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.