Before there was a .38 Smith & Wesson Special Model 1899 Hand Ejector, (known today as .38 Military & Police First Model), there was the pocket-sized .32 S&W Model I, introduced in the waning days of the Old West. The new .32 caliber S&W First Model, or .32 Ejector Model of 1896, was the first S&W revolver to employ a swing-out cylinder and ejector rod for the simultaneous extraction of spent shell cases. The small, six-shot revolvers were chambered for the new .32 S&W Long cartridge and offered with 3¼-inch, 4¼-inch, and 6-inch barrels from 1896 through 1903.
S&W had pioneered the topbreak revolver in 1870 with the No. 3 American as the fastest means to eject spent cases and reload, but the improvements necessary to build a more modern revolver with a solid frame demanded another way to accomplish the loading and extracting of cartridges. S&W’s first swing out cylinder, developed in 1894, used a spring-loaded center pin that traveled inside the extractor rod to lock the cylinder in place against a recess in the center of the recoil shield; there was no thumb release on the side of the frame. The gun was opened by simply pulling the center pin forward and pressing the cylinder towards the left side of the frame.
The most unusual features of the First Model revolvers, however, were the location of the cylinder stop, which was mounted in the topstrap, rather than the bottom of the frame like most revolvers, and a small notched rear sight pinned to the topstrap forward of the cylinder’s centerline. When the gun was fired double-action, or the hammer manually cocked, the topstrap (and thus the rear sight) were raised slightly by a wedge on the hammer nose that lifted the locking bolt from the cylinder stop, allowing the next chamber to rotate into battery. This could make an aimed shot a trifle complicated at times but these small caliber revolvers were mainly intended for close up work.
Another distinctive feature was that the Smith & Wesson name, Springfield Mass address, U.S.A. Patent-ed, and the revolver’s “July 1. 84.”, “April 9. 89.”, “March 27. 94.”, “May 29. 94.”, “May 21. 95.”, and “July 16. 95”. patent dates were roll stamped around the cylinder between the flutes, instead of on the barrel and frame. The S&W Logo was also stamped into the right side of the frame.
Calling the Model 1896 a pocket pistol by today’s standards might be a bit of a stretch, but for the late 19th century this was a pretty small gun measuring only 7½ inches in length (with the 3¼-inch barrel), 4-1/8 inches in height, a mere 1-1/8 inches in width (to the edges of the cylinder, the frame was only ½-inch wide) and weighing 17 ounces empty. It was to become an ideal firearm for lawmen in the late 19th and early 20th century because of its ease of concealment and effective ballistics at close range. The .32 Ejector Models were purchased by a number of police agencies, including the Philadelphia and Jersey City police departments, and S&W double-actions also found their way into the hands of lawmen like Bill Tilghman (among others), who carried a variety of firearms in the early 1900s from their “Old Reliable” Colt .45 Peacemaker to newfangled .32 and .38 caliber S&W and Colt double-action revolvers. Colt actually preceded S&W by seven years, introducing its first swing out cylinder double- action revolver in 1889.
S&W’s .32 Hand Ejector First Model was available in either blued or nickel finishes, and came standard with finely embossed-checkered black hard rubber S&W monogram grips, or with optional mother of pearl grips, and factory engraving. The guns were only produced for seven years, being replaced by the improved .32 Hand Ejector Model of 1903, which used a thumb latch to open the cylinder, returned to the use of a bottom strap cylinder bolt, and introduced a new round barrel design with a forged front sight, thus making the First Model Hand Ejector a unique S&W design. According to the Thirty-Second Edition Blue Book of Gun Values, a total of 19,712 were manufactured and prices for examples in 100 percent to 95 percent condition range from $1,000 to $650 with rare factory engraved models bringing considerably more.