Although Smith & Wesson introduced their centerfire top-break revolvers, complete with automatic simultaneous extraction and ejection, in 1870, they were only available as bulky holster pistols for over half a decade. It wasn't until 1876 that they brought a smaller model, suitable for concealed carry, to the market.
The smaller models, however, had much wider appeal on the civilian market and, in one form or another, continued in production long after their more martial bigger siblings had been discontinued. With the last .38 caliber models shipping in 1940, these little guns had been in production for over sixty years and hundreds of thousands had found homes, making them easily the most common and affordable antique Smiths on the market today, so a quick overview of the most common variants may be helpful.
The first to show up was the .38 Single Action. The earliest variants had the complicated rack-and-pinion ejection system of the bigger .44 Russian models, complete with its long underbarrel housing, earning them the nickname “Baby Russians”. There were obvious differences, however.
Their smaller size dictated a five shot cylinder, chambered for the new .38 S&W cartridge. Further, as a single-action pistol intended for boot or pocket carry, they lacked the usual trigger and triggerguard arrangement of the bigger guns, having instead a “spur” trigger; a protruding nubbin protected by flanges integral to the bottom of the frame.
In 1878, they were joined by the similar, yet even smaller, .32 Single Action. The .32 enjoyed a couple of mechanical refinements, namely a simplified and more compact actuation system for the ejector and a rebounding hammer that kept the firing pin from resting on the primer of the cartridge, both features shared with the larger New Model Number 3 .44 revolvers that debuted the same year. In 1880, these features were added to the latest version of the .38 Single Action.
LEFT: .38 Single Action 2nd Model (top), .32 Single Action (bottom)
The .32 Single Actions were discontinued in 1892, but the .38 received a conventional trigger and triggerguard in 1891 and remained in production until 1911.
Also in 1880, double-action variants of both the .32 and .38 were introduced. These are immediately distinguishable by their conventional triggerguard, with the trigger sitting about halfway forward inside the guard. The .32 Double Action remained in production until 1919, while the conventional .38 DA was discontinued in 1911.
RIGHT: .38 Double Action 2nd Model (top), .32 Double Action 4th Model (bottom)
In 1909, however, an interesting variant of the .38 Double Action was introduced, known as the “Perfected Model”. In addition to the topstrap-mounted latch shared with other Top Break Smiths, it had a knurled thumbpiece latch like the newer solid-frame Hand Ejector models. Because of this second latch, they were the only Top Break S&W revolvers with their sideplates on the right-hand side of the frame. The Perfected Model was discontinued in 1920.
The final variant of the small-frame Top Breaks is the “New Departure” or “Safety Hammerless”. These revolvers, in both .32 and .38 forms, are not actually hammerless, but rather feature an enclosed hammer, which makes them less likely to snag on clothing when drawn from concealment in a pocket or purse. In the rapidly urbanizing America of the late 19th Century, when gentlefolk were not prone to go about openly “heeled”, this was an important consideration.
The .38 Safety Hammerless debuted first, in 1887, followed by the .32 caliber version a year later. In addition to the enclosed hammer, which rendered them double-action-only, they also had a grip safety on the backstrap, which blocked the movement of the hammer unless depressed by a proper firing grip, which feature lent them the nickname “lemon-squeezers”.
The Safety Hammerless models were very successful. Almost a quarter-million .32 New Departures were made between 1888 and 1937, and by the time the last .38 shipped in 1940, over 260,000 of the larger model had found homes.
Thus, despite the more modern Hand Ejectors with their swing-out cylinders and more potent chamberings having been on the market since the last decade of the 19th Century, it wasn't until the eve of America's entry into the Second World War that Smith's last Top Breaks left the catalog. As a result, plenty of fine examples of these little revolvers are available for extremely reasonable prices and provide an inexpensive entry for the collecting of antique American handguns.
Below is a group photo with some additional identifying information:
Top: .38 Single Action 2nd Model. If it were a 1st Model (aka "Baby Russian"), it would have a longer ejector housing under the barrel, coming to within an inch or so of the muzzle on this example. A 3rd Model would have a conventional trigger and triggerguard.
Middle: .38 Double Action 2nd Model. The sideplate (on the other side in this photo) would have had straight edges fore and aft if it were a 1st Model, whereas this gun's are curved. If it were a 3rd Model (or later), it wouldn't have the groove and second set of stop notches around the middle of the cylinder.
Bottom: .38 Safety Hammerless 4th Model. The upward-lifting latch distinguishes it from the 3rd Model, which used a central button, while the pinned front sight distinguishes it from the 5th Model, which used a front sight milled integrally with the barrel rib. The fact that this gun has been refinished is made obvious by the fact that the latch, trigger, and trigger guard are all shiny. On a factory nickel gun, they would have been blued steel. Also because whoever did it made the gun look like a bumper.
Top: .32 Single Action. Like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, the .32 Single Action hit the market in its final, mature form, already having a rebounding hammer and simplified ejector; thus there are no "1st" or "3rd" or whatever.
Middle: .32 Double Action 4th Model. This pistol is distinguished from the earlier 3rd Model by its round (rather than recurved) triggerguard, and from the 5th Model by its pinned, rather than integral, front sight.
Bottom: (This space awaiting a reasonably-priced .32 Safety Hammerless.)