Sunday, March 29, 2009
When Smith & Wesson released their .44 Hand Ejector in 1908, it was obviously their flagship handgun. Physically imposing and immaculately finished, most were chambered in a new cartridge called the ".44 Special", to distinguish it from the old, shorter .44 Russian caliber. Distinctive features that set the big .44 apart from its lesser brethren included a third locking detent for the cylinder assembly, mounted at the front of the crane, and a graceful-looking protective shroud for the ejector rod machined below the barrel.
A little over fifteen thousand were sold over the next seven years, making it one of the more sluggish items in the Smith catalog. And no wonder; this Cadillac of revolvers was priced at the princely sum of $21!
Its replacement, dubbed the .44 Hand Ejector 2nd Model, dispensed with the extra locking detent on the crane, as well as the complex and difficult to machine ejector rod shroud, and could be offered for only $19. Despite the ten-percent price cut, the new guns still remained slow-movers compared to their smaller brethren, but they had some fanatical devotees.
Like nearly every change Smith has ever made in a revolver, people almost immediately began complaining about the removal of the ejector rod shroud. While some claimed that it was just a place for mud to collect on a military or peace officer's gun, others claimed that it protected the ejector rod from bending should the gun be dropped or used for... um... Percussive Behavior Modification Therapy on an uncooperative bad guy.
The dealer Wolf & Klar in Fort Worth, Texas pleaded with Smith to do a run of the big-bore hand ejectors with the ejector rod shroud, offering to buy up to 3,500 of them. With such a huge offer on the table, Smith agreed, and thus was born the .44 Hand Ejector 3rd Model, sometimes known as the "Model of 1926".
Despite production of the 2nd Model continuing apace, and the two models sharing the same serial number range, the 3rd Models are easy to tell apart by the shroud under the barrel and the differently-shaped knob on the end of the ejector rod. Made famous by users such as Texas Ranger Captain "Lone Wolf" Gonzuallas, the distinctive lines of the taper-barreled, shrouded-ejector rod Model of 1926 were continued after the war as the Model of 1950 .44 Military and the later Model 21.
Less than five thousand of the 3rd Model guns were built between 1926 and S&W ceasing production for the war effort in 1941. Never cataloged as such, they remained a special order item and have gained almost cult-like status with Smith fans. When Clint Smith pestered Smith to bring back a classic big-bore service revolver, the Model 21 .44 Military was the first one he pestered them to resurrect. Part of the reason is that good originals have become so scarce as to be almost too valuable to shoot; a pristine Model of 1926, even assuming no special value modifiers, could be expected to bring $3500-$4000 at auction.
You can imagine my surprise when I saw the man walking through the gun show with a 4", tapered barrel with the distinctive half-moon front sight and shrouded ejector rod protruding from his hand. That's enough to set any S&W fan's gears to turning. "Whatcha got there?" I asked.
"Model 21," he replied.
Five screws. Pre-21, at least. It had a flaking re-nickel job and wore a cracked and yellowing set of godawful hollow plastic fake stag grips. It was all there, though, and seemed mechanically tight...
"How much you gotta get out of it?"
Endshake was in spec. Lockup was good. It carried up a little lazy, but that's to be expected and can be fixed. I even had a spare set of N-frame square-butt "Magna" service stocks laying around just waiting to replace the plastic ones.
Truthfully, I was so excited by the find that it wasn't until I got home and really looked it over that I noticed the mushroom-headed ejector rod and lack of both the sliding hammer block and alpha prefix on the serial number that indicated a prewar gun. According to the Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson, the serial number dated it to 1930.
As a bonus, the bore was pristine, with good, sharp rifling and no pitting. This gun had been carried a lot more than it had been shot. Further, there was a partly-obliterated factory rollmark on the backstrap indicating the gun had been shipped to a police department. Which one will remain a mystery until I get the gun lettered by the factory.
With the model being so rare and highly sought-after, for a collector of my type, this is just the kind of gun I like to find; cosmetically flawed enough to make it affordable and mechanically sound enough to make it shootable. I think I need to look into a good holster for it. If it's good enough for "Lone Wolf" and Clint Smith, it's good enough for me.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
The late 19th Century was a time of great change in the small arms world. The U.S. Army, which had been using a solid-framed single-action .45 Colt revolver since 1873, adopted a new double-action sidearm in 1892. This revolver, also made by Colt, had a cylinder that swung out to the side for loading and chambered a smaller .38 caliber cartridge.
Within four years' time of the Army's changeover, Smith & Wesson had brought out their own line of revolvers with swing-out cylinders, albeit chambered in a lengthened .32 caliber cartridge, and they soon followed these up with an enlarged version. The target market of this bigger revolver was no secret: They were named the .38 Military & Police.
These early guns, easily distinguished from their later brethren by their lack of a locking lug under the barrel at the front of the ejector rod, were adopted in small trial-size batches by the Army and Navy in 1899. Although nobody realized it at the time, the heyday of the martial revolver in the US was drawing to a close, with the adoption of the first general issue self-loading martial sidearm in American service barely a decade in the future. That really didn't matter, however; the Smith .38 Military & Police was destined to be one of the most successful handgun designs ever manufactured.
They were chambered in a stretched .38 (which Smith called the ".38 S&W Special".) Although the new cartridge originated as a black powder design, it was loaded with smokeless powder shortly after its introduction and remains one of the most popular handgun cartridges to this day.
Noticeable changes were made to the gun in 1902, when a lug under the barrel with a locking detent for the ejector rod was added, and in 1905, when a screw was added to the frame in front of the trigger guard, bringing the number of externally visible screws in the frame to five. This is what has led to collectors referring to Smiths of this vintage as "five screw" guns.
Various small changes added up, and by 1915, the proper name for the current model was ".38 Military & Police Model of 1905, 4th Change". This iteration was immensely popular; between its inception and 1942, over three quarters of a million were made.
Available in barrel lengths of 2, 4, 5, or 6 inches, and with fixed or adjustable sights, a hobby could be made of collecting just this particular variant of the famous M&P alone. The above example, a fairly basic 5" model, dates to 1930. The photo does not do the condition of the revolver justice; the bluing is even and exhibits only minimal wear in the expected places, making it an honest 90-95% gun. It was purchased at a gun show in Knoxville, Tennessee in the summer of 2007 for $350. In today's market, in the condition it's in, it would probably bring $100 over that, maybe more. Excellent condition prewar Hand Ejectors remain solid investments.
Sunday, March 08, 2009
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...