There is no doubt that Colt’s Single Action Army revolver was the most popular sidearm on the western frontier, but it wasn’t the only one. Colt had competition for the dollars of the gun buying public, and its most successful competitor was Smith & Wesson. In a way Colt was lucky, because it could easily have been Smith & Wesson at the top of the heap instead of Colt.
Smith & Wesson had a huge advantage over Colt. They owned the rights to Rollin White’s patent on bored-through cylinders. This patent was the key to metallic cartridge firing revolvers, which allowed Smith & Wesson to bring cartridge revolvers to market in 1857. These early revolvers were chambered in .22 and .32 rimfire calibers, and they were very popular with about 300,000 produced during the 1860s.
Smith & Wesson followed up their small bore success by issuing their first big-bore sixgun in 1870. This was the first Model No. 3, called the S&W American Model. The American model was an excellent sixgun. It was a success on the frontier. The S&W American was favored by Buffalo Bill Cody, and Wyatt Earp is reputed to have used one in the OK Corral fight. But the most influential aspect of the S&W American was that it led to Smith & Wesson securing a mammoth contract to provide revolvers to the Russian Army. The Russian Army bought almost 150,000 Smith & Wesson revolvers beginning in 1871 and continuing until 1878. That is pretty impressive, especially when you consider that Colt’s government sales of their Single-Action Army revolvers totaled less than 40,000 units. The lucky break for Colt was that the huge Russian orders absorbed so much of Smith & Wesson’s production that Colt had the civilian market pretty much to itself for nearly a decade, allowing Colt to build a dominant position in that market space.
The Russian contracts proved to be more of a liability than a boon to Smith & Wesson. The Russians proved to be unethical customers by violating Smith & Wesson’s patents to build their own copies of the S&W Russian model in their Tula factory. Smith & Wesson also lost ground in the domestic market because some of the design features the Russians stipulated for their revolvers, like the spur on the triggerguard and the prominent hump at the top of the grip frame, proved to be very unpopular with American buyers.