Sunday, August 28, 2016

Smith & Wesson's Model 3

The Smith & Wesson Model 3 is a single-action pistol that is unique in that it is a top-break revolver. It was in production from 1870 to 1915 in several variations with different barrel lengths. This revolver was extremely popular with just about everyone from lawmen to outlaws.

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" Model 3 which was said to be a favorite of none other than Wyatt Earp.

Unlike the "tip up" design where a hinged barrel and cylinder break up back toward the hammer, the Model 3 was  was a "top-break" revolver which meant that it would break down. When it did this, an ejector ejected the spent rounds. So realistically, a shooter could easily fire his or her last round, crack it open, an ejector would pop the spent shells out, and you can reload.

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.

As for the Smith&Wesson Model 3's that were produced in large numbers for the Russian Empire by special order. These called 1st Model Russians which are really no different than the Model 3 American. Because Russian Ordnance Inspectors demanded a number of improvements to the design, the 2nd Model Russian came about.

S&W Model 3 Russian
The final revision to the Russian design which became known as the 3rd Model Russian came about after Smith&Wesson nearly went bankrupt as a result of their Russian Contract production. It's said that the Russian government had their own engineers and gunsmiths reverse-engineer the Smith & Wesson Model 3 design. They then decided to produce copies of the revolver, both in their own manufacturing facility and then by contracting out to other gun manufacturers in Germany and Great Britain.

This act of product piracy led to the Russian Imperial government not needing Smith & Wesson and subsequently cancelling the order of the revolvers which Smith & Wesson had already produced. Then to add insult to injury, the Russians refused to pay for the revolvers that they already received.

Years ago I read that it was the British gunmaker P. Webley & Son was the first gunmaker to develop the "top-break" system. But frankly, I don't believe that's true. In fact there's evidence out there that says Webley, and others who used the design, took their the "tip up" and "top break" designs from Smith & Wesson.

From what I gather European and American gun manufacturers coping each other's designs was a common practice at the time. As for who copied who, let's just say that there were a lot of gunmakers who used that "top break" system after the 1870s. Among them were Webley & Scott, Harrington & Richardson, Iver Johnson, Forehand & Wadsworth, and others. 

The pistol above illustrates 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. 

How popular was the Model 3? 

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. All which they did.

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 in an article about the S&W Model 3? 

Well, that's because of what happened next. Frankly the U.S. Army loved the new design of the S&W Model 3 but demanded that they make the new Model 3 Schofield revolvers chambered to the new .45 Colt round.

First, the new .45 Colt round 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.

Because the Army already had the .45 Colt Peacemakers in service, along with the .45 Colt ammunition to go with them, the U.S. Army working with the Navy and Marine Corps wanted to standardize their weapons. None of the branches could justify bringing in another pistol with a whole new cartridge to content with.

You would think that re-chambering their pistol's design to accommodate the longer .45 cartridge would not be that hard to do. 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 the .45 Colt.

When it became obvious to the U.S. Army that the .45 Colt and the .45 S&W, also known as the .45 Schofield, cartridges were not interchangeable between the Smith&Wesson Model 3 Schofield  and the Colt Peacemaker.

While both rounds did work in the Colt, Colt could shoot Schofield rounds but Schofield couldn't shoot Colt rounds.  The .45 Schofield cartridge was shorter than the .45 Colt. It could be used in both the Schofield and the Colt 45 Peacemaker, but the .45 Colt was too long to use in the Schofield.

According to a reader who was nice enough to send me additional information, the Army adopted a .45 cartridge that was a compromise between the .45 Colt and the .45 S&W Schofield round.

It was designated the .45 US Ball cartridge of 1877. It had a rim diameter the same size as the .45 Colt but was short enough to fit in a S&W Schofield. And for you folks who are wondering, the .45 Colt round at that time will later become known as the ".45 Long Colt" after the .45 ACP round comes out for the M1911 pistol.

But wait a minute, why the Model 3 Schofield?

The Army adopted the Model 3 Schofield and was used by troops at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. I read where General Custer actually used a Webley. Also it should be noted that the effectiveness of the .45 S&W cartridge in battle, and its reputation for shootability and accuracy, led to the duplication of the cartridges' characteristics in the .45 ACP much later.

If the Army thought the .45 round used in the Army's S&W Model 3 Schofield cartridge was an inferior round to the .45 Colt, 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?

While that maybe the case, it's a safe bet to say that's not what really killed the Model 3 Schofield for the 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-stoppers" 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 because of the lack of stopping power, and of course the potential scandal regarding the conduct of the Army Ordnance Board, though they did load easier, the U.S. Army ended their purchases of arms from Smith&Wesson.

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. 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. It's 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 Teddy Roosevelt, I really don't know if he would want anything anemic in his arsenal. Of course, his choice in 1898 was more powerful than the U.S. Army's standard sidearm in 1898.

The Colt Army & Navy M1892 was the first general issue double-action with a swing-out cylinder revolver used by the U.S. military. Beginning in 1899, there were report from the Philippines campaign regarding the poor performance of the M1892's .38 caliber ammunition and it's lack of stopping power.

So yes, Teddy Roosevelt using a Model 3 Schofield with a .45 S&W round was definitely more stopping power than the anemic rounds the troops were saddled with. Fortunately, the Army would get rid of the completely inadequate .38 and they would end up returning to the .45 soon enough.

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 Model 3 variation's such as the American, Russian, and Schofield in favor a new improved design called the "New Model" Model 3 in 1878. The "New Model" Model 3 was their perfected single action top break revolver. It was smaller and lighter than previous models. Because it was smaller and lighter, it was more concealable.

With the "New Model", Smith & Wesson returned to the original barrel latch system of the Model 3 American. The change is said to have stem 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" Model 3's were made than Colt Single Action Army pistols during the 19th century. But to be fair to the Peacemaker, the majority sales of the "New Model" went to foreign military contracts.

So why was the Model 3 so popular? 

Well, if one compares the loading procedure of the S&W Model 3 to that of the Colt Peacemaker, you will quickly learn why the Model 3 was a fan favorite of lawman, outlaws, and our military. 

Remember, as today, in the Old West, people wanted the firearm that gave them the best reliability and ease of reloading in a hurry. And while the the Colt was reliable, the Model 3 was a lot easier to reload to get back in the fight. 

And by the way, among those who favored the Smith & Wesson Model 3 and its faster reloading capability were Frank and Jesse James, Virgil and Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley, Dallas Stoudenmire, John Wesley Hardin, Pat Garrett, Billy the Kid, and many others. 

In actuality, if one looks at sales alone, a great number of people favored the Smith & Wesson Model 3 American and Schofield. Yes, the fast loading Smith & Wesson Model 3 was enormously popular, and that's including with the U.S. Army Cavalry who found it easier to load while on horseback.

The Smith & Wesson Model 3 American and Schofield pistols rivaled the popular Colt SAA revolver, but it was hands down faster to load than the Colt SAA. In fact. it was because of it's ability to eject spent shells and reload faster that Wells Fargo became one of the largest purchasers and users of the Smith & Wesson Model 3.

As for the pistol that Wyatt Earp is believed to have used at the shootout near the OK Corral, it was a Smith &Wesson Model 3. Wyatt Earp's Model 3 was given to him by John Clum who was the mayor of Tombstone just a few days before the famous gunfight took place. 

As for Wyatt Earp using a Smith & Wesson Model 3 at the OK Corral, there is another point that we should look at when asking ourselves if he had a supposed Colt that was known as a Buntline Special with a 10 to 12 inch barrel or if he had an Smith & Wesson Model 3 which was sold with a standard 6.5 inch barrel.

In the Court transcript, Wyatt Earp testified about his actions on the way to the lot near the OK Corral. In the Court transcript, Wyatt Earp says the following, "I took my pistol, which I had in my hand, under my coat, and put it in my overcoat pocket."

Now folks, unless he had an overcoat with pockets that stretched down to his knees, there is no way that he could have tried concealing a supposed Buntline Special with a 10 to 12 inch barrel in an overcoat pocket. But yes, he could have with a Smith & Wesson Model 3. So yes, that's why it is believed that Wyatt Earp used a Smith&Wesson "New Model" Model 3 revolver during the OK Corral gunfight.

Above are Schofields offered by Uberti
The Smith & Wesson Model 3 Schofield was truly engineered ahead of its time. And while the U.S. Army purchased some 9000 Schofields, due to S&W not rechambering their product to accommodate the U.S. Army, one of America's greatest firearms ceased production. That is sad indeed.

The Good News

Now as for some very good news, there are a number of gunmakers today who are again producing the Model 3 Schofield and even the Model 3 Russian. These gunmakers include Uberti, Cimarron, and Beretta. All are dedicated to making a Schofield that will feel like the original except now available in .45 Long Colt.

As for another bit of trivia, in 2002, Smith&Wesson produced and sold a Model 3 Schofield exactly like the one that the Army had asked for back in 1875 in .45 Long Colt. Too bad they were only 127 years late.

Since firing both a Colt Peacemaker and a Model 3 Schofield, it is my humble opinion that is that if Smith&Wesson had accommodated the Army -- the history of the Colt Peacemaker would have been very different, and maybe a lot shorter.

And that's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa


  1. The US Army adopted a .45 cartridge that was a compromise between the .45 Long Colt and the .45 S&W "Schofield" round called the .45 US Ball cartridge of 1877. It had a rim diameter the same size as the .45 Colt but was short enough to fit in a S&W Schofield.

    1. Thank you Jamie, I knew I'd miss something while I was trying to keep it not as long as some of my posts. Thanks for visiting my site. I appreciate it. Tom

  2. Another typo Tom, that modern S&W Schofield was made in 2002, not 2012. I did a T&E on one, but had to send it back...drats!

    1. Thanks William, I made the correction. Beings that this is a blog, I'm my only proof reader and sometimes I just missed things. Thanks for visiting my site. Much appreciated. Tom

  3. Great article. The discussion of the Colt is essential to understanding the story. Thanks for writing it.

  4. Kudos for doing the research! I was mildly interested in the I am going to look with a purchase in mind. The hideout model is particularly interesting to me as I am a Cowboy Action Shooter.

  5. Hello from South Africa. I just purchased one from a gunshop that is closing down (found it in a box in the back room) for R1500....($107). It's on good condition with a single screw missing. Wanted to learn more about it and found your article...thanks for the history.

  6. The US Ordinance department initially shipped cartridges for the Colt's revolver in a 250 grain bullet, 30 grain BP, copper Benet-primed cartridge from October 1873 to August 1874. Beginning in early 1875, the Ordinance department started producing the .45 Government Revolver cartridge that could be used in both the Colt and S&W. It had 230 grain bullet over 28 grains of BP. The .45 ACP was designed to produce similar result to that cartridge when fired from a 7-1/2" barrel.

  7. Thank you for your comprehensive, informative article. British Empire forces, and Police including ours (Australian) stuck to top-break Webley & Scott in .455 calibre, later the lighter Enfield in 38S&W (a full 0.38 inch, shorter and less potent than 38 special of 0.357 inch bore. Many comparative appraisals place the Webley as best military sidearm, considering accuracy, stopping power, ease of maintenance and reloading, a brass speedloader having its own pockets in the canvas Army issue holster. In WW2, logistic necessity saw some carry the 1911 Colt 45ACP selfloader. By 1960 our standard issue sidearm was the FN Browning HP 9mm.


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