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.