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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