Saturday, November 28, 2009

Vintage "Assault Rifles"...

The Firearm Blog's recent pieces on early "high capacity" repeaters had a picture of a Miegs rifle which, while interesting, would be no more than an extremely rare prototypical footnote if it hadn't obviously influenced the later rifles built by the Evans Repeating Rifle Company out of Maine, which were a qualified commercial success.

The Evans were manufactured from 1873 to 1879, and roughly fifteen thousand of the helical-magazine repeaters found buyers during that stretch of time, and were even endorsed by "Buffalo Bill". As a result, they're not terribly uncommon at gun shows today if you know where to look, and while premium examples bring premium prices, serviceable shooters can be had for well under a grand. The .44 Evans cartridge hasn't been commercially loaded for almost a hundred years, but the black powder rounds can be formed by cutting down .303 Savage brass.

Of course, "high capacity" is relative to the time and place: While the user of a later Evans, which due to its longer cartridges held six fewer rounds than the early models, had twenty-eight times as many rounds on tap as a contemporary U.S. soldier (who used a "Trapdoor" Springfield), he only had twice the magazine capacity of a Swiss private armed with a Gew. 1869 Vetterli.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

.32 Caliber: A rocket for the pocket...

When Smith & Wesson ushered in the metallic cartridge era in American handgunning, .31 caliber was already established as the de facto standard for repeating pocket pistols, with many thousands of Colt's Pocket Models and various small pepperboxes already on the market. It was only natural then, for Smith's second cartridge to be a rimfire .32; roughly the same size as the existing muzzle loading offerings.

RIGHT: S&W Model One-and-a-Half top break, in .32 S&W.

In the 1870s, the .32 made the jump to the centerfire era in Smith's tiny "Model One-and-a-Half", and when they went to solid-frame revolvers with swing-out cylinders, S&W retained the caliber, albeit with a lengthened case, as the ".32 Smith & Wesson Long".

LEFT: .32 Hand Ejector 3rd Model in .32 S&W Long.

When John Browning turned his attentions to self-loading pistols, his first commercial success in the arena was the Model 1900 produced by Fabrique Nationale in Belgium. It was a slim little automatic pistol that could fit easily into a coat pocket and although nearly everything else about it was new, the bore diameter was the old familiar .32; the bore size that had become popular with a muzzle-loaded lead ball seated over patch and powder now saw a pistol that used smokeless propellant to launch a jacketed bullet and then reloaded itself. Known as 7.65 Browning in Europe, the cartridge was sold as the .32 ACP (for Automatic Colt Pistol) in the USA, since its first appearance on these shores was in the Colt's 1903 Pocket Hammerless.

RIGHT: Colt's Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless in .32ACP.

.32, in both revolver and automatic formats, was very nearly the default bore size for pocket defensive guns for over a century and, as earlier competitors fell by the wayside, .32 S&W Long and .32 ACP became the default cartridges for .32-caliber pocket arms worldwide. Given that both revolvers and pistols of this type have been produced in nearly every country sophisticated enough to have an arms industry and even a few that aren't, there is no telling how many countless millions of these diminutive weapons lie forgotten in the sock drawers, sea chests, and sideboards of the world despite all the fantasy schemes of governments to control them; one may as well command the tide.

LEFT: Filipino blacksmith-made copy of S&W I-frame (top) and original S&W I-frame (bottom).

In addition to Smith & Wesson and Colt's (who called it the ".32 Colt New Police,) which were seen as the high end of the market, numerous other American companies manufactured .32 S&W Long revolvers: Iver Johnson, Harrington & Richardson, and Hopkins & Allen, to name but a few. Sold in hardware stores and via mail order, they were as common as Kleenex in purses and glove boxes.

During the early 20th Century, in addition to the well-known Pocket Hammerless model from Colt's, hundreds of thousands of which were manufactured over some forty years, pocket automatics in .32ACP were sold by Savage, Remington, and H&R; untold more were imported from Europe via regular importation channels as well as in the duffle bags of generations of American servicemen.

In postwar America, with the development of small .38 revolvers, often on .32-sized frames, and a general reduction in the pocket pistol market following the hostile legislation enacted in 1968, .32 in both "ACP" and "S&W Long" forms gradually became the caliber of the much-demonized "Saturday Night Special", found largely in extremely inexpensive revolvers and cheap cast zinc pistols. The fact that these guns served a valuable purpose in a market where a traditionally-made blued steel firearm, produced by union labor in New England and excise taxed to death, could cost half a month's wages for a night clerk went unmentioned.

RIGHT: The Beretta 3032 Tomcat, which hit the market in 1996, was one of a wave of new pocket pistols in .32ACP.

While .32 S&W Long lingers on mostly as a chambering for esoteric ISSF target pistols and a reduced load for various .32-caliber magnums, .32ACP has seen something of a revival in the last decades, with the reform of concealed carry laws and the introduction of truly tiny pocket guns from innovators such as Larry Seecamp and George Kellgren as well as established makers like Beretta. Whether the .32 will see its second century or not remains to be seen, but given its ubiquity, that would seem to be the way to bet.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cold War Heaters: Polish Tokarev and Czech CZ-52.

With the turn of the 20th Century, self-loading pistols began to see greater acceptance in military and paramilitary forces worldwide. The czar's government in Russia, long dependent on foreign arms designs, turned to the Belgian firm of Fabrique Nationale when seeking a pistol for its gendarmerie, acquiring several thousand FN Browning 1903's.

The FN1903 looked similar to the Colt Pocket Hammerless so familiar to American collectors, but was physically larger, being chambered for a 9mm cartridge. Also used by Sweden and the Ottoman Empire, both of which bordered Russia, the sleek pistol still looks modern today. The czar's pistols sported a frame slotted for a combination shoulder stock/holster, and featured an enclosed hammer.

Later, in the wake of the First World War, Bolshevik forces in Civil War-torn Russia acquired many “Broomhandle” Mausers from a German arms industry desperate for foreign sales to make up for the loss of income caused by the Versailles treaty. The Broomhandles were chambered for the classic “.30 Mauser” cartridge, a high-velocity bottlenecked number more like a carbine cartridge than a normal pistol round.

These two historical facts may go some way to explain why, when the victorious Communists sought a modern self-loader to replace the M1895 revolvers in their progressive socialist armies, the winning design looked an awful lot like an enlarged FN 1903 with a partially-exposed hammer and chambered for a hot-loaded version of the old .30 Mauser round.

The Tokarev TT-33, as the definitive version was labeled, was a short-recoil operated pistol with no manual safety and a magazine released by a thumb-activated button. Among its innovations was the fact that the lockwork was mounted in a chassis that could be removed from the frame in a single unit.

After WWII, as Eastern Europe fell into the Soviet sphere of influence, the Russians pressured their new satrapies to adopt weaponry in common calibers. Most countries tooled up to produce copies of the Tokarev, but the Czechoslovakians, with a sophisticated arms industry of their own, turned out a unique pistol chambered for the Soviet cartridge.

The CZ-52 was also operated on the short-recoil principle, but instead of using the common Browning tilting-barrel method of locking as used on the Tokarev, it used a roller-locking setup similar to that used on the German MG-34 and MG-42 light machine guns of the previous war. Also unlike the Tokarev, it offered an external manual safety which could also function as a decocker. While the Tok had a 1930s deco look to its shape, the CZ's lines had an angular ray-gun look that wouldn't have been out of place in a '50s sci-fi movie.

ABOVE: Cold War Heaters. Polish Radom wz.48 (top) and Czech CZ vz.52 (bottom).

Both pistols became widely available on the American civilian market when the Warsaw Pact had its big Chapter 11 sale in the early 1990s, and their low prices made them popular for shooters and collectors on a budget. Surplus ammunition was widely available, and new-production commercial ammo could be had from sources as disparate as Sellier & Bellot and Winchester on one hand and MagSafe on the other.

The examples in the picture are a basic Czech CZ-52 and a Radom-made Polish wz.48. In fit and finish, there's really no comparison: The CZ is a typical rough-hewn phosphate-finished example while the Radom is an elegant, polished blue. In use, though, the CZ points more naturally for me, since Fedor Tokarev managed to mess with the natural pointing qualities of the Browning design. It also has a better trigger pull (although that's damning by faint praise.) Combine this with the fact that the Polish heater didn't seem to like the S&B ammo used in the tests, as evinced by ragged groupings and a vicious Type III malfunction that required a Leatherman tool to clear, and of these two examples, the Czech is definitely the more practical sidearm.

ABOVE: Leatherman Juice was needed to pry the mangled cartridge case from the grip of the Radom Tokarev. Don't leave home without it.

Also the Czech pistol has a positive safety (it's even right-side-up to American thumbs,) while the Tok's safety is a jury-rigged afterthought which only serves to block the trigger, added to satisfy BATFE requirements mandated by the Gun Control Act of 1968.

RIGHT: Actual high-speed competition shooter with the Czech ray gun.

Both pistols can still be found for prices in the ~$200 range, although the Radom-marked Polish Tok is a sure-fire future collectible compared to the relatively dirt-common CZ. Surplus ammunition can still be found, and the fireballing high-velocity cartridge makes for a fun afternoon at the range. Any collector of Cold War-era arms would be advised to snatch up a copy of one or both while they're still available for reasonable prices.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Sunday Smith #48: .38 Double Action 2nd Model, 1882

By the mid-19th Century, the battle for the title of America's premier handgun manufacturer was pretty much down to two contestants: Colt and Smith & Wesson. Smith stole a march on Colt with their purchase of the Rollin White patent for bored-through cylinders and even before its expiration had introduced a second generation of cartridge revolvers using the new centerfire cartridges, and with a top-break mechanism that featured simultaneous ejection of spent cases.

In 1877, Colt returned fire, so to speak, by introducing a version of their solid-frame revolvers that had double-action lockwork. In other words, the trigger performed the double actions of cocking the hammer and firing the piece. Current Smiths were all single-action, requiring the user to cock the hammer with his thumb for every shot.

In 1880, S&W offered double action versions of their own small- and medium-frame revolvers in .32 and .38 caliber. While the large-frame .44s and .45s are more romantic and tend to feature prominently in the Hollywood dramatizations of the era, these littler revolvers were actually far more common and were the workhorses of the company's lineup. Over 300,000 .38 Double Actions of just the first three variants were made, as compared to about a quarter million large-frame top-breaks of all types, including those for foreign military contracts.

Pictured above is a .38 Double Action 2nd Model from approximately 1882. The 2nd Model is distinguished from the earlier 1st Model by its smaller sideplate, which made for a stronger frame than the large, straight-edged sideplate of the earlier version, which is much rarer, only being made in 1880. In 1884, production shifted to the 3rd Model, which eliminated the unusual “freeing groove” on the cylinder, made necessary by the earlier model's double set of cylinder stop bolts.

The pictured revolver is in the most common trim for a .38 DA, with a 3.25” barrel, black hard rubber stocks, and the nickel finish that was vastly more popular than blued steel for 19th Century American pocket guns. It was acquired at a gun show in Louisville for $100, which is a very fair price. A really nice example might fetch four bills, and one in like-new condition with the rarer mottled red stocks could bring as much as $800.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Old-Fashioned Safety.

It's a commonly-held notion in the shooting community that various mechanical safety doodads and gizmos are recent additions to the American firearms scene, driven by anti-gun legislation and an industry fear of lawsuits. However a quick study of the past will show that it just ain't so.

As a matter of fact, even in the late 19th Century, safety was a big advertising point for firearms in a rapidly-urbanizing America: Both Iver Johnson and Smith & Wesson touted the safety of their small revolvers in advertising, and by the early 1900s, Iver Johnson was using "Hammer the Hammer" as an ad slogan.

When automatic pistols debuted on the commercial scene in the early 2oth Century, they were quite a novelty. The early full-size Colt holster pistols had a rudimentary safety in the form of a pivoting rear sight, but this was soon dropped and the pistols were without any safety at all other than the exposed hammer. Less expensive pocket pistols were another matter, with both of Colt's small pocket auto designs from John Browning featuring a thumb safety and a grip safety from the start.

Savage's Model 1907 .32 had a positive manual thumb safety as well as a mechanical loaded chamber indicator, which consisted of a pivoting tab that raised up to indicate a cartridge up the pipe. When Harrington & Richardson entered the pocket self-loader game in 1914 with its modified Webley design, the pistol sported not only a mechanical loaded chamber indicator, a grip safety, and a manual thumb safety, but also an automatic mechanical safety that prevented the firearm from discharging when the magazine was removed. Colt engineer George Tansley immediately came up with a magazine disconnect that was fitted to the company's Vest Pocket models just two years later.

The fad for the more Rube Goldbergian devices was a fairly brief one, however. Savage disposed of the mechanical loaded chamber indicator, and only the first series of H&R autos have the magazine disconnect. What caused the popularity in the first place?

Lacking a time machine and without reading any periodicals of the era (although the topic has intrigued me enough to want to dig further), I'm going to hazard a guess: In the early 1900s, self-loading pistols were a novelty; even people who had extensive experience with handguns had had all of that experience with revolvers. Compared to a revolver, the manner of clearing and safing an autoloader is not an intuitive process. Probably the single most common cause of negligent discharges among novice self-loader users is dropping the magazine after clearing the chamber, rather than before. They've seen the round fly from the chamber, and therefore the gun must be "safe", right? And in 1900, almost everybody was a novice self-loader user.

The solution, of course, is training and experience and not more complicated fiddly little parts on a gun, and for the most part magazine safeties went away. They remained popular in one segment of the autoloader world, however: Every day, police departments and military organizations around the world hand out guns to countless people, many with only the most rudimentary of handgun training. And at the end of their shift, these same people are expected to come back in and safely turn in an unloaded weapon without shooting themselves, their armorer, or their fellow gendarmes or gefreiters. In this setting, magazine safeties retain their popularity with many issuing agencies and armies, since sending all their personnel to Gunsite would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.

Of course the belief that mechanical gizmos can substitute for safe handling has penetrated various legislatures and courtrooms, and more and more guns are fitted with these Rube Goldbergian contrivances in an attempt to remain salable in as many jurisdictions as possible. We can only hope for a brighter tomorrow, when we look back on this era of mandating hardware solutions to software problems and laugh.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sunday Smith #47: Number 1, Second Issue, 1866

The one that started it all...

As the first half of the 19th Century drew to a close, the Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company had a stranglehold on the revolver business in America, by virtue of holding the basic patents for the revolving pistol. The early Colt's revolvers were all percussion arms, in which the chambers were loaded with loose powder and ball, and fired by means of a percussion cap seated on an exterior nipple on the rear of the cylinder. A man by the name of Rollin White had come up with an idea for improving the basic design by using a cylinder that was bored through from end to end, but Colt's wasn't interested.

The firm of Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, who had already tried making lever-action repeating pistols, eagerly purchased White's patents and when Colt's patents expired, they were ready with a new pistol that represented a quantum leap forward.

The Number One.

LEFT: S&W Number 1, Second Issue, shown with modern reproduction of .36-caliber Colt 1851 Navy.

Daniel Wesson had come up with a diminutive cartridge that contained the powder, projectile, and priming compound all in a unit. Manufactured of copper, the Number One cartridge launched a .22-caliber bullet, and was prevented from sliding all the way through the cylinder by a rim at the rear. The rim was hollow, and contained the priming compound, which was detonated when the revolver's hammer crushed it on firing. The little bullet with only four grains of black powder behind it was no ballistic powerhouse, but it was so easy to use when compared to fumbling with loose powder and caps that it caught on like wildfire.

The pistol that fired the round was a seven-shot revolver small enough to fit in the hand. It was a single action, meaning that the hammer needed to be manually cocked for each round. After firing all seven, a small catch beneath the front of the cylinder was operated, and the frame hinged upwards, allowing the cylinder to be slid out the front of the weapon.

To eject the spent cartridge cases, the loose cylinder was punched down over an integral ejector rod mounted beneath, and parallel to, the barrel. Seven more rounds were then inserted, the cylinder seated back in the revolver, the barrel hinged back down until it latched, and the revolver was ready to fire again.

RIGHT: S&W Number 1, Second Issue, shown broken open for reloading.

From little acorns...

The Smith & Wesson revolver went on sale in 1857, and now the shoe was on the other foot. Rollin White's patents gave Smith a lock on the bored-through cylinder until 1872 and they made the most of it, vigorously pursuing companies that attempted to copy the design.

The first iteration, now known as the Model Number 1, First Issue, was made up through 1860, a production run of almost twelve thousand guns. In 1860, to speed production, the frame was manufactured with sides that were machined flat, rather than the previous ogive cross-section. This Second Issue was produced for the next eight years, to the tune of almost 120,000 copies; it was frequently found in the boots and pockets of Civil War soldiers.

In 1868, several more design changes resulted in the Third Issue: A fluted cylinder and round barrel, and a rounded "birdshead" butt that made the pistol less likely to snag in a pocket or purse. This final version stayed in production until 1881, by which time it was well and truly obsoleted by newer revolvers with features like automatic ejection and double-action lockwork. Still, over 130,000 found buyers over its thirteen-year run.

Number One today...

With about a quarter million sold, the Number One is a very accessible collector's item. Almost any gun show will have at least one, and copies in reasonable shape can be had for $200-$300 or so. The pictured example, a Second Issue, was picked up at the Fall 2009 National Gun Day show in Louisville for $200; since it was manufactured circa 1866, it is not recognized as a firearm under federal law. The barrel is steel, with a silvered brass frame and rosewood grips. The same gun in excellent condition would be well over a thousand dollars, and the scarcer First Issue variants can bring over seven grand at auction.

(Note that modern smokeless powder .22 loads would reduce these little guns to scrap in short order. Even with a clean bill of health from a gunsmith, they probably shouldn't be fired, and if the temptation is too great, then primer-only CB or Flobert-type cartridges should be used.)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sunday Smith #46: K-22 Combat Masterpiece, 1955.

In 1940, Smith & Wesson released a .22 caliber revolver on their medium-size "K-frame" that was equipped with a taller rear sight and the new "short action" lockwork. Termed the "Masterpiece", its production was continued after the war.

The postwar "K-22 Masterpiece" contained everything Smith had learned about making an accurate revolver. The barrel featured an less tapered contour and had a serrated rib on top, which provided a glare-reducing sighting plane. The rear sight was of the micrometer style, click-adjustable for windage and elevation. The triggers were serrated and provided with an internal overtravel stop.

Built on a frame intended for .38-class cartridges, the K-22's were mild shooters and extremely accurate, as well as very durable. Starting in 1949, they were cataloged in two distinct styles: With a 6" barrel and a squared-off Patridge-style front sight as the "K-22 Target Masterpiece", and with a 4" barrel and a quick-draw ramp front sight as the "K-22 Combat Masterpiece". With the changeover to model numbers in 1957, these became the "Model 17" and "Model 18", respectively.

Popular with a broad cross-section of shooters, from competitive target shooters, to hikers, to casual plinkers, the 17 and 18 stayed in production for many years. The Model 17 remained in the catalog in one variant or another until 1999, while the 4" Model 18 was discontinued in 1985. The Model 17 was gradually superseded in the lineup by the stainless steel Model 617, but the K-22 Combat Masterpiece had no real official successor until it was recently re-released as a limited production "Classic Model".

The pictured revolver is a K-22 Combat Masterpiece produced in early 1955 (the upper sideplate screw was deleted in that year.) It was acquired at a gun show in Indianapolis in March of 2009. The asking price was in the mid-$500 range, which was pushing the envelope for what is an 85-90% gun at best. It shows wear on the ejector rod and front sight, and the target stocks are incorrect, but that last is easily fixed on Gunbroker or eBay.

The Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson, 3rd Edition gives a value of $350 for a "Very Good" specimen and $435 for an "Excellent" example, but these values are a couple years old, which is an eternity in the volatile market of 5-screw Smiths. If I found a pre-'57 K-22 in good, shootable mechanical condition that didn't look like it had been dragged behind a truck for less than five bills, I'd probably jump on it.

As they say, you rarely pay too much; you only buy too soon.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunday Smith #45: .44 Hand Ejector 3rd Model, 1930

When Smith & Wesson released their .44 Hand Ejector in 1908, it was obviously their flagship handgun. Physically imposing and immaculately finished, most were chambered in a new cartridge called the ".44 Special", to distinguish it from the old, shorter .44 Russian caliber. Distinctive features that set the big .44 apart from its lesser brethren included a third locking detent for the cylinder assembly, mounted at the front of the crane, and a graceful-looking protective shroud for the ejector rod machined below the barrel.

A little over fifteen thousand were sold over the next seven years, making it one of the more sluggish items in the Smith catalog. And no wonder; this Cadillac of revolvers was priced at the princely sum of $21!

Its replacement, dubbed the .44 Hand Ejector 2nd Model, dispensed with the extra locking detent on the crane, as well as the complex and difficult to machine ejector rod shroud, and could be offered for only $19. Despite the ten-percent price cut, the new guns still remained slow-movers compared to their smaller brethren, but they had some fanatical devotees.

Like nearly every change Smith has ever made in a revolver, people almost immediately began complaining about the removal of the ejector rod shroud. While some claimed that it was just a place for mud to collect on a military or peace officer's gun, others claimed that it protected the ejector rod from bending should the gun be dropped or used for... um... Percussive Behavior Modification Therapy on an uncooperative bad guy.

The dealer Wolf & Klar in Fort Worth, Texas pleaded with Smith to do a run of the big-bore hand ejectors with the ejector rod shroud, offering to buy up to 3,500 of them. With such a huge offer on the table, Smith agreed, and thus was born the .44 Hand Ejector 3rd Model, sometimes known as the "Model of 1926".

Despite production of the 2nd Model continuing apace, and the two models sharing the same serial number range, the 3rd Models are easy to tell apart by the shroud under the barrel and the differently-shaped knob on the end of the ejector rod. Made famous by users such as Texas Ranger Captain "Lone Wolf" Gonzuallas, the distinctive lines of the taper-barreled, shrouded-ejector rod Model of 1926 were continued after the war as the Model of 1950 .44 Military and the later Model 21.

Less than five thousand of the 3rd Model guns were built between 1926 and S&W ceasing production for the war effort in 1941. Never cataloged as such, they remained a special order item and have gained almost cult-like status with Smith fans. When Clint Smith pestered Smith to bring back a classic big-bore service revolver, the Model 21 .44 Military was the first one he pestered them to resurrect. Part of the reason is that good originals have become so scarce as to be almost too valuable to shoot; a pristine Model of 1926, even assuming no special value modifiers, could be expected to bring $3500-$4000 at auction.

You can imagine my surprise when I saw the man walking through the gun show with a 4", tapered barrel with the distinctive half-moon front sight and shrouded ejector rod protruding from his hand. That's enough to set any S&W fan's gears to turning. "Whatcha got there?" I asked.

"Model 21," he replied.

Five screws. Pre-21, at least. It had a flaking re-nickel job and wore a cracked and yellowing set of godawful hollow plastic fake stag grips. It was all there, though, and seemed mechanically tight...

"How much you gotta get out of it?"



Endshake was in spec. Lockup was good. It carried up a little lazy, but that's to be expected and can be fixed. I even had a spare set of N-frame square-butt "Magna" service stocks laying around just waiting to replace the plastic ones.

Truthfully, I was so excited by the find that it wasn't until I got home and really looked it over that I noticed the mushroom-headed ejector rod and lack of both the sliding hammer block and alpha prefix on the serial number that indicated a prewar gun. According to the Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson, the serial number dated it to 1930.

As a bonus, the bore was pristine, with good, sharp rifling and no pitting. This gun had been carried a lot more than it had been shot. Further, there was a partly-obliterated factory rollmark on the backstrap indicating the gun had been shipped to a police department. Which one will remain a mystery until I get the gun lettered by the factory.

With the model being so rare and highly sought-after, for a collector of my type, this is just the kind of gun I like to find; cosmetically flawed enough to make it affordable and mechanically sound enough to make it shootable. I think I need to look into a good holster for it. If it's good enough for "Lone Wolf" and Clint Smith, it's good enough for me.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sunday Smith #44: .38 Military & Police Model of 1905 -4th Change, 1930

The late 19th Century was a time of great change in the small arms world. The U.S. Army, which had been using a solid-framed single-action .45 Colt revolver since 1873, adopted a new double-action sidearm in 1892. This revolver, also made by Colt, had a cylinder that swung out to the side for loading and chambered a smaller .38 caliber cartridge.

Within four years' time of the Army's changeover, Smith & Wesson had brought out their own line of revolvers with swing-out cylinders, albeit chambered in a lengthened .32 caliber cartridge, and they soon followed these up with an enlarged version. The target market of this bigger revolver was no secret: They were named the .38 Military & Police.

These early guns, easily distinguished from their later brethren by their lack of a locking lug under the barrel at the front of the ejector rod, were adopted in small trial-size batches by the Army and Navy in 1899. Although nobody realized it at the time, the heyday of the martial revolver in the US was drawing to a close, with the adoption of the first general issue self-loading martial sidearm in American service barely a decade in the future. That really didn't matter, however; the Smith .38 Military & Police was destined to be one of the most successful handgun designs ever manufactured.

They were chambered in a stretched .38 (which Smith called the ".38 S&W Special".) Although the new cartridge originated as a black powder design, it was loaded with smokeless powder shortly after its introduction and remains one of the most popular handgun cartridges to this day.

Noticeable changes were made to the gun in 1902, when a lug under the barrel with a locking detent for the ejector rod was added, and in 1905, when a screw was added to the frame in front of the trigger guard, bringing the number of externally visible screws in the frame to five. This is what has led to collectors referring to Smiths of this vintage as "five screw" guns.

Various small changes added up, and by 1915, the proper name for the current model was ".38 Military & Police Model of 1905, 4th Change". This iteration was immensely popular; between its inception and 1942, over three quarters of a million were made.

Available in barrel lengths of 2, 4, 5, or 6 inches, and with fixed or adjustable sights, a hobby could be made of collecting just this particular variant of the famous M&P alone. The above example, a fairly basic 5" model, dates to 1930. The photo does not do the condition of the revolver justice; the bluing is even and exhibits only minimal wear in the expected places, making it an honest 90-95% gun. It was purchased at a gun show in Knoxville, Tennessee in the summer of 2007 for $350. In today's market, in the condition it's in, it would probably bring $100 over that, maybe more. Excellent condition prewar Hand Ejectors remain solid investments.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Sunday Smith #43: .32 Single Action, 1883

Smith & Wesson first made their bones in the personal self-defense pistol market. With the purchase of the Rollins-White patents for a bored-through cylinder combined with the tiny rimfire .22 cartridge, Smith literally sold hundreds of thousands of tiny pocket revolvers.

As Smith entered the centerfire cartridge age in the 1870's, they first tried their toe in the military market with their No. 3 frame size in 1870, and then quickly followed on its heels with a "medium" frame .38 in 1876 and then a "small" frame .32 in 1878.

The original S&W revolvers were of a "tip-up" design, wherein the frame was hinged on the top. When the gun was shot empty, the shooter would trip the latch, hinge the frame upwards, slide the cylinder forwards off its pivot, and then punch the spent cartridge cases out with a built-in punch on the pistol's frame. With the new "break-top" design, the latch would be worked and the barrel and cylinder hinged downwards, causing an integral ejector mechanism to spit the empty shells out simultaneously.

Although the original 7-shot tip-up .22 revolvers stayed in production until 1875, the market was obviously ready for the new top-breaks. The original single-action Model One-and-a-Half Centerfires mere manufactured until 1892 in their original form (which required the hammer to be cocked manually for each shot) and the double action variant of the Model 1 1/2 .32 S&W top-break remained in production until 1937; a run of very nearly sixty years.

The smallest of Smith's top-breaks, the Model One-and-a-Half was chambered for a new cartridge, designated ".32 Smith & Wesson". The tiny cylinder held five of the rounds, which used nine grains of black powder to propel an 85-grain round-nosed lead bullet at just under 700 feet per second. With less than a hundred foot pounds of energy, the .32 S&W cartridge was no man-stopper, but in the days before antibiotics and effective anesthesia, most people would think twice before getting a hole poked in them by a bullet, no matter how slow it was traveling.

Given their near-ubiquity in the pockets, purses, and sock drawers of America, it is perhaps unsurprising that the tiny 5-shot .32's are some of the most affordable antique arms in this country to this day. The pictured revolver, a nickel-finished Model One-and-a-Half Single Action with a three-and-a-half inch barrel made in 1883, was purchased at a gun show in mid-2008 for under $200. A truly premium example of the breed might edge over $1,000, but as is usual with these kinds of guns, condition is everything.

The gun in question, purchased at a gun show in Indianapolis 125 years after it was made, is still quite functional and shoots as well as it did in the year of its birth, the same year the Brooklyn Bridge opened and Black Bart robbed his last stagecoach. Rarely is history more accessible than in these little pistols...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Schmidts and K.31's: A tale of two bolts.

When the time came for the Swiss army to replace their black-powder Vetterli rifles, they cast about for only a few years before settling on a design by Col. Rudolph Schmidt, working out of Bern.

He had come up with a straight-pull bolt action design in which the bolt body itself was nested inside an outer sleeve. The sleeve carried the lugs which locked into mortises in the receiver body, and was rotated through ninety degrees when the bolt handle was pulled to the rear, by means of a lug on the operating rod acting on a helical track in the bolt sleeve.

The earliest Schmidt rifles were elaborate pieces of machinery; every part of the bolt assembly, from the cocking ring to the operating rod, was machined from steel forgings. For whatever reason, Schmidt had the actual bolt body itself projecting far forward from the encircling sleeve, while the locking lugs were at the extreme rear end. This resulted in the tubular machined steel receiver of the rifle being extremely bulky and heavy when compared to the various other rifle designs emerging at the same time, as well as requiring a fair amount of time and ordnance steel to manufacture; two strikes against a weapon from the standpoint of any bureaucracy.

Further, the breechface was the better part of a foot from the locking lugs. When the catridge was fired, a force of several tons was exerted straight back against the column of the bolt (know as "bolt face thrust"), and that long, thin column of steel was only supported by those two lugs at its rear end. This could lead to compression, flexing, and premature wear or failure of the action.

As higher pressure cartridges were introduced, the Swiss redesigned the rifle by moving the lugs towards the front of the bolt sleeve. This made the arrangement much sturdier and allowed the use of modern ammunition. They also lightened the rifle's receiver by milling several lightening grooves in it, and made it less bulky by going to a smaller-capacity magazine.

However, the basic layout of the long bolt protruding forward from its sleeve remained, and despite the lightening cuts, the receiver was still longer, heavier, and much more difficult to produce than its contemporaries. This solution, finalized in 1911, could be no more than a stopgap.

In the 1930s, Switzerland introduced a new service weapon. Following the trail blazed by the Americans and the British in dispensing with two different length weapons, they standardised on a "carbine" length weapon for everyone.

The new rifle had a much shortened action, the forward extension of the bolt body having been "telescoped" back into the sleeve. Even though it was roughly the same overall length as the earlier Schmidt K.11 cavalry carbine, the K.31's barrel was longer, due to the length saved in the receiver. Manufacture was further simplified by doing away with the complexly-shaped operating rod and going to a simple, flat piece. All in all, it was a far more practical weapon for mass production.

Despite these shortcuts, the K.31 retained a reputation for fit, finish, and accuracy that lived up to the legacy of its Schmidt-designed forebears.