) I’m also not convinced the rounds would have been lethal; I also don't think “lethal” is what Cold was going for, but it seems like the concern for the passengers weight heavier than the fear of hijacking (rightfully so!). The information I was able to find regarding the plaster of Paris projectiles is mentioning the “incapacitation” of the hijacker through their use, which is “sub-lethal” not “lethal”. Granted, almost any non-lethal arm can be pushed far enough to become lethal; probably shooting distance would make quite a difference. At any rate, this is one fabulous little revolver to own, and one that definitely made it on my wish list! The one piece that I was able to find available at an auction sold in 2020 for $4,888, but that one was in particularly good condition (99% original blue finish, sharp markings, light handling marks, and some pressure marks on the Zytel cylinder, grips - excellent with some small dings, mechanically excellent). The average estimated value for an Air Marshal Double Action is $2,000-$3,000, tho. And I really hope there are more than 3 copies out there!! Last but not least – what a wonderful world to live in, a world in which a corporation would have the g-u-t-s to commission the manufacture of a custom firearm. Just imagine the scandal in the press if a private corporation would even consider trying to do that today… Good for Eastern Airlines for considering this option!