Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sunday Smith #16: Model 31-1, 1971

With the changeover from names to model numbers by Smith & Wesson in 1957, the ".32 Regulation Police" became the "Model 31". It continued to be produced on the older improved I-frame, with its smaller cylinder window, while the new J-frame .38-caliber revolvers exploded in popularity. Over time, the fortunes of the "I-frame" continued to wane alongside the .32 S&W Long cartridge to which it was historically tied.

In 1961, the Model 31 was shifted over to the newer "J-frame" size, and the changed weapon was dubbed the "Model 31-1". It would continue in this form largely unaltered (except for the deletion, over time, of the flat latch, diamond grips, and pinned barrel) for over twenty years. Finally, the 4" barrel was deleted from the catalog in 1978, leaving the only difference between the Model 30 and Model 31 as a matter of whether the pistol had a round or square butt, since both had 2" or 3" tubes. The Model 31 (by then the 31-3) was finally discontinued in 1991.

The weapon pictured above is a Model 31-1 produced in 1971. With its square butt, four-inch barrel, and mild .32 caliber recoil, the unprepossessing little revolver is a splendid introductory piece to the joys of the S&W wheelgun for the recoil sensitive or small of hand. It was purchased at a gun show in early '03 for some $200, which was about fair market value at the time, given the excellent condition. Considering the explosion in S&W prices in the intervening years, a really cherry example might bring three bills, or even more if it has the correct box and accoutrement.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Condition Is Everything.

A phrase you'll hear often in the world of firearms collecting is "Condition is everything." This is handily illustrated by the two Colt Pocket Hammerlesses shown in the above photo. Both are extremely early specimens: The top gun was made in 1904 (second year of production) and the lower pistol was produced in 1905.

Despite the upper sidearm being a year older, its value is roughly half that of its newer sibling. Both handguns originally had the bright, almost purple, blued finish displayed on the newer piece, with small parts such as the safety and trigger showing the almost rainbow hues of fire bluing. This type of bluing tended to fade, however, when exposed to acids such as those found in sweat, and could even be faded by extended exposure to bright sunlight. The result was the dull gray found on the upper gun.

Note also how extended carry has blunted the corners on the older piece, leaving it with a "bar of soap" look. The newer gun (and photos don't do it justice, at least 'til I can get it to Oleg) shows very little evidence of having ever been carried. Many experienced collectors who have seen it have pronounced it the nicest one of its vintage they've seen for years.

The result? The pistol on top is one that I have no qualms about shooting or stuffing into a hip pocket as I wander the back forty, while the lower one I am nervous about touching too much without an oily rag handy with which to wipe it down. This is because the upper pistol is, in today's market (which is crazy about anything that has a Prancing Pony on it), worth maybe $400, while the lower pistol is worth at least twice that figure.

This is also why any professional will be hesitant to give a valuation on a firearm without examining it in person. Because condition is everything...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sunday Smith #15: Model 12-2, 1966

Experiments by Smith & Wesson and Colt in the use of aluminum as a material for firearms began to bear fruit in the early 1950s. Colt released the Commander, a 1911 with a shortened slide and aluminum frame, and the Cobra, an alloy-framed Detective Special, in 1950. Smith answered with the Military & Police Airweight in 1952. Among customers of the new lightweight revolvers was the U.S. Air Force, eager for a gun that did not weigh much with which to equip fliers.

The early Airweights had alloy cylinders. This ambitious attempt to save weight was a bit ahead of the materials science of the day and by 1954 the aluminum cylinders, plagued by catastrophic failures, had been replaced by ones made of standard ordnance steel. The Air Force soon abandoned their experiment, but the Airweight revolver was here to stay on the civilian market, proving popular with those who needed to tote a pistol at all times, but didn't want to suffer the weight penalty of an all-steel gun.

In 1957, the Military & Police Airweight became the Model 12, in accordance with Smith's new numbering policy. Longer barrels were introduced in the late '50s, although the 5" and 6" variants were quickly deleted from the catalog, leaving the traditional 2" and 4" lengths as the only options. In 1962, the ejector rod was changed from right-hand thread to left-hand, and the fourth (trigger guard) screw was deleted, causing a "-1" to be appended to the Model 12 designation, and later in 1962 the front sight was widened to 1/8", creating the Model 12-2.

The above revolver, a Model 12-2 from 1966 is from the first year when the flat cylinder latch (on the other side of the weapon) was replaced with the standard curved thumb piece, and only shortly before the diamond grips were deleted in 1968. It is an outstanding example of a revolver that has been fired very little, if at all, and was picked up in 2001 for somewhat less than $300. These days, a model 12 in this shape is worth something on the lines of $400 on the collector's market, while more worn examples can be found in the $200-300 range. Be very careful, especially when purchasing older models, that the frame is not cracked. Aluminum alloy as a material for firearms frames was still virgin territory in the late '50s and early '60s and cracks in the frame, especially where the steel barrel is screwed in, are not at all unheard-of. My personal 12-2 stays loaded with powder-puff wadcutter loads and has only been exercised a few times since I bought it for fear of damage. Although a late-'60s Model 12 like this should be plenty safe to fire, I have others to shoot so why take the chance? If I needed a lightweight, service-sized carry piece, however, I'd probably tote it in an instant, collectability be damned.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sunday Smith #14: Model 27-2, 1964

With handgun users demanding more and more powerful loadings in the interwar years, Smith & Wesson's .38/44 models were just a stopgap. Not four years after their introduction, Smith dropped a bombshell that shook the whole handgun market and is still with us today: The Magnum. The Most Powerful Handgun In The World.

The .38 Special loading still clung to an antiquated measurement left over from the days of the old "heeled" type bullets, and the new cartridge used the actual diameter of the bullet as its nomenclature: .357 Magnum (guaranteeing the confusion of generations of handgun novices to come as it is patiently explained to them that .38's can be fired in .357's, but not vice versa.) Smith lengthened the .38 case slightly to prevent the new barn-burners, capable of launching 158gr bullets at 1400 feet per second, from being chambered in smaller-framed .38 Special firearms; the new cartridge was developed from the start to take advantage of the strength of the large .44-scaled "N-frame". The splash caused by the new round is hard to overstate; like the .44 Magnum and .500 Magnum that followed, it quickly entered the popular consciousness, from tales of Col. Douglas B. Wesson taking all kinds of game with it all 'round the world (including many things that probably shouldn't be shot at with a .357) to Dick Tracy and his men surrounding a villain's hideout in the Sunday comics and announcing "You'd better come out! We've got Magnums!"

The guns themselves were almost all built to order originally, and featured levels of fit and finish seldom seen on guns today. Rumor has it that a worker at the Springfield factory had to work for many years on the regular finishing line before he was given a shot at polishing Smith's new flagship guns. The high-polish blue is such that, when parked next to other Smiths in dim light, the lesser guns appear almost gray by comparison.

Magnum production was stopped for the war effort, with only about 7,000 being made before '41, but was resumed after the war as a regular catalogue item. It was still Smith's flagship gun, however, and still boasted that extra premium fit and finish. Somewhere around 1950, the lockwork was switched to the new short-throw hammer, and in 1957, the Magnum followed the rest of the Smith revolver line and became the "Model 27". In 1960 the threading on the ejector rod was changed to left-hand thread and the "-1" suffix was appended to the model number, followed by a change to the cylinder stop and deletion of the fourth (trigger guard) screw in 1961 that resulted in the Model 27-2.

These are among the most sought-after and collectible Smith & Wesson wheelguns, with prices on prewar Registered Magnums reaching the nosebleed four-figure range, and it wouldn't surprise me at all to see the $10k prewar RM become a not-uncommon occurrence for particularly fine examples in the near future. Postwar/pre-model-number guns are being sucked up in their wake turbulence, with $800-$1000 prices being not unheard of for nice ones. A late-'50s/early-'60s Model 27 will run anywhere from ~$400 for a tired shooter to $800+ for a primo example. The above gun, a very likely unfired 3.5" 27-2 dating to 1964, was acquired for about $550 back in '03, and would likely bring half again that price at auction today.

Still, for a gun that is a legitimate contender for the Finest Revolver Ever crown, it's worth it.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Sunday Smith #13: Model 49, 1963

Colt's Detective Special revolver was selling like gangbusters in postwar America, and Smith had nothing that really competed with it. The Military & Police was available with a 2" barrel, but was noticeably larger and the I-frame .38/32 Terrier, while smaller, was chambered for the .38 S&W cartridge, which was rather anemic by comparison with the .38 Special round. In 1950, though, Smith launched a potent return salvo in the shape of the .38 Chiefs Special, which was created essentially by lengthening the frame of the old Terrier to allow a longer cylinder which would accommodate the longer cartridges of the .38 Special.

The new frame size, which would eventually replace the I-frame entirely, was designated the "J-frame" and it soon spawned a host of variations. In 1952 an alloy-framed version, termed the "Airweight", was released. In 1955 Smith responded to Colt's offering of a screw-on hammer shroud by offering the "Bodyguard Airweight". The new revolver was basically a Chiefs Special Airweight with a built-in hammer shroud that prevented the hammer spur from snagging on the wielder's coat or a pocket when drawn, like Smith's "Centennial" models, but still allowed the revolver to be thumb-cocked to allow for single-action shooting, which a sizable minority of the revolver-buying public preferred over the double-action-only Centennial.

Soon after, Smith made the change from model names to model numbers, and in 1959 yet another variation on the Chiefs Special was introduced, this time termed just the "Bodyguard" and cataloged as the "Model 49". It catered to those who didn't trust the longevity of alloy-framed revolvers (or found their recoil objectionable,) by replacing the aluminum of the Bodyguard Airweight with standard ordnance steel.

The Model 49 pictured above was made in 1963, and was picked up back in 2003 for under $350, reasonable for a decent Bodyguard of its vintage. The flat thumbpiece for the cylinder latch (on the other side of the gun) was discontinued in '66 and the "diamond grips" went away in '68, but the gun itself remained in production until 1997. Plan to spend anywhere between $225 and $400 or more for one, depending on its age and condition.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Sunday Smith #12: Model 30, 1960

Smith & Wesson had debuted the Hand Ejector series (as well as the .32 S&W Long cartridge) with the diminutive .32 caliber I-frame in the closing years of the 19th Century. It was still being manufactured after World War Two, but more and more changes were being made to simplify production or to make the gun safer.

During World War Two, Smith had changed the ejector rod to speed up the manufacture of the Victory Model. Prewar revolvers had knurled knobs threaded onto the end of the ejector rod. This added a part and required machining a complex clearance cut on the underside of the barrel to accommodate the knob. The Victory Model dispensed with this by simply knurling the end of the ejector rod itself. After the war, this change was continued on all the company's commercial guns. Also during the war, Smith added a sliding hammer block as a safety device to positively prevent the revolver's discharging if the hammer was struck a blow and this, too, continued on all models in the postwar era.

In 1953 the leaf mainspring was replaced with a coil-type unit, causing the strain screw to disappear from the front of the grip portion of the frame; this resulted in the "Improved I-frame". At the same time, the screw in front of the trigger guard was deleted, followed by the upper sideplate screw in 1956. The very next year, 1957, Smith dropped the old model names in favor of number designations for the different guns and the .32 Hand Ejector became the Model 30.

The changes made over the years can be noticed easily by comparing the 1918-vintage hand ejector shown here with the 1960 Model 30 pictured above. The Model 30 was acquired earlier this year in trade for a well-loved Model 65. It came with the correct box and the condition of the gun is as close to new as makes no nevermind; in fact, by the condition of the breechface and rifling, it may not have been fired this side of the factory. Even given the condition and the box, relatively low demand means that this is a $375-$400 gun, tops. An excellent condition shooter can probably be picked up for not too much more than $250 with some careful shopping, thanks to the unpopularity of the .32 Smith & Wesson Long cartridge in this country. As with all pre-1982 Smiths, however (and I can't stress this enough) it's best to get while the gettin' is good.