Sunday, March 08, 2009
Sunday Smith #43: .32 Single Action, 1883
Smith & Wesson first made their bones in the personal self-defense pistol market. With the purchase of the Rollins-White patents for a bored-through cylinder combined with the tiny rimfire .22 cartridge, Smith literally sold hundreds of thousands of tiny pocket revolvers.
As Smith entered the centerfire cartridge age in the 1870's, they first tried their toe in the military market with their No. 3 frame size in 1870, and then quickly followed on its heels with a "medium" frame .38 in 1876 and then a "small" frame .32 in 1878.
The original S&W revolvers were of a "tip-up" design, wherein the frame was hinged on the top. When the gun was shot empty, the shooter would trip the latch, hinge the frame upwards, slide the cylinder forwards off its pivot, and then punch the spent cartridge cases out with a built-in punch on the pistol's frame. With the new "break-top" design, the latch would be worked and the barrel and cylinder hinged downwards, causing an integral ejector mechanism to spit the empty shells out simultaneously.
Although the original 7-shot tip-up .22 revolvers stayed in production until 1875, the market was obviously ready for the new top-breaks. The original single-action Model One-and-a-Half Centerfires mere manufactured until 1892 in their original form (which required the hammer to be cocked manually for each shot) and the double action variant of the Model 1 1/2 .32 S&W top-break remained in production until 1937; a run of very nearly sixty years.
The smallest of Smith's top-breaks, the Model One-and-a-Half was chambered for a new cartridge, designated ".32 Smith & Wesson". The tiny cylinder held five of the rounds, which used nine grains of black powder to propel an 85-grain round-nosed lead bullet at just under 700 feet per second. With less than a hundred foot pounds of energy, the .32 S&W cartridge was no man-stopper, but in the days before antibiotics and effective anesthesia, most people would think twice before getting a hole poked in them by a bullet, no matter how slow it was traveling.
Given their near-ubiquity in the pockets, purses, and sock drawers of America, it is perhaps unsurprising that the tiny 5-shot .32's are some of the most affordable antique arms in this country to this day. The pictured revolver, a nickel-finished Model One-and-a-Half Single Action with a three-and-a-half inch barrel made in 1883, was purchased at a gun show in mid-2008 for under $200. A truly premium example of the breed might edge over $1,000, but as is usual with these kinds of guns, condition is everything.
The gun in question, purchased at a gun show in Indianapolis 125 years after it was made, is still quite functional and shoots as well as it did in the year of its birth, the same year the Brooklyn Bridge opened and Black Bart robbed his last stagecoach. Rarely is history more accessible than in these little pistols...