Sunday, February 24, 2008
Sunday Smith #36: Model 296, 1999.
In 1980 Smith & Wesson responded to fears about the long-term durability of K-frames when firing full-power .357 Magnum ammunition by releasing a new frame size, its first in thirty years. The new "L-frame" offered greater strength than the K by the virtue of being slightly beefed up in critical areas, while still using the same grips and fitting the same holsters as the earlier medium-framed guns. The new size caught on well and eventually produced spinoffs of the original .357 Magnum offerings.
Soon after, a combination of factors led to a revolution in carry revolver design. The fall of the Iron Curtain caused a drop in the price of titanium on the world market, and when combined with new manufacturing techniques for working this difficult-to-machine metal, allowed firearms manufacturers to explore its uses. Almost as light as aluminum, yet almost as strong as steel, S&W exploited its unique properties when they released the first of the "AirLite" revolvers in 1998, using titanium for the cylinder instead of steel. Where an all-stainless .38 Special Model 640 weighed some 21 ounces and an alloy-framed 642 still tipped the scales at 16 with its steel cylinder and barrel, the flyweight new 342 Ti weighed in at an astonishing 11.3 ounces with Dymondwood grips. This new method of construction included using a two-piece barrel, wherein the outer barrel was merely an alloy shroud, secured in place by the rifled steel insert that was screwed into the frame by use of a special fixture that mated with the rifling in the bore. Unlike the earlier crush-fit one-piece barrels, the sights could not be mounted crooked, since they were mounted on the barrel sleeve which had a key that fit into a matching mortise on the frame.
In 1999, Smith debuted a revolver at the annual SHOT Show that was unlike anything they'd released before. Combining the alloy and titanium construction of the AirLites with an L-frame featuring the enclosed "Centennial" hammer (the only non-J-frame Centennials Smith has ever made), the new revolvers were offered in both 7-shot .38 Special (Model 242) and 5-shot .44 Special (Model 296) flavors. Weighing only 18.9 ounces, the 2" round-butt .44 Special Model 296 offered big-bore punch, medium frame size, snag-free carryability, and was lighter than a steel J-frame. It seemed to be a recipe for success in a time when liberalized CCW laws were sweeping the country.
Alas, it was not to be. The new revolvers were still fairly complex to make; the complexity of the two-piece barrel and the machining of the titanium cylinder translated to an MSRP of US$754.00. The revolver was still fairly large; Glock had just released its Model 26 and 27, the latter of which offered 9+1 rounds of .40S&W in a slightly smaller package. The light weight imposed some shooting restrictions on the gun, too. Most .44 Special target ammunition was of either the 246gr lead round nose or 240gr jacketed soft point type, and the sharp recoil of the flyweight .44 would cause the heavy bullets in these loadings to jump their crimps, propelled forward out of the case by inertia (actually, the heavy bullet remained in place while the revolver and the cartridge case recoiled away from them, but the effect was the same.) This meant that the Model 296 was limited to 200gr or lighter bullets, and the only loads of that type on the market were defensive hollowpoints, which were a bit expensive for shooting tin cans.
Probably the biggest strike against it was the one that is most blindingly obvious: Simply put, it is quite possibly the most... um... "aesthetically challenged" revolver S&W has ever manufactured. Okay, it's just downright ugly and buyers stayed away in droves, causing Smith to discontinue the revolver after the 2001 model year, with the remaindered guns selling at deep discount through companies like CDNN. The few who purchased one found out, however, that pretty is as pretty does and if you're looking for an easy-to-carry big-bore wheelgun, they don't come much prettier than the 296 Ti.
The example pictured above was purchased new in October of 2001 for a shade under $600. Asking prices these days seem to be a little optimistic, but the last few I've seen actually sell at gun shows usually went in the $500-$575 range. Given their unique configuration and short production run it seems safe to say that these will probably achieve at least minor collectible status in the future, but that doesn't matter to me. It works too well in my purse to be wasted gathering dust in my gun safe...