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.)