Sunday, May 24, 2020

Sunday Smith #59: Model 696, 1996

The compact large-bore revolver has had a devoted following in the United States ever since the first Webley "British Bulldogs" were imported in the 1870s. They were copied far and wide and the name "Bulldog" just became generic slang term for a small-frame revolver chambered for a .44 or .45 cartridge. It was a cheap Belgian copy of the Webley original that was used to assassinate the 20th President of the United States, James A. Garfield.

In the 1970s, Charter Arms launched a compact five-shot .44 Special revolver, called the Bulldog in a sort of homage to the 19th Century snubs, and it was a runaway sales success for them. By the early Nineties, you could even buy Brazilian alternatives to the domestic Charter Arms, in the form of Taurus's Model 431 and Rossi's Model 720.

Not being a company that would pass up the chance to stick a pot out the window when it was raining soup, in late 1996 Smith & Wesson added their own compact 5-shot .44 Special to the mix in the form of the Model 696.

Based on the L-frame, which was the beefier of Smith's two medium frame sizes that was intended to stand up to extended use of hot .357 Magnum ammunition, the Smith was slightly larger than its competitors at the time. They featured a 3" heavy barrel with a full underlug, a round butt, and adjustable sights.

Very early in the production run, distributor Lew Horton ordered a batch of 286 guns that they shipped to Mag-Na-Port, and this is one of those guns.

Two other quirks common to very early production 696's are also apparent in this piece. First, the chambers on some of the earliest guns were cut too long and they will chamber and fire .44 Magnum rounds, which is unsafe so don't do it. (Yes, I know of people claiming they've had no problem with milder 240gr loads. It's still a bad idea. Don't.) The second quirk is that the forcing cones on some of the early barrels were cut at the wrong angle, causing them to blow out easily. If you look closely at the silhouette of the forcing cone in the above photo, you will know what a blown-out forcing cone looks like.

The pictured revolver was a gift from a friend, as it had been sitting in his safe, unfired and unfireable for...well, a long time.

Getting it sent off to Smith to see if it can be re-barreled is on my list of things around to which I need to get.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Sunday Smith #58: Model 59, 1978.

After the failure of their first semiautomatic pistol design, Smith & Wesson wouldn't return to the autoloader business for almost three decades. Instead, they stuck to building revolvers, where they were a dominant market force.

After the Second World War, however, influenced by the double-action Walther P38 with its hammer-dropping safety, and with the possibility of military contracts dancing in their heads, Smith decided to dip their toe back into that market again.

Carl Hellstrom had recently become president of the company, the first time that post had been held by anyone without the last name "Wesson". Pledging to revive the fortunes of Smith & Wesson, which had nearly gone toes-up during the collapse of the Light Rifle program for England, Hellstrom tapped chief designer Joe Norman to come up with a modern 9mm pistol.

While the US military did test some prototypes, interest in contracts didn't materialize. Smith went ahead and launched the 8-shot single stack 9mm in 1956, dubbing it the "Model 39" the next year, when model numbers were assigned to all Smith handguns.

During the Vietnam War, suppressed Model 39's (referred to as "Hushpuppies") were used by Navy SEALs, and Smith dabbled with a couple samples that were altered to accept double-column Browning High Power style magazines.

In 1971, these widebody pistols entered commercial production as the Model 59, incorporating the latest updates from the newest Model 39-2 variant, including a narrower, shorter extractor that was tensioned by a separate coil spring, to replace the long, flat, self-sprung extractor earlier 39's had used.

Even in a side view from a distance, the Model 59 can be distinguished from its lower-capacity forebear by the step in the aluminum alloy frame just aft of the slide stop, where it's widened to accommodate the fatter double-stack magazine, and by the flat backstrap, replacing the arched curve of the one on the 39. This helped keep the grip diameter to manageable proportions.

By combining the double-stack magazine of the Browning High Power and the DA/SA action with hammer-dropping safety of the Walther P-38, the Smith & Wesson 59 presaged the next generation of autoloading pistols, called "WonderNines" in the gun rags of the day.

They were increasingly successful with law enforcement agencies in the US and remained in the catalog through 1982, after which it was replaced by its improved "Second Generation" successors: the Model 459 (carbon steel slide, alloy frame), Model 559 (carbon steel slide & frame), and Model 659 (stainless steel slide & frame).

The above example, a nickeled version, was purchased from my local gun shop late last year for around $400. It shows few signs of use, and all the controls and small parts still show the high-polished blue finish they came with from the factory.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Sunday Smith #57: Model 457, 1999

By the time the Third Generation Smith autopistols hit the market in the early Nineties, pistols like the Glock and Ruger's P-89 were putting relentless downward pressure on prices. Smith & Wesson replied with the Value Series versions of their Third Gen pistols, distinguished with three-digit model designations (that, confusingly, hewed to yet a different numbering convention than either the Second or Third Generation used.)

Initially, the Value Series guns were largely distinguished by a cheaper matte-blue finish and a single-sided thumb safety but by the time of the turn-of-the-millennium Model 457 shown above there were bunches more cost saving corners cut. For instance, both the sights and the mag release are plastic, and the top of the slide features flat bevels instead of being radiused.

The pistol itself is a traditional double-action .45ACP with a 3.75" barrel and a seven-shot single-stack magazine. It's somewhat smaller than a Colt Commander and, interestingly, was the only way to get an alloy-framed subcompact Third Gen .45 Smith other than the 4513TSW variant or the Chiefs Special CS45. The main line Third Gen 4516 was only offered with a stainless steel frame and was thus brick-heavy for its size.

MSRP of the gun in the 2001 catalog was $591, which meant a street price around five bills. This slightly undercut the Glock 30, still the new and fresh darling of the market at the time, but the latter held ten shots to the Smith's seven and wasn't marketed as a "Value" gun. For not too much more, you could get the American-made Sig P245, which was one of Sig's first value-priced offerings, yet which benefitted from that Sig brand halo.

Introduced in 1996, production of the 457 ended in 2006, like most of the rest of the Value Series guns. The above, well-worn example was purchased at a local gun store in 2017 for $275.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sunday Smith #56: Model 2206, 1996

Since the discontinuation of the ill-fated Model 61 Escort in '73 and well into the '80s, Smith & Wesson didn't have any rimfire self-loading pistols other than the high-end Model 41 target gun. Meanwhile Ruger's target autos were selling like gangbusters and revolver sales as a percentage of the market were starting to slump. Smith needed a cheaper gun to compete in the plinking end of the market.

They got there by taking the basic design of the Model 61, which itself was derived from a long gone Belgian pocket auto, and stretching the barrel and butt into a 10-shot target pistol available with either a 4.5" or 6" barrel, called the Model 422.

Debuting in 1987, the 422 was soon joined by a version with a stainless slide and clear-coat anodized aluminum frame, which in keeping with current S&W numbering practices was the 622. (The number "6" being, generally, a S&W designator for stainless steel. Like most languages, S&W model numbers are best learned by immersion and osmosis rather than from a dictionary.)

Just as these guns were hitting the market, the centerfire S&W pistol world was transitioning from the "Second Generation" guns with their three-digit designators to the "Third Generation" autos, which bore four-digit model numbers. Perhaps with an eye to that, when the all-stainless version of the rimfire plinker debuted in 1990, it was designated the Model 2206.

The six-inch version of the 2206, pictured above, hit the market with an MSRP a whisker under $400 in 1990. It's a hefty gun, weighing in at an honest 39 ounces, which is, like, M1911 heavy. Recoil is pretty much non-existent. Even high-velocity loads are practically like shooting an airsoft gun.

This whole line of pistols was never really a sales threat to the dominant Ruger autos and were superseded in the late 1990s by the much simpler to build Model 22.

The pictured gun, featuring an aftermarket threaded barrel, was purchased from an internet friend for a little over three bills in 2016. Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson, 4th Edition says $275 for EXC and $225 for VG and add $40 for adjustable sights. An ANIB example configured like the one above (less aftermarket barrel) would book at $390 w/box & docs in the SCSW4E.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Sunday Smith #55: Model 745, 1988

With their Second Generation auto lineup in the mid-Eighties, Smith & Wesson offered a .45ACP pistol that was more or less aimed right at a chunk of Colt's 1911 market share. A honking-big handgun weighing in at almost 38 ounces empty, the eight-shot Model 645 was priced to undercut the classic offering from Colt and had more modern DA/SA lockwork.

One place it had difficulty making inroads was in the growing sport of action pistol shooting, where customized 1911-pattern guns from Springfield and Colt ruled the day. So based on some custom work done on personal guns by their in-house gunsmiths, Smith & Wesson released a competition-oriented variant of the Model 645, dubbed the Model 745.

The initial run came with the serial number prefix "DVC", for the IPSC motto of "Diligentia, Vis, Celeritas", or "Accuracy, Power, Speed". They also had special IPSC 10th Anniversary engraving on the slide.

The guns featured special Novak sights and a single-sided safety with enlarged paddle-like shape. Note that, unlike conventional S&W autos, depressing the safety does not drop the hammer. This is because the 745 borrows from the lockwork of the similarly competition-oriented Model 52 .38 Wadcutter gun and is single-action only.

The slide release is enlarged in a fashion similar to the safety, and the magazine release features an oversize button as well. There's an overtravel stop set in the frame behind the trigger, and checkering on the front- and backstraps.

Its parent gun, the 645, was discontinued in 1988, replaced by its Third Generation successor, the Model 4506, but the 745 continued in production for another couple years before being discontinued as well. Its own successors, the Model 845 and 945 came from the then-new Performance Center.

The gun in the photos was acquired at a gun show in Louisville, Kentucky in early '17 for $700.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sunday Smith #54: Model CS9 9mm Chief's Special, 1999

After the market failure of their first attempt at a centerfire autoloader in the mid-1930s, Smith & Wesson abandoned that market niche to archrival Colt before taking another run at it with the 1955 launch of the gun that was to become the Model 39.

The Model 39 was a slim 9mm pistol with a double-action first shot and a hammer-dropping safety that was a conceptual copy of that found on Walther autopistols. The pistol eventually became the conceptual head of a whole family of autoloaders of all calibers and sizes, but back in its infancy, one of the most popular modifications was cutting it down to make it more concealable.

Model 39 pistols with shortened slides and grips were sold by Armament Systems and Procedures (ASP), Devel, Trapper Gun, and others I'm likely forgetting at the moment. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before Smith started producing factory compact guns.

It's interesting that one of these factory compact guns marks the twilight of the family of pistols spawned by the Model 39. The "CS9", or "Chief's Special 9" attempted to revive the original name attached to the J-frame snubbie revolver and hang it on what the marketing department called "An Autoloader for the 21st Century".

The problem for Smith was that the gun was nothing of the sort. Every step was taken to trim production costs on the basic early '50s design: Simple plunge-milled slide serrations. Flat bevels instead of radiused curves on the top of the slide. A plastic disconnector.

There was still no way to sell the gun at a price competitive with the plastic, striker-fired guns that were overrunning the market without selling at unsustainable profit margins. Imported players like Beretta and Sig Sauer could hold off the plastic juggernaut for a while by trading on upmarket Euro cachet, but Smith's traditional metal autos found themselves price-shopped against both the invading Glock and the domestic Ruger P-series guns, with the latter being based on a thirty-year younger design optimized to use much cheaper castings for major components, unlike the machining-intensive Smith.

The Chief's Special series, which included a CS40 and a CS45 to go with the 9mm version, was pretty much the swan song of the traditional double action metal-framed Smith auto. Introduced in 1999, the .40 cal version was gone by '03 while the 9mm and .45 variants remained through 2006.

The seven-shot CS9 is a light, easily-concealed gun, not too much larger than the current six-shot Glock 43. Depending on condition, prices could run into the low five bills, but most examples seem to be cheaper. The pictured gun was found in excellent condition in a local gun store counter in 2014 for not a lot of money, three-and-change if memory serves.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Pocket Pistols...

Last Friday I took a couple of .25 ACP pocket pistols along to the range, just to see what shooting them would be like alongside the newest offering in the field, Ruger's LCP II.

The classic offerings all weigh in at around 12-13 ounces empty, with the Harrington & Richardson being lightest and the Colt at the heavier end of the trio. Despite being a recoil-operated .380 instead of a simple straight-blowback .25, the Ruger was almost two ounces lighter than the lightest of the older guns.

Like the LCP II, the H&R and the Steyr Pieper are hammer-fired, while John Browning's vest-pocket Colt 1908 is a striker-fired gun. While the LCP II has small sights for a modern arm, they look like target Bomars when compared to the vestigial nubbins on the Steyr and Colt. The H&R, on the other hand, has not even the faintest suggestion of anything sight-like to mar the smooth upper curve of the slide and barrel.

I rifled my ammo storage and other than a box of Gold Dots in 1990's-era packaging and half a blister pack of Glasers that probably date to Bill Clinton's first term, all I had was a collector-quality old box of Winchester. I brought it along to the range, but fortunately Indy Arms Co. had some PPU .25 ACP ammo in stock.

So how did they run?

Ten rounds were fired at the lower left target from a distance of five yards with the Ruger as a sort of calibration. No particular care was taken to get the tightest group possible, just squeezing shots off as I got a decent sight picture.

From there, seventeen rounds were fired at the lower right target with the Colt 1908. The Colt's sights were vestigial, maybe, but it fit the hand well and the trigger breaks at a consistent 4.25#, making it pretty easy to cluster the rounds around the bull from five yards out. The gun ran like a top, other than experiencing one light strike on a hard Prvi Partisan primer.

Next up was the H&R .25. The t-square proportions of the gun make it hard to remember to keep the muzzle up; it wants to point low. The safety is also bizarre, being up-to-fire. The magazine, and aftermarket probably from Triple-K, will allow seven rounds to be inserted, but that ties the gun up badly; it's a six round mag. The Webley-designed pistol has a pair of recoil springs in the slide, on either side of the firing pin, which bear against a pair of lugs on the rear of the frame.

As you can see, the accuracy was suboptimal. Of the seventeen rounds fired, one is out of frame and another was off paper entirely. I tried very hard to use what Jim Cirillo called a "silhouette point", but still dropped rounds out of the bull willy-nilly from fifteen feet.

Next was the Steyr Pieper M1908. The magazine was not the correct one, but it did feed rounds. It had a couple failures to extract, which made for messy malfunctions in this tiny extractorless gun, tip-up barrel or no. It took a couple tries at a few of the primers to light them off and finally stopped popping caps after seven rounds. I need to take it apart and see if the hammer spring is tired or if the firing pin broke or what.

So I just loaded up the remaining rounds intended for the Steyr in the Colt's magazine. It, too, started having trouble lighting primers toward the end. Striker-fired gun, hard PPU primers, a 107-year-old striker spring, and the fact that the gun was drier than a popcorn fart were probably all contributing factors. Still, it lit off thirty or so before things got iffy.

The Steyr is mechanically interesting, the H&R is fun if hitting your target is not high on your priority list, but the Colt is obviously the most functional gun of the trio.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Classic Colt #2: Colt New Line .22

When the Rollin White patent for bored-through cylinders, held by Smith & Wesson, expired in 1870, Colt's was ready with challengers to Smith's various product lines. In 1873 they introduced a direct competitor to Smith's bread and butter wheelgun, the tip-up No.1, in the form of a seven-shot solid-frame .22 rimfire revolver with a single-action spur trigger, the New Line .22.

"New Line" distinguished these solid-frame pistols from their open-top frame forebears. Unlike the tip-up Smith, reloading was accomplished one round at a time through a port in the right side of the recoil shield.

Nickel plated over its brass frame (larger caliber ones appear to have bronze frames), steel barrel & cylinder, and with rosewood grips, it's an adorable little thing. Early ones had conventional cylinder stop notches around the periphery of the cylinder, but later ones, like this 1876-production example, locked up on the rear of the cylinder and had longer cylinder flutes as a result.

Note the pretty nitre-blue on the pin below the loading cutout, and the small amount of niter-blue on the head of the trigger screw on the other side. The bottom of the hammer spur and rear face of the hammer still show this color as well.

Production ran from 1873 to 1877, with 55,343 produced before it was dropped from the catalog in the face of much cheaper competing "suicide specials".

This one was purchased from a local gun store in 2014 for $99. It needs some work, but for a gun built in the centennial year of our nation, it seemed a reasonable price.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without...

The Dreyse 1907 is a .32 ACP blowback pistol that, while obviously influenced by FN's Browning 1900, dodges its patents by using a slide that does not completely enclose the barrel. Instead, the breechblock, which is inside the frame, has a long forward extension running above the barrel. This is the part that has the cocking serrations visible in the photos.

First and Second Variant are pictured above. The guns were produced from 1908 until shortly after the Great War. The top pistol, with a serial number of 66742, is of antebellum vintage, while the second, number 234589, is a much later production gun. Both guns were claimed to be WWII GI bringbacks.

Note the lanyard rings: The 1907 was a popular police pistol and was purchased by the nascent Czech army immediately following the First World War.

The later gun shows an interesting repair where the frame had cracked through at the corner and was repaired by drilling laterally completely through the frame and riveting. I'm not sure I'd trust it to shoot, but I don't have Allied tanks overrunning my neighborhood, either.

Or perhaps it was one of the few pistols a member of the anti-Nazi resistance could get their hands on, and they needed to keep it working? Or perhaps it was just one of the ones exported to the Czech army, which were removed from service for unspecified safety reasons after only a few years.

Either way, the gun was worth the $20 asking price. How could I refuse?

For the most detailed online Dreyse resource, check the Unblinking Eye.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Reincarnated Rimfire

Picked up this interesting little piece from a friend at the Indy 1500 gun show this past weekend.
It's a Smith & Wesson .32 Safety Hammerless 1st Model (popularly known as the "Lemon Squeezer" for the grip safety on the backstrap.) This one, however, has been professionally and painstakingly converted from .32 S&W to .22 rimfire.

The most obvious visual clue is the spring-loaded underbarrel ejector rod assembly, à la the Colt Peacemaker.
The pinned half-moon thumbnail of the factory front sight has been replaced with a Marble unit.

The barrel has been bored out and sleeved to .22 caliber.

Here's a detail of the rear of the ejector rod assembly as well as the cylinder face, where you can see the faint traces of the .22 chamber sleeves inset into the bored-out .32 chambers.

The sleeved chambers from the breech end. The cylinder's serial number is much later than the frame's.

I would LOVE to know the history of this gun. The work is immaculate and the re-nickel job is quite nice.The frame dates to 1898, making it an antique, although the cylinder is later, so it's unlikely that the conversion dates to the twenty-year stretch from 1881-1901 where S&W didn't have any .22s in their lineup.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Harrington & Richardson .25 Self-Loading Pistol

H&R Self-Loading .25 pistol. The safety worked backwards from the usual, in that up was "fire" and down was "safe".
Harrington & Richardson attempted to compete with Colt's in the pocket autopistol segment early in the 20th Century, with offerings in both .32 and .25 caliber. Unfortunately, Colt's held numerous patents from John Moses Browning, a crucial one of which was this:
"In a firearm, the combination with a frame having a forward extension, a reaction spring mounted in said forward extension, and a barrel, of a breech block or bolt carrier having a semitubular, forward extension to inclose the barrel and to engage said frame and to slide thereon..."
In other words, Colt's had the patent to the one-piece slide and breechblock. Remington and Savage dodged this patent with their designs from John Pedersen and Elbert Searle having the breechblock as a piece separate from the slide. H&R went in a different direction by licensing designs from English gunmaker Webley & Scott in which the slide did not "inclose the barrel".

From top to bottom: Webley .455 Auto, H&R .32, H&R .25, Webley .32
While the later H&R .32 auto incorporated numerous differences from its Webley forebears, not least of which was the conversion from hammer- to striker-fired operation, the Harrington & Richardson .25 Self-Loading pistol was a straight-up copy of the internal-hammer British original, down to the complete absence of sights.

No sights, but it has a loaded chamber indicator.
The extractor atop the slide, like most straight blowback pocket guns, is only really needed to extract unfired cartridges. It also does double duty as a loaded chamber indicator, standing slightly proud of the slide when a round is under its hook. The magazine held six rounds of .25ACP and the mag release was a vertical button on the heel of the grip. The grip panels are of hard rubber with the H&R monogram molded in. Replacement magazines and grips are available from Triple K.

Although in the catalog from 1912 until 1920, some sources say that production of the .25s actually stopped in 1916, and remaining sales after that date were out of unsold stock. At any rate, only 16,000 were produced, making it one of the rarer early American pocket autos.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday Smith #53: .32 Hand Ejector Model of 1896

.32 Hand Ejector Model of 1896
Smith & Wesson had first made their name with the tip-up line of rimfire revolvers. The tip-up locking mechanism had inherent weaknesses and was replaced by the famous line of auto-ejecting top-breaks that served in militaries around the world and occupied far more coat pockets in the Wild West than Peacemakers did belt holsters.

The top-break latching mechanism on the pocket guns went through several changes to strengthen it before winding up with the familiar "T"-shaped lifting toggle, but no small toggle could be as strong as a solid frame, and in the last decade of the 19th Century, Smith followed Colt onto the market with a solid-framed revolver utilizing a cylinder that swung out to the side for loading and unloading.

The ejector in the new revolver differed from the automatically-operated ones in the top breaks by being a plunger worked by the shooter; hence the new design's designation as the "Hand Ejector" models.

The first one on the market was a pocket-sized gun chambered for a new .32 caliber cartridge known as ".32 S&W Long", which utilized a longer case to prevent the new cartridges from being loaded into older .32 top-breaks. The fluted cylinder had the patent dates and manufacturer's name roll-marked between the flutes rather than atop the barrel; a quirk shared with the contemporary .44 top-break "Favorite" and no other Smith.
The cylinder stop/rear sight can be seen atop the frame, as well as the rollmarks on the cylinder. If you embiggenate, you can barely make out the faint outline of the steel shim above the stop notch.
This revolver was the forebear of all future S&W revolvers: If a .500 S&W Magnum X-Frame is the Death Star, then this is Anakin's pod racer. The cylinder stop is in the top of the frame, a pivoting piece with the rear sight machined into its upper surface. A throwback to the cylinder stop used on the old .22 tip-up guns of the 1860s, it is lifted out of engagement with the cylinder by a wedge shaped portion of the hammer as it's cocked. The corresponding notches in the cylinder had hardened steel shims inserted so that they wouldn't peen up as the stop bolt dropped into the notch on the turning cylinder.

It looks weird with no thumb latch.
There's no familiar cylinder latch on the left side of the gun. Instead, the knob on the end of the ejector rod is pulled foreward, and this pulls the cylinder pin out of its hole in the breechface, allowing the cylinder to be swung out. This arrangement meant that the only thing holding the cylinder in place was the base pin and the stop bolt. Future developments added an underbarrel lug that engaged a detent in the end of the ejector rod with a plunger, necessitating the now-familiar side-mounted cylinder latch.
A comparison of the arrangement of the sideplate screws of the first .32 Hand Ejector and a 1970s-era Model 31-1 in .32 S&W Long.
The arrangement of the sideplate screws is unusual, with two screws above the trigger: One to hold the front part of the sideplate on and the other of which served to retain the cylinder yoke in the gun. Modern Smiths use a single, long screw to do both jobs.

Less than 20,000 were made before it was replaced in 1903 with a new .32 Hand Ejector that was almost fully modern in construction, the odd little lungfish of a gun was never screamingly popular, although it did see service with some police departments, including Philadelphia and Jersey City. Its successors, though, would be some of the most prolific and frequently-copied handguns on the planet.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Classic Colt's preview...

Colt's New Line .22 Pocket Revolver
Sorry for the flat and unsexy mug shot, but I saw this the 1876-vintage New Line .22 the other day at my LGS with a $99 price tag on it and had to pick it up, if only to serve as an illustration in the forthcoming big post on these two:

S&W Model 1, 3rd Issue (top) and 2nd Issue (bottom)
When the Rollin White patent for bored-through cylinders expired in 1872, it ended Smith & Wesson's lock on this new technology, and Colt's was ready to jump in and compete. While there was an initial run of open-topped "Old Line" Colt pocket revolvers, the solid-topstrap bronze-framed "New Line" .22 seven-shooter pictured at top was intended as a head-to-head competitor for the tiny Smith Model 1 revos.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Crest 1...

Un-shortened Finnish capture New England Westinghouse M1891, re-imported via Century Arms.

Watch this space...

Coming soon...

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The other Model 1873 revolver...

Still raw from their defeat at the hands of the Prussians, the army of the French Third Republic underwent a fairly comprehensive, ground-up program of rearmament, and not even the lowly service handgun was left out.

While double-action Lefaucheux pinfire revolvers had seen use with the French navy, the new MAS Mle. 1873 was the first metallic cartridge handgun adopted as standard issue by the French army. Introduced the same year that the U.S. Army adopted the single-action Colt, the Mle. 1873 was a solid-frame double action revolver that used a swing-open gate for loading and unloading, with cartridge ejection chores being handled by a spring-loaded rod in a housing that ran parallel to the half-octagonal barrel.

MAS Mle. 1873 French ordnance revolver. They were issued in the white.
In another similarity with the Peacemaker, the Mle. 1873 shared its bore diameter with the Mle. 1866 Chassepot service rifle and its imminent replacement, the Mle. 1874 Gras. Unlike the Colt, whose potent .45-caliber round was one of the most powerful handgun cartridges of the black powder era, the MAS fired an 11mm round that dribbled its fairly light 180gr bullets out the muzzle at leisurely velocities less than 700 feet per second.

Colt's first double action revolver in a service caliber, the M1878 "Frontier", is a far more gracile piece than the MAS. However when compared side-by-side, the more martial nature of the French wheelgun is obvious. For instance, it can easily be field-stripped: Using the cylinder pin as a screwdriver, a single screw is removed, allowing the sideplate to be lifted off.

This one's missing the ejector rod housing as well as the head of the cylinder base pin
The sideplate retains the left-hand grip panel. Et voila! You have now probably stripped the gun as far as caporal-chef Jacques had any need for taking his gat apart in a foxhole. Taking it down further wouldn't be hard, provided you have someplace to set the fiddly bits. There is even a handy pivoting lever under the grip panel, complete with a knurled tab for a thumbpiece, that can be used to remove the mainspring.

By comparison, the Colt Frontier requires screwdrivers and some needle-nose pliers, and you'd probably best just forget about messing with the lockwork unless your dog tags say "Grant Cunningham".
The loading gate on the MAS pivots rearward instead of outward.
While the Colt was never standard U.S. issue, a version was contracted with the intention of using them to arm the Philippine Constabulary in the early 20th Century. The MAS Mle. 1873 was the front-line French revolver for roughly twenty years, until replaced by the 8mm M1892, but remained in second-line service through the First World War, and even into the Second.

Monday, December 16, 2013

An idea...

Noodling around with the Webley .32, I suddenly got an idea.

One of the oddest features of the little Webley/H&R automatics is their thumb-operated manual safety. It's located fairly far forward on the gun to those used to Browning-pattern pistols and, worse, its operation is backwards: Up is for "fire" and down is for "safe".

However, the lever is a long and thin one and almost seems to be designed to keep the thumb from fouling the slide as it almost certainly would if the positions were reversed. Obviously I need to go do some shooting with this thing.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sunday Smith #52: Model 61-2 Escort, 1970

Smith & Wesson was traditionally a manufacturer of revolvers. The company's name and fortune had been built on the Rollins-White patent for the bored-through cylinder, and all through the 19th Century they produced nothing but revolvers, save for the occasional single shot target pistol on a top-break revolver frame or shoulder-stocked revolver carbine.

S&W's first foray into self-loading pistols in the early 1900s was enough of a flop that it wasn't 'til the 1950s that they got back into the market, and then with service-sized autos chambered in 9mm rather than the small vest-pocket type like their earlier venture.

Smith had been working on a new pocket pistol already when legislation that was passed in 1968 caused a market vacuum. The Gun Control Act precluded the importation of handguns that could not obtain a certain amount of "points" on a scale that determined their suitability for sporting purposes. Overnight, an entire class of small, inexpensive imported pocket pistols was wiped from the marketplace and a domestic manufacturer would be foolish to not exploit this opportunity for a windfall.

Like a half-century earlier, Smith & Wesson's offering was based on a Belgian design. This time the template was the Pieper Bayard 1908, best known for being one of the smallest .380 semiautomatic pistols ever sold.

By switching from .380 to .22LR, Smith could utilize a much less expensive cast aluminum frame rather than a machined steel one. The resulting pistol, which hit the market in late 1968, was small, light, reasonably-priced and marketed as the Model 61 "Escort", a name suggestive of its intended role as portable protection for pocket or purse.

Not long into the production run, S&W added a magazine safety, with the resulting model marked "61-1", in the company's tradition of denoting engineering changes with a "dash" number. For 1970, a bushing was utilized to allow more precise barrel fitting, and the result was the 61-2 like the example shown here. The last variant, before production ended, was the 61-3 which used a frame machined from an aluminum forging rather than the cast frame of the earlier variants.

This 61-2 in LNIB condition was acquired for just over $200 in February of 2013. The box bears the price tag from a no-longer-extant downtown Indianapolis gun shop. The tag reads "$46.50".

Blue 2-piece box w/reinforced corners. $46.50 price tag from Emro's Sporting Goods.

Padded leatherette carrying case and cleaning tools.

The gun itself, with its "woodgrain" plastic grips. Included in the box is an advertisement for Smith & Wesson-brand ammunition.

Smith & Wesson Model 61-2 Escort with a brace of its Bayard 1908 antecedents, one in .32 and one in .380.

More good info on the Model 61 Escort can be found here and here.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Imported technology...

Our American Cousin...
H&R's safety-laden .32 is pictured here with its English progenitor, the Webley & Scott .32 automatic pistol.

In addition to adding a grip safety, magazine safety, and loaded chamber indicator, the H&R also replaced the "V" recoil spring under the right grip panel with a more conventional coil spring housed in the slide, and replaced the hammer with an internal striker.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Savage "hammer" spurs...

Self-loading pistols of any type were still far from mainstream when Savage put the finishing touches on their Model 1907, and despite the weapon being striker-fired, an external cocking spur was added, which allowed the weapon to be de-cocked like a conventional auto. The spur had the added feature of blocking the sights when the hammer was at rest, which made for a handy visual reminder that the pistol was either uncocked or empty (there being no last-round hold-open feature.)

Savage couldn't resist tinkering with the design, however, and the constant changes probably combined with massive overproduction in the first couple years to eventually doom the pistol on the market.

The second pistol from the left is a Model 1915, introduced as a response to Colt's wildly popular 1903 "Pocket Hammerless". One can only imagine that meeting at Savage headquarters:
"These people keep buying Colts!"

"They like it because it's hammerless and Colt's advertises that it won't snag on coat pockets."

"But it has a hammer! It's just internal! Our pistol really is hammerless!"

"But people see the spur and think it has a hammer..."
Thus the 1915, which eliminated the external spur, blanking off the slot in the breechblock, as well as adding a grip safety and a last-round hold-open feature. Unfortunately, the pistol was more expensive to make, sold at lower profit margins for the company, was trickier to disassemble, and the last round hold-open feature was fragile and breakage-prone. Tooling up for Great War arms contracts put paid to the 1915 variant after less than two full years of production, making it the rarest of the little Savage variants.

Lastly, the pistol on the far right has the spur-type hammer that was always available as an option, but became standard on the final variants of the 1907 and was continued on the Model 1917.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Treasure trove...

One of the side benefits of working in a gun store is that it makes collecting cartridges pretty easy; it seems like you're always running across something new and interesting. As my friend Shannon put it, "If you're patient, sooner or later one of everything will walk through that front door." It's how I got everything from 5.7x28mm and 5.45x39mm before they were commonly commercially available to a .470 Nitro Express for my cartridge display board.

My roommate's friend, The Data Viking, dropped by our house the other day with a truly princely gift: His granddad had run a gun store from 1939 on up, and over time had filled four cigar boxes with oddities and rarities Now I'm going to have fun going through them and cataloging the contents!

On the left is a .40-60 Winchester, a cartridge that debuted in 1876. Intended to give Winchester lever guns more hitting power than the pistol calibers of the Model 1873, the Model 1876 was offered in .40-60 up until 1897 and the cartridge stayed in Winchester's catalog until the Great Depression.

Next to it is a .33 Winchester, a cartridge that came out in 1902. Ballistically similar to the .35 Remington, it was replaced in the lineup by the .348 Winchester. Production was discontinued in 1940 and never resumed after the war.

The third cartridge is a .219 Zipper, a high-speed smallbore round for lever action rifles that came out in 1937. Given the difficulty of fitting optics to lever action Winchesters, it never really caught on and was finally put out to pasture in the early '60s.

Bonus: A full box of UMC .32 Smith & Wesson!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Carbine triviata...

car·bine noun \ˈkär-ˌbēn, -ˌbīn\
1: a short-barreled lightweight firearm originally used by cavalry.
French carabine, from Middle French carabin carabineer First Known Use: 1592
From the earliest days of general-issue shoulder-fired firearms, it was quickly apparent that regular infantry arms were a little bulky to be lugged around on horseback by the cavalry, while pistols, although eminently portable and useful from horseback, had a hard time hitting targets much smaller than the proverbial broad side of a barn at any kind of distance, and thus was born the carbine.

By the late 19th Century,, the specialized bolt-action carbine was reaching something of a zenith, actually spawning several sub-variants.

Broadly, cavalry carbines tended to have sling hardware on the opposite side of the stock from the bolt handle, allowing the carbine to be slung securely diagonally across the back so it wouldn't be as likely to bounce off at a gallop. Since cavalry were still equipped with sabers and/or lances, cavalry carbines often had no bayonet lugs. Their bolt handles were almost always turned downwards, so as to make them less likely to snag on something while slung behind.

Carbines for engineers, mountain troops, artillery, bicyclists, and others tended to be much more like shortened infantry rifles (and sometimes were.) Sling loops tended to be in the regular place, and these carbines generally had a lug to take the standard bayonet and sometimes had a straight bolt handle like the longer infantry rifles.

The top carbine in the picture below is an Italian Moschetto Mo.91 per Truppe Speciali, made at the Brescia arsenal in 1917: It is a carbine version of the M1891 Carcano intended for special troops like artillery, engineers, and others. It has a tangent rear sight graduated from 600 to 1500 meters that folds forward into a recess cut in the wood handguard to expose a 300m fixed battle sight. If you look toward the toe of the stock, you can see a repair in the wood where the original bottom-mounted sling swivel was moved to the side during an arsenal refit at some time. The bayonet lug on the nose cap is also interesting, since it is oreinted side-to-side rather than fore-and-aft; the hole in the bayonet crossguard would be slipped over the muzzle, and then the bayonet would be rotated onto the lug until it latched. Note also that the 91 T.S. carbine has a cleaning rod threaded into the forend like the larger rifles do.

A pair of Carcano carbines.
The bottom carbine is a wartime Terni-manufactured Moschetto Mo.91/38 Cavalleria: A 1938 revision of the original Carcano cavalry carbine. These came from the factory with side-mounted sling loops and a rather flimsy folding bayonet that was about as confidence-inspiring as having a coat-hanger shank taped to the muzzle of your carbine when you were standing watch in a dark Libyan foxhole and there were Gurkhas in the wire. The '38 revision did away with adjustable rear sights entirely, substituting a fixed 200m notch.

Both carbines here fire the Italian 6.5x52mm Carcano round from 6-shot Mannlicher-style clips, the Carcano action being heavily cribbed from the German Gew.88. The 6.5 fired a heavy-for-caliber round-nosed projectile that had a disturbing tendency to travel in one side of an enemy and out the other without doing much damage in the middle, since its cylindrical dimensions made it extremely stable and not prone to yaw. Interestingly, the Carcano fired this bullet through a barrel with gain-twist rifling, which twisted progressively faster as it went toward the muzzle, at least until WWII production exigencies made them do away with this feature.

These handy little carbines are short and compact, even by modern standards.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Pistol pairs...

Duplicates, L to R: Remington, Savage, and Colt. While the nice copies above are beginning to fetch actual money, the shooter-grade beaters below are still extremely reasonably priced. (And there's just something neat about shooting a hundred-year-old gun at the range...)
The nice thing about having rougher examples of some of the older pocket autos is you don't mind taking them to the range and shooting the bejeezus out of them. I remember telling Bobbi once that if she really liked shooting her Savage 1907 at the range, she should glom onto every example she found for <$200, just to keep handy as parts guns if nothing else.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Condition Is Everything Part III

A Tale of Two Savage 1907s:

I've always had a little bit of a weak spot for these things for a number of reasons: Their Buck Rogers Art Deco raygun looks, the funky lockwork (that thing that looks like a hammer spur is just a cocking indicator connected to the internal striker), and the double-stack .32ACP magazine. Add an interesting ad campaign that targeted novice shooters and women and the fact that in some alternate Harry Turtledove-esque universe a larger version of this gun in .45ACP became the standard US service sidearm, and you've got a pistol with a lot of neat history behind it.

They'd be a fertile field for collecting on a budget, too. There are three main variants (1907, 1915, and 1917) and, when you count the sub-variants and both .32 and .380 caliber versions, you're looking at something like 26 distinct versions, most of which are extremely reasonably-priced compared to their contemporaries with the prancing ponies on them.

I acquired the bottom Savage first, in January of last year at the Indy 1500, and I paid too much for it by half. It's all there, and mechanically functional, but the exterior is a dull gray patina with evidence of old pitting and the bore matches. The right side grip panel is cracked and epoxied, and the grips are worn like the buffalo nickels their logos recall.

This is what is known in Bailey Brower's book as a "1907-10 Modification No. 2", being the second design change made in 1910, adding the stamped words "SAFE" and "FIRE" on the frame. The most common variant, this example's serial number dates it to 1911, and in the shape it's in, it's worth not too much (if anything) over a hundred bucks. It's what a collector would refer to as a "representative example"; filling a hole in a collection until a better specimen could be acquired.

The top pistol would be that better specimen, purchased about a month later at the show at the Indianapolis National Guard Armory for the same price as the bottom one, except it was a steal this time 'round.

By 1913, the magazine release lever in the frontstrap had been changed so that it was tripped by the pinkie instead of the ring finger, and a loaded chamber indicator had been added. The latter consisted of a flat spring clipped to the barrel visible through the ejection port, which has been beveled at the rear to allow the trigger finger access, allowing one to check loaded status in the dark. The "1907-13 Modification No. 2" added a few internal changes, but was notable externally by the addition of the billboard-sized "SAVAGE" logo on the right side of the frame, above the grip panel.

This pistol is in really quite good shape for a gun that is now 99 years old. The bore and breechface show little evidence of use. The fragile loaded chamber indicator is neither broken nor bent. The grip panels are crisp enough that close examination will reveal the word "TRADE MARK" on the band of the Indian Chief's war bonnet, and the trigger still retains good case coloring. The bluing is worn in spots, but I'd call this an honest 95%+ gun, probably $300 or more, depending on the market.