Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sunday Smith #41: Model 21-4, 2004.

After being in production for roughly a century, Smith & Wesson’s Hand Ejector revolvers still bore an external similarity to their 19th Century forebears, but that resemblance was in many respects only skin deep. Just as the intervening decades had wrought changes in the ownership of the company and the nature of its manufacturing facilities, time had changed the guns themselves, often to the point of unrecognizability to longtime fans.

The rush of production and government safety demands during the Second War To End All Wars introduced both a simplified ejector rod assembly as well as an internal hammer block. The 1950s saw extraneous frame screws removed and the traditional model names of yore replaced with a sterile numbering system. In the Sixties, stainless steel entered the marketplace as a new material for gunmaking and gradually supplanted carbon steel among many users for its ease of maintenance. The heavy barrel, originally introduced to tame muzzle flip in magnum and selected target model wheelguns, became standard, since it required fewer machining steps to manufacture than the traditional tapered barrel.

In the 1980s, further simplification of the manufacturing process saw the departure of pinned barrels and the countersunk chambers that had been the trademark of S&W revolvers in magnum calibers. Increasingly strict EPA regulations combined with the new predominance of stainless guns to do away with nickel plating as a finish option. In the last decade of the 20th Century, the new Metal Injection Molding process used for lockwork and other small parts caused the firing pins of centerfire guns to migrate to the frame, where their rimfire brethren had located them all along. In order to reduce the number of different frames they needed to manufacture, S&W deleted the traditional square-butt profile from the catalog with little fanfare.

All these changes left a considerable part of Smith’s core consumer base feeling lost at sea. The grumbling started quietly, mostly confined to various gun nut message boards on the internet, and S&W’s new management floated the first trial balloon of reconciliation in the form of the “Heritage Series” of revolvers in 2000 and 2001. Unfortunately, the Heritage Series was less than a stellar sales success.

Sold as collector’s pieces solely through ace distributor Lew Horton, the Heritage Series attempted to revive several classic discontinued models. Collectors and fans lost no time starting with the snarky comments. For starters, since these guns were built on existing stocks of frames, there were no square-butt frames available. This resulted in the bizarre-looking (to a collector’s eye) spectacle of 6.5”-barrelled target N-frames with round-butt grips. Furthermore, in an attempt to give a “vintage look” to the guns to accompany the gold-foil boxes reminiscent of a bygone era, Smith had the frames of several models done in a beautiful case-coloring by famed firearms finisher Doug Turnbull. The hitch being, of course, that old Smiths never had case-colored frames. More than one internet wag described the “Heritage Series” as the “Vaguely Old-Timey-Looking Series”. Combined with stratospheric Performance Center-style price tags, these factors were the kiss of death for the Heritage Series guns: Not enough Performance Center whiz-bang to draw new buyers and not convincingly retro enough to lure back traditionalists.

The net result of all this was that many, if not most, of the Heritage revolvers went for dimes on the dollar via reseller CDNN. Happily, though, someone at Smith seems to have taken the right message away from this: It wasn’t that retro revolvers couldn’t succeed, it was that the Heritage Series wasn’t retro enough. The next evolution in this story arc came from an unexpected quarter: The “tactical training” market.

Clint Smith, former trainer under Jeff Cooper, proprietor of Thunder Ranch, and odds-on favorite to be the next pope of the Church Of Tactical Truth when the white smoke went up from Gunsite, had a weakness for simple, reliable old guns, such as Colt Single Action Armies, big-bore S&W Hand Ejectors, and the like. Around about this time, he began making overtures to Smith & Wesson regarding the desirability of an old-school large-frame Military & Police-style revolver, with a 4” tapered barrel, fixed rear and half-moon front sights, and firing a low-pressure classic big-bore round. A modern iteration of the classic Model 21 “Model of 1950 .44 Military”, if you will. Original Model 21s were scarce collector’s items, and rapidly becoming too precious to carry even if you could find one for sale and, seeing a market, the idea took hold at S&W.

Sadly, the original idea soon spun out of Clint’s control. Anxious for a tie-in with the popular “Thunder Ranch” training center, the new Model 21-4 acquired the shield & lightning bolt Thunder Ranch logo picked out in gold leaf on the side plate. Additionally, they would come with special serial numbers using a “TRS” (for “Thunder Ranch Special”) serial number and a wood display case with a glass lid in which to show off the pristine collector’s model. All in all, a far cry from the simple, rugged carry gun originally envisioned.

Despite outcries over the decidedly non-retro round-butt grip contour and internal lock, as well as QC problems with early guns, sales were apparently good enough to persuade S&W to try again the next year with another Thunder Ranch gun. This time the gold leaf and glass case were eschewed in favor of a plain side plate and a simple padded olive drab zippered nylon carrying case. The new Thunder Ranch was in .45 ACP and numbered as the Model 22-4.

These early attempts presaged a wholesale return to the retro revolver market in 2007, with the reintroduction of several classic models, complete with the proper square-butt grip profile where required. Smith & Wesson seems to have learned a lesson from Harley Davidson: When tradition and brand recognition are two of your strongest assets, it is foolish to ignore them. Now, about that MIM and the internal lock…

The revolver pictured above, a Model 21-4 “Thunder Ranch Special”, gun number 807, was purchased new in 2005. Unlike many of these guns, it wasn’t bought to be a prima donna safe queen, but specifically because it was a fixed-sight .44 Special N-frame with a round butt and tapered 4” barrel; both features that make it easier to carry. The gold leaf logo may be silly-looking, but it doesn’t affect the functionality of the gun in the slightest, and the glass display case doesn’t have to go in the kydex inside-the-waistband holster with it. The initial purchase price was under $700 and current values on a putative collector model this recent are hard to fix with certainty. In any case, collector models are usually priced with the understanding that they are sold As-New-In-Box, Never Fired. I think Clint Smith would be happy that those words ceased to apply to this example the day I took delivery.


Les Jones said...

The 22-4 hit the mark that the 21-4 missed by a mile. True retro look with square butt and nice-looking wood grips. (The 22TR had horrible-looking grips.)

The hatred for the 21TR was pretty intense. People bitched and bitched, which led Clint Smith to pen a column in Mumble-mumble magazine calling his critics "turd suckers." Clint Smith may be tactical, but tactful he ain't.

Tam said...

The irony with the 21-4's grips is that had it come with factory traditional checkered round-butt grips, I'd have looked at them and said "Wow! Those are pretty!" right before unscrewing them and fitting a set of Eagle Secret Service Grips or Ahrend's smooth finger-grooves... ;)

Xavier said...

Nice synopsis Tam! Nice ordnance too! A little Sharpie work will get rid of the bling.....

Will said...

Is it feasible to swap an unmarked side plate onto it for carry use?