Smith & Wesson Sixguns

Part III Of An Occasional
Series On Gun Books

By John Taffin

In 1869, Smith & Wesson brought out the first big-bore, cartridge-firing revolver with the break-top Model 3 chambered in .44 S&W American. Not only did this revolver fire a serious cartridge, it was very easy to unload and reload. When a latch in front of a hammer is unlocked, the entire barrel and cylinder assembly rotates 90 degrees downward and the ejector assembly automatically ejects the fired cartridges. It took a couple of seconds to refill the cylinder, rotate the barrel and cylinder assembly back into place, and the gun was ready to fire.

The American went through numerous changes culminating in the .44 Russian New Model Number Three. It would be four years after the first big bore S&W, the .44 American, before the Colt Single Action Army, the fabled Peacemaker, would be offered. Even with S&W’s head start, there is a most important reason why the Colt “Won the West” and just about every “B Western” movie hero carried a Colt Single Action Army .45. The S&W .44’s were mostly sold overseas. Of 60,000 plus S&W Third Model Russian .44’s produced from 1874 to 1878, only 13,500 went to the commercial market. The rest went to Russia, Japan, and Turkey.

This booklet on the Model 29 .44 Magnum was issued by the
Smith & Wesson Collectors Association in 2003. It is rare,
so if you see one, snap it up.

Double Action Arrives

Three years after Colt introduced the Model 1878, S&W came forth with their first double action revolver. In 1881, S&W introduced the .44 Double Action 1st Model. They did exactly as Colt, that is, they basically simply added a double-action trigger to their single action Model 3. They did not, however, have to change the grip frame as the Model 3 already had a rounded butt and a slight hump at the top of the back strap. S&W’s Double Action .44 Russian would be manufactured until 1913, however, all frames were made prior to 1899. Approximately 54,000 were manufactured.

In the 1890s Colt led the way with a series of modernized double-action revolvers with swing out cylinders. Before the turn of the century they were offering their large-framed, double-action, 6-shot New Service while S&W concentrated on the medium-framed .38 of 1899 which would come to be known as the Military & Police. Then in late 1907 S&W took the lead as far as double-action sixguns go with the first N-Frame, the New Century. They would never relinquish this lead throughout the rest of the century. This first modern big-bore, swing-out-cylindered S&W was also known as the .44 Military, Model of 1908, First Model Hand Ejector, however it is most commonly and affectionately known as the Triple-Lock.

There are many excellent books available covering the history of S&W sixguns. Two books which cover much of the history of S&W are connected with the longtime historian of S&W, namely Roy Jinks. In 1966 Jinks collaborated with Robert Neal to produce Smith & Wesson 1857-1945 which just as it says covers the story of S&W from the first tip-up .22 through the era of WWII. Then in 1977, Jinks published History of Smith & Wesson which covers everything in the previous book as well as the Chiefs Special .38, the .357 Combat Magnum, and the .44 and .41 Magnums. These books are must haves for anyone interested in S&W sixguns.

While Roy Jinks tells us all about the history of S&W, Jerry Kuhnhausen’s The S&W Revolver A Shop Manual tells us how the classic Smiths actually work. Jerry covers disassembly, tools, servicing and cleaning, parts, adjustments, basic repairs and troubleshooting. Exploded drawings of 44 of the S&W revolvers are provided and, just as in his other books exceptionally clear photographs are provided to aid us in basic care and repairs. Again, I am no gunsmith, however by following Kuhnhausen’s text and helpful photos even I can do some of the basic operations. History of sixguns is important to me and so is this textbook of mechanics.

As mentioned earlier one of the most important historical sixguns is the first cartridge-firing, big-bore revolver in the S&W No. 3 American. I am fortunate (thanks to Diamond Dot surprising me) to have an original S&W American No. 3 complete with ivory stocks. This particular .44 was re-finished by S&W in 1952 and I still shoot it using cartridge cases made from .41 Magnum brass and hollowbase lead bullets. Black powder only, of course. Charles W. Pate has written a book dedicated totally to the first .44, Smith & Wesson American Model In US and Foreign Service. This history in detail is a most valuable asset to anyone who values the contribution S&W made by introducing this first big-bore cartridge revolver.

Pate starts at the beginning with the firearms leading up to the development of the Model No. 1 .22, carries over to the Model No. 2 and its use in the Civil War, and the subsequent advent of the Model No. 3 American. Both Civilian and Military Models are covered as well as the Russian involvement with the No. 3 American. This resulted in the development of the .44 Russian cartridge which was not only important in itself but would be lengthened to become the .44 Special and then lengthened to become the .44 Magnum. This is a large book with over 400 pages and profusely illustrated.

While Pate’s book basically covers the Model 3 American, gunsmith and author David Chicoine’s Smith & Wesson Sixguns of the Old West covers all of the single- and double-action S&W top-break sixguns. In addition to the American, S&W produced a long list of top-break revolvers during the frontier era including the Model 3 Russian, New Model No. 3, and the .45 Schofield as well as double-action top-breaks in .44 Russian, .44-40, and .38-40. Chicoine begins with the history of these classic S&W sixguns and provides an in-depth look at all the Model 3’s. All of these are black powder revolvers and instructions for their basic care and maintenance along with shooting, disassembly, and cleaning are provided.

Taffin’s reference library of Smith & Wesson sixguns
covers the company pretty thoroughly.

Information is also included on the modern replicas, the Schofield and No. 3 Russian. This is a large book with nearly 500 pages covering all aspects of use and care of single action S&W’s. He finishes up with reloading information, and most importantly cautions against the use of smokeless powder. A section is provided on all the cartridges available in the Top-Break S&W’s as well as contemporary cartridges.

I recently purchased a S&W New Model 3 Target Model with a well-worn finish but excellent mechanically chambered in the very strange .38-44 S&W Target cartridge. This cartridge case was nearly 1-1/2 inches long and used a bullet of 0.358-inch in diameter completely enclosed in the case. Chicoine provides the information I need to come up with cartridges to enable me to shoot this long obsolete cartridge.

Friend Tim Mullin has produced a Smith & Wesson Trilogy quite valuable to anyone who appreciates S&W sixguns. The page numbers of the three volumes are sequential meaning the second volume starts numbering pages where the first leaves off and the third volume picks up after the second.

First comes Magnum: The S&W .357 Magnum Phenomenon. As the title implies this book is basically about the S&W .357 Magnum and the following versions, the Highway Patrolman and the Combat Magnum. Mullin starts with the big-bore cartridges available in the first third of the 20th century, moves into the .38 Super and the .38/44 Heavy Duty, and then the .357 Magnum. The latter is covered in total including publicity, famous shooters of the time who took up the .357 Magnum, barrel lengths, sights, finishes and just about anything else one could want to know.

Then comes The K-Frame Revolver: The S&W Phenomenon, Volume II covering all the medium-frame Military & Police-sized sixguns in all aspects.

This is followed up by Serious Smith & Wesson’s The N-And X-Frame Revolvers: The S&W Phenomenon, Volume III. Here we have all the really big S&W’s, the Triple-Lock .44 Special and all the subsequent models, the .44 Magnum with an in-depth look at all of them plus the relatively new .500 and .460 S&W Magnums. Virtually everything ever built on an N-Frame or larger is featured in this book with none other than Elmer Keith pictured on the dust jacket.

An absolutely must-have text for anyone purchasing or looking to purchase a classic S&W or any other later models is Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson 3rd Edition by Jim Supica and Richard Nahas. Nearly 800 models of S&Ws are covered from the first .22 right up to the latest available when this book was published. Each model is covered in depth with production numbers, serial number ranges, values at the time of publication, and on and on. This is the first source I go to when I want to know anything about S&W’s.

In 2003 the Smith & Wesson Collectors Association published a booklet by Bill Cross and Bob Radaker entitled Smith & Wesson’s .44 Magnum, The Model 29. For anyone who is a user and admirer of the original .44 Magnum, this booklet, if it can be found, is a most valuable resource.

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