In 2007 Smith & Wesson celebrates their 150th anniversary as the first American manufacturer of a revolver firing cartridge ammunition. That first revolver, arriving in 1857, using fixed ammunition, a bullet and powder in a cartridge case as opposed to powder, ball, and cap, was the Smith & Wesson Model #1, a spur trigger, seven-shot single action, tip-up chambered in .22 Short. These little guns were hinged at the top of the frame in front of the hammer; the barrel and top strap actually tipping up to allow the removal of the cylinder for loading and unloading. They arrived just at the right time and S&W tip-up handguns would prove to be quite popular as hideout guns during the Civil War. The continued popularity of the Model #1 .22 Short is evidenced by the fact it would be made in three variations with a total of more than one-quarter million being produced from 1857 to 1881.
Whether in the 19th-century or the 21st century a .22 Short is not considered a major defensive choice, so Smith & Wesson’s slight step up in power was the Model # 1 1/2 chambered in .32 Rimfire. By the time this little five-shot revolver had arrived at its third issue, it would be chambered in .32 Rimfire Long and more than 100,000 S&W .32s would be manufactured from 1865 to 1875. Certainly neither the .22 nor .32 versions of the Smith & Wesson single action were very powerful, however they were so very easy to conceal in pocket, sleeve, muff, or purse. This insured relatively heavy sales.
In 1861, the slightly larger Model #2, a six-shot .32 Rimfire Long arrived in time to see quite a bit of use during the Civil War. No military contracts were extended, however it still found its way under the tunics and on the belts of many soldiers. More than 75,000 were manufactured when production ceased in 1874. Smith & Wesson's final tip-up revolver would be the Model #3 four-shot Pocket Pistol chambered in .41 Rimfire. This is an extremely rare single action with only 50 being manufactured in 1867. Perhaps even the .41 Rimfire was too much for the hinged at the top frame. Something larger and better loomed over the horizon.
Before the arrival of the .41 Rimfire #3 in 1867, even before the outbreak of hostilities in the 1861, Smith & Wesson had planned to bring out a big bore revolver, however due to the Civil War those plans were necessarily put on hold until the late 1860’s. Smith & Wesson held the Rollin White patent for a drilled through cylinder to accept fixed ammunition, however they needed two more additional patents for the first big bore Model #3 revolver.
Model Numbers 1, 1 ½, and 2 were all small caliber revolvers hinged at the back top portion of the frame, a very weak design, and the cylinder had to be removed for loading and unloading. In order to offer a larger caliber in a more convenient form, Smith & Wesson needed both the W.C. Dodge and C. A. King patents. The former provided for a design that locked at the top of the back portion of the frame and pivoted on the barrel portion at the lower part of the front portion of the frame. This was to be combined with King’s invention of simultaneous ejection of spent cartridges. Smith & Wesson was able to purchase both of these patents and in the 1869 produced the Smith & Wesson Model #3 American .44 caliber six-shot revolver, the first true big bore cartridge-firing six-shooter.
There were several other improvements added to the American. For the first time cartridge cases were made of brass instead of copper and the cases were centerfire instead of rimfire. (As late as 1876 Custer's troops were still using .45-70 ammunition in copper cases and it is believed this proved to be a major problem as fired cases were difficult or impossible to extract from the Trapdoor Springfield.) The .44 Smith & Wesson American cartridge was loaded with 25 gr. of black powder under a 218 grain bullet with a muzzle velocity of 650 fps. It very early gained the reputation for accuracy to 50 yards.
Suddenly all percussion pistols were obsolete and as this new weapon was such a major improvement over both the cap-and-ball revolvers and single shot pistols of the time. Sam Colt introduced the first practical single action sixgun in 1836 but it would be Smith & Wesson taking the lead in manufacturing the first cartridge firing big bore single action sixgun. In December of 1870, the U.S. Government ordered 1,000 S&W Americans for military use. Once the Cavalry managed to acquire .44 Americans, Smith & Wesson soon began to receive orders from around the country. Consider the situation in the early 1870s. The Civil War had been over for five years and the country was looking westward. This meant the main concern for the U.S. Cavalry would be Indians and lawless elements scattered around the frontier. Most cavalry units were still armed with 1860 Army revolvers.
I can well imagine many who had the excellent for its time 1860 percussion sixgun would see immediately what a great step forward the .44 American actually was. The 1860 Colt was a magnificent revolver and the best available during the Civil War, however loading the Colt was a relatively slow process requiring a measured amount of powder being placed in the front of each chamber and then a round ball placed in the chamber and seated solidly over the powder charge using the rammer under the barrel. After all chambers were loaded, the percussion caps would then be placed on the nipples at the back of the cylinder. Once that sixgun was empty a relatively long length of time would be required for reloading. This time would seem like eons during a battle. The great advantage of the Smith & Wesson .44 was its ease and rapidity of loading and unloading. As the lock at the back top of the frame was unlatched, the barrel swung down, empties were automatically ejected, and six new rounds would be loaded in the cylinder, the barrel swung up in order for the sixgun to be re-locked. All of this could be accomplished in a few seconds, in fact even faster than a modern swing-out cylindered revolver. I certainly know what my sixgun choice would have been in 1870.
Smith & Wesson had wisely placed sample revolvers in the right hands. General Gorloff was the Russian military attaché in the United States to order rifles from Colt and received an S&W American from Smith & Wesson. This resulted in an order for 20,000 S&W Americans by the Russian government in 1871. Six months later the Russian Grand Duke Alexis would visit Smith & Wesson and be presented with a fully engraved, pearl stocked American before going west to hunt buffalo with two notable western figures, Buffalo Bill and George Armstrong Custer. That revolver was valued at over $400 in 1872. Consider its value in today’s dollars!
From 1861 to 1865, Smith & Wesson was on solid financial footing producing hideaway guns for use during the war. However, when the hostilities ceased, the demand for the little tip-up pocket pistols took a major dip resulting in a matching major financial setback due to decreased production after the Civil War. The Russian contract was a needed financial boost for Smith and Wesson, however the Russians asked for changes to the American including its ammunition. In fact, the Russians made several improvements to the S&W Model #3 American revolver as well as to its ammunition. For greater shooting comfort the square stock and grip frame of the American was rounded and diminished in diameter, a lanyard ring was added to the butt for security, a “knuckle” was added to the back strap to keep the grip from shifting in the hand when fired, and the 8” barrel was cut to a more convenient 6 1/2”. It was definitely a different revolver by the time the Russians got through with it.
However, it is with the ammunition that the Russians contributed the most. The S&W Model #3 was available chambered in either .44 Henry Rimfire or .44 Smith & Wesson American. The .44 S&W American cartridge, while of centerfire design, was very similar to the .22 Rimfire ammunition still being used today. That is, the bullet was of the heel-type with the base of the bullet smaller than the diameter of the rest of the bullet and this smaller part was inside the cartridge case. This resulted in both the bullet and the cartridge case having the same outside diameter. The Russians came up with better ideas, which turned out to be great improvements. The bullet was made of uniform diameter, the lubrication was placed in grooves in the bullet that were inside the cartridge case, and the cartridge case was crimped into a crimping groove on the bullet. The powder charge was reduced to 23 grains, the bullet weight was increased to 246 grains, and the result was the magnificent .44 Russian, the father of the .44 Special, and the grandfather of the .44 Magnum.
Even though the bullet weight was increased and the powder charge was decreased, the muzzle velocity actually went up 100 fps to 750 fps and the muzzle energy was increased from 200 to 316 ft. lbs. The .44 Russian also proved to be a superbly accurate cartridge. Even today .44 Russians fired in .44 Special and .44 Magnum cylinders often outshoot their descendants in the accuracy department.
Smith & Wesson also produced top-break pocket pistols beginning with the Model #1 1/2 .32 Centerfire Single Action. Nearly 100,000 of these spur-trigger five-shooters where made from 1878 to 1892. There were also basically three versions of the Model #2 .38 top-break five-shot, single actions. The first two versions, both with spur triggers were produced from 1876 to 1891, with more than 125,000 being manufactured, while the final .38 S&W chambered single action top-break, the Model 1891, would be offered with a standard trigger and trigger guard from 1891 to 1911 with more than 25,000 being produced. Add these small caliber top-break Smith & Wessons to the tip-up models and we have a total of just under three-quarters of a million pocket pistol sized single actions produced by Smith & Wesson from 1857 to 1911. Add in the more than 250,000 Model #3 Single Actions and we have over 1,000,000 single actions being produced by S&W in a half century. That is a lot of single actions by anyone’s standards.
Production of Smith & Wesson big bore single action revolvers lasted from 1870 to 1912 with four basic models: The Americans (1870-1874), The Russians (1873-1878), The Schofields (1875-1877), and The New Model # Threes (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.
There are three major variations of the Russian Model. The First Model Russian is basically the .44 American chambered in .44 Russian. Approximately 20,000 of these were manufactured for the Russian Government. The Second Model Russian contained most of the changes noted previously in addition to a spur being added to the trigger guard. Why that spur was put there is still a matter of contention. Was it to prevent the revolver from slipping when placed in the waistband? Pictures exist with Russian soldiers carrying the New Model Russian in a sash around the waist with the spur hooked over the top of the sash.
Perhaps the spur was added to parry a saber thrust? Perhaps. I neither carry the .44 Russian in a sash nor have I had to block any saber thrusts lately so I will go with the third possibility. I believe the Russians did not have a gunfighter mentality but rather placed a high premium on accurate shooting. The use of the spur on the bottom of the trigger guard results in a very secure and steady hold by simply placing the middle finger around the spur when shooting. Slightly over 85,000 of these spur equipped Second Model Russians were manufactured by Smith & Wesson.
Finally we come to the Third Model Russian, also known as the New Model Russian as well as a Model #3 Russian This version has a smaller ejector rod housing than the second Model with approximately 61,000 being made. When the New Model Russian evolved into the New Model #3 in 1878, Smith & Wesson had reached the epitome of their single action revolvers.
Several years ago, when returning from the Linebaugh Seminar and Winchester Gun Show in Cody Wyoming, my wife and I stopped in Idaho Falls for a break. She spotted a quilt store, while I went down the street to a local gun store. It proved to be a great stopping and shopping place. When I left the gun shop I came out with my first single action Smith &Wesson, a New Model Russian dated 1874. The finish is mostly gone, however the barrel is in good shape and it locks up and functions very well, certainly enough to allow it to be safely shot with black powder loads only of course.
Model #3 Russians in good shooting shape without commanding high collector dollars are not all that easy to find. However, Navy Arms offers a shooting replica of the New Model Russian chambered in the historic .44 Russian cartridge. The Navy Arms New Model Russian, or Model 3 Russian, is a faithful copy of the original complete with what are probably the tiniest sights ever placed upon a big bore sixgun requiring intense concentration for me to achieve small groups on paper.
We earlier mentioned the spur on the bottom of the trigger guard, and the hump on the backstrap, which is now found on all Smith & Wesson double action revolvers, serving to steady the sixgun during deliberate fire. This is one of those good news/bad news propositions. When I place my middle finger on the spur the first shot is very easy to control but my thumb will not reach the hammer to cock it for subsequent shots. If I bypass the spur there is no problem reaching the hammer. For the utmost in accuracy I use the spur; for fast one handed shooting, I do not.
The Navy Arms’ New Model Russian is finished overall in a deep blue-black finish set off with a case colored hammer, trigger guard, and locking latch. The factory stocks are smooth European walnut which for my use and taste are not good enough for this quality sixgun so my personal Navy Arms New Model Russian has been fitted with Ultraivory grips from Eagle Grips. Ultraivory, while a synthetic material, is just about as close as one can get to real ivory, without shelling out ivory-price dollars, meaning the milky white color is there, the grain is there, and the warm feeling is also there. They provide a good contrast to the dark blue finish of the New Model Russian.
Colt ceased production of the Colt Single Action Army in 1941 with the word that it would never be produced again, however, never say never applies here as 15 years later it was back. As a teenager in 1957 I spent a month’s take home pay to buy the first brand new 2nd Second Generation Colt Single Action Army to arrive at the local gun shop. It was a 7 1/2” .45 Colt and I have been a devotee of 7 1/2” single actions ever since. Right after buying my first new Colt I discovered I had a neighbor who also loved single actions. He was quite a bit older than I was and his single action sixguns were all of the pre-War type and even though by this time I had the above-mentioned new Colt plus a 7 1/2” 1st Generation mate for it as well as three Ruger single actions, a .22 Single-Six and .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum Blackhawks, I found his three older single actions fascinating.
First, of course, was a Colt Single Action that had been expertly converted to a 7 1/2” .44 Special and customized further with an 1860 Colt backstrap, trigger guard, and grip. It had only fired one load since being built, that being the Keith .44 Special load. The 1860 parts had come from his second sixgun, a .44 1860 Colt cap-and-ball which now had the Single Action grip parts.
The most intriguing sixgun to me was his third single action. It was also a .44, but not a Colt. It was in fact an S&W New Model #3 .44 Russian. Up to that time I had always thought Smith & Wesson made double action sixguns only. After all, what movie cowboy hero ever carried a Smith & Wesson? After seeing this single action Smith & Wesson I began to watch more closely to see if I could really spot any hero using a Smith & Wesson. Robert Culp as Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman not only carried a Smith & Wesson in the TV series Trackdown, he also use one in the movie Hannie Caulder. Just yesterday I watched Gary Cooper in Along Came Jones and he is carrying a Smith & Wesson single action when shot by bad guy Dan Duryea. Tonight I saw Tyrone Power as Jesse James carry an S&W Model #3 in a shoulder holster, a 7 1/2” Colt on one side, the Smith on the other. Even Wyatt Earp often carried a Smith & Wesson as did Kurt Russell in the movie Tombstone.
That Smith & Wesson single action sixgun certainly did not have the marvelous balance of its Colt counterpart but even as a teenager relatively lacking in gun knowledge, I could recognize that this was truly a marvelous piece of engineering. The Colt Single Action was, always has been, and always will be a real workhorse. The Smith & Wesson New Model #3 on the other hand is a true thoroughbred. In actuality, it was a sixgun engineered for smokeless powder at a time when all cartridges were loaded with black powder. By this I do not mean smokeless powder should be used in any of these old sixguns with their questionable metals and heat-treating, but rather the machining and tolerances used in their manufacture were so precise they were easily fouled and would work very sluggishly after very few rounds of black powder loads.
After seeing my first S&W single action more than 45 years ago I have wanted a .44 Russian chambered Smith & Wesson New Model #3. Unlike the New Model Russian we do not, at least as this is written, have a replica New Model #3. My dream came true this past year when my wife came into some money unexpectedly and graciously shared it with me with the wonderful words, "Is there any gun you'd like to buy?” It just so happened one of the local gun shops had just taken in a New Model #3 in excellent condition. Dot did a little bargaining and it became mine. I am every bit as fascinated with it now as I was back in the 1950s. Both this New Model #3 and the earlier mentioned original New Model Russian are used only with black powder loads. They are much too valuable to take a chance on ruining them using smokeless powder. Even though the last completed Smith & Wesson single action did not leave the factory until just before the beginning of World War I, all frames were actually manufactured during the black powder age.
Until very recently if one wanted, or needed, .44 Russian brass it was either necessary to trim back .44 Special brass from 1.16” to .97”, or search for original Russian brass that has not been generally available for more than 60 years, and all of which is of the folded head, or balloon style that was originally used with black powder. I believe the manufacture of this brass stopped either just prior to or shortly after World War II.
Now thanks to Starline we have modern solid head .44 Russian brass for the use of ammunition companies as well as reloaders. Black Hills was the first to offer modern .44 Russian ammunition with a 210 gr. load clocking right at 750 fps and capable of 1 ½ inch groups at 50 feet with my hands and eyes. UltraMax now has a .44 Russian load that also shoots accurately at 80 fps less muzzle velocity. Ten-X offers a .44 Russian smokeless version chronographing the same as the Black Hills load, while their Black Powder Cartridge version is about 100 fps slower. Dies for reloading .44 Russian are available from RCBS. Unaltered .44 Special/.44 Magnum dies will not work as the crimping and seating die will probably need to have the die body shortened to be able to reach the mouth of .44 Russian brass and the expander button reaches too far into the short Russian case causing a bulge above the base.
Colt's run of 1st Generation Single Action Armies ran from 1873 to 1941 with approximately 357,000 units being manufactured while the big bore single actions from Smith & Wesson totaled around 264,000 sixguns from 1870 to 1912. Colt produced more single actions, however on the average Smith & Wesson produced more per year. If I had lived in the last quarter of the 19th-century I wonder if I would have chosen a Colt Single Action Army or a Model #3 Smith & Wesson?