Monday, March 08, 2021

Classic Reevaluated

 There was a time, back when I first got this Model 12-2, that I was skeptical of its utility as a carry piece due to my reluctance to fire +P ammo through early alloy-framed Smiths.

While it will probably hold up to an absolutely normal level of shooting, I'm scarred by having seen a couple early Airweight J-frames crack their frames, probably due to having the barrels torqued in too tightly. 

Most vividly was the little flat-latch Model 37, a very early gun in absolutely pristine condition, that an elderly gentleman brought in for a trigger job. He'd finally gotten a carry permit for the revolver that had sat unused on a shelf for decades, and decided it could use a better trigger pull. 

Gunsmith Bob did a great job on the trigger pull and took it out on the range to verify that it would reliably light off primers still by putting a couple of cylinders of ammunition through it. The test ammo was standard pressure .38 Special, probably American Eagle FMJ, and the frame cracked there at the barrel shank. 

Smith & Wesson replaced the gentleman's Model 37 with a brand new Airweight J-frame, a stainless 637, and the customer was overjoyed. I guess from a practical point of view it was an upgrade, and we all tried not to actually cry in front of him.

At any rate, these days I am less inclined to seek any sort of expansion out of loads from a .38 Special snub. The only way to get it reliably seems to be to use light bullets with the velocity boosted via +P chamber pressures. So you get more blast and recoil and then a bullet that, if it does expand, tends to underpenetrate. If it doesn't expand, it pokes a hole just like a wadcutter. 

The fact that most of the switched-on dudes I know who still utilize .38 snubs all carry standard pressure wadcutters in them is what I would call a clue. Plus, Federal's Gold Medal Match has quality control that's second to none and has sealed primers just like premium defensive ammo.

Knowing what I know now, I'd have no hesitation to throw a Tyler T-grip or a set of boot grips on this thing and carry it with a cylinder full of 148gr wadcutters.

We live and we learn.


Monday, March 01, 2021

The Great Recession

So the above photo has two Smith & Wesson rimfire revolvers, built probably about thirty years or so apart. The top one is a .22/.32 Heavy Frame Target, an I-frame revolver built probably sometime in the late 1920s. The lower one is a Model 34 Kit Gun, dating to the late '50s and built on the Improved I-frame.

If you look at the cylinders...specifically the rear of the will notice a difference. If you pop open the .22/.32 Heavy Frame, the rear of the cylinder looks strange to anyone accustomed to Smith & Wesson rimfire revolvers, because the charge holes are not recessed to accommodate the rims of the cartridges.

This was actually the norm at the time. Dating back to its earliest revolvers, the teeny little No.1 from before the Civil War, rimfire .22 Smiths had simple charge holes bored straight through the cylinder.

In 1930, however, Remington released new high velocity loadings of the .22 Long Rifle round and, when used in these revolvers, blown case heads were a very real possibility. So when Smith & Wesson released a .22LR version of their K-frame Target, known as the "K-22" or "Outdoorsman", they resorted to a solution that had been used on cartridge conversions of percussion revolvers: a rebated recess around the charge hole to support the rim.

By the mid-1930s, this had migrated from the K-22 to other rimfire Smiths. Here's the cylinder of the Model 34 Kit Gun:

Along about the time that Smith was adapting their rimfire revolvers to handle this new high-pressure, high-velocity .22 load from Remington, they were also working to develop another high performance round, albeit much larger than the little rimfire.

Julian Hatcher's Textbook of Pistols and Revolvers unveiled the new super round:

Without reading Major Wesson's mind, it's impossible to know why, exactly, the chambers were recessed on the new .357 Magnum. It's not like there was ever any balloon-head .357 Mag brass to worry about handloaders blowing up; the Magnum (there was only the one, at the time) was a thoroughly modern cartridge with a solid case head.

With the hype surrounding the cartridge, though, it would probably have appeared as a sensible precaution, at least to the buying public. In Hatcher's words,
...which seems almost quaint, looking back from the current era of AirLite Scandium Magnums and four-inch .500S&W X-frame revolvers.

The recessed chambers remained a hallmark of centerfire S&W revolvers in magnum chamberings up until the launch of the L-frame Model 586 & 686 in the Eighties, after which it went away, in a tacit admission that it was an entirely vestigial holdover.


Tuesday, February 09, 2021

I-Frame Details, Part One

The first I-frame revolvers were technically the Model of 1896, with its combination ejector rod/cylinder release and topstrap-mounted cylinder stop. The first modern one we'd recognize as the ancestor of all the later I-frames and J-frames is the .32 Hand Ejector Model of 1903, aka the ".32 Hand Ejector, 2nd Model", which was a six-shot .32S&W Long revolver with a round-butt frame, available with a 3.25", 4.25", or 6" barrel.

The 2nd Model went through five successive engineering changes from 1903 until production was suspended for the Great War. When it came back in 1919, the new guns were referred to as .32 Hand Ejector, 3rd Models. The lower revolver in the picture above is a 3rd Model with a serial number placing its date of manufacture probably somewhere in the 1920s.

The longer-barreled revolver is also an I-frame .32, although this one is a .32 Regulation Police. The Regulation Police joined the regular .32 Hand Ejector in 1917, was offered in the same three barrel lengths, and was serial numbered concurrently with it. While it would appear to be a square-butt gun, popping the grips off reveals it is not...

Interestingly, the Regulation Police can be told apart from a regular .32 Hand Ejector even with the stocks removed!

The first and easiest way is the shoulder on the backstrap, where the wood round-to-square conversion stocks meet the metal. The second way is that, because the serial number in its normal location (on the bottom of the grip frame) would be covered up by the stocks, the s/n on a Regulation Police is rollmarked on the frontstrap of the grip.


Monday, January 25, 2021

.38 Smith & Wesson

The full-size Model No.3 was Smith & Wesson's first top-break revolver, as distinguished from the tip-up rimfire guns on which the company had built its initial reputation. Although originally chambered for the .44 Henry rimfire cartridge, Smith was persuaded to develop a centerfire alternative, the cartridge that eventually became the .44 Russian.

The No.3 saw limited service with the U.S. Army, as well as foreign contracts with the Russians, Japanese, and others. While military contracts are always good, Smith recognized that the bulk of domestic sales would be of smaller, cheaper, more pocketable guns for the private citizen to carry.

Sales of the antiquated rimfire No.1 1/2 in .32 Rimfire Short were flagging as Smith launched a five-shooter that was initially a smaller copy of the No.3. These first .38 top-breaks are known as "Baby Russians", for their longer and more complex ejector assembly scaled down from the bigger gun. Simplified for easier production, the .38 Single Action was manufactured for more than thirty years through three major models.

.38 Single Action, 2nd Model

D.B. Wesson designed a new centerfire cartridge to go with the new gun. Utilizing a .36 caliber (well, .359) bullet that fit snugly enough in the case to minimize the need for crimping by the reloader, the new cartridge was referred to as the .38 S&W, referencing the outside diameter of the case.

Although introduced in 1876 as a black powder round, the .38 S&W is still loaded and sold as a smokeless round in the modern era, although S&W hasn't made a revolver chambered for it since the last Model 32 Terriers and Model 33 Regulation Police revolvers came off the line in 1974.

Domestically the .38 S&W probably hung on as long as it did because it could fit in the cylinders of small-frame revolvers originally designed around the .32 S&W Long cartridge, unlike the longer .38 Special. Additionally, the maximum chamber pressure of 14,000psi made it friendlier to inexpensive revolvers than the newer cartridge, which topped out over 3,000psi more.

L to R: .32 S&W Long, .38 S&W, .38 S&W Special, illustrating why the older cartridge fit the small .32 Hand Ejector frame while .38 Spl did not.

Overseas, the .38 S&W cartridge, in its British guise as the .380 Mk II, was the service cartridge in the waning days of the British Empire, chambered in top-break Enfield revolvers, and thus it can still be found in former colonies like India. Arguably it was possibly the most common centerfire handgun cartridge, globally speaking, for most of the period running from the 1880s into the 1950s. Smith & Wesson alone produced more than a million guns in the chambering, better than three quarters of a million more Enfields and Webleys, and who knows how many say nothing of Harrington & Richardsons, Iver Johnsons, Hopkins & Allens, Forehand & Wadsworths, et cetera, ad nauseum.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Sunday Smith #69: .38/.32 Terrier, 1948

Smith & Wesson's small "I-frame" revolvers had their genesis in the first swing-out cylinder revolver the manufacturer offered, the .32 Hand Ejector Model of 1896. These were supplanted in the catalog by the .32 Hand Ejector Model of 1903, which incorporated advancements from Smith's original 1899-vintage .38 Hand Ejectors, such as moving the cylinder stop to the bottom of the window, adding a second lockup point for the cylinder assembly on the front of the ejector rod, and relocating the cylinder release to a thumb-operated latch on the side of the frame. All these changes are still in use on S&W revolvers nearly one and a quarter centuries later.

While the .32 S&W Long was seen as an adequate round for self-protection, the little .32 Hand Ejectors soon faced competition in the compact handgun market from Colt's Detective Special, which was launched in 1927. While slightly bulkier than the little I-frame Smith & Wesson, the Detective Special came with a factory 2" barrel and was chambered for the more powerful .38 Special cartridge.

Smith & Wesson didn't have anything in the catalog that could compare, and so in 1936 they began selling a factory short-barreled version of their .38 Regulation Police, called the .38/.32 Terrier.

The upper sideplate screw, strain screw on the frontstrap, and straight ejector rod all transmit a secret code in Smith nerdspeak.

The .38 Regulation Police and the .38/.32 Terrier were basically the standard .32 Hand Ejector with a cylinder holding five rounds of .38 S&W instead of six of .32 S&W Long.

Although the .38 S&W cartridge was already something like a half-century old by the 1930s, the cylinder window in the I-frame was too short to accommodate a cylinder that would hold .38 Special cartridges. Besides, at the time the .38 S&W was still one of the most popular cartridges in the world, being chambered throughout the British Empire and even domestically by Smith's arch rival Colt's Manufacturing Company (who called it ".38 Colt New Police" in order to avoid having to rollmark their guns with the hated 'S&W' initials).

During WWII, Smith shelved production of the Terrier as well as pretty much everything else in order to concentrate on .38 Military & Police "Victory Models" for the war effort. After the war, the production of Terriers resumed in 1948 and the pictured revolver is a very early postwar gun, with a serial number only about four thousand guns higher than the first one off the line in '48.

In addition to the serial number, the other giveaways to its postwar status are the sliding hammer block, which all Smith & Wesson revolvers incorporated as a wartime safety improvement, and the ejector rod with a simple bit of knurling on the end rather than a separate threaded-on ejector rod knob. This latter was a manufacturing shortcut adopted when Springfield was churning out Victory Models and remained after the war.

In 1953, production of the .38/.32 Terrier was moved to the Improved I-frame, with its coil mainspring, and in 1957 the nomenclature was changed to "Model 32", with the replacement of romantic model names by sterile model numbers.

The pictured revolver, a decent shooter with only moderate wear, was purchased at my neighborhood firearms store in January of 2021 for two hundred dollars.


Sunday, November 01, 2020

Sunday Smith #68: PC Model 4513 Shorty .45, 1996

When Smith & Wesson got back into the centerfire autoloader game about a decade after WWII, they only offered the pistol in one chambering. They could call it the "9mm" because in 1955 it was the first commercial domestically-produced autoloader purposely designed around the 9x19mm cartridge (Colt's contemporaneous 9mm Commander was just a Government Model with an alloy frame and three quarters of an inch whacked off the barrel.)

When Smith shifted from romantic model names to prosaic model numbers in 1957, the 9mm pistol became the "Model 39". Through the first generation of Smith's modern hammer-fired autos and well into the second, the self-loading pistols were only offered in 9x19mm*.

In fact, it wasn't until 1985, nearly at the end of the era of the three-digit Second Generation autos that Smith released one in something other than 9mm: The Model 645, a double-action challenger to the Colt Government Model. It was a honkin' big pistol with a DA trigger, hammer-dropping safety, five-inch barrel, and a size and bulk that actually slightly overshadowed the classic 1911.

After only a couple years' production, the Third Generation autos supplanted the Second in 1988. The Model 4506 was the full-size replacement for the Model 645, and it was joined in the catalog in 1990 by the Model 4516. The 4516 had a 3.75" barrel and was obviously intended as a compact challenger to Colt's diminutive Officer's ACP, which had hit the streets in 1985.

The problem was that, being constructed entirely of stainless steel, the 4516 was brick heavy at nearly thirty-eight ounces.

Enter the Performance Center, in those days still helmed by Paul Liebenberg and functioning as a limited production hand-built custom shop. In 1996, a small run of "Shorty .45" pistols were sold through distributor Lew Horton, capitalizing on the success of earlier runs of Performance Center Shorty .40 guns.

SKU #170075, labeled as a "4513" on the box, was a 3.5" single stack subcompact .45ACP. It had a hand-fitted titanium barrel bushing, hand-fit frame and slide, hand-tuned action, single-sided hammer-dropping safety, and 7-round magazine. Unlike the similarly-sized 4516, it had an alloy frame with 20lpi checkering on the frontstrap, and this difference between the two pistols knocked a full ten ounces off the gun's weight. The pictured example weighed just over 27oz. on my postal scale.

Lew Horton ordered 662 of the Shorty 45's in 1996 and they had an MSRP of $1145.95. The pictured example was bought in 2020 in used condition in the original Doskocil case with two magazines at my local gun store for $550.

*Well, and .38 Special... Hopefully I'll someday be able to do that Sunday Smith!

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Sunday Smith #67: PC Model 4006 Shorty .40 Mk3S, 1996

 Just titling this post was difficult. You'll see this gun referred to by a bunch of different names, with "Shorty Forty" or "Shorty .40" being the most common. Hardly ever is it acknowledged as a Model 4006 variant, which is what Smith calls it on the label on the side of the case.

Unlike the compact double stack 9mm pistols, which got normalized as the Second Generation Model 469 and the Third Generation 6904 and 6906, Smith & Wesson never did catalog a "mainstream" compact .40 S&W double-stack in the Third Gen. The TSW ("Tactical Smith & Wesson") variant of the Model 4013 had a nine-round double-stack magazine, but your regular 4013 was just a slightly bigger-bored sibling to the 9mm Model 3913 single-stack.

The lore behind the Shorty .40 goes something like this...

South African IPSC shooter and pistolsmith Paul Liebenberg had come to this side of the pond to work at Pachmayr, back when they were still a premier custom pistol house, before hanging out his own shingle at Pistol Dynamics in the late '80s. Liebenberg was something of an evangelist for the "Centimeter" wildcat cartridge and wound up getting tapped to do a proof-of-concept conversion on a couple of Model 5906's.

That led Smith to hire him to help stand up their new Performance Center department. At the time, Smith engineers were balking at the idea of a subcompact .40, due to high chamber pressures and unforgiving slide velocities. As the lore goes, Liebenberg showed up at a meeting with the prototype of what became the Shorty Forty, plopping it on the table and announcing "There's the impossible."

The initial pistol sold so well in its limited run at Lew Horton that similar batches were made in two subsequent years; five hundred guns each in 1992, 1993, and 1995.

1995 saw the introduction of the two-tone Melonited Mark 3 variant (there must have been a Mark II, but info is sketchy), with an accompanying all-stainless Mark 3S coming along in 1996. 

The slide contours of the Mk3 differ from the earlier guns and are somewhat reminiscent of those found on some PC945 variants as well as the later M&P series pistols. They feature ambi safeties, Novak sights, checkered frontstraps, and have hand-fitted barrel bushings and tuned actions. The double-action trigger on the pictured example is nicer than any semi-auto DA trigger I've owned other than my Langdon Beretta.

Production total for the Mk3S was 612 pistols and the catalog price was $1,024.95. The pictured example came with the factory box and, while showing too much wear to excite a real collector, is still in very nice cosmetic condition. It was acquired for $450 in 2020.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Sunday Smith #66: Model 1066, 1991

The history of the 10mm Auto cartridge is well-documented elsewhere (and has been lightly touched on here) but basically it was the culmination of an effort to make an ideal cartridge for a fighting pistol, shooting flatter and further than the .45 and hitting harder than the 9x19mm. 

Unfortunately, the pistol with which it had been developed hand-in-glove was a flop, victim of undercapitalization, manufacturing glitches, and poor sales. With the Bren Ten a failure, the cartridge might have sunk below the waves alongside it, had not Colt launched the Delta Elite, a 1911 chambered in 10mm Auto, in 1987.

Two years later, Smith & Wesson launched the Third Generation variant of their large-frame .45ACP single stack auto in the shape of the Model 4506, and with that groundwork laid, 1990 saw Smith's first 10mm Auto offerings, based on the same frame.

The full-size version, dubbed the 1006, was joined in the catalog with a 4.25" barreled variant, the Model 1066.

With its 4.25" barrel length, 39 ounce weight, and $730 MSRP, the Model 1066 was nearly an overlay for a Colt's Combat Commander in stainless, albeit with a double-action trigger, an ambidextrous safety/decocker, and chambered for the new hotness 10mm Auto.

Production of the 1066 ended after only three years, with 5,076 built from 1990-1992.

The above example, in clean shooter-grade condition with long-dead factory night sights and an aftermarket Hogue grip, was purchased (with one magazine and no box) in 2020 for $500.


Monday, August 10, 2020

Sunday Smith #65: M&P9, 2010

By the early 1990s, Smith & Wesson's dominance of the law enforcement market was starting to erode. While the Third Generation autos were rugged, reliable, and accurate, so was the polymer upstart from Austria, and there was no way to compete with Glock on price, no matter how many cost-saving measures were applied to the 59xx and 40xx pistols.

In a classic example of "if you can't beat them, join them", Smith & Wesson launched the polymer-framed, striker-fired Sigma line of autos in 1994. Despite applying for a number of patents on the design and slathering it with marketing gobbledygook, there was no hiding the embarrassing fact that the Sigma was, for all intents and purposes, a reverse-engineered Glock 17.

Not only did Glock sue, but the launch timing couldn't have been worse, as the new 17-shot 9mm autoloaders started shipping only months before Congress's new so-called "Assault Weapons Ban" went into effect, neutering the magazine capacity of the gun for private citizens and making "pre-ban" standard capacity Sigma magazines among the scarcest and most valuable from '94 to '04.

Smith settled with Glock out of court and the Sigma morphed into the SW (and later SD) line of pistols, going from an attempt to unseat Glock in duty holsters to a budget-oriented offering for cash strapped pistol customers.

Smith withdrew for a while to lick its wounds before making another serious run at the polymer duty gun market in late 2005 with the M&P series, which borrowed its moniker from the classic fixed-sight service, much to the chagrin of some purists at the time.

The scoffers, including yours truly, were wrong. While it never supplanted the Glock as the dominant pistol choice in the holsters of law enforcement and private citizens in the U.S., it was definitely the leading "not a Glock" from its introduction until fairly recently, when that role was taken over by Sig Sauer's P320. From 2006 until about 2017, you could be sure that any holster or accessory that came out on the market, if it were made for anything other than a Glock, would also be made for an M&P.

The pictured M&P9 features two of those accessories: A LaserGrip and a LightGuard from Crimson Trace. Thanks to its replaceable backstraps, the integration of the LaserGrip on the M&P is among the most seamless of any polymer auto.

The pictured pistol, which was my carry gun from the middle of 2011 until nearly the last day of 2015, is kind of unusual. Product Code 150580 is a factory two-tone: the usual black polymer frame with the stainless slide left in its natural color, rather than Melonited black. It's uncommon enough not to be listed in the SCSW4E. I bought it used at an Indy 1500 gun show back in the summer of '11, still in the factory box with three magazines, for $399 and I'd say that I more than got my money's worth out of it.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Sunday Smith #64: .38 Safety Hammerless Third Model, 1893

As was mentioned the last time we looked at a .38 Safety Hammerless on this blog ('way back in Sunday Smith #2), the commonly repeated origin story of these handguns is probably largely hooey.

Gun shop mythology has D.B. Wesson hearing a tale of tragedy, this time of a young girl getting ahold of daddy's revolver and managing to shoot herself after cocking the hammer. Thus motivated, he sat up that night until the design of the Safety Hammerless sprang fully formed, Athena-like, from his furrowed brow.

In reality, regardless of the actual impetus behind the design, the revolver itself was one of the younger Joe Wesson's first projects at S&W, and passed through two iterations of drawings in 1882 and 1884 before appearing for sale in its final form in 1886.

The pictured revolver is the third iteration of the model. It had gone from a complex "Z-bar" latch holding the frame closed to a simpler push-button one. The hammer was locked in place while the latch was being operated, which added redundancy to the grip safety.

Production of the Third Model started at s/n 42,484 in 1890 and ran through s/n 116,002 in 1898, putting the pictured revolver, with a serial number in the mid 60,000's, somewhere in the early half of that range. In the absence of a factory letter, I'll spitball it at 1893.

It was replaced by the Fourth Model, as seen in Sunday Smith #2, which had a sturdier and more easily operated, yet equally simple to manufacture, "T-bar" toggle frame latch.

With seventy-some thousand built, the Third Model is the second most numerically common variant after the Fourth Model.

The thumb latch had to be pushed down to unlatch. It takes a while to get to where you can do this gracefully without trying to hold the gun shut with your thumb while your other hand is trying to open it. Note that the latch, as well as the spring in the topstrap, is blued on this nickel gun.

That little lip at the top of the square recess is the entirety of the locking surface holding the gun closed. Worn guns may pop right open when fired, which can be exciting.

The front sight on the Third Model, as on the First, Second, and Fourth Models, is pinned to the rib atop the barrel. The front sight on the Fifth Model was an integral part of the barrel.

While the trigger retains only vestiges of case coloring, the bluing on the trigger guard is still fairly nice. Looking to see if these areas are still in their original colors is a good first indicator of a re-nickel job. (See again the .38 Safety Hammerless Fourth Model in Sunday Smith #2). The mother-of-pearl grips are nice, but I do not believe them to be the factory stocks.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Sunday Smith #63: Model 4046, mid-1990s

The Smith & Wesson 4046 represents two trends that reached their peak in the mid 1990s. The first is the .40S&W cartridge itself. When "stopping power" became a big buzzword in the wake of the Miami Shootout, the FBI went (briefly) to the 10mm Auto, quickly adopting a downloaded version that achieved ideal results in terminal ballistic testing without tearing up guns and inducing glacial split times.

Meanwhile, South African pistolsmith Paul Liebenberg had gone to work at Smith & Wesson, and convinced them to standardize the wildcat "Centimeter" as the SAAMI-recognized .40S&W. Law enforcement sales were mediocre until congress passed the 1994 ban on new production so-called "high capacity" magazines for civilian sales.

Realizing that the police departments of America were sitting on a gold mine of "pre-ban high capacity magazines", the sales reps of gun companies and LE distributors fanned out across the land, offering a deal to police departments that seemed too good to be true: Swap us those antiquated, underpowered, beat-up used 9mm duty guns, and we'll replace them with these shiny new service pistols chambered in the modern, man-stopping .40S&W! (Please give us all the old magazines, too.)

In the 1990s, Smith & Wesson still enjoyed a commanding position in the duty holsters of America, but it was eroding fast. The initial challenges came from Beretta and Sig, who got some halo glow from military service and a couple big LE contracts. Beretta had scored a win with LAPD in the mid '80s, and the FBI went with SIG Sauer after the S&W 10mm flop. Subsequently, Lethal Weapon and the X-Files sold a lot of 92's and P228's.

Glock, however, had started making inroads around this time. Their price was a powerful selling point, but another they used was the trigger. Unlike the DA/SA triggers common in the duty autos of the time, the Glock had a single trigger pull; the same with every shot.

Back in the revolver days, a large number of departments had converted their wheelguns to DAO*. This was pointed out by the Glock reps pimping G22's in the mid-1990s; "Our Glock 22 is basically a fifteen-shot .40-caliber revolver! Training officers will be easy!"

Beretta and Sig responded with DAOs that were basically their regular DA/SA gun, sans the single-action notch on the hammer. Smith, on the other hand, redesigned the whole thing. The pictured 4046 is not a true DAO, in that it requires the cycling of the slide to partially cock the hammer. The trigger pull then cocks it the rest of the way and fires the piece; there is no restrike capability.

The pull is heavier and longer than a single action pull, but evenly weighted over its travel, smooth, and slightly shorter than a conventional DAO pull. In my personal opinion, it's the best of the factory DAO options except maybe some variants of the HK LEM or a tuned Beretta D-model.

But pulling a DAO trigger consistently while keeping the sights on target is harder than doing the same thing with a shorter, lighter trigger, like the one on a striker-fired gun. Of course, the striker-fired gun is easier to shoot by accident, too. "Well that's just a training issue!" say the striker-fired fans. Yeah? Really? So is being able to hit your target with a DAO trigger.

Due to the current unpopularity of both DAO pistols and .40 caliber ammunition, the above pristine 4046, looking like it hadn't even been issued, was purchased on Gunbroker, along with three 11-round magazines, for under three hundred bucks. It's my current bedside gun.

*Incidentally, revolver conversions to DAO had been for reasons of liability, rather than ease of training, but salespeople don't let fiddly details interfere with the "Features & Benefits" portion of the spiel.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Sunday Smith #62: Number 1, Third Issue

As the 1860s drew to a close, America was at the gateway to a new era. The nation had survived a terrible civil war, westward expansion was back in full swing, and the Long Depression was still years in the future.

For Smith & Wesson, however, a crisis loomed on the horizon, one which they had fortunately planned to meet. The Rollins-White patents for a bored-through cylinder were set to expire in 1869, and exactly as S&W had champed at the bit with a revolver design when Colt's wheelgun patents had expired, Colt was now preparing to fight Smith on their home turf of breechloading revolvers.

Smith & Wesson's main response was to issue a new line of top-break revolvers with automatic ejection in new centerfire calibers, but centerfire technology wouldn't work with their classic .22 cartridge, and little .22s were the guns on which Smith was built.

So Smith & Wesson revamped their tip-up Number 1 model to sell alongside their centerfire top-breaks.

Mechanically largely identical to its antebellum predecessors, the gun featured stylistic nods to the aesthetic of the new era: The cylinder was fluted and the profile of the grips was in the trendy "bird's head" pattern that echoed the top-break single actions farther up the price scale in the S&W catalog.

Sales were initially slow, but after a couple years S&W was turning out 20,000 revolvers a year of this particular model. Overseas sales helped popularize the brand, but when the defense of the Rollins-White patent finally collapsed in 1872, the writing was on the wall. A little over 130k had been made when production ceased in 1882.

The pictured revolver, with a nickel finish and rosewood grips, is a late production example, probably produced in the mid- to late-1870s.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Sunday Smith #61: Model 5906, 199(8?)...

When Smith & Wesson introduced the first double-stack DA/SA pistol to the market in the early 1970s, in the form of the Model 59, it didn't exactly set the world on fire.

Some law enforcement agencies switched over, and the pistol saw reasonable sales success with the general public, but America was largely the land of the revolver for nearly another decade and a half. The introduction of the Second Generation of the double stack Smiths, epitomized by the Model 659 in 1982, didn't do a bunch to change that.

The 1980s, however, saw some important events. Both SIG Sauer and Beretta did well in the U.S. XM9 military pistol trials while the 2nd Gen Smith 459 did not, with the Beretta 92 becoming the new M9 service pistol in the middle of the decade. Meanwhile, Hollywood bad guys in Miami Vice and real bad guys in the FBI's infamous Miami shootout led to the perception that the police were getting "outgunned".

SIG and Beretta began picking up LE contracts and so Smith revamped their autopistol line again, with arguably the most important variant, the Model 5906, being released in 1988.

Largely a suite of improvements suggested by Wayne Novak, the Third Generation 5906 remains one of the best pistols of its type ever marketed.

Compared to its predecessor, the numerous changes included an improved extractor, a beveled magazine well, a longer beavertail. The grips went from a pair of glossy nylon slabs to a wraparound matte-textured grip molded of a hard wearing polymer Smith called Xenoy. Ambidextrous safeties were now standard items.

As the production run went on, the backstrap shape changed from arched to flat and Novak lo-mount sights became an option.

Unfortunately, the Smith was still an expensive pistol to make. Fit and finish were at high levels and regular old duty-grade 5906's actually compare well in this department to most non-hand-built 1911s.

The SIG P226 of the day, with its stamped slide, was actually a fairly simple pistol to manufacture relative to the machining-intensive Third Gen Smith. Also, both Beretta and SIG benefitted from the cachet of being European goods in a market that had come to associate "imported" with "upscale", as well as having Hollywood cachet (especially in the case of the Beretta, which was practically the Official Action Movie Hero Gun of the '80s and '90s.)

By the time I was working gun counters in the early Nineties, customers tended to look at a 5906 next to a 226, and see a Chevy next to a BMW, such were consumer perceptions at the time. Worse, both wore the same ~$600 price tag, and there was no convincing people how inaccurate that analogy actually was.

Smith introduced some cost-cutting features, but by the mid-'90s it was too late. The competition by then, whether for consumer or department sales, was no longer against other metal DA/SA guns, but against the polymer striker-fired Glock, and there was no way to compete on price there.

The 1994 Crime Bill with its so-called "Assault Weapons Ban" was probably the final nail in the coffin for the full-featured 5906. They were last listed in the catalog in 1998, although it made sort of a last hurrah, reappearing as the heavily de-contented Value Series Model 910S from '03-'07. That was a 5906 with an alloy frame instead of steel, plastic magazine release and plastic Novak-esque sights, a single-sided safety/decocker, and simple flat bevels replacing the radiused curve for the top of the slide.

The pictured pistol is a very late production law enforcement trade-in. At the earliest the serial number puts it around 1998, but they were still made for LE contracts after they'd been pulled from the commercial catalog, so an exact date is hard to place.

Later features include the Novak lo-mount sights, polymer disconnector (which is actually more wear-resistant than the original metal one), the MIM hammer shared with the Value Edition guns, and the flat backstrap on the Xenoy grips.

The pictured pistol, which was picked up for $350 at Indy Arms Co. a couple years ago, made it through 2,000 rounds of assorted ammunition with zero maintenance of any sort and no trouble at all, save a dud primer and that's not the gun's fault.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Sunday Smith #60: .38 Double Action Perfected Model

Certain models of Smith & Wesson have bits of apocryphal lore that become permanently entwined with them. You can't see a top-break .44 Russian without someone telling you that the weird hook on the trigger guard was to parry saber slashes.

People like to repeat the myth that the tiny M-frame .22 "Ladysmith" was discontinued because a puritanical D.B. Wesson heard that it was popular with "ladies of the night", because that's sexier than the fact that it was selling poorly, expensive to make, and constantly broke when people ran the then-new .22 Long Rifle cartridges through the fragile little guns.

Similarly, there's a legend involving Mr. Wesson that's attached to the final iteration of the .38 Double Action, as pictured above. In this case, the story goes, D.B. heard the tale of a police officer who, while arresting a miscreant, had the offender reach over and pop the latch on his top-break Smith, dumping the rounds on the ground, like Jet Li with the slide of a movie prop Beretta. The officer, goes the legend as it was told to yours truly, was killed in the ensuing struggle.

Moved by the fate of the dead officer, the apocryphal tale has Mr. Wesson designing the Perfected Model top-break. This model features a Hand-Ejector style cylinder latch that must be operated in conjunction with the more normal "T"-shaped barrel toggle in order to break the revolver open.

This origin myth is almost certainly, to use the technical term, a load of hooey.

For starters, the Perfected Model was designed by Joe Wesson and hit the market in 1909, three years after D.B. Wesson was in the grave.

While Roy Jinks' History of Smith & Wesson does make the claim that Roy was worried about the possibility of a policeman's revolver being popped open in a tussle, it's presented as more of a hypothetical concern rather than the response to some specific incident. I'd say it's safe to file that under "stuff that didn't happen".

While the old 5th Model .38 Double Action remained in the catalog alongside the the Perfected Model for a couple more years, it soon went away while the Perfected Model remained until 1920, selling alongside the more modern .38 Regulation Police Hand Ejector for the last three years of its lifespan. Nearly sixty thousand were sold over its eleven year run, in barrel lengths ranging from 3 1/2" through 6".

The pictured gun, a 4" model with a serial number that dates it to the last few thousand made, was acquired at a gun show back in 2014.

Note that the photo shows the two most notable oddities of this chimeric little wheelgun: From the cylinder window back and the frame latch down, it's pretty much a straight I-frame Smith. It shares the lockwork of the I-frame hand ejector and is therefore the only top-break with a trigger guard integral to the frame and the sideplate on the right-hand side.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Sunday Smith #59: Model 696, 1996

The compact large-bore revolver has had a devoted following in the United States ever since the first Webley "British Bulldogs" were imported in the 1870s. They were copied far and wide and the name "Bulldog" just became generic slang term for a small-frame revolver chambered for a .44 or .45 cartridge. It was a cheap Belgian copy of the Webley original that was used to assassinate the 20th President of the United States, James A. Garfield.

In the 1970s, Charter Arms launched a compact five-shot .44 Special revolver, called the Bulldog in a sort of homage to the 19th Century snubs, and it was a runaway sales success for them. By the early Nineties, you could even buy Brazilian alternatives to the domestic Charter Arms, in the form of Taurus's Model 431 and Rossi's Model 720.

Not being a company that would pass up the chance to stick a pot out the window when it was raining soup, in late 1996 Smith & Wesson added their own compact 5-shot .44 Special to the mix in the form of the Model 696.

Based on the L-frame, which was the beefier of Smith's two medium frame sizes that was intended to stand up to extended use of hot .357 Magnum ammunition, the Smith was slightly larger than its competitors at the time. They featured a 3" heavy barrel with a full underlug, a round butt, and adjustable sights.

Very early in the production run, distributor Lew Horton ordered a batch of 286 guns that they shipped to Mag-Na-Port, and this is one of those guns.

Two other quirks common to very early production 696's are also apparent in this piece. First, the chambers on some of the earliest guns were cut too long and they will chamber and fire .44 Magnum rounds, which is unsafe so don't do it. (Yes, I know of people claiming they've had no problem with milder 240gr loads. It's still a bad idea. Don't.) The second quirk is that the forcing cones on some of the early barrels were cut at the wrong angle, causing them to blow out easily. If you look closely at the silhouette of the forcing cone in the above photo, you will know what a blown-out forcing cone looks like.

The pictured revolver was a gift from a friend, as it had been sitting in his safe, unfired and unfireable for...well, a long time.

Getting it sent off to Smith to see if it can be re-barreled is on my list of things around to which I need to get.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Sunday Smith #58: Model 59, 1978.

After the failure of their first semiautomatic pistol design, Smith & Wesson wouldn't return to the autoloader business for almost three decades. Instead, they stuck to building revolvers, where they were a dominant market force.

After the Second World War, however, influenced by the double-action Walther P38 with its hammer-dropping safety, and with the possibility of military contracts dancing in their heads, Smith decided to dip their toe back into that market again.

Carl Hellstrom had recently become president of the company, the first time that post had been held by anyone without the last name "Wesson". Pledging to revive the fortunes of Smith & Wesson, which had nearly gone toes-up during the collapse of the Light Rifle program for England, Hellstrom tapped chief designer Joe Norman to come up with a modern 9mm pistol.

While the US military did test some prototypes, interest in contracts didn't materialize. Smith went ahead and launched the 8-shot single stack 9mm in 1956, dubbing it the "Model 39" the next year, when model numbers were assigned to all Smith handguns.

During the Vietnam War, suppressed Model 39's (referred to as "Hushpuppies") were used by Navy SEALs, and Smith dabbled with a couple samples that were altered to accept double-column Browning High Power style magazines.

In 1971, these widebody pistols entered commercial production as the Model 59, incorporating the latest updates from the newest Model 39-2 variant, including a narrower, shorter extractor that was tensioned by a separate coil spring, to replace the long, flat, self-sprung extractor earlier 39's had used.

Even in a side view from a distance, the Model 59 can be distinguished from its lower-capacity forebear by the step in the aluminum alloy frame just aft of the slide stop, where it's widened to accommodate the fatter double-stack magazine, and by the flat backstrap, replacing the arched curve of the one on the 39. This helped keep the grip diameter to manageable proportions.

By combining the double-stack magazine of the Browning High Power and the DA/SA action with hammer-dropping safety of the Walther P-38, the Smith & Wesson 59 presaged the next generation of autoloading pistols, called "WonderNines" in the gun rags of the day.

They were increasingly successful with law enforcement agencies in the US and remained in the catalog through 1982, after which it was replaced by its improved "Second Generation" successors: the Model 459 (carbon steel slide, alloy frame), Model 559 (carbon steel slide & frame), and Model 659 (stainless steel slide & frame).

The above example, a nickeled Model 59 from the era of Baretta and Starsky & Hutch, was purchased from my local gun shop late last year for around $400. It shows few signs of use, and all the controls and small parts still show the high-polished blue finish they came with from the factory.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Sunday Smith #57: Model 457, 1999

By the time the Third Generation Smith autopistols hit the market in the early Nineties, pistols like the Glock and Ruger's P-89 were putting relentless downward pressure on prices. Smith & Wesson replied with the Value Series versions of their Third Gen pistols, distinguished with three-digit model designations (that, confusingly, hewed to yet a different numbering convention than either the Second or Third Generation used.)

Initially, the Value Series guns were largely distinguished by a cheaper matte-blue finish and a single-sided thumb safety but by the time of the turn-of-the-millennium Model 457 shown above there were bunches more cost saving corners cut. For instance, both the sights and the mag release are plastic, and the top of the slide features flat bevels instead of being radiused.

The pistol itself is a traditional double-action .45ACP with a 3.75" barrel and a seven-shot single-stack magazine. It's somewhat smaller than a Colt Commander and, interestingly, was the only way to get an alloy-framed subcompact Third Gen .45 Smith other than the 4513TSW variant or the Chiefs Special CS45. The main line Third Gen 4516 was only offered with a stainless steel frame and was thus brick-heavy for its size.

MSRP of the gun in the 2001 catalog was $591, which meant a street price around five bills. This slightly undercut the Glock 30, still the new and fresh darling of the market at the time, but the latter held ten shots to the Smith's seven and wasn't marketed as a "Value" gun. For not too much more, you could get the American-made Sig P245, which was one of Sig's first value-priced offerings, yet which benefitted from that Sig brand halo.

Introduced in 1996, production of the 457 ended in 2006, like most of the rest of the Value Series guns. The above, well-worn example was purchased at a local gun store in 2017 for $275.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sunday Smith #56: Model 2206, 1996

Since the discontinuation of the ill-fated Model 61 Escort in '73 and well into the '80s, Smith & Wesson didn't have any rimfire self-loading pistols other than the high-end Model 41 target gun. Meanwhile Ruger's target autos were selling like gangbusters and revolver sales as a percentage of the market were starting to slump. Smith needed a cheaper gun to compete in the plinking end of the market.

They got there by taking the basic design of the Model 61, which itself was derived from a long gone Belgian pocket auto, and stretching the barrel and butt into a 10-shot target pistol available with either a 4.5" or 6" barrel, called the Model 422.

Debuting in 1987, the 422 was soon joined by a version with a stainless slide and clear-coat anodized aluminum frame, which in keeping with current S&W numbering practices was the 622. (The number "6" being, generally, a S&W designator for stainless steel. Like most languages, S&W model numbers are best learned by immersion and osmosis rather than from a dictionary.)

Just as these guns were hitting the market, the centerfire S&W pistol world was transitioning from the "Second Generation" guns with their three-digit designators to the "Third Generation" autos, which bore four-digit model numbers. Perhaps with an eye to that, when the all-stainless version of the rimfire plinker debuted in 1990, it was designated the Model 2206.

The six-inch version of the 2206, pictured above, hit the market with an MSRP a whisker under $400 in 1990. It's a hefty gun, weighing in at an honest 39 ounces, which is, like, M1911 heavy. Recoil is pretty much non-existent. Even high-velocity loads are practically like shooting an airsoft gun.

This whole line of pistols was never really a sales threat to the dominant Ruger autos and were superseded in the late 1990s by the much simpler to build Model 22.

The pictured gun, featuring an aftermarket threaded barrel, was purchased from an internet friend for a little over three bills in 2016. Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson, 4th Edition says $275 for EXC and $225 for VG and add $40 for adjustable sights. An ANIB example configured like the one above (less aftermarket barrel) would book at $390 w/box & docs in the SCSW4E.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Sunday Smith #55: Model 745, 1988

With their Second Generation auto lineup in the mid-Eighties, Smith & Wesson offered a .45ACP pistol that was more or less aimed right at a chunk of Colt's 1911 market share. A honking-big handgun weighing in at almost 38 ounces empty, the eight-shot Model 645 was priced to undercut the classic offering from Colt and had more modern DA/SA lockwork.

One place it had difficulty making inroads was in the growing sport of action pistol shooting, where customized 1911-pattern guns from Springfield and Colt ruled the day. So based on some custom work done on personal guns by their in-house gunsmiths, Smith & Wesson released a competition-oriented variant of the Model 645, dubbed the Model 745.

The initial run came with the serial number prefix "DVC", for the IPSC motto of "Diligentia, Vis, Celeritas", or "Accuracy, Power, Speed". They also had special IPSC 10th Anniversary engraving on the slide.

The guns featured special Novak sights and a single-sided safety with enlarged paddle-like shape. Note that, unlike conventional S&W autos, depressing the safety does not drop the hammer. This is because the 745 borrows from the lockwork of the similarly competition-oriented Model 52 .38 Wadcutter gun and is single-action only.

The slide release is enlarged in a fashion similar to the safety, and the magazine release features an oversize button as well. There's an overtravel stop set in the frame behind the trigger, and checkering on the front- and backstraps.

Its parent gun, the 645, was discontinued in 1988, replaced by its Third Generation successor, the Model 4506, but the 745 continued in production for another couple years before being discontinued as well. Its own successors, the Model 845 and 945 came from the then-new Performance Center.

The gun in the photos was acquired at a gun show in Louisville, Kentucky in early '17 for $700.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sunday Smith #54: Model CS9 9mm Chief's Special, 1999

After the market failure of their first attempt at a centerfire autoloader in the mid-1930s, Smith & Wesson abandoned that market niche to archrival Colt before taking another run at it with the 1955 launch of the gun that was to become the Model 39.

The Model 39 was a slim 9mm pistol with a double-action first shot and a hammer-dropping safety that was a conceptual copy of that found on Walther autopistols. The pistol eventually became the conceptual head of a whole family of autoloaders of all calibers and sizes, but back in its infancy, one of the most popular modifications was cutting it down to make it more concealable.

Model 39 pistols with shortened slides and grips were sold by Armament Systems and Procedures (ASP), Devel, Trapper Gun, and others I'm likely forgetting at the moment. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before Smith started producing factory compact guns.

It's interesting that one of these factory compact guns marks the twilight of the family of pistols spawned by the Model 39. The "CS9", or "Chief's Special 9" attempted to revive the original name attached to the J-frame snubbie revolver and hang it on what the marketing department called "An Autoloader for the 21st Century".

The problem for Smith was that the gun was nothing of the sort. Every step was taken to trim production costs on the basic early '50s design: Simple plunge-milled slide serrations. Flat bevels instead of radiused curves on the top of the slide. A plastic disconnector.

There was still no way to sell the gun at a price competitive with the plastic, striker-fired guns that were overrunning the market without selling at unsustainable profit margins. Imported players like Beretta and Sig Sauer could hold off the plastic juggernaut for a while by trading on upmarket Euro cachet, but Smith's traditional metal autos found themselves price-shopped against both the invading Glock and the domestic Ruger P-series guns, with the latter being based on a thirty-year younger design optimized to use much cheaper castings for major components, unlike the machining-intensive Smith.

The Chief's Special series, which included a CS40 and a CS45 to go with the 9mm version, was pretty much the swan song of the traditional double action metal-framed Smith auto. Introduced in 1999, the .40 cal version was gone by '03 while the 9mm and .45 variants remained through 2006.

The seven-shot CS9 is a light, easily-concealed gun, not too much larger than the current six-shot Glock 43. Depending on condition, prices could run into the low five bills, but most examples seem to be cheaper. The pictured gun was found in excellent condition in a local gun store counter in 2014 for not a lot of money, three-and-change if memory serves.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Pocket Pistols...

Last Friday I took a couple of .25 ACP pocket pistols along to the range, just to see what shooting them would be like alongside the newest offering in the field, Ruger's LCP II.

The classic offerings all weigh in at around 12-13 ounces empty, with the Harrington & Richardson being lightest and the Colt at the heavier end of the trio. Despite being a recoil-operated .380 instead of a simple straight-blowback .25, the Ruger was almost two ounces lighter than the lightest of the older guns.

Like the LCP II, the H&R and the Steyr Pieper are hammer-fired, while John Browning's vest-pocket Colt 1908 is a striker-fired gun. While the LCP II has small sights for a modern arm, they look like target Bomars when compared to the vestigial nubbins on the Steyr and Colt. The H&R, on the other hand, has not even the faintest suggestion of anything sight-like to mar the smooth upper curve of the slide and barrel.

I rifled my ammo storage and other than a box of Gold Dots in 1990's-era packaging and half a blister pack of Glasers that probably date to Bill Clinton's first term, all I had was a collector-quality old box of Winchester. I brought it along to the range, but fortunately Indy Arms Co. had some PPU .25 ACP ammo in stock.

So how did they run?

Ten rounds were fired at the lower left target from a distance of five yards with the Ruger as a sort of calibration. No particular care was taken to get the tightest group possible, just squeezing shots off as I got a decent sight picture.

From there, seventeen rounds were fired at the lower right target with the Colt 1908. The Colt's sights were vestigial, maybe, but it fit the hand well and the trigger breaks at a consistent 4.25#, making it pretty easy to cluster the rounds around the bull from five yards out. The gun ran like a top, other than experiencing one light strike on a hard Prvi Partisan primer.

Next up was the H&R .25. The t-square proportions of the gun make it hard to remember to keep the muzzle up; it wants to point low. The safety is also bizarre, being up-to-fire. The magazine, and aftermarket probably from Triple-K, will allow seven rounds to be inserted, but that ties the gun up badly; it's a six round mag. The Webley-designed pistol has a pair of recoil springs in the slide, on either side of the firing pin, which bear against a pair of lugs on the rear of the frame.

As you can see, the accuracy was suboptimal. Of the seventeen rounds fired, one is out of frame and another was off paper entirely. I tried very hard to use what Jim Cirillo called a "silhouette point", but still dropped rounds out of the bull willy-nilly from fifteen feet.

Next was the Steyr Pieper M1908. The magazine was not the correct one, but it did feed rounds. It had a couple failures to extract, which made for messy malfunctions in this tiny extractorless gun, tip-up barrel or no. It took a couple tries at a few of the primers to light them off and finally stopped popping caps after seven rounds. I need to take it apart and see if the hammer spring is tired or if the firing pin broke or what.

So I just loaded up the remaining rounds intended for the Steyr in the Colt's magazine. It, too, started having trouble lighting primers toward the end. Striker-fired gun, hard PPU primers, a 107-year-old striker spring, and the fact that the gun was drier than a popcorn fart were probably all contributing factors. Still, it lit off thirty or so before things got iffy.

The Steyr is mechanically interesting, the H&R is fun if hitting your target is not high on your priority list, but the Colt is obviously the most functional gun of the trio.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Classic Colt #2: Colt New Line .22

When the Rollin White patent for bored-through cylinders, held by Smith & Wesson, expired in 1870, Colt's was ready with challengers to Smith's various product lines. In 1873 they introduced a direct competitor to Smith's bread and butter wheelgun, the tip-up No.1, in the form of a seven-shot solid-frame .22 rimfire revolver with a single-action spur trigger, the New Line .22.

"New Line" distinguished these solid-frame pistols from their open-top frame forebears. Unlike the tip-up Smith, reloading was accomplished one round at a time through a port in the right side of the recoil shield.

Nickel plated over its brass frame (larger caliber ones appear to have bronze frames), steel barrel & cylinder, and with rosewood grips, it's an adorable little thing. Early ones had conventional cylinder stop notches around the periphery of the cylinder, but later ones, like this 1876-production example, locked up on the rear of the cylinder and had longer cylinder flutes as a result.

Note the pretty nitre-blue on the pin below the loading cutout, and the small amount of niter-blue on the head of the trigger screw on the other side. The bottom of the hammer spur and rear face of the hammer still show this color as well.

Production ran from 1873 to 1877, with 55,343 produced before it was dropped from the catalog in the face of much cheaper competing "suicide specials".

This one was purchased from a local gun store in 2014 for $99. It needs some work, but for a gun built in the centennial year of our nation, it seemed a reasonable price.