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.