Some Handgun Cartridges Born In The 1870s
Competition Between Colt And Smith &
Wesson Endure To This Day, While Others
Lead To A Dead End.
Although tiny rimfire .22 and .32 cartridges and revolvers had been developed some years before, it wasn’t until 1870 that big-bore “holster revolvers” chambering metallic cartridges made their advent. The next few years must have been an interesting time for men who went about openly armed because the two premier handgun manufacturers of that time—Colt and Smith & Wesson—scrambled about in developing a host of cartridges bearing their names. Some such as Colt’s .45 were excellent ideas that have carried over into the 21st century. Others like Smith & Wesson’s .44 American were dismal flops.
The show started in 1870 when Smith & Wesson introduced their first large-frame revolver named simply the Model No. 3. It first appeared chambered for the .44 Henry Rimfire, which at that time was very popular in Winchester’s Model 1866 rifles and carbines. Being as how Smith & Wesson was more interested in selling revolvers to the US Army than to civilians, they perked up when the government told them to go back to the drawing boards and present them with a centerfire cartridge. This they did, at first calling it the .44/100 and the Army reciprocated by buying 1,000 of their Model No. 3s for Cavalry service.
Some of .45 handguns for shooting 1870s cartridges included (from left) the
S&W Model No. 3 “Schofield” (original) S&W Model No. 3 “Schofield”
(new manufacture), Colt SAA .45 and US Firearms “Custer Battlefield”
Colt wasn’t standing by just observing all that money going into Smith & Wesson’s bank account. They were busy using up the tons of parts left over from producing cap-and-ball handguns for so many years. In 1871, the result is what collector’s call Colt’s Richards Conversions, although they were not actually conversions. Each was assembled at the Colt factory as a metallic cartridge-firing revolver. Instead they were a conversion of the basic cap-and-ball revolver concept Samuel Colt had pioneered. The army then presented Colt with a contract for 1,200 in .44 Colt caliber.
These first two .44s were similar and yet different. Smith & Wesson’s version was smaller with a case length of 0.91 inch whereas Colt based their .44 on a 1.10-inch case. Powder charges were nominally 23 and 28 grains in the same order and nominal bullet weights were 218 and 210 grains respectively. Both .44s used “heel-type” bullets meaning there was a reduced diameter shank fitting inside the cartridge case while the full diameter of the bullet was equal to the outside diameter of the cartridge case. Confusing? Just look at a round of modern .22 Long Rifle; they are still built like that.
Then in 1972 the Russians got into the act, which has been a good thing for all us American handgunners thereafter. In essence, they said this to Smith & Wesson, “Wake up dummies. Why use heel bullets? Put the bullet inside the cartridge case and then crimp the cartridge case mouth into the bullet so it stays in place.”
Since the Russians were going to pay for their Smith & Wesson revolvers in gold, again money talked. The new cartridge was named .44 Smith & Wesson Russian, and henceforth the company’s first .44/100 was named .44 Smith & Wesson American. The latter round quickly died away whereas the latter stayed as Smith & Wesson’s premier big-bore revolver chambering well into the 20th century. In 1908 the .44 Russian’s 0.97-inch case was lengthened to 1.16 inches as the .44 Smith & Wesson Special and by 1955 it was stretched to 1.29 inches to become the .44 Remington Magnum. In the black-powder era the .44 Russian was loaded with bullets weighing from 250 to 275 grains usually over a 23-grain charge.
Colt’s engineers must have been watching Smith & Wesson and the Russians, or perhaps it was dictated by someone in the US Government, but in 1873 when testing for a new revolver with which to arm US Cavalry regiments a cartridge was eventually developed using the same concept as the .44 S&W Russian, i.e. bullet and lubricant inside the case. They also decided to super-size it; going to .45 caliber with 250-grain bullet and 30 grains of black powder. (Not the 40-grain charge often mistakenly attributed to US Government arsenal loaded .45 Colts.) In order to withstand the rigors of the new cartridge Colt had to add a topstrap to their revolver frames; hence at first they called their new design the “Strap Pistol.” More formally it has been known for 140 years as the Colt Single Action Army. The US Army adopted the new revolver and cartridge in November of 1873.
Duke’s three favorite shooters for 1870s cartridges include
(front) a custom Colt Richards Mason Conversion .38 Colt, an
Uberti replica of S&W Model No. 3 .44 Russian (middle) and rear is Colt SAA .45.
Again Smith & Wesson was distressed because the government’s money was being directed to their competitor in handgun manufacturing. So with the aid of patents developed by a serving Army officer named Major George Schofield, the Model No. 3 was remodeled. However, the US Government didn’t want the .44 S&W Russian cartridge and Smith & Wesson’s Model No. 3 cylinder lengths were too short for the new .45 Colt with its 1.29-inch case length. So the company developed a brand new .45 cartridge. Case length was shortened to 1.10 inches, bullet weight reduced to 230 grains and powder charge to 28 grains.
Today we call this round the .45 S&W Schofield. Circa 1875 it was referred to as the .45 Government because indeed Smith & Wesson’s Model No. 3 “Schofield” revolvers had been adopted by the US Army as a substitute standard. Early on there was confusion because some cavalry units received S&W Model No. 3 .45 revolvers but their ammunition was the full-size .45 Colt round. Of course it would not chamber in S&W .45 revolvers. So about 1875/1876 the decision was made to cease production of .45 Colt ammunition by government arsenals and only make and issue .45 S&W cartridges. That situation held on well into the 1880s even after all .45 S&W Model No. 3 Schofield revolvers had been withdrawn from government service and sold off as surplus.
That pretty much ended Smith & Wesson’s development of big-bore handgun cartridges in the 1870s. The .44 S&W Russian became their mainstay for decades to the tune of hundreds of thousands of their Model No. 3s made. Most of them were sold abroad with Russia and Japan as most notable buyers. Some of those S&W .44s were still being carried by Japanese officers as late as World War II.
Duke’s Uberti replica of the S&W Model No. 3 .44 Russian shoots
this well and to its sights with his handloads.
The premier cartridges of 1870s handguns include (from left) the
.44 Henry Rimfire, .44 S&W American, .44 Colt, .44 S&W Russian,
.45 S&W Schofield, .45 Colt, .38 (Long) Colt, and .41 (Long) Colt.
In the holsters of gunfighters of the Old West there were many Smith & Wesson .44 Russian Model No. 3s. Several were taken from killed and captured members of the James Gang after their disastrous raid on the Northfield, Minn., bank in 1876. And gang member Bob Ford supposedly shot Jesse himself in 1882 with a .44 Russian. At that time Jesse James was said to be packing a Smith & Wesson No. 3 “Schofield” .45.
Colt made one more major effort to develop fighting handgun cartridges in the 1870s. Those were .38 and .41 Colt. The first was actually used by Colt in another version of their “conversion” revolvers; the ones based on frames used for .36-caliber cap-and-ball handguns. By 1877 Colt introduced their small frame six-shooters incorporating a double-action trigger mechanism and it was chambered for both .38 and .41 Colt rounds. These were nicknamed as Lightning when .38 and Thunderer when .41.
Both of these cartridges were retrograde movements because they originated with the early heel-type bullets. Case length of the .38 Colt at first was only 0.88 inch and the .41s was 0.93 inch. Bullet diameters ran from about 0.375 to 0.380 inch and 0.403 to 0.408 inch. Sometime between the 1870s and the 1890s cartridge designers realized that heel-type bullets were a poor choice. Therefore .38 Colt and .41 Colt rounds were remodeled to have bullets fitting inside cartridge cases. To do this they were reduced in diameter to 0.358 and 0.386 inches respectively for .38 and .41 and their cartridge cases were lengthened to 1.03 and 1.13 inches. Because the revolver barrels of .38 Colt and .41 Colt handguns remained nominally 0.375 and 0.403 inches across their grooves the new bullets were given deep hollowbases. The explosion of gunpowder then swelled the bullets to grip the rifling. Hence were born the rounds we now call .38 Long Colt and .41 Long Colt. In is interesting to note that no Colt revolvers were ever marked “Long Colt.” They were all simply .38 Colt or .41 Colt.
The .44 S&W Russian was introduced in 1872 in the Model No. 3. Shown (above, left) is an Uberti replica of it. In 1908 the Russian cartridge was lengthened to become the .44 S&W Special and the S&W 1st Model Hand Ejector (triplelock) was the introductory handgun. In 1956 the case was lengthened again to become the .44 Remington Magnum. One of the first two revolver models chambered for it was the Ruger Blackhawk (above, right). The two Colt revolvers first made as .38s include (below, left) a Richards Mason Conversion of Model 1861, and (below, right) a Colt Model 1877 DA.
Colt double-action .38 Long Colt revolvers were adopted by most branches of the US military starting in 1892 and served to 1909. They quickly gained a reputation as poor man stoppers. Colt .41-caliber revolvers served with many Old West lawmen and at least one outlaw—Billy the Kid—was said to have packed one. When production of the 1st Generation Colt Single Action Army revolver ended in 1941 .41 Colts were in 5th place in regards to numbers made. Of course .45 Colt was in 1st place by a wide margin. (In between were .44 WCF, .38 WCF and .32 WCF—actually Winchester rifle cartridges. They have not been mentioned here because they are another story.)
That’s how the development of handgun cartridges began in the 1870s. Smith & Wesson started it and Colt rivaled them every step of the way. Some were dismal ideas and some were brilliant. I’ve tried them all and have my favorites—namely the .44 S&W Russian and .45 S&W Schofield. Although I must admit my sixgunning nowadays is purely for fun.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino