Smith & Wesson’s Frontier Legacy

In 1856, fate in the guise of inventor Rollin White, was about to enter the lives of Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson. Wesson had seen White’s patent filing for the bored-through cylinder and sent him a letter of inquiry, writing, “I notice in a patent granted to you…one claim—viz.—extending the chambers of the rotating cylinder right through the rear end of said cylinder so as to enable the said chambers to be charged from the rear end either by hand or by means of a sliding charger.” The letter brought White to Smith & Wesson’s door and after a meeting, in which it was explained to White that S&W held the patent rights for the bullet that would fit his cylinder, an agreement was reached that would give Smith & Wesson exclusive license to the White patent. In exchange, White would receive a $0.25 royalty on every cartridge-firing handgun S&W manufactured. In 1857, S&W came to market with its first model, America’s first breech-loading, cartridge-firing revolver.

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S&W’s First Model No. 1 was produced through 1860 and then replaced by the improved No. 1 Second Issue. With the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, orders for the little seven-shot, .22-caliber S&W pistol soared. In June of 1861, S&W added the Model 2, a more powerful, six-shot, .32-caliber version. With barrel lengths of up to 6 inches, the pistol was suitable for carry in a small holster or tucked into the waistband. The “tip-up” S&W models, including the Model No. 11⁄2 (a smaller .32 introduced in 1865), were among the most highly demanded backup guns for Union officers and infantrymen, even though they had to purchase them with their own money. The No. 11⁄2 was manufactured through 1868, while high demand kept the No. 2 in production until 1874. Among famous owners were Wild Bill Hickok, Rutherford B. Hayes and General George Armstrong Custer. Hickok carried the No. 2 in a vest pocket as his backup gun.

By the 1870s, S&W’s self-contained metallic cartridge had grown up from the anemic .22 Short to the man-stopping .45 Schofield. Somewhere in the middle was the .38-caliber round, and in 1876 S&W introduced a .38 S&W model that looked like a smaller version of its top-break .44 S&W Model No. 3 American single action with a spur trigger and no triggerguard. Originally known as the Model 2, the new little .38 picked up a rather catchy nickname: “Baby Russian.” It was made for one year before being replaced by the improved Second Model. In 1878, S&W introduced another top-break chambered in .32 S&W and cataloged as the No. 11⁄2. Finally, in 1891, the Third Model .38 was introduced with a triggerguard. By the early 1890s, S&W had produced more than 97,000 revolvers in .32 S&W and 108,225 Second Models in .38 S&W. Carrying over into the 20th century, total production for the Third Model .38 reached 26,850 by the time it was discontinued in 1911.

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Larger Calibers

S&W introduced the first all-new, large-caliber .44 cartridge revolver produced in America, the Model 3 American. This top-break single action was faster to handle, load and unload than any other handgun up to that point in time. When broken open, the S&W simultaneously ejected the shells in all six chambers. The Model 3 was chambered in both .44 Henry Rimfire, though only around 200 were produced, and in .44 S&W.

The next .44 was the Second Model American, which differed in the frame design. The Second Model American also bore a number of modifications that were made to No. 3 models produced under contract for the Russian military. This included a locking hammer and barrel latch, a new barrel hinge and screw, and a steel front blade sight replacing the original German silver front sight. A detachable shoulder stock was also offered.

The third variation was the New Model No. 3 manufactured from 1878 to 1908 with a standard barrel length of 61⁄2 inches and chambered in .44 Russian. Barrel lengths varied from 31⁄2 to 8 inches, and a detachable shoulder stock was again available. The model was also produced in .32-44, .38-40, .44-40 and .320 for the revolving rifle variation.

The most noteworthy S&W top-break was a variation designed specifically for the mounted soldier, the Schofield. This version, chambered in a new caliber, .45 Schofield, arrived in 1874 as an improved No. 3 American designed by U.S. Army Colonel George W. Schofield. The first .44-caliber S&W revolvers used by the U.S. Army had been criticized for the top-break design, which had a barrel-mounted release latch that proved hard to use on horseback. Schofield, then a Major, redesigned the latch mechanism to fit on the frame instead, and thus release the barrel by simply pulling the latch back (with the hammer at half-cock) and pressing the barrel down against one’s leg or other surface to pivot it open. The U.S. Ordnance Department ordered almost the entire production of this distinctive S&W model. The standard barrel length for this model was 7 inches. For sale to civilians, a number of military Schofields were refinished and altered to barrel lengths of 41⁄4 inches. Others were specially built with 5-inch barrels for use by Wells Fargo agents.

The S&W Russian models were an overwhelming success despite being such oddities—the redesign of the No. 3 American’s gripstrap and triggerguard was to accommodate the requirements of the Russian military. Thus, if there is one Model 3 that is easily distinguished from another, it is the Russian!

The Russian variation was chambered in .44 S&W Russian. This was a different caliber in that the .44 S&W round used an outside-lubricated heeled bullet of equal diameter to the case whereas the .44 S&W Russian used a larger case diameter than the bullet. This eventually became the dominant caliber for S&W top-break models.

The Russian model had a large knuckle at the top of the backstrap to rest over the web of the shooter’s hand, a severely angled grip, a round bottom, a lanyard ring and a most distinctive triggerguard spur. Russian barrel lengths ranged from 51⁄2 to 8 inches with Second and Third Models generally offered in 7- and 61⁄2-inch lengths, respectively. According to S&W historian Roy Jinks in his book 125 Years with Smith & Wesson, total Model 3 production in all variations reached 250,820 by 1912.

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Double-Action S&Ws

The first S&W double-action models, made between 1880 and 1881, were the wellspring for several of the finest and most advanced handguns of the Old West. The first guns were all top-break designs in different frame sizes and calibers. The first model was chambered in .32 S&W centerfire. The new five-shot models, distinguished by a full triggerguard with a reversed curve at the rear, were only produced for part of the year before being replaced by an improved Second Model in 1880. The revolvers were manufactured in five model ranges: the First Model in 1880; Second Model (1880-1882); Third Model (1882-1883); Fourth Model (1883-1909); and Fifth Model (1909-1919).

The Second Model differed in the side plate design (curved rather than straight where the grip straps meet the frame); the top of the barrel was ribbed rather than round; and the hard rubber grips bore the S&W monogram for the first time. When the Third Model was introduced in 1882, there were several design changes, including optional barrel lengths of 3, 31⁄2 and 6 inches. The most distinctive change in the Fourth Model, introduced in 1883, was a new rounded triggerguard without the previous reverse curved rear, and the option of 8- and 10-inch barrels, which are regarded today as “very rare.” The Fifth and final .32-caliber model arrived nine years after the turn of the century with minor changes, including an integral front blade sight and a new S&W trademark stamped on the right side of the frame. The Fifth Model was available with a 3-, 31⁄2 – or 6-inch barrel. Production of S&W .32-caliber double-action revolvers reached more than 328,600 by 1919, making them some of the most popular of their time.

In 1880, S&W also began production on a double-action top-break chambered in .38 centerfire, and a year later a .44-caliber double-action model. The .38 resembled the .32-caliber models with a fluted, five-shot cylinder. The .38s had a distinctive squared-back, reverse-curved triggerguard and like the First Model .32, the original .38 also had a short production run before it was replaced later in year by the Second Model incorporating the same modifications made to the .32-caliber models. Barrels were available in 31⁄4-, 4-, 5- and 6-inch lengths.

S&W’s .38-caliber, top-break, double-action Third Model revolver was introduced in 1884 and remained in production for 11 years, becoming one of the most prolific .38-caliber, double-action handguns in America, with a total production of over 203,000. The Fourth Model mainly featured mechanical improvements to the trigger mechanism, the availability of target sights with an adjustable rear sight, and available target grips. The Fourth Model was produced from 1895 to 1909, with sales totaling over 216,000 guns.

Almost a continuation of the Fourth Model, the fifth variation arrived in 1909 with barrel lengths as short as 11⁄2 inches along the standard lengths of 31⁄4, 4, 5 and 6 inches. The Fifth Model was short-lived, as S&W was about to introduce one of the most important design changes in its early history, the transitional Double Action Perfected, around 1909.

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Beyond Perfected

The .38-caliber Perfected was to be S&W’s last top-break and the only one to have an additional side thumb-piece release that had to be pressed forward in order to break open the action. While .32- and .38-caliber double-action revolvers were in high demand, it was anticipated S&W would be forthcoming with a .44-caliber double-action revolver, and that model arrived in 1881. Looking like a large .38-caliber S&W double action, the six-shot Frontier Model was chambered in .44 S&W Russian and .44-40 Winchester, with a small quantity produced in .38-40. The revolvers were offered with barrel lengths of 4, 5, 6 and 61⁄2 inches, had checkered hard rubber grips and were available in blued and nickel-plated finishes. Production continued through 1913.

Top-break sales lasted well into the early 20th century, by which time Smith & Wesson had introduced its first hand-ejector double-action revolvers, the Model 1896 chambered in .32 S&W Long. Also known as the .32 Hand Ejector First Model, it introduced a swing-out cylinder for loading. The six-shot revolvers were offered with 31⁄4-, 41⁄4- and 6-inch barrels from 1896 through 1903. The most unusual features of these First Model revolvers was the location of the cylinder stop in the topstrap, with the rear sight mount forward of the cylinder’s centerline. When the trigger was pulled to rotate the cylinder, or when the hammer was manually cocked, the topstrap (and thus the rear sight) raised slightly through the action of cylinder rotation.

The First Model (Triple Lock) and Second Model .44 Hand Ejector were introduced in 1908 and 1915, respectively, and featured solid frames, swing-out cylinders and used a thumb-piece release on the left side of the frame. The guns were available in calibers up to .45 Colt, including .44 S&W Special, .44 S&W Russian, .38-40 Win, .44-40 Win, .45 S&W Special and the British chamberings of .455 Mark II and .450 Eley.

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Safety Hammerless

Not satisfied to rest on its very successful laurels, Smith & Wesson had ventured off into yet another direction in 1888 with an entirely different design for double-action revolvers, a gun that came to be known as the Safety Hammerless. The .32- and .38-caliber top-breaks were the work of Daniel B. Wesson and featured a backstrap-mounted safety bar, which, when depressed by firmly grasping the gun, made the double-action-only revolver operable. Without depressing the bar, the gun would not work. Wesson’s design allowed a fully loaded revolver to be carried without fear of an accidental discharge. The internal-hammer design had one other advantage: In a tight situation the gun could be fired from within a coat pocket without risk of a hammer spur or firing pin getting caught up. Between 1888 and 1940, Smith & Wesson sold more than half a million Safety Hammerless top-breaks, with over 240,000 chambered in .32 S&W and 261,000 in the more powerful .38 S&W caliber.

One reason Safety Hammerless models had continued to sell in the early 20th century was that they offered a shorter barrel length of 2 inches, compared to the shortest standard Hand Ejector barrel length of 31⁄4 inches. It wasn’t until 1915 that S&W began offering the .38 Military & Police Model with a 2-inch barrel.

By the early 20th century, S&W had come a long way from its first seven-shot rimfire pocket pistol, firmly establishing a reputation that has kept the company at the forefront of American arms-making since the days of the Civil War and the American West.

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This article originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.

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