First Big Bore Sixguns — Part 2

Smith & Wesson Continued
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The .45 Schofield is now available in both the
original barrel length and shorter lengths.

Original S&W Double-Action and Single Action .44s.

NEW MODEL #3 — In 1956, my neighbor who was in his 30s, I was 17, also loved single-action sixguns with his favorite being a 7 ½” custom Colt Single Action from the early 1900s. It had been re-barreled and re-cylindered to .44 Special and fitted with a grip frame from the Colt 1860 Army. I found the old Colt fascinating but what really captured my imagination was not the Colt sixgun but his other single-action, a .44 Russian made by Smith & Wesson. It did not take much examination even for my youthful eyes and fingers to discover what a beautifully crafted sixgun the Smith & Wesson .44 Russian really was.

My friend’s .44 Russian was a New Model #3, the third sixgun in the lineup of the .44 Smith & Wesson big-bore top-break single-actions. After seeing this beautiful Smith & Wesson, I began to watch to see if anyone actually carried a Smith & Wesson single action in the movies or on television. I have been watching ever since and they are very few and far between. The first one I noticed being used by Robert Culp as Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman in the TV series Trackdown. Culp must have really liked the Smith & Wesson as he also used one in the movie Hannie Caulder.

The Smith & Wesson New Model #3 is my favorite of all the Smith & Wesson single-actions. It was a sixgun way ahead of its time. It is so precisely fitted it demands smokeless powder for perfect functioning. However, all of the frames of these guns were built in the black powder era and should only be used with black powder. The machining and tolerances used in their manufacture were so precise they are easily fouled and work very sluggishly after very few rounds of black powder loads. The only answer is to keep them clean.

THE .45 SCHOFIELD — Col. Schofield, later Major Schofield, redesigned the latch on the Smith & Wesson, placing it on the frame. Now one only had to press with the thumb of the shooting hand to unlatch the barrel, which could then be pressed against the leg or any other stationary object and pushed open. The cartridges were still ejected simultaneously and once the cylinder was loaded, the barrel could be moved up and latched into place. The operation was now simplified so it was time to change the cartridge and that’s when trouble began.

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Robert Culp as Hoby Gilman in Trackdown favored
the Smith & Wesson single action.

All Smith & Wesson models, whether double-action or
single-action, featured a barrel/cylinder that allowed
simultaneous ejection of fired cartridges.

The .45 Colt used a cartridge case, which was 1.28″ in length; this was too long for use in the shorter cylinder of the Smith & Wesson American/Russian. The obvious solution would be to lengthen the frame and cylinder of the Smith & Wesson. Instead, the cartridge case was shortened to 1.10″ in length and the .45 Smith & Wesson, also known as the .45 Schofield, arrived. One doesn’t have to be too smart to see a problem on the horizon. The military, which had already purchased 23,000 Colt Single Actions, now ordered 3,000 Schofield Models in 1875 followed by 5,000 more shortly thereafter, along with a large supply of the new .45 cartridge. It didn’t take long for units to be supplied with .45 Schofield sixguns and .45 Colt ammunition that would not fit and Colt Single Action Armies with .45 Schofield ammunition that would work. It didn’t take long for the military to give up on the Schofield and stick with the .45 Colt.

Production of Smith & Wesson big-bore single-action revolvers lasted from 1870 to 1912 with four basic models: The American (1870-1874), Russian (1873-1878), Schofield (1875-1877) and New Model Three (1878-1912). The Americans were made in .44 S&W American, a few in .44 Rimfire, and of course the Russian contract guns in .44 Russian; the Schofields only in .45 S&W; and the Russians only in .44 Russian, except for a few chambered in .44 Rimfire. For the most part the New Model #3s were .44 Russians with a few scattered among 16 other calibers from .32 S&W up to .455 Mark II.

After nearly a century without big-bore Smith & Wesson single-actions, we now have access to all four iterations of the Smith & Wesson Model #3 sixguns including many that never really existed originally.

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