Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Sunday Smith #47: Number 1, Second Issue, 1866
The one that started it all...
As the first half of the 19th Century drew to a close, the Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company had a stranglehold on the revolver business in America, by virtue of holding the basic patents for the revolving pistol. The early Colt's revolvers were all percussion arms, in which the chambers were loaded with loose powder and ball, and fired by means of a percussion cap seated on an exterior nipple on the rear of the cylinder. A man by the name of Rollin White had come up with an idea for improving the basic design by using a cylinder that was bored through from end to end, but Colt's wasn't interested.
The firm of Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, who had already tried making lever-action repeating pistols, eagerly purchased White's patents and when Colt's patents expired, they were ready with a new pistol that represented a quantum leap forward.
The Number One.
LEFT: S&W Number 1, Second Issue, shown with modern reproduction of .36-caliber Colt 1851 Navy.
Daniel Wesson had come up with a diminutive cartridge that contained the powder, projectile, and priming compound all in a unit. Manufactured of copper, the Number One cartridge launched a .22-caliber bullet, and was prevented from sliding all the way through the cylinder by a rim at the rear. The rim was hollow, and contained the priming compound, which was detonated when the revolver's hammer crushed it on firing. The little bullet with only four grains of black powder behind it was no ballistic powerhouse, but it was so easy to use when compared to fumbling with loose powder and caps that it caught on like wildfire.
The pistol that fired the round was a seven-shot revolver small enough to fit in the hand. It was a single action, meaning that the hammer needed to be manually cocked for each round. After firing all seven, a small catch beneath the front of the cylinder was operated, and the frame hinged upwards, allowing the cylinder to be slid out the front of the weapon.
To eject the spent cartridge cases, the loose cylinder was punched down over an integral ejector rod mounted beneath, and parallel to, the barrel. Seven more rounds were then inserted, the cylinder seated back in the revolver, the barrel hinged back down until it latched, and the revolver was ready to fire again.
RIGHT: S&W Number 1, Second Issue, shown broken open for reloading.
From little acorns...
The Smith & Wesson revolver went on sale in 1857, and now the shoe was on the other foot. Rollin White's patents gave Smith a lock on the bored-through cylinder until 1872 and they made the most of it, vigorously pursuing companies that attempted to copy the design.
The first iteration, now known as the Model Number 1, First Issue, was made up through 1860, a production run of almost twelve thousand guns. In 1860, to speed production, the frame was manufactured with sides that were machined flat, rather than the previous ogive cross-section. This Second Issue was produced for the next eight years, to the tune of almost 120,000 copies; it was frequently found in the boots and pockets of Civil War soldiers.
In 1868, several more design changes resulted in the Third Issue: A fluted cylinder and round barrel, and a rounded "birdshead" butt that made the pistol less likely to snag in a pocket or purse. This final version stayed in production until 1881, by which time it was well and truly obsoleted by newer revolvers with features like automatic ejection and double-action lockwork. Still, over 130,000 found buyers over its thirteen-year run.
Number One today...
With about a quarter million sold, the Number One is a very accessible collector's item. Almost any gun show will have at least one, and copies in reasonable shape can be had for $200-$300 or so. The pictured example, a Second Issue, was picked up at the Fall 2009 National Gun Day show in Louisville for $200; since it was manufactured circa 1866, it is not recognized as a firearm under federal law. The barrel is steel, with a silvered brass frame and rosewood grips. The same gun in excellent condition would be well over a thousand dollars, and the scarcer First Issue variants can bring over seven grand at auction.
(Note that modern smokeless powder .22 loads would reduce these little guns to scrap in short order. Even with a clean bill of health from a gunsmith, they probably shouldn't be fired, and if the temptation is too great, then primer-only CB or Flobert-type cartridges should be used.)