THE FIRST BIG BORE SIXGUN--THE .44 S&W AMERICAN

BY JOHN TAFFIN

            All of the great handguns and long guns we are looking at in this book came about because of good old American competition. In the earlier years it was Colt and Smith & Wesson and then Marlin and Winchester competing for their share of the market place. This resulted in better and better firearms and we the shooters were the winners. Today some of the players have changed; Ruger competes with Smith &Wesson and Taurus, USFA goes head to head with foreign-made traditional single actions, and Marlin leverguns are challenged by replicas of the early Winchesters.  All of this competition has resulted in more and more choices; we can now choose Colts or replicas thereof and even replicas of three of the four 19th century Smith &Wesson single actions. A recent arrival on the scene has been replicas of the old Colt Lightning pump action rifle with AWA, Beretta, Cimarron, EMF, Taurus, Taylor’s, and USFA all competing for their spot. Again, we the shooters benefit from this strong competition. 

Competition not only exists in the marketplace it is an important part of everyday life. As far back as I can remember there has always been competition. Who could run the fastest?  Who could jump the highest? Who could throw a ball the hardest? Who had the best bike? Who could get the best grades in school? As we got older what we were competing for changed, however the competition remained the same. Now we competed for jobs, competed to see who had the fastest car, (remember I grew up in the 1950s!), even competed for companions. Competition makes everything work the best it possibly can.

Then something happened. Someone advanced one of the most obnoxious ideas ever from the mind of man with the so-called “level the playing field” nonsense. Perhaps those supporting such a thing had good intentions, however their intentions are definitely misplaced and they certainly do not understand human nature. When my grandsons were in their early grade school years I tried to attend their basketball games as much as possible, and always with an index card and pen in hand to keep both the team score and the individual efforts recorded. This was necessary as there was not only no scoreboard, at the beginning of each game we were asked NOT to keep score. Real competition was not allowed, there was to be no winner, no loser. I wasn’t keeping score just to be obstinate and go against the rules, but simply because my grandsons wanted to know how they were really doing.  Fortunately they survived this PC feel good-ism and are now highly competitive in both baseball and basketball to the point of not being the happiest fellows to be around for a few hours after a loss. 

            Having said all this I admit I am too competitive. For most of my life I simply would not take part in any activity in which I could not do well. This is probably what attracted me to the shooting sports early on as I could do very well especially with handguns. The only athletic part of my whole body is my trigger finger and at least in my younger days I could block out both recoil and bad weather.  In fact, I preferred bad weather when shooting competition as I had the ability to ignore it, with the emphasis on had.

            Competition does not end at my front door. For many years Diamond Dot and I have played cribbage every evening at the supper table. It started out as a way of relaxing and slowing down but soon became quite competitive with scores kept by the month and by the year. She is definitely a worthy opponent, however over the years I have been able to win slightly more times than losing. This kept me happy and relaxed. Then everything changed.  Three years ago at Christmas we received a new game called Kings Cribbage. The basic rules are the same with some modifications as it is played on a Scrabble type board with numbered tiles. This thing invaded my life in 2003. I did not realize what a frustration it would become.

            Now Diamond Dot is neither a speller nor a mathematician. In her chosen field of insuring long haul truckers and understanding all the paperwork, rules and regulations in the trucking industry, she is an expert. However she still can’t spell and adding a couple of numbers together is certainly not her strength. I’ve done the grocery shopping for all but the first few years of our life together and when I told her if you can’t spell it right on the grocery list, I’m not going to buy it, she countered with if you don’t buy it I won’t  cook it, so that was the end of that argument and I have learned to recognize all types of spelling.

            Cribbage, Kings or otherwise, is a mathematical game. She can’t add two numbers together and I have a Master’s degree plus many hours beyond in mathematics; so who would you bet on when we sit down to play Kings Cribbage? Forget the obvious or lose your money. We have been playing since December of 2003 keeping track each month. In all that time, I have won exactly one month, one lousy little month. I accuse her of having exceptional luck, which she does, but the truth is she also has an uncanny knack for seeing combinations, mathematical combinations, almost immediately.

            At the spring gun show in 2005 my heart rate went up considerably as I held and examined an example of the first cartridge firing sixgun, the Smith & Wesson Model #3 .44 American of 1869. This beautiful revolver was tight as when it left the factory and the cylinder and barrel were in near-perfect shape. It appeared to be re-blued and was fitted with creamy ivory stocks. The four-figured price tag was commensurate with its condition; I looked at it, dreamed of owning it, and handed it back to the owner. That was on Saturday.

            On Monday evening we were playing Kings Cribbage once again, and once again I was getting soundly thrashed; not just one game, but two in a row. As Diamond Dot was putting the game away and I was taking the dishes to the sink she said: “Would you like a consolation prize?” As you might expect in my frame of mind after being thoroughly beaten again I said: “No, I don’t need a consolation prize!” I did not need to be consoled; I just needed to win. Tuesday night was more of the same and again she asked if I wanted the consolation prize. This time I said I guess I will take one as I certainly couldn’t win this lousy game, and with that I left the room and went into my office.

            As I was checking my e-mails, Dot came up beside me and handed me a zippered, padded pistol rug. My heart almost stopped; I knew what it was. There before me was a beautiful example of the first .44 caliber cartridge firing single action sixgun, that gun show Smith & Wesson Model #3 American. The factory letter identified it as having been refinished by Smith & Wesson twice, once in 1911 and again in 1952. Of course, I was stunned and almost felt like losing was worthwhile! Before the year was up I received another consolation prize, this time another .44 Smith & Wesson, a New Model #3 Target. Now it would be easy to think I was now losing on purpose, however nothing could be farther from the truth. I was really trying to win; it just wasn’t happening. We still play Kings Cribbage every night at suppertime. Nothing has changed; she still beats me more times than not and I have yet to ever win another monthly set. Every time I lose I just ask for another consolation prize. Somehow I don’t mind being a loser anymore but don’t tell her that! She’s now way ahead the game. In January she bought my two consolation prizes for the whole year. Maybe I can mess up her plans and actually win; don’t count on it!

The first cartridge-firing revolver to arrive on the American scene was Smith & Wesson’s Model of 1857. This Model #1 was a seven-shot, tip-up revolver hinged at the back part of the top of the frame in front of the hammer chamber in what would become a most popular cartridge, the .22 Rimfire. It was soon followed by a .32 Rimfire version and both were quite popular as hideout weapons during the Civil War. On the heels of the .22 and .32 tip-ups Smith & Wesson planned a .44 version, however this was put on hold until after the war. It appeared in late 1869 not as a tip-up but rather a top-break with a latch at the back top of the frame in front of the hammer and a corresponding hinge in front of the cylinder at the bottom of the frame.

            The Smith & Wesson Model #3 American was not only the first big bore cartridge firing sixgun it was also the first cartridge revolver to be adopted by the United States Military, which up to this point had mainly been outfitted with the Colt 1860 Army percussion revolver. From 1857 on Smith & Wesson produced cartridge firing revolvers; Colt ignored them and stayed the course Sam Colt had laid out which was building percussion sixguns. Colt was caught off guard and actually it was their own fault. Smith & Wesson was able to build revolvers with bored through cylinders due to a patent held by Rollin S. White who some sources tell us had been an employee of Colt and now worked for Smith & Wesson. He had offered the idea to Colt and was turned down. Now suddenly Colt found themselves way behind on the sixgunning scene and they would have to wait for the patent to run out to modernize and start supplying cartridge firing sixguns.

            The Army had pretty much ignored both the Henry and Spencer rifles for military use however they were not so shortsighted when the Smith & Wesson American arrived. They immediately purchased 1,000 Americans for military use. The .44 American round use a heeled bullet; that is, the bullet was a two-step affair with the smaller diameter base fitting inside the cartridge case while a major part of the bullet was the same diameter as the outside of the cartridge case all of which is the same situation we find with .22 Long Rifle ammunition today. Unlike the .44 Henry of the 1860 Henry and the 1866 Winchester, the .44 American was a centerfire cartridge with a primer in the center of the base instead of being a rimfire. However a very few Smith & Wesson Americans were chambered in .44 Henry.

            Not only did the Smith & Wesson American use fixed ammunition in its six shot cylinder it was also extremely fast to reload and unload. When the latch above the hammer was opened the entire barrel and cylinder assembly could be rotated down and forward 90 degrees and the empty cartridges were automatically ejected. It then took only a matter of seconds to place six more rounds in the cylinder and rotate the barrel assembly back up 90 degrees at which time the latch automatically locked. All of this could be accomplished in less time than it took to reload one chamber of the 1860 Army with powder and ball. This was, of course a most significant major step forward in firearms development.

            The standard First Model American had an 8” barrel, a square butt with smooth walnut grips, and a fluted six-shot cylinder with approximately 8000 being made from 1870 to 1872. The Second Model American had a hammer that locked into the latch on the back of the barrel assembly, and the frame above the trigger was no longer a straight line but instead had a slight extension just above the trigger. Just under 21,000 were manufactured from 1872 to 1874.                   

The Smith & Wesson American, in both 1st and 2nd Model versions remained in production for only five years with approximately 29,000 being manufactured  mostly chambered in .44 S&W American and a very few also taking the same cartridge as the 1860 Henry levergun, the .44 Rimfire. With the coming of the 1847 Walker, Colt set the direction for revolver production for the next 22 years; Smith & Wesson changed that direction completely with the introduction of the American, which would soon be improved significantly by both the Russians and Smith & Wesson.

            In their book The Standard Catalog Smith & Wesson (Krause, 2001), authors Jim Supica and Richard Nahas identify several surviving serial numbers. Texas Jack Omohundro carried serial number 2008 while deadly gun man Dallas Stoudenmire carried #7052 and #7056 in the special sewn in pockets in his long coat as he went about his marshaling duty. They also identify the 1,000 military Americans as having been purchased in both blue, 800, and nickel-plated, 200 in number. Serial numbers for the martial Americans ran from 125 to 2199 with many serial numbers being listed as taken from an old handwritten list. In addition to the United States Army purchase of Americans, 500 were also shipped to the Argentine Army and 111 went to the Spanish forces in Cuba.   

            When one acquires a sixgun as valuable as this S&W American the prudent thing is to lock it up, take it out once in awhile to fondle and admire and show to others, but never shoot it. Right? Wrong! This first big bore cartridge firing sixgun does get shot with black powder only, of course, and with specially crafted ammunition. One cannot just go to the local gun shop or any other shop and say, “I’d like a box of .44 Americans please.” The proper care and feeding of the American will be covered in the chapter on reloading the frontier cartridges. Oh, yes, it shoots fine.    

 

 

3-1) The Smith & Wesson .44 American of 1870 is shown with the other S&W .44 cartridges which followed it: the .44 Russian and .44 Special shown with the standard round nosed bullet and the .44 Special and .44 Magnum with the Keith bullet

 

 

3-2) The .44 American uses a heeled bullet such as this one cast from an RCBS mold. Both dies and brass are available from Buffalo Arms.

 

 

3-3) The .44 American on the left was the first handgun cartridge adopted by

 the United States Military in 1870; over the next 40 years it was followed by

the .44 Colt, .45 Colt, .45 Schofield, .38 Long Colt, a return to the .45 Colt,

and the .45 ACP.

 Photo courtesy of Mike Venturino.

 

 

3-4) Special care is needed in reloading for the .44 S&W American. The group

on the left shows the results of using with both a grease cookie and a crimp;

 group on the left used neither.  

 

 

3-5) A beautiful example of an early Smith & Wesson .44 American complete

with Mexican Eagle carved ivory grips.

Photo courtesy of Jim Supica’s ArmsBid.com.

 

 

3-6) The evolution of Smith & Wesson's Frontier .44: from top, American,

Model #3 Russian, New Model #3, and the Double Action .44.

Picture courtesy of Jim Supica’s ArmsBid.com.

 

 

 

3-7) Taffin relaxes with the easy shooting S&W American

 

 

3-8) A sixgun worth losing for, the consolation prize of prizes, the Smith & Wesson American.

 

3-9) Smith & Wesson issued some American .44s with a shoulder stock.

Picture courtesy of Jim Supica’s ArmsBid.com.

 

 

3-10) Three .44 cartridges emerged in 1870-1871; they were, in order,

the .44 American, the .44 Colt, and the .44 Russian.  

Chapter 2        Chapter 4