Saturday, February 25, 2012

Smith & Wesson - A Tough Success Story - Part 1

By Tom Correa

Talking with a few friends at the American Legion, the conversation got around to American manufacturers of anything. We all agreed that because of Government regulations, American manufacturing is at an all time low.

I believe that more things are now made for us overseas than are made here at home. One friend mentioned that Smith & Wesson was bought out by the British and is no longer an American company. I remember hearing something about that, but honestly, I just didn't know if a British company still owned Smith & Wesson or not.

Smith & Wesson has been around for a long time. The association between Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson started their first company in 1852 when they entered into a gunmaking partnership in Norwich, Connecticut. Because of financial problems related to the failure of the fist lever action pistol design they were forced to sell the company to Oliver Winchester.

Just as Colt was established on the production of the first successful  cap and ball repeating revolver, Smith & Wesson were first founded with the development of the first practical cartridge revolver. It was actually formed in 1854 after they developed on Walter Hunt's idea of what was called "Rocket Ball" ammunition and a lever-action mechanism.

They made an improved version of the "Rocket Ball" ammunition, and eventually produced a pistol version of a lever-action gun to fire it. Their lever-action pistol was called the "Volcanic" pistol, and with that the company became known as the "Volcanic Repeating Arms Company."  But because of financial difficulties, Volcanic went into receivership. Interestingly enough, the firms assets were purchased by Oliver Winchester who was a Volcanic stockholder. 

Volcanic was then reorganized as the New Haven Arms Company under Winchester. Production was discontinued entirely in 1860, but the company survived, and by 1866 it became known as Winchester Repeating Arms Company.  

Soon after the purchase of the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company by Oliver Winchester, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson left to strike out on their own once again. So in November of 1856, Smith and Wesson formed a second partnership to develop and manufacture a small revolver that chambered metallic rimfire cartridges that they had already patented in August of 1854.

In mid-November 1856, Horace Smith & Daniel Baird Wesson reformed their partnership and opened their books in Springfield, Massachusetts. Smith & Wesson rented a building on Market Street and hired 25 men to manufacture the Model 1 revolver and its cartridges.
By 1857, they came out with the newly-designed revolver-and-cartridge combination firearm. They produced the first metallic cartridge breech-loading revolver in America, and the small pistol was a success. It would become known as the Smith & Wesson Model One.

The Smith & Wesson Model One

S&W Model One, First Issue

File:Smith & Wesson Model 1, 2nd Issue.jpg
          S&W Model One, Second Issue

It was a revolver that everyone was looking for. It was small, easy to carry and conceal, and they sold like hot cakes! Everyone wanted one!

Introduced in 1857, the tiny 7 shot .22 caliber S&W Model One is what began the Smith & Wesson legacy. It was the foundation for all modern cartridge handguns. And yes, the Model 1 was a 7-shot chambered for the original .22 rimfire, which is dimensionally about identical to the modern .22 Short.

Now, if you are lucky enough to own a Model One, please be advised that although it is dimensionally about identical to the modern .22 Short -- it is important that you know that today's modern .22 Short is loaded to much higher pressures because of today's use of smokeless powder.

Simply put, this means we should not use modern .22 Short ammo in an old S&W Model 1.  It just might blow up in your hands! 

The success of the Smith & Wesson Model 1 was due to a combination of new innovations. First, it had a bored through cylinder, and second, it took self-contained metallic cartridges. The patent to the bored-through revolver cylinders for metallic cartridge use was held by a gunsmith by the name of Rollin White who had patented his invention. Smart man!

Smith and Wesson owned the famous April 3, 1855, "Rollin White patent" covering the right to make a revolver cylinder bored-through end to end which was an obvious requirement for an effective cartridge revolver. Both Smith and Wesson personally negotiated with Rollin White for assignment of the patent. In the end, they agreed to pay him a 25 cent royalty on every pistol sold. In return, Rollin White agreed to pay any legal fees associated with the defense of his patent against any infringements.

After that, for more than a decade, Smith & Wesson was the sole proprietary manufacturer of this technological improvement. However, the success did not come without a fight -- and in some cases the technology was stolen. There were many firms who proceeded to make the highly popular cartridge style revolvers with the S&W design.

Some of these firms used their own designs, and some just produced outright copies of the S&W pattern. Other manufacturers quickly developed unique metallic cartridges and cylinders designed to circumvent White's patent - and of course, Rollin White would take those manufactures to court.

With S&W seeking redress in court, several gunmakers were required to mark their revolvers "Made for S&W" or words to that effect. But no, that didn't stop foreign companies from making copies, and some domestic makers from borrowing the design after the patent had expired.

It is interesting to note that though Jack McCall was said to have used a .45 caliber handgun to shoot Wild Bill Hickok in the back of the head while Hickok sat at a poker table in Deadwood, North Dakota - it was later reported that he used a Model One Smith & Wesson pistol.

The 1860s was a great time for gunmaking in America. Innovations and new designs were coming out of everywhere, and many small gunmakers found a great deal of opportunity show what they had to offer.

Just for the record, in November of 1865, Colt did attempt to purchase a license to the Rollin White patent from their competitor Smith & Wesson. I was surprised to find out that Rollin White and Smith & Wesson would take no less than $1.1 Million -- so Colt decided it was too large an investment on a patent that would expire in 1868.

For one thing the onset of the American Civil War was just a few years away. With the coming war, there would be a great demand for all sorts of arms and munitions.

Smith & Wesson Model 1 was produced with two generations between 1857-1882, but that doesn't mean they sat on their success. Just four years after the Model 1, they came out with the Model 2 Army revolver.

The S&W Model 2

File:Smith & Wesson Army No 2.JPG

And yes, for you folks who know what took place in 1861, Smith & Wesson brought out their Model 2 in 1861 just in time for the start of the Civil War. Gun-manufacturers of all kinds went into mass production of just about anything that shoots, and that included Smith & Wesson pistols.   

Unlike the small Model One, the Model 2 was a full sized revolver with a 6" barrel and .32 caliber rim fire ammunition. It was chambered for both the .32 short and long cartridges. 

Of the 77,000 made from 1861 to 1874, approximately half were made during the Civil War. Because the Model 2 was much bigger and more powerful pistol than the S&W Model One, the Model 2 was much more effective. After all, anything up from a .22 caliber ball had to be considered an improvement by those needing a more effective pistol.

So why was it called the "Army" or even the "Old Army"? So why, especially since the pistol was non-military? Non-military meaning that it was never officially purchased through the military system.

Well, believe it or not, the S&W Model 2 picked up the moniker of "Old Army" because of its popularity. It was just that popular. In fact, it was bought in very large quantities by Officers and Enlisted men alike during the Civil War as the sales numbers show.

As with some other arms carried during the Civil War, many in the militarys on both sides purchased their own arms so that they would be able to carry something other than the antiquated firearms being issued at the time. This tradition of going to war after purchasing your own weapons was carried on for many years even in the early 1900s.

Part of the popularity of the Model 2 can is due to the way it loaded. It was like the second generation Model One in that it was a "tip up" design. A "tip up" loading system is where the barrel tips up and the entire cylinder can is replaced with a full cylinder if needed.

That, my friends, was a big deal! You see, with the exception of Smith & Wesson pistols, all other pistols during the Civil War were tediously loaded with either combustible paper cartridges or with loose powder and ball.

Both loading methods consisted of inserting the powder and bullet from the front, and then with the rammer was built into the gun you would swage the bullet into place. The swaging held the bullet from falling out when the gun recoiled when fired. Finally, a percussion cap was individually fitted to the back of the cylinder with one required for each of the five or six chambers.

Because reloading could take minutes, if extra cylinders could be found, two or more spare cylinders were carried pre-loaded. The cylinders would be switched much more quickly than reloading a fired one.

Because of this, and even though it was under-powered with its small .32 caliber round, the Smith & Wesson Model 2 Army can hold the distinction of probably being the most popular secondary pistol carried in the Civil War.

And please remember that the Great Western Migration was still going strong after the Civil War, so the Model 2 was not only popular during the Civil War - but it also very popular afterwards on the Western frontier.

I've read lately where General George Armstrong Custer, who owned a lot of different makes of guns, owned a pair of Model 2 Smith & Wesson pistols.  I've also read that Wild Bill Hickok carried one on the night that he was shot in the head and killed, but I haven't been unable to confirm that.

There is one Model S&W pistol hardly talked about. It is the "Model One and a Half." It appears that after Smith & Wesson produced the Model 2, they then set out to provide the more powerful .32 rimfire in a more handy "pocket" size revolver. That's when they came up with a five shot .32 rimfire with a shorter 3½" barrel.

Since they already had the small Model One and the large Model 2, and the new model was in between and size, Smith & Wesson came up with the somewhat awkward name of "Model One and a Half."

No kidding, it's might sound dumb - but it's true.

Some say the original Model 1½ looked like a shrunken Model 2, others say it looked more like an enlarged Model One Second Issue. In reality, in 1868, S&W redesigned the Model 1½ to look more like an over-sized Model One as a Third Generation Issue. Because of that, we have the Model 1½ "Old Model" with the square butt, octagon barrel, and the unfluted cylinder, and we have the Smith & Wesson Model 1½ "New Model" with bird’s head butt, fluted cylinder, and round ribbed barrel.

In 1867, Smith & Wesson began a global sales campaign that introduced the company's revolvers and ammunition to new markets, such as Russia, and established the company as one of the world's premier makers of firearms.

Then came the year 1870 and the Smith & Wesson Model 3, and as far as I'm concerned - it was actually a pistol ahead of its time in many ways.

The S&W Model 3
All in all, when looking at the Smith & Wesson Model 3. it was a single-action, cartridge-firing, top-break revolver that saw a production from 1870 to 1915. It was produced in several variations and sub-variations.

One version of the Smith & Wesson Model 3 eventually became known as the "American Model." Other versions became known as the "Russian Model," the "Schofield Model," and the New Model 3 which was a favorite of none other than Wyatt Earp.

The US Army adopted the Model 3 as the "Schofield" and used it throughout the Indian Wars of the West. This is large frame Smith & Wesson top-break revolver with a trigger guard, manufactured in three variations from 1870 to 1915. The Model 3 includes the American, the Russian, and the Schofield models.

Unlike the "tip up," this was a "top-break" revolver. So realistically, a shooter could easily fire his last round, crack her open, dump the used shells, and reload. Later models actually had an ejector when it was opened so that the spent shells would automatically be tossed out.

There is some disagreement if half-moon clips were designed as an 1870s version of a speed-loader for the S&W Model 3. I've read where they were designed to assist Cavalry soldiers who were reloading while in the saddle. And yes, I've read where they were around in some crude form.

Years ago I read that it was the British gunmaker P. Webley & Son who was the first to develop the "top-break" system. But frankly, there is proof that Webley and others got the "tip up"  and the "top break" systems of reloading from Smith & Wesson. As for who copied who, let's just say that there were a lot of gunmakers who used that system after the 1870s. Among them were Harrington & Richardson, Iver Johnson, Forehand & Wadsworth, and others. 

The pistol above, illustrated the top-break reloading system. The ejector rod extended to rid the pistol of its spent rounds. This auto-eject system was quite a technological break through. 

Compare the loading procedure of the S&W Model 3 to that of the Colt Peacemaker which arrived on the scene after it was designed for the U.S. government service revolver trials of 1872 by Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company. You will quickly learn why the Model 3 was a fan favorite of lawman, outlaws, and our military. 

And remember, in the Old West, sometimes the lawman who carried the Model 3 in his job as a lawman was also outlaw wanted somewhere else at the same time. Either way, many stayed with the firearm that gave them the best reliability and ease of reloading in a hurry.

All in all, the Model 3 has been reportedly used by Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin, Pat Garrett, Virgil Earp, Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, and many others. In fact, the Smith & Wesson Model 3 American was famously used by notorious Wyatt Earp at the shootout near the OK Corral. 

Wyatt Earp's Model 3 was given to him by the mayor of Tombstone just a few days before the famous gunfight took place. It is believed that Wyatt Earp used a Smith&Wesson "New Model" Model 3 revolver during the OK Corral gunfight.

How popular was it? The Smith & Wesson Model 3 was produced in the newly developed .44 S&W caliber round in great numbers and the U.S. Army adopted the Model 3 American in 1870. That made it the first standard-issue cartridge-firing revolver in the history of the U.S. military. Most military pistols up until that point were black powder cap and ball revolvers.

But wait, I'm sure someone is going to write me to inform me that Colt's first metallic-cartridge revolver was produced in 1871 as an open-top revolver. They will probably inform me that that was a completely new design for Colt as the parts would not interchange with the older percussion pistols.

The caliber was .44 rimfire and it was submitted to the U.S. Army for testing in 1872. Actually, the U.S. Army rejected the Colt pistol. And yes, the Army did in fact ask Colt to come back with a more powerful caliber with a stronger frame if they wanted a contract.

Colt redesigned their frame to incorporate a top-strap, which was strangely similar to the Remington revolvers that were already out at the time, and placed the rear sight on the rear of the frame. The first prototype was chambered in .44 rim fire, but the first model was in the new caliber known as the .45 Colt. That model Colt revolver was chosen by the U.S. Army in 1872. Their first order was for 8000 revolvers.

Shipping in the summer of 1873. the Colt Single Action Army or "Peacemaker" was born. And yes, it became one of the most prevalent firearms in the American West. 

In 1875, the U.S. Ordnance Board granted Smith &Wesson a contract to outfit the military with the new Model 3 Smith & Wesson revolver that incorporated the design improvements of Major George Schofield.

His improvements on the Model 3 made the Model 3 loading system that much more easier to use. The design became known as the Smith & Wesson Model 3 "Schofield" or simply the "Schofield revolver" as a tribute to the Major.

So why did I talk so much about Colt? Well, that's because of what happened next.

The U.S. Army loved the new design of the S&W Model 3 but demanded that they make their new Model 3 Schofield revolvers work with the new .45 Colt round.  First, it was proven to be more potent than the 44 S&W caliber rimfire round that the Model 3 had been chambered for. And second, besides the issue of it being a more potent round, the Army had all sorts of .45 Colt ammo in it's supply chain to be used and could not justify bringing in another pistol with a whole new cartridge to content with.

Because the Army already had the 45 Colt Peacemakers in service, along with the ammunition to go with them, the U.S. Army working with the Navy and Marine Corps wanted to standardize their weapons.

You would think that re-chambering their pistol's design to accommodate the longer .45 cartridge would not be that hard to do. In 2012, Smith & Wesson sold a Model 3 Schofield exactly like the one that the Army asked for back in 1875.

All that Smith & Wesson had to do was to just re-chamber its design, then sell them by the thousands! But no, instead of doing so, Smith & Wesson decided to develop their own slightly shorter .45 caliber round - it was called the ".45 Schofield."  Later it would be called the ".45 S&W" - and yes, it was less potent than what would become known as the ".45 Long Colt."

When it became obvious to the U.S. Army that the .45 Colt and the .45 S&W cartridges were not interchangeable between the Smith & Wesson Model 3 Schofield  and the Colt Peacemaker - yet both rounds did work in the Colt - the U.S. Government decided to take action.

They decide to adopt the Smith & Wesson Model 3 Schofield with the shorter .45 S&W cartridge as their standard pistol and cartridge.

But wait a minute, why the Model 3 Schofield?

Granted the Army sees that the .45 round used in the Army's S&W Model 3 Schofield will also work in their Colt Peacemakers which they already had on hand, but the Army also sees that the .45 S&W cartridge is an inferior round to the .45 Colt.  So why did the U.S. Army adopt the inferior round?

Well it appears that Major George Schofield had patented his locking system used on the Schofield revolvers - and earned a payment on each gun that Smith and Wesson sold.  That it itself might not be illegal, but when the Army brass found out that his older brother, John M. Schofield, was the head of the Army Ordnance Board - well that was not a good thing for Smith &Wesson and the Schofield revolver.

Imagine that! Having your brother on the Board that may approve the purchase of thousands of guns with your patented locking system might be seen as being inappropriate? Some might see it as an "unfair edge" to have your brother on the board approving the purchase of the equipment that you're selling?

Maybe, but that's not what really killed the Schofield for the U.S.Army.

You see despite the official change, old stock of the longer and more potent .45 Colt rounds were still in the supply line.  This availability of a proven "man-stopper" caused the Soldiers to stop using the new Schofields and go with the knock-down power of the .45 Colt Peacemakers.

So between the Soldiers not wanting the Schofields, though they did load easier, and of course the potential scandal regarding the conduct of the Army Ordnance Board, the U.S. Army ended their purchases of arms from Smith & Wesson.

And all in all, the .45 S&W Schofield revolver was manufactured from 1875 to 1878 with just under 9000 manufactured. Supposedly, many Schofield revolvers saw service in the Indian Wars. And yes, there are even reports that some of them saw some small use in the Spanish-American War and Philippine-American War.

It is believed that Teddy Roosevelt used a Smith & Wesson .45 Schofield revolver in Cuba with the Rough Riders. As for the Schofield, well after the Spanish American War in 1898 - the U.S. Army sold off all their surplus Schofield revolvers.

Personally, I can see why Teddy Roosevelt would have used the S&W Model 3 Schofield. Its ease to load, it's reliability, and it's ruggedness really make it a great pistol.

But then again, I really believe that the .45 S&W round that it was chambered to use was anemic in comparison to the knockdown power of the .45 Colt - and frankly, from what I've read about TR, I really don't know if he would want anything anemic in his arsenal.

Of course he could have opted for another maker, like say Colt, or he could have opted for a double-action revolver from an an assortment of makers at the time.

Of the two top gun makers in America, Colt came out with their double-action revolvers in 1877 and Smith & Wesson came out with theirs 5 years later. 

As stated before, the U.S. Army adopted the .44 S&W American caliber Smith & Wesson Model 3 revolver in 1870, making the Model 3 revolver the first standard-issue cartridge-firing revolver in US service. Prior to that, most military pistols until that point were black powder cap and ball revolvers.

S&W "New Model" Model 3 ( 1878 to 1915)
In 1877, Smith & Wesson discontinued production of its other Model 3 variation's such as the American, Russian, and Schofield -- in favor a new improved design called the New Model 3 in 1878.

Smith & Wesson New Model 3 was their perfected single action top break revolver, generally smaller and lighter than previous models. And yes, because it was smaller and lighter, it was more concealable.

It returned to the original Smith & Wesson barrel latch system of the American model, a change stemming mainly from the company's desire to stop paying royalties to George W Schofield.

It was one of the most popular revolver of the later frontier era. In fact, according to records, more Smith & Wesson New Model 3's were made than Colt Single Action Army pistols during the 19th century -- though the majority went to foreign military contracts.

The S&W Fourth Model -- A Double Action Revolver
Smith & Wesson's Fourth Model was a .38 caliber pistols, again using the popular top-break design, but these were in the newly created double-action firing system. And yes, they were known as "Self Cockers."

Usually these were smaller "pocket" pistols, but they did make a "Target" version - as well as a Combo Set which came with two different length barrels.

Though S&W had their huge overseas Russian contracts with a Russian version top-break design first introduced in 1870 in their large frame Model 3, they followed the Model 3 with medium frame top-breaks in .38 and .32 centerfire in 1876 and 1878.

The .38 S&W CF cartridge was more briskly loaded with a 16 grain black powder charge, topped by a 145 round nosed bullet.

Smith and Wesson manufactured and shipped in excess of 130,000 “New Model” or “Baby Russian” .38’s before finally taking it off line in 1891.

This medium powered round went on to be one of the most popular calibers of its time. All in all, the Fourth Model was a downsized Model 3 and were produced until 1907.

The Smith & Wesson Fourth Model differs from the S&W "New Departure" because the "New Departure" is hammerless and has a grip safety. The gun was offered with white Mother of Pearl grips or black hard rubber grips as standard.

The S&W Double Action -- The New Depature aka the  Lemon Squeezer
Magazine Article photo
This "pocket pistol" was also known as the S&W Safety Hammerless was also known as the S&W "Lemon Squeezer". 

The "New Departure" got the nickname "Lemon Squeezer" because the grip safety had to be squeezed in order to fire the pistol. 

They were blued or nickel plated, and manufactured from 1888 to 1937, and they were chambered in the small .32 S&W (.32 Short) and fairly weak .38 S&W (aka .38 Short) 

Both of these calibers were discontinued at Smith & Wesson just before World War II for economic reasons and practicality. Simply put, there were better .32 and .38 caliber rounds out there to chose from.

With a five-shot cylinder, they were produced with a 2 inch, 3 inch, and 3.5 inch barrels. The first generation was manufactured between 1887-1902. It was followed by two more generations until it discontinued production in 1937.

The .38 caliber model was based on S&W's medium Model 2 frame, and the .32 caliber model was based on the small  Model One and a Half frame.

They did come out in a few different variations including "Hammerless" with a "Grip Safety."  It was because of this Grip safety that the New Departure Model "Safety Hammerless" is known fondly as the "Lemon Squeezer."

As requests for them went through the roof, the double-action pistol took the place of the single-action pistols in no time.

The "New Departure" was a very popular little gun selling over 500,000 during its production.

It should be noted that in 1952, S&W introduced its Centennial Model revolver, so named because it commemorated the 100th year of the company's history.
Model 40 - Smith & Wesson website
S&W Model 40
It was a .38 Special J-frame 2" barreled revolver with no external hammer. It had a grip safety almost identical to that used on the Safety Hammerless models.

This was a swing-out cylinder type, of course, but the concept was very much in line with the immensely successful "Lemon Squeezer" which was its ancestor.

In fact, that nickname stuck with the newer gun, as well.

The Centennial Airweight model with an aluminum frame was also introduced in 1952, with full-scale production beginning in August 1963. At first the Airweights had aluminum cylinders, but were replaced with steel cylinders quickly for safety reasons.
Model 42 - Smith & Wesson website
S&W Model 42

They became the Models 40 and 42 in 1957, when model names were replaced by model numbers at the S&W factory.

In 1974, these two revolvers were dropped from the S& W production line.

The S&W Model 640 stainless steel Cenntenials, with no grip safety have been made since 1989 and the Model 642 Centennial Air weights (aluminum frame and stainless cylinder) since 1990.

The blackened aluminum/stainless Model 442 Centennial Airweight came on stream in 1993. Then in 2007, an updated and strengthened all-carbon steel modern "Lemon Squeezer" version of the Model 40 was introduced as the Model 40-1, available in blue, nickel, and case-hardened finishes.

These revolvers are complete with grip safeties and their heritage goes back to the original Safey Hammerless models of 1886.

Unlike many other revolvers in the Smith & Wesson lineup, the 2007 version Model 40-1 has no politically correct internal key-lock on the left side of the frame.


So yes, during the 1800s, Smith & Wesson would produce some of the most iconic firearms in history -- and many would influence the production of other designs many many years later. But frankly, that was only their beginning, they would became even more famous during the 20th Century!



  1. Part of the reason S&W didn't want to re-chamber their 44 to the 45 colt was because they were consumed with their Russian Army contract and weren't interested in making guns for the emerging west (cowboys).

  2. Tengo un revolver 44 un cuarto al parecer parecido a este


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