Monday, July 27, 2020

Sunday Smith #63: Model 4046, mid-1990s

The Smith & Wesson 4046 represents two trends that reached their peak in the mid 1990s. The first is the .40S&W cartridge itself. When "stopping power" became a big buzzword in the wake of the Miami Shootout, the FBI went (briefly) to the 10mm Auto, quickly adopting a downloaded version that achieved ideal results in terminal ballistic testing without tearing up guns and inducing glacial split times.

Meanwhile, South African pistolsmith Paul Liebenberg had gone to work at Smith & Wesson, and convinced them to standardize the wildcat "Centimeter" as the SAAMI-recognized .40S&W. Law enforcement sales were mediocre until congress passed the 1994 ban on new production so-called "high capacity" magazines for civilian sales.

Realizing that the police departments of America were sitting on a gold mine of "pre-ban high capacity magazines", the sales reps of gun companies and LE distributors fanned out across the land, offering a deal to police departments that seemed too good to be true: Swap us those antiquated, underpowered, beat-up used 9mm duty guns, and we'll replace them with these shiny new service pistols chambered in the modern, man-stopping .40S&W! (Please give us all the old magazines, too.)

In the 1990s, Smith & Wesson still enjoyed a commanding position in the duty holsters of America, but it was eroding fast. The initial challenges came from Beretta and Sig, who got some halo glow from military service and a couple big LE contracts. Beretta had scored a win with LAPD in the mid '80s, and the FBI went with SIG Sauer after the S&W 10mm flop. Subsequently, Lethal Weapon and the X-Files sold a lot of 92's and P228's.

Glock, however, had started making inroads around this time. Their price was a powerful selling point, but another they used was the trigger. Unlike the DA/SA triggers common in the duty autos of the time, the Glock had a single trigger pull; the same with every shot.

Back in the revolver days, a large number of departments had converted their wheelguns to DAO*. This was pointed out by the Glock reps pimping G22's in the mid-1990s; "Our Glock 22 is basically a fifteen-shot .40-caliber revolver! Training officers will be easy!"

Beretta and Sig responded with DAOs that were basically their regular DA/SA gun, sans the single-action notch on the hammer. Smith, on the other hand, redesigned the whole thing. The pictured 4046 is not a true DAO, in that it requires the cycling of the slide to partially cock the hammer. The trigger pull then cocks it the rest of the way and fires the piece; there is no restrike capability.

The pull is heavier and longer than a single action pull, but evenly weighted over its travel, smooth, and slightly shorter than a conventional DAO pull. In my personal opinion, it's the best of the factory DAO options except maybe some variants of the HK LEM or a tuned Beretta D-model.

But pulling a DAO trigger consistently while keeping the sights on target is harder than doing the same thing with a shorter, lighter trigger, like the one on a striker-fired gun. Of course, the striker-fired gun is easier to shoot by accident, too. "Well that's just a training issue!" say the striker-fired fans. Yeah? Really? So is being able to hit your target with a DAO trigger.

Due to the current unpopularity of both DAO pistols and .40 caliber ammunition, the above pristine 4046, looking like it hadn't even been issued, was purchased on Gunbroker, along with three 11-round magazines, for under three hundred bucks. It's my current bedside gun.

*Incidentally, revolver conversions to DAO had been for reasons of liability, rather than ease of training, but salespeople don't let fiddly details interfere with the "Features & Benefits" portion of the spiel.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Sunday Smith #62: Number 1, Third Issue

As the 1860s drew to a close, America was at the gateway to a new era. The nation had survived a terrible civil war, westward expansion was back in full swing, and the Long Depression was still years in the future.

For Smith & Wesson, however, a crisis loomed on the horizon, one which they had fortunately planned to meet. The Rollins-White patents for a bored-through cylinder were set to expire in 1869, and exactly as S&W had champed at the bit with a revolver design when Colt's wheelgun patents had expired, Colt was now preparing to fight Smith on their home turf of breechloading revolvers.

Smith & Wesson's main response was to issue a new line of top-break revolvers with automatic ejection in new centerfire calibers, but centerfire technology wouldn't work with their classic .22 cartridge, and little .22s were the guns on which Smith was built.

So Smith & Wesson revamped their tip-up Number 1 model to sell alongside their centerfire top-breaks.

Mechanically largely identical to its antebellum predecessors, the gun featured stylistic nods to the aesthetic of the new era: The cylinder was fluted and the profile of the grips was in the trendy "bird's head" pattern that echoed the top-break single actions farther up the price scale in the S&W catalog.

Sales were initially slow, but after a couple years S&W was turning out 20,000 revolvers a year of this particular model. Overseas sales helped popularize the brand, but when the defense of the Rollins-White patent finally collapsed in 1872, the writing was on the wall. A little over 130k had been made when production ceased in 1882.

The pictured revolver, with a nickel finish and rosewood grips, is a late production example, probably produced in the mid- to late-1870s.