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.
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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.

Contemporaries.
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.
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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 disassembly, and the 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!

Central-Fire!
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.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Condition Is Everything Part II

"Hey, how much is my gun worth?"

"Do you have it with you?"

"No..."

"*sigh*"
 Below are two Remington 51 .380ACP pistols, both of which could honestly be described by a non-collector over the phone to the poor gun store clerk as "Well, it's in pretty good shape..."

And they both are. They're both all there; the grip panels are intact and all the markings are clearly legible; their bores are both good and both function and still possess their original magazines...

The top pistol was probably made in 1919 (serial number in the mid 4-digit range) and is about a 95% gun. It has light wear on the high spots around the muzzle and a freckle or two here and there, and nosing around the web and looking at the Blue Book, I wouldn't be too embarrassed to hang a $600 price tag on it at a gun show to see if anyone bit.

The gun below it is also mechanically solid, all there, and functions fine. It's right on the borderline between a Variant I and a Variant II (it has the Remington logo on the frame and the .380 marking on the chamber, but it still has the old 9-serration slide) which dates it to 1921. While it's all there mechanically, the finish is worn to a dull gray patina in most places and there's evidence of previous pitting on the slide... Let's call it 40%, which puts book at $225.

You can see why one of my least favorite phone calls was the ol' "How much is my gun worth?" (There was always an awkward silence as I fought back the urge to say "Hold it up to the phone where I can see it better.")

Friday, March 08, 2013

They don't hardly make them like that anymore...

Over at the other blog, I posted a picture of my recently-acquired Remington 870 alongside a vintage Remington 10-A I've had for a couple of years.

Roughly a hundred years separate these two shoguns, although the 870 design, having debuted in 1950, is a classic in its own right.
The 10-A has a forend with a single action bar, and the bottom-ejecting action has a strange little side-hinged flipper that serves as a shell lifter. A Pedersen design, one tends to automatically assume this is an attempt to engineer around Browning patents held by Winchester on the Model 1897. The Model 10 was certainly more modern-looking than the exposed-hammer Winchester, while sharing with it a feature that has sadly vanished from most of our modern slide-action gauges:

To take down, flip out the latch at the muzzle end of the mag tube and give the tube a quarter turn and slide it and the forend toward the muzzle until they stop. Then give the entire barrel and mag tube assembly a quarter turn and pull it forward out of the receiver.
The above shotgun was bought for, like, a hundred bucks including tax back in the autumn of 2011; it's a little rough and the stock's in need of a bunch of Acraglass, if not complete replacement, and the barrel's been cut down to 18.5" from a full choke ~28" tube, so its collector value is just about nil, but it sure is neat. That takedown feature is just handier than a pocket on a shirt. Why don't they do that anymore?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sunday Smith #51:.35 Semi-Automatic Pistol, 1919


The decades around the turn of the 20th Century were a time of technological change that is hard to appreciate even when reading about it on the screen of a smartphone. In a relative eyeblink, the world went from whale-oil lanterns and horsedrawn carriages to electric light and automobiles. Telephones, automobiles, radio, powered flight: A seemingly endless stream of inventions were changing the landscape of the world, and among those dazzling gadgets were self-loading firearms. Maxim guns were starring in the tales of colonial wars and, with the development of early self-loading pistols, anybody could have this kind of H.G. Wells technology right in their pocket!

Colt's was first off the block, licensing several designs from John Moses Browning, and their sales success had the other major manufacturers scrambling for a slice of the pie. Savage followed quickly, with an ingenious design by Elbert Searle that used a double column magazine and an ad campaign touting "10 Shots Quick!" Harrington & Richardson jumped in in 1912, licensing a design from English firm Webley & Scott.

Smith & Wesson wanted some of this action, too, but had the same problem that the others did: Patents. Colt's Browning patents covered a plethora of details, from the one-piece slide and breechblock to the method of attaching the grip panels to the frame with screws. S&W had two choices: hope to find a handy homegrown savant like Savage did, or shop overseas for a design to license, a la H&R.

Smith settled on a Belgian design, the Clement, and modified it to suit the U.S. market, adding a grip safety and other embellishments that they thought would help sales. Unfortunately, compared to the fairly simple designs from Colt and Savage, the Smith & Wesson was positively baroque, with a parts count nearly double that of its competitors. Further the control placements went beyond counter-intuitive and were actively user-hostile.

The grip safety was a tab on the front of the frame and for some users it took an active effort to disengage. The manual safety was a thumbwheel that protruded through the backstrap and could not be operated with the hand in a firing grip. The heel-mounted magazine release on the earliest ones moved not fore-and-aft like everybody else's, but side-to-side; this was quickly changed. Lastly, the light breechblock necessitated a monster recoil spring in this blowback design, and so a sliding toggle decoupled the breechblock from the spring so that the action could be manually pulled to the rear and them pushed back forward to chamber a round. Good luck not fumbling that under stress.

As though to hammer a nail into their own coffin, Smith & Wesson also designed a new proprietary cartridge for the pistol: .35 S&W Auto. Similar to the .32ACP, the slightly larger round was partially metal-jacketed, with a larger exposed lead driving band that would engage the rifling. The theory was that this would couple the reliable feeding of round-nosed FMJ with the reduced barrel wear of lead bullets. Since everybody else had standardized on the Browning-designed .32, S&W owners had a harder time finding more expensive ammunition for their complex, hard-to-use pistols. This was not a recipe for sales success.

The final straw was the on-again, off-again production of the pistol as Smith intermittently shut down production during the war years of '14-'18 to fill various foreign and domestic military revolver orders. When production resumed at a normal pace after the war, sales continued to be sluggish until the plug was finally pulled in 1922 after a production run of only 8,350. It would be another thirty years and more before Smith & Wesson dipped its toe in the commercial self-loading pistol market again.

Due to its rarity, the Smith & Wesson is among the hardest to find and most expensive of the early American self-loading pocket pistols. Colt's and Savages are out there in the hundreds of thousands, and the H&R and Remington competitors are five and eight times more common respectively. As a result, even a basket case of a Smith parts gun is a rare sight and usually has a price tag of a couple hundred bucks hanging off it, while a pristine example "in the box with the docs" will bring a thousand or more. The above example, from the middle of the production run, is in honest 95+% condition, showing only light handling wear and a pristine bore and unmarred breechface, was picked up for $600 at a gun show in Indianapolis in 2012.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sunday Smith #50: Number 2, 1863


Smith & Wesson did not invent the metallic cartridge revolver but, by buying the Rollins White patent and manufacturing it on a wide scale, they did make the first commercially viable cartridge revolver in the United States.

The tiny Smith Model Number 1 sold like gangbusters, but there were those who wanted more. The Number 1 launched a tiny .22 caliber, 29-grain bullet, seated over 4 grains of black powder. While it beat a handful of nothing, there was obviously a market for a revolver that combined the ease of metallic cartridge reloading with a chambering that packed a bit more wallop. Enter the second offering from S&W, imaginatively labeled the "Number 2".

The Number 2 was a physically larger revolver than the Number 1; in the terms of the day, it lay somewhere between a pocket gun and a belt gun. The most common barrel lengths were five or six inches, which meant it could be carried in the deep pockets of a frock coat or in a small belt holster. It used a .32-caliber rimfire cartridge, launching a 90-grain bullet over some 13 grains of black powder, for a muzzle velocity of more than 800fps. This gave it a muzzle energy roughly equal to the modern .32 ACP cartridge, which fires a lighter bullet at higher velocities.

The timing of the Number 2's launch could not have been more propitious, coming as it did shortly on the heels of the shelling of Fort Sumter. Although it was never officially adopted by the U.S. Army, Yankee soldiers spent their own money ordering them to the point that S&W had to close their order books only a year or two into the war, and the revolver to this day is informally known as the "Old Army" model, despite its lack of official contracts.

Manufactured from 1861 to 1874, roughly 77,000 Smith & Wesson Number 2s were shipped from the factory in Springfield, MA. They represent a fairly obscure field of S&W collecting; pristine examples bring well into four figures, and even rough shooters will command prices not too far south of a grand. The pictured example, made in 1863, is practically worthless as a gun, missing a couple of parts, and was picked up for just over $100 at a gun show in Indianapolis in early 2011.

Incidentally, the existence of the Number 2 explains an oddity in S&W nomenclature: Having launched the tiny .22 cal Number 1 and the larger .32 cal Number 2, Smith realized that there was a market for a small vest-pocket sized gun that chambered a more formidable round than the .22 rimfire. They produced a five-shot vest pocket revolver chambered for a shortened .32 round, but since it was bigger than a Number 1 and smaller than a Number 2, the only way they could keep their frame size labels consistent was to dub it the Number One-and-a-Half...

Monday, October 25, 2010

Sunday Smith #49: .32 Safety Hammerless 1st Model, 1891


The real story behind the Safety Hammerless revolvers from Smith & Wesson is as hard to track down as many myths that predate the little revolvers by millennia. The popular lore is that Daniel B. Wesson was horrified by a newspaper account of a child who accidentally shot himself with daddy's revolver, and so he set out to design a safer handgun. An alternate explanation is that, with an increasingly urbanized population that was less likely to go openly "heeled", the American gun-buying public would respond to a small revolver with an enclosed hammer that wouldn't snag on clothing when drawn from coat pocket or purse, and which couldn't discharge if the hammer spur were struck on the pavement or bumped on the edge of the nightstand drawer.

Whatever the reason, the first S&W Safety Hammerless revolvers hit the market in 1887 in .38 S&W caliber. Officially termed the "New Departure", and known in popular slang as "lemon squeezers" for the grip safety on the backstrap, they were followed by a smaller .32 S&W caliber version the very next year.

The first .38 Safety Hammerless revolvers used a complex "Z-bar" latch that used lateral movement to unlock the downward-tipping barrel-and-cylinder assembly. This was replaced in the second year of production with a push-button mechanism that was shared by the first .32's as well. In an interesting note to our modern sensibilities, which are trained to flinch at the thought of lawyers, the "lemon squeezers" were originally shipped from the factory with a pin that could be used to disable the grip safety.

The push-button barrel latch was hardly a triumph of ergonomics. After all, as the shooter's support hand was trying to tip the barrel down for unloading, the tendency was to use the thumb of the strong hand to actuate the latch button, inadvertently applying enough pressure to hold the pistol shut. It was replaced in 1902 with a simple "t-bar" toggle that was intuitively operated by the support hand.

The Safety Hammerless top-breaks were wildly successful for Smith, continuing in production long after the more modern Hand Ejectors had supplanted the more conventional top-break revolvers. The .32 Safety Hammerless remained in production until 1937, and the .38 version wasn't discontinued until the eve of World War Two, in 1940. Even so, the concept of a small, pocket revolver with an enclosed hammer to avoid snagging on clothing is one that has yet to go out of style. It is interesting to note the similarities between the .32 Safety Hammerless 1st Model of over a century ago and the Model 432 .32 Magnum Centennial Airweight I carry in a coat pocket today. (The latter is the one with CTC Lasergrips...)

One of the most striking things about the old .32 top-breaks to our modern eyes is their almost lilliputian size. The cylinder of the .32 is about exactly half the length of the cylinder on a J-frame magnum, and the whole gun, 3" barrel and all, will lay in the palm of my hand without the barrel overhanging my fingertips, and I'm a long way from palming basketballs or playing concert piano.

The .32 Safety Hammerless 1st Model in the photos is in probably the most common configuration: Nickeled, and with a 3" barrel, the gun shows signs of hard use and a rough re-nickeling. I picked it up for a song, just barely over $100 at a gun show in late 2010, and the serial number dates it to the very early 1890s. It still times decently and locks up well, even though the bore is about as ugly as you'd expect for a well-used piece of its vintage. A nice one could bring four or five times that, easily, or more if it were in an unusual configuration.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Continental .32 Pocket Pistols, 1900-1914, Part II


A quick vignette of three more European .32 autos:

The top one, in the white, is an Austrian Steyr-Pieper M1908/34. Not content with the bizarre designs churned out by their native sons, Steyr licensed a design from Belgian gun maker Nicholas Pieper. Featuring a tip-up barrel (released by the lever above the trigger guard,) the mechanism was unusual in that the recoil spring was located above the barrel and pivoted with it, being fitted with a hook on the back to engage the slide. The example shown was made in 1920 and was issued to the postwar Austrian State Security Police.

The second one down is a Mauser M1914. A nicely-fitted pistol, the 1914 was a scaled up version of the company's M1910 .25 auto. An odd feature by modern standards was the removable sideplate in the frame, allowing access to the lockwork. The M1914 was a common substitute standard issue pistol in the imperial German army during the First World War, and the example shown sports military acceptance marks and came to America as a war trophy.

On the bottom is the one that started it all: The FN M1900, John Browning's first commercially successful self-loading pistol and the original home for the 7.65 Browning Automatic cartridge, now better known as the .32ACP. The pistol has several unusual features for a Browning design: The recoil assembly is above the barrel, rather than being concentric or located beneath it; also, the pistol requires tools, or at least a screwdriver, to disassemble for cleaning. The successors to this ur-Browning, the Colt M1903 and FN M1910, were vastly less baroque in their construction and seem quite modern by comparison.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Thirty-Two and I.

At first glance, "early .32 Auto pocket pistols" seems to be a strange collecting niche. I mean, why? What's the fascination? How did I wind up here? Well, there are several reasons, many of which I didn't understand until I was halfway down the rabbit hole, so to speak: It wasn't until I'd already accumulated a few that I really began to grasp why I found them so interesting.

For starters, the .32ACP, or 7.65 Browning as it's termed across the pond, is a strong candidate for the oldest autopistol cartridge still in common use. John Moses Browning developed the round for his first commercially successful self-loading pistol, which went into production at Fabrique Nationale in Belgium at the close of the 19th Century, and it's been in constant usage ever since.

Further, it was one of the first “standard” pistol chamberings. It was common practice with early autos to design a new cartridge to go with a new pistol. With the strong sales success of the FN M1900 and its associated round, later manufacturers of small autos found it convenient to design their offerings around this already extant cartridge, assuring their customers of widely available ammunition.

Thirdly, the guns themselves are often very interesting from a mechanical standpoint. The early 20th Century was a time of rapid change and broad experimentation. Unlike today, when the self-loading pistol is a decidedly mature technology and most advances are incremental and usually revolve around new materials, the early 1900s were a time when the best ways to build a working pistol were still being felt out by trial and error and dozens of designs, ranging from the familiar to the baroque, were tried. Blowback, blow-forward, short recoil, long recoil, striker ignition, exposed hammers, enclosed hammers... all were represented somewhere.

Additionally, the very construction of the pistols approached the status of metalworking art. Casting, stamping, injection-molded plastic... none of these techniques had been applied to firearms production yet, and so everything is intricately machined from forged steel and often fitted to a level of precision that would satisfy a watchmaker. These are not characteristics associated with mass-produced items in our day and age.

Also, these pistols are tangible artifacts of a very different era. They are from a time when, through most of the Western world, there was nothing terrifically unusual about a gentleman owning a small pistol which he could slip into a coat pocket, should he feel the need for a little insurance. They are also from a time when a small, .32 caliber pistol was considered adequate for police, gendarmes, or even the military: The original .32 M1900 from FN was adopted as the official service pistol of the Belgian army.

Lastly, they are very accessible. Some of the rarer models, or guns in outstanding condition, may bring moderately high prices, but working examples of many of the most interesting ones can be had for $300 or less. Thanks to their durable steel construction, they are generally still quite functional. And thanks to the ubiquity of the .32 ACP cartridge itself, spending a pleasant afternoon at the range with one of these living fossils is well within the reach of most collectors.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Small-Frame Smith Top-Break Taxonomy:

Although Smith & Wesson introduced their centerfire top-break revolvers, complete with automatic simultaneous extraction and ejection, in 1870, they were only available as bulky holster pistols for over half a decade. It wasn't until 1876 that they brought a smaller model, suitable for concealed carry, to the market.

The smaller models, however, had much wider appeal on the civilian market and, in one form or another, continued in production long after their more martial bigger siblings had been discontinued. With the last .38 caliber models shipping in 1940, these little guns had been in production for over sixty years and hundreds of thousands had found homes, making them easily the most common and affordable antique Smiths on the market today, so a quick overview of the most common variants may be helpful.

The first to show up was the .38 Single Action. The earliest variants had the complicated rack-and-pinion ejection system of the bigger .44 Russian models, complete with its long underbarrel housing, earning them the nickname “Baby Russians”. There were obvious differences, however.

Their smaller size dictated a five shot cylinder, chambered for the new .38 S&W cartridge. Further, as a single-action pistol intended for boot or pocket carry, they lacked the usual trigger and triggerguard arrangement of the bigger guns, having instead a “spur” trigger; a protruding nubbin protected by flanges integral to the bottom of the frame.

In 1878, they were joined by the similar, yet even smaller, .32 Single Action. The .32 enjoyed a couple of mechanical refinements, namely a simplified and more compact actuation system for the ejector and a rebounding hammer that kept the firing pin from resting on the primer of the cartridge, both features shared with the larger New Model Number 3 .44 revolvers that debuted the same year. In 1880, these features were added to the latest version of the .38 Single Action.

LEFT: .38 Single Action 2nd Model (top), .32 Single Action (bottom)









The .32 Single Actions were discontinued in 1892, but the .38 received a conventional trigger and triggerguard in 1891 and remained in production until 1911.

Also in 1880, double-action variants of both the .32 and .38 were introduced. These are immediately distinguishable by their conventional triggerguard, with the trigger sitting about halfway forward inside the guard. The .32 Double Action remained in production until 1919, while the conventional .38 DA was discontinued in 1911.



RIGHT: .38 Double Action 2nd Model (top), .32 Double Action 4th Model (bottom)







In 1909, however, an interesting variant of the .38 Double Action was introduced, known as the “Perfected Model”. In addition to the topstrap-mounted latch shared with other Top Break Smiths, it had a knurled thumbpiece latch like the newer solid-frame Hand Ejector models. Because of this second latch, they were the only Top Break S&W revolvers with their sideplates on the right-hand side of the frame. The Perfected Model was discontinued in 1920.

The final variant of the small-frame Top Breaks is the “New Departure” or “Safety Hammerless”. These revolvers, in both .32 and .38 forms, are not actually hammerless, but rather feature an enclosed hammer, which makes them less likely to snag on clothing when drawn from concealment in a pocket or purse. In the rapidly urbanizing America of the late 19th Century, when gentlefolk were not prone to go about openly “heeled”, this was an important consideration.

The .38 Safety Hammerless debuted first, in 1887, followed by the .32 caliber version a year later. In addition to the enclosed hammer, which rendered them double-action-only, they also had a grip safety on the backstrap, which blocked the movement of the hammer unless depressed by a proper firing grip, which feature lent them the nickname “lemon-squeezers”.

The Safety Hammerless models were very successful. Almost a quarter-million .32 New Departures were made between 1888 and 1937, and by the time the last .38 shipped in 1940, over 260,000 of the larger model had found homes.

Thus, despite the more modern Hand Ejectors with their swing-out cylinders and more potent chamberings having been on the market since the last decade of the 19th Century, it wasn't until the eve of America's entry into the Second World War that Smith's last Top Breaks left the catalog. As a result, plenty of fine examples of these little revolvers are available for extremely reasonable prices and provide an inexpensive entry for the collecting of antique American handguns.

Below is a group photo with some additional identifying information:


LEFT COLUMN:

Top: .38 Single Action 2nd Model. If it were a 1st Model (aka "Baby Russian"), it would have a longer ejector housing under the barrel, coming to within an inch or so of the muzzle on this example. A 3rd Model would have a conventional trigger and triggerguard.

Middle: .38 Double Action 2nd Model. The sideplate (on the other side in this photo) would have had straight edges fore and aft if it were a 1st Model, whereas this gun's are curved. If it were a 3rd Model (or later), it wouldn't have the groove and second set of stop notches around the middle of the cylinder.

Bottom: .38 Safety Hammerless 4th Model. The upward-lifting latch distinguishes it from the 3rd Model, which used a central button, while the pinned front sight distinguishes it from the 5th Model, which used a front sight milled integrally with the barrel rib. The fact that this gun has been refinished is made obvious by the fact that the latch, trigger, and trigger guard are all shiny. On a factory nickel gun, they would have been blued steel. Also because whoever did it made the gun look like a bumper.


RIGHT COLUMN:

Top: .32 Single Action. Like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, the .32 Single Action hit the market in its final, mature form, already having a rebounding hammer and simplified ejector; thus there are no "1st" or "3rd" or whatever.

Middle: .32 Double Action 4th Model. This pistol is distinguished from the earlier 3rd Model by its round (rather than recurved) triggerguard, and from the 5th Model by its pinned, rather than integral, front sight.

Bottom: (This space awaiting a reasonably-priced .32 Safety Hammerless.)

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Continental .32 Pocket Pistols, 1907-1912, Part I


Above are three representatives of the great diversity of early 20th Century European pocket pistols chambered in 7.65 Browning (or .32 ACP, as we Yanks term it.)

From top to bottom, they are a Dreyse M1907, a Frommer Stop, and an FN 1910.

Two are blowback operated, while the third is a locked-breech, long recoil design. One is striker-fired, one has an external hammer, and the third, an internal hammer. All three are single-action pistols. The Dreyse has a thumb safety, the FN has both thumb and grip safeties, and the Frommer has a grip safety as well as an external hammer which can be manually lowered to decock the weapon. All three saw service in various capacities with militaries and gendarmeries.

We'll be taking a closer look at these pistols over the next weeks.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Early American .32 Pocket Pistols: Part II

In writing Saturday's post about pocket autos, I spent some time examining the actual pistols as well as exploded drawings. I also looked at the drawings of the two early American autos of which I don't yet have representative examples on hand, the Remington 51 and the Smith & Wesson .35. Most pocket pistols on the market after World War Two sprang from one of three evolutionary families: The 1903/1908 Colt/Brownings, the Walther PP, or the Beretta. That's what makes a look at the pistols from the Cambrian Explosion of self-loader design so fascinating: All manner of solutions to the problem of constructing a reasonably powerful, pocketable, self-loading pistol were tried before the market was thinned to the few that survive today.

The Colt is easily the most familiar, and not only because Colt's made more than half a million of the things over forty-something years. The basic structure of the John Browning design is elegant in its simplicity and several basic features have been copied down through the years by numerous handgun manufacturers.

The Savage is probably the second best known, and it should be, with a production run of several hundred thousand guns in a little over twenty years. The brainchild of one Elbert Searle, it's another simple and elegant design, if a little odd to our eyes, being somewhat of an evolutionary dead-end. Blowback-operated with a slight mechanical delay, its double-stack magazine was futuristic for the time and it contained even fewer parts than the Colt, but a combination of constant redesigns, overproduction, and a slumping market put paid to Savage's pistol efforts.

The H&R took a fairly simple, if odd-looking, Webley & Scott Police Pistol design and, through conversion to striker-firing and addition of a magazine safety, managed to up the parts count to 49; over a dozen more than the Browning design and almost two-thirds more parts than Searle's little pistol. They can't have been making money on those, and the fact that they disappeared from the market so fast suggests that they weren't.

Smith & Wesson, like H&R a revolver company, shopped for an outside design as well, finally settling on the Belgian Clement. With controls that were counter intuitive (the manual safety was a thumbwheel on the backstrap that pretty much could not be operated with the hand in a firing grip), baroque mechanicals (a parts count that far outstripped even the H&R), and extremely complex construction, S&W hammered the last nail in the coffin by arrogantly designing their own pocket pistol cartridge in 1913, when the rest of the market had already settled on Colt's .32ACP. Smith's .35 cartridge got Betamaxed, and the gun itself sank without a ripple; 8,000 were made in an eight year run at a time when Colt and Savage were selling tens of thousands a year.

Remington was the last player to arrive, showing up in 1917 with a graceful, futuristic-looking pistol designed by the great John D. Pedersen: The Remington 51. But its graceful, futuristic-looking lines concealed a funky, floating breech/indirect blowback mechanism and complex innards; Browning's pocket pistol contained five springs while Pedersen's had seven (S&W's Clement clone had nine!) Despite the greater complexity, Remington attempted to undercut Colt's on price, selling its offering for less than sixteen bucks when Colts catalogued for just over twenty. Late to the market, the Remington autos didn't survive the Depression.

And if you think there were some weird ones on the domestic market, well, that's just the start...

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Early American .32 Pocket Pistols: Colt's, Savage, and H&R

ABOVE: Early American .32 pocket automatics from Harrington & Richardson, Colt's, and Savage.


In the early 20th Century, American consumers were offered an alternative to the small revolvers and derringers that had been the standard in pocketable firearms for some fifty years: smaller versions of the new "self-loading" semiautomatic pistols.

In 1903, Colt's offered their .32 Automatic Pistol, known as the "Model M" or "Pocket Hammerless". Equipped with both thumb and grip safeties, it was not truly "hammerless"; rather, like Smith & Wesson's Safety Hammerless revolvers, it contained an internal hammer enclosed by the frame and slide which prevented snagging on clothing and allowed for a smoother draw. The pistol was in many ways an improvement over John Browning's first .32 pistol, the FN Model 1900, and it sold well, continuing in manufacture through numerous updates until 1945.

Wanting a piece of the lucrative new market and needing funding for their military trials effort, the Savage Arms Company of Utica, New York brought out their own .32 pocket pistol in 1908. Dubbed the Model 1907 from its patent date, the new design sold well and contained several novel features, including an external hammer-like protuberance that could be used to cock its internal striker, and a 10-shot staggered box magazine. Its advertising featured the slogan "10 Shots Quick" and made much of the pistol's ergonomics, claiming it pointed like "pointing your finger". However, despite celebrity spokesmen like "Bat" Masterson and "Buffalo Bill" Cody, and revised versions offered as the Model 1915 and 1917, production ended in 1928, and the pistol never attained the cult-like following of the prancing horses of Hartford.

Finding themselves late off the starting block, Harrington & Richardson took the sensible step of licensing a design from Webley & Scott, the famous English handgun manufacturer, although they redesigned it to use a striker-type ignition setup, which made for a more pocketable piece. Released in 1914, the H&R had a plethora of safety features, including both manual & grip safeties, a loaded chamber indicator, and the early production pieces even had a magazine safety. Far more complex than its competitors from Savage and Colt's, it was never a brisk seller, a fact that couldn't have been helped by its eccentric appearance. Manufacture ceased after 10 years and 40,000 units (as compared to over half a million for the Model M), although stock backlogs kept it in the catalog until the end of the 1930s.


(The definitive book on the Savage is Savage Pistols, by Bailey Brower Jr.; I spent a good couple hours nose down in my roommate's copy.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Vintage "Assault Rifles"...

The Firearm Blog's recent pieces on early "high capacity" repeaters had a picture of a Miegs rifle which, while interesting, would be no more than an extremely rare prototypical footnote if it hadn't obviously influenced the later rifles built by the Evans Repeating Rifle Company out of Maine, which were a qualified commercial success.

The Evans were manufactured from 1873 to 1879, and roughly fifteen thousand of the helical-magazine repeaters found buyers during that stretch of time, and were even endorsed by "Buffalo Bill". As a result, they're not terribly uncommon at gun shows today if you know where to look, and while premium examples bring premium prices, serviceable shooters can be had for well under a grand. The .44 Evans cartridge hasn't been commercially loaded for almost a hundred years, but the black powder rounds can be formed by cutting down .303 Savage brass.

Of course, "high capacity" is relative to the time and place: While the user of a later Evans, which due to its longer cartridges held six fewer rounds than the early models, had twenty-eight times as many rounds on tap as a contemporary U.S. soldier (who used a "Trapdoor" Springfield), he only had twice the magazine capacity of a Swiss private armed with a Gew. 1869 Vetterli.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

.32 Caliber: A rocket for the pocket...

When Smith & Wesson ushered in the metallic cartridge era in American handgunning, .31 caliber was already established as the de facto standard for repeating pocket pistols, with many thousands of Colt's Pocket Models and various small pepperboxes already on the market. It was only natural then, for Smith's second cartridge to be a rimfire .32; roughly the same size as the existing muzzle loading offerings.

RIGHT: S&W Model One-and-a-Half top break, in .32 S&W.





In the 1870s, the .32 made the jump to the centerfire era in Smith's tiny "Model One-and-a-Half", and when they went to solid-frame revolvers with swing-out cylinders, S&W retained the caliber, albeit with a lengthened case, as the ".32 Smith & Wesson Long".




LEFT: .32 Hand Ejector 3rd Model in .32 S&W Long.





When John Browning turned his attentions to self-loading pistols, his first commercial success in the arena was the Model 1900 produced by Fabrique Nationale in Belgium. It was a slim little automatic pistol that could fit easily into a coat pocket and although nearly everything else about it was new, the bore diameter was the old familiar .32; the bore size that had become popular with a muzzle-loaded lead ball seated over patch and powder now saw a pistol that used smokeless propellant to launch a jacketed bullet and then reloaded itself. Known as 7.65 Browning in Europe, the cartridge was sold as the .32 ACP (for Automatic Colt Pistol) in the USA, since its first appearance on these shores was in the Colt's 1903 Pocket Hammerless.



RIGHT: Colt's Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless in .32ACP.






.32, in both revolver and automatic formats, was very nearly the default bore size for pocket defensive guns for over a century and, as earlier competitors fell by the wayside, .32 S&W Long and .32 ACP became the default cartridges for .32-caliber pocket arms worldwide. Given that both revolvers and pistols of this type have been produced in nearly every country sophisticated enough to have an arms industry and even a few that aren't, there is no telling how many countless millions of these diminutive weapons lie forgotten in the sock drawers, sea chests, and sideboards of the world despite all the fantasy schemes of governments to control them; one may as well command the tide.




LEFT: Filipino blacksmith-made copy of S&W I-frame (top) and original S&W I-frame (bottom).





In addition to Smith & Wesson and Colt's (who called it the ".32 Colt New Police,) which were seen as the high end of the market, numerous other American companies manufactured .32 S&W Long revolvers: Iver Johnson, Harrington & Richardson, and Hopkins & Allen, to name but a few. Sold in hardware stores and via mail order, they were as common as Kleenex in purses and glove boxes.

During the early 20th Century, in addition to the well-known Pocket Hammerless model from Colt's, hundreds of thousands of which were manufactured over some forty years, pocket automatics in .32ACP were sold by Savage, Remington, and H&R; untold more were imported from Europe via regular importation channels as well as in the duffle bags of generations of American servicemen.

In postwar America, with the development of small .38 revolvers, often on .32-sized frames, and a general reduction in the pocket pistol market following the hostile legislation enacted in 1968, .32 in both "ACP" and "S&W Long" forms gradually became the caliber of the much-demonized "Saturday Night Special", found largely in extremely inexpensive revolvers and cheap cast zinc pistols. The fact that these guns served a valuable purpose in a market where a traditionally-made blued steel firearm, produced by union labor in New England and excise taxed to death, could cost half a month's wages for a night clerk went unmentioned.



RIGHT: The Beretta 3032 Tomcat, which hit the market in 1996, was one of a wave of new pocket pistols in .32ACP.






While .32 S&W Long lingers on mostly as a chambering for esoteric ISSF target pistols and a reduced load for various .32-caliber magnums, .32ACP has seen something of a revival in the last decades, with the reform of concealed carry laws and the introduction of truly tiny pocket guns from innovators such as Larry Seecamp and George Kellgren as well as established makers like Beretta. Whether the .32 will see its second century or not remains to be seen, but given its ubiquity, that would seem to be the way to bet.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cold War Heaters: Polish Tokarev and Czech CZ-52.

With the turn of the 20th Century, self-loading pistols began to see greater acceptance in military and paramilitary forces worldwide. The czar's government in Russia, long dependent on foreign arms designs, turned to the Belgian firm of Fabrique Nationale when seeking a pistol for its gendarmerie, acquiring several thousand FN Browning 1903's.

The FN1903 looked similar to the Colt Pocket Hammerless so familiar to American collectors, but was physically larger, being chambered for a 9mm cartridge. Also used by Sweden and the Ottoman Empire, both of which bordered Russia, the sleek pistol still looks modern today. The czar's pistols sported a frame slotted for a combination shoulder stock/holster, and featured an enclosed hammer.

Later, in the wake of the First World War, Bolshevik forces in Civil War-torn Russia acquired many “Broomhandle” Mausers from a German arms industry desperate for foreign sales to make up for the loss of income caused by the Versailles treaty. The Broomhandles were chambered for the classic “.30 Mauser” cartridge, a high-velocity bottlenecked number more like a carbine cartridge than a normal pistol round.

These two historical facts may go some way to explain why, when the victorious Communists sought a modern self-loader to replace the M1895 revolvers in their progressive socialist armies, the winning design looked an awful lot like an enlarged FN 1903 with a partially-exposed hammer and chambered for a hot-loaded version of the old .30 Mauser round.

The Tokarev TT-33, as the definitive version was labeled, was a short-recoil operated pistol with no manual safety and a magazine released by a thumb-activated button. Among its innovations was the fact that the lockwork was mounted in a chassis that could be removed from the frame in a single unit.

After WWII, as Eastern Europe fell into the Soviet sphere of influence, the Russians pressured their new satrapies to adopt weaponry in common calibers. Most countries tooled up to produce copies of the Tokarev, but the Czechoslovakians, with a sophisticated arms industry of their own, turned out a unique pistol chambered for the Soviet cartridge.

The CZ-52 was also operated on the short-recoil principle, but instead of using the common Browning tilting-barrel method of locking as used on the Tokarev, it used a roller-locking setup similar to that used on the German MG-34 and MG-42 light machine guns of the previous war. Also unlike the Tokarev, it offered an external manual safety which could also function as a decocker. While the Tok had a 1930s deco look to its shape, the CZ's lines had an angular ray-gun look that wouldn't have been out of place in a '50s sci-fi movie.

ABOVE: Cold War Heaters. Polish Radom wz.48 (top) and Czech CZ vz.52 (bottom).

Both pistols became widely available on the American civilian market when the Warsaw Pact had its big Chapter 11 sale in the early 1990s, and their low prices made them popular for shooters and collectors on a budget. Surplus ammunition was widely available, and new-production commercial ammo could be had from sources as disparate as Sellier & Bellot and Winchester on one hand and MagSafe on the other.

The examples in the picture are a basic Czech CZ-52 and a Radom-made Polish wz.48. In fit and finish, there's really no comparison: The CZ is a typical rough-hewn phosphate-finished example while the Radom is an elegant, polished blue. In use, though, the CZ points more naturally for me, since Fedor Tokarev managed to mess with the natural pointing qualities of the Browning design. It also has a better trigger pull (although that's damning by faint praise.) Combine this with the fact that the Polish heater didn't seem to like the S&B ammo used in the tests, as evinced by ragged groupings and a vicious Type III malfunction that required a Leatherman tool to clear, and of these two examples, the Czech is definitely the more practical sidearm.

ABOVE: Leatherman Juice was needed to pry the mangled cartridge case from the grip of the Radom Tokarev. Don't leave home without it.

Also the Czech pistol has a positive safety (it's even right-side-up to American thumbs,) while the Tok's safety is a jury-rigged afterthought which only serves to block the trigger, added to satisfy BATFE requirements mandated by the Gun Control Act of 1968.




RIGHT: Actual high-speed competition shooter with the Czech ray gun.









Both pistols can still be found for prices in the ~$200 range, although the Radom-marked Polish Tok is a sure-fire future collectible compared to the relatively dirt-common CZ. Surplus ammunition can still be found, and the fireballing high-velocity cartridge makes for a fun afternoon at the range. Any collector of Cold War-era arms would be advised to snatch up a copy of one or both while they're still available for reasonable prices.