Monday, December 01, 2008

For those that were unaware... has opened a dedicated Curio & Relic subforum. Come nose around and contribute to the knowledge base!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Classic Colt #1: Model 1902 Military

This past weekend, I shot a bowling pin match with a high-speed, low-drag semiautomatic pistol of the type favored by our nation's elite antiterrorist units. The next day at the gun show, I picked up a pistol that was first made one hundred and six years ago. Except for a couple of small design differences, they are largely the same gun.

In the late 19th Century, gun designer John Moses Browning pursued two paths of automatic pistol operation. The first to go into production was what we now term “blowback”, in which the force of the fired case pressing against the breech face would overcome the inertia of the “slide”, which was the upper part of the pistol, and the recoil spring that held it shut and drive the whole assembly to the rear, the spent cartridge case being kicked clear of the gun in the process.

The problem was that this method was not suitable to more potent cartridges, as the only way to keep the slide closed until pressures within the chamber had dropped to a safe level was to make it too massive to carry conveniently or to hold it shut with a spring so strong that the average person would find it difficult to actuate the slide manually. Something obviously needed to be done to slow the rearward progress or the slide.

Mr. Browning's idea was to make the barrel free to move somewhat, unlike in the straight blowback design, and anchor it to the frame by means of a pair of swinging links, one at the rear of the barrel and one at the front. On firing, the whole assemblage of barrel and slide would move rearward locked together by means of lugs machined atop the barrel that fitted into mortises in the underside of the slide. This would only be for a short distance, as the links would naturally pivot about their pins, causing the barrel to drop down and unlock from the slide.

The slide would continue rearward, extracting the spent case from a chamber whose pressures had safely dropped, since the bullet had long since exited the barrel. Thus did Browning find a solution to the problem of higher-powered cartridges in the newfangled automatic pistols, and he managed to sell the idea to Colt, heretofore known mostly for revolvers. In 1900, Colt released a pistol chambered in a .38-caliber rimless round loaded with the new smokeless powder. It was not a resounding success, having one or two issues that needed addressing.

One of those issues was that the hammer could not safely be carried in the lowered position with a round in the chamber. Mr. Browning refined his original design somewhat, including a new inertial firing pin that allowed hammer-down carry on a live round, and Colt released the refinement as the Model of 1902, notable for its complete absence of external safety levers, made possible by the fact that liability attorneys had not evolved from sharks yet and everyone knew whose fault it was if you put a bullet through your own foot.

A large pistol with a 6” barrel completely enclosed by its slab-like breech slide, it was very plain in appearance compared to its contemporaries. There were no outside controls or levers, except for a semi-recessed slide catch that held the slide to the rear after the last round had been fired. The muzzle was located within the slide by means of the forward link, as well as a distinctly coned shape that would return it to the center of the slide as the latter moved forward.

The pistol was offered in two variants, a “Sporting” model with a somewhat rounded butt, and the “Military” model with a squared butt holding one more round of ammunition as well as a lanyard ring. The “Military” model actually did manage to score some sales to various governments, with the U.S. buying a number for testing & evaluation, as well as shipments to users as diverse as Mexico and Chile.

The pistol was manufactured until 1929, long after it had been superseded by newer designs from Browning. Its main weakness had been that, should the slide lock fail, the slide would exit the frame to the rear, catching the shooter square in the face. On later designs, Browning added a recoil lug under the front of the slide to retain it on the frame in the event of slide lock failure. This meant that the slide would have to be drawn off the front of the frame when taking the pistol down for cleaning, and necessitated abandonment of the forward swinging link. Browning made up for it by supporting the end of the barrel in a hardened removable bushing installed in the front of the slide.

A glance at a cutaway of the pistol shows how little has changed of the basic mechanism between a 1902 Colt and the latest polymer STI 2011 race gun. There is the sliding trigger which acts on the disconnector, which passes through and transmits forces to the sear, the whole assembly held in place by a three-fingered leaf spring behind the magazine. When it is done right the first time, there's not much need for improvement.

The example above was manufactured in 1912. It was purchased at a gun show in late 2008 for $675, mostly due to its lack of original grips and the fact that the original finish has gone to patina and there is some pitting on the front starboard side of the slide. With even a modicum of original bluing left, these guns will bring well north of $1,000, with a very nice example of an early model (which has the cocking serrations on the forward end of the slide) worth as much as $8k. With U.S. military markings, you could buy a new car for what one will bring at auction. Any Colt auto of this vintage is a solid investment and worth a closer look.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Sunday Smith #42: .38 Single Action 2nd Model, 1881

The story of the firearms industry in America is often a story of patents. A study of any of the early 20th Century self-loading pistols from Savage or Smith & Wesson, for example, will show the great lengths that it took to design around the various Browning patents held by Colt. It was a single patent that was largely responsible for the initial success of Smith & Wesson in the revolver business: They held the patent by Rollin White for a cylinder with charge holes bored through from end to end, and consequently they owned the market for revolvers firing fixed metallic cartridges.

S&W mostly concentrated on small pocket revolvers, leaving the market for martial belt pistols to Colt and Remington, although they did make a tentative foray with their Model Number Two, which was built on a smallish frame for a holster gun, and chambered for an anemic .32 rimfire cartridge to boot. Often erroneously termed the "Army" or "Old Army" Model, this was never purchased by the U.S. Army as an issue weapon, although it was very popular as a backup gun among servicemen who could afford to spring for such an extravagance. For the most part, however Smith was content with the civilian market for small revolvers.

Patents, however, are not forever, and as the decade of the 1860s drew to a close, S&W was preparing for the expiration of the Rollin White patent with a whole new generation of revolvers. 1872 was the end for the patent and before Colt even had a chance to get their new cartridge revolver to market, Smith had made a preemptive strike with a new martial revolver containing two new patented innovations. The Number Three, which began production in 1870 and was chambered for the then-new centerfire metallic cartridges, featured a frame that was hinged at the bottom and which exposed the entire rear of the cylinder for loading when the latch was released and the barrel tipped forwards. Further, the revolver featured an automatic ejection system driven by a cogwheel in the hinge that would eject all six spent cartridges simultaneously.

The Number Three was a huge success, most notably landing Smith and Wesson a huge contract with the armies of the Tsar of Russia. Not content to rest on their laurels, Smith began to revamp their smaller revolvers as well.

In 1874, an intermediate-sized revolver roughly analogous to the Number Two "Old Army" debuted. The new gun was a single action design, featuring the hinged frame and automatic ejection of the larger Number Three, but with a scaled-down cylinder sporting five holes bored to fit an entirely new cartridge, featuring a .38 caliber, 150-grain bullet over a charge of 14 grains of black powder.

The new cartridge, dubbed the .38 S&W, became one of the most popular and long-lived chamberings in firearms history. It even went on to be, albeit with a heavier projectile and smokeless powder, the official military handgun round of the British Empire.

The revolver developed to fire it was variously known as the .38 Single Action or, since it was about the same size as the earlier .32 Rimfire pistol, the Number Two. The original models had a long housing under the barrel for the ejector assembly that was similar to that on the popular .44 revolvers made for the Russian military contract, and this has caused the early .38 Single Actions to be referred to as "Baby Russians". That long housing was, however, necessitated by an overly complex ejector system. Smith streamlined the mechanism in 1877 and the resulting .38 Single Action 2nd Model remained in production until 1891, with over a hundred thousand being manufactured during that period.

The revolver pictured above is a 2nd Model from fairly early in the production run. It is nickel-plated, as the majority of Smith & Wesson revolvers were during that era, and features the earlier style stocks, which have a fairly plain "S & W" in a simple font and a finely-grained checkered texture to the hard rubber. Later stocks featured more florid trim and a fancy logo of an entwined S&W that is still used today. Easily meeting the requirements for "NRA Fine", it was purchased at a gun show in Knoxville, TN for $250 in January of '08. The gun books a lot stronger than that, but that can be the advantage of being at a slow show, late on a Sunday, with cash in hand. If the revolver were in truly "Like New" condition, it would probably fetch somewhere in the neighborhood of $800, while a still-shootable "representative example" should be able to be purchased for the same $250 I paid.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

BPCR: Black Powder Cartridge Rifle.

By the 1870's, the armies of the world had wholeheartedly begun the transition to breechloading rifles firing metallic cartridges. I'm fortunate enough to have five examples of the breed in my museum, from France, Germany, Great Britain, Switzerland, and the United States. It's interesting to compare and contrast these very different rifles that entered service all at roughly the same time, and the different imperatives and philosophies that drove their acceptance by those various nations. They fall into roughly three groups.

The first group is represented by the German Mauser Kar. 71 (a shortened derivative of their Gew. 71 infantry rifle), and the French Mle. 74 Gras. Of these five nations, Germany and France had the most experience with breechloaders as general-issue infantry weapons. The Prussian army had begun issuing the Dreyse rifle in 1841, and the French had followed suit with the Chassepot in 1866. Both weapons were "needle guns", which is to say that they fired combustible cartridges made of linen or paper that were loaded through the breech, which was of the pattern that we would come to know as the conventional "bolt action". They were called needle guns because the primer was in the base of the bullet, ahead of the powder charge, and a long, needle-like firing pin had to pierce all the way through the charge to reach the primer. Needless to say, this caused problems as the slender firing needle was exposed to the erosive effects of the combusting powder charge. Also, the paper or linen cartridges did not obturate, or seal, the breech, causing the firer to be exposed to occasional jets of hot gases in the face; something not conducive to accurate aiming.

After fighting a war between them with these older weapons, the Germans were the first to field a bolt-action rifle firing a self-contained brass cartridge. The first of a long line of Mauser-designed German rifles, the Gew. 71 featured a self-cocking bolt, unlike the Dreyse, which had to be manually cocked after closing. Using the camming action of the opening bolt gave good extraction of the spent case, but the Gew. 71 lacked an ejector, requiring the firer to tip the rifle on its side after opening the bolt to let the spent cartridge fall free. The French response was more parsimonious, having just come out on the losing side of the recent unpleasantness, their Mle. 74 Gras was designed so that it could be made by fitting a new bolt to an existing Chassepot, thus converting it to take brass cartridges. Both weapons are 11mm, or .43 caliber, a large step down for the Germans, whose Dreyses had sported a .60" bore.

Unlike the French and the Germans, who faced each other on the continent, the US and Britain were isolated by the sea, and faced only skirmishes with hostile, technologically-primitive natives on their expanding frontiers. The British had originally used a breechloading conversion of their Enfield muskets, based on a design by Snider, but the 1870's saw the .58 caliber Snider-Enfields replaced by a new falling block design by a Swiss named Martini. Pulling down on a lever under the action dropped the breechblock and ejected the spent brass from the previous round. A new cartridge was fed into the breech and the lever raised to close the rifle, which was now ready for firing.

The Americans, rebuilding after a savage civil war, weren't eager to spend fortunes on new munitions. A method was devised by a man named Erskine Allin, master armourer at Springfield Arsenal, to convert the massive stock of .58-caliber rifle muskets to cartridge breechloaders. Much like the Snider-Enfield, the Allin Springfield used a trapdoor breech. Like the British design, this allowed ignition to be accomplished by the existing sidehammer. Unlike the British design, which flipped open to the side, the trapdoor breech on the Springfield flopped open to the front. Oddly, for a country that had so much experience in a recent conflict with breechloading repeaters such as the Spencer and the Henry, in the early 1870s the US Army decided to start making "trapdoor" Springfields from the ground up, as new-built rifles. These required the soldier to place the weapon on half-cock, flip the breech up, insert the cartridge, close the breech, cock the rifle, and fire. In their favor, they had an ejector for the spent brass, which neither the Snider-Enfield or even the high-tech Mauser could claim at that point.

Unlike the French and German efforts, both the British and American rifles used .45 caliber cartridges that packed a serious wallop, even at extended ranges. As a footnote, the 1873 Springfield's .45-70 Government cartridge is still a popular sporting round today, a hundred and thirty-five years later.

The odd duck out is the Swiss Vetterli Gew. 69/71. Of the five rifles, it is the only repeater. In the 1870s, Napoleon's invasion was still a recent sore to the independence-minded Swiss, who watched the constant knuckle-jousts between Germany, France, and other continental powers with some trepidation. Switzerland relied on a citizen militia to ensure their sovereignty and, being a technologically-advanced country, selected a technologically-advanced weapon with which to arm them. The Vetterli fired a somewhat weak .41 caliber rimfire round, but it combined a modern breechloading bolt action with a 12-shot tubular magazine system inspired by the U.S. Henry lever-action repeaters. The disadvantages of rimfire priming were offset by a forked firing pin that struck the cartridge in two places simultaneously to ensure reliable ignition.

Reading about these different rifles and their reasons for being is quite interesting. It's another level of interesting altogether to have them where you can study and fire them side by side. Thankfully for the collector, all these rifles predate the 1898 cutoff by almost three decades; the Federal government doesn't consider these antiques to be firearms, and so they can be acquired and shipped without the need of special licenses. Buy a time machine or two and enjoy it!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sunday Smith #41: Model 21-4, 2004.

After being in production for roughly a century, Smith & Wesson’s Hand Ejector revolvers still bore an external similarity to their 19th Century forebears, but that resemblance was in many respects only skin deep. Just as the intervening decades had wrought changes in the ownership of the company and the nature of its manufacturing facilities, time had changed the guns themselves, often to the point of unrecognizability to longtime fans.

The rush of production and government safety demands during the Second War To End All Wars introduced both a simplified ejector rod assembly as well as an internal hammer block. The 1950s saw extraneous frame screws removed and the traditional model names of yore replaced with a sterile numbering system. In the Sixties, stainless steel entered the marketplace as a new material for gunmaking and gradually supplanted carbon steel among many users for its ease of maintenance. The heavy barrel, originally introduced to tame muzzle flip in magnum and selected target model wheelguns, became standard, since it required fewer machining steps to manufacture than the traditional tapered barrel.

In the 1980s, further simplification of the manufacturing process saw the departure of pinned barrels and the countersunk chambers that had been the trademark of S&W revolvers in magnum calibers. Increasingly strict EPA regulations combined with the new predominance of stainless guns to do away with nickel plating as a finish option. In the last decade of the 20th Century, the new Metal Injection Molding process used for lockwork and other small parts caused the firing pins of centerfire guns to migrate to the frame, where their rimfire brethren had located them all along. In order to reduce the number of different frames they needed to manufacture, S&W deleted the traditional square-butt profile from the catalog with little fanfare.

All these changes left a considerable part of Smith’s core consumer base feeling lost at sea. The grumbling started quietly, mostly confined to various gun nut message boards on the internet, and S&W’s new management floated the first trial balloon of reconciliation in the form of the “Heritage Series” of revolvers in 2000 and 2001. Unfortunately, the Heritage Series was less than a stellar sales success.

Sold as collector’s pieces solely through ace distributor Lew Horton, the Heritage Series attempted to revive several classic discontinued models. Collectors and fans lost no time starting with the snarky comments. For starters, since these guns were built on existing stocks of frames, there were no square-butt frames available. This resulted in the bizarre-looking (to a collector’s eye) spectacle of 6.5”-barrelled target N-frames with round-butt grips. Furthermore, in an attempt to give a “vintage look” to the guns to accompany the gold-foil boxes reminiscent of a bygone era, Smith had the frames of several models done in a beautiful case-coloring by famed firearms finisher Doug Turnbull. The hitch being, of course, that old Smiths never had case-colored frames. More than one internet wag described the “Heritage Series” as the “Vaguely Old-Timey-Looking Series”. Combined with stratospheric Performance Center-style price tags, these factors were the kiss of death for the Heritage Series guns: Not enough Performance Center whiz-bang to draw new buyers and not convincingly retro enough to lure back traditionalists.

The net result of all this was that many, if not most, of the Heritage revolvers went for dimes on the dollar via reseller CDNN. Happily, though, someone at Smith seems to have taken the right message away from this: It wasn’t that retro revolvers couldn’t succeed, it was that the Heritage Series wasn’t retro enough. The next evolution in this story arc came from an unexpected quarter: The “tactical training” market.

Clint Smith, former trainer under Jeff Cooper, proprietor of Thunder Ranch, and odds-on favorite to be the next pope of the Church Of Tactical Truth when the white smoke went up from Gunsite, had a weakness for simple, reliable old guns, such as Colt Single Action Armies, big-bore S&W Hand Ejectors, and the like. Around about this time, he began making overtures to Smith & Wesson regarding the desirability of an old-school large-frame Military & Police-style revolver, with a 4” tapered barrel, fixed rear and half-moon front sights, and firing a low-pressure classic big-bore round. A modern iteration of the classic Model 21 “Model of 1950 .44 Military”, if you will. Original Model 21s were scarce collector’s items, and rapidly becoming too precious to carry even if you could find one for sale and, seeing a market, the idea took hold at S&W.

Sadly, the original idea soon spun out of Clint’s control. Anxious for a tie-in with the popular “Thunder Ranch” training center, the new Model 21-4 acquired the shield & lightning bolt Thunder Ranch logo picked out in gold leaf on the side plate. Additionally, they would come with special serial numbers using a “TRS” (for “Thunder Ranch Special”) serial number and a wood display case with a glass lid in which to show off the pristine collector’s model. All in all, a far cry from the simple, rugged carry gun originally envisioned.

Despite outcries over the decidedly non-retro round-butt grip contour and internal lock, as well as QC problems with early guns, sales were apparently good enough to persuade S&W to try again the next year with another Thunder Ranch gun. This time the gold leaf and glass case were eschewed in favor of a plain side plate and a simple padded olive drab zippered nylon carrying case. The new Thunder Ranch was in .45 ACP and numbered as the Model 22-4.

These early attempts presaged a wholesale return to the retro revolver market in 2007, with the reintroduction of several classic models, complete with the proper square-butt grip profile where required. Smith & Wesson seems to have learned a lesson from Harley Davidson: When tradition and brand recognition are two of your strongest assets, it is foolish to ignore them. Now, about that MIM and the internal lock…

The revolver pictured above, a Model 21-4 “Thunder Ranch Special”, gun number 807, was purchased new in 2005. Unlike many of these guns, it wasn’t bought to be a prima donna safe queen, but specifically because it was a fixed-sight .44 Special N-frame with a round butt and tapered 4” barrel; both features that make it easier to carry. The gold leaf logo may be silly-looking, but it doesn’t affect the functionality of the gun in the slightest, and the glass display case doesn’t have to go in the kydex inside-the-waistband holster with it. The initial purchase price was under $700 and current values on a putative collector model this recent are hard to fix with certainty. In any case, collector models are usually priced with the understanding that they are sold As-New-In-Box, Never Fired. I think Clint Smith would be happy that those words ceased to apply to this example the day I took delivery.

Monday, May 12, 2008

MAS-49/56: End of an Era.

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, France was blessed with a creative and prolific arms industry, as forward-thinking as any in the world. Two French innovations alone completely changed the nature of land warfare. First was the hydraulically-buffered quick-firing field piece, which allowed cannon to fire repeatedly from the same position, without rolling backward under recoil, while their crews sheltered behind an armored splinter shield mounted directly to the gun’s carriage. The second innovation was just as significant.

Experimenting with new types of propellant yielded a high-energy powder that burned cleanly, without the barrel fouling and attendant white smoke clouds generated by the black powder that had been used in guns for the last half-millennium. The new powder allowed much higher velocities, especially from the smaller-diameter bullets made possible by the lack of fouling. The higher velocities, in turn, demanded that the soft lead of the bullets be encased in a harder metal jacket to protect them from erosion during their passage down the barrel.

Combined with recent advances in breechloading magazine-fed rifles, this meant that the French infantry could be equipped with a rifle that shot further, with a flatter trajectory than their foes; a rifle that didn’t need to be cleaned as often, and which didn’t emit a cloud of smoke on firing that would simultaneously give away the shooter’s position and obscure his vision of the battlefield. Overnight, every other army on the planet found themselves equipped with yesterday’s technology.

Unfortunately for the French, they had a bureaucracy that was as hidebound and penurious as their designers were innovative. For the sake of both cost and rapidity, the new medium bore smokeless cartridge was to be chambered in a rifle that was basically an adaptation of the tube-magazine Kropatschek already in use by the French marines. Additionally, the new 8mm smokeless cartridge would be based on the case head dimensions of the current service round, the black powder 11mm Gras. Authorities reasoned that, in case of emergency, this would allow existing single-shot Gras rifles to be rechambered for the new round by the simple expedient of fitting new barrels. Thus, the cartridge for the new M1886 “Lebel” rifle looked like an incense cone; sharply tapered from its fat, rimmed, black-powder-derived base to its small, 8mm jacketed bullet.

This decision was to haunt the French arms industry for the next fifty years because it totally hamstrung all French efforts in the next phase of small arms development: self-loading firearms. With the advent of the clean-burning, high-pressure smokeless round, arms designers around the world began coming up with ingenious ways to harness its power to not only propel the bullet, but to operate the gun itself. French designers came up with automatic designs, too, including some of the earliest self-loading shoulder-fired rifles, but were stymied at every turn by the heavily-tapered cartridge with its wide rim, both characteristics anathema to reliable function in a self-loading weapon.

All through the Great War, French units suffered with inadequate machine guns. In the period after the war, the government finally threw up its hands and consented to the development of a new cartridge specifically for machine guns, the 7.5x54mm. The new round was ultra-modern, with no rim, a moderate case taper, and a short overall length. Design teams at the St. Etienne arsenal immediately set to designing an autoloading infantry rifle to chamber the new machinegun round.

They had a good base to work from, since many of the mechanical ideas familiar to students of modern automatic military firearms had first seen the light of day in failed French designs of the first decade of the 20th Century, from tipping bolts to direct gas impingement. Sadly, however, the bureaucratic cloud they labored under was a dark one. With Europe still in the grip of the Depression and the French government still dreaming Maginot dreams, the self-loading rifle program was a low priority and was still in its larval stages when Guderian’s panzers slashed across France.
Fusil MAS-49/56. Photo by Oleg Volk.

After the second War to End All Wars, development resumed and the first self-loading rifles were issued to the French army. First was the MAS-44 in limited numbers, and then came the MAS-49, its definitive issue version.

A handy, compact weapon, the MAS-49 was roughly the same size as the contemporaneous Soviet SKS. Also like the SKS, its prewar heritage was evident in its elaborately machined steel receiver, designed before metal stamping technology had become a tool in the gun maker’s box. Unlike the SKS, it fired a full-power round, with much the same ballistics as the later 7.62x51 NATO, the famed .308 Winchester.

A blast of gas tapped directly off the barrel was directed against the face of the bolt carrier, moving it backwards and causing it to tip the bolt, unlocking the lugs. The bolt traveled to the rear, ejecting the spent round before returning forward under the impetus of the receiver-mounted recoil spring to strip a fresh cartridge from the ten-round detachable magazine.

Rather than a catch in the magazine well engaging a detent in the magazine body, the mag itself held its own latch, a vertically-oriented alligator clip-looking apparatus, for some unknown Gallic reason. As an alternative to inserting a fresh magazine, charger guides were machined into the top of the bolt carrier, allowing reloading or topping up from five round stripper clips. The safety was an ingenious piece that lay alongside the trigger mechanism, pivoting fore and aft, so that when it was in its rear, or “on”, position the trigger finger of a right-handed shooter would be prevented from entering the trigger guard normally, letting the shooter know even in the dark and confusion that his weapon was on safe.

LEFT: The trigger-blocking safety of the MAS-49/56. Photo by Oleg Volk.

In the mid-1950s, as Soviet bluster led the world to fear a showdown in Europe, Western armies began casting about for ways to increase the firepower of their outnumbered infantry squads, as well as giving them increased anti-tank capabilities. The US Army developed a 40mm grenade launcher to be issued at the squad level, as well as beginning to develop disposable tube-launched antitank rockets to be issued as needed. The French, different as always, revitalized the old technology of the rifle grenade. By outfitting every rifle with a launcher for rifle grenades and by making a mix of projectiles available, each individual infantryman could be a short-range artillery piece, bunker buster, or tank hunter as the situation warranted.

The resultant rifle was typed as the MAS-49/56. It was shortened slightly from the previous MAS-49. The wood of the stock was cut back somewhat, and a sophisticated ladder-type grenade sight was fitted and a gas cutoff valve was added. A launching adaptor was attached at the muzzle that, by means of an elaborate system of ports, doubled as a muzzle brake. A spring-retained sliding collar that controlled how deeply the grenade socketed over the muzzle slid fore and aft over a series of numbered detents indicating the approximate range of a grenade at that setting.

RIGHT: Grenade-launching paraphernalia. Photo by Oleg Volk.

Taken as a whole, this product of the 1950s was the ultimate evolution of the prewar semiautomatic infantry rifle. Robust, reliable, firing a potent round, and able to serve as its own short-range artillery or antitank gun, the MAS-49/56 was a masterpiece of its generation of small arms. Sadly, thanks to the delay imposed by the French military establishment’s embracing of the Lebel round sixty-some-odd years prior, the 49/56’s generation was long gone before it even arrived. Armies around the world had gone over to fully automatic rifles with larger magazine capacities and simple, stamped construction while the French were still catching up to the revolution they’d started. With the exception of some colonial brushfire wars in Africa, the tide of history flowed past the anachronistic French rifle.

In the 1990s, large surplus stocks were imported to America as the French began cleaning out their arsenals. Many were subjected to less-than-adequate conversions to .308 by Century Arms, giving the rifle an undeserved reputation for unreliability in the hands of American sports shooters. For the rifles left in the original 7.5x54mm chambering, a different fate was in store: Surplus stocks of 7.5, never common to begin with, soon dried up, leaving commercial ammunition by FNM and others as the only available fodder. Commercial ammunition has soft commercial primers, and the 49/56 design is, as are many other military rifles of similar vintage, completely innocent of anything resembling a firing pin spring, With the heavy firing pin, designed to reliably detonate hard military primers under filthy battlefield conditions, free to fly forward under inertia, slamfires with the commercial ammunition were endemic, leading to a brisk cottage industry in titanium firing pins, lightening of original firing pins, and retrofitting of firing pin springs.

While not ubiquitous, the MAS-49/56 is still a fairly common sight at gun shows. Prices range from ~$125 for an ugly .308 conversion to just north of $300 for a cherry example in the original caliber. Commercial 7.5x54 MAS ammunition is loaded by FNM in Portugal and Prvi Partizan for the “Wolf Gold” line. All things considered, this is a bargain for a lightweight, compact, hard-hitting rifle that represents one of the pinnacles of a short era in military small arms design.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sunday Smith #40: Model 432, 2004.

In 1984 a new cartridge was introduced to revolver shooters. The Harrington & Richardson company, a maker of inexpensive small- and medium-frame revolvers, collaborated with Federal Cartridge to develop a higher performance variant of the old .32 S&W Long cartridge that wouldn't overtax the weaker design of their wheelguns. By lengthening the case slightly to 1.075", they ensured that the new hotter round could not be loaded into small revolvers chambered for the older .32 cartridge and that any revolver with a cylinder window long enough to accept .38 Special could be chambered for the new offering.

Officially named the .32 H&R Magnum, it wasn't long before other companies, such as Ruger and Smith & Wesson, were cataloging revolvers chambered for the "Poor Man's Magnum". Smith offered adjustable-sight K-frames for target shooting and small game hunting, but it was in small J-frame revolvers that the new round showed its best advantage: Where the J-frame in .38 Special could only squeeze five charge holes into the cylinder, the .32 Magnum J-frame was a true sixgun. Not much of a surprise, really, to those who remembered that the "J" was based on the old I-frame, which was designed as a .32 in the first place.

The all-stainless 631 and 632 Centennial fizzled out of production after only a couple of years, and only a very small number of black "032's" were made. Smith made another, more successful, run with the caliber in the late '90s, with the titanium cylindered 331 and enclosed-hammer 332 Centennial, but those models finally succumbed in 2003. They were briefly replaced by the blackened-alloy frame, steel-cylindered 431PD and 432PD for the '04 and '05 model years before Smith & Wesson finally stopped production of .32 H&R Magnum guns altogether after an on-again, off-again run of sixteen years, although overstock caused them to be available from wholesalers almost to the end of 2006.

The revolver pictured above is a Model 432PD, with "PD" standing for "Personal Defense", which is S&W marketing department-speak for "Airweight revolver with blackened finish". It was purchased new in early 2005 for not too much over $400 and has served as this writer's pocket-carry backup ever since. The grips are Crimson Trace lasergrips. Far too new and common to have any standing as a collector's piece, a nice used 432 could probably be found for somewhere around $350 without too much looking.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Sunday Smith #39: Model 646, 2003.

The sport of practical pistol (or "combat") shooting was formally organized under the International Practical Shooting Confederation in 1976 and grew rapidly in popularity; so much so that by the early 1990s it had become something of a victim of its own success. Some folks thought that it had lost its "tactical" roots and formed the International Defensive Pistol Association. Others felt that gamesmanship had triggered an equipment race that led to more complex and expensive pistols and tried to flatten the price curve with competitions that mandated classic single-stack 1911s or revolvers.

Of course, any competition involving equipment is going to provoke "improvements" in an attempt to gain an edge, and revolver competitions were no exception. Revolver shooters looked for ways to gain an edge and soon found one: Shaving fractions of a second during the reload. It didn't take long for Smith & Wesson's Model 625's to rule the roost, with the fast reloads made possible by their full moon clips, which held all six rounds and went into the gun along with the cartridges unlike a conventional revolver's speed loader.

In the late '90s the use of titanium was explored by S&W engineers, and someone figured out that the unique elastic properties of the metal would allow them to make an L-frame cylinder with six .40 caliber charge holes. The result was a medium-frame revolver that would be easier to handle than the full-size .45ACP Model 625, while still using cartridges that still met any "power threshold" demanded by various sanctioning bodies. Further, the stubby .40 S&W casings would be theoretically easier and quicker to load and eject than the long, skinny .357 Magnum rounds used by a standard L-frame 686.

Thus was born the Model 646 from the Performance Center; a space-age looking stainless steel revolver with a slab-sided heavy barrel and matte gray titanium cylinder. It was only produced for one year, and did not catch on quite as well as Smith had hoped. Unlike other moon clip revolvers such as the 610 and 625, the 646 generally wouldn't fire a cartridge without the clips. Dogged by persistent complaints of sticky extraction, ignition problems caused by varying rim thickness on factory .40 ammo, and a MSRP just shy of $850, it vanished without much comment after its short run.

In 2003, S&W had been bought by Saf-T-Hammer, purveyor of internal gun locks, and the frames and lockwork of their revolvers had been redesigned to accommodate a lock whose keyhole was just above the cylinder release. There were plenty of existing frames of the old style lying around, however, and some were used in a classic example of S&W parts bin engineering. By utilizing these remaining "no-lock" stainless L-frames, along with some L-frame titanium cylinders and 4" .40 caliber full-underlug barrels, Smith released some 300 new Model 646s into the wild. Easily distinguished from their Performance Center siblings by their rather more conventional underlug barrels, the non-PC 646's are also unusual in having a hammer that is clearly notched for the lock, but no provision for the locking mechanism on the frame. The guns shipped in locking aluminum cases, wore Hogue Bantam grips, and came with two thicknesses of full moon clips in order to compensate for varying rim thickness on factory ammo.

The Model 646 pictured above wearing a Hogue cocobolo monogrip was purchased new in 2003. Although the manufacturer's suggested retail was set at $575, street prices tended to run much lower, as the gun was marketed as a closeout from the get-go. Purchase price on the example in the photo was somewhere between $450 and $475, which was actually no more expensive than a regular Model 686 at the time. Today the gun would easily fetch back the original tariff and then some, provided it still had all its accoutrement. Especially the moon clips. Don't lose the moon clips.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Sunday Smith #38: Model PC627, 2002

With the introduction of its big-bore .44 and .41 Magnum cartridges, sales of Smith & Wesson's large-frame .357 Magnums began to tail off in the latter half of the 20th Century. The introduction of the beefed-up medium-size .357 Magnum revolvers of the L-frame type in the early Eighties seemed to be the death knell for the plain-Jane law enforcement-oriented Model 28 Highway Patrolman, which bowed out of the catalog in 1986, its fate sealed by a combination of the rugged L-frames and a growing trend for law enforcement to adopt semiautomatic pistols. The traditional blued Model 27, once S&W's flagship revolver, followed it into oblivion in 1994.

As a result, although S&W issued stainless steel N-frames in .44 Magnum and .41 Magnum in 1979 and 1986, respectively, it wasn't until 1989 that the Model 627 .357 Magnum Stainless debuted, and then only as a limited "Classic Hunter" edition with a full underlug heavy barrel. While the big stainless .357 flitted in and out of the catalog over the next few years, something radical happened in the six-shooter market: Seven-shooters. In the mid '90s both Smith and Taurus debuted medium-frame .357 magnum revolvers with seven shot cylinders. The implications of this were not lost on engineers at S&W.

In 1997, Smith & Wesson showed off a large-frame stainless .357 Magnum revolver with eight charge holes in the cylinder. The gun soon became a staple of the Performance Center catalog, with its cylinder recessed for moonclips and a bewildering array of barrel lengths and configurations. Variants were even released in .38 Super with an eye towards the competition shooting market. With their exotic features and the cachet bestowed by MSRP's over the $1,000 mark, the 627's quickly filled the niche of company flagship that had been left vacant by the departure of their 6-shot blue steel forebears.

The revolver pictured above, a 627-3, was acquired in Like-New-In-Box condition from a private seller in late '02 for just over $700. A 3" V-Comp, it shipped with a removable compensator that could be replaced with an unported muzzle protector. It is rare enough to not appear in the latest edition of the Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson, and values on Performance Center guns are hard to fix at any rate. It is not unreasonable to assume it could fetch some $850-$900 or so at auction today. With the capacity of some semiautomatics and the wallop of a magnum wheelgun, the 627 makes a fine addition to any collection of Smith & Wesson revolvers.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Sunday Smith #37: Model 696-1, 2000.

A little over a decade after the release of its beefed-up "L-frame" medium frame revolvers, Smith & Wesson capitalized on the fact that the slightly larger cylinder of the new guns would accommodate five .44 caliber holes with plenty of safety margin to spare. With Brazilian competitors Taurus and Rossi having both released five-shot medium frame .44 Special wheelguns, Smith countered with the Model 696, an all-stainless 3" round-butt big bore revolver almost guaranteed to find market share in an era when liberalized concealed carry laws were sweeping the nation.

Although heavy at only a fraction less than 36 ounces, the new revolver was fairly compact, yet its three-inch tube allowed for an ejector rod with a full-length stroke and enough sight radius to make the adjustable sights, with their red ramp up front and white-outlined rear blade, a useful addition. Only about a year after the introduction of the Model 696, the gun was redesigned to utilize S&W's new Metal Injection Molded lockwork, easily distinguished by the "flat nose" hammer lacking a hammer-mounted firing pin. The new model was assigned the "-1" suffix, signifying the first engineering change to the basic revolver. In 2001, the designation was changed again to the 696-2, with the addition of Smith & Wesson's controversial new key-operated integral safety lock. Only two years later, the 696 was dropped from the catalog.

In late 2004, the 696 became an online gun-collecting version of Dutch Tulip Mania. For some reason the gun became the object of wild speculation in internet forum and auction circles, with nice examples changing hands at $800 and more. Prices have since receded to more normal levels, leaving unwise speculators sitting on stacks of revolvers for which they'd paid too much, proving that it's important to know market trends before speculating in guns as investments, just like anything else.

The above revolver, shown wearing Hogue Bantam stocks, was picked up in Like-New-In-Box condition in early 2005 for $400, which was a good, if not earth-shaking deal. With factory grips and all the documentation and accoutrement, an LNIB 696 these days can expect to bring ~$600, with a premium for a "no dash" model with the hammer-mounted firing pin. For those who like the anvil-like reliability and solidity of a compact belt revolver made of steel, but prefer their bore size to start with the number "4", it's hard to imagine a better choice.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sunday Smith #36: Model 296, 1999.

In 1980 Smith & Wesson responded to fears about the long-term durability of K-frames when firing full-power .357 Magnum ammunition by releasing a new frame size, its first in thirty years. The new "L-frame" offered greater strength than the K by the virtue of being slightly beefed up in critical areas, while still using the same grips and fitting the same holsters as the earlier medium-framed guns. The new size caught on well and eventually produced spinoffs of the original .357 Magnum offerings.

Soon after, a combination of factors led to a revolution in carry revolver design. The fall of the Iron Curtain caused a drop in the price of titanium on the world market, and when combined with new manufacturing techniques for working this difficult-to-machine metal, allowed firearms manufacturers to explore its uses. Almost as light as aluminum, yet almost as strong as steel, S&W exploited its unique properties when they released the first of the "AirLite" revolvers in 1998, using titanium for the cylinder instead of steel. Where an all-stainless .38 Special Model 640 weighed some 21 ounces and an alloy-framed 642 still tipped the scales at 16 with its steel cylinder and barrel, the flyweight new 342 Ti weighed in at an astonishing 11.3 ounces with Dymondwood grips. This new method of construction included using a two-piece barrel, wherein the outer barrel was merely an alloy shroud, secured in place by the rifled steel insert that was screwed into the frame by use of a special fixture that mated with the rifling in the bore. Unlike the earlier crush-fit one-piece barrels, the sights could not be mounted crooked, since they were mounted on the barrel sleeve which had a key that fit into a matching mortise on the frame.

In 1999, Smith debuted a revolver at the annual SHOT Show that was unlike anything they'd released before. Combining the alloy and titanium construction of the AirLites with an L-frame featuring the enclosed "Centennial" hammer (the only non-J-frame Centennials Smith has ever made), the new revolvers were offered in both 7-shot .38 Special (Model 242) and 5-shot .44 Special (Model 296) flavors. Weighing only 18.9 ounces, the 2" round-butt .44 Special Model 296 offered big-bore punch, medium frame size, snag-free carryability, and was lighter than a steel J-frame. It seemed to be a recipe for success in a time when liberalized CCW laws were sweeping the country.

Alas, it was not to be. The new revolvers were still fairly complex to make; the complexity of the two-piece barrel and the machining of the titanium cylinder translated to an MSRP of US$754.00. The revolver was still fairly large; Glock had just released its Model 26 and 27, the latter of which offered 9+1 rounds of .40S&W in a slightly smaller package. The light weight imposed some shooting restrictions on the gun, too. Most .44 Special target ammunition was of either the 246gr lead round nose or 240gr jacketed soft point type, and the sharp recoil of the flyweight .44 would cause the heavy bullets in these loadings to jump their crimps, propelled forward out of the case by inertia (actually, the heavy bullet remained in place while the revolver and the cartridge case recoiled away from them, but the effect was the same.) This meant that the Model 296 was limited to 200gr or lighter bullets, and the only loads of that type on the market were defensive hollowpoints, which were a bit expensive for shooting tin cans.

Probably the biggest strike against it was the one that is most blindingly obvious: Simply put, it is quite possibly the most... um... "aesthetically challenged" revolver S&W has ever manufactured. Okay, it's just downright ugly and buyers stayed away in droves, causing Smith to discontinue the revolver after the 2001 model year, with the remaindered guns selling at deep discount through companies like CDNN. The few who purchased one found out, however, that pretty is as pretty does and if you're looking for an easy-to-carry big-bore wheelgun, they don't come much prettier than the 296 Ti.

The example pictured above was purchased new in October of 2001 for a shade under $600. Asking prices these days seem to be a little optimistic, but the last few I've seen actually sell at gun shows usually went in the $500-$575 range. Given their unique configuration and short production run it seems safe to say that these will probably achieve at least minor collectible status in the future, but that doesn't matter to me. It works too well in my purse to be wasted gathering dust in my gun safe...

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sunday Smith #35: Model 625-7, 1998.

When Colt's introduced the "Peacemaker" revolver in 1873, they also debuted one of the most enduring centerfire handgun cartridges ever loaded. Originally propelling its 255-grain lead bullet with a charge of forty grains of FFg black powder, the .45 Colt is still one of the most popular revolver chamberings in the land over one-and-one-third centuries after its conception. The new cartridge was adopted by the U.S. Army in 1875, virtually guaranteeing its commercial success.

This put Colt's arch rival Smith & Wesson in something of a bind. Smith was committed to their top-break "No. 3" design for a large-frame belt revolver, and the .45 Colt was just too much cartridge for the gun. It would not be until the debut of the S&W .44 Hand Ejectors in the first decade of the 20th Century that Smith had a revolver capable of handling the big .45 round. Smith & Wesson mostly sold the large frames in their own .44 caliber configuration, however, leaving .45 Colt variants as rare collector's prizes.

In the postwar era, a few hundred .45 Colt versions of the .45 ACP Model of 1950 and Model 25 were manufactured, but it remained scarce until a resurgence in demand for the old chambering towards the end of the 1970s. By then, reloaders were starting to experiment with very heavy .45 Colt loads to get .44 Magnum terminal performance at lower pressures and this, combined with the emerging sport of Cowboy Action Shooting meant that the .45 Colt was staging a big comeback in the marketplace. When the stainless Model 625 was released in 1989 most realized that a stainless .45 Colt wasn't far behind, and sure enough, the guns hit the shelves in 1990.

The Model 625 made the transition to the "flat-nose hammer" era in 1998, and in that year Smith made up a run of approximately 150 guns with 3" full-underlug barrels and round-butt frames for ace distributor Lew Horton. Back in the autumn of 2003 I was fortunate enough to stumble into one in trade (along with some cash) for a .223 "franken-FAL" I had been playing with, and when I realized what I had received, I felt pretty good about having made the deal. After all, there are only 149 other ones out there...

Valuation on the 3" gun pictured above is hard to make due to scarcity, but a nice example with box & docs would probably bring $800 or more, potentially a fair amount more if it is unfired, which mine most certainly is not. A more conventional 5" gun is still not a common sight, but would probably be in a more normal $500-$600 price bracket, with a 4" tapered barrel 625 Mountain Gun falling somewhere in scarcity and price between the 3" and 5" examples.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Sunday Smith #34: Model 610-2, 1998.

Over the years, Smith & Wesson has made many changes to their Hand Ejector revolvers in the name of simplifying manufacture. After WWII their commercial revolvers took a cue from the spartan wartime Victory Model and dispensed with the separate 'mushroom' knob on the end of the ejector rod and just knurled the end of the rod itself. About a decade later, they realized that the top screw in the sideplate and the screw forward of the trigger guard were superfluous, and did away with those. A change that is still controversial amongst innately conservative revolver enthusiasts happened in the early '80s, when the pin that was used to locate the barrel was eliminated by simply crush-fitting the barrel. At the same time, the countersunk chamber mouths used on Magnum revolvers were discontinued. You'll still hear some enthusiasts speak of old "five screw" or "pinned and recessed" revolvers in reverent tones.

Few changes, however, generated as much sturm und drang amongst the faithful as the one that took place in the late 1990s, when the era of the "flat-nose hammer" began. Prior to this, Smith had used lockwork components, most notably triggers and hammers, that were finish-machined from forgings. Because the fit between these parts in a double action revolver is as precise as clockwork and because tool heads wear, this was an assembly step that required a great deal of hand labor, and one that resulted in a pile of hammers and triggers discarded as too out-of-spec to be fitted. Anything that could be done to improve this would prevent manufacturing costs from climbing to unreasonable levels.

Enter MIM, or Metal Injection Molding. With MIM, a correctly-dimensioned part could be made just once and used as a master for a mold. Then, through a process somewhat similar to sintering, a powdered metal matrix held by a plastic binder would be fired in a furnace under intense heat, cooking away the binder, and would come out as a finished hammer or trigger that was the same dimension every time. The guns with the new MIM lockwork were immediately distinguishable from their predecessors by the fact that they had flat-nosed hammers, the firing pin having been exchanged for a floating one in the frame similar to the setup that S&W's rimfire revolvers had used all along.

In 1998, Smith's large-frame revolvers made the jump to the new lockwork, including the Model 610. The 610, originally introduced in 1989, was Smith's stainless steel large, or "N", frame Hand Ejector chambered for the 10mm Auto cartridge. The 10mm was a factory-legitimized wildcat, a high-pressure loading capable of throwing a 180gr .40-caliber bullet at over 1200fps. Developed with an eye towards fitting in current autoloaders, the cartridge's overall length was kept roughly the same as that of the .45ACP. It was only natural that Smith, which had just resurrected the .45ACP revolver in a modern stainless form with a full-underlug barrel, offer essentially the same gun in the newer caliber as well. The 610 has always been moderately popular with competition shooters as its moonclips make for speedy reloads, plus it can also fire the shorter .40S&W cartridge, a round that has become nearly ubiquitous in America today.

The revolver pictured above, a Model 610-2, is one of a run of 300 with 3" barrels done for distributor Lew Horton in 1998. It was acquired back in 2002 in trade for a compact 1911. Complete with box and docs and all the factory accoutrement, it is worth probably $600-$650 on the current market. A far more common 5" or 6.5" gun in similar condition could be found for not too much over $500, and less if one is willing to forgo having the blue plastic case and the factory instruction manual. Just make sure the seller includes the moon clips, as they're definitely not as common a retail item in brick-'n'-mortar gun stores as their .45ACP cousins.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sunday Smith #33: Model PC-640, 1995.

In 1887, Smith & Wesson introduced a new line of pocket-sized revolvers that had the hammer completely enclosed. Called the "Safety Hammerless", they were extremely popular, remaining in production in one form or another for over a half-century, with the .38 Safety Hammerless not dropped from the catalog until the pressures of wartime production forced its exit in 1940.

Twelve years later, an enclosed-hammer model was reintroduced, only this time on the modern J-frame Hand Ejector platform. Marking as it did the hundredth anniversary of the company, the reborn hammerless revolvers were known as the "Centennial" model. They remained in the catalog until 1974 before being discontinued in their turn.

Almost immediately gun writers and S&W fans began lamenting the loss of what they considered to be a nearly perfect concealed-carry revolver, with its non-snag lines and a completely enclosed hammer that allowed it to be fired from inside a pocket in a pinch. Responding to pressure, Smith relaunched the gun in stainless steel for 1989, this time as the Model 640.

It was a successful re-introduction, with the gun being embraced by diverse markets, from the general public to the New York City Police Department. It did not take long for special variants to emerge, either. There was, for instance, a "Paxton Quigley" model, complete with tapestry carrying case and mother of pearl inlays in the stocks. The gun also became a common platform for Performance Center variants.

The PC-640 above sports a 3" barrel with a true expansion-chamber compensator. Since this occupies the space normally taken up by the integral ramp front sight, a dovetail front sight replaces it. The action is slicked up, and the gun comes with attractive smooth wood stocks. It was among the first J-frames explicitly rated for use with +P ammunition. Shortly after it was made, the Model 640-1 debuted, bringing the .357 Magnum to the smallest current Smith frame size.

The pictured firearm was acquired in 2004 in trade for a Performance Center-customized 640 (as opposed to this gun, which is a factory PC gun, complete with PC logo rollmark.) Again, being a Performance Center gun, an exact value is hard to fix, but considering the gun's like-new-in-box condition complete with box and docs, it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect it to fetch something in the $550-$650 range at auction. A standard 640 of similar vintage in similar condition (LNIB) would probably bring ~$400-$450 depending on your area, while a decent shooter could probably be picked up for no more than $300 if one doesn't mind some wear and tear.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sunday Smith #32: Model PC-13, 1995.

In 1990, a new department was opened at Smith & Wesson. Dubbed the "Performance Center", it was envisaged as an in-house semicustom shop, where niche guns could be designed and built under the direction of master pistolsmiths Paul Liebenberg and John French. The guns would be based on existing S&W designs, built in limited runs, and shopped to Smith's various distributors, who would then get an exclusive model to offer in their catalogs. The concept proved popular, and soon it was not uncommon for models to be completely sold out at SHOT, the gun industry's big winter trade show.

In 1995 the Performance Center turned its attentions to the .357 Magnum Model 13. The Model 13 was first released in 1974 and remained in production through 1999. Also known as the ".357 Magnum Military & Police" it was, as the name implies, a slightly beefed-up fixed-sight M&P chambered for the more powerful Magnum cartridge instead of the old .38 Special. It was fairly popular with law enforcement, at least with departments that weren't hampered by the stigma of issuing "Magnums". It was available in both 4" square-butt and 3" round-butt configurations, the latter becoming very respected as a concealed-carry or plainclothes revolver, especially after its adoption by the FBI.

The Performance Center version, sold through the well-known distributor Lew Horton, was known as the PC-13. Based on the 3" round-butt gun, the magnum K-frame featured a bobbed hammer and double-action-only lockwork, lightly chamfered charge holes, a simple overtravel stop consisting of a roll-pin fixed in the rear of the trigger, Eagle Secret Service grips, and quad Mag-Na-Porting. The cylinder release was beveled on the bottom to better clear a speedloader and, unlike the standard 3" Model 13, the ejector rod was shrouded. The whole gun was finished in a businesslike matte blue. The Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson by Jim Supica and Richard Nahas refers to it as "A very serious carry revolver."

The revolver in the photo was purchased by a good friend at a gun show in 2001 for $650. It was gifted to me in 2002 and has held pride of place in my S&W collection ever since. As scarce as these revolvers are (only 400 of them were built), accurate pricing is difficult. MSRP in 1995 was $765, and examples have turned up all over the price map in the last few years, from $800 on the low end to a recent unfired-in-the-box specimen on with an opening bid of $1,199. Sadly, like most Performance Center guns, a lot of these seem to have been bought to hoard and never shoot, which is a shame for such a no-nonsense gun. As can be seen by the discoloration around the porting in the above photo, this specimen has been spared such an ignominious fate.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sunday Smith #31: Model 64-4, 1994.

Stainless steel, first patented in the early 20th Century, didn't see widespread use in firearms manufacture until the 1960s. In 1965, Smith & Wesson launched the first production revolver made entirely out of stainless steel; the Model 60, a stainless variant of the Model 36 Chiefs Special. The revolver was a huge sales success, much to the chagrin of traditionalists, and was followed in 1970 by the Model 64, a rust-resistant rendition of the Model 10 Military & Police.

The new stainless M&P revolvers were widely issued by police departments, and much anecdotal evidence exists stating that they were highly sought after as personal weapons with the US servicemen then serving in Southeast Asia's hot, humid jungles. The gun is pretty much an exact copy of the Model 10 save for the steel used. Early models had flash-chromed hammers and triggers, but by the 1990s these were plain color-case hardened carbon steel like on non-stainless guns.

The Model 64 is one of the most prosaic firearms in the S&W lineup, and therefore commands little collector interest outside of very early guns or rare production variants. Good shooters can be found for ~$200 without much effort and even very fine specimens seldom top three bills by very much. The above example, a 2" heavy barrel Model 64-4 dating to 1994, was acquired (along with a couple C-notes) in LNIB condition in 2003 in trade from a private seller at a gun show for a 4" Model 624. It has served as this writer's nightstand gun ever since.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Sunday Smith #30: Model 625-2, 1989.

With the .45 ACP Model 25 continuing in production into the 1980's, it was inevitable that S&W would introduce a stainless version. Sure enough, towards the end of the decade the Model 625 appeared. Seemingly designed to be an ideal bowling pin gun, its 5" full-underlug barrel minimizing the muzzle flip from the .45 cartridge, the 625 had enough oddities to keep collectors scratching their heads for some time to come.

For starters, there never was just a plain 625 or 625-1; the first guns to hit the street were designated "625-2", and engineering changes incremented normally from there. It was also unusual for a 5" gun at the time in that it had a round-butt frame, something that was only seen on short-barreled N-frames of the era. The very earliest ones had the barrel rollmarked "Model of 1988" (despite being made in 1989) and had ramp front sights, but almost immediately this was changed to a laser-etched "Model of 1989" and a patridge-type front sight blade. Unlike other stainless guns from Smith & Wesson, which had brushed finishes, the 625 was finished in a soft matte bead-blast.

In 1990 the 625-3 debuted the longer cylinder stop notches associated with the "Endurance Package" from the 629, and the "-4" change that followed three years later introduced holes pre-drilled in the topstrap for accepting scope mounts. The 625 proved popular with competition shooters for the speed with which it could be reloaded thanks to its use of moon-clips. Indeed, when Jerry Miculek set his famous record of "six shots, reload, and six shots in 2.99 seconds", it was a Model 625 that he used.

The revolver pictured above, an early "Model of 1988" marked gun, was purchased from a friend for $450 in the Autumn of 2003. The 625 seems to hold its value better than some of its more common modern N-frame siblings, and a LNIB example could fetch as much as six bills. The sample above, given its status as a very early rollmarked gun, could bring $550 or a bit more at auction, even with the aftermarket cocobolo Hogue monogrip. A good shooter with minor cosmetic issues could probably be found for around $400, and the beauty of the finish on these guns is that any gunsmith with a blasting cabinet and a deft touch can freshen it right up.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Sunday Smith #29: Model 19-5, 1988.

When Smith & Wesson introduced the .357 Magnum cartridge in 1935, many viewed it as an ideal law enforcement round. The only problem was that the only revolver chambered for it was prohibitively expensive for most law enforcement agencies, being carefully fitted and finished and positioned as the "Cadillac" of the S&W line. After World War Two, S&W attempted to rectify this by introducing the "Highway Patrolman", later known as the Model 28, in 1954. This was essentially the same revolver as the .357 Magnum/Model 27, but with various cost cutting measures like a matte blue finish and elimination of the fine checkering along the sighting plane.

While this solved the cost issue, it didn't change the fact that the .357 cartridge was only available in a big N-frame revolver that weighed in at over two and a half pounds, which was quite a burden to lug on a duty belt already encumbered by handcuffs, nightstick, and all the other items on the ever-growing list of impedimentia considered necessary for police work. Behind the scenes, Border Patrol officer Bill Jordan had been pressing S&W to take advantage of advances in metallurgy and heat-treating of steel by releasing a .357 Magnum version of their midsize K-frame revolver. In 1955, they did just that, and thus was born the Combat Magnum, soon to be dubbed the Model 19 when the transition to model numbers was made in 1957.

Immediately a big hit, the Model 19 offered the more compact dimensions of the medium-frame combined with the hard-hitting .357 Magnum chambering and was used by any number of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, ranging from the Dayton, OH Police Department to the United States Secret Service. Initially offered with a 4" barrel and square-butt frame, variations with other barrel lengths soon became available. The most common were the 2.5" guns with round-butt frames and square-butt 6" guns, but 3" and 5" examples are known to exist. The revolvers went through the litany of engineering changes denoted by "dash numbers" after the model number, with the "-5" variation marking the abandonment of the pinned barrel and countersunk chambers in 1982. Production of the Model 19 Combat Magnum continued through November of 1999 when it was finally discontinued, its sales having slipped precipitously in comparison with its stainless offspring, the Model 66.

The revolver in the above photo, a 19-5 dating to 1988, is unusual for combining the 4" barrel length with a round-butt frame. This configuration first showed up in guns issued to the Office of Naval Intelligence in 1965, and those guns were marked "ONI" on the frame. A later run of 4" round-butt guns was done in 1988 for the U.S. State Department, and this revolver would appear to be from that batch, as its serial number bears the correct prefix. It was acquired from a friend in 2003 for about $325, and would bring probably over $425 in today's market, given the aftermarket Hogue monogrip and the lack of a factory box. Standard 4" Model 19's will run anywhere from not too much over $150 for a tired shooter to as much as five bills for a pristine early example with box & docs. Variations in barrel length, commemoratives, and odd Law Enforcement or foreign-contract guns can sometimes be worth substantial premiums, but research is in order before laying out the cash, as always.

As a purely side note, if I could only own one handgun, the above revolver would probably be it. Able to shoot anything from .38 snake shot to .357 loads appropriate for deer hunting, and small enough to be carried concealed in an inside-the-waistband holster, the 4" Model 19 is maybe as close to a "Do Anything" handgun as has ever been made.