Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sunday Smith #28: Model 629-1, 1987.

When Smith & Wesson debuted the .44 Special cartridge in their new .44 Hand Ejector revolver back in 1907, it was only a matter of time before handloaders began to realize its hidden potential. By the post-WWII era, you couldn't swing a cat without hitting someone who was tinkering with hot-rodded .44 Special loadings, cheered on by the writings of Elmer Keith. With that level of interest, factory legitimization was a certainty.

Working with Remington, S&W debuted the new .44 Magnum cartridge in 1955. Throwing a 240gr bullet at over 1300fps, the round was far and away the most potent purpose-designed handgun cartridge ever developed at the time and would hold its title for almost three decades (it was the late '80s before the cartridge that supplanted it, the .454 Casull, could really be called a "factory round".) Going the same route that they had taken with the .38 Special/.357 Magnum in the 1930s, Smith lengthened the case on the new round to prevent it from being stuffed into older .44 Special guns that might not be up to the forces generated by the potent cartridge.

In 1957, the revolver formerly known as the ".44 Magnum" became the Model 29, and suffered the same gradual production shortcuts that its .357 sibling, the Model 27, endured over the years. Less hand polishing and fitting went into the guns in order to maintain profitability in the face of gradually increasing costs. One new twist came in 1979, when the Model 629 was released as the first stainless steel N-frame. Initially offered only in the 6" barrel length, 4" and 8 3/8" barrels were soon added. In 1982, the counterbored chambers and the pinned barrel went the way of the Dodo, and the 629 became the 629-1. Four years later a run of 8,000 guns were done with round-butt frames and three inch barrels for the Lew Horton company, and were immediately very popular.

The above pistol is a 629-1 from the tail end of that run in 1987. It was purchased from a private seller at a gun show in 2001 for $450 and wears its original factory "combat" stocks. A previous owner had the gun Mag-Na-Ported to help tame the vigorous muzzle flip that can occur when launching scorching magnum loads from the gun's stubby tube. As a side note, the 629-1 predates the "Endurance Package" that showed up on -2E and -3 and all later 629's, which is most easily recognized externally by the longer cylinder stop notches. This package of improvements helps prevent the cylinder from spinning backwards under recoil of heavy loads as well as generally increasing the durability of the gun. Still, if one wishes to lob super heavy bullets or experiment with hot loads, a Ruger is probably a better choice; the Smith is best with the factory loadings for which it was designed, and there's nothing wrong with those. After all, they did once make it "The most powerful handgun in the world."

Do you feel lucky, punk?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Sunday Smith #27: Model 657, 1986.

Starting in 1979, Smith & Wesson started releasing stainless versions of their N-frame revolvers with the Model 629 .44 Magnum Stainless. Seven years later it was the turn of the .41 Magnum Model 57 to get a stainless counterpart in the Model 657. The new revolver was released with a square-butt frame and was cataloged in 4", 6", and 8 3/8" barrel lengths.

Non-standard variations on the 657 abound. As had become something of a tradition by the mid-'80s, Smith released a limited run of guns with a 3" barrel, round-butt frame, smooth "combat" stocks, and red-ramp/white-outline sights during the first year of production. Like other factory snubnose N-frames, these command a fair amount of collector interest compared to their more common siblings.

The revolver pictured above, still wearing its factory stocks, was acquired from a private seller in late 2005 for $400. The going rate in these parts for a 3" stainless N-frame these days seems to be $500-$600, but it's hard to hang a value on a no-dash 3" 657 as so little information is available about them. The snubnose N-frames do have noticeably greater recoil and muzzle flip than the longer-barreled guns, and the stubby tube makes it a flamethrower, but since the gun predates S&W's "Endurance Package" modifications, I tend to avoid really heavy hunting-type loads in it anyway. As it is, it's plenty potent enough with 170gr or 210gr defensive loads.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Sunday Smith #26: Model 544, 1986.

In 1873 Winchester introduced a new cartridge for their brand spanking new M1873 lever-action rifle. The new chambering was known by them as the .44 WCF (Winchester Center Fire,) but quickly became known as the ".44-40", as it utilized a .44 caliber bullet propelled by 40 grains of black powder. The factory loading lobbed a 200gr bullet out of a carbine barrel at roughly 1800 feet per second and became a wildly popular general purpose cartridge.

In seemingly no time, Colt began offering the round as a factory chambering in the Peacemaker, and Smith & Wesson followed suit in their No. 3 top-break revolvers. This was enthusiastically received by people who wanted a carbine and pistol chambered for the same round. As the century turned and Smith debuted their new large-frame Hand Ejector wheelguns, the .44-40 continued to be offered as a standard cartridge. As newer cartridges like the .44 Special came to the forefront, interest in the old .44-40 began to wane; when production was discontinued during World War Two to focus on revolvers for the military, that seemed to be the end of the line for the venerable .44 WCF in Smith wheelguns. After the war the chambering did not remain in the catalog.

In 1986, Texas celebrated the Sesquicentennial of its independence from Mexico, commemorating the year with a wagon train that wound through the state. Smith & Wesson commemorated the event with a limited edition revolver; a blued steel 5" N-frame, the Model 544 "Texas Wagon Train Commemorative" chambered for the old .44-40 cartridge. According to Smith's records, 4782 of these revolvers were shipped, all with special serial numbers with the "TWT" prefix. They came with a fitted basswood box sporting the Texas Wagon Train logo on the lid, and smooth basswood target stocks. They were the first S&W revolvers chambered for the .44-40 round to ship since 1940, and their collectible status has earned them a place on the "Curio & Relic" list from the BATFE.

The above revolver was purchased for some $275 back in 2003. It came with the original basswood box and the original stocks, which are not shown in the above photo. Given the amount of wear and the minor freckling on the gun, it is probably worth only about $350-375 in today's environment. Given that I've used it to bust rocks at 100 yards down on the Rio Grande in Big Bend country, to me it is priceless.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Sunday Smith #25: Model 624, 1985

Smith & Wesson introduced the .44 Special cartridge along with the New Century model (also known as the "Triple Lock") in 1908. It was the debut chambering for their new, large "N-frame" Hand Ejectors. Created by stretching the .44 Russian cartridge case roughly an additional .19", the new round gained acclaim as a powerful revolver cartridge and sold well for many years.

It didn't take long for handloaders to vastly exceed the original factory velocity and energy numbers of the cartridge, and by the mid-1950s, S&W had released their own hot-rodded version as a new chambering: the slightly-lengthened ".44 Magnum". From that point forward, .44 Special sales began to taper off. By 1967, the last .44 Special revolvers were dropped from the S&W catalog.

As so often happens, nostalgia appeared ten minutes too late to save slumping sales, but by the early 1980s letters, phone calls, and wistful gun magazine articles caused Smith to reintroduce the old chambering. Not only was the adjustable-sight N-frame Model 24 re-released in 1983, but in a new twist for the old cartridge, a stainless version was introduced in 1985: The Model 624.

Retaining the classic tapered-barrel lines of the original, the 624 was initially offered with a 4" or 6.5" barrel and shrouded ejector rod. Like all stainless Smiths of the era, the gun sported a flash-chromed trigger and hammer; the finish was a lightly brushed bare stainless. Sights were adjustable, and the frontstrap and backstrap of the grip were serrated. Additionally, a special run of 5000 3" guns sporting red ramp/white outline sights was manufactured for the famous distributor Lew Horton between '85 and '87; these shipped with a fitted holster and were destined to be much sought-after. In 1988, the .44 Special again temporarily disappeared from the catalog with the demise of the 624.

The 624 featured above was purchased in 2002 as part of a three gun set; a local seller was offering the 3", 4", and 6.5" guns, all Like New In Box, at $1000 for all three. I couldn't pass the deal up, although I knew I'd only be keeping one of them. Eventually, I used the two longer-barreled guns as trading fodder and kept the 3" piece, as it made a nice companion to my 3" .44 Magnum Model 629. In the above photo it is wearing a set of smooth cocobolo stocks from Kim Ahrends. In today's market, a 3" Lew Horton 624 in excellent condition with the correct box and accessories could bring anywhere from $500 to almost $600, depending on the area.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sunday Smith #24: Model 10-8, 1983

The Smith & Wesson Model 10 was available in standard barrel lengths of two, four, five, and six inches for most of its life, but early on Smith offered a three-inch tube as a special order item, usually for large departmental orders. The 3" square butt configuration was popular with many foreign police departments, being used from France and Turkey to Malaysia and Australia. It was only when combined with the round-butt frame of the 2" Model 10, however, that the three-inch barrel really came into its own.

By the early 1980s, the 3" round-butt Model 10 had become a regular catalog offering, and some people immediately recognized the virtues offered by this package. The 3" barrel and round butt made the gun compact enough to be discreetly carried on the belt. Unlike its 2" snubbie cousin, though, the 3" barrel offered usable sight radius and even more importantly it had a full-length ejector rod stroke to ensure positive extraction of spent cases. The steel frame and thick barrel profile made the gun heavy enough to easily tame the recoil of even hot +P ammunition, while not rendering it too heavy to comfortably carry. The fixed sights were rugged and snag-free, and added to the all-business aura of the piece.

Domestic agencies, including the Criminal Investigative Division of the much-loved IRS, quickly saw the virtues of this configuration, and the FBI issued its .357 Magnum sibling, the Model 13. Many fans today still consider this the best all-around concealed-carry revolver configuration.

In 1997, Smith finally discontinued all configurations except the 4" heavy barrel, and the Model 10 lingers on mostly for bulk orders to private security firms. The above pictured revolver, a Model 10-8 produced in 1983, was purchased for $275 back in '03, which was a pretty fair price for a 95% gun with the box, docs, and tools. Cleaned up and sold at auction today, it could bring as much as $350-375, given its configuration, condition, and correct accoutrement.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sunday Smith #23: Model 38, 1982

In 1955, Smith & Wesson produced a variation of their aluminum-framed Chief's Special Airweight revolver that had a built-in hammer shroud. Called the Bodyguard Airweight, the new revolver allowed the shooter a smooth, snag-free draw from inside a pocket or under clothing, while still allowing the hammer to be thumb-cocked for single action fire, an option not available on the earlier Safety Hammerless and Centennial revolvers with their entirely enclosed hammers.

The model was an instant sales success, with shooters enjoying the availability of both modes of operation in the slick little fourteen-ounce pocket gun. When Smith made the changeover to model numbers in 1957, the Bodyguard Airweight became the "Model 38" and continued selling well. The distinctive silhouette of the Bodyguard had its moment of infamy in the hand of South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, frozen in Eddie Adams Pulitzer Prize-winning photo.

The Model 38 Bodyguard Airweight was joined by a stainless variant, the Model 638, in 1989. A decade later the stainless gun's sales had so outstripped its carbon steel forebear that the original was dropped from the catalog after a 47-year run. Model 38s remain fairly popular with collectors, but are generally less expensive than Model 37 Chiefs Special Airweight or the Model 42/042 Centennials.

The above revolver, a nickel Model 38 in about 98% condition with box, docs, and tools, was acquired for about $300 back in 2003 which was probably at the outer limit of its value envelope at the time. Currently it might bring as much as $350 with the original stocks fitted and a quick rub with Flitz. But like they say, "You can never pay too much for a gun; you can only buy it too soon."

Monday, November 12, 2007

Sunday Smith #22: Model 547, 1982

Smith & Wesson's first foray into building a revolver chambered for a semiautomatic pistol cartridge was the Model 1917 revolver produced for the U.S. Army during the First World War. The challenge wasn't in chambering the round, as the chambers could be stepped, allowing the cartridge to headspace on the case mouth just like in an automatic, but in extraction. The hand ejector extraction system relied on a protruding cartridge rim for the extractor star to act against.

A solution was found by using a thin sheet metal clip that would clip into the pistol round's extractor groove, joining two or three of them together and giving the extractor something to grab. Still, this always felt like a temporary solution. It added an extra part to be looked after, required time to be spend inserting rounds into the little clips, and if the clips were bent, they could bind the action of the gun, rendering the cylinder hard to turn and the revolver effectively inoperable. Lose the clip, and you're spending precious time trying to pry spent cases out with your fingernails or poke them out with a stick.

LEFT: Extractor with fingers.

Over the years other chamberings were tried, usually as wartime experiments, but it wasn't until 1980 that the obstacle of rimless extraction would be overcome. In an attempt to court overseas sales, Smith & Wesson came up with a unique new extractor system that used six "fingers" on the ejector rod to lift out the rounds by their extractor grooves. They also overcame another problem with 9mm as a revolver round, which was case setback on firing due to the slight taper of the 9x19mm cartridge, by using a floating frame-mounted firing pin, and placing a second floating pin in the breechface immediately above it to provide case support and keep the brass from backing out of the chamber.

RIGHT: Breechface with two pins.

The new "Model 547 9mm Military & Police" was offered in both 4" square-butt (the standard service configuration) and 3" round-butt (preferred for plainclothes work) configurations, both with a heavy barrel. The revolver was, at a glance, nearly identical to the then-common Model 13 .357 Magnum M&P, but one dead giveaway externally was the 9mm's oddly shaped hammer.

The revolver never caught on with overseas customers, and tradition-minded U.S. revolver shooters gave it a lukewarm reception as well. It was no surprise then to see it fade from the catalog after 1985, only five years after its introduction. Naturally, its relative scarcity (only slightly more than 10,000 made) and unique mechanical nature has made it something for collectors to chase down and prices have climbed accordingly in the last half-decade or so. In 2000, it wasn't uncommon to find a nice 547 for maybe $250-$350; the example in the above photo, which is an honest 95%+ gun, was picked up at a gun show for right around $400 in mid-'04; these days nice ones are fetching north of $600 on auction sites, and a LNIB example could bring more than eight bills. Still, what collection of Smith "Military & Police" revolvers would be complete without at least one example of the oddest M&P?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Sunday Smith #21: Model 15-4, 1980

From the debut of the K-frame .38 Hand Ejector as the ".38 Military & Police 1st Model" in 1899, Smith & Wesson offered variants equipped with adjustable (or "target") sights. It wasn't until after World War Two, however, that they introduced a K-frame .38 target pistol truly worthy of the name. That gun was the K-38 Masterpiece.

Special features abounded on the new revolver model. It made use of Smith's new short-throw hammer and the trigger featured an adjustment for overtravel (the amount of movement remaining in the trigger's throw after the sear breaks.) The barrel was topped by a flat, longitudinally serrated rib in order to provide a level non-glare sight plane. The grip frame also had longitudinal serrations on both the frontstrap and backstrap to improve grip.

It was originally offered in two barrel lengths, each with their own distinctive front sight. The 6" model, known as the "K-38 Target Masterpiece" had a squared Patridge-style front sight, whereas the 4" "K-38 Combat Masterpiece" had a sloped Baughman "quick draw" style ramp, to avoid snagging in the holster. The weapons proved immediately popular and were sales successes for the Massachusetts gunmaker.

With the shift to model numbers in 1957, the Target Masterpiece became the Model 14, while its shorter barreled cousin had its romantic moniker replaced by the dreary "Model 15" designation. New barrel lengths were added, with the Model 14 acquiring an 8 3/8" option, while the Model 15 had a 2" variant added to the lineup. Surprisingly, given its added cost over the ubiquitous Model 10, the Model 15 saw a fair amount of law enforcement sales, and was even adopted by the USAF for issue to security police.

The Model 15 remained a standard catalog item through 1999, when it was discontinued. Sales of blued guns had suffered next to their stainless counterparts, and the Model 15 suffered the double curse of being chambered in .38 Special. Many consumers felt that the adjustable sight Model 66, externally identical, offered the added bonus of being made of low-maintenance stainless steel and able to chamber the .357 Magnum cartridge as well. Traditionalists howled, however, and the Model 15 has since seen various resurrections in limited edition "Heritage Model"-type runs.

The Model 15-4 pictured above was manufactured in 1980 and, as best I can tell, it remained unfired until I acquired it in early 2003. The bluing in the barrel is still intact, there are no markings on the breechface, and the revolver barely has a drag ring, indicating it hasn't even been dry-fired much. It was picked up at a ridiculously cheap $125, and is worth better than three times that amount at auction in today's environment. As it sits, $400-$425 would not be an unreasonable selling price, and if it had the box & docs it would be worth even more.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Sunday Smith #20: Model 36-1, 1980

When Smith & Wesson stretched the cylinder window of the I-frame by slightly over a tenth of an inch in 1950 to accommodate a cylinder chambered for the .38 Special cartridge, they created a new frame designation: The J-frame. They also created what would become one of the company's best selling and longest-lived models: The .38 Chiefs Special, later known as the Model 36. Introduced before commercial jet air travel, the model is still being catalogued fifty-seven years later.

The blend of service revolver power and pocket gun size was a winning recipe, and the little 2" snubbie became synonymous with "detective's gun" or "off-duty gun" in no time flat. It was used by both heroes and villains in Hollywood and on TV. J. Edgar Hoover received one of the earliest ones, and police departments across the land purchased them in batches.

It didn't take long for variations to turn up. For example, a very limited number were made with target sights and in the 1990's Smith released the Model 36LS, or "Lady Smith", with attractive hardwood grips and "Lady Smith" engraved on the sideplate. The NYPD ordered a batch Model 36-1's with 3" barrels and square-butt frames to issue to female police officers who had a hard time with the double-action trigger reach on the standard issue Model 10.

The above revolver is an example of the 3" heavy barrel, square-butt Model 36-1. It was purchased back in '01 for $225, a price that was more than fair considering it's outstanding condition and the fact that it shows almost no wear. Current market value for an identical piece would probably be somewhere between $275 and $350, depending on in which area of the country the gun was sold and how badly the purchaser wanted an unusually-configured Chiefs Special.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sunday Smith #19: Model 57, 1980

In 1964 Remington and Smith & Wesson answered the demands of handloaders and wildcatters by launching the new .41 Remington Magnum cartridge. The .41 Magnum began life with a split personality, with two types of loads being offered. The first, a 210 grain lead bullet at just under 1000 feet per second, was intended to be a police loading that offered a larger and heavier bullet than the .357 Magnum or .38 Special, but without the muzzle blast and recoil penalties of the .44 Magnum. The second loading pushed a jacketed hollowpoint of the same weight to some 1300fps, and was designed for hunting deer-sized game.

To go along with the new cartridge, S&W debuted a pair of new revolvers. There was the Model 58, which was a fixed-sight piece that looked like a Military & Police on steroids, and the Model 57, which was a heavy-barreled adjustable sight model that was added to their premium lineup which at that time consisted of the Model 27 .357 Magnum and Model 29 .44 Magnum revolvers. Like the other two, it enjoyed an extra bit of polishing and attention to detail coming off the production line.

Unfortunately, this was during the era of Smith & Wesson's ownership by the Bangor Punta conglomerate (a gunsmith of my acquaintance swears that "Bangor Punta" is Spanish for "toolmark") and by 1969, cost cutting ensured that the extra fine finishes on the 27, 29, and 57 would be no more; collectors will pay a premium for the early examples, easily identified by their "S" serial number prefixes.

The revolver pictured above began life as a fairly generic Bangor Punta-era Model 57, with the standard six inch barrel and square-butt frame. Its previous owner subjected the gun to radical elective surgery:

  • The 6" tube was removed and a factory 4" barrel was ordered and sent to Mag-Na-Port for quad porting.
  • The action was slicked up considerably, while the hammer spur was removed and the serrated target trigger was replaced with a smooth combat trigger.
  • The frame was altered to a round-butt profile, and the serrations on the rear of the frame were meticulously re-cut to give it a factory appearance.
  • The front sight was machined for an orange insert.
  • A hardwood Hogue Monogrip was fitted.
  • The whole gun was finished to a non-glare matte blue.

The result is a one-of-a-kind fighting sixgun. Ironically, however, such is the nature of collectible guns and custom work that if the gun were in pristine original shape, as a "Pinned & Recessed" Model 57, it would bring almost as much money in resale as it would after megabucks were spent tuning it up; the moral being that if you are going to customize a gun, customize it for yourself and forget about realizing a profit. A like-new-in-box Model 57 could command over $600 (well over, if it's an "S" prefix) at auction today; plan on spending $300-$400 for a good shooter.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Sunday Smith #18: Model 37, 1976

With Colt's having introduced an aluminum alloy-framed version of the Detective Special, known as the "Cobra", in 1950, it was perhaps inevitable that Smith would follow the introduction of their new Chiefs Special with an alloy-framed variant as well. Sure enough, in 1952 Smith & Wesson began offering the Chiefs Special Airweight.

By giving up one round in the cylinder, the new Smith was noticeably smaller than its competitor from Colt's. Further, thanks to the alloy cylinder, it was measurably lighter, too. Unfortunately, the aluminum alloys of the day weren't quite up to the stresses occurring in the chamber of a firearm, and persistent reports of catastrophic cylinder failures caused Smith to shift to a steel cylinder after less than 3,800 were made. The USAF showed some interest in the model, ordering a number for testing, but all save a handful were destroyed, making the "Baby Aircrewman" one of the most sought-after postwar Smiths by collectors.

In 1957, the Chiefs Special Airweight became the Model 37 and continued to be made with mostly minor engineering changes until it was finally dropped from the catalog in 2006. The most significant change was probably the one made when they started producing the gun on the slightly longer new "J-Magnum" frame in 1997, since this allowed the gun to be certified for use with more powerful, "+P rated" ammunition, which offers improved performance at the cost of sharper recoil in the twelve-and-a-half ounce J-frame. While newer snubnose revolvers have become all the rage at S&W, with their titanium cylinders and scandium/aluminum alloy frames, many feel that the old steel-cylindered Airweights offer a "best of both worlds" balance, being light enough to carry in a pocket while not being so light as to produce the bone-cracking recoil characteristic of the newer flyweights.

The revolver pictured above is a nickeled 2" Model 37 produced in 1976. From the condition of the breechface, forcing cone, and rifling, it is highly unlikely that this revolver has been fired since it left the factory. Being made before 1982, it has the characteristic barrel locating pin through the frame forward of the cylinder opening. "Pinned barrel" Smiths are starting to command more elevated prices on the market, but even so, they are still a fairly affordable field for collecting. This Model 37 was scooped up for $300 in '03, which was a low price on the market even then. Given condition and the fact that it's in nickel and has a pinned barrel, it could bring $450 or more to the right buyer these days. A serviceable shooter, however, can be bought for $225-$300.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Sunday Smith #17: Model 53-2, 1974

In the mid-1950's, experimenters started playing with Model 17's (.22LR K-frames) by fitting new cylinders machined from cylinder blanks and chambered in a variety of wildcats made from necking down centerfire pistol cartridges to accept the .224" jacketed bullets then becoming popular from the new small-bore .222 Remington varmint cartridge. The .224" bullets would function fine in the .22LR barrels, and the idea was a revolver that would be lethal on small game and varmints at ranges far beyond those considered practical with a .22 rimfire.

In 1961, S&W and Remington legitimized one of these wildcats by naming it the .22 Remington Jet and chambering it in the new Model 53. The Model 53 was a square-butt K-frame revolver with target sights, marked ".22 Magnum" on the barrel, and was available with a 4", 6", or 8 3/8" barrel. Unique features included either a second cylinder chambered for .22LR, or a set of .22LR chamber inserts. The revolver had dual firing pins in the frame, and had a pivoting striker in the hammer that could be toggled back and forth between rimfire and centerfire positions.

The .22 Remington Jet round itself was based on the .357 Magnum casing, but necked down to take a .222" projectile. The large powder charge launched a 40gr projectile at a claimed 2460fps out of an 8 3/8" tube (although test numbers chronoed noticeably lower.) Still, the .22 Rem Jet had numbers far surpassing the modern 5.7x28mm round from FN.

The round's fatal weakness was a result of its shape and the fact that it was intended to be fired from a revolver. Based on a rimmed midbore revolver cartridge, the round was tapered like an incense cone. Unless the chambers were scrupulously degreased, firing the round would cause the case to expand and force the base hard against the revolver's breechface, preventing the cylinder from turning. With the growing popularity of the .22WMR, the .22 Rem Jet's day came and went, and with it, the Model 53.

Early Model 53 "no dash" four-screw guns (first year of production) command a substantial premium, but any Model 53 (there was no "53-1"; deletion of the triggerguard screw in '62 resulted in the 53-2) will bring close to eight bills or more if it is in good shape. Ammunition is no longer commercially manufactured, so it behooves the Model 53 owner to take up reloading or make friends with someone who already has the bug. The Model 53-2 in the above picture was purchased in '05 for $450 and has the less-common 4" barrel; combined with the short barrel, the light bullet and relatively large powder charge result in spectacular pyrotechnics on a darkened range.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sunday Smith #16: Model 31-1, 1971

With the changeover from names to model numbers by Smith & Wesson in 1957, the ".32 Regulation Police" became the "Model 31". It continued to be produced on the older improved I-frame, with its smaller cylinder window, while the new J-frame .38-caliber revolvers exploded in popularity. Over time, the fortunes of the "I-frame" continued to wane alongside the .32 S&W Long cartridge to which it was historically tied.

In 1961, the Model 31 was shifted over to the newer "J-frame" size, and the changed weapon was dubbed the "Model 31-1". It would continue in this form largely unaltered (except for the deletion, over time, of the flat latch, diamond grips, and pinned barrel) for over twenty years. Finally, the 4" barrel was deleted from the catalog in 1978, leaving the only difference between the Model 30 and Model 31 as a matter of whether the pistol had a round or square butt, since both had 2" or 3" tubes. The Model 31 (by then the 31-3) was finally discontinued in 1991.

The weapon pictured above is a Model 31-1 produced in 1971. With its square butt, four-inch barrel, and mild .32 caliber recoil, the unprepossessing little revolver is a splendid introductory piece to the joys of the S&W wheelgun for the recoil sensitive or small of hand. It was purchased at a gun show in early '03 for some $200, which was about fair market value at the time, given the excellent condition. Considering the explosion in S&W prices in the intervening years, a really cherry example might bring three bills, or even more if it has the correct box and accoutrement.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Condition Is Everything.

A phrase you'll hear often in the world of firearms collecting is "Condition is everything." This is handily illustrated by the two Colt Pocket Hammerlesses shown in the above photo. Both are extremely early specimens: The top gun was made in 1904 (second year of production) and the lower pistol was produced in 1905.

Despite the upper sidearm being a year older, its value is roughly half that of its newer sibling. Both handguns originally had the bright, almost purple, blued finish displayed on the newer piece, with small parts such as the safety and trigger showing the almost rainbow hues of fire bluing. This type of bluing tended to fade, however, when exposed to acids such as those found in sweat, and could even be faded by extended exposure to bright sunlight. The result was the dull gray found on the upper gun.

Note also how extended carry has blunted the corners on the older piece, leaving it with a "bar of soap" look. The newer gun (and photos don't do it justice, at least 'til I can get it to Oleg) shows very little evidence of having ever been carried. Many experienced collectors who have seen it have pronounced it the nicest one of its vintage they've seen for years.

The result? The pistol on top is one that I have no qualms about shooting or stuffing into a hip pocket as I wander the back forty, while the lower one I am nervous about touching too much without an oily rag handy with which to wipe it down. This is because the upper pistol is, in today's market (which is crazy about anything that has a Prancing Pony on it), worth maybe $400, while the lower pistol is worth at least twice that figure.

This is also why any professional will be hesitant to give a valuation on a firearm without examining it in person. Because condition is everything...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sunday Smith #15: Model 12-2, 1966

Experiments by Smith & Wesson and Colt in the use of aluminum as a material for firearms began to bear fruit in the early 1950s. Colt released the Commander, a 1911 with a shortened slide and aluminum frame, and the Cobra, an alloy-framed Detective Special, in 1950. Smith answered with the Military & Police Airweight in 1952. Among customers of the new lightweight revolvers was the U.S. Air Force, eager for a gun that did not weigh much with which to equip fliers.

The early Airweights had alloy cylinders. This ambitious attempt to save weight was a bit ahead of the materials science of the day and by 1954 the aluminum cylinders, plagued by catastrophic failures, had been replaced by ones made of standard ordnance steel. The Air Force soon abandoned their experiment, but the Airweight revolver was here to stay on the civilian market, proving popular with those who needed to tote a pistol at all times, but didn't want to suffer the weight penalty of an all-steel gun.

In 1957, the Military & Police Airweight became the Model 12, in accordance with Smith's new numbering policy. Longer barrels were introduced in the late '50s, although the 5" and 6" variants were quickly deleted from the catalog, leaving the traditional 2" and 4" lengths as the only options. In 1962, the ejector rod was changed from right-hand thread to left-hand, and the fourth (trigger guard) screw was deleted, causing a "-1" to be appended to the Model 12 designation, and later in 1962 the front sight was widened to 1/8", creating the Model 12-2.

The above revolver, a Model 12-2 from 1966 is from the first year when the flat cylinder latch (on the other side of the weapon) was replaced with the standard curved thumb piece, and only shortly before the diamond grips were deleted in 1968. It is an outstanding example of a revolver that has been fired very little, if at all, and was picked up in 2001 for somewhat less than $300. These days, a model 12 in this shape is worth something on the lines of $400 on the collector's market, while more worn examples can be found in the $200-300 range. Be very careful, especially when purchasing older models, that the frame is not cracked. Aluminum alloy as a material for firearms frames was still virgin territory in the late '50s and early '60s and cracks in the frame, especially where the steel barrel is screwed in, are not at all unheard-of. My personal 12-2 stays loaded with powder-puff wadcutter loads and has only been exercised a few times since I bought it for fear of damage. Although a late-'60s Model 12 like this should be plenty safe to fire, I have others to shoot so why take the chance? If I needed a lightweight, service-sized carry piece, however, I'd probably tote it in an instant, collectability be damned.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sunday Smith #14: Model 27-2, 1964

With handgun users demanding more and more powerful loadings in the interwar years, Smith & Wesson's .38/44 models were just a stopgap. Not four years after their introduction, Smith dropped a bombshell that shook the whole handgun market and is still with us today: The Magnum. The Most Powerful Handgun In The World.

The .38 Special loading still clung to an antiquated measurement left over from the days of the old "heeled" type bullets, and the new cartridge used the actual diameter of the bullet as its nomenclature: .357 Magnum (guaranteeing the confusion of generations of handgun novices to come as it is patiently explained to them that .38's can be fired in .357's, but not vice versa.) Smith lengthened the .38 case slightly to prevent the new barn-burners, capable of launching 158gr bullets at 1400 feet per second, from being chambered in smaller-framed .38 Special firearms; the new cartridge was developed from the start to take advantage of the strength of the large .44-scaled "N-frame". The splash caused by the new round is hard to overstate; like the .44 Magnum and .500 Magnum that followed, it quickly entered the popular consciousness, from tales of Col. Douglas B. Wesson taking all kinds of game with it all 'round the world (including many things that probably shouldn't be shot at with a .357) to Dick Tracy and his men surrounding a villain's hideout in the Sunday comics and announcing "You'd better come out! We've got Magnums!"

The guns themselves were almost all built to order originally, and featured levels of fit and finish seldom seen on guns today. Rumor has it that a worker at the Springfield factory had to work for many years on the regular finishing line before he was given a shot at polishing Smith's new flagship guns. The high-polish blue is such that, when parked next to other Smiths in dim light, the lesser guns appear almost gray by comparison.

Magnum production was stopped for the war effort, with only about 7,000 being made before '41, but was resumed after the war as a regular catalogue item. It was still Smith's flagship gun, however, and still boasted that extra premium fit and finish. Somewhere around 1950, the lockwork was switched to the new short-throw hammer, and in 1957, the Magnum followed the rest of the Smith revolver line and became the "Model 27". In 1960 the threading on the ejector rod was changed to left-hand thread and the "-1" suffix was appended to the model number, followed by a change to the cylinder stop and deletion of the fourth (trigger guard) screw in 1961 that resulted in the Model 27-2.

These are among the most sought-after and collectible Smith & Wesson wheelguns, with prices on prewar Registered Magnums reaching the nosebleed four-figure range, and it wouldn't surprise me at all to see the $10k prewar RM become a not-uncommon occurrence for particularly fine examples in the near future. Postwar/pre-model-number guns are being sucked up in their wake turbulence, with $800-$1000 prices being not unheard of for nice ones. A late-'50s/early-'60s Model 27 will run anywhere from ~$400 for a tired shooter to $800+ for a primo example. The above gun, a very likely unfired 3.5" 27-2 dating to 1964, was acquired for about $550 back in '03, and would likely bring half again that price at auction today.

Still, for a gun that is a legitimate contender for the Finest Revolver Ever crown, it's worth it.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Sunday Smith #13: Model 49, 1963

Colt's Detective Special revolver was selling like gangbusters in postwar America, and Smith had nothing that really competed with it. The Military & Police was available with a 2" barrel, but was noticeably larger and the I-frame .38/32 Terrier, while smaller, was chambered for the .38 S&W cartridge, which was rather anemic by comparison with the .38 Special round. In 1950, though, Smith launched a potent return salvo in the shape of the .38 Chiefs Special, which was created essentially by lengthening the frame of the old Terrier to allow a longer cylinder which would accommodate the longer cartridges of the .38 Special.

The new frame size, which would eventually replace the I-frame entirely, was designated the "J-frame" and it soon spawned a host of variations. In 1952 an alloy-framed version, termed the "Airweight", was released. In 1955 Smith responded to Colt's offering of a screw-on hammer shroud by offering the "Bodyguard Airweight". The new revolver was basically a Chiefs Special Airweight with a built-in hammer shroud that prevented the hammer spur from snagging on the wielder's coat or a pocket when drawn, like Smith's "Centennial" models, but still allowed the revolver to be thumb-cocked to allow for single-action shooting, which a sizable minority of the revolver-buying public preferred over the double-action-only Centennial.

Soon after, Smith made the change from model names to model numbers, and in 1959 yet another variation on the Chiefs Special was introduced, this time termed just the "Bodyguard" and cataloged as the "Model 49". It catered to those who didn't trust the longevity of alloy-framed revolvers (or found their recoil objectionable,) by replacing the aluminum of the Bodyguard Airweight with standard ordnance steel.

The Model 49 pictured above was made in 1963, and was picked up back in 2003 for under $350, reasonable for a decent Bodyguard of its vintage. The flat thumbpiece for the cylinder latch (on the other side of the gun) was discontinued in '66 and the "diamond grips" went away in '68, but the gun itself remained in production until 1997. Plan to spend anywhere between $225 and $400 or more for one, depending on its age and condition.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Sunday Smith #12: Model 30, 1960

Smith & Wesson had debuted the Hand Ejector series (as well as the .32 S&W Long cartridge) with the diminutive .32 caliber I-frame in the closing years of the 19th Century. It was still being manufactured after World War Two, but more and more changes were being made to simplify production or to make the gun safer.

During World War Two, Smith had changed the ejector rod to speed up the manufacture of the Victory Model. Prewar revolvers had knurled knobs threaded onto the end of the ejector rod. This added a part and required machining a complex clearance cut on the underside of the barrel to accommodate the knob. The Victory Model dispensed with this by simply knurling the end of the ejector rod itself. After the war, this change was continued on all the company's commercial guns. Also during the war, Smith added a sliding hammer block as a safety device to positively prevent the revolver's discharging if the hammer was struck a blow and this, too, continued on all models in the postwar era.

In 1953 the leaf mainspring was replaced with a coil-type unit, causing the strain screw to disappear from the front of the grip portion of the frame; this resulted in the "Improved I-frame". At the same time, the screw in front of the trigger guard was deleted, followed by the upper sideplate screw in 1956. The very next year, 1957, Smith dropped the old model names in favor of number designations for the different guns and the .32 Hand Ejector became the Model 30.

The changes made over the years can be noticed easily by comparing the 1918-vintage hand ejector shown here with the 1960 Model 30 pictured above. The Model 30 was acquired earlier this year in trade for a well-loved Model 65. It came with the correct box and the condition of the gun is as close to new as makes no nevermind; in fact, by the condition of the breechface and rifling, it may not have been fired this side of the factory. Even given the condition and the box, relatively low demand means that this is a $375-$400 gun, tops. An excellent condition shooter can probably be picked up for not too much more than $250 with some careful shopping, thanks to the unpopularity of the .32 Smith & Wesson Long cartridge in this country. As with all pre-1982 Smiths, however (and I can't stress this enough) it's best to get while the gettin' is good.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sunday Smith #11: Model 34, 1957

"Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag,
And smile, smile, smile!"

Once upon a time, everybody knew what a kit bag was. The lyrics above were from a World War One marching ditty that was later used for the title and theme song of a Laurel and Hardy film released in 1932. At the time, S&W had been without a truly "packable" .22 caliber revolver for over a decade, since the tiny "M-Frame" Ladysmith had been discontinued in 1921 which left the "Bekeart Models", with their 6" barrels and target stocks, as the only small-frame .22 revolvers in the catalog

Three years after the release of Pack Up Your Troubles, Smith released the .22/.32 Kit Gun. With its round butt grip profile and 4" barrel, this little .22 revolver on the .32-sized I-Frame was perfect for tossing in your kit bag for camping, hunting, fishing, or hiking. The little gun was extremely popular, and continued in production after WWII with a 2" barreled version added to the lineup. In time, the excess screws in the frame were dropped, the gun went to a coil mainspring, and was eventually moved to the larger "J-Frame" platform. S&W has abandoned the small steel-frame .22 revolver market to Taurus these days, but old Kit Guns are still extremely popular and increasingly coveted as plinkers, and the 2-inch guns make excellent "understudy" pieces for .38 caliber snubbies used for self-defense.

The pictured piece was made in 1957 and is therefore not a romantic "Kit Gun", but rather a prosaic "Model 34" (Such a difference a change in nomenclature can make!) It still shows many vintage Smith traits, such as the "diamond" grips (safely stored away for this photo), the 'flat latch' cylinder release, and the fact that it was made on the old "Improved I-Frame", which is the smaller, older frame size with the newer coil mainspring. It was purchased in "Like New In Box" condition back in early '03 for $375, which was about right for the gun's condition. Even given that it's been shot since then, the fact that it has the box and has suffered no finish wear means it's a sound investment. Look for prices on Kit Guns to range from $225-250 for a mediocre postwar piece to a couple of grand for a pristine prewar with all accoutrement. If you're not sure what you're looking at, it pays to get the help of a more experienced collector before plunking down the green for this most excellent of plinkers.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Sunday Smith #10: Model 1955 .45 Target, 1956

During World War One, the shortage of M1911 semiautomatic pistols forced the US Army to seek alternative handguns. One source they turned to was Smith & Wesson, who adapted their large N-frame hand ejectors to fire the standard military .45ACP round, using spring steel "moon clips" to allow the revolver's ejector to work with the rimless autopistol cartridges.

The revolvers were popular on the surplus market into the post-WWII era, and were sometimes converted into target pistols by their owners by the simple expedient of installing a set of adjustable sights. Smith & Wesson got into that market themselves in 1950, offering a version of the big .45ACP revolver with S&W's fine micro-adjustable factory target sights, as well as an oversized target trigger and hammer and large, hand-filling target stocks.

For 1955, a new model was added, referred to as the "1955 .45 Target Model". The standard barrel was a 6.5" untapered heavy barrel, giving a slightly nose-heavy feel in the hand and further dampening the recoil of the .45ACP, already mild in the big-frame Smith. After only two years of production, Smith and Wesson went to model numbers instead of the old name designations, and the "1955 .45 Target Model" became the "Model 25".

The revolver pictured above dates to 1956, one of those early pre-Model Number guns, and was purchased at a dealer in Spring of '05 for $425, which even at the time was well under market value. It was just sitting unnoticed in his showcase, surrounded by newer and flashier long-barreled stainless guns. Even the most wretched specimen of this 5-screw target N-frame will fetch almost $300, and a completely pristine example with box & docs could bring a grand or more at auction. Look for street prices in the $600-$700 range on an excellent condition shooter like the pictured example.

(For those just thinking about getting into S&W collecting, the finding of this gun is an example of why it's fun. This was "Corvette in a barn" stuff; the kind of find that has a Smith nut laying awake with the sweats the night before a gun show...)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Sunday Smith #9: .38 Military & Police, 1953

After introducing their new Hand Ejector design to the market in 1896 chambered for a .32 caliber round, Smith & Wesson was quick to scale up the basic design to accommodate .38 caliber cartridges in order to go after lucrative government contracts. In 1899 Smith began making the new, larger revolver, calling it the "Military & Police". One hundred and seven years later, they haven't stopped.

Although largely replaced by semiautomatics in this day and age, for the better better part of a century the M&P was the police handgun in the United States and many other countries as well. It served the U.S. military and our allies in WWII and many conflicts thereafter. It has served as the basic platform for a host of variants in every caliber and configuration imaginable. It is still seen in the holsters of security guards and the occasional cop even today.

In 1899 the Wright Brothers were still four years away from their flight at Kitty Hawk. General Electric wouldn't patent the tungsten-filament light bulb for another seven years, and it would be nine years before Henry Ford built his first Model T. And the Military & Police revolver from Smith & Wesson has been in constant production, largely unchanged, for the entire time and is just as effective now as it was then. If there is a more enduringly successful piece of industrial design, I'm sure not aware of it.

The pictured revolver was made in 1953, before the evocative "Military & Police" moniker was replaced by the sterile designation "Model 10" when S&W went to model numbers rather than names for their handguns in 1957. About the same time, Smith deleted the upper sideplate screw and the screw in the frame ahead of the trigger guard as being superfluous. As a result, pre-'57 guns (referred to as "Five Screws") command prices that are spiraling steadily upwards. It was purchased in excellent condition, complete with the gold-foil covered box, at a gun show in '03 for $275, and has appreciated rather handily since then. With the box, a revolver like this could bring close to $400 in today's market.

Not bad for a gun that originally sold for under fifty bucks.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Schmidt-Rubin Gew. 96/11: Like a Swiss watch.

The Swiss Vetterli, so outré in 1869, was beginning to look a little long in the tooth only a few short years later. By the mid-1870s, Switzerland's continental neighbors were fielding bolt-action designs like the Mauser Gew.71 and the Gras Mle.1874 which, while still single shots, fired modern centerfire black powder cartridges with ballistic performance that eclipsed the now-quaint-looking stubby little rimfire round chambered by the Vetterli.

Rifle performance at the time was limited largely by the bullet itself. Above certain velocity and pressure thresholds, the paper-patched lead bullets of the time just left smears of soft lead that quickly filled the rifling. By the early 1880s, Swiss engineers led by a Major Eduard Rubin were investigating the possibilities offered by enclosing the lead bullet in a protective jacket of copper alloy. They soon discovered that a smaller diameter bullet, 7.5mm versus the then-common 11mm, enclosed in a copper/zinc alloy jacket and seated over a compressed black powder charge could offer a much flatter trajectory and longer effective range than any current military round. The limiting factor was now the powder, as the residues from black powder charges would quickly foul such a small bore.

Schmidt-Rubin Gew.96/11. Photo by Oleg Volk

Meanwhile, also in the early 1880s, another Swiss Major by the name of Rudolf Schmidt was hard at work on a rifle design with a straight-pull bolt action, which was submitted to the army for trials. Unlike contemporary Mannlicher straight-pull designs, which used interaction between an inner bolt and outer bolt sleeve to manipulate a vertically-hinged locking wedge, Schmidt's design used a bolt handle connected to an operating rod; a lug on this rod traveled in a helical track on the outer bolt sleeve causing it to rotate the locking lugs in and out of alignment. Spurred by neighboring nations starting to adopt tube-fed repeating rifles, trials commenced using a combination of Major Rubin's cartridge designs, along with an innovative loading system using disposable chargers, and the straight-pull rifle designed by Schmidt. The leisurely pace of the testing was sped up when the French shocked the world by the adoption of the Mle.1886 Lebel, with its small bore smokeless cartridge.

LEFT: Disposable paper and tin charger holding six rounds of 7.5x55 Swiss. Based on the original charger loader designed by Major Rubin in the 1880s. Photo by Oleg Volk.

By 1890, the Swiss equipped their troops with the Schmidt rifle chambered in a stopgap "semi-smokeless" loading and designated the Gew.1889. Unfortunately, the original rifle design turned out to be somewhat of a stopgap, too. Its locking lugs were located at the rear of the bolt sleeve, which necessitated not only a very long receiver, but also severely limited the amount of pressure the rifle could safely stand. The GP90 cartridge (GP = Gewehr Patrone, or rifle cartridge), with its 211gr round-nosed iron jacketed and paper patched bullet pushed by a semi-smokeless propellant, only generated about 37,500psi of chamber pressure; about all the Gew.1889 could take. Improvements were clearly needed, and by 1896 a new variant with an action strengthened by the virtue of moving the locking lugs to the front of the bolt sleeve was put into service and designated the Gew.89/96.

RIGHT: Detail of the action. Clearly visible is the helical track on the bolt sleeve, as well as the rear edge of one of the locking lugs which are at the forward edge of the sleeve. The cocking handle is Bakelite. The grooves atop the receiver are lightening cuts. Photo by Oleg Volk.

Fortified with a stronger rifle, work began on a new cartridge. By 1911, the Swiss army adopted a modern cupro-nickel jacketed spire point 174gr bullet. Fired from a rifle-length barrel the new GP11 round offered an amazing 600 foot-per-second advantage over the old GP90, and while production ramped up on the new Gew.1911 rifles, old Gew.89/96 rifles were converted to the new Gew.96/11 standard. (The original Gew.1889 was, obviously, unsuited for conversion, as the 45k+ chamber pressures of the new round would turn the older design into a clumsily long pipe bomb.)

LEFT: Detail of the muzzle end. Note the upturned stacking rod tip to minimize the chances of snagging on underbrush, and the hinged barrel band secured by a screw so as to keep it from crushing the stock onto the free-floated barrel. Photo by Oleg Volk.

The 96/11, like the example shown here which was originally produced at Solothurn in 1900, exhibits the craftsmanship one would expect from a rifle made by the Swiss. The barrel bands are piano-hinged and tensioned with screws, rather than just being slid on and retained with leaf springs like most rifles. The walnut stock was carefully inlet to float the barrel and was prevented from swelling and touching the barrel at the muzzle end by a metal collar insert that surrounded the barrel. 89/96 rifles being brought up to 96/11 standards had pistol grips expertly inlet into their stocks in a display of woodworking skill rarely found on nice furniture these days.

RIGHT: Closeup showing the ring-type safety/decocker and the exquisite inletting of the pistol grip into the existing stock. Photo by Oleg Volk.

The rear sight, in keeping with the doctrines of the time, was graduated to 2,000 meters. Windage adjustments could be made by an armorer drifting the dovetailed front sight, which was unprotected by wings or a hood. The 96/11 replaced the 12 round magazine of earlier rifles with a 6 round magazine that protruded less and didn't interfere with carrying the rifle at the balance. The magazine cutoff, an archaic device intended to keep troops from "wasting ammunition", was also discarded on the newer rifles. Like all other rifles based on the Schmidt design, the 96/11 used a large ring on the rear of the striker as a combination safety/decocker, and it could also be used to cock the rifle for another try at a hard primer.

Though its length and weight betrayed its 19th Century origins, the Gew.96/11 and Gew.1911 served their country as frontline rifles until the 1930s, when they were relegated to reserve status with the adoption of the K31 carbine. Many remained in the hands of reservists well into the era of the automatic rifle before being sold off as surplus. The older Schmidt-Rubins are not seen anywhere near as often on the US collector scene as the recently-surplussed K31. Whereas older Gew.89 and 89/96 rifles are handloader-only curiosities, the 96/11 can handle modern Swiss 7.5x55, which can be found in surplus GP11 form as well as in commercial loadings from FNM, Wolf, Norma, and others. Prices for a good 96/11 can range anywhere from roughly $100 for an ugly one to as much as $400 for one in outstanding condition. Along with Finnish Mosins, the Swiss Schmidts are some of the most accurate bolt action military rifles ever made, and fortunate is the collector who gets his or her hands on a nice one.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Sunday Smith #8: .38/44 Heavy Duty, 1936

During the days of Prohibition, lucrative profits to be made in the alcohol business led to increasing sophistication among the gangs who trafficked in it. Bullet-resistant body armor had made great strides in the trenches of France during the Great War, and was adopted by some gangsters. More significantly, the widespread availability of the automobile meant that the new criminals were fleeing crime scenes behind sheet metal auto bodies moving at 40, 50, or even an astounding 60 miles per hour. With longer ranges and harder targets becoming more common, law enforcement began to find that the .32 S&W Long, .38 S&W, and even the newer .38 Special were inadequate for their needs.

Smith & Wesson responded by developing a new .38 S&W Special round, loaded to much higher muzzle velocities. This gave a flatter trajectory at longer ranges as well as more punch against hard targets, and was referred to in marketing as the ".38 Super Police". It was soon apparent that this round would be detrimental to long service life in their .38 (or "K") frame revolvers, and so the large .44 (or "N") frame revolvers were adapted to shoot the smaller bore round. The new large-frame .38/44 revolvers were introduced to the market in 1930 and 1931, respectively, as the "Heavy Duty" (fixed sight) and "Outdoorsman" (adjustable sight) models, and these were a key stepping stone to the development of the .357 Magnum cartridge in 1935.

The revolver pictured above has led a colorful life. It was manufactured in 1936 as a fixed-sight ".38/44 Heavy Duty". At some time a "Mr. Middleton" purchased it and, after the war, sent it to Jim Clark in Louisiana to be transformed into a Bullseye gun. Adjustable sights from Micro were expertly fitted, the hammer spur was gas-welded up from a narrow projection into a wide and finely checkered pad that juts noticeably to the left for ease of thumb-cocking, and the trigger was tuned to a fare-thee-well. Lastly, the owner had his name etched in nicely-done cursive letters on the sideplate. After he passed away shortly after the millennium, his gun languished in a trade-in case at a gun shop before I found it, passed over by kids who didn't know what they were looking at.

Smith made just over 11,000 .38/44 Heavy Duties before WWII, and even an ugly one with issues will bring close to $200. For a really nice example, expect to pay $800 or more and (as with all pre-war Smiths,) if it's Like-New-In-Box with the tools and whatnot, the sky's the limit at an auction.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Sunday Smith #7: .38 Regulation Police, 1928

Realizing that not everyone would accept the .32 Regulation Police as a viable sidearm, Smith & Wesson released a parallel model at the same time. The small I-frame was able to accept a five shot cylinder chambered for the .38 S&W cartridge, originally introduced back in the 1870s in their top-break revolver line, and so a .38 Regulation Police only made sense. While the .38 S&W, which in its most common smokeless incarnation launched a 145 grain bullet at something just less than 700 feet per second, is not considered to be a serious defensive cartridge nowadays, at the time it was considered perfectly adequate, and was in fact adopted by Great Britain as their standard service handgun cartridge (albeit with a heavier bullet.)

The .38 Regulation Police was never Smith's strongest seller, with less than 55,000 copies sold between its introduction in 1917 and its first cancellation in 1940. While Smith did bring it back into production after the war and it was made as the "Model 33" as late as 1969, it's not the most common gun on the used gun market today. Still, like most I-frames, it is considerably cheaper than the larger-framed revolvers of the same vintage.

The blued example in the above photo, a good condition shooter with honest cosmetic wear and a dark bore with mild pitting, but good mechanicals and matching numbers, was made in 1928. It was picked up at a gun show in late 2003 for $190 and while it has appreciated a small amount since then, similar examples can be turned up for $200-ish still. A really outstanding prewar example might run over $400, possibly well over $400 if it has a matching box and all accoutrement.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The vz 52 rifle: Handy hybrid.

When the new nation of Czechoslovakia was born after the end of WWI, they received two important gifts from the vanquished nations. From the Austro-Hungarian war machine came the Imperial arsenal at Brno, which became the new Czech State Arsenal in 1919. From the defeated Germans came the tooling and licenses to build Mauser rifles. Given something to build and a place to build it, the industrious Czechs wasted no time in setting up an arms industry that was competitive with any in the world. Of course, this prize asset made their much larger neighbor to the north eye them greedily, and the Czech arms industry was one of the plums with which the Germans walked away from the table at Munich.

vz 52 rifle. Photo by Oleg Volk.

Like most factories in occupied Europe, the Czech factories spent the first part of the war turning out arms for their German occupiers and the last part getting bombed flat by the Western Allies. Compared to the utter devastation in Germany, Italy, and Poland, however, the Czechs were in remarkably good shape after the war, and quickly set about re-equipping their army with modern weapons, including a brand new self-loading rifle: The vz 52 (vz being the abbreviation for “vzor”; Czech for “type” or “model”.) The Czech arms industry had a tradition of quality and innovation, and the vz 52 was no exception. Designed using experiences gathered during WWII, it was a rifle that spanned two eras: Its full-length wood stock, intricately machined steel receiver, and semi-automatic operation wouldn't have been out of place in the 1930s, while its intermediate cartridge and detachable box magazine looked towards the future.

LEFT: Detail of receiver and magazine. Photo by Oleg Volk.

The trigger mechanism and safety are nearly identical to that of the American Garand, while the gas system utilizes a short-stroke annular piston derived from that of Germany's Walther self-loading rifles. The bolt is a tipping design, much like the contemporary Belgian and Russian autoloading rifles, but utilises lugs at the front of the bolt, rather than at the rear. Other features included a side-folding knife bayonet and unique double buttplates, with the outer one being a replaceable thin steel shell that protects the inner one from damage. The proprietary Czech cartridge, 7.62x45mm, is roughly the ballistic equivalent to the Soviet 7.62x39mm M43 round. The whole package makes for a handy little carbine, slightly smaller than the Russian SKS, and a fair bit handier in the bargain.

RIGHT: Side-folding knife bayonet. Photo by Oleg Volk.

Interestingly, the rifle was released as part of a whole suite of new infantry weapons in the early '50s by the Czechs, who hoped to get foreign currency in exchange. The weapons included an innovative pistol that used a roller-locking short recoil action to tame the potent 7.62x25mm Tokarev round, a general-purpose machine gun that was simply a belt-fed update of the proven Bren gun (another famous Czech design), and an innovative submachine gun featuring a bolt that telescoped around the breech and a magazine well integral with the pistol grip: both novel features that made for a compact weapon, and both features that would be cheerfully plagiarized by Uziel Gal when he "designed" his famous Uzi.

With this cornucopia of small-arms technical excellence poured at their feet, it is somehow unsurprising that the Soviets ignored it, and instead forced their own far cruder designs on the nascent Warsaw Pact. Meanwhile, most of the Czech weapons faded into undeserved obscurity, with sales slumping since both superpowers were essentially giving guns away to third-world nations who promised to be on their team. As a result, vz 52’s have turned up in the oddest corners of the world, flotsam and jetsam of the global arms market; they’ve been encountered in the hands of terrorists in Lebanon and Cuban “advisors” in Grenada.

The CZ52 pistol is well-known to American shooters, having been imported in droves over the last five years or more. Its companion rifle is a little less recognizable, and many of those coming in recently have been barely shootable junkers. Most of the rifles have been painted with an ugly black substance bearing a remarkable resemblance to pickup truck bed liner, and these seem to run for $100 or maybe a little less, but a nice clean one could fall into the $200-$300 range. Loaded factory 7.62x45 ammunition for the vz 52 is scarce; the only source I could find online was Buffalo Arms. Unfortunately, their brass is known for splitting case necks, so for properly annealed, reloadable 7.62x45 brass, the source is Gewehr 98 of the blog Neural Misfires. His brass is correctly annealed and reports have casings lasting through ten reloadings or more.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Sunday Smith #6: .44 Hand Ejector Second Model, 1921

Smith & Wesson followed up the release of the .32 Hand Ejector in 1896 with a larger-framed .38 Hand Ejector in 1899 and a diminutive .22 Hand Ejector in 1902. The top-break .44 Double Action Frontier, however, was forced to soldier on as the only big-bore entry in Smith's catalog until 1907, when it was joined by the .44 Hand Ejector, also known as the New Century. To go with the new gun, S&W created a new chambering: .44 Smith & Wesson Special, which was derived from the old .44 Russian cartridge, but featured a lengthened case to prevent it from being used in any older black powder top-breaks.

The new big bore Hand Ejector contained a couple of traits that distinguished it from its smaller siblings. The cylinder crane featured a third locking point, in addition to the one at the rear of the cylinder and at the front of the ejector rod, causing the guns to sometimes be referred to as "Triple Locks". The most visually distinctive feature was the shroud under the barrel that protected the ejector rod from damage. These revolvers were assembled and finished with great care, and are considered by some to be among the finest revolvers ever made by anyone.

Even in the good old days, however, Smith was never averse to a bit of cost cutting. When it was realized that both the third locking lug and the ejector rod shroud (the latter being an especially tricky and time consuming addition to the barrel machining process) could be abandoned without any real effect on the gun's performance, Smith did so, introducing the newer and more spartan version as the .44 Hand Ejector 2nd Model in 1915. The newer design remained in Smith's lineup until 1940, when it was dropped due to the demands of turning out wartime M&P's.

Standard barrel length on the .44 Hand Ejector 2nd Model was 6.5", although both 4" and 5" barrels could be had as well. The vast majority were chambered for .44 Special; out of over 17,000 manufactured, only about 1,300 were chambered in .44-40 or .45 Colt, and these will bring a substantial premium today. The guns were available in both blued and nickel finishes, and with fixed or target sights. Checked walnut stocks were standard, and most had a lanyard loop on the butt, a popular feature for a large holster gun in that time. Production was halted for 1918 and 1919 due to the war effort, and resumed towards the end of 1920.

The above example, a nickel 6.5" .44 Hand Ejector 2nd Model, sports period mother of pearl stocks, and the serial number indicates that it was the 472nd revolver built after Smith resumed production in 1920. Pre-WWII .44 Hand Ejector prices are high and climbing higher, but the 2nd Models are fairly affordable when compared to their Triple Lock predecessors. The pictured revolver, a tired shooter in fair-to-good condition with some timing issues that needed correcting, set me back some $325 in '06. A Triple Lock in similar shape would probably fetch at least five bills. If my .44 H.E. 2nd Model was in, say, 85-90% condition, you'd probably be looking at $900 or more in today's hothouse market, while equally nice Triple Locks regularly fetch $2,500 or more. As with most old Smith & Wessons, though, they are going nowhere but up in price because, much like real estate, they aren't making any more.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Sunday Smith #5: .32-20 Hand Ejector Model of 1905 - 4th Change, 1921

Got a thirty-eight special, boys, it do very well
I Got a 32-20 now, and it’s a burnin’ --Robert Johnson, "32-20 Blues"

Revolvers in rifle chamberings have always been popular in America, and after Smith & Wesson had introduced their .38 Hand Ejector in the 1890s, they saw an open market niche. The .32 Winchester Center Fire cartridge, or ".32-20", was a very popular cartridge in the Eastern US. It was chambered in plenty of lever action rifles, was more than potent enough for taking small game for the pot, and (while not ideal) many folks pressed it into service as a deer cartridge because it was cheap to buy when compared to the other primary carbine cartridges of the day, such as .38-40 and .44-40.

Smith chambered their medium-frame "Military & Police" revolver for the .32 WCF in 1899 and continued production through the start of US involvement in WWII. It was an especially popular chambering in the southeast, a region hit hard by the Great Depression, and was immortalized in blues song and legend.

These days even a wretched late 1930s .32-20 Hand Ejector that looks like it's been dragged behind a truck will command a price above a C-note, while a nice example of a pre-1902 .32-20 1st Model can fetch more than $3,000 if it has all the proper accoutrement. The revolver in the picture is factory nickeled, dates to 1921, and has a 5" barrel; it was purchased at a gun show in April of '07 for $250, and is in probably 75% condition, with all matching serial numbers and a bore that showed signs of some pitting. Ammunition is still loaded by Winchester, Georgia Arms, and some of the smaller specialty houses; the Georgia Arms offering launches a 115gr unjacketed roundnose flat point bullet at a sedate 850 feet per second, and is plenty safe to shoot in an old Hand Ejector. The .32-20 K-frame is a joy to shoot, and I can't recommend one highly enough, but if you're looking for one, be prepared to spend money and caveat emptor when it comes to condition.