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.


Anonymous said...

What a fascinating artifact. But how does it shoot? :)

I'm glad it hasn't been "restored".

Anonymous said...

What a fine revolver, Tams! have you been able to access any of the Clark's shop records for more information? I think it would be interesting to know just what kind of stocks it wore when it left that fine old custom smithy. That would give you an EXCELLENT excuse for many weekends of browsing the gunshows, looking for the appropriate wooden upholstery.

Even if you can't get the exact information, proper old stocks still show up. Better still, in line with the customized features, perhaps you could come up with an actual set by Walter Roper.

I trust that great old gun does indeed shoot as good as it looks.


theirritablearchitect said...

Tam, far be it for a schlock me to make a suggestion about your writing, which far outclasses my own, and I'm really not trying to be pedantic here, but, if I may; the last sentence in the second-to-last paragraph, you may want to reposition the "at" to a location that is...a bit less colloqiual.

Oh, and nice piece about an interesting heater.

Anonymous said...

Hey Tam, have you had a chance to check out the S & W 340 PD/CT ?

In .357mag this is a pocket cannon. I ordered one for the wife but due to back ordering it has not come in yet.

I have a eye for a classic when I see one- check it out.


SpeakerTweaker said...

Wow, now that thing's is Purr-Dee. I'm with pdb: how DOES it shoot? And this one would be a .38 S&W Special, right?

Well, no thanks to you, Marko, and Brandon I now look under the glass at every older Smith I see. Saw one yesterday at the store I'm taking my CHL class at. A (I think) mid-70's Model 10 that's darn-near mint. He wants $400, and I want something for the automobile. Coincidence...?


Kim du Toit said...

Oof. That's a right purty one...

Anonymous said...

you seem the person to ask about this old revolver. did winchester release one almost identical to this. because i have one that is close but says winchester not smith and wesson on the barrel and i think its in 32 caliber but could be 38. its not in good condition and i would like to find parts to restore it. but first need to know exacaly what i have. my e-mail is

Tam said...

".32 Winchester" would be a reference to the caliber ".32-20" which is also known as ".32 Winchester Center Fire" or ".32 W.C.F."

Johnny said...

IIRC this was the revolver used by Indy in the first Indiana Jones film.

Anonymous said...

Your picture shows a gun with adjustable sights? That's not a feature of an original HD?
Dick in Kansas

Tam said...

Dick in Kansas,

"Your picture shows a gun with adjustable sights? That's not a feature of an original HD?"

Didn't read the post, huh? :)