THE RUSSIANS HAVE A BETTER IDEA—THE .44 RUSSIAN

BY JOHN TAFFIN

The American Military was not the only group interested in the Smith & Wesson American. Two major events occurred in 1870 that would forever affect the future of Smith & Wesson. First, Daniel Wesson's partner, Horace Smith, sold out his interest in the business to Wesson; so for the time from the advent of the first .44 through the .357 Magnum prior to World War II the Smith in Smith & Wesson was gone from the company. Of course, now there is no Smith and no Wesson connected with Smith & Wesson. Right after the partnership dissolved, Daniel Wesson was visited by his Imperial Majesty the Czar of all the Russias. The Czar wanted weapons for his army, in fact, he planned to equip both his cavalry and artillery with Smith & Wesson revolvers.

            This, of course, was a great windfall for Smith & Wesson who had taken a major financial setback due to decreased production of their little tip-up .22 and .32 revolvers after the Civil War. Not only was this contract a financial boon for Smith and Wesson, the Russians also provided significant improvements to the American revolver as well as to its ammunition; in fact, the Russians were much more serious than the Americans about using these new cartridge firing weapons and ordered 150,000 Americans.

With their first order of Second Model Americans, the Russians made changes. The most significant change was the ammunition, and it was in fact the Russians who gave us the model for all currently produced sixgun ammunition. Instead of the heeled bullet, with a base smaller in diameter than the rest of the bullet used in the .44 American, the Russians insisted upon a bullet of uniform diameter with lubricating grooves placed inside the cartridge case. This was a most significant step forward and the .44 Russian as the new cartridge was named would become the .44 Special in 1907 and later the Special was then transformed into the .44 Magnum in 1956. There'll be more, a lot more, on the Special and Magnum .44s in later chapters.

The .44 American also known as the .44-100 used a cartridge case .90” in length with a bullet diameter of .434”and a black powder charge of anywhere from 23 to 25 grains with the muzzle velocity of 650 fps. The improved .44 Russian cartridge used a case slightly longer at .97”, a powder charge of 23 grains of black powder, and a round-nosed bullet weighing approximately 245 grains. A strange thing happened with the increased bullet weight, longer case, and decreased powder charge. Muzzle velocity actually went up 100 fps to 750 fps and muzzle energy was increased from 200 to 316 ft. lbs. Apparently the heel-type bullet allowed for excessive blow by and resulting loss of velocity.

            The first 20,000 Model #3s supplied to the Russians were basically identical to the original Smith & Wesson American except for being chambered in .44 Russian and they are known as the First Model Russians. Yes it is confusing with the Second Model American being the First Model Russian and also known as the Old, Old Model Russian and also the Model #3 Russian First Model. They were produced from 1871 to 1874. With the Second Model Russians (Old Model Russian and Model #3 Russian Second Model), a change was made in the grip shape. The original American had a square butt with a rounded back strap; the Russians now rounded the butt slightly and a hump was added at the top of the back strap thus providing not only a more secure grip but also prevented the revolver from rotating upwards in the hand when fired. A spur was also added to the bottom of the trigger guard and to this day there is no agreement on exactly what its purpose was. Pictures exist of Russian soldiers carrying their .44 revolvers in a sash with the spur hooked over the top of the sash thus preventing the sixgun from sliding down. The spur also is a great asset for deliberate shooting and by placing the middle finger on the spur a very secure and steady grip is achieved; however, at least in my hands it is impossible for me to reach the hammer with the thumb of my shooting hand when using the spur. Perhaps the Russian soldiers were marksman not gunfighters. Approximately 70,000 Second Models were made for the Russians with another 5,000 for the Japanese government; 3,000 went to the Turkish government but  these were chambered in .44 Henry; and slightly over 6,000 commercial models chambered in .44 Russian were made for the American market.  

            The Third Model Russian, also known as the New Model Russian or Model #3 Russian Third Model is better known today as simply the Model #3 Russian, was a somewhat streamlined version of the First and Second Models. The former had a standard barrel length of 8”, the latter was 7”, and the Third Model was shortened to 6 1/2” with an accompanying shorter extractor housing. Nearly 61,000 Third Models were produced with 13,500 going to the commercial market. Several years ago, when returning from the Linebaugh Seminar and Winchester Gun Show in Cody Wyoming, my wife Diamond Dot and I stopped in Idaho Falls for a break. She, not yet having started her own collection of top-break revolvers, spotted a quilt store, while I went down the street to a local gun store where I found several excellent Smith & Wesson revolvers resulting in a rapid reaching for my credit card.

The first sixgun was a .38/44 Outdoorsman in excellent condition and at a most reasonable price. It left the gun shop with me along with my first single action Smith &Wesson, a Model #3 Russian dated 1874. The finish is mostly gone, however the barrel is in good shape and it locks up and functions very well, certainly enough to allow it to be safely shot with black powder loads only of course. The mating of the top-break locking parts was a trifle loose, however my gunsmith Glen Kyser now plying his excellent gunsmithing skills at Buckhorn Gun Shop, did a little welding and filing and it is now as tight as it was when it left the factory more than 125 years ago.

Original Model #3 Russians were produced from 1874 to 1878 and may be tough to find in good shooting shape without commanding high collector dollars, however Navy Arms offers an excellent shooting replica of the New Model Russian. It was Navy Arms who gave us the first Smith & Wesson replica with the .45 Colt Schofield Model, and then soon followed with the introduction of their second Smith & Wesson replica single action, the New Model Russian correctly chambered in .44 Russian. The original Schofield was never chambered in .45 Colt but rather the shorter .45 S&W cartridge; the Navy Arms Model #3 Russian has been kept historically correct. The Navy Arms New Model Russian or Model #3 Russian is a faithful copy complete with very small sights of the original and is finished overall in a deep blue-black finish set off with a case colored hammer, trigger guard, and locking latch. Stocks are smooth walnut as found on the originals.

 The Model #3 Russian is also offered directly by Uberti. Both versions come with factory stocks of smooth European walnut, however my personal Navy Arms New Model Russian has been fitted with Ultraivory grips from Eagle Grips. Ultraivory, while a synthetic material, is very close to real ivory, with milky white color and ivory type grain, and they also provide a good contrast to the dark blue finish of the New Model Russian.

            During the 1930s and 1940s hundreds of  B (for Budget, low that is) western movies were made for both kids and adults of that age to enjoy. I was born too late to catch most of these wonderful old movies in the theater, however what I did not see on the silver screen in the late 1940s I soon saw on television in the early 1950s as much air time was taken up by old movies. Today in my second childhood I am building a DVD library of old B westerns. The prevailing wisdom says today’s kids would have no interest in these old movies, however my 7th grade grandson Brian was recently home sick for a week. He has cable TV and a large assortment of TV games, but instead chose 20 of my Red Ryder films to occupy his time. When I was his age I was especially fascinated by the sixguns and leather rigs used by each hero (I still am) and this certainly had a great effect on me when I started buying my own single action sixguns starting with a Ruger .22 Single-Six in 1956 and soon followed by a couple Colt Single Actions.

            Within a year I had a pair of 7 1/2” Colts and a fast draw rig by Ray Howser of the Pony Express Sport Shop out of California. Ray is still alive and I had the pleasure of speaking to him recently. I practiced with those Colts every day, both fast drawing and then spinning them end over end and back into the holsters. My neighbor who was in his 30s also loved single action sixguns with his favorite being a 7 1/2” custom Colt Single Action from the early 1900s which had been re-barreled and re-cylindered to .44 Special and fitted with a grip frame from the Colt 1860 Army. I found that old Colt fascinating but what really captured my imagination was not the Colt sixgun but his other single action, a .44 Russian made by Smith & Wesson and it did not take much examination even for my youthful eyes and fingers to discover what a beautifully crafted sixgun the Smith & Wesson .44 Russian really was.

My friend’s .44 Russian was a New Model #3, the third sixgun in the lineup of the .44 Smith & Wesson big bore top break single actions. After seeing this beautiful single action Smith & Wesson I began to watch to see if anyone actually carried a Smith & Wesson single action in the movies or on television. I have been watching for over 50 years and they are very few and far between with the first one I noticed being used by Robert Culp as Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman in the TV series Trackdown. Culp must have really like the Smith & Wesson as he also used one in the movie Hannie Caulder.

The Smith & Wesson New Model #3 was way ahead of its time. It is so precisely fitted it demands smokeless powder for perfect functioning, however all of the frames of these guns were built in the black powder era and should only be used with black powder. The machining and tolerances used in their manufacture were so precise they are easily fouled and work very sluggishly after very few rounds of black powder loads. The only answer is to keep them clean.

One of the local gun shops had just taken in a New Model #3 .44 Russian in excellent condition a few years ago. Diamond Dot did a little bargaining and it became ours. Both this New Model #3 and the earlier mentioned original Model #3 Russian are used only with black powder loads. They are much too valuable to take a chance on ruining them using smokeless powder.  We will look at loading the Smith & Wesson American, Model #3 Russian, and New Model #3 in the chapter on reloading the .44 Frontier cartridges. The New Model #3 was cataloged by Smith and Wesson from 1878 to 1908 with the last one not leaving the factory until 1912. The general switchover from black powder to smokeless powder was right at the turn of the century, however all of the New Model #3 frames were made for black powder and should be treated accordingly.

At one of our recent guns shows I got word that my wife wanted to see me up front. I was visiting with several fellows in the show and before I could work my way from the back of the show up to where Diamond Dot was, three more people gave me the message to come up front. I got there too late. She decided not to wait for me and talked to a most knowledgeable friend and as a result had just purchased, for a very good price I might add, a Smith & Wesson New Model #3 with target sights chambered in .44 Russian. It had been re-blued who knows how many eons ago and the front sight had been altered slightly, however it was a genuine target-sighted Model #3. The New Model #3 in general, and the those with target sights in particular, have a great reputation for accuracy and were used by such 19th-century marksman as Ira Paine and Walter Winans to set many revolver records. Target Model #3s were fitted with a special front sight designed by Paine, and Winans, who was vice president of the National Rifle Association of Great Britain, used his target sighted “Winans’ Model” #3 in .44 Russian to win championships at the Bisley Matches.

In his monumental work “Art of Revolver Shooting” published in 1901, Winans says of the New Model #3, “One of the reasons why this Smith & Wesson revolver is so accurate is because so much care is taken by the makers to have cylinder and barrel in perfect alignment; and it is not too much to say that I have never shot any revolver of any other make which I can so safely trust not to give me a wild shot.  To secure this result, the stop and stop-notch, which arrests the momentum of the cylinder and holds it in position during discharge, play the most important part.  In all cheap revolvers the notches are made in the soft steel of the cylinder, and in consequence these notches soon wear, putting the alignment out, which prevents accuracy.  When the notch gets too much worn, this makes firing the revolver even a positive danger.  In the Smith & Wesson revolver, this is obviated by a piece of hard steel being fitted into the side of the notch which comes in contact with the stop when the motion of the cylinder is checked.  This is a special patent of the firm. This make of revolver also has steel bosses, or collars, fitted into the frame, to keep the hammer, trigger, etc., from coming in contact with the sides of the frame.”

Today custom gunsmiths, and Freedom Arms, line bore cylinders for perfect alignment with the barrel, place blocks inside single action revolvers to keep parts in place under heavy recoil and in the 1980s Smith & Wesson introduced their Endurance Package for their .44 Magnum revolvers to basically do the same thing being done to the Model #3 revolvers 100 years earlier. Manufacturers of quality revolvers also use the best steel available in their cylinders preventing the wear mentioned by Winans.

Winans was a great shot and not only used the Target Model Smith & Wesson but also the Colt Flat-Top Target and the Webley Target as well. Because of this one might think he would always prefer revolvers. Such was not the case and in his last book, The Modern Pistol, published in1919 just before his death in 1920, he basically says learning to shoot a revolver is a waste of time, “There is now no use learning revolver shooting.  That form of pistol is obsolete and except in the few instances where it survives for target shooting, or for self defense; …If a man tries to defend himself with a revolver against another armed with the automatic pistol he is at a great disadvantage…The automatic is more accurate than a revolver…The automatic has not only a much longer range than the revolver…” Now nearly 100 years later there are still those trying to convince us the revolver is obsolete. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now, nor is it ever likely to become so. There is a place for sixguns and a place for semi-automatics and plenty of room for both. 

            “I did the bargaining now it is up to you to go pay for them.” The phone call was from Diamond Dot. Her boss had been looking for a particular shotgun and by calling around I found one at Boise Gun Company. So on the following Monday Diamond Dot accompanied him to pick up the shotgun and while she was there spotted two large bore, double action, top-break revolvers. She specializes in the little .32 and .38 top-breaks, however figured I would want these two and laid the necessary groundwork.

            They were both Smith & Wessons and both were .44 Russians. They were mechanically excellent, sound, shootable sixguns with very good bores and very little original finish left. One had a 5” barrel and the other a 6”, however they were not Model #3s but rather the next step in the evolution of Smith & Wesson .44 sixguns. As a teenager I was immediately captivated by the Smith & Wesson New Model #3; however such was not the case with this pair of .44 Russians.  It has taken most of my life to really appreciate the first Smith & Wesson double action revolvers known as the .44 Double Action First Model.

            The Double Action First Model basically looks like a New Model #3 which had been converted from single action to double action and in the process lost much of its beautiful profile. With its somewhat overly larger, and somewhat square back trigger guard Smith & Wesson’s first double action looks somewhat like the fins found on the rear fenders of many cars in the late 1950s and early 1960s and prompting most folks to wonder what the world they were there for; at least somewhat. Only recently have I really come to truly have affection and a feel for the Double Action First Model.

            These sixguns point very well and for many shooters were actually a step up from the single action models as it does take some amount of dexterity to operate a single action sixgun both quickly and accurately. Beginning in 1881 shooters now had a real choice when it came to Smith & Wesson .44 Russians. John Wesley Hardin had one of the very early Double Action .44 Russians, serial number 352; and Theodore Roosevelt’s superior in the Spanish American War, General Leonard Wood also had one serial number 47550. Both of these bits of information are attributed to the previously mentioned Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson. The Double Action First Model would be manufactured from 1881 to 1913, approximately 53,500 of them, however as with the New Model #3 all frames were made in the black powder era and they should only be used with black powder loads.

            For many years I have read that the original double actions were very hard to shoot double action and I had no reason to doubt this. That is, until I acquired my own Smith & Wesson Double Action .44. Perhaps I have a stronger than normal trigger finger from so many years of shooting, however, I found the Double Action easy to operate double action and also easy to handle when point shooting. If I had lived, in the 1880s, and if I had normally carried a single action, and if I had been introduced to the Double Action Smith & Wesson, what would I have done? I know that's a lot of “ifs”, but I can certainly understand shooters switching to the double action mechanism. Contrary to what we see in most western movies, a single action is very difficult, and dangerous, when using a maximum speed draw by cocking the hammer either in the leather or as it is drawn. The introduction of the double action revolver removed this obstacle. Now it was only necessary to draw the sixgun and pull the trigger as the revolver found its target, and for more deliberate shooting the Double Action .44 from Smith & Wesson could also be used by cocking the hammer and then firing.

            One of the great things about being a gun writer is the pleasant surprise that may await me at each phone call, e-mail, or letter. This time it was a phone call and a friend wanted to bring a revolver over for me to look at. It seems a friend of his had received a revolver from his grandmother. Grandmother was in her 90s and when grandfather died she shipped the revolver to the grandson and he wanted some idea of what it was worth.  When our mutual friend took it out my heart almost stopped as I saw the beautiful mother of pearl grips with the distinctive Smith & Wesson frontier revolver shape. The sixgun turned out to be a .44 Russian Double Action First Model in virtually unfired condition. I told him what I thought it was worth and made what I thought was a reasonable offer. Two days later another phone call said that beautiful .44 Russian Double Action was mine.  

            The .44 Russian arrived in the Second Model American in 1870 and would last until 1913 in Smith & Wesson sixguns even though the .44 Special arrived in 1907-1908. In fact some of the Triple-Lock revolvers were chambered in .44 Russian as were Colt’s Single Action Army and Bisley Model as well as the Flat-Top Target versions of both and also the New Service. It is one of our most important revolver cartridges not only for what it was but for what it would become.       

                                                                       

5-1) Smith & Wesson .44 Single Actions of the 1870s from top left clockwise,

an American, a pair of Model #3 Russians, and a New Model #3.

 

 

5-2) The .44 Russian is not only important for what it was but also for the

cartridges descended from it, the .44 Special and the .44 Magnum.

 

 

5-3) The .44 Russian is best loaded with a cartridge specific die set from

RCBS and loaded with a 250 grain round-nosed bullet.

 

 

5-4) Two great Smith & Wessons of the Frontier era, the New Model #3,

bottom, and the Double Action .44, top.

 

 

5-5) Uberti offers an excellent replica of the Model #3 Russian which can be

used with either black powder or smokeless powder loads.

Photo courtesy of Mike Venturino.

 

 

5-6) The original Model #3 Russian, top, is for black powder loads only;

the Navy Arms Model #3 Russian may be used with either smokeless or

black powder loads. UltraIvory grips are by Eagle Grips.

 

 

5-7) Smith & Wesson's first double action was introduced in 1881

chambered in .44 Russian.

 

 

5-8) Taffin shooting an original Smith & Wesson .44 Double Action finds it

to be a good shooting sixgun in either the 19th or 21st centuries.

 

 

5-9) Walter Winans set many revolver records using a target sighted S&W

New Model #3 using black powder .44 Russian loads.

 

 

5-10) A beautiful example of an 1880s Double Action Smith & Wesson

.44 Russian nickel-plated with pearl stocks; condition is excellent plus.

 

 

5-11) The Smith & Wesson Model #3 was available with a detachable butt stock.

Photo courtesy of Jim Supica’s ArmsBid.com.

 

Chapter 4      Chapter 6