Sunday, November 14, 2021

Sunday Smith #70: Model 3913, 199(4)?

When Smith & Wesson started making their single-stack, double-action 9mm semiauto pistol in the mid-1950s, the Model 39 was pretty typical of the breed.

It had a full-length grip that accommodated an 8-shot magazine, a 4" barrel, and a hammer-dropping safety. In the early Eighties production shifted to the Second Generation versions of the same pistol. These came in three flavors: the Model 439 with an aluminum frame and carbon steel slide, the Model 539 with a carbon steel frame and slide, and the Model 639 with a stainless steel frame and slide. These were still full-size pistols with 4" barrels and 8-shot single-stack magazines.

The earliest single-stack Third Generation autos introduced in 1988 were very similar: The 3904 with a carbon steel slide and alloy frame, and the 3906 with a stainless steel frame and slide.

Soon, however, came a Third Generation single-stack nine that was different than earlier models...


The Seventies and Eighties had seen several custom "chopped" subcompact versions of the Smith single-stack nines, the ASP and Devel.

These went for hundreds of dollars for the custom work, with that price being added on top of the base gun. Reliability could sometimes...well, let's just say it could require a little "tweaking" before things settled out.

Then Smith & Wesson launched their own in-house Model 3913 in 1989. With a barrel chopped to three and a half inches, a shortened grip that still retained an eight-shot magazine, and a no-snag bobbed hammer from the factory, the 3913 was a factory subcompact 9mm that was years ahead of the Kahr or Glock 26. It was utterly reliable, weighed 25 ounces empty, and its MSRP of six-hundred and twenty-two bucks was barely more than what a custom house would have charged to chop a customer-provided 3904 into a compact carry blaster.

It wasn't long after the 3913 was released that the full-sized 3904 and 3906 were discontinued. Apparently someone at Smith & Wesson thought that the future for full-size pistols was in double-stack duty guns, and single-stacks should be compacts.

The pictured pistol shipped from the factory with Novak lo-mount night sights and no magazine disconnect, likely indicating that it was ordered by a police department as a duty or backup gun. It was acquired from a local gun store in 2021 for four and a half bills.

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Thursday, November 11, 2021

Sunday, Savage Sunday #5...

When the Savage Model 1907 hit the market in 1908, it had very little competition in the compact pocket autoloader segment here in America. It was pretty much just Savage and Colt.

Bear in mind, however, that this wasn't a situation that would last forever. In 1908, self-loading pistols were still something of a novelty, like robot vacuums in 2008 or electric cars in 2018. It didn't take long for the market to get more crowded, though.

By the mid Nineteen-teens, not only were Savage sales slumping relative to those of the Colt autos, but the two companies had been joined in the semiautomatic pistol field by Harrington & Richardson and Smith & Wesson. Suddenly Roombas and Teslas were all over the place.

The American commercial firearms market was put on a brief pause while the domestic gun companies went all in to Beat the Kaiser and it was almost as though Savage used this as a chance to regroup and redesign.


Measuring a range of hand sizes, Savage designers cut the backstrap of a 1907 frame loose at the bottom and bent it backward until they settled on what seemed to be the ideal angle for a naturally pointing grip. The new, flared grip shape may look less graceful than the original, but it's one of the most naturally-pointing shapes you'll find on a pocket auto.

The new grip shape necessitated a large relief to be scooped out of the bottom of the grip frame to allow clearance for the shooter's thumb when plucking out empty magazines.


The grips on the new pistol featured an improvement as well. 

Original Savage 1907 grips were made of a hard rubber and required a slight amount of flexibility to slide into the slots on the frame. This was because Colt had a Browning patent for affixing the grips of a self loading pistol to the frame with screws.

The problem was that the rubber could get brittle with time, and the fine channels into which the grip panels slid could get clogged with dirt or residue, and grips would break or not fit properly.

By the time the new pistol hit the market in 1920, this wasn't an issue anymore and the revised grip panels were held on with a screw like a normal pistol. (Remington's Model 51, which was released in 1918, still had to dodge the Colt patent with rivet-backed grips that slid on and were retained by the mainspring pin.)


Despite the new Savage going on sale in 1920, the marketing department called it the Model 1917, after the year it was designed. The Model 1917 hit the shelves just in time for a period of sharp deflation now known as the Depression of 1920-1921.

Savage churned out over eleven thousand pistols in that first year of production, but sales were tepid. Between the economic slump and the dawn of Prohibition, crime was spiking. Pressure was on to enact pistol restrictions at the local, state, and national level. With unsold pistols piling up in stockrooms and warehouses, Savage suspended production for much of 1921 hoping to move some unsold inventory before restarting production at a slower pace.

Production continued until 1926, by which time 29,072 of the .32 caliber Model 1917's had been made, as well as a further 14,325 in .380ACP. Other than a handful of pistols assembled from leftover parts by special order, that was the end of the most serious domestic competitor for Colt's semiautomatic pistols until Smith & Wesson released its 9mm thirty years later.

The Model 1917 came in two varieties, known to collectors as the Model 1917-20 and the 1917-22, with the major difference being that the later pistols were marked "SAVAGE 1917 MODEL" in a small italic sans serif font on the left side of the frame where the old SAVAGE billboard marking had been in 1907 models; the 1917-20 was blank there, like the one in the photos.

Advertisement from June, 1914 issue of National Geographic



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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Sunday, Savage Sunday #4...

When Savage resumed manufacturing handguns for the civilian market after the Great War, a few changes were made to the basic Model 1907.

Referred to in the literature as the Model 1907-19, these pistols were immediately recognizable by their less expensive matte blue finish that was also more durable than the bright bluing used on earlier guns. They also had twenty-eight smaller, sharper cocking serrations on each side instead of the ten large rounded ones of the original pistols.

The ejection port was smaller, no longer relieved to accept the loaded chamber indicator, which had added extra parts & manufacturing steps and acquired a reputation for breakage.

The large "SAVAGE" billboard rollmark on the left side of the gun was also gone now, eliminating another manufacturing step.

With the Model 1907-19 Modification #2 variant, the cocking lever with a pronounced thumb spur that had been an optional addition since 1914 became standard on the model.

Some 18,000 of the 1907-19 Modif. #1 and 26,400 of the 1907-19 Modif. #2 were build between the start of 1919 and the end of 1920. These pistols, however, were just a stopgap. Savage was feeling pressure not only from Colt, but now also from Remington, who had entered the pocket pistol fray with their John Pedersen-designed Model 51 at the tail end of 1918.

In response, Savage had revamped their basic pistol design in '17 and the new pistol would be ready for sale at the dawn of the Roaring Twenties.



Sunday, October 17, 2021

Sunday, Savage Sunday #3...

Sales of Savage's little Model 1907 pocket pistols had gotten off to a good start. They looked modern, had good advertising, and the ten-shot magazine gave them a leg up in the marketplace versus their competition. Nevertheless, despite a couple years where they actually outsold the Colt Pocket Hammerless, the salad days didn't last.

Sales fell off in 1912 and so management in Utica began groping for something to spice up the lineup relative to the competition from Hartford.

Pistols in this size class were usually carried in a coat pocket or vest pocket, and Colt made a lot of hay over the smooth "hammerless" profile of their 1903 and 1908 pocket models. Now, the Colt pistols actually had hammers, albeit internal ones, and the Savage pistols did not have hammers, but the external cocking lever for the internal striker made it look like they did...


Enter the Savage Model 1915, which was introduced first in .380 caliber in February of 1915, with a .32ACP version (like the one pictured) shipping in April of that same year.

The "hammerless" profile of the Colt was easiest to duplicate. All Savage had to do was remove the spur from the cocking lever on the striker and blank off the now-nonfunctional slot with a strip of sheet metal.


The 1915 sought to emulate some other Colt features, however. Among them was a grip safety, which took a couple tries to adapt to the basic mechanism of the original Savage 1907. The final design was by William Swartz and used pressure on the existing trigger-locking bar to prevent the trigger from moving unless the grip safety was fully depressed by a proper firing grip.


The 1915 retained the spring-steel loaded chamber indicator that had been introduced in 1913. Along with this, it introduced a last shot hold-open feature. A tab was added to the magazine follower that actuated an internal lever when the last round had been fired. An external tab was provided that could be pressed upward by the trigger finger to send the slide back into battery.


Despite all these changes, which added to the cost of the pistol, Savage kept the retail price of the 1915 the same as its 1907 predecessor. The sent profitability through the floor. Further, both the loaded chamber indicator and the last round hold-open feature quickly gained reputations for fragility.

Savage charged $15 for the .32 caliber versions and $16 for the .380s, but after selling a few thousand of each in the first year of production, sales plummeted. Compounding the problem was Savage being subsumed into the Driggs-Seabury Ordnance Company in 1915, and foreign contracts for Lewis guns were a lot more exciting for bean counters than trying to push a new civilian pistol design.

By the beginning of 1917 production of the Savage Model 1915 pistol, a weapon optimized for concealed carry by American citizens, had been entirely displaced at Savage by contracts for pistols and machine guns for European armies.

With roughly 6,500 manufactured in .32ACP and only 3,900 in .380 Auto, the Model 1915 is among the rarer commercial Savage auto pistols.

Savage for Victory!


Sunday, October 10, 2021

Sunday, Savage Sunday #2...

Last week's Savage 1907 was the variant known as the "1907-10 Modif. #2" and was made sometime in early 1911. Only two and a half years later, Savage was three more iterations down the road. By the latter part of 1913, they'd segued through the pistol now called the "1907-12 Transitional Issue" and the "1907-13 Modif. #1" and started making the pistol in the photos: The 1907-13 Modification Number 2.


The 1907-13 Modif. #2 was made from the latter part of 1913 through 1915, by which time it was largely supplanted by a version made under foreign contracts for the French and Portuguese militaries.

The pistol shown, which is in rather decent shape for an older Savage, was made toward the end of the period. 

The easiest tell for distinguishing a 1907-13 Modif. #2 from the earlier Modif. #1 is the large billboard "SAVAGE" in fine-outlined all caps on the left side of the frame.


 The trigger is still case-colored and it still has the early version of the burr on the cocking piece as well as the very wide slide serrations. The grips on this example are in very good shape, with the "TRADEMARK" lettering still legible on the chief's headdress.

The 1907-13 had introduced a loaded chamber indicator. This was a piece of spring steel, viewable through the ejection port, that clipped around a recess in the barrel with a tab that extended rearward that would be forced up by the semi-rim of a chambered round. This would provide both visible and tactile indication of a round in the chamber.

The 1907-12 Transitional issue had introduced a new magazine release. Rather than being in the center of the frontstrap and depressed with the ring finger, the second version of the magazine catch, used from the 1907-12 through the rest of the production run, had a knurled bit at the bottom of the catch and was operated by pressing this inward with the pinkie finger of the firing hand.


This obviously required a new magazine with the hole for the mag catch in a higher location.

So by 1913 we have a striker-fired, double-stack, self-loading pocket pistol with an ambidextrous magazine release and a loaded chamber indicator. Savage sold some 30- to 40,000 of them in the days before the Great War.

Actual Savage advertisement, circa 1913



Sunday, October 03, 2021

Sunday, Savage Sunday #1

Few patents in the firearms industry gave a manufacturer such an effective stranglehold on a market as did Smith & Wesson's licensing of the Rollins White patent for bored-through cylinders in revolvers. Other companies were forced to try and engineer workarounds for more than a decade while Smith basically had a lock on the metallic cartridge revolver until the patent expired in the early 1870s.

The only patent that came close was Colt's Browning patent for a one-piece breechblock and slide that extended forward to enclose the barrel. 

That gave Colt a deadlock on the self-loading pistol market in this country, at least for the most part. The challengers were mostly failures in the marketplace; the only one that came close to being a success was the Elbert Searle-designed Model 1907 from Savage. In some years it even outsold the Colt, but was far more complex and expensive to produce and eventually ceased production in the late 1920s.

There are approximately sixteen different iterations of the little .32 Savage (the constant changes and tweaks over a twenty-ish year production run did nothing to aid profitability) and the pictured pistol is the most common variety.

Manufactured in 1911, it's the variant referred to in James Carr's Savage Automatic Pistols book as a "1907-10 Modification No.2". Some 45,500 of this version alone were made.

Without consulting serial numbers, the main way to tell a "1907-10 Modif. #2" from a "1907-10 Modif. #1" is by the "SAFE" and "FIRE" rollmarks in the frame. While these are sometimes found on earlier guns, they were done after the pistol had been blued, indicating they were probably added after the pistol had been completed, possibly when it was returned to the factory for service.

Incidentally, that thing that looks like a hammer spur? It's not. It's just an external cocking lever attached to the internal striker.

The 1907-10 Modif. #2 still has the first version of the Savage's magazine release. Intended to be operated by the shooter's ring finger, the portion in the recessed divot in the frontstrap is pressed, causing the release lever to pivot on its pin and withdraw the catch from the cutout in the front of the magazine body, allowing the magazine to (at least attempt to) drop free.

By 1912, Savage had made around 65,000 of these striker-fired, double-stack, ten-shot pocket autos with ambidextrous magazine releases. They were, in many respects, way ahead of their time.



Monday, March 08, 2021

Classic Reevaluated


 There was a time, back when I first got this Model 12-2, that I was skeptical of its utility as a carry piece due to my reluctance to fire +P ammo through early alloy-framed Smiths.

While it will probably hold up to an absolutely normal level of shooting, I'm scarred by having seen a couple early Airweight J-frames crack their frames, probably due to having the barrels torqued in too tightly. 

Most vividly was the little flat-latch Model 37, a very early gun in absolutely pristine condition, that an elderly gentleman brought in for a trigger job. He'd finally gotten a carry permit for the revolver that had sat unused on a shelf for decades, and decided it could use a better trigger pull. 

Gunsmith Bob did a great job on the trigger pull and took it out on the range to verify that it would reliably light off primers still by putting a couple of cylinders of ammunition through it. The test ammo was standard pressure .38 Special, probably American Eagle FMJ, and the frame cracked there at the barrel shank. 

Smith & Wesson replaced the gentleman's Model 37 with a brand new Airweight J-frame, a stainless 637, and the customer was overjoyed. I guess from a practical point of view it was an upgrade, and we all tried not to actually cry in front of him.

At any rate, these days I am less inclined to seek any sort of expansion out of loads from a .38 Special snub. The only way to get it reliably seems to be to use light bullets with the velocity boosted via +P chamber pressures. So you get more blast and recoil and then a bullet that, if it does expand, tends to underpenetrate. If it doesn't expand, it pokes a hole just like a wadcutter. 

The fact that most of the switched-on dudes I know who still utilize .38 snubs all carry standard pressure wadcutters in them is what I would call a clue. Plus, Federal's Gold Medal Match has quality control that's second to none and has sealed primers just like premium defensive ammo.

Knowing what I know now, I'd have no hesitation to throw a Tyler T-grip or a set of boot grips on this thing and carry it with a cylinder full of 148gr wadcutters.

We live and we learn.

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Monday, March 01, 2021

The Great Recession

So the above photo has two Smith & Wesson rimfire revolvers, built probably about thirty years or so apart. The top one is a .22/.32 Heavy Frame Target, an I-frame revolver built probably sometime in the late 1920s. The lower one is a Model 34 Kit Gun, dating to the late '50s and built on the Improved I-frame.

If you look at the cylinders...specifically the rear of the cylinders...you will notice a difference. If you pop open the .22/.32 Heavy Frame, the rear of the cylinder looks strange to anyone accustomed to Smith & Wesson rimfire revolvers, because the charge holes are not recessed to accommodate the rims of the cartridges.

This was actually the norm at the time. Dating back to its earliest revolvers, the teeny little No.1 from before the Civil War, rimfire .22 Smiths had simple charge holes bored straight through the cylinder.

In 1930, however, Remington released new high velocity loadings of the .22 Long Rifle round and, when used in these revolvers, blown case heads were a very real possibility. So when Smith & Wesson released a .22LR version of their K-frame Target, known as the "K-22" or "Outdoorsman", they resorted to a solution that had been used on cartridge conversions of percussion revolvers: a rebated recess around the charge hole to support the rim.

By the mid-1930s, this had migrated from the K-22 to other rimfire Smiths. Here's the cylinder of the Model 34 Kit Gun:

Along about the time that Smith was adapting their rimfire revolvers to handle this new high-pressure, high-velocity .22 load from Remington, they were also working to develop another high performance round, albeit much larger than the little rimfire.

Julian Hatcher's Textbook of Pistols and Revolvers unveiled the new super round:


Without reading Major Wesson's mind, it's impossible to know why, exactly, the chambers were recessed on the new .357 Magnum. It's not like there was ever any balloon-head .357 Mag brass to worry about handloaders blowing up; the Magnum (there was only the one, at the time) was a thoroughly modern cartridge with a solid case head.

With the hype surrounding the cartridge, though, it would probably have appeared as a sensible precaution, at least to the buying public. In Hatcher's words,
...which seems almost quaint, looking back from the current era of AirLite Scandium Magnums and four-inch .500S&W X-frame revolvers.

The recessed chambers remained a hallmark of centerfire S&W revolvers in magnum chamberings up until the launch of the L-frame Model 586 & 686 in the Eighties, after which it went away, in a tacit admission that it was an entirely vestigial holdover.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2021

I-Frame Details, Part One

The first I-frame revolvers were technically the Model of 1896, with its combination ejector rod/cylinder release and topstrap-mounted cylinder stop. The first modern one we'd recognize as the ancestor of all the later I-frames and J-frames is the .32 Hand Ejector Model of 1903, aka the ".32 Hand Ejector, 2nd Model", which was a six-shot .32S&W Long revolver with a round-butt frame, available with a 3.25", 4.25", or 6" barrel.

The 2nd Model went through five successive engineering changes from 1903 until production was suspended for the Great War. When it came back in 1919, the new guns were referred to as .32 Hand Ejector, 3rd Models. The lower revolver in the picture above is a 3rd Model with a serial number placing its date of manufacture probably somewhere in the 1920s.

The longer-barreled revolver is also an I-frame .32, although this one is a .32 Regulation Police. The Regulation Police joined the regular .32 Hand Ejector in 1917, was offered in the same three barrel lengths, and was serial numbered concurrently with it. While it would appear to be a square-butt gun, popping the grips off reveals it is not...


Interestingly, the Regulation Police can be told apart from a regular .32 Hand Ejector even with the stocks removed!

The first and easiest way is the shoulder on the backstrap, where the wood round-to-square conversion stocks meet the metal. The second way is that, because the serial number in its normal location (on the bottom of the grip frame) would be covered up by the stocks, the s/n on a Regulation Police is rollmarked on the frontstrap of the grip.

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Monday, January 25, 2021

.38 Smith & Wesson

The full-size Model No.3 was Smith & Wesson's first top-break revolver, as distinguished from the tip-up rimfire guns on which the company had built its initial reputation. Although originally chambered for the .44 Henry rimfire cartridge, Smith was persuaded to develop a centerfire alternative, the cartridge that eventually became the .44 Russian.

The No.3 saw limited service with the U.S. Army, as well as foreign contracts with the Russians, Japanese, and others. While military contracts are always good, Smith recognized that the bulk of domestic sales would be of smaller, cheaper, more pocketable guns for the private citizen to carry.

Sales of the antiquated rimfire No.1 1/2 in .32 Rimfire Short were flagging as Smith launched a five-shooter that was initially a smaller copy of the No.3. These first .38 top-breaks are known as "Baby Russians", for their longer and more complex ejector assembly scaled down from the bigger gun. Simplified for easier production, the .38 Single Action was manufactured for more than thirty years through three major models.

.38 Single Action, 2nd Model

D.B. Wesson designed a new centerfire cartridge to go with the new gun. Utilizing a .36 caliber (well, .359) bullet that fit snugly enough in the case to minimize the need for crimping by the reloader, the new cartridge was referred to as the .38 S&W, referencing the outside diameter of the case.

Although introduced in 1876 as a black powder round, the .38 S&W is still loaded and sold as a smokeless round in the modern era, although S&W hasn't made a revolver chambered for it since the last Model 32 Terriers and Model 33 Regulation Police revolvers came off the line in 1974.

Domestically the .38 S&W probably hung on as long as it did because it could fit in the cylinders of small-frame revolvers originally designed around the .32 S&W Long cartridge, unlike the longer .38 Special. Additionally, the maximum chamber pressure of 14,000psi made it friendlier to inexpensive revolvers than the newer cartridge, which topped out over 3,000psi more.

L to R: .32 S&W Long, .38 S&W, .38 S&W Special, illustrating why the older cartridge fit the small .32 Hand Ejector frame while .38 Spl did not.

Overseas, the .38 S&W cartridge, in its British guise as the .380 Mk II, was the service cartridge in the waning days of the British Empire, chambered in top-break Enfield revolvers, and thus it can still be found in former colonies like India. Arguably it was possibly the most common centerfire handgun cartridge, globally speaking, for most of the period running from the 1880s into the 1950s. Smith & Wesson alone produced more than a million guns in the chambering, better than three quarters of a million more Enfields and Webleys, and who knows how many Colts...to say nothing of Harrington & Richardsons, Iver Johnsons, Hopkins & Allens, Forehand & Wadsworths, et cetera, ad nauseum.
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Sunday, January 24, 2021

Sunday Smith #69: .38/.32 Terrier, 1948



Smith & Wesson's small "I-frame" revolvers had their genesis in the first swing-out cylinder revolver the manufacturer offered, the .32 Hand Ejector Model of 1896. These were supplanted in the catalog by the .32 Hand Ejector Model of 1903, which incorporated advancements from Smith's original 1899-vintage .38 Hand Ejectors, such as moving the cylinder stop to the bottom of the window, adding a second lockup point for the cylinder assembly on the front of the ejector rod, and relocating the cylinder release to a thumb-operated latch on the side of the frame. All these changes are still in use on S&W revolvers nearly one and a quarter centuries later.

While the .32 S&W Long was seen as an adequate round for self-protection, the little .32 Hand Ejectors soon faced competition in the compact handgun market from Colt's Detective Special, which was launched in 1927. While slightly bulkier than the little I-frame Smith & Wesson, the Detective Special came with a factory 2" barrel and was chambered for the more powerful .38 Special cartridge.

Smith & Wesson didn't have anything in the catalog that could compare, and so in 1936 they began selling a factory short-barreled version of their .38 Regulation Police, called the .38/.32 Terrier.

The upper sideplate screw, strain screw on the frontstrap, and straight ejector rod all transmit a secret code in Smith nerdspeak.

The .38 Regulation Police and the .38/.32 Terrier were basically the standard .32 Hand Ejector with a cylinder holding five rounds of .38 S&W instead of six of .32 S&W Long.

Although the .38 S&W cartridge was already something like a half-century old by the 1930s, the cylinder window in the I-frame was too short to accommodate a cylinder that would hold .38 Special cartridges. Besides, at the time the .38 S&W was still one of the most popular cartridges in the world, being chambered throughout the British Empire and even domestically by Smith's arch rival Colt's Manufacturing Company (who called it ".38 Colt New Police" in order to avoid having to rollmark their guns with the hated 'S&W' initials).

During WWII, Smith shelved production of the Terrier as well as pretty much everything else in order to concentrate on .38 Military & Police "Victory Models" for the war effort. After the war, the production of Terriers resumed in 1948 and the pictured revolver is a very early postwar gun, with a serial number only about four thousand guns higher than the first one off the line in '48.

In addition to the serial number, the other giveaways to its postwar status are the sliding hammer block, which all Smith & Wesson revolvers incorporated as a wartime safety improvement, and the ejector rod with a simple bit of knurling on the end rather than a separate threaded-on ejector rod knob. This latter was a manufacturing shortcut adopted when Springfield was churning out Victory Models and remained after the war.

In 1953, production of the .38/.32 Terrier was moved to the Improved I-frame, with its coil mainspring, and in 1957 the nomenclature was changed to "Model 32", with the replacement of romantic model names by sterile model numbers.

The pictured revolver, a decent shooter with only moderate wear, was purchased at my neighborhood firearms store in January of 2021 for two hundred dollars.

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