Monday, October 25, 2010

Sunday Smith #49: .32 Safety Hammerless 1st Model, 1891

The real story behind the Safety Hammerless revolvers from Smith & Wesson is as hard to track down as many myths that predate the little revolvers by millennia. The popular lore is that Daniel B. Wesson was horrified by a newspaper account of a child who accidentally shot himself with daddy's revolver, and so he set out to design a safer handgun. An alternate explanation is that, with an increasingly urbanized population that was less likely to go openly "heeled", the American gun-buying public would respond to a small revolver with an enclosed hammer that wouldn't snag on clothing when drawn from coat pocket or purse, and which couldn't discharge if the hammer spur were struck on the pavement or bumped on the edge of the nightstand drawer.

Whatever the reason, the first S&W Safety Hammerless revolvers hit the market in 1887 in .38 S&W caliber. Officially termed the "New Departure", and known in popular slang as "lemon squeezers" for the grip safety on the backstrap, they were followed by a smaller .32 S&W caliber version the very next year.

The first .38 Safety Hammerless revolvers used a complex "Z-bar" latch that used lateral movement to unlock the downward-tipping barrel-and-cylinder assembly. This was replaced in the second year of production with a push-button mechanism that was shared by the first .32's as well. In an interesting note to our modern sensibilities, which are trained to flinch at the thought of lawyers, the "lemon squeezers" were originally shipped from the factory with a pin that could be used to disable the grip safety.

The push-button barrel latch was hardly a triumph of ergonomics. After all, as the shooter's support hand was trying to tip the barrel down for unloading, the tendency was to use the thumb of the strong hand to actuate the latch button, inadvertently applying enough pressure to hold the pistol shut. It was replaced in 1902 with a simple "t-bar" toggle that was intuitively operated by the support hand.

The Safety Hammerless top-breaks were wildly successful for Smith, continuing in production long after the more modern Hand Ejectors had supplanted the more conventional top-break revolvers. The .32 Safety Hammerless remained in production until 1937, and the .38 version wasn't discontinued until the eve of World War Two, in 1940. Even so, the concept of a small, pocket revolver with an enclosed hammer to avoid snagging on clothing is one that has yet to go out of style. It is interesting to note the similarities between the .32 Safety Hammerless 1st Model of over a century ago and the Model 432 .32 Magnum Centennial Airweight I carry in a coat pocket today. (The latter is the one with CTC Lasergrips...)

One of the most striking things about the old .32 top-breaks to our modern eyes is their almost lilliputian size. The cylinder of the .32 is about exactly half the length of the cylinder on a J-frame magnum, and the whole gun, 3" barrel and all, will lay in the palm of my hand without the barrel overhanging my fingertips, and I'm a long way from palming basketballs or playing concert piano.

The .32 Safety Hammerless 1st Model in the photos is in probably the most common configuration: Nickeled, and with a 3" barrel, the gun shows signs of hard use and a rough re-nickeling. I picked it up for a song, just barely over $100 at a gun show in late 2010, and the serial number dates it to the very early 1890s. It still times decently and locks up well, even though the bore is about as ugly as you'd expect for a well-used piece of its vintage. A nice one could bring four or five times that, easily, or more if it were in an unusual configuration.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Continental .32 Pocket Pistols, 1900-1914, Part II

A quick vignette of three more European .32 autos:

The top one, in the white, is an Austrian Steyr-Pieper M1908/34. Not content with the bizarre designs churned out by their native sons, Steyr licensed a design from Belgian gun maker Nicholas Pieper. Featuring a tip-up barrel (released by the lever above the trigger guard,) the mechanism was unusual in that the recoil spring was located above the barrel and pivoted with it, being fitted with a hook on the back to engage the slide. The example shown was made in 1920 and was issued to the postwar Austrian State Security Police.

The second one down is a Mauser M1914. A nicely-fitted pistol, the 1914 was a scaled up version of the company's M1910 .25 auto. An odd feature by modern standards was the removable sideplate in the frame, allowing access to the lockwork. The M1914 was a common substitute standard issue pistol in the imperial German army during the First World War, and the example shown sports military acceptance marks and came to America as a war trophy.

On the bottom is the one that started it all: The FN M1900, John Browning's first commercially successful self-loading pistol and the original home for the 7.65 Browning Automatic cartridge, now better known as the .32ACP. The pistol has several unusual features for a Browning design: The recoil assembly is above the barrel, rather than being concentric or located beneath it; also, the pistol requires tools, or at least a screwdriver, to disassemble for cleaning. The successors to this ur-Browning, the Colt M1903 and FN M1910, were vastly less baroque in their construction and seem quite modern by comparison.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Thirty-Two and I.

At first glance, "early .32 Auto pocket pistols" seems to be a strange collecting niche. I mean, why? What's the fascination? How did I wind up here? Well, there are several reasons, many of which I didn't understand until I was halfway down the rabbit hole, so to speak: It wasn't until I'd already accumulated a few that I really began to grasp why I found them so interesting.

For starters, the .32ACP, or 7.65 Browning as it's termed across the pond, is a strong candidate for the oldest autopistol cartridge still in common use. John Moses Browning developed the round for his first commercially successful self-loading pistol, which went into production at Fabrique Nationale in Belgium at the close of the 19th Century, and it's been in constant usage ever since.

Further, it was one of the first “standard” pistol chamberings. It was common practice with early autos to design a new cartridge to go with a new pistol. With the strong sales success of the FN M1900 and its associated round, later manufacturers of small autos found it convenient to design their offerings around this already extant cartridge, assuring their customers of widely available ammunition.

Thirdly, the guns themselves are often very interesting from a mechanical standpoint. The early 20th Century was a time of rapid change and broad experimentation. Unlike today, when the self-loading pistol is a decidedly mature technology and most advances are incremental and usually revolve around new materials, the early 1900s were a time when the best ways to build a working pistol were still being felt out by trial and error and dozens of designs, ranging from the familiar to the baroque, were tried. Blowback, blow-forward, short recoil, long recoil, striker ignition, exposed hammers, enclosed hammers... all were represented somewhere.

Additionally, the very construction of the pistols approached the status of metalworking art. Casting, stamping, injection-molded plastic... none of these techniques had been applied to firearms production yet, and so everything is intricately machined from forged steel and often fitted to a level of precision that would satisfy a watchmaker. These are not characteristics associated with mass-produced items in our day and age.

Also, these pistols are tangible artifacts of a very different era. They are from a time when, through most of the Western world, there was nothing terrifically unusual about a gentleman owning a small pistol which he could slip into a coat pocket, should he feel the need for a little insurance. They are also from a time when a small, .32 caliber pistol was considered adequate for police, gendarmes, or even the military: The original .32 M1900 from FN was adopted as the official service pistol of the Belgian army.

Lastly, they are very accessible. Some of the rarer models, or guns in outstanding condition, may bring moderately high prices, but working examples of many of the most interesting ones can be had for $300 or less. Thanks to their durable steel construction, they are generally still quite functional. And thanks to the ubiquity of the .32 ACP cartridge itself, spending a pleasant afternoon at the range with one of these living fossils is well within the reach of most collectors.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Small-Frame Smith Top-Break Taxonomy:

Although Smith & Wesson introduced their centerfire top-break revolvers, complete with automatic simultaneous extraction and ejection, in 1870, they were only available as bulky holster pistols for over half a decade. It wasn't until 1876 that they brought a smaller model, suitable for concealed carry, to the market.

The smaller models, however, had much wider appeal on the civilian market and, in one form or another, continued in production long after their more martial bigger siblings had been discontinued. With the last .38 caliber models shipping in 1940, these little guns had been in production for over sixty years and hundreds of thousands had found homes, making them easily the most common and affordable antique Smiths on the market today, so a quick overview of the most common variants may be helpful.

The first to show up was the .38 Single Action. The earliest variants had the complicated rack-and-pinion ejection system of the bigger .44 Russian models, complete with its long underbarrel housing, earning them the nickname “Baby Russians”. There were obvious differences, however.

Their smaller size dictated a five shot cylinder, chambered for the new .38 S&W cartridge. Further, as a single-action pistol intended for boot or pocket carry, they lacked the usual trigger and triggerguard arrangement of the bigger guns, having instead a “spur” trigger; a protruding nubbin protected by flanges integral to the bottom of the frame.

In 1878, they were joined by the similar, yet even smaller, .32 Single Action. The .32 enjoyed a couple of mechanical refinements, namely a simplified and more compact actuation system for the ejector and a rebounding hammer that kept the firing pin from resting on the primer of the cartridge, both features shared with the larger New Model Number 3 .44 revolvers that debuted the same year. In 1880, these features were added to the latest version of the .38 Single Action.

LEFT: .38 Single Action 2nd Model (top), .32 Single Action (bottom)

The .32 Single Actions were discontinued in 1892, but the .38 received a conventional trigger and triggerguard in 1891 and remained in production until 1911.

Also in 1880, double-action variants of both the .32 and .38 were introduced. These are immediately distinguishable by their conventional triggerguard, with the trigger sitting about halfway forward inside the guard. The .32 Double Action remained in production until 1919, while the conventional .38 DA was discontinued in 1911.

RIGHT: .38 Double Action 2nd Model (top), .32 Double Action 4th Model (bottom)

In 1909, however, an interesting variant of the .38 Double Action was introduced, known as the “Perfected Model”. In addition to the topstrap-mounted latch shared with other Top Break Smiths, it had a knurled thumbpiece latch like the newer solid-frame Hand Ejector models. Because of this second latch, they were the only Top Break S&W revolvers with their sideplates on the right-hand side of the frame. The Perfected Model was discontinued in 1920.

The final variant of the small-frame Top Breaks is the “New Departure” or “Safety Hammerless”. These revolvers, in both .32 and .38 forms, are not actually hammerless, but rather feature an enclosed hammer, which makes them less likely to snag on clothing when drawn from concealment in a pocket or purse. In the rapidly urbanizing America of the late 19th Century, when gentlefolk were not prone to go about openly “heeled”, this was an important consideration.

The .38 Safety Hammerless debuted first, in 1887, followed by the .32 caliber version a year later. In addition to the enclosed hammer, which rendered them double-action-only, they also had a grip safety on the backstrap, which blocked the movement of the hammer unless depressed by a proper firing grip, which feature lent them the nickname “lemon-squeezers”.

The Safety Hammerless models were very successful. Almost a quarter-million .32 New Departures were made between 1888 and 1937, and by the time the last .38 shipped in 1940, over 260,000 of the larger model had found homes.

Thus, despite the more modern Hand Ejectors with their swing-out cylinders and more potent chamberings having been on the market since the last decade of the 19th Century, it wasn't until the eve of America's entry into the Second World War that Smith's last Top Breaks left the catalog. As a result, plenty of fine examples of these little revolvers are available for extremely reasonable prices and provide an inexpensive entry for the collecting of antique American handguns.

Below is a group photo with some additional identifying information:


Top: .38 Single Action 2nd Model. If it were a 1st Model (aka "Baby Russian"), it would have a longer ejector housing under the barrel, coming to within an inch or so of the muzzle on this example. A 3rd Model would have a conventional trigger and triggerguard.

Middle: .38 Double Action 2nd Model. The sideplate (on the other side in this photo) would have had straight edges fore and aft if it were a 1st Model, whereas this gun's are curved. If it were a 3rd Model (or later), it wouldn't have the groove and second set of stop notches around the middle of the cylinder.

Bottom: .38 Safety Hammerless 4th Model. The upward-lifting latch distinguishes it from the 3rd Model, which used a central button, while the pinned front sight distinguishes it from the 5th Model, which used a front sight milled integrally with the barrel rib. The fact that this gun has been refinished is made obvious by the fact that the latch, trigger, and trigger guard are all shiny. On a factory nickel gun, they would have been blued steel. Also because whoever did it made the gun look like a bumper.


Top: .32 Single Action. Like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, the .32 Single Action hit the market in its final, mature form, already having a rebounding hammer and simplified ejector; thus there are no "1st" or "3rd" or whatever.

Middle: .32 Double Action 4th Model. This pistol is distinguished from the earlier 3rd Model by its round (rather than recurved) triggerguard, and from the 5th Model by its pinned, rather than integral, front sight.

Bottom: (This space awaiting a reasonably-priced .32 Safety Hammerless.)

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Continental .32 Pocket Pistols, 1907-1912, Part I

Above are three representatives of the great diversity of early 20th Century European pocket pistols chambered in 7.65 Browning (or .32 ACP, as we Yanks term it.)

From top to bottom, they are a Dreyse M1907, a Frommer Stop, and an FN 1910.

Two are blowback operated, while the third is a locked-breech, long recoil design. One is striker-fired, one has an external hammer, and the third, an internal hammer. All three are single-action pistols. The Dreyse has a thumb safety, the FN has both thumb and grip safeties, and the Frommer has a grip safety as well as an external hammer which can be manually lowered to decock the weapon. All three saw service in various capacities with militaries and gendarmeries.

We'll be taking a closer look at these pistols over the next weeks.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Early American .32 Pocket Pistols: Part II

In writing Saturday's post about pocket autos, I spent some time examining the actual pistols as well as exploded drawings. I also looked at the drawings of the two early American autos of which I don't yet have representative examples on hand, the Remington 51 and the Smith & Wesson .35. Most pocket pistols on the market after World War Two sprang from one of three evolutionary families: The 1903/1908 Colt/Brownings, the Walther PP, or the Beretta. That's what makes a look at the pistols from the Cambrian Explosion of self-loader design so fascinating: All manner of solutions to the problem of constructing a reasonably powerful, pocketable, self-loading pistol were tried before the market was thinned to the few that survive today.

The Colt is easily the most familiar, and not only because Colt's made more than half a million of the things over forty-something years. The basic structure of the John Browning design is elegant in its simplicity and several basic features have been copied down through the years by numerous handgun manufacturers.

The Savage is probably the second best known, and it should be, with a production run of several hundred thousand guns in a little over twenty years. The brainchild of one Elbert Searle, it's another simple and elegant design, if a little odd to our eyes, being somewhat of an evolutionary dead-end. Blowback-operated with a slight mechanical delay, its double-stack magazine was futuristic for the time and it contained even fewer parts than the Colt, but a combination of constant redesigns, overproduction, and a slumping market put paid to Savage's pistol efforts.

The H&R took a fairly simple, if odd-looking, Webley & Scott Police Pistol design and, through conversion to striker-firing and addition of a magazine safety, managed to up the parts count to 49; over a dozen more than the Browning design and almost two-thirds more parts than Searle's little pistol. They can't have been making money on those, and the fact that they disappeared from the market so fast suggests that they weren't.

Smith & Wesson, like H&R a revolver company, shopped for an outside design as well, finally settling on the Belgian Clement. With controls that were counter intuitive (the manual safety was a thumbwheel on the backstrap that pretty much could not be operated with the hand in a firing grip), baroque mechanicals (a parts count that far outstripped even the H&R), and extremely complex construction, S&W hammered the last nail in the coffin by arrogantly designing their own pocket pistol cartridge in 1913, when the rest of the market had already settled on Colt's .32ACP. Smith's .35 cartridge got Betamaxed, and the gun itself sank without a ripple; 8,000 were made in an eight year run at a time when Colt and Savage were selling tens of thousands a year.

Remington was the last player to arrive, showing up in 1917 with a graceful, futuristic-looking pistol designed by the great John D. Pedersen: The Remington 51. But its graceful, futuristic-looking lines concealed a funky, floating breech/indirect blowback mechanism and complex innards; Browning's pocket pistol contained five springs while Pedersen's had seven (S&W's Clement clone had nine!) Despite the greater complexity, Remington attempted to undercut Colt's on price, selling its offering for less than sixteen bucks when Colts catalogued for just over twenty. Late to the market, the Remington autos didn't survive the Depression.

And if you think there were some weird ones on the domestic market, well, that's just the start...

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Early American .32 Pocket Pistols: Colt's, Savage, and H&R

ABOVE: Early American .32 pocket automatics from Harrington & Richardson, Colt's, and Savage.

In the early 20th Century, American consumers were offered an alternative to the small revolvers and derringers that had been the standard in pocketable firearms for some fifty years: smaller versions of the new "self-loading" semiautomatic pistols.

In 1903, Colt's offered their .32 Automatic Pistol, known as the "Model M" or "Pocket Hammerless". Equipped with both thumb and grip safeties, it was not truly "hammerless"; rather, like Smith & Wesson's Safety Hammerless revolvers, it contained an internal hammer enclosed by the frame and slide which prevented snagging on clothing and allowed for a smoother draw. The pistol was in many ways an improvement over John Browning's first .32 pistol, the FN Model 1900, and it sold well, continuing in manufacture through numerous updates until 1945.

Wanting a piece of the lucrative new market and needing funding for their military trials effort, the Savage Arms Company of Utica, New York brought out their own .32 pocket pistol in 1908. Dubbed the Model 1907 from its patent date, the new design sold well and contained several novel features, including an external hammer-like protuberance that could be used to cock its internal striker, and a 10-shot staggered box magazine. Its advertising featured the slogan "10 Shots Quick" and made much of the pistol's ergonomics, claiming it pointed like "pointing your finger". However, despite celebrity spokesmen like "Bat" Masterson and "Buffalo Bill" Cody, and revised versions offered as the Model 1915 and 1917, production ended in 1928, and the pistol never attained the cult-like following of the prancing horses of Hartford.

Finding themselves late off the starting block, Harrington & Richardson took the sensible step of licensing a design from Webley & Scott, the famous English handgun manufacturer, although they redesigned it to use a striker-type ignition setup, which made for a more pocketable piece. Released in 1914, the H&R had a plethora of safety features, including both manual & grip safeties, a loaded chamber indicator, and the early production pieces even had a magazine safety. Far more complex than its competitors from Savage and Colt's, it was never a brisk seller, a fact that couldn't have been helped by its eccentric appearance. Manufacture ceased after 10 years and 40,000 units (as compared to over half a million for the Model M), although stock backlogs kept it in the catalog until the end of the 1930s.

(The definitive book on the Savage is Savage Pistols, by Bailey Brower Jr.; I spent a good couple hours nose down in my roommate's copy.)