It is 1869. The Civil War has been over for four years and most firearms manufacturers are content to continue to produce the same cap-and-ball revolvers that had served the men and women on the Frontier since 1836. The basic design had not changed, the sixgun had just become more powerful and/or more sophisticated especially as Colt went through the 1836 Paterson .36, the 1848 Walker .44 and subsequent Dragoons, the 1851 Navy .36, and the 1860 Army .44.
Beautiful and efficient sixguns, all required dropping a powder charge, seating a bullet, repeating the same operation five times, then applying grease over the end of each chamber to lube and to seal them especially against multiple discharges, and finally placing a cap on the nipple at the rear of the cylinder. Anyone who has ever gone through this process in shooting these fine old guns soon realizes why so many sixgunners carried extra cylinders already loaded. It took a lot less time to change cylinders than it did to reload the original one.
Colt was not the only manufacturer that offered cap-and-ball sixguns. Remington was also in the pistol business at the time with both .36 and .44 caliber sixguns that were actually an improvement over the Colts as they were solid frame sixguns while Colts were all open top style. Starr provided the cap-and-ball shooter an option. Their sixguns were of the new fangled double-acting variety requiring only a pull on the trigger to cock and fire the gun.
One manufacturer of revolvers of the time period never offered a cap-and-ball revolver but began production with a seven shot .22 rimfire that used fixed ammunition. Smith & Wesson was founded in 1852 by Horace Smith and Daniel Baird Wesson. Both had previous firearms experience and soon they also had Rollin White who held the patent for fixed ammunition, cartridge firing, bored-through revolver cylinders. Until 1857 Smith & Wesson handguns were nothing more than lever action rifles with short barrels and pistol grips. Then just three years before the Civil War, the factory in Springfield Massachusetts began producing The Model #1 seven shot .22 revolver that soon found its way under the uniform tunics of countless officers on both sides of the War Between The States.
Less than five years after that great conflict, Smith & Wesson stunned all those manufacturers of cap-and-ball revolvers by bringing forth the first serious fightin' sixgun to feed on brass cases rather than the awkward old method of powder, ball, and cap. The Model #3 (Models # 1 1/2 and 2 were .32 caliber Rimfire five and six-shot revolvers respectively) was a large frame, single action Centerfire .44 caliber, 44-100 revolver. The first big-bore cartridge-firing sixgun had been born. The .44-100 cartridge became known as the .44 American as did the revolver which was also chambered in .44 Rimfire for the users of .44 Henry rifles.
The .44 American soon became the .44 Russian as that country adopted an improved Model #3 as its military sidearm. The .44 Russian differed from the .44 American in that the bullet was smaller in diameter than the cartridge case and the cylinder was no longer bored straight through but had a step in it at the front of the chamber to accept the smaller bullet.
Grand Duke Alexis of Russia visited America in 1871 hunting buffalo with Bill Cody and probably carried, and may have used, the special pearl gripped, fully engraved .44 Russian presented to him by Smith & Wesson. By 1872, Smith & Wesson had delivered 20,000 revolvers to the Russian government. One year later Colt brought forth the first .45 Colt Single action Army and had a wide open domestic market as the more sophisticated Smith & Wessons were going overseas.
By 1878, the .44 Russian had become the New Model #3, the finest offering of the Smith & Wesson single action line. It was chambered in .44 Russian and offered in blue or nickel with a six and one-half inch barrel. It is interesting to note that the same barrel length was carried through all of the later six double action .44 Models.
A longer cylindered and stretched frame New Model #3, the Frontier was also offered in .38-40 and .44-40, but never in .45 Colt. The New Model #3 was the finest single action ever built until the coming of the Freedom Arms revolvers one hundred years later. It was certainly not as strong as the Colt Single Action and one can only guess what single actions would be like today had Smith & Wesson not decided to become double action sixgun manufacturers exclusively. For the man or woman with small hands the Smith & Wesson was much easier to handle than the Colt Single Action Army as the grip was much like the present day round- butt K-frame.
All of the Russian/New Models were of the break top design and required two hands to load and unload. The locking latch rode behind the rear sight and had to be firmly operated with one hand while the other hand held the Smith .44 by the grip. This proved to be a real problem especially on horseback, so Major Schofield offered his improvement in the locking latch. The Schofield Model allowed the user to easily operate the locking latch by pushing down with the thumb rather than lifting up with the fingers.
The U.S. Army had adopted the Colt Single Action Army in .45 caliber so the Schofield was also chambered in .45 albeit a shorter .45 than the .45 Colt known as the .45 Smith & Wesson was required for the shorter cylindered Smith & Wesson. This was probably the beginning of the unofficial Short Colt/Long Colt nomenclature. The original .45 Colt carried 40 grains of black powder, and when the .45 Schofield was also adopted the new .45 carried less than thirty grains. The .45 Smith & Wesson could be used in the Colt Single Action Army however serious problems arose when troops found themselves issued Schofield revolvers but were supplied with .45 Colt ammunition.
In 1881, Smith & Wesson was well on the way to finding the niche it would accompany as no other manufacturer ever did, or ever will again, and I also doubt that they will ever be seriously challenged as the most prolific of the double action sixgun producers. This was the year that a modified Model #3 was introduced. It was still in .44 Russian caliber but it was no longer a single action. The first Smith & Wesson big bore double action sixgun had arrived! Ten years earlier an experimental .44 double action had been built probably at the request of the Russian government and during the next decade numerous small caliber double actions would be introduced, but the .44 Double Action would be the beginning of a dynasty to say the least. From this point forward all double action sixguns would be judged by Smith & Wesson double actions. While the Smith & Wesson single actions had been beautifully engineered with superb looks and balance, they were not the best choice as a basis for a double action design. To put it mildly, the double action .44's were homely to say the least. Single actions, be they from Smith & Wesson, or Colt, or Ruger, or any other manufacturer over the past 150 years simply do not become double actions by installing a double action mechanism.
In 1907 Smith & Wesson corrected their initial design error by building on the .38 caliber 1899 Military & Police expanded to a .44 caliber frame and in 1908 brought out the epitome of double action sixguns the New Century, the .44 Hand Ejector First Model, which would forever be known to its loyal followers as the Triple Lock. Let's back up first and look at the Military & Police of 1899.
The .38 Long Colt, official cartridge of the U.S. Military, used 18 grains of black powder and a 150 grain bullet. Smith & Wesson lengthened the case to allow the use of 21.5 grains of black powder, the bullet weight was increased to 158 grains and the .38 Smith & Wesson Special was born. With the new cartridge came a new sixgun, the Model of 1899, soon to be known as the Military and Police. By 1905, the M&P had been improved to the basic model that still exists today. The M&P is a medium framed six-shot revolver that soon found great favor with the constable on patrol. More M&P's have been produced than all other Smith & Wesson revolvers combined.
In addition to enlarging the frame of the M&P to produce the New Century, two other improvements were made. A shroud was added to the bottom of the barrel to enclose the ejector rod, thus not only protecting the ejector rod but also improving the looks of the S&W revolver. The second short lived improvement was the addition of a third lock giving the Triple Lock its unofficial name. Before the .44 Hand Ejector First Model, Smith & Wesson cylinders locked at the rear of the cylinder and at the front of the ejector rod. On the New Century, a third lock was brilliantly machined at the front of the frame at the yoke and barrel junction to solidly lock the cylinder in place.
I would rate the New Century as one of the most important revolvers of all times. Not only was it beautifully designed and engineered it also introduced a new cartridge, the .44 Smith & Wesson Special. In less that ten years, Smith & Wesson had introduced two of the most important revolver cartridges of all time. Important not only in themselves but for what they would eventually become.
The .44 Special was an improvement over the .44 Russian but only mildly. The case was lengthened and the powder charge increased from 23.0 to 26.0 grains of black powder under a round-nosed 246 grain lead bullet. The .44 Special has never been loaded to its true potential by the ammunition factories and it is only very recently that the load has been offered in defensive type loadings with 180 and 200 grain hollow point bullets.
The Triple Lock was offered in both fixed and adjustable sighted models in barrel lengths of four, five, and six and one-half inches in both blue and nickel finishes and was also rarely offered in .38-40, .44-40, and .45 Colt in addition to the .44 Special. With its excellent locking feature one would think that the basic Triple Lock design would have survived even to this day. It lasted exactly seven years! Someone decided the design was too expensive to produce so the third locking feature was dropped. To add insult to injury, the enclosed ejector rod housing was also dropped and the .44 Hand Ejector Second Model was put on the market with a price reduced by two dollars! That's right, dropping the Triple Lock feature and the enclosed ejector rod brought the price down from $21 to $19.
It was 1915 and we would soon be at war. The .44 Hand Ejector Second Model would become the 1917 Army or .45 Hand Ejector of 1917. The official sidearm of the United States was the 1911 Government Model .45 but they could not be produced in the quantities needed for the United States Expeditionary Force. An engineer at Smith & Wesson came up with the idea of the half moon clip allowing the use of the rimless .45 ACP in a sixgun and thousands of .45 Military Smith & Wessons accompanied the troops to Europe.
In 1926, the Texas firm of Wolf and Klar placed an order for a new revolver. Smith & Wesson had insisted on producing the .44 Hand Ejector Second Model without the enclosed ejector rod housing in spite of a large demand for the same. Wolf and Klar sought to correct this and the result was the .44 Hand Ejector Third Model, identical to the Second Model except for the addition of the shrouded ejector rod. This is a very rare Smith & Wesson with about one third as many (less than 5000) being manufactured from 1926 to 1940 as the Triple Locks from 1908 to 1915.
The 1926 Model was manufactured only in .44 Special and was carried by numerous peace officers especially in the Southwest. Texas Ranger Lone Wolf Gonzaullas carried a pair of .44 Special Smith & Wessons that were probably the 1926 Model. After World War II, approximately 1500 were produced before it became the .44 Hand Ejector Fourth Model, the Target Model of 1950. The 1950 .44 Special was improved by the addition of a ribbed barrel, a new micrometer rear sight, and the post war short action allowing a shorter hammer travel in both the single action and the double action mode. The argument continues to this day as to whether the latter was really an improvement with many double action shooters preferring the old smooth long action that the double action Smith & Wessons carried from 1899 until 1950.
Peace officers being undergunned is nothing new and they found themselves in that same situation in the late 1920's. The day of organized crime had arrived and law enforcement personnel found themselves using .38 Specials against .45 Autos and Thompson Sub-Machine guns. Colt's answer was to chamber their .45 Auto with a hot new thirty- eight, the .38 Super using the .38 ACP brass case but increasing the powder charge to allow the use of a 130 grain metal piercing bullet at 1300 feet per second.
Smith & Wesson stayed with the double action sixgun but felt the .38 Military & Police frame was too small for what they wanted. Engineers turned to the .44 frame and in 1930 the result was a five-inch .38 Special on a .44 frame, the .38/44 aptly named the Heavy Duty. In addition to standard .38 Specials, the Heavy Duty easily digested a new high speed .38 cartridge, the .38/44 Smith & Wesson Special. The .38/44 gained about 300 feet per second over its parent .38 Special loading and was also offered in metal piercing loads.
It did not take Smith & Wesson long to discover that they really had something in the large framed .38/44 Heavy Duty. The .44 Special was the sixgun choice of sixgun connoisseurs, but the .38 Special appealed to just about every shooter. To cash in on this appeal, the .38/44 Heavy Duty gained a sportsman's touch and became the .38/44 Outdoorsman. The Outdoorsman was offered with a six and one-half inch barrel only, blue finish, and was the first Smith & Wesson sixgun to be equipped with the Magna stocks that extended all the way to the top of the grip frame.
It is now the 1930's and sixguns are really coming into their own. Noted arms and ammunition writer Phil Sharpe had done much experimenting with the .38/44 as did a young cowboy by the name of Elmer Keith. The .38/44 cartridge gave over 1,100 feet per second with a 158 grain bullet; Keith and Sharpe were getting 1300 to 1400 with their handloads in the .38/44 Heavy Duty and Outdoorsman.
Smith & Wesson and Winchester listened and in 1935 a new cartridge and sixgun were introduced in the middle of a depression. The Magnum Era had arrived and the .357 Magnum was born in the worst possible economic times. The result was a sixgun that sold faster than it could be produced. The .38/44 Heavy Duty/Outdoorsman received special heat treating, and was offered only with adjustable sights and a ribbed barrel. In those pre-Model number days, it was simply called the .357 Magnum and fed upon a Winchester .38 lengthened by one-eighth of an inch, made to handle large primers, and headstamped .357 Magnum. The 158 grain .38 caliber bullet traveled at more that 1,500 feet per second from the original eight and three-fourth's inch barrel.
The .357 Magnum was a giant step forward in sixgun and ammunition technology to say the least. Factory ammunition for the .38 Special and .44 Special were in the 700 to 800 feet per second category, the .38/44 increased muzzle velocity over 1,000 feet per second and now the .357 Magnum began to write a completely new book on sixguns.
The first .357 Magnum was presented to J. Edgar Hoover head of the FBI and the same year, a young Army officer stationed in Hawaii purchased a three and one-half inch barreled .357 Magnum, had it fitted with ivory grips, and ordered a Border Patrol Holster from S.D. Myres in Texas. Seven years later that .357 Magnum would be mated with his Colt Single Action Army .45 Colt and ride on the hip of General George Patton as he lead the Second Army during World War II.
The .357 Magnum gained immediate acceptance with hunters and outdoorsman as well as peace officers. In the three and one-half inch barrel length it was the favorite of Hoover's FBI agents and Major D.B. Wesson used the long barreled model to take big game including antelope and moose. This was great PR for the new sixgun to say the least. I do not believe there has ever been a more serious looking sixgun produced than the three and one-half inch barreled .357 Magnum now known as the Model 27. For some reason this length is no longer offered. The five- inch length is perfect for outdoor packin' and it also is now gone. The long range shooting, long barreled .357 Magnum was soon standardized at eight and three-eighth's inches and now it is also gone. All that remains is the six-inch version.
Meanwhile there were those sixgunners who did not accept the .357 Magnum as the epitome of what a sixgun should be. Since 1927 Elmer Keith had pushed the .44 Special as the sixgun cartridge. Using Smith & Wesson Triple Locks and Colt Single Actions, Keith came up with the 'Keith Load' using a bullet of his design, Lyman's #429421 over 18.5 grains of #2400 in balloon head .44 Special brass for 1200 feet per second. Keith took big game with his .44 Special sixguns and wrote up the result in publications such as Outdoor Life and American Rifleman.
A small but dedicated group of followers grew up around heavy loaded .44 Specials contending that the .44 Special with a 250 grain bullet at 1,200 feet per second could do anything, and do it better, than the .357 Magnum could do with a 158 grain bullet at 1,500 feet per second. The .44 Associates were formed and corresponded by mail trading loading data for the .44 Special. I have a copy of the original .44 Associates Notebook as well as other loading data from the 1930's and 1940's and would here warn that all such data was gathered using the old balloon head brass rather than modern solid head brass. The older brass offered a larger case capacity and these old loads should never be used with solid head brass.
It took almost thirty years but Keith's clamorings for a '.44 Special Magnum' finally brought results. Keith had only asked for a duplication of his load in a longer cartridge case so it could not be used in older sixguns. He got much more. Instead of duplicating Keith's load, the .44 Magnum provided a 240 grain bullet at .357 Magnum velocities.
In 1954, Remington provided the new ammunition and Smith & Wesson chambered four 1950 Target Models for the new Magnum with specially heat treated cylinders and frames. The 1950 Target handled the new load fine but recoil was horrendous with the relatively lightweight sixgun originally chambered for the low recoiling .44 Special. To increase weight, the cylinder of the .44 Target Model Magnum was lengthened to fill the frame window and the barrel diameter was increased to a bull barrel style of six and one-half inches in length. The result was an increase of one-half pound over the weight of the 1950 Target .44 Special.
The .44 Magnum, now known as the Model 29, is certainly one of a handful of the best looking sixguns ever produced. The addition of the heavier barrel and cylinder to the 1950 Target to increase weight resulted in a sixgun with beautifully flowing lines and a profile and a look that is only rivalled by the Colt Single Action Army. The only sixgun I have ever had fully engraved as of this writing is a four-inch .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson.
Keith, of course, was ecstatic about the new sixgun. Until his dehabilitating stroke in 1981, Keith daily carried a four-inch .44 Magnum that had replaced his four-inch 1950 Target .44 Special in 1956. He had attained his thirty year goal with the arrival of the .44 Magnum and soon worked up the 'Keith Load' for the .44 Magnum. Using the same Lyman bullet that he preferred for the .44 Special, Keith's load was 22.0 grains of #2400 with standard primers in .44 Magnum brass. This is a hard kickin' load especially in a four-inch .44 Smith & Wesson.
I never could understand how Keith could handle this load in his guns. His hands were small so his Smith & Wesson .44's wore small Magna style grips instead of those that filled in behind the trigger guard. I found out when I examined his favorite sixguns. All of his grips were ivory with a carved figure such as a steerhead on the right side to perfectly fill in the palm of the shooting hand and help control recoil. This style of grip is now being offered complete with the carving in an antique ivory acrylic by Precision-Pro Grips. Bob Lescovec of PPG made a set for me for a four-inch .44 Magnum, that are appropriately enough on an Elmer Keith Commemorative, and they are perfect. If you are interested in Keith style grips, you can reach Bob at 5142 Hardt Rd., Gibsonia PA 15044. Phone 724-449-8360.
The .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson is one of my favorite sixguns perhaps second only to the Colt Single Action Army. I still have the six and one-half inch .44 I purchased on time payments while in college in 1962. After graduation it was joined by a four-inch .44 and that little big gun was the sixgun chosen when my wife wanted to have a gun engraved for my forty-fifth birthday. Jim Riggs did the engraving, BearHug made the ivory micarta Skeeter Skelton grips, and its flower carved leather belt with matching Border Patrol and Tom Threepersons holsters came from El Paso. Needless to say, it is one of my most cherished possessions.
The .44 Magnum was not the only significant sixgun development to come from Smith & Wesson in the mid-1950's. At the other end of the spectrum, Border Patrolman Bill Jordan had met with Carl Hellstrom of Smith & Wesson in 1954 to share his idea for the perfect peace officer's sixgun. The Military & Police .38 Special had been upgraded to a target sighted four-inch Combat Masterpiece in 1950. As a teenager I worked with a fellow back from the Korean War who had carried a Combat Masterpiece and he was most lavish in his praise of the medium-framed .38 Special. It and its Military and Police brothers were the easiest carrying double action sixguns while the much larger and heavier .357 Magnum carried the load officers felt they needed in many situations. The N-frame .357 Magnum was more metal than many officers wanted to carry and Jordan's idea was a very simple 'why didn't I think of that?' type of solution.
Jordan suggested to Smith & Wesson that they simply start with the Military & Police, fit it with a heavy four-inch barrel with enclosed ejector rod, and adjustable sights as well as full size target style stocks, and above all chamber it in .357 Magnum. Smith & Wesson engineers went to work juggling various steels and heat treating and decided Jordan's idea could be carried out in blue steel. In November of 1955, Bill Jordan received the first K-frame Magnum, the .357 Combat Magnum now known as the Model 19. In the first year of production Smith & Wesson sold more Combat Magnums than they had Model 1926 .44 Specials in fourteen years.
In 1970, the Combat Magnum/Model 19 was further improved for constant outdoor use with minimum care as the stainless Model 66 .357 Magnum was introduced. Both Models remain in the Smith & Wesson catalog to this day. I would say they have never been improved upon as a peace officer's sixgun. Newer .357's have come along, and heavier guns in larger calibers are available all of which require some modification to make them carry ready. The Model 19's and 66's come ready with perhaps the simple addition of custom grips to fit the individual shooter's hand. Jordan was right. This is the perfect sixgun for the peace officer.
In the early sixties, gunwriters Keith, Jordan, and Skelton put their collective heads together to come up with the perfect peace officer's sixgun. This was before the sophisticated ammunition we have today for the .357 Magnum, and they convinced themselves and Smith & Wesson that the answer was to be found somewhere between the .357 Magnum and the .44 Magnum. The result was the .41 Magnum. It was and remains an excellent outdoorsman's and hunter's cartridge chambered in the same sixgun as the .44 Magnum. A lighter loading was offered for peace officer use but both the Model 57 .41 Magnum and the expanded Military & Police Model 58 were too big and heavy to find their way into the hearts of many peace officers.
Had the .41 Magnum come between the .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum instead of after both of them, it would have been hailed as a great step forward. Its fate has been to be treated rather coldly except by the same type of sixgunner that clings to the .44 Special and has done so for eight decades. More's the pity as the .41 Magnum is a superb cartridge and certainly capable of being an excellent hunting cartridge for deer-sized game.
Down through the years some very famous men have picked the Smith & Wesson sixgun as their favorite. With Elmer Keith it was the .44 Special Triple Lock and 1950 Target both of which were replaced by the .44 Magnum in 1956.Southwestern lawman and gunwriter Skeeter Skelton was particularly partial to the four-inch Combat Magnum .357 and 1950 Target .44 Special, but his favorite sixgun was probably the original .357 Magnum with a five-inch barrel. For Bill Jordan it was the Combat Magnum, while General Patton called his three and one-half inch .357 Magnum his killing gun.
Smith & Wesson double action sixguns are sixguns that can be smoothly drawn from a properly designed holster and can be operated double action in the least possible time with the best possible results. No other double action sixgun ever made can measure up to the superb double action pull of a tuned Smith & Wesson. Thirty years ago they came 'tuned' out of the box but those days are gone forever and it requires the master touch of someone like Texas gunsmith Teddy Jacobsen to really smooth out a modern Smith & Wesson. The result is a sixgun that an Ed McGivern or Jerry Miculek can operate faster than a semi-automatic. Us mere mortals can only hope to become adequate with a double action; they can make them do all they are capable of.
There is something about the Smith & Wesson double actions that makes them almost operate themselves. The old long action K-frame .38 Special Military & Police was the favorite of speed shooter Ed McGivern in the 1930's while Jerry Miculek does his best with a short action N- frame .357 Magnum in the 1990's. In no way could I ever come even close to the speed these two gentlemen coax out of a Smith & Wesson, but I find I do my best with .38 Specials in an .38/44 Heavy Duty with a four- inch barrel and the old long action. Recoil is minimal and the large heavy N-frame cylinder seems to operate itself once it is started.
I must admit to more than a small feeling of sadness as I thought of all the Smith & Wesson Models that are no longer made. But with today's modern technology it would probably only take a setting of the computer to call up and tool up for the old models in .44 Special and .45 Colt and .44 Magnum and .41 Magnum......The bottom line is consumer demand. We seem to be in a 'gotta have the latest semi-auto' phase right now but that will pass especially now that Congress has made our streets safe by taking large capacity magazines out of our hands. Crime won't be effected in the least but progress will stop on semi-automatics and more and more shooters will return to the revolver. Long live the sixgun and long live the Smith & Wesson, the King of the Double Action Sixguns.