SMITH & WESSON’S POSTWAR .44 SPECIALS

BY JOHN TAFFIN

            World War II ended in 1945 and the firearms manufacturers could once again gear up for civilian production; it would not happen overnight. Most sixgunners would not see a new .357 Magnum or .44 Special until well into the 1950s. I started hanging out at a local gun shop in 1956 and I did not see a new .44 Special until 1959 when my wife gave me a 6 1/2” Smith & Wesson Model 1950 Target .44 Special for our first Christmas together. Until 1949 Smith & Wesson continued producing the .44 Special Model 1926 with slightly less than 1500 being made by 1949. I never saw a single one of them. Production of this Third Model Hand Ejector ended in 1949 to prepare for the Fourth Model.

            In September 1950, S&W introduced the Fourth Model .44 as the Model 1950 .44 Target. The standard barrel length was 6 1/2” with both 4” and 5” versions being very rare. All 1950 Target Models had an adjustable rear sight matched up with either a post or Baughman ramp front sight. Finish was either standard blue or bright blue with just over 5,000 being produced when production ended in 1966. The companion fixed sighted .44 was the Military Model with barrel lengths of 4” or 5” and this time the 6 1/2” was the rare one. Only 1200 were produced by 1966. In 1957 these two Model 1950s became the Model 24 and Model 21 respectively.

Diamond Dot and I were both teenagers when we married and the times were great with nary a worry in the world.  We both worked, we seemed to have plenty of money, and that first Christmas was like no other and I received that Smith & Wesson 6 1/2” 1950 Target .44 Special as well as two other guns. I don’t remember what all I bought her that first Christmas together, however I do remember spending $125 for a floral hand carved shoulder bag for her at a time when the minimum wage was less than one dollar. Within a few years she would use that bag to carry diapers. We had no idea how fast things would change. The following Christmas found me in my first year of college, laid-off from work, and Dot staying at home awaiting our first child. We had spent thousands that first Christmas; the second found us with just a little over three dollars apiece to spend on each other. We did, however receive one of the greatest Christmas gifts ever that year as our first baby arrived three days after Christmas.

            By March I was back to work and over the next two years two more babies arrived. I was now in my third-year of college and working full-time in a tire factory at night. Looking back times were great but they were lean. Without our youthful energy we would not have survived. The times were tough, however as we look back we would not trade them for anything. They drew us closer together and strengthened our roots.

            That same third-year of college we came up against it. It seemed there was never enough money and now we were really in a fix. Tuition came due every quarter, I had borrowed money on our ’58 Chevy as often as I could, but now we faced a real dilemma. I could pay tuition or I could buy groceries to feed the kids; I could not do both. If there was such a thing as a credit card in those days I certainly had never seen one. Somehow we would have to come up with money by selling something. The only things we had of value were firearms.    

            We were young, we were foolish, and we were definitely taken advantage of. Into the gun shop we went with a Model ’94 Winchester, a Colt Single Action Army .45 Colt, and the 6 1/2” Smith & Wesson 1950 Target .44 Special. That .44 Special was especially special. By that time, I had read everything written about the .44 Special by the likes of Keith, Lachuk, Skelton, Boser, Hagel, Zlatich, Sharpe, and many others. It was definitely a favorite and treasured sixgun. I felt awful; Dot felt worse, and tears streamed down her cheeks. She sobbed as she said, “You’ll never have to do that again!” It was certainly a very low time, however we had enough money to buy groceries. She was right. We never had to do that again.

            Over the years the Winchester and the Colt were replaced many times over, but I did a very foolish thing when it came to the .44 Special. Eight years later found us in pretty good shape and I actually came upon another 6 1/2” Model 1950 Target. I had placed a Winchester 1886 on layaway at the Gunhaus and when George called me to tell me about the Smith & Wesson I backed off the Winchester and took the 1950 Target instead. Then came the dumb part. I wanted the 6 1/2” 1950 Target, however I also wanted a 4” version even more. I had yet to grow out of my foolish period and not realizing how hard it would be to come up with another 6 1/2” Target Model, I did what would now be unthinkable, and had the barrel shortened to 4”. Now all I had to do was find another 6 1/2” Model 1950 Target .44 Special.

For more than 10 years I searched for a replacement for the now shortened 1950 Target. Nothing. In 1983-1984, Smith & Wesson did a very short production run of the Model 24-3 and I eagerly purchased a 6 1/2” version, however it just wasn’t the same. I still wanted an original 1950 Target. And then it happened!  I received word from a reader in Texas. He knew of my affection for older Smith & Wesson sixguns and sent a list of sixguns he had for sale. On the list I found the .38/44 Heavy Duty, the .38/44 Outdoorsman, the 1926 Model .44 Special, in some cases, several examples, and then there it was, a 98% condition 6 1/2” 1950 Target .44 Special!!  He was in the process of moving from Iowa to Texas and said he would contact me when he had all the guns with him. Several weeks later, I was contacted again and the deal was consummated. Over the years, I have purchased several .44 Specials from readers sight unseen and have been thoroughly pleased with every purchase.

            After more than four decades, a 6 1/2” 1950 Target .44 Special was now back home. It is exactly the same as my original model with standard hammer and trigger, standard blue finish, and diamond checkered walnut stocks. It even has the same first three digits in the serial number. When my turn came for a pair of grips from Roy Fishpaw, this 1950 Target Model was stocked by the master, himself. It now wears perfectly shaped and fitted grips crafted of an exotic wood called lacewood. One never knows what the future will bring, and perhaps someday I may have to sell this one but I hope instead it can be passed down to one of my grandsons. One thing for certain the barrel will never be cut! 

Pictured in the 1955 First Edition of Sixguns are Keith’s personal 4” 1950 Target .44 Special as well as son Ted’s 5” 1950 .44 Special. Someday I would have one of each of these; at least I could dream. The Second Edition of Sixguns arrived in 1961 and to the Wish List of these two magnificent .44 Specials was added the 4” Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum , the sixgun that Elmer Keith considered the perfect peace officer’s sidearm. By the mid-1960s school was behind me. I had found a 4” .44 Magnum, however, both the 4” and 5” .44 Specials were virtually nonexistent as far as I was concerned. I was doing OK. I could live without them. I could forget about them. And then, enter Skeeter Skelton. Like Keith, Skeeter had a wonderful way of capturing readers and bringing them into the story. The problem for me was Skeeter's favorite sixgun was an original 4” Model 1950 Target .44 Special and my heartache started all over again.

When the .44 Magnum arrived, Skeeter had sold his first 1950 Target .44 Special and took up the 4” .44 Magnum as his everyday packin’ pistol for law enforcement duties. He soon found for his use the recoil was excessive and the gun too heavy to carry comfortably all day so he sold it and replaced it with a 4” .44 Special; and therein is the beauty of the .44 Special. It is lighter by about one-half pound than comparable .44 Magnum sixguns and with a handload consisting of a 250 Keith bullet over 7.5 grains of Unique delivers an adequately powerful load of 900-950 fps. Skeeter favored the 6 1/2” S&W .44 Magnum and 7 1/2” Ruger .44 Blackhawk Flat-Top for hunting but chose the 4” .44 Special for nearly everything else requiring a big bore sixgun. 

            I still could find neither an original 4” nor 5” Smith & Wesson 1950 Target .44 Special. It just wasn’t meant to be. Then I came upon a fellow getting ready to take a bunch of boys on a camping trip. It just so happened he was packing a sixgun along just as any wise camper does, and it wasn’t just any sixgun but an original 4” Smith & Wesson 1950 Target .44 Special! I actually saw and held a 4” 1950 Target. He was willing to trade it for a 4” S&W .44 Magnum as soon as he got back from the weekend trip. You can imagine what a long weekend that was for me. The first morning he was back home he started his truck and left it running in the driveway to warm up. When he came outside, the passenger side door was opened, the glove box was opened, and the Smith & Wesson, my 4” 1950 Target .44 Special was gone.

            If I was to have a 4” 1950 Target I would have to make my own. I now had the replaced 6 1/2” Model 1950 Target cut to 4”inches; however that wasn’t the dumbest thing I did. I had paid $65 for a second .44 Special, a very rare Model 1950 Military with fixed sights and I now had it fitted with a Smith & Wesson adjustable rear sight assembly and a 6 1/2” 1950 Target barrel trimmed to 5”. The work was performed by master gunsmith George Hoenig so it is superb. They were not original but at least I had a 4” and 5” .44 Special. What I didn't know at the time, no one did, was how valuable both of these sixguns would be today if I had left them alone. Both had been purchased very reasonably, $80 new for the Target Model, and both were in excellent shape. Both now sell for around $1,200 or more if original. I had my short-barreled .44 Specials but since they were not factory original I continued searching.

            It had become painfully apparent I would not find a 4” 1950 Target; then it happened. On a saturday morning I turned on the computer and found “FS 1950 Target 4-inch.” I recognized the gentleman as one I had dealt with before. His e-mail address was posted incorrectly, however I knew the correct one so I was the first one through; if that didn’t tell me it was meant to be, nothing would. Saturday at 4 PM I placed a Priority Mail envelope with a check and a copy of my FFL in a curbside mailbox. It arrived in Pennsylvania 2500+ miles away on Monday morning. The 4” .44 Special was Fed-Ex’d and arrived here on Tuesday morning. I was in the shower when it arrived and my wonderful Fed-Ex driver came back later. “ I saw the dogs so knew you were home.”  He could have left it but said he felt it was too valuable to leave at the door. He could have taken it back to the counter for me to pick up in the evening with a half-hour drive each way. He didn’t. He is a shooter, he understands.

            The .44 Special 1950 Target 4” proved to be exactly as advertised. “hardly fired, you will need a magnifying glass to find any blue wear”. The original Magna Stocks are perfect. The quest was complete; I had a genuine original 4” 1950 Target Model .44 Special. However for a .44 Special addict the quest never really ends it just shifts in a different direction.

            Smith & Wesson had dropped the 1950 Target .44 Special in 1966. Thanks to a letter writing campaign mostly instigated by Skeeter Skelton, Smith & Wesson re-introduced the Model 24 in 1983. It was now known as the Model 24-3. The original 1950 Target had a pinned barrel and was of the “five screw” Smith & Wessons. The five screws referred to four in the side plate and one entering from the front of the trigger guard controlling the trigger return spring. In 1956 the upper sideplate screw was deleted and they became known as four screw Smiths. By 1983 the screw in the front of trigger guard was gone and the Model 24-3 was a three screw without the pinned barrel.

            The Model 24-3 was made in both 6 1/2” and 4” versions with only 7,500 being made in 1983. I purchased a 6 1/2” with a Patridge front sight but was not quick enough, nor flush enough, to come up with a 4” model. Only a 5,050 of the original 1950 Target Model .44 Specials had been made in 16 years; now 7,500 sold out in one year. Obviously shooters and collectors wanted S&W .44 Specials. An additional run of 1,000 3” Model 24s were offered through distibutor Lew Horton in 1984 and these disappeared quickly also.

The years passed and since I still had not yet found that original 4” 1950 Target my wife tried to soothe my dejected feeling somewhat by presenting me with a pair of original and unfired 4” .44 Specials Model 24-3s she found in 1999; yes they wore 4” barrels; and yes they were deeply appreciated, however, they were not original 1950 Target Models. I did like them so well, however, that I sent them off to Bob Leskovec to be ivory stocked Keith-style with a carved longhorn steer, one on the left panel of one sixgun and the right panel of the other sixgun, to completely fill in the natural creases in the hands. As so often happens once I had these 4” Model 24-3s, the original 4” mentioned above showed up. Four decades of searching with no luck and now in a very short time the 4” itch was scratched three times. 

            The Model 24-3s had sold very quickly and now Smith & Wesson was in a quandary. They had sort of promised shooters and collectors there would only be so many made, however the demand definitely exceeded the supply. Should they make another run even though they said there would be no more? The problem was solved with the introduction of the Model 624. In 1985 Smith & Wesson brought out the stainless-steel version of the Model 24-3. Offered in both 6 1/2” and 4” barrel lengths, a total of 10,000 were offered along with 5,000 from Lew Horton with 3” barrels. The standard Model 24-3 and Model 624 both had square butts, however both Horton offerings were fitted with round butts and finger groove combat stocks. The only basic difference between the blued Model 24-3 and the stainless-steel Model 624, besides the obvious finish, was the black post, or Patridge, front sight on the 24-3 and the Baughman “quick draw” ramp front sight found on the 624.

This time I didn't hesitate. I ordered both a 6 1/2” and 4” Model 624 from Smith & Wesson for testing, evaluation, and write-up and both were subsequently purchased. Every dedicated sixgunner knows every sixgun is a law unto itself and the 624 and 24-3 are no exceptions. From day one the 6 1/2” 624 shot everything well; its 24-3 twin started out by grouping only two loads well, Winchester’s factory 246 round nose lead and the Keith load. It finally settled down after being broken in and began shooting excellent groups with several loads. All three 4” versions shot well from the very beginning; and all three are good enough to be stocked with ivory.

            There would be no more .44 Specials coming from Smith & Wesson for over 10 years. Then in late 1996 a new style Smith & Wesson .44 Special emerged, not on the large N-frame as all had been for 90 years but rather on the smaller L-frame. The L-frame began in 1980 as a six-shot .357 Magnum slightly larger than the Model 19/66 Combat Magnum but smaller than the Model 27 N-frame. Now Smith & Wesson used the L-frame to build a five-shot .44 Special. The Model 696 was made of stainless-steel with a round butt and a 3” barrel and to this day is sought after by .44 Special sixgunners. In 1999 the .44 Special found a home in the Model 296Ti; this 2 1/2” 19 ounce .44 had an alloy frame, round butt and was double action only. It was followed up in 2000 by the 396Ti Mountain Lite with a round butt, 3 1/4” barrel, and HiViz Green Dot front sight on a ramp base. Stocks are pebble-grained, finger grooved rubber and this is the easiest packin’ double action .44 Special ever offered. 

            The 696, 296Ti, and the 396Ti are all five-shot .44 Specials and it looked like we would never again see a full-sized, six-shot .44 Special. Never say never as in 2005 another six-shot .44 Special arrived from Smith & Wesson. This example arrived as a special edition known as the Model 21-4 Thunder Ranch Special. It is, of course, chambered in .44 Special with a 4” barrel, fixed sights, and an enclosed ejector rod. Except for the round butt and 21st century manufacturing requirements it is a dead ringer for the .44 Special Model 1926 and Model 1950 Military. Sometime around the late 1980s or so someone at Smith & Wesson made the decision to round butt large frame revolvers; thankfully several gripmakers almost immediately began offering round butt to square butt custom stocks to correct this. Round butts are fine, even preferred, for small concealable revolvers, and at least on large frame revolvers they offer a large latitude of custom grips sizes; however some things are just meant to be, and N-frame Smiths are meant to have square butt grip frames.

Grips are routinely changed on most of my revolvers and this round butted .44 Special is no exception. It came with nicely fitted and figured wood stocks, however they simply do not mate up with my fingers and round butted grips on large frame revolvers always feel to me as if the barrel wants to tip downwards. To correct this I first borrowed a pair of round butt to square butt BluMagnum stocks from another revolver and then ordered a pair of checkered Detective round butt to square butt stocks from Herrett’s. These grips work well, feel good, and look great. The checkering is no problem on a .44 Special, however the Detective stocks on my 4” .44 Magnum were ordered with the smooth finish due to the greater recoil of the Magnum round. Herrett’s has been making stocks for half a century; they know their business and also all stocks are custom-made to fit each individual shooter’s hand pattern.

The fixed sights consist of a square notch rear sight cut into the top of the frame in front of the hammer matched up with a half moon, pinned in front sight. The great advantage of fixed sights is the fact they are virtually impossible to get out of whack. Adjustable rear sights are a great advantage for sighting in for individual shooters and/or different loads, however they are certainly not as strong as fixed sights.

            This year’s S&W catalog did not show a single .44 Special. Don’t give up; we’ve been down this road before and I have just heard the Thunder Ranch Special .44 is a now a standard catalog sixgun. The .44 Special never dies.

12-1) In the early 1980s Smith & Wesson returned the .44 Special with the

Model 624 stainless and the blued Model 24-3; both are excellent shooters.

 

 

12-2) The 1950 Target .44 Special, here shown with 6 1/2” and 4” barrels, is

one of the finest sixguns ever built by Smith & Wesson.

Photo courtesy of Glen Fryxell.

 

 

12-3) In addition to the standard Model 624 and 24-3, there were also

Lew Horton Specials with 3” barrels and round butts.

Photo courtesy of Glen Fryxell.

 

 

12-4) Unless .44 Magnum power is absolutely necessary, the 1950 Target

.44 Special on the right packs much easier than the S&W 4” .44 Magnum.

 

 

12-5) Smith & Wesson used the 1950 Target .44 Special as the platform for

building the .44 Magnum.

 

 

12-6) The .44 Special Smith & Wesson of the 21st century is the

Thunder Ranch Special.

 

 

12-7) Herrett’s Detective stocks and selected .44 Special ammunition turn the

Thunder Ranch Special into a superb self defense sixgun.

 

 

12-8) Two excellent .44s both stocked by Herrett’s with their Detective grip,

the .44 Magnum Model 29 and the Thunder Ranch Special in .44 Special.

 

 

12-9) The Smith & Wesson .44 Special Thunder Ranch Special with Herrett’s

Detective stocks carries easily in a Milt Sparks’ 200AW holster.

 

 

12-10) Eighty-years of Smith & Wesson .44 Special fighting handguns from top

left clockwise, the Model 1926, the Thunder Ranch Special, and the 1950 Military.

 

 

12-11) One of the most sought-after .44 Specials is the Smith & Wesson

Model 696 five-shooter here equipped with BearHug’s Skeeter Skelton stocks.

 

 

12-12) Fifty+ years of Smith & Wesson's .44 Specials are represented by the

1950 Target, Model 624, Model 696, and Model 396.

 

 

12-13) The easiest packin’ .44 Special is the Model 396 MountainLite.

 

 

12-14) Excellent choices for concealed carry are the .44 Special Model 396

and Model 624.

 

 

12-15) A pair of 4” .44 Special Model 24-3s with carved ivory stocks by

Bob Leskovec and floral carved Tom Threepersons leather by El Paso Saddlery

along with a plain Jane 1950 Target Model

 

 

12-16) Four excellent shooting and easy packin’ 4” .44 Specials: a converted

Model 28, a Model 624, a Model 24-3, and 1950 Target.

 

 

12-17) Beautiful Keith-style carved ivory stocks by Bob Leskovec adorn this

pair of 4” Model 24-3s.

 

 

12-18) A younger author shooting a target sighted 5” Model 24 Smith & Wesson

.44 Special.

 

 

12-19) Chronologically speaking the .44 Special pre-dated the .44 Magnum,

however this Model 24-3 .44 Special arrived more than 25 years after the

Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum. Leather is by El Paso Saddlery. 

 

Chapter 11   Chapter 13