THE outlaw Jesse James’ life came to a noisy and abrupt end on April 3, 1882, while standing on a chair to clean the dust off a picture hanging on the wall of his home. Along with his brother Frank and the two Ford brothers, Charles and Bob, Jesse James had planned to ride out that morning to rob another bank. Instead, when James climbed onto the chair, 20-year-old Robert Newton “Bob” Ford took the opportunity to shoot him in the back of the head with a gun that, it was rumored, James had given to Ford as a gift; a Smith & Wesson New Model No. 3 break-top revolver. So much for honor among thieves, but it appears Bob Ford had already made a secret deal with Thomas T. Crittenden, the governor of Missouri and decided that collecting the $10,000 bounty on Jesse James was preferable to holding up a bank.
While the Jesse James story is a well known piece of Americana, Bob Ford’s Smith & Wesson New Model No. Threebreak-top nickel-plated revolver with 6½-inch barrel and chambered for the .44 Russian cartridge, is not so well known. That is surprising since the design is considered by many to be a major step up from the ubiquitous Colt model 1873 Single Action Army revolver, and sales of Smith & Wesson’s break-top dominated the U.S. firearms industry throughout the 1870s and 1880s.
The Smith & Wesson Break Top revolver was first offered in 1870 and was called the American. It fired the .44 American cartridge, an early centerfire blackpowder cartridge with an outside lubricated two-step bullet (meaning that the front end of the bullet outside the case was slightly larger diameter than the rear end of the bullet inside the case). The American was a single-action revolver with a hinge on the front of the frame that allowed the six-shot chamber and barrel assembly to swing down for loading. At the same time, the ejector star automatically lifted out all six cartridge cases. This much faster, more streamlined method of loading and ejecting cartridges became very popular with lawmen, bandits, and anyone else who required an edge when the first cylinder-full of ammunition wasn’t enough to stop the fight, and a second pistol wasn’t to hand.
The American was followed by the Russian model, and finally the Schofield, named after Major George W. Schofield, who advanced some design modifications to that model. By 1878, Smith & Wesson had discontinued production of those three early models and introduced a new and improved break top that also incorporated design features from the Smith & Wesson .32 and .38 Single Action Army revolvers.
The new revolver was called the Smith & Wesson New Model No. 3 and was smaller and lighter than its predecessors. The original barrel latch system seen on the earlier American and Russian models was retained (due in part to the company’s reluctance to continue paying royalties to Major Schofield for his design). The No. 3 was originally chambered for the .44 Russian cartridge, although other chamberings were later offered.
The No. 3 came in barrel lengths from 3½ to 8 inches. The 6½-inch barrel model was the most popular, and was also the model that Bob Ford used to shoot Jesse James. Barrels were round and had a taper toward the muzzle. A sight rail ran the full length of the barrel. The company offered the No. 3 in either a blued or nickel finish. The grips were of hard, black rubber originally, although walnut stocks were standard after 1907. The round butt design must have been well received by customers because since then Smith & Wesson has carried it over into many of the company’s twentieth century revolvers such as the round butt, double-action Model 36 Chief’s Special. Another new feature on the single-action No. 3 model was a rebounding hammer that was designed to prevent the firing pin from resting on the primer of an unfired cartridge, a situation that led to some unintentional discharges in earlier designs if the hammer was accidentally struck.
During America’s cowboy era (that period loosely defined between the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, California by James Marshall on January 24, 1848, and the death of the native American, Sitting Bull, on December 15, 1890) Smith & Wesson’s break-top revolvers were second in popularity only to Colt’s Single Action Army model of 1873. More No. 3 models were manufactured in the 19th century than the Colt model, although a large number were exported.
In 1872, Grand Duke Alexis of Russia was on a goodwill tour of the United States, accompanied by such notable American military officers as General Philip Sheridan, General Edward Ord and Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer. The party arrived at Fort McPherson, Nebraska to take part in a buffalo hunt with another historic figure, Buffalo Bill Cody. The Grand Duke reportedly carried a Smith & Wesson American revolver, which must have met with his approval, because later the Russian Imperial Army ordered a large number of the revolvers from Smith & Wesson, which is how the Russian model came into production. However, once Russian gunsmiths found a way to copy the design and manufacture good quality No. 3 revolvers in Russia, the government canceled the rest of the delivery from Smith & Wesson.
The U.S. Army was also interested in the Smith & Wesson break-top revolvers, and in 1875 placed an order for the No. 3 revolver that included the modifications that Major Schofield had designed, provided the guns could be chambered for the Army’s pistol cartridge, the .45 Colt. Smith & Wesson accepted the contract, but decided to design a new cartridge for the Schofield pistol. The cartridge, called the .45 S&W (also known as the .45 Schofield), was slightly shorter than the .45 Colt. Consequently, the existing 1873 Army Colt revolvers could chamber both .45 Colt and the new, shorter .45 S&W ammunition, but the Schofield could still not chamber the longer .45 Colt cartridges (of which the army had ample supplies). Eventually the Army adopted the .45 S&W cartridge (presumably when the supplies of .45 Colt ran low), and used it in the Colt revolvers as well as in several thousand Smith & Wesson Schofields.
Smith & Wesson kept the New Model Number Three in production until 1912. In 2000, the company reintroduced the revolver with some modern safety features, such as a frame mounted firing pin and a blocking mechanism to prevent unintended discharge if the external hammer is struck while in the forward position or if the thumb slips off the hammer spur while cocking the piece. Uberti and Beretta have also introduced copies of the revolver: the Uberti Top Break and the Beretta Laramie.
The Laramie is based on the Smith & Wesson New Model number Three. The Uberti Top Break is chambered for .38 Special, .45 Long Colt, and .44-40, and the Uberti New Model Russian is chambered for .45 Colt and .44 Russian. The Beretta, which is not currently in production, was chambered for the .45 Colt cartridge.
The break-top revolver design was a logical and effective transition between the fixed cylinder, single action Colt design and the modern single/double-action swing out cylinder design that is still popular today, more than a century after it first appeared. Undoubtedly, other break-tops such as the British Webley (which saw service from 1887 through both world wars and on into the 1960s), were influenced by Smith & Wesson’s classic design.
Note: The author gratefully acknowledges Larry “Deadeye Jack” Ford for his technical and historical contributions to this article and the photos.