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.
Smith & Wesson went to work redesigning their No. 3 for the American market. The result was the New Model No. 3 which hit the market in 1878. It featured a grip design that Smith & Wesson debuted two years earlier on their .38 caliber first model single-action, known as the Baby Russian. They scaled up the Baby Russian grip frame to fit the No. 3’s .44 caliber frame. This design is excellent. New Model No. 3 revolvers feel comfortable in your hand and they point naturally.
Besides the grip design, Smith & Wesson’s New Model No. 3 had a number of minor improvements over the Russian model. The ejector used a rack and gear mechanism instead of the hook release on the Russian, and the unpopular spur on the triggerguard was gone. The reconfigured New Model No. 3 proved to be a popular revolver. They developed a reputation for accuracy, and they dominated handgun target matches in the late 19th century. Smith & Wesson sold over 35,000 New Model No. 3 revolvers between 1878 and 1912. Most of these were chambered for the .44 Russian cartridge, but ultimately they were factory chambered for 16 different calibers. A rare variation is the New Model No. 3 Frontier model. The Frontier model was chambered for the 19th century’s most popular cartridge, the .44 WCF (Winchester Center Fire), better known us today as the .44-40. In order to accommodate the long .44-40, the cylinder on the Frontier model had to be stretched an eighth of an inch longer than the 1 7/16 of an inch length of the standard New Model No. 3.
On the face of it, this was a brilliant idea. The .44-40 was the closest thing to a generic cartridge that the 19th century could claim. Every major American gun maker chambered a weapon for the .44-40. But, for some reason, the S&W single-action Frontier model was a bust, only 2,072 were made but about 786 of them were converted to .44 Russian and sold to the Japanese. Of the 1,286 sold on the U.S. market, quite a few were converted to .44 Russian before they were sold. I’m kind of surprised because the double-action version of the New Model No.3 Frontier did very well for Smith & Wesson, with over 15,000 sold. I own one of the double-action Frontiers, and it is an excellent shooter, but I’ve never seen a single-action New Model No. 3 Frontier in the flesh. With so few of the Frontier model made, I’m unlikely to ever get to shoot an original, but, thanks to Taylor’s & Company, I can shoot a high-quality reproduction.
The Taylor’s New Model No. 3 Frontier is built by Uberti in Italy. They are offering it in either 5-inch or 6½-inch barrel lengths. The cylinder is one and nine-sixteenths inches long, as were the S&W originals. But, unlike the originals, the Uberti-built replicas are chambered for .45 Colt rather than .44-40. Though the .44-40 cartridge was by far the most popular 19th century cartridge, that popularity hasn’t held up in the twenty-first century. These days .45 Colt is a more popular chambering with single action enthusiasts, and I suppose Taylor’s decided to capitalize on that popularity in their New Model No. 3 chambering.
I requested a test and evaluation gun from Tay-lor’s with a 5-inch barrel. My double-action S&W Frontier model has a 5- inch barrel, and I really like its balance. The Taylor’s New Model No. 3 with the 5-inch barrel also feels good in my hand. The barrel, cylinder and frame on Taylor’s gun is polished and blued, but the triggerguard, hammer and ejector release lever are color casehardened. Smith & Wesson’s original Frontier Model, came outfitted with black, hard rubber grips. Checkered walnut grips were an option. In fact Theodore Roosevelt bought a New Model No. 3, chambered for .38 Long Colt, just before leaving for San Antonio to join the Rough Riders. T.R’s revolver was outfitted with beautiful, checkered walnut grips. Taylor’s Frontier model comes with smooth walnut grips as standard equipment, but they offer checkered walnut grips as an option. The grips on Taylor’s Frontier are quite a bit thicker than the grips on original New Model No. 3 revolvers. I think it would improve the handling of the Frontier if each grip panel were about a half an inch thinner.
The Frontier model is a typical Smith & Wesson top-break design. Putting the revolver on half cock allows you to lift the latch, which incorporates the rear sight. With the latch disengaged, the barrel/cylinder nder assembly swings open, and a star extractor ejects all your fired cartridge cases simultaneously. With the rear of the cylinder completely exposed, reloading is faster than with a Colt SAA. The sights on Taylor’s Frontier replica are an area where they decided to improve on the originals. The front sight on Taylor’s Frontier is a relatively thick half moon pinned into the integral barrel rib. It has the look of the originals, but it is twice as thick. On originals, the rear sight is a tiny protuberance at the hinge point of the latch mechanism. The notch is a miniscule “V.” These fine sights were one of the reasons the New Model No. 3 was so successful as a target shooter, but, in a rapidly evolving self-defense situation, the rear sight is useless.
Taylor’s replica uses a conventional rear sight blade mounted at the rear of the latch. It has a generous square sight notch that is easily picked up, even with my weak eyes. Smith & Wesson mounted a similar sight on some special order guns. The Theodore Roosevelt pistol is equipped with them. I’m a little ambivalent about these sights. They are a noticeable departure from the originals, but I sure do like a having useable sights on a gun.
The trigger on the Frontier could be better. There is a bit of creep before the trigger breaks. The trigger pull is a full 7 pounds; like a New York City Police Department Glock, which is way too heavy for a precision machine like this. The trigger has a nice wide face, and a perfect curve, which lessens the perceived pull weight. My original Smith & Wesson double-action Frontier has a 6-pound single-action trigger pull, so, maybe it’s just the nature of the beast.
At the range the Frontier was fun to shoot. The grip design makes it feel quite different under recoil than a Colt or even a Schofield. I shot the Frontier with Hornady .45 Colt cowboy loads and with Black Hills .45 Schofield loads. The Hornady rounds had an average velocity 728 fps out of the 5-inch barrel. Shooting from a bench rest at 25 yards my best group was just an 1.5 inches in diameter, but my typical groups were between 2.5 inches and 2.75 inches in diameter.
The Black Hills Schofield ammunition is usually very accurate for me, and it didn’t let me down in the Frontier. I shot 25 rounds in five-shot groups. My best group measured an inch across. My worst group measured 4 inches across, and the other three groups were all right around 2 inches wide. The average velocity with the Schofield loads was 718 fps.
I made another trip to the range with the Frontier to see how it would handle black powder. My black powder handloads are quite a bit more powerful than the mildly loaded cowboy smokeless powder ammunition on the market. Average black powder velocity was 842 fps. The felt recoil was more noticeable with the Frontier than with my Colt SAAs, but accuracy remained fine. I shot a 1-inch group, a 2-inch group and a 4-inch group before the fouling made thumb cocking a chore.
The Frontier, like most Uberti-built S&W clones, doesn’t deal with fouling well because it lacks the excellent gas deflector on the front of original S&W cylinders. I can shoot my original DA Frontier all day with black powder .44-40s with no hang-ups. But the Taylor’s Frontier needs to be spritzed with Balistol after every cylinder full of black powder cartridges to keep everything moving.
If you like the clean lines of Smith & Wesson’s New Model No. 3, but you can’t find a shootable original. Or, if you would feel guilty subjecting a nice historic original to the rigors of continuing use, the Taylor’s Frontier may be just what you are looking for.
For more information on the New Model No. 3 Frontier .45, visit taylorsfirearms.com or call 800-655-5814.
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