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...