Monday, November 26, 2007

Sunday Smith #24: Model 10-8, 1983

The Smith & Wesson Model 10 was available in standard barrel lengths of two, four, five, and six inches for most of its life, but early on Smith offered a three-inch tube as a special order item, usually for large departmental orders. The 3" square butt configuration was popular with many foreign police departments, being used from France and Turkey to Malaysia and Australia. It was only when combined with the round-butt frame of the 2" Model 10, however, that the three-inch barrel really came into its own.

By the early 1980s, the 3" round-butt Model 10 had become a regular catalog offering, and some people immediately recognized the virtues offered by this package. The 3" barrel and round butt made the gun compact enough to be discreetly carried on the belt. Unlike its 2" snubbie cousin, though, the 3" barrel offered usable sight radius and even more importantly it had a full-length ejector rod stroke to ensure positive extraction of spent cases. The steel frame and thick barrel profile made the gun heavy enough to easily tame the recoil of even hot +P ammunition, while not rendering it too heavy to comfortably carry. The fixed sights were rugged and snag-free, and added to the all-business aura of the piece.

Domestic agencies, including the Criminal Investigative Division of the much-loved IRS, quickly saw the virtues of this configuration, and the FBI issued its .357 Magnum sibling, the Model 13. Many fans today still consider this the best all-around concealed-carry revolver configuration.

In 1997, Smith finally discontinued all configurations except the 4" heavy barrel, and the Model 10 lingers on mostly for bulk orders to private security firms. The above pictured revolver, a Model 10-8 produced in 1983, was purchased for $275 back in '03, which was a pretty fair price for a 95% gun with the box, docs, and tools. Cleaned up and sold at auction today, it could bring as much as $350-375, given its configuration, condition, and correct accoutrement.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sunday Smith #23: Model 38, 1982

In 1955, Smith & Wesson produced a variation of their aluminum-framed Chief's Special Airweight revolver that had a built-in hammer shroud. Called the Bodyguard Airweight, the new revolver allowed the shooter a smooth, snag-free draw from inside a pocket or under clothing, while still allowing the hammer to be thumb-cocked for single action fire, an option not available on the earlier Safety Hammerless and Centennial revolvers with their entirely enclosed hammers.

The model was an instant sales success, with shooters enjoying the availability of both modes of operation in the slick little fourteen-ounce pocket gun. When Smith made the changeover to model numbers in 1957, the Bodyguard Airweight became the "Model 38" and continued selling well. The distinctive silhouette of the Bodyguard had its moment of infamy in the hand of South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, frozen in Eddie Adams Pulitzer Prize-winning photo.

The Model 38 Bodyguard Airweight was joined by a stainless variant, the Model 638, in 1989. A decade later the stainless gun's sales had so outstripped its carbon steel forebear that the original was dropped from the catalog after a 47-year run. Model 38s remain fairly popular with collectors, but are generally less expensive than Model 37 Chiefs Special Airweight or the Model 42/042 Centennials.

The above revolver, a nickel Model 38 in about 98% condition with box, docs, and tools, was acquired for about $300 back in 2003 which was probably at the outer limit of its value envelope at the time. Currently it might bring as much as $350 with the original stocks fitted and a quick rub with Flitz. But like they say, "You can never pay too much for a gun; you can only buy it too soon."

Monday, November 12, 2007

Sunday Smith #22: Model 547, 1982

Smith & Wesson's first foray into building a revolver chambered for a semiautomatic pistol cartridge was the Model 1917 revolver produced for the U.S. Army during the First World War. The challenge wasn't in chambering the round, as the chambers could be stepped, allowing the cartridge to headspace on the case mouth just like in an automatic, but in extraction. The hand ejector extraction system relied on a protruding cartridge rim for the extractor star to act against.

A solution was found by using a thin sheet metal clip that would clip into the pistol round's extractor groove, joining two or three of them together and giving the extractor something to grab. Still, this always felt like a temporary solution. It added an extra part to be looked after, required time to be spend inserting rounds into the little clips, and if the clips were bent, they could bind the action of the gun, rendering the cylinder hard to turn and the revolver effectively inoperable. Lose the clip, and you're spending precious time trying to pry spent cases out with your fingernails or poke them out with a stick.

LEFT: Extractor with fingers.

Over the years other chamberings were tried, usually as wartime experiments, but it wasn't until 1980 that the obstacle of rimless extraction would be overcome. In an attempt to court overseas sales, Smith & Wesson came up with a unique new extractor system that used six "fingers" on the ejector rod to lift out the rounds by their extractor grooves. They also overcame another problem with 9mm as a revolver round, which was case setback on firing due to the slight taper of the 9x19mm cartridge, by using a floating frame-mounted firing pin, and placing a second floating pin in the breechface immediately above it to provide case support and keep the brass from backing out of the chamber.

RIGHT: Breechface with two pins.

The new "Model 547 9mm Military & Police" was offered in both 4" square-butt (the standard service configuration) and 3" round-butt (preferred for plainclothes work) configurations, both with a heavy barrel. The revolver was, at a glance, nearly identical to the then-common Model 13 .357 Magnum M&P, but one dead giveaway externally was the 9mm's oddly shaped hammer.

The revolver never caught on with overseas customers, and tradition-minded U.S. revolver shooters gave it a lukewarm reception as well. It was no surprise then to see it fade from the catalog after 1985, only five years after its introduction. Naturally, its relative scarcity (only slightly more than 10,000 made) and unique mechanical nature has made it something for collectors to chase down and prices have climbed accordingly in the last half-decade or so. In 2000, it wasn't uncommon to find a nice 547 for maybe $250-$350; the example in the above photo, which is an honest 95%+ gun, was picked up at a gun show for right around $400 in mid-'04; these days nice ones are fetching north of $600 on auction sites, and a LNIB example could bring more than eight bills. Still, what collection of Smith "Military & Police" revolvers would be complete without at least one example of the oddest M&P?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Sunday Smith #21: Model 15-4, 1980

From the debut of the K-frame .38 Hand Ejector as the ".38 Military & Police 1st Model" in 1899, Smith & Wesson offered variants equipped with adjustable (or "target") sights. It wasn't until after World War Two, however, that they introduced a K-frame .38 target pistol truly worthy of the name. That gun was the K-38 Masterpiece.

Special features abounded on the new revolver model. It made use of Smith's new short-throw hammer and the trigger featured an adjustment for overtravel (the amount of movement remaining in the trigger's throw after the sear breaks.) The barrel was topped by a flat, longitudinally serrated rib in order to provide a level non-glare sight plane. The grip frame also had longitudinal serrations on both the frontstrap and backstrap to improve grip.

It was originally offered in two barrel lengths, each with their own distinctive front sight. The 6" model, known as the "K-38 Target Masterpiece" had a squared Patridge-style front sight, whereas the 4" "K-38 Combat Masterpiece" had a sloped Baughman "quick draw" style ramp, to avoid snagging in the holster. The weapons proved immediately popular and were sales successes for the Massachusetts gunmaker.

With the shift to model numbers in 1957, the Target Masterpiece became the Model 14, while its shorter barreled cousin had its romantic moniker replaced by the dreary "Model 15" designation. New barrel lengths were added, with the Model 14 acquiring an 8 3/8" option, while the Model 15 had a 2" variant added to the lineup. Surprisingly, given its added cost over the ubiquitous Model 10, the Model 15 saw a fair amount of law enforcement sales, and was even adopted by the USAF for issue to security police.

The Model 15 remained a standard catalog item through 1999, when it was discontinued. Sales of blued guns had suffered next to their stainless counterparts, and the Model 15 suffered the double curse of being chambered in .38 Special. Many consumers felt that the adjustable sight Model 66, externally identical, offered the added bonus of being made of low-maintenance stainless steel and able to chamber the .357 Magnum cartridge as well. Traditionalists howled, however, and the Model 15 has since seen various resurrections in limited edition "Heritage Model"-type runs.

The Model 15-4 pictured above was manufactured in 1980 and, as best I can tell, it remained unfired until I acquired it in early 2003. The bluing in the barrel is still intact, there are no markings on the breechface, and the revolver barely has a drag ring, indicating it hasn't even been dry-fired much. It was picked up at a ridiculously cheap $125, and is worth better than three times that amount at auction in today's environment. As it sits, $400-$425 would not be an unreasonable selling price, and if it had the box & docs it would be worth even more.