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...


Anonymous said...

No safety lock, no trigger guard, no transfer bar hammer safety! Good lord, you could shoot your eye out with one of these things!

I have only seen a few of these in gun stores, and all have been well past their prime, rusted, dinged, scratched and sometimes peeling. The prices were quite low, however. One store owner in Baltimore told me the rusted example he had was the perfect type of gun to turn in at a $100 "buyback" event; at $59, I could not really disagree.

History is just a rusty hunk of metal if left unoiled long enough. The poor examples make the really pristine ones all the more valuable.

Carteach said...

Hmm.... I'ss Wantsss

Not sure why, but I have a soft spot for pocket pistols of the bygone eras. I own only one (an H+R) but they always catch my attention. Around here the price on the S+W examples seem to get a bit pricier, often reaching into the mid-$300's
for fair pieces.

Need more posts here, Tam... (g)

Truthsayer said...

"When Ugly becomes Pretty"

Crucis said...

Yea! The Sunday Smith is back!

Anonymous said...


Thanks to you, I learned something new today. I was going to challenge your identification of the pictured revolver, and when I dug out my SCSW3 I discovered that the "1 1/2" designation was applied to both tip-ups and top-breaks. Interesting.

It to good to see you posting to the blog again, finally (hint, hint).

Anonymous said...

Saw a S&W 32DA in the shop the other day, marked down to $149. It's all dinged, nickel flaking off and such, but it would be a fun restoration project.

Anonymous said...

My mother-in-law has just given one of these pistols. It all seems to be in great shape, the nickel all solid and in no chips/flaking - just a little tarnished. Handle and detail on it are also in terrific shape.

So, what's the best way to clean off the tarnish? Any recommendations?

Also, on the underside of the handle, the number 25663 appears. Any thoughts on what this number is? Manufacture #?


Kristophr said...

Don't ever clean tarnish from an antique pistol. That destroys most of its value as a collectable.