Monday, May 28, 2007

Sunday Smith #3: .32 Hand Ejector 3rd Model, 1924

In the early 1890s Colt's debuted a solid-frame double action revolver with a cylinder that swung out to the side for loading. Smith quickly followed with their own version in 1896. Previous top-break Smiths would automatically eject the spent cases when hinged open, but the solid-frame gun with its swing-out cylinder required the shooter to manually operate the ejector rod in order to dump the empties; consequently, the new revolvers were dubbed "Hand Ejectors". The first Hand Ejectors were small revolvers in the new .32 S&W Long caliber, and their cylinders were unlatched by pulling forward on the ejector rod under the barrel. This frame size came to be known as the ".32" or "I-frame". In 1903, the I-frame was redesigned to add a thumb latch for releasing the cylinder, and a lug was added under the barrel that the ejector rod locked into by means of a detent, giving the Smith & Wesson cylinder a stronger means of locking than their Colt rivals.

The I-frame revolver in the photo above is a .32 Hand Ejector Third Model produced some time in the 1920s. It has a factory nickel finish, a 3.25" barrel, and the factory hard rubber grips are in unusually good condition for their age. It's in fairly good shape, all things considered, with nice bright case coloring still evident on the hammer and trigger, and likely spent most of its many decades in a desk or dresser drawer providing peace of mind to a householder before its honorable retirement as a collector's piece only occasionally exercised at the range.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sunday Smith #2: .38 Safety Hammerless 4th Model, 1899

In 1887, S&W introduced its "Safety Hammerless" or "New Departure" models. Legend (surely apocryphal) has it that Mr. Wesson was disturbed by the tale of a child accidentally shooting himself with a small-frame S&W wheelgun, leading to the invention of a small-frame pocket revolver that couldn't be cocked, had a horrendously heavy double action trigger pull, and required that a grip safety on the backstrap be depressed in order for the trigger to be pulled in the first place.

In a move that seems alien to our lawsuit-besotted times, the Safety Hammerless revolvers shipped from the factory with a pin under the stocks that could be used to disable the grip safety. Interestingly, these pistols (known as "Lemonsqueezers" to their aficionados,) with their enclosed hammers and double-action-only triggers, became the pattern for the hammerless "Centennial" S&W revolvers that are the preferred pocket pistols of today's cognoscenti.

The pistol in the above photo is a .38 Safety Hammerless 4th Model, circa 1899. It has been re-nickeled, which can be deduced from a distance by the fact that the trigger is no longer case-colored and the trigger guard is bright rather than black. Despite its age, it still fires .38 S&W cartridges reliably and, if one can hold the hair-fine sights on target through the 15+ pound trigger squeeze, will hit what one is aiming at.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Japanese Type I rifle: An unusual hybrid.

In the late 1930s, Imperial Japan's ongoing invasion of China was beginning to place a strain on the ability of her arsenals to keep the army supplied with rifles. With the army taking all the rifle production from home, the navy was forced to go shopping for a source of rifles for their naval infantry. A call to their new Axis partner, Italy, resulted in one of the more unusual military rifles of WWII.

ABOVE: Japanese Type I rifle. Photo by Oleg Volk.

The new rifle, referred to as the "Type I", was a hybrid of Italian and Japanese features. (Sort of like ramen al dente, or a teriyaki beef calzone. Mmmm. Anyway...) The rifle's action was that of the Mo. 1891 Carcano, which itself was a more-or-less direct ripoff of the old Gew.88 "Commission Rifle", sans the usual Mannlicher-style magazine. In its place was a Mauser-type box magazine that could be fed rounds from stripper clips. The rifle was chambered for the standard Japanese 6.5x50mm cartridge, and the furniture and sights were pure Arisaka, down to the two-piece dovetailed buttstock. Unlike other Japanese service rifles, they were not marked with the Imperial chrysanthemum on the receiver ring. In fact, except for the serial number and various small proof marks, they were remarkably devoid of markings of any sort.

Never common on the US collector scene (less than 60,000 were produced; compared to millions for most other WWII service rifles) it's possible to go many years without ever seeing one at a store or gun show. It's not listed in the Blue Book or the Standard Catalog of Military Firearms. It's mentioned but not pictured in Japanese Rifles of World War II and Scarlata's Bolt Action Military Rifles book. At the previous gun store I worked at, an old guy walked in the door with a long rifle in tow:

"Hey, I got this ol' military rifle. A buddy of mine tol' me that this lady that works here knows a lot about ol' army guns, collects 'em, even, and could tell me what it's worth."

"That'd be me."

As he started to heave the rifle up onto the counter, saying "I think it's Japanese...", I heroically kept from squeaking "Ohmigod! It's a Type "I"!" I'd never seen one in the steel before.

"So, what's it worth?"

"Well, sir, it's hard to say. The gun isn't in any of the usual price guides. Obscurity may work against it, the bore is a nasty dark orange with corrosion, and ammo is so expensive that an empty magazine means the gun's nearly totalled. On the other hand, it's cosmetically nice, and someone who knows what it is and is just dying to have one for their collection may be willing to pay well to get it. What do you figure you need to get out of it?"

"Well, I'd like to get out of it what I've got in it..."

"Which is? If you don't mind me asking..."

"Naw. I paid $75 for it, and I reckon I've got $5 worth of my time in running it over here. How's $80 sound?"

"Let me call my boss."

I walked in the back room and rang him on the cell phone. Bear in mind my boss at that shop didn't know one milsurp from another. To him, they're all just junky old rifles.

"Hey, I've got this guy that wants to sell us a Type I." *long pause* "It's a rifle with Arisaka-style parts on a Carcano action." *longer pause* "Anyhow, it's an oddball old Japanese rifle. He wants $80 for it."

"I dunno, money's still kinda tight right now. You think we could sell it for $150?"

"Hell ye... er, I mean, I know somebody who'd pay $150 for it."



"Okay, give him $80."

Back out front.

"Here you go, sir."

"Thank you very much, ma'am; if I find anything else, I'll let you know."

Later, my boss apparently decided that he could live with making only a $50 profit off me, instead of a $70 one, which was just fine with me. The rifle in question turned out to be one that was produced at Beretta, rather than one of the more common government arsenal-produced specimens. Ammunition is still produced by Norma, but at today's prices, two and a half boxes actually equal what I paid for the rifle, so until I get dies in the caliber, it won't get shot much. Whether it gets shot or not, it's an interesting artifact from WWII and makes for quite the conversation piece.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Sunday Smith #1: .32 Double Action 3rd Model, 1883

Smith & Wesson is, if not the oldest surviving American gunmaker, the only American arms company who has continued to fill the same market niche since their inception. In an era when Colt dominated the military contract market, S&W purchased a patent from Rollin White and began turning out a line of tiny revolvers chambered for the then-new .22 rimfire cartridge. Despite occasional military interest, Smith & Wesson has been turning out revolvers and pistols mostly for the civilian and law-enforcement market since 1857, the date of introduction of the Model One. (Before this, they made lever-operated pistols based on the Volcanic pattern.)

Smith & Wesson collecting is still a wide-open and fertile field. With tens of millions of revolvers and pistols made to hundreds of patterns over the last 150+ years, it's easy to start a modest collection. Rarer models may have started commanding high prices, but even a pristine Triple Lock or Registered Magnum is a bargain when compared to a cherry first generation Colt Peacemaker. Hence, the Sunday Smith series; a more-or-less chronological walk through my S&W collection, with a dab of history and pricing data to boot.

The first gun featured, and the oldest Smith currently in my collection, is a .32 Double Action 3rd Model, dating from approximately 1882 or '83. The gun is chambered in .32 S&W, one of the oldest centerfire cartridges still extant, and sports a 3.5" barrel and a nickel finish. These were intended as pocket pistols in an age when most gentleman thought nothing of having a handgun in their coat pocket, and many ladies felt likewise. The tiny size of the gun is shown by the 1937 penny included for scale. These small-frame top-breaks are still cheap to acquire in average condition. As one can guess from the shells showing in the cylinder, this one is still a safe shooter, and I paid under $200 for it from a private seller at a gun show in April of 2006.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Springfield M1903 Mark I: American Icon.

The United States Army was slow to field a breechloading repeater, the single-shot "Trapdoor" Springfield M1873 proving adequate for the needs of a military that was mostly involved in Indian fighting. By the early 1890s, however, the need for a new rifle was apparent and after an open trial the Krag Jorgensen rifle was settled on, being adopted as the M1892. Within six years it would see its first test in combat.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 marked the first time that armies equipped with the new smokeless powder magazine-fed rifles faced each other. The Spanish army was equipped with the M1893 Mauser, a thoroughly modern design, which featured Mauser's stripper clip loading system which allowed a soldier to strip five rounds into the magazine at once from a disposable sheet-metal clip. This contrasted sharply with the Krag, which required the soldier to dump loose rounds into the magazine; an easy thing to fumble on a two-way rifle range. The Mauser was also stronger, and fired a higher velocity round, which gave it a flatter trajectory. The Krag's action was incapable of taking the pressures involved in firing the newer, faster rounds. Despite winning the war, the US Army immediately began seeking a replacement for the Krag Jorgensen.

ABOVE: M1903 Mark I, photo by Oleg Volk.

After studying captured Spanish rifles, the United States adopted the United States Magazine Rifle, Caliber .30, Model of 1903. It was destined to be an icon; of all the myriad weapons produced at the government arsenal over its many decades of operation, when one says "Springfield", it is understood that one means the M1903. The '03 was a radical departure from the contemporary military practice of issuing a long rifle to infantry and a short carbine to cavalry; it split the difference with an overall length of roughly 43 inches, and the same rifle was issued to all branches. This was the same course Britain took with the SMLE in 1904; Germany didn't follow suit until the introduction of the kar 98k in 1935. The early rifles had a flimsy, fiddly rod bayonet and a simple, sturdy tangent sight like that found on the Mauser. These were quickly replaced with a sturdy sword bayonet, and a fiddly, complex rear sight more at home on the manicured ranges of Camp Perry than on a chaotic battlefield.

LEFT: Complex Springfield rear sight was windage adjustable, and marked out to 2,850 yards. The lower peep in the example is set at 800. Photo by Oleg Volk.

Service in the trenches of World War One showed a need for a higher volume of fire than could be delivered by the bolt-action rifle when clearing trenches or suppressing enemy fire during the dash across no-man's land. A hasty secret program resulted in a device that would replace the bolt of the Springfield, allowing the rifle to fire semiauto pistol cartridges from a 32-round magazine. Known as the "Pedersen Device", rifles meant to use it are marked "Model 1903 Mark I" and are easily distinguished by the oval port cut in the left side of the receiver to allow the ejection of spent shells.

RIGHT: The ejection port for the Pedersen Device. Photo by Oleg Volk.

The M1903 was one of the most beloved service arms in US history. It was the primary rifle of our troops for thirty three years, and served on long after that as a sniper rifle or in rear-echelon roles. When it was replaced by the M1 Garand in the 1930s, resistance to the change was fierce, and the new rifle met with a level of scorn that not even the M16 faced. Over a million Springfields have gone on to become hunting rifles, family heirlooms, and collector's pieces in the US, and original examples in good condition are demanding ever more stratospheric prices on the collector's market. A Mark I with the correct stock and barrel (which the rifle in the photos does not have, more's the pity) can bring in excess of $2,000, while even a homely WWII-era '03A3 is rapidly becoming a $500 proposition. A joy to shoot and a joy to look at, no collection of American militaria is complete without one.

Timeless lines. Photo by Oleg Volk.