Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sunday Smith #50: Number 2, 1863

Smith & Wesson did not invent the metallic cartridge revolver but, by buying the Rollins White patent and manufacturing it on a wide scale, they did make the first commercially viable cartridge revolver in the United States.

The tiny Smith Model Number 1 sold like gangbusters, but there were those who wanted more. The Number 1 launched a tiny .22 caliber, 29-grain bullet, seated over 4 grains of black powder. While it beat a handful of nothing, there was obviously a market for a revolver that combined the ease of metallic cartridge reloading with a chambering that packed a bit more wallop. Enter the second offering from S&W, imaginatively labeled the "Number 2".

The Number 2 was a physically larger revolver than the Number 1; in the terms of the day, it lay somewhere between a pocket gun and a belt gun. The most common barrel lengths were five or six inches, which meant it could be carried in the deep pockets of a frock coat or in a small belt holster. It used a .32-caliber rimfire cartridge, launching a 90-grain bullet over some 13 grains of black powder, for a muzzle velocity of more than 800fps. This gave it a muzzle energy roughly equal to the modern .32 ACP cartridge, which fires a lighter bullet at higher velocities.

The timing of the Number 2's launch could not have been more propitious, coming as it did shortly on the heels of the shelling of Fort Sumter. Although it was never officially adopted by the U.S. Army, Yankee soldiers spent their own money ordering them to the point that S&W had to close their order books only a year or two into the war, and the revolver to this day is informally known as the "Old Army" model, despite its lack of official contracts.

Manufactured from 1861 to 1874, roughly 77,000 Smith & Wesson Number 2s were shipped from the factory in Springfield, MA. They represent a fairly obscure field of S&W collecting; pristine examples bring well into four figures, and even rough shooters will command prices not too far south of a grand. The pictured example, made in 1863, is practically worthless as a gun, missing a couple of parts, and was picked up for just over $100 at a gun show in Indianapolis in early 2011.

Incidentally, the existence of the Number 2 explains an oddity in S&W nomenclature: Having launched the tiny .22 cal Number 1 and the larger .32 cal Number 2, Smith realized that there was a market for a small vest-pocket sized gun that chambered a more formidable round than the .22 rimfire. They produced a five-shot vest pocket revolver chambered for a shortened .32 round, but since it was bigger than a Number 1 and smaller than a Number 2, the only way they could keep their frame size labels consistent was to dub it the Number One-and-a-Half...


Bob said...

Mark Twain apparently had a Model 1 on his trip to California:

I was armed to the teeth with a pitiful little Smith &
Wesson's seven-shooter, which carried a ball like a homoeopathic pill,
and it took the whole seven to make a dose for an adult. But I thought
it was grand. It appeared to me to be a dangerous weapon. It only had
one fault--you could not hit anything with it. One of our "conductors"
practiced awhile on a cow with it, and as long as she stood still and
behaved herself she was safe; but as soon as she went to moving about,
and he got to shooting at other things, she came to grief.

- - from Roughing It.

Joe Hooker said...

The copper cartridges gave the Old Army a tremendous advantage over the cap and ball revolvers in that it was waterproof -- a big advantage for a soldier. It was quite popular. Gen. Ambrose Burnside had a very fancy engraved model and I've also seen examples of soldiers carrying them on patrols at Petersburg to supplement their single-shot muskets.

Michael Simmons said...

Small blip that you likely already know about, but in case you don't:

3rd paragraph

... which meant it could be carried int eh deep pockets of a frock coat...

"int eh" looks to be something our wizbang spelchekers would do to you.

Feel free to delete this comment, as it does not add anything to the discussion.

Tam said...

D'oh! Thank you!

Kristopher said...

OK, I'm confused.

I thought the top break was the Model 2, and the tip up .32 RF was the 1 and a 1/2?

Tam said...


The 5-shot .32 frame, tip-up or top-break, was the One-and-a-Half.

Kristopher said...

That makes sense. S&W using a confusing numbering system the very second they made more than one model.

Tam said...

No, no, they made it all the way to their third gun before the wheels fell off.

Model 1: Bitty little .22.
Model 2: Big six shot .32.
Model 1.5: Bitty five shot .32.

They should have skipped more numbers so they wouldn't have painted themselves into a corner so fast. ;)

The "decoder wheel" they issued for the 3rd Generation autoloaders was lurking there all the time, like a recessive gene in the corporate DNA.

Kristopher said...

I think they showed numeric consistency between the first two models just to confuse things further.

Kristopher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gunnutmegger said...

I have a Model 1, Third Issue.

Shorter barrel than the First & Second Issues, with a round profile. Birdshead grip and fluted cylinder.

ljr said...

you still out there

ljr said...

just wondered if you were still our there

Tam said...

Just taking a little hiatus.

I've got new stuff to write about; just a matter of getting fired up to do it...

ljr said...

yeah - i get that