Most knowledgeable pistolero fans of the Schofield version of the early Smith & Wesson Model 3 centerfire, single-action Top Break revolvers already know the history and lore behind it. For those who don’t, it was developed by Major George Schofield beginning in 1871 as a more cavalry-friendly variation of the company’s big-bore handguns originally introduced in 1870. The Model 3 (frame size) was Smith & Wesson’s first genuinely effective large-caliber handgun in cartridge form, and the first cartridge revolver adopted by the U.S. Army, which ordered 1,000 of what’s referred to today as the “First Model American” in 1870.
For both military and civilian uses, the new gun was a huge breakthrough in evolutionary development during the twilight years of the percussion era, offering troopers and gunfighters the convenience and weather-
proof reliability of self-contained metallic cartridges combined with the fastest loading and reloading capability of any serious defensive pistol anywhere on the American frontier at the time. In the days when a gunslinger or sheriff normally had to carry a brace of pistols to get off more than six rounds in under five minutes, the advantages of a powerful, large-caliber holster gun that could be opened up to reload all six chambers in mere seconds were obvious to even the most dim-witted cowpoke who ever fancied himself a contender as a genuine “Scourge of the West” candidate.
It was hardly surprising that those on both sides of the badge immediately wanted in on the new technology, and serial numbers 7052 and 7056 were attributed to noted El Paso lawman Dallas Stoudenmire. Texas Jack Omohundro used serial number 2008, the Nashville Police ordered 32 First Models with 6-inch barrels and department markings on the backstraps, and evidence shows a Schofield presence with Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn. As with any “first” model, field use indicated certain deficiencies, which led to the Second Model American that ran from 1872 to 1874 and continued to attract attention from notable names. Cole Younger reportedly took serial number 17271, and many claim that serial number 20029 is the pistol Wyatt Earp used in that brief, hot and dusty Tombstone corral fracas in 1881.
Major Schofield, as a military man, was also an early Model 3 admirer, but he found that the American’s topstrap latch, which required two hands to open the gun up, was less than ideal for mounted use in the thunder and smoke of a cavalry engagement. His modification, moving the latch down onto the frame, where it could be manipulated by the strong-hand thumb, made sense to both Smith & Wesson and the Army. The manufacturer incorporated Schofield’s changes and developed a shorter .45-caliber round to fit the shorter Model 3 cylinder than what the then-competing .45 Colt Peacemaker fired—the .45 S&W. The Army secured its first 3,000 Schofields in .45 S&W in 1875, and eventually approximately 9,000 were acquired and issued.
Schofield revolvers fought their way through the Indian Wars and the short-lived but bloody Lincoln County War, and served with state militias later on, but the Smith’s more complicated internals and the logistics snafus that invariably surfaced—with .45 Colt ammunition arriving at remote posts armed with Schofields that couldn’t shoot it—took the model out of frontline military issue by the late 1880s. Several ended up in civilian hands, and those sold to the Wells Fargo company, who shortened the barrels to a handier 5-inch length for issue to company agents, are valuable collector’s items today.
Other Old West gunnies who considered Schofields the “latest and greatest” included highly respected lawman Bill Tilghman as well as Frank McLowery of OK Corral notoriety. Hollywood has also shown occasional interest, with “The Schofield Kid” and his Smith & Wesson in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven getting co-star exposure through a good part of the movie. In real life, probably the single most famous Schofield, and one of the best documented, was the one carried by Jesse James, now owned by a private collector and currently on display at the National Sporting Arms Museum in Springfield, Missouri. Jesse James and his brother, Frank, are credited with owning two, with serial numbers 3444 and 5476.
Navy Arms brought out the first modern, Uberti-made S&W Top Break reproductions back in the late 1990s. Since then, the Model 3 has been produced, briefly by the old Armi San Marco company and continuously by Uberti, for sale here in the U.S. by various importers in configurations including the American, Russian and Schofield variants in several calibers, barrel lengths and finishes. All use the basic Model 3 hinged action, all break open by either the American- or the Schofield-style latch, and all toss brass empties out positively by a cammed ejector star that rises as the barrel is tipped down. Current Uberti Model 3 Top Breaks—like the one I recently tested—feature an extended cylinder and frame with a stronger, beefed-up topstrap than the originals to accommodate modern ammunition longer than the older .45 S&W, along with an Uberti-designed internal drop and thumb-slip safety modification to the original S&W action, but otherwise the outlines and functions are the same.
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While it never trod a Dodge City boardwalk or heeled the dusty streets of Laredo, a Schofield in .38 Special has the benefits of being easy on the hand, the gun and the wallet. There’s less stress on the Top Break’s hinge and latch, which will always be a shade weaker than a solid-topstrap frame like that of the Colt 1873. Admittedly not in the same class power-wise as the more common .44s and .45s, with the right load the proven .38 Special can run the gamut from Cowboy Action Shooting steel to more serious backcountry trail work, and reloading components are cheap and everywhere. Lead in either round-nosed practice or more effective semi-wadcutter form is available coast to coast, a can of powder can put a wagonload of that lead downrange, and with the typically low pressures involved, brass tends to last a long time.
My test 1875 No. 3 Top Break came with a standard blued finish; a 7-inch barrel; and a color-casehardened hammer, triggerguard, hinge screw and two-piece latch assembly. For targeting, the revolver has a half-moon front sight and a deep, wide, V-notch rear milled into the top of the Schofield 2nd Model pivoting-latch thumbpiece. The grip panels are oil-finished walnut; Uberti resisted its usual varnish here, and the result looks more historically correct than many of its other cartridge revolvers. Both well-fitted panels are true to the originals; 2nd Model Schofields hadinspectors’ cartouches on the left side on all and either a plain marking or cartouche on the right, and this one has a correct “DAL 1877” and “CW” right where they should be. Overall, the fit and finish of the gun was the best of any of the Uberti S&W replicas I’ve worked with.
At the old stone quarry, chronographing five different loads through the long 7-inch barrel showed a couple of surprises. Three were CAS-level “cowboy” loads from PMC, Winchester and Black Hills; one was a standard-velocity, non-cowboy, lead, semi-wadcutter from Winchester; and the last was a mouse load left over from my wife’s days of shooting at SASS events. The trusty chronograph showed that the Winchester defensive load ran in the same general velocity range as the three cowboy loads, which astonished me since ammunition built for CAS uses is typically loaded to very mild pressures and low speeds, and it also showed my handload—worked up to match the point of aim in my wife’s .357 Ruger pistols while staying as low on powder charges as the manuals would safely allow—was actually the fastest of the bunch through the Schofield, which was totally unexpected.
The No. 3’s accuracy was also better than past Top Break replicas I’ve tested, with the best groups of three loads holding under 3 inches at 25 yards, one right at 2 inches, and my handload taking the blue ribbon under 2 inches. The full-length Schofield is a big pistol, and recoil in the .38 Special was downright powderpuffish. Handloading could up the ante safely into 850-fps levels with a 158-grain lead bullet in the gun, but stay away from commercial +P territory, and don’t get too carried away in rolling your own. The thick chamber walls can handle the pressures, but even with the modern steels and beefed-up frame, the hinge and latch are still vulnerable to shooting loose if you overdo it.
Ubertis are historically somewhat prone to sight regulation vagaries. Here the sights were well-centered for windage; the pistol’s tendency to shoot 10 inches low was annoying, but much easier to correct than shooting 10 inches high. The stiff trigger was gritty and broke at 7 pounds, which could be cleaned up by a gunsmith while lowering the front sight blade; ejection was smooth with the extractor in both directions; and the screws and hinge were all tight at the end of the day. The old S&W design isn’t as hand-friendly as the Colt Peacemaker, with a long reach on the hammer that’ll be a nuisance for many when trying to fire one-handed, but it’s a hell of a lot faster to shoot seven or more rounds through. Which brings up the usual caution about leaving an empty chamber under the hammer for carry: Do it! The gun will rest its firing pin directly on a primer if you don’t.
Despite its minor weaknesses, the S&W Top Break design was a major milestone in firearms development, and it certainly has its own character. If you haven’t tried one, you should. For more information, visit uberti.com or call 800-264-4962.
Specifications: Uberti 1875 No. 3 Top Break
Caliber: .38 Special • Barrel: 7 inches
OA Length: 12½ inches • Weight: 47.5 ounces
Grips: Walnut • Sights: Fixed • Action: SA
Finish: Blued • Capacity: 6-shot • MSRP: $1,079 • Importer: A. Uberti
This article originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.
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