Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sunday Smith #51:.35 Semi-Automatic Pistol, 1919


The decades around the turn of the 20th Century were a time of technological change that is hard to appreciate even when reading about it on the screen of a smartphone. In a relative eyeblink, the world went from whale-oil lanterns and horsedrawn carriages to electric light and automobiles. Telephones, automobiles, radio, powered flight: A seemingly endless stream of inventions were changing the landscape of the world, and among those dazzling gadgets were self-loading firearms. Maxim guns were starring in the tales of colonial wars and, with the development of early self-loading pistols, anybody could have this kind of H.G. Wells technology right in their pocket!

Colt's was first off the block, licensing several designs from John Moses Browning, and their sales success had the other major manufacturers scrambling for a slice of the pie. Savage followed quickly, with an ingenious design by Elbert Searle that used a double column magazine and an ad campaign touting "10 Shots Quick!" Harrington & Richardson jumped in in 1912, licensing a design from English firm Webley & Scott.

Smith & Wesson wanted some of this action, too, but had the same problem that the others did: Patents. Colt's Browning patents covered a plethora of details, from the one-piece slide and breechblock to the method of attaching the grip panels to the frame with screws. S&W had two choices: hope to find a handy homegrown savant like Savage did, or shop overseas for a design to license, a la H&R.

Smith settled on a Belgian design, the Clement, and modified it to suit the U.S. market, adding a grip safety and other embellishments that they thought would help sales. Unfortunately, compared to the fairly simple designs from Colt and Savage, the Smith & Wesson was positively baroque, with a parts count nearly double that of its competitors. Further the control placements went beyond counter-intuitive and were actively user-hostile.

The grip safety was a tab on the front of the frame and for some users it took an active effort to disengage. The manual safety was a thumbwheel that protruded through the backstrap and could not be operated with the hand in a firing grip. The heel-mounted magazine release on the earliest ones moved not fore-and-aft like everybody else's, but side-to-side; this was quickly changed. Lastly, the light breechblock necessitated a monster recoil spring in this blowback design, and so a sliding toggle decoupled the breechblock from the spring so that the action could be manually pulled to the rear and them pushed back forward to chamber a round. Good luck not fumbling that under stress.

As though to hammer a nail into their own coffin, Smith & Wesson also designed a new proprietary cartridge for the pistol: .35 S&W Auto. Similar to the .32ACP, the slightly larger round was partially metal-jacketed, with a larger exposed lead driving band that would engage the rifling. The theory was that this would couple the reliable feeding of round-nosed FMJ with the reduced barrel wear of lead bullets. Since everybody else had standardized on the Browning-designed .32, S&W owners had a harder time finding more expensive ammunition for their complex, hard-to-use pistols. This was not a recipe for sales success.

The final straw was the on-again, off-again production of the pistol as Smith intermittently shut down production during the war years of '14-'18 to fill various foreign and domestic military revolver orders. When production resumed at a normal pace after the war, sales continued to be sluggish until the plug was finally pulled in 1922 after a production run of only 8,350. It would be another thirty years and more before Smith & Wesson dipped its toe in the commercial self-loading pistol market again.

Due to its rarity, the Smith & Wesson is among the hardest to find and most expensive of the early American self-loading pocket pistols. Colt's and Savages are out there in the hundreds of thousands, and the H&R and Remington competitors are five and eight times more common respectively. As a result, even a basket case of a Smith parts gun is a rare sight and usually has a price tag of a couple hundred bucks hanging off it, while a pristine example "in the box with the docs" will bring a thousand or more. The above example, from the middle of the production run, is in honest 95+% condition, showing only light handling wear and a pristine bore and unmarred breechface, was picked up for $600 at a gun show in Indianapolis in 2012.

19 comments:

Jay in OK said...

Congrats!! It looks REALLY NICE from here!!!

Firehand said...

I get the feeling someone said "Yes, it has problems, but we need SOMETHING like this!"

Matt G said...

A great write-up of an esoteric piece. I enjoy your historical perspectives on these much more than the traditional write-ups that one finds, even of classical arms, in most publications.

Interestingly, people reportedly found that the .32acp (already overstated in caliber) worked just fine in the S&W .35. In fact, the ".35" was actually just another 7.65mm.

Turk Turon said...

Nice!

Tam said...

Matt G,

"Interestingly, people reportedly found that the .32acp (already overstated in caliber) worked just fine in the S&W .35."

So I am given to understand. Most reports I've googled up say to expect slightly bulged cases and maybe an inch bigger group, but no impairment in functioning.

Given the pretty much unblemished bluing in the bore and unmarked breechface, I don't know how eager I am to shoot this one...

ajdshootist said...

Nice pistol.

Congrats on the posting are we going to have to wait a year for the next
one?

SGB said...

That's a sweet looking Smith.

George said...

This is an excellent review of a little known firearm. Lacking an actual firing account, you managed to compress all the essentials into a few paragraphs. S&W did produce a good looking self-loader ... for the times.

Terrific acquisition, though, and congrats on filling out the gap.

Regards,
George

Joseph said...

Very nice looking pistol, and interesting commentary. I have never heard of a wheel-type safety before.

Emmett said...

Tam, Neat little pistol with interesting comments. Thanks to your earlier comments about alternative .32's I've now caught the bug and recently purchased a Savage. Emmett

Old NFO said...

Very nice and a great report!

Anonymous said...

I saw a Steyr 1909? on another site
today that looks like it could be the long-lost brother of your Smith 35.
Same slide and barrel profile, very
close grip. No grip safety in
front however. It's a 7.65.
Ever run across one?

Tam said...

Anon 6:27,

Did it look like the one on the top right in this picture?

As best I can tell from my research thus far, the Steyr-Pieper was licensed from the Belgian company Anciens Etablissments Pieper, which also produced the Clement, designed by Bernard Clarus. They share a lot of DNA, apparently.

Anonymous said...

It's blued (reblued actually) but looks like the same gun. Made in 1928.

I never recalled seeing one before looking through a gun sale site earlier today.

wrm said...

Serendipity of sorts.

I saw the "Cal 35 S&W" in the Fiocchi Catalogue over on Forgotten Weapons -- now I know what it was for.

And welcome back :-)

Sport Pilot said...

My local gun store has a nickled Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless in .380 ACP for sale at $900.00. As much as I'd like to have it I'm resisting temptation...Your S&W is excellent, does anyone offer unfired brass for it? If so I believe hard cast lead bulletts will do the trick.

Julia said...

Hi. I like your blog. I have a question. I am a writer. What would be the smallest possible concealable handgun that a Swiss undercover detective might carry? Thank you.

Anonymous said...

If I might ask... bumbled onto your site, I did... does the Rifle/Pistol (XP-100, CFP, etc...) have much of a mark on history, etc? I have heard it thought that it might help to explain some dark events that occurred in late '63 I believe.. but that was conjecture. Still - in gun history, what do you have as far as how it evolved? Also... why have they died off, as far as production? Just curious...

Windy Wilson said...

"the Smith & Wesson was positively baroque, with a parts count nearly double that of its competitors. Further the control placements went beyond counter-intuitive and were actively user-hostile."

It is pretty, though; and graceful.