Sunday, January 27, 2008
In 1887, Smith & Wesson introduced a new line of pocket-sized revolvers that had the hammer completely enclosed. Called the "Safety Hammerless", they were extremely popular, remaining in production in one form or another for over a half-century, with the .38 Safety Hammerless not dropped from the catalog until the pressures of wartime production forced its exit in 1940.
Twelve years later, an enclosed-hammer model was reintroduced, only this time on the modern J-frame Hand Ejector platform. Marking as it did the hundredth anniversary of the company, the reborn hammerless revolvers were known as the "Centennial" model. They remained in the catalog until 1974 before being discontinued in their turn.
Almost immediately gun writers and S&W fans began lamenting the loss of what they considered to be a nearly perfect concealed-carry revolver, with its non-snag lines and a completely enclosed hammer that allowed it to be fired from inside a pocket in a pinch. Responding to pressure, Smith relaunched the gun in stainless steel for 1989, this time as the Model 640.
It was a successful re-introduction, with the gun being embraced by diverse markets, from the general public to the New York City Police Department. It did not take long for special variants to emerge, either. There was, for instance, a "Paxton Quigley" model, complete with tapestry carrying case and mother of pearl inlays in the stocks. The gun also became a common platform for Performance Center variants.
The PC-640 above sports a 3" barrel with a true expansion-chamber compensator. Since this occupies the space normally taken up by the integral ramp front sight, a dovetail front sight replaces it. The action is slicked up, and the gun comes with attractive smooth wood stocks. It was among the first J-frames explicitly rated for use with +P ammunition. Shortly after it was made, the Model 640-1 debuted, bringing the .357 Magnum to the smallest current Smith frame size.
The pictured firearm was acquired in 2004 in trade for a Performance Center-customized 640 (as opposed to this gun, which is a factory PC gun, complete with PC logo rollmark.) Again, being a Performance Center gun, an exact value is hard to fix, but considering the gun's like-new-in-box condition complete with box and docs, it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect it to fetch something in the $550-$650 range at auction. A standard 640 of similar vintage in similar condition (LNIB) would probably bring ~$400-$450 depending on your area, while a decent shooter could probably be picked up for no more than $300 if one doesn't mind some wear and tear.
Sunday, January 20, 2008
In 1990, a new department was opened at Smith & Wesson. Dubbed the "Performance Center", it was envisaged as an in-house semicustom shop, where niche guns could be designed and built under the direction of master pistolsmiths Paul Liebenberg and John French. The guns would be based on existing S&W designs, built in limited runs, and shopped to Smith's various distributors, who would then get an exclusive model to offer in their catalogs. The concept proved popular, and soon it was not uncommon for models to be completely sold out at SHOT, the gun industry's big winter trade show.
In 1995 the Performance Center turned its attentions to the .357 Magnum Model 13. The Model 13 was first released in 1974 and remained in production through 1999. Also known as the ".357 Magnum Military & Police" it was, as the name implies, a slightly beefed-up fixed-sight M&P chambered for the more powerful Magnum cartridge instead of the old .38 Special. It was fairly popular with law enforcement, at least with departments that weren't hampered by the stigma of issuing "Magnums". It was available in both 4" square-butt and 3" round-butt configurations, the latter becoming very respected as a concealed-carry or plainclothes revolver, especially after its adoption by the FBI.
The Performance Center version, sold through the well-known distributor Lew Horton, was known as the PC-13. Based on the 3" round-butt gun, the magnum K-frame featured a bobbed hammer and double-action-only lockwork, lightly chamfered charge holes, a simple overtravel stop consisting of a roll-pin fixed in the rear of the trigger, Eagle Secret Service grips, and quad Mag-Na-Porting. The cylinder release was beveled on the bottom to better clear a speedloader and, unlike the standard 3" Model 13, the ejector rod was shrouded. The whole gun was finished in a businesslike matte blue. The Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson by Jim Supica and Richard Nahas refers to it as "A very serious carry revolver."
The revolver in the photo was purchased by a good friend at a gun show in 2001 for $650. It was gifted to me in 2002 and has held pride of place in my S&W collection ever since. As scarce as these revolvers are (only 400 of them were built), accurate pricing is difficult. MSRP in 1995 was $765, and examples have turned up all over the price map in the last few years, from $800 on the low end to a recent unfired-in-the-box specimen on Gunbroker.com with an opening bid of $1,199. Sadly, like most Performance Center guns, a lot of these seem to have been bought to hoard and never shoot, which is a shame for such a no-nonsense gun. As can be seen by the discoloration around the porting in the above photo, this specimen has been spared such an ignominious fate.
Sunday, January 13, 2008
Stainless steel, first patented in the early 20th Century, didn't see widespread use in firearms manufacture until the 1960s. In 1965, Smith & Wesson launched the first production revolver made entirely out of stainless steel; the Model 60, a stainless variant of the Model 36 Chiefs Special. The revolver was a huge sales success, much to the chagrin of traditionalists, and was followed in 1970 by the Model 64, a rust-resistant rendition of the Model 10 Military & Police.
The new stainless M&P revolvers were widely issued by police departments, and much anecdotal evidence exists stating that they were highly sought after as personal weapons with the US servicemen then serving in Southeast Asia's hot, humid jungles. The gun is pretty much an exact copy of the Model 10 save for the steel used. Early models had flash-chromed hammers and triggers, but by the 1990s these were plain color-case hardened carbon steel like on non-stainless guns.
The Model 64 is one of the most prosaic firearms in the S&W lineup, and therefore commands little collector interest outside of very early guns or rare production variants. Good shooters can be found for ~$200 without much effort and even very fine specimens seldom top three bills by very much. The above example, a 2" heavy barrel Model 64-4 dating to 1994, was acquired (along with a couple C-notes) in LNIB condition in 2003 in trade from a private seller at a gun show for a 4" Model 624. It has served as this writer's nightstand gun ever since.
Sunday, January 06, 2008
With the .45 ACP Model 25 continuing in production into the 1980's, it was inevitable that S&W would introduce a stainless version. Sure enough, towards the end of the decade the Model 625 appeared. Seemingly designed to be an ideal bowling pin gun, its 5" full-underlug barrel minimizing the muzzle flip from the .45 cartridge, the 625 had enough oddities to keep collectors scratching their heads for some time to come.
For starters, there never was just a plain 625 or 625-1; the first guns to hit the street were designated "625-2", and engineering changes incremented normally from there. It was also unusual for a 5" gun at the time in that it had a round-butt frame, something that was only seen on short-barreled N-frames of the era. The very earliest ones had the barrel rollmarked "Model of 1988" (despite being made in 1989) and had ramp front sights, but almost immediately this was changed to a laser-etched "Model of 1989" and a patridge-type front sight blade. Unlike other stainless guns from Smith & Wesson, which had brushed finishes, the 625 was finished in a soft matte bead-blast.
In 1990 the 625-3 debuted the longer cylinder stop notches associated with the "Endurance Package" from the 629, and the "-4" change that followed three years later introduced holes pre-drilled in the topstrap for accepting scope mounts. The 625 proved popular with competition shooters for the speed with which it could be reloaded thanks to its use of moon-clips. Indeed, when Jerry Miculek set his famous record of "six shots, reload, and six shots in 2.99 seconds", it was a Model 625 that he used.
The revolver pictured above, an early "Model of 1988" marked gun, was purchased from a friend for $450 in the Autumn of 2003. The 625 seems to hold its value better than some of its more common modern N-frame siblings, and a LNIB example could fetch as much as six bills. The sample above, given its status as a very early rollmarked gun, could bring $550 or a bit more at auction, even with the aftermarket cocobolo Hogue monogrip. A good shooter with minor cosmetic issues could probably be found for around $400, and the beauty of the finish on these guns is that any gunsmith with a blasting cabinet and a deft touch can freshen it right up.
Tuesday, January 01, 2008
When Smith & Wesson introduced the .357 Magnum cartridge in 1935, many viewed it as an ideal law enforcement round. The only problem was that the only revolver chambered for it was prohibitively expensive for most law enforcement agencies, being carefully fitted and finished and positioned as the "Cadillac" of the S&W line. After World War Two, S&W attempted to rectify this by introducing the "Highway Patrolman", later known as the Model 28, in 1954. This was essentially the same revolver as the .357 Magnum/Model 27, but with various cost cutting measures like a matte blue finish and elimination of the fine checkering along the sighting plane.
While this solved the cost issue, it didn't change the fact that the .357 cartridge was only available in a big N-frame revolver that weighed in at over two and a half pounds, which was quite a burden to lug on a duty belt already encumbered by handcuffs, nightstick, and all the other items on the ever-growing list of impedimentia considered necessary for police work. Behind the scenes, Border Patrol officer Bill Jordan had been pressing S&W to take advantage of advances in metallurgy and heat-treating of steel by releasing a .357 Magnum version of their midsize K-frame revolver. In 1955, they did just that, and thus was born the Combat Magnum, soon to be dubbed the Model 19 when the transition to model numbers was made in 1957.
Immediately a big hit, the Model 19 offered the more compact dimensions of the medium-frame combined with the hard-hitting .357 Magnum chambering and was used by any number of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, ranging from the Dayton, OH Police Department to the United States Secret Service. Initially offered with a 4" barrel and square-butt frame, variations with other barrel lengths soon became available. The most common were the 2.5" guns with round-butt frames and square-butt 6" guns, but 3" and 5" examples are known to exist. The revolvers went through the litany of engineering changes denoted by "dash numbers" after the model number, with the "-5" variation marking the abandonment of the pinned barrel and countersunk chambers in 1982. Production of the Model 19 Combat Magnum continued through November of 1999 when it was finally discontinued, its sales having slipped precipitously in comparison with its stainless offspring, the Model 66.
The revolver in the above photo, a 19-5 dating to 1988, is unusual for combining the 4" barrel length with a round-butt frame. This configuration first showed up in guns issued to the Office of Naval Intelligence in 1965, and those guns were marked "ONI" on the frame. A later run of 4" round-butt guns was done in 1988 for the U.S. State Department, and this revolver would appear to be from that batch, as its serial number bears the correct prefix. It was acquired from a friend in 2003 for about $325, and would bring probably over $425 in today's market, given the aftermarket Hogue monogrip and the lack of a factory box. Standard 4" Model 19's will run anywhere from not too much over $150 for a tired shooter to as much as five bills for a pristine early example with box & docs. Variations in barrel length, commemoratives, and odd Law Enforcement or foreign-contract guns can sometimes be worth substantial premiums, but research is in order before laying out the cash, as always.
As a purely side note, if I could only own one handgun, the above revolver would probably be it. Able to shoot anything from .38 snake shot to .357 loads appropriate for deer hunting, and small enough to be carried concealed in an inside-the-waistband holster, the 4" Model 19 is maybe as close to a "Do Anything" handgun as has ever been made.