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.

Arisaka Type 38 Cavalry Carbine: A Samurai Mauser.

When Commodore Matthew Perry's ships dropped anchor in Uraga Harbor in 1853, the insular Japanese were brought face to face with a harsh ground truth; if they wanted to remain free from the colonizing spree being engaged in by the great European powers, they needed to modernize. They did so with a vengeance.

By the early 1870s, the Japanese army was armed with German Gew.71 Mausers and French Gras rifles, but they didn't rely on foreign small arms for long; in 1880, they began equipping with the Murata Type 13, a homegrown single shot bolt action sporting a melange of Mauser, Gras, and Dutch Beaumont design features; Winchester was contracted for 100 prototypes, and then production commenced in Japan. Ironically, it would be another twelve years before the land of Commodore Perry would replace its side-hammer Springfield Trapdoors with a bolt-action rifle.

ABOVE: Arisaka Type 38 Cavalry Carbine, photo by Oleg Volk.

When Japan shocked the world by beating a European power in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, they were equipped with a new rifle designed by a Colonel Nariaki Arisaka in 1897. He trumped this design eight years later with a rugged rifle based on the Spanish M1893 Mauser, known as the Type 38 Arisaka, (Type 38 refers to the 38th year of the Meiji Restoration, with 1868 being Year 1.) This rifle would go on to serve as the primary Japanese service rifle for the next thirty-four years, and remained in production in some factories until the Japanese surrender in 1945.

LEFT: The knurled knob on the rear of the bolt served as both a safety and a gas-deflecting flange. Photo by Oleg Volk.

Col. Arisaka's rifle was made in both rifle and carbine formats and had several innovative features, some more useful than others. The rifle handled escaping gas from a ruptured case very well, being equipped with both gas vent holes in the receiver ring and a large round knob on the rear that doubled as both a safety and a flange to direct gas away from the firer's face. Famous gunsmith P.O. Ackley considered the Type 38 to be the strongest military rifle action he'd ever tested. It certainly was a rugged looking rifle.

RIGHT: The front sight was drift-adjustable for windage, and was protected by sturdy "wings". Photo by Oleg Volk.

The stock was somewhat blocky in shape, and the butt was of two pieces fitted together tongue-and-groove style, which allowed stocks to be made from smaller blanks. The rifles came from the factory with sliding sheet-steel dust covers, but these were frequently discarded by troops in the field as they rattled as they got loose. The sights consisted of a triangular front blade protected by beefy wings, and a rear ladder-style sight that was graduated to 2,000 meters on the carbine version. The infantry rifle had sling swivels on the bottom attached to the butt and barrel band, while the cavalry carbine had its swivels on the left side of the stock. Both took the same long sword bayonet. Unlike most Mausers and Mauser derivatives, which required a cartridge nose or punch to release the magazine floorplate for unloading, the Type 38 could be unloaded safely by releasing the magazine floorplate by means of a finger-operated catch inside the triggerguard.

LEFT: The Type 38's 6.5x50mm round, in this case a 156gr Norma soft-point, with a 5.56mm NATO round and a .30-'06 M2 ball cartridge for comparison.

Like many other rifle designers in the late 1880s/early 1890s, Arisaka selected a smallbore bullet, in this case a 6.5mm projectile. The military loading launched a 139-grain projectile at 2500 feet per second, giving it slightly better-than-average wallop among the military 6.5's. The flatter crack of the 6.5 was easily distinguished from the deeper muzzleblasts of the .30 caliber rifles used by the Allied forces in the Pacific during WWII, at least according to most memoirs of the time.

ABOVE: The receiver ring of the Type 38. Note the ground-off mum, indicating a surrendered weapon. (And no more inscrutable or mystical than the canceled "Broad Arrow" on a de-milled British weapon; it just means it's not Imperial property anymore.) The markings below it read "Type", "8", and "3" from bottom to top. Also note the dual gas-escape vents. Photo by Oleg Volk.

Not only did the Type 38 see service with the Imperial Japanese military, but excess rifles were also sold to fellow allies Great Britain and Russia during WWI. Rifles found in the US today will generally either be battlefield-captured souvenirs, or surrendered pieces brought home by returning GIs and sailors or imported after the war by surplus houses. The latter can be distinguished by the fact that the chrysanthemum symbol, an Imperial property mark much like the British "Broad Arrow", on the receiver ring will be defaced or ground off. Prices will start at under $100 for a tatty infantry rifle with a ground mum, and can climb north of $500 for a nice carbine with intact mum and dust cover. Ammunition is still loaded by Norma as well as some specialty houses, but expect to pay dearly for it. This is a rifle for which it is definitely worthwhile to reload, especially since the strong action allows the caliber to shine. As with all WWII weapons, expect a lot of volatility in pricing over the next years as the war passes from living memory, with the passing of the generation who fought it.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Sunday Smith #4: .32 Regulation Police, 1918

In the early 20th Century, police forces were still a fairly new concept in most of the United States. In much of the rest of the Western world, military or paramilitary forces were used to keep order, but the American distrust of standing armies and the posse comitatus act prevented that in the US. Sheriffs backed up by hired deputies and with the power to raise posses from the general populace had kept order in the USA since the nation's founding, but the idea of permanent municipal police forces gradually spread across the settled regions of the East in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Large belt revolvers were seen as uncouth artifacts more appropriate to the unsettled West; an Eastern policeman's gun was as much a badge of authority as it was a weapon. In 1917, Smith & Wesson released a new adaptation of their diminutive I-frame revolver with a four inch barrel and a modified grip frame that allowed the use of wood grips with a squared-off profile to the butt. The new pistol was called the "Regulation Police" and was fairly popular, with many thousands shipping between 1917 and 1942, when the model was discontinued.

The gun in the above photo is a nickeled .32 Regulation Police, holding six rounds of the then-new .32 S&W Long cartridge, probably built in 1918 or thereabouts. While the nickel finish shows some signs of wear and pitting, the grips are worn nearly smooth, perhaps from where an officer rubbed it like a worry stone in the pocket of his frock coat as he made his nightly rounds of Main Street, ensuring that all the doors that were supposed to be locked actually were, and that all was quiet on his watch.