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.