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.