Monday, October 29, 2007

Sunday Smith #20: Model 36-1, 1980

When Smith & Wesson stretched the cylinder window of the I-frame by slightly over a tenth of an inch in 1950 to accommodate a cylinder chambered for the .38 Special cartridge, they created a new frame designation: The J-frame. They also created what would become one of the company's best selling and longest-lived models: The .38 Chiefs Special, later known as the Model 36. Introduced before commercial jet air travel, the model is still being catalogued fifty-seven years later.

The blend of service revolver power and pocket gun size was a winning recipe, and the little 2" snubbie became synonymous with "detective's gun" or "off-duty gun" in no time flat. It was used by both heroes and villains in Hollywood and on TV. J. Edgar Hoover received one of the earliest ones, and police departments across the land purchased them in batches.

It didn't take long for variations to turn up. For example, a very limited number were made with target sights and in the 1990's Smith released the Model 36LS, or "Lady Smith", with attractive hardwood grips and "Lady Smith" engraved on the sideplate. The NYPD ordered a batch Model 36-1's with 3" barrels and square-butt frames to issue to female police officers who had a hard time with the double-action trigger reach on the standard issue Model 10.

The above revolver is an example of the 3" heavy barrel, square-butt Model 36-1. It was purchased back in '01 for $225, a price that was more than fair considering it's outstanding condition and the fact that it shows almost no wear. Current market value for an identical piece would probably be somewhere between $275 and $350, depending on in which area of the country the gun was sold and how badly the purchaser wanted an unusually-configured Chiefs Special.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sunday Smith #19: Model 57, 1980

In 1964 Remington and Smith & Wesson answered the demands of handloaders and wildcatters by launching the new .41 Remington Magnum cartridge. The .41 Magnum began life with a split personality, with two types of loads being offered. The first, a 210 grain lead bullet at just under 1000 feet per second, was intended to be a police loading that offered a larger and heavier bullet than the .357 Magnum or .38 Special, but without the muzzle blast and recoil penalties of the .44 Magnum. The second loading pushed a jacketed hollowpoint of the same weight to some 1300fps, and was designed for hunting deer-sized game.

To go along with the new cartridge, S&W debuted a pair of new revolvers. There was the Model 58, which was a fixed-sight piece that looked like a Military & Police on steroids, and the Model 57, which was a heavy-barreled adjustable sight model that was added to their premium lineup which at that time consisted of the Model 27 .357 Magnum and Model 29 .44 Magnum revolvers. Like the other two, it enjoyed an extra bit of polishing and attention to detail coming off the production line.

Unfortunately, this was during the era of Smith & Wesson's ownership by the Bangor Punta conglomerate (a gunsmith of my acquaintance swears that "Bangor Punta" is Spanish for "toolmark") and by 1969, cost cutting ensured that the extra fine finishes on the 27, 29, and 57 would be no more; collectors will pay a premium for the early examples, easily identified by their "S" serial number prefixes.

The revolver pictured above began life as a fairly generic Bangor Punta-era Model 57, with the standard six inch barrel and square-butt frame. Its previous owner subjected the gun to radical elective surgery:

  • The 6" tube was removed and a factory 4" barrel was ordered and sent to Mag-Na-Port for quad porting.
  • The action was slicked up considerably, while the hammer spur was removed and the serrated target trigger was replaced with a smooth combat trigger.
  • The frame was altered to a round-butt profile, and the serrations on the rear of the frame were meticulously re-cut to give it a factory appearance.
  • The front sight was machined for an orange insert.
  • A hardwood Hogue Monogrip was fitted.
  • The whole gun was finished to a non-glare matte blue.

The result is a one-of-a-kind fighting sixgun. Ironically, however, such is the nature of collectible guns and custom work that if the gun were in pristine original shape, as a "Pinned & Recessed" Model 57, it would bring almost as much money in resale as it would after megabucks were spent tuning it up; the moral being that if you are going to customize a gun, customize it for yourself and forget about realizing a profit. A like-new-in-box Model 57 could command over $600 (well over, if it's an "S" prefix) at auction today; plan on spending $300-$400 for a good shooter.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Sunday Smith #18: Model 37, 1976

With Colt's having introduced an aluminum alloy-framed version of the Detective Special, known as the "Cobra", in 1950, it was perhaps inevitable that Smith would follow the introduction of their new Chiefs Special with an alloy-framed variant as well. Sure enough, in 1952 Smith & Wesson began offering the Chiefs Special Airweight.

By giving up one round in the cylinder, the new Smith was noticeably smaller than its competitor from Colt's. Further, thanks to the alloy cylinder, it was measurably lighter, too. Unfortunately, the aluminum alloys of the day weren't quite up to the stresses occurring in the chamber of a firearm, and persistent reports of catastrophic cylinder failures caused Smith to shift to a steel cylinder after less than 3,800 were made. The USAF showed some interest in the model, ordering a number for testing, but all save a handful were destroyed, making the "Baby Aircrewman" one of the most sought-after postwar Smiths by collectors.

In 1957, the Chiefs Special Airweight became the Model 37 and continued to be made with mostly minor engineering changes until it was finally dropped from the catalog in 2006. The most significant change was probably the one made when they started producing the gun on the slightly longer new "J-Magnum" frame in 1997, since this allowed the gun to be certified for use with more powerful, "+P rated" ammunition, which offers improved performance at the cost of sharper recoil in the twelve-and-a-half ounce J-frame. While newer snubnose revolvers have become all the rage at S&W, with their titanium cylinders and scandium/aluminum alloy frames, many feel that the old steel-cylindered Airweights offer a "best of both worlds" balance, being light enough to carry in a pocket while not being so light as to produce the bone-cracking recoil characteristic of the newer flyweights.

The revolver pictured above is a nickeled 2" Model 37 produced in 1976. From the condition of the breechface, forcing cone, and rifling, it is highly unlikely that this revolver has been fired since it left the factory. Being made before 1982, it has the characteristic barrel locating pin through the frame forward of the cylinder opening. "Pinned barrel" Smiths are starting to command more elevated prices on the market, but even so, they are still a fairly affordable field for collecting. This Model 37 was scooped up for $300 in '03, which was a low price on the market even then. Given condition and the fact that it's in nickel and has a pinned barrel, it could bring $450 or more to the right buyer these days. A serviceable shooter, however, can be bought for $225-$300.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Sunday Smith #17: Model 53-2, 1974

In the mid-1950's, experimenters started playing with Model 17's (.22LR K-frames) by fitting new cylinders machined from cylinder blanks and chambered in a variety of wildcats made from necking down centerfire pistol cartridges to accept the .224" jacketed bullets then becoming popular from the new small-bore .222 Remington varmint cartridge. The .224" bullets would function fine in the .22LR barrels, and the idea was a revolver that would be lethal on small game and varmints at ranges far beyond those considered practical with a .22 rimfire.

In 1961, S&W and Remington legitimized one of these wildcats by naming it the .22 Remington Jet and chambering it in the new Model 53. The Model 53 was a square-butt K-frame revolver with target sights, marked ".22 Magnum" on the barrel, and was available with a 4", 6", or 8 3/8" barrel. Unique features included either a second cylinder chambered for .22LR, or a set of .22LR chamber inserts. The revolver had dual firing pins in the frame, and had a pivoting striker in the hammer that could be toggled back and forth between rimfire and centerfire positions.

The .22 Remington Jet round itself was based on the .357 Magnum casing, but necked down to take a .222" projectile. The large powder charge launched a 40gr projectile at a claimed 2460fps out of an 8 3/8" tube (although test numbers chronoed noticeably lower.) Still, the .22 Rem Jet had numbers far surpassing the modern 5.7x28mm round from FN.

The round's fatal weakness was a result of its shape and the fact that it was intended to be fired from a revolver. Based on a rimmed midbore revolver cartridge, the round was tapered like an incense cone. Unless the chambers were scrupulously degreased, firing the round would cause the case to expand and force the base hard against the revolver's breechface, preventing the cylinder from turning. With the growing popularity of the .22WMR, the .22 Rem Jet's day came and went, and with it, the Model 53.

Early Model 53 "no dash" four-screw guns (first year of production) command a substantial premium, but any Model 53 (there was no "53-1"; deletion of the triggerguard screw in '62 resulted in the 53-2) will bring close to eight bills or more if it is in good shape. Ammunition is no longer commercially manufactured, so it behooves the Model 53 owner to take up reloading or make friends with someone who already has the bug. The Model 53-2 in the above picture was purchased in '05 for $450 and has the less-common 4" barrel; combined with the short barrel, the light bullet and relatively large powder charge result in spectacular pyrotechnics on a darkened range.