The Colt Woodsman Revisited

posted on February 10, 2023
Woodsman Wleft
Photos by Christopher Olsen

For a big hunk of the 20th century, Colt’s Manufacturing produced a semi-automatic pistol generally regarded as the ne plus ultra in sporting handguns. Assuredly, the Woodsman was a fine handgun, used in varied roles ranging from being part of a national champion's battery of competition guns to serving as terminator in a slaughterhouse. Originally added to the Colt catalog in 1915 on a John Browning patent, the Woodsman did not get the name we use now until the 1920s. There were several different models, but the catchy moniker was commonly applied to all of them. The Woodsman was a high-end rimfire pistol, a type of gun that seems to find its way into the catalog of every handgun maker worthy of the name. Several makers have offered some sort of general-purpose, .22-cal. handgun, but Colt spared nothing in creating the Sport, Target and Match Target Woodsman.

Colt Target Woodsman handgun pistol left-side view nra museum stamp


Above: an original Colt Woodsman Match Target pistol, currently on display at the NRA National Firearm Museum in Fairfax, Va.

One of these classic pistols is the arm you see here, a much-modified Match Target. The Target model differs from the Match Target in that it has a simpler, lighter barrel. I acquired my first Woodsman when one of my fellow members of the sheriff's department inherited a scraggly assortment of guns, including a Target Model Woodsman. The gun was in sound mechanical condition, but the right side was rusted very badly. It had little collector value at the time, was incredibly ugly, and I got it cheap. As a Target Model, the gun had the round, tapered barrel, but the gun's real purpose was to satisfy my curiosity about the Woodsman in general. As was the case with many other shooters, I was drawn to the Woodsman for its elegant styling. Though it shot just fine, it had deep surface pits that made the case for a future rebluing project, too.

Colt Woodsman 22 caliber rimfire pistol handgun right-side view on white nra museum stamp

After a fair amount of comparative shooting, I settled on another maker's rimfire pistol for serious target work, and the Woodsman went down the road. But the lure of that stylish, graceful design was always there. Part of that visual appeal of the gun is the rakish angle to the butt. Actually, this angle of the grip is likely necessary for proper feeding of the rimmed cartridges. If the gun is to be used for one-handed target shooting, a grip angle more like the M1911 is much superior, but that hasn’t stopped folks from enjoying the Woodsman for such purposes.

In order to get this particular project started and fill a void in my heart, I found a good used Match Target gun on an online site and set about developing modifications. I decided I wanted to modify this classic competition model into the smallest field gun possible. Also, if at all possible, I wanted to alter the grip angle to be as much like the M1911 for shootability. Since the Woodsman is an all-steel handgun, the only way to make it lighter and more pocketable is to cut away material. The project gun I had to work with was a Second Model Match Target with 6” barrel. This model came with a magazine catch in the style of the M1911. It is a push-in button, aft of the trigger guard on the left side and quick to the touch. I can't actually visualize the need for a speed reload of a .22, but its location is where I like to see all magazine-release buttons. 

Colt Woodsman grip frame butt

Interestingly, it's the M1911-style magazine catch on this target model that provides the means by which the butt shape can be slightly altered. Other Woodsman models have a simple latch on the heel of the butt. Believe it or not, it is a rather easy matter to round the butt of a Woodsman, and it’s accomplished somewhat the same way that modern-day pistolsmiths round off, or create a “carry cut” on the lower rear corner of a M1911. This was the first step in the alteration, and it worked very well. The late Terry Tussy did all of the work. But, after a few sessions of experimental shooting, it became obvious that the front edge of the butt section needed to be altered.

right side custom colt woodsman

Here, the pistolsmith added material through welding, then shaped the material through grinding and filing until perfection. The addition to the bottom front edge, the toe of the butt, thereby matches the curve created at the heel. Doing this creates a completely different feel to the pistol, and it requires custom-made grip panels.

Let's take a look at the custom sights that I asked Tussey to put on the little Colt. For many years, I have been looking at sights by Wayne Novak when I really want to hit something. Novak does not make a standard rear sight for the Woodsman, but my gunsmith was able to adapt another model for this project. The front sight we worked in is a plain black Patridge on a graceful ramp. Sight alignment with the little rimfire is traditional black-on-black.

Colt woodsman novak rear sight custom installation example gun pistol

Since I was working on a somewhat miniaturized .22 LR pistol, the factory-original barrel had to be replaced or modified. The factory barrel was 6” in length and had a heavy underlug to somewhat mimic the contours of the M1911 pistol. The lug is solid metal, with no function other than shifting the gun's weight forward to improve balance in one-handed match shooting. Tussy cut the original back to 3” and finished the muzzle with a recessed crown. It will fit in a jacket pocket for easy carry, while retaining the accuracy and trigger system of the original.

Colt Woodsman muzzle pistol gun handgun custom made gunsmithing

While I was generally very pleased with the feel and look of the short, little Woodsman, I had one more hurdle to manage. These pistols come from the factory with hardwood grips, complete with checkering and a thumbrest. After the butt modifications have been made, those original grips no longer fit. The solution came with a pair of custom grip panels. There are a few makers who specialize in custom grips, so for this project, I asked Rob Rowen of Virginia if he could to make me a set of grips. From his shop, Rowen makes specialized handgun grips and enjoys a sterling reputation. As it turns out, the grips needed on my custom Woodsman were exceptionally difficult to manufacture because of the complex inletting required on the inside of the grip panels. And I didn't even have the original grips to copy.

stock panels for colt woodsman custom wood exotic

On a number of special project custom handguns lately, I have used exotic materials. Much of it is wood and, most often, the wood comes from Cook Woods of Oregon. In this case, the material was red-orange cocobolo harvested in Central America. This wood yard has an incredible array of exotic material, all displayed on one of the best-organized websites you'll ever see. Careful choice of wood, combined with Rowen's skill, produced an elegant set of grips for this elegant, little gun.

I am aware that some readers don't like to see classic handguns as heavily modified as I am prone to do. I don't do anything to any gun that has serious collector value. My little field Woodsman .22 is a handy little classic rimfire that travels easily, gladdens the eye and pleases the hand.


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