The Colt That Never Was: Colt’s SSP Pistol

By Charles Q. Cutshaw

That Colt’s Manufacturing has had its share of problems in recent years is widely known throughout the firearms community. New management at Colt’s will hopefully eliminate some of these, but lack of really new products continues to plague the company. What new products that have been introduced have by and large been based on older designs. For example, the new Pocket Nine 9x19mm concealed carry pistol is little more than a modified Colt Pony. Colt’s rifle sales of their AR-15 rifles and it variants are good, especially to military and law enforcement customers, but pistol sales to these clients are virtually nonexistent. Nonetheless, there is a market for a double action/single action or double action only automatic pistol for law enforcement use and commercial sales. The .40 Smith & Wesson and 9x19mm calibers, especially the former, are both “hot tickets” in law enforcement and personal protection at the moment and will continue to be strong contender in those markets, although the .45ACP market in law enforcement is beginning to make a comeback and has great potential for the near future. In the wake of the Los Angeles “shoot out,” it is significant to note that the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) changed to .45 ACP pistols for its officers and bought significant numbers of 5.56x45mm carbines. This trend is expected to continue, but Colt has no 9mm, .40 S&W or .45 ACP pistol with which to compete against Glock, SIG, Smith & Wesson and Ruger. Or does it?

In the early 1970’s Colt engineers designed a pistol that would not only have been competitive at the time, but also in today’s highly challenging market. At a recent visit to the Colt factory in Hartford, CT, we actually saw one of the approximately 50 SSP (Stainless Steel Pistol) pre-production handguns that was produced in preparation for production. The handgun we handled was in .45 ACP, but the gun was designed to be produced simultaneously in 9x19mm, as well. The .40 S&W caliber did not exist at the time, so it was not considered. Why Colt did not manufacture the SSP remains a mystery. No one at Colt’s whom we asked could tell us the reasoning behind the decision, but all agreed that the pistol was a superb design and that it would still be viable in today’s market, especially for law enforcement, many of whom would buy Colt pistols, if there were viable ones in existence. After examining the SSP, we believe that the pistol would be a welcome addition to Colt’s current product line and that it could be put into production in a relatively short time. It could also form the basis for a new line of pistols for military, commercial and law enforcement markets. In fact, Colt had plans to submit the SSP for the military competition that resulted in procurement of the contentious M9, but did not participate. The SSP might not have won, but it would have been a strong contender, despite consistent but unconfirmed rumors that the Beretta was a “done deal” from the beginning as an “offset” for Italy’s purchase of an American missile system. According to sources at Colt’s, all the engineering design for the pistol was completed many years ago and a complete technical data package (TDP) for production exists. In fact, the SSP was purportedly in pre-production status when the project was terminated in the early 1980s. I was told that many of the approximately 50 pistols manufactured in the pre-production run found their way into the hands of Colt employees of the time. One employee with whom I discussed the SSP told me that he had an SSP both in 9mm and .45ACP! Colt collectors take note!!

The SSP is a locked-breech, short recoil operated, detachable magazine fed, double/single action stainless steel handgun. Due to its modular design, the SSP could be converted to double action only (DAO) in a matter of moments by simply replacing the fire control assembly, if a DAO action were desired by the user and COLT provided one. In its .45ACP version, the SSP carries 12 + 1 rounds in its double stack magazine; in 9mm, its magazine capacity is 14 + 1. The pistol’s safety is fully ambidextrous and incorporates a positive hammer block and firing pin safety that releases the firing pin only when the safety is in the “fire” position and the trigger is squeezed. The safety itself has four functions. It blocks the hammer to prevent it from striking the firing pin; it decocks the hammer by disconnecting the sear; it captures and holds the inertia firing pin and allows a round to be chambered with the pistol set to “safe.” The separate internal firing pin safety, as mentioned must “see” two events in order to release the firing pin. The safety must be in the “fire” position and the trigger squeezed. Without both events, the SSP cannot be fired. The internal safety also serves as a “drop safety” which prevents unintended discharge if the pistol is dropped. The Colt engineers wisely omitted the silly and potentially dangerous magazine safety that some other manufacturers have incorporated into their pistol designs and that most users deactivate as soon as they get their new pistols home from the gun shop. For those who might desire it, the SSP was fitted with a retractable lanyard loop.

We found the ergonomics of the SSP that we handled to be excellent. The slide release and safety were easily reached. The safety is “safe” in the down position, so that all the shooter has to do to release it is press it forward. It should be noted however, that the SSP’s other safety features make it perfectly safe to carry with the safety in the “fire” position and the hammer down, as the internal firing pin safety prevents the firing pin from striking the cartridge unless the trigger is depressed. The SSP was never intended to be carried in “condition one” or “cocked and locked” as with the venerable Colt 1911/1911A1. Thus, the SSP’s first shot is going to always be double action unless the shooter manually cocks the hammer prior to firing. The grip angle of the SSP is virtually identical to that of the 1911, but somewhat thicker due to the “double stack” high capacity magazine. It approximates the Browning High Power in overall size, but has a more rounded contour. The pistol handled and pointed extremely well. The slide rails are internal, similar to those of the CZ75, enabling the slide and barrel to be mounted lower in the frame to help minimize felt recoil. The magazine release is in exactly the same location in relation to the thumb as on the M1911A1 and the magazine drops free when it is depressed. The slide stop is internal with an external release, again positioned almost exactly as on the M1911A1.

The rear sight is adjustable for windage and both front and rear sights are fitted in dovetails for easy removal. This gives the shooter the appealing option of fitting after-market sights with a minimum of difficulty or replacing damaged sights without taking the pistol to a gunsmith.

The SSP disassembles for cleaning without tools, unless one wishes to remove the fire control assembly, which requires removal of a single screw. Disassembly of the SSP is as follows:

1. Set safety to “safe.”
2. Remove magazine.
3. Pull slide to the rear and ensure that the pistol is empty.
4. Hold or lock slide to the rear and rotate the takedown lever forward and down.
5. Rotate safety lever up to the “fire” position.
6. Depress slide stop and allow slide to move forward off the receiver.
7. If desired, remove fire control housing screw from bottom of receiver.
8. Grasp hammer and lift the fire control assembly up and out of the receiver. NOTE: The decocking lever and firing pin stop assembly lever are held in place only by the inner sides of the receiver and both are likely to fall free from the fire control assembly when it is removed from the pistol. These parts must be retained for reassembly!
9. To disassemble slide assembly, press the recoil spring slightly forward and lift rear end of recoil spring and recoil spring guide clear of the barrel.
10. Lift barrel clear of slide.

The magazine is disassembled by simply pressing in on the spring retainer in the center of the floor plate and sliding the floorplate forward off the magazine while controlling the magazine spring to ensure that it does not fly out of the magazine body. The magazine itself is very similar in design and construction to that of the Browning High Power. Once the pistol and magazine are field stripped as outlined above, no further operator disassembly is recommended.

Assembly is essentially the reverse of disassembly with three exceptions. If the fire control unit has been removed, the decocking lever and firing pin stop must be held in place against the sides of the control housing while it is reinserted into the frame. Once the fire control unit has been reassembled to the frame, the hammer must be cocked before assembling the slide to the receiver and finally, the ejector must be pressed down as the slide is moved to the rear. Once the slide is in position, it must be pulled fully rearward to allow the takedown lever to be rotated back into its engaged position.

As can be seen from the photographs, the SSP was a very attractive pistol. The two-tone matte stainless finish was esthetically pleasing, while the overall proportions made it appear to be a logical successor to the venerable Government Model of 1911. At the same time, the innovations of the SSP placed it well ahead of its time for the 1970s. In fact, the pistol would probably be viable in today’s market, should Colt’s choose to produce it. One can only speculate as to why the SSP was not put into production. If it had been, the US pistol market would almost certainly be quite different than it is today. The SSP could have been the baseline for an entire series of modern handguns in much the same way that the Glock 17 has formed the basis for a large array of standard, medium and compact pistols in many different calibers. As it is, we understand that the technical data package for the SSP is still in existence. Perhaps the new management at Colt’s will reexamine the SSP and yet bring it to life. As it is, there are only approximately 50 pre-production SSPs in existence. A few made their way into the hands of private collectors, but it is unknown how many survive today. The SSP is thus one of the rarest Colt pistols and virtually priceless to collectors. The example we were shown at the Colt factory in Hartford was chambered in .45 ACP, but 9mm examples were also produced. We were given an original operator’s manual for the 9mm version. How many of each were manufactured, nobody whom we asked at Colt’s could say. The total in both calibers, however, is less than a hundred, probably closer to 50.

The author has recommended to Colt’s management that they consider producing the SSP as soon as practicable with a .40S&W version added. We believe that the SSP makes sense today for a number of reasons. First, it is still a modern design - from the example we saw, as good as any pistol on the market today. Second, Colt has no truly new and innovative pistols to compete in today’s highly competitive handgun market. All of their recent new products save for the All American 2000 have been derived from older designs. (I do not include the recently introduced Colt Cowboy, as it is essentially a 130 year old design despite being different than the Model P.) Even the Pocket Nine, announced at the 1999 SHOT Show, is a scaled up Colt Pony. Colt has no pistols for the law enforcement market and the SSP would give them one. The law enforcement market is relatively small, but that is no reason to surrender approximately 50 per cent of it to a single foreign company simply by default. The SSP’s modular firecontrol unit makes the pistol especially attractive for this market. The SSP is certainly not a Glock, but its versatility in its ability to be changed to different firing modes by simply removing one fire control unit and inserting another makes it just as unique. The SSP today is the Colt that never was, but if there is sufficient demand from the shooting public, perhaps it could yet be put into production.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V2N9 (June 1999)
and was posted online on April 8, 2016


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