THE .44 SPECIAL SIXGUNS—100 YEARS OF SERVICE

SMITH WESSON’S .44  HAND EJECTORS

BY JOHN TAFFIN

Why did Smith & Wesson drop the .44 Special Triple-Lock? Was it really too expensive to produce or were there other reasons? We could blame it on the Brits. They had ordered 5,000 Triple-Locks chambered in .455 for use in World War I in the trenches. The precise fitting of that extra third locking feature as well as the enclosed ejector rod was an object of concern when matched up with the muddy trenches. If either the lock or ejector rod housing became caked with mud the revolver would be out of commission until thoroughly cleaned. Removing both features resulted in a more efficient firearm for the conditions.

In the book, Smith & Wesson 1857-1945 (Barnes 1966) by Robert Neal and Roy Jinks we read, "Most authorities believe that the third lock provided on this model was put there by Smith & Wesson more as an example of the ultimate in precision machine work than as a necessary item for extra strength.  Even with Smith & Wesson's normal two locks they provided twice the locking strength of any Colt Hand Ejector arm then produced, along with the extra accuracy of the forward lock in keeping the cylinder in line with the barrel.” So it would seem the third lock was there because it could be done. Whenever the reason it was gone by 1915 when the Triple-Lock was dropped from production.

Remove the third lock and the enclosed ejector rod from the .44 Special Triple-Lock First Model Hand Ejector and it becomes a .44 duplicate of the .38 Military & Police known as the Second Model Hand Ejector. This .44 Special would be produced from 1915 to 1940 with approximately 17,500 being produced. They were offered in both blue and nickel, mostly with 6 1/2” barrels and fixed sights, with some 4” and 5” lengths also made as well though very rare, as well as a few made in .45 Colt, .44-40, and .38-40, also rare. The Second Model Hand Ejector is also rarely found as a Target Model with the same sights as found on the Triple-Lock Target Model.  A few years ago, it was possible to find .44 Special Second Model Hand Ejectors at very reasonable prices. Those days seemingly are now gone with prices rapidly increasing to the level of the Triple-Lock.

The British were in the war and we soon would be. Their Smith & Wessons, after the initial order of .455 Triple-Locks, would be the Second Model chambered in .455 with nearly 70,000 total going to both the British and Canadian military. For our use the caliber became .45 ACP and the barrel was cut back to 5 1/2” instead of the 6 1/2” length of the .455 and more than 163,000 Model 1917s were built by Smith & Wesson for use by the United States military to supplement the 1911 .45ACP which could not be produced fast enough. For the use of the rimless .45 ACP in the S&W revolver, an engineer at Smith & Wesson came up with the half moon clip to hold three cartridges and which could be inserted and ejected from the 1917 in pairs. Needless to say there were no .44 Special Smith & Wessons manufactured during the war. However, with the ceasing of hostilities and return to civilian production the Second Model .44 Special was again produced. 

            The Triple-Lock was very popular with peace officers especially those in the Southwest and along our southern border. The pre-WWII Smith & Wessons are usually referred to as having long actions, which were particularly good for shooting double action style. As new peace officers came along a demand arose for a return to the Triple-Lock or at least an enclosed ejector rod housing. Smith & Wesson did not feel the demand warranted such a return until Wolf & Klar of Fort Worth Texas placed an order for 3,500 .44 Specials with enclosed ejector rod housings. Only 1,000 of the new 1926 Models were ever shipped to Wolf & Klar and from 1926 to 1940 as far as the Smith & Wesson catalog was concerned, the Third Model did not exist and could only be special ordered. In spite of this, nearly 5,000 were made before the start of WWII.

            These guns were offered in blue or nickel, adjustable or fixed sights, barrel lengths of 4”, 5”, and 6 ½”, and while mostly found in .44 Special, a few were also made in .44-40 and .45 Colt. From 1926 to 1940 the standard .44 Special ammunition offering was a 246 grain round nosed lead bullet with a muzzle velocity of 750 fps. Even so it was looked upon in the early years as a much better choice than a .38 Special. Texas Ranger Captain Manuel Trazazas “Lone Wolf” Gonzuallas carried a pair of ivory stocked, 4” .44 Special 1926 Models. Although he was often photographed with a pair of ivory stocked Colt Single Actions, the picture I have had of him since the 1950s shows him packin’ his twin Smith .44 Specials, and the painting hanging in the Texas Ranger Museum also shows his .44 Specials. The 1926 Model was also such a great sixgun the basic platform was used to build the  .38/44 Heavy Duty in 1930, which would then become the .357 Magnum in 1935.

            It took quite a while, but several years ago a Model 1926 entered my life. Now I have been a fan of a big bore sixguns since purchasing my first center fire, a circa-1900 manufactured Colt Single Action Army 4 ¾” .38-40 in 1956. Just before this I discovered Elmer Keith, which of course meant .44 Special. As the years went by, all too quickly, I had several Fourth Models, the 1950 Targets; even a first year production Triple-Lock; but no 1926 Model. For my birthday my wife presented me with a pair of unfired 4” Model 24 .44 Specials made in 1983, but I still did not have a 1926 Model. For the past 45 years I had seen affordable dogs and unaffordable 1926s with a four-figure price tag. It did not look like I would ever own an affordable Third Model Hand Ejector in excellent shape or even good shooting condition.

            Enter a faithful and like-minded reader of the two magazines, American Handgunner and Guns, of which I serve on staff as Senior Field Editor. He had been traveling in Oregon, spotted a like new .44 Special, and immediately notified me. I was put in contact with Gunners Central Oregon Traders in Redmond and talked with a very pleasant gentlemen who also happened to be a reader of our magazines, and who described what was a 4” Model 1926 .44 Special, blue, fixed sights with Magna stocks, exactly what I have been searching for four decades. The price was an extremely reasonable three figures, arrangements were made for shipping, with the normal inspection privilege that all honest gun dealers offer, and, when it arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to find it even better than described. I would call it 99% and I certainly enjoy dealing with sellers that are 100% plus honest!

            Now I knew why those old Southwest peace officers had such a high regard for the 1926 Model. I hesitate to use the much overworked  “silky smooth” to describe the double action operation of this classic .44 Special, however I don’t know any better adjectives. Once started the double action almost seems to operate itself; recoil with pre-War .44 Special type loads is very mild; and best of all, this grand sixgun was made the same year I was! It was certainly meant to be mine. When I shoot it, I feel as if I am holding history in my hand.

            One of the best places to find .44 Specials is the Old Town Station Dispatch, a quarterly catalog, really a wonderful dream book, put out by Jim Supica who also co-authored the Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson. In the past couple years I have picked up two shooter-grade, as opposed to minty collectible, .44 Special Model 1926 Smith & Wessons from Supica. Both are nickel-plated, one 4”, and the other 5”, and both were in the $400 price range. One needed a new trigger return spring and the other needed the muzzle re-crowned as it had a ding that interfered with tight shooting groups. With these two simple operations both became good shooting .44 Specials and are ready for another seventy-five years of service.

            From 1926 to 1941 approximately 5,000 1926 Models were produced, blue or nickel-plated in barrel lengths of 4”, 5”, and 6 1/2” with fixed sights and less than 100 made as Target Models. After World War II ended, production of the Third Model was resumed with approximately 1,500 being made from 1946 to 1949. Most of these were 6 1/2” versions with fixed sights and somewhere between 25 and 50 being offered as Target Models. They were dropped from production to be replaced by the Fourth Model Hand Ejector  .44 Special, the 1950 Target Model.

            On page 240 of Sixguns By Keith there is a picture, which I drooled over for several decades. It shows a Smith & Wesson with a hollow point cast bullet and two expanded bullets and the following caption, “A .44 Sp. S&W Model 1926 Target with King red bead reflector front and white outline rear sights.  Middle bullet was recovered from deep snow bank after passing broadside through jackrabbit.  Bullet on right expanded to diameter of .865 inch on passing broadside through upper part of deer and lodging just under hide on opposite site.  Distance of 70 yards.  Keith hollow point 235 gr., 18.5 gr. of 2400.”

            The Triple-Lock and the 1926 Model were superb examples of the gunbuilder’s art when it came to a double action .44 Special. The post-war Fourth Model .44 Hand Ejector would be a worthy successor.        

 

 

11-1) The three standard barrel lengths offered on Smith & Wesson's .44 Special

were 4”, 5”, and 6 1/2” as shown on these 1926 Models. 

Photo courtesy of Mike Venturino.

 

 

11-2) Smith & Wesson never brought back the Triple-Lock but did come close

in 1926 with the 3rd Model or Model 1926. These 70+ year-old sixguns still shoot.

 

 

11-3) Two excellent fighting handguns, both .44 Specials, are Smith & Wesson's

Model 1926 and Model 1950 with fixed sights and 4” barrels.

 

 

11-4 and 11-5) Taffin shooting the Target 2nd Model Hand Ejector .44 Special.

 

 

11-6 and 11-7) A very easy shooting big bore self defense sixgun is the 4”

1926 Model .44 Special.

 

 

11-8) Two examples of superb fighting handguns available in the 1920s,

nickel-plated and blue 4” 1926 Model .44 Specials.

 

 

11-9) Fighting Handguns don't get any better than this: a pair of nickel-plated

.44 Special Model 1926 Smith & Wessons, a blue version, and a 4” 1950 Target.

 

 

11-10) This sixgun, a Model 1926 .44 Special it special for several reasons

including being made the same year as the author.

 

 

11-11) Taffin shooting the 5” S&W .44 Special Model 1926 and dreaming

of days gone by.

 

 

11-12 and 11-13) These three generations of pre-War Smith & Wesson .44 Specials,

a Triple-Lock, a 2nd Model HE, and a Model 1926 all shoot exceptionally well.

 

Chapter 10       Chapter 12