The decade following the Civil War brought hard times to most American gun makers. The military market was virtually non-existent, and the civilian market was awash with inexpensive, military surplus firearms. Smith & Wesson’s only ace in the hole was the Rollin-White patent, which allowed them to produce revolvers with bored through cylinders for metallic cartridges while their competitors at Colt and Remington were still producing cap and ball sixguns.
Throughout the Civil War, Smith & Wesson had produced a line of pocket pistols chambered for .22 and .32 rimfire cartridges. Despite the puny rounds, the guns sold well, and in 1870 S&W unveiled its long anticipated No. 3 revolver chambered in the more potent .44 American centerfire and in the .44 Henry rimfire cartridges.
These guns were a modest success in America, but they attracted the attention of both the United States army and the Russian military. Besides the self-contained cartridges, the S&W’s top break design, with its simultaneous ejection of fired rounds and ease of reloading, was appreciated by cavalrymen.
Though the U.S. Army only ordered a small number of pistols for field trials, the Russians went all in. Over the course of seven years, they ordered over 131,000 No. 3 revolvers from the company. In contrast, Colt only sold 37,063 Single Action Army revolvers to the U.S. Army, from the first purchase in 1873 until the final army buy in 1891. So this was a huge account for Smith & Wesson.
The Russians wanted some changes to S&W’s American No. 3, and, with a sugar-daddy like that, S&W wasn’t about to say, no. The first change the Russians wanted was to the cartridge. The original No.3 fired an outside-lubricated, heel-based bullet. This was typical of early cartridge designs. The Russians wanted a .44 caliber cartridge with an inside-lubricated bullet, which is the way all modern centerfire cartridges are made. This was a great choice by the Russians, and over time, it served as the basis for the modern .44 Special and .44 Mag family of cartridges.
Smith & Wesson made 20,000 of the American-styled No. 3 revolvers for Russia before the Russians asked for more changes. And these changes resulted in the classic S&W Russian revolver profile that most of us recognize. The two most obvious changes were the spur on the triggerguard and the hump on the grip frame.
No one seems to know why the Russians wanted the triggerguard spur. Theories abound. They run the gamut from postulating that it was a hook to keep the gun from falling through the Cossacks’ waist sashes, to a place, other than the trigger, to rest the trigger finger when charging into battle with a cocked gun. None of the theories are completely unreasonable, but neither are they compellingly convincing. Here in the United States, S&W Russian owners often ground the spur off.
The hump on the grip frame is a little easier to understand. It serves to anchor your hand in the same position from shot to shot, and it is a common feature on European handguns of the era. The problem is that it makes the Russian impossible to thumb-cock with the shooting hand without shifting your hand on the gun. This was extremely unpopular here in the states, and it definitely limited sales of this revolver in the U.S.
For instance, a Texas distributor wrote to Smith & Wesson saying, “Texas people will not buy the Russian handle. They do not like it and therefore buy a good many of the Colt Army when they would rather have the No. 3, if with the old stock. The objection is that they cannot cock the arm as they pull it from the holster.”
Still, about 25,000 Russians, of all models, were sold in the American civilian market. At the age of 21, John Wesley Hardin used a nickel-plated, ivory gripped, Old Old Model Russian to kill Brown County Deputy Sheriff Charley Webb in 1874 in Comanche, Texas. The sheriff of Comanche County was a boyhood friend of Hardin’s and refused to pursue him. Charlie Pitts wasn’t so lucky. As a member of the James-Younger band, the fine citizens of Northfield, Minnesota filled him full of lead outside of town. A second model Russian revolver was taken off his dead body after the fight.
But the civilian market was definitely secondary to Smith & Wesson. But, as Colt and Remington learned to their chagrin after the Civil War, basing your business on government contracts is never a secure strategy. And basing your business on a foreign government’s orders is even more risky. The Russians decided that Smith & Wesson’s revolvers were too pricey. So they reverse engineered the No. 3 Russian and started building copies at their own Tula arsenal and at the German firm of Ludwig Loewe in Berlin. As soon as they had those sources on line, the Russians cancelled their contracts with Smith & Wesson. But it wasn’t a total loss. Smith & Wesson took the lessons learned from the Russian experience and applied them to the development of the New Model No. 3 revolver, which is one of the best revolvers of all time.
I had a meeting with the folks at Uberti USA when my eye fell on a beautiful revolver. It was a nickel-plated Russian Top Break with faux ivory grips. I was consumed with gun lust, and cut a deal on the spot to get a test and evaluation model to play with. In short order it was in my hands.
I seem to be attracted lately to nickel-plated S&Ws. Last year I got an Uberti nickel-plated, pearl-gripped Schofield revolver to test, and that gun found a permanent place in my collection. Earlier this year an original, nickel-plated, S&W Frontier Double Action found its way home with me. So, it is not hard to believe that this Russian Top Break made a favorable impression when I pulled it from the box.
The Russian is a big gun, but, like all No. 3s, it is very sleek looking. As the name implies, this is a hinged, top-break design. South of the hinge is the frame, hammer, trigger and grip assembly.
North of the hinge is the upper, which consists of the 7-inch barrel, the sights, latch and cylinder. The cylinder is dismounted for cleaning by totally removing the large knurled takedown screw on the top of the frame, then pulling the latch up and pulling the cylinder out. Be warned; it takes quite a pull to get it out.
If I ever visit the Uberti factory in Brescia, Italy, I’m willing to bet that I’ll be able to guess which worker is responsible for torqueing down all the screws. He’ll be the one with arms like a lowland gorilla. There was no way I could loosen the takedown screw with finger pressure the first time I used it. In fact, I doubt if Superman himself could have done it. I had to bust out my Brownells screwdriver set to find the appropriate, very thin, but long bit to get the screw started without marring it. Now it goes in and out easily by hand.
This is a recurring theme on all Uberti guns. It is a real challenge to get the screws moving the first time, and even with proper screwdrivers, the soft screw heads are easily marred. Uberti, needs to invest in some torque wrenches for the staff.
All the major parts of the Russian Top Break are beautifully nickel-plated, but the screws are finished in a bright blue, that really pops against the mirror-like nickel. The hammer pin and the hinge screw are not blued. They are nickel-plated. If I could change anything on this revolver, it would be to blue those two parts. They would make a striking contrast against the nickel of the frame and barrel.
The grips are poly-ivory, which is to say, “polymer.” But I have to admit that these are among the finest faux-ivory grips I’ve ever seen. The problem with imitation ivory is that it lacks the grain pattern of real ivory, which after all is a tooth. But the grips on the Russian Top Break do have a delicate grain pattern that is realistic looking. They really compliment the nickel-plated sixgun.
There is one historical inaccuracy on the Russian that surprised me. All the other Uberti Russians I’ve fired had the correct length ejector housing, which is about 3 inches long, measured from the cylinder face. This Russian has a 2-inch long ejector housing, exactly like an S&W New Model No. 3.
But, that small issue aside, this is a great revolver and lots of fun to shoot, though, if I was buying this gun I’d get the trigger lightened. The trigger on mine breaks at seven pounds, six ounces. That would be heavy for a Glock. It needs to be quite a bit less on a single-action revolver. But, despite the heavy trigger, I was able to shoot the Russian accurately.
I tested the Russian with Black Hills ammo in both .45 Colt and .45 Schofield calibers, as well as with my own black powder handloads. It shot well with everything I put through it. The Black Hills .45 Colt ammunition was the most accurate through the Russian. From 15 yards, shooting with a two-hand hold, I put five, five-shot groups into a two-inch circle. With these Black Hill cowboy action shooting loads velocity is only 759 feet per second and recoil is moderate, so I was actually able to shoot one-inch diameter groups when I concentrated.
Black Hills Schofield ammunition was even more mild mannered. The 230-grain Schofield slugs only moved down range at 697 fps. Recoil was gentle, but despite that fact, I couldn’t shoot them as well as I shot the .45 Colt loads. With the Schofield ammo my best group was three inches from 15 yards. My worst group was four inches, and a five-shot group averaged 3.5 inches in diameter.
I enjoyed shooting my black powder handloads in the Russian, but with 255-grain slugs moving at an average velocity of 801 fps, the Russian’s grip design really transmitted the recoil. Unlike with a Colt SAA, there is no roll to the recoil with a Russian top break. That hump in the grip assembly helps drive the force of the recoil straight back into your hand. It isn’t uncomfortable, but you know you’re shooting a powerful round. Despite that, accuracy was more than acceptable. I was able to shoot two and three inch groups from the 15-yard line, with the average being 2.25 inches.
Though the Russian proved it can group, the groups weren’t hitting at my point of aim. This gun shot consistently 2.5 to 3 inches to the left with all the ammunition I tested. Because the barrel is machined integral to the upper frame, this can’t be corrected by simply turning the barrel, as you would with a Colt SAA. The fix for this is to gently bend the sight to the left. But I certainly wasn’t going to do that on a test gun. So, during informal plinking sessions at two-liter bottles, I had to use quite a bit of Kentucky windage to get hits. But, once I had the gun doped out, I had no trouble making the bullets go where I needed them to go.
A good gun is incomplete without a good holster. To my delight, I discovered that my Schofield holster fit the Russian model just fine. So I was able to use my El Paso Saddlery Jesse James rig. This is a beautiful, fully carved 1870s style belt and holster set made for Smith & Wesson No. 3 revolvers. The 3-inch wide money belt and holsters are carved with a vine pattern in a style known as tear away. This is just the rig to complement a nickel-plated Russian.