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.