The advent of large caliber cartridge firing sixguns with the Smith & Wesson Model #3 American caught Colt totally unawares probably thinking it would never happen. Sam Colt himself insisted shooters would always want to load their own ammunition using powder, ball, and cap, however Sam died in 1862 and while Colt continued to follow the path paved by Sam Colt, Smith & Wesson went forward with its cartridge firing sixguns culminating with the introduction of that first big bore sixgun, the American, in 1870.The United States Army, realizing the then standard issue Colt 1860 Army cap-n-ball sixguns, while state of the art a decade earlier, were now definitely out of date, put out a call to all arms manufacturers to supply examples of new revolvers firing self contained ammunition. Colt and Smith & Wesson both entered samples of their sixguns with Colt’s being the 1871-72 Open-Top.
The powers that be at the United States Army rejected both arms for general service, however they did order 1,000 Smith & Wesson Americans in 1870 and also told Colt to go back to the drawing board and come up with a sixgun with a top strap. When all the black powder smoke had cleared, the U.S. Army had adopted the stronger .45 Colt Single Action over the more sophisticated Smith & Wesson .44 American. The Colt was slower to unload than the automatic ejecting Smith & Wesson, but it had three great advantages: 1) the 255 grain .45 with 40 grains of black powder was much more powerful than the 218 grain .44 with less than 30 grains; 2) the newly designed Colt now had a solid frame as opposed to the top-break Smith & Wesson and the earlier submitted 1871-72 Open-Top; and 3) the Colt Single Action Army passed tests requiring the firing of 200 rounds without thorough cleaning. It was just necessary to swab out the bore and keep shooting. The original load must have proven to be too much for most troopers as the powder charge was dropped from 40 grains to 30 grains so recruits could more easily handle the recoil. The civilian load was standardized at 35 grains of black powder under a 255 lead bullet.
While the Smith & Wesson American had a great advantage in ease of unloading and re-loading, it also required two hands to operate the latch on the top of the barrel. Major George Schofield of the 10th Cavalry had a better idea and set about to improve the Smith & Wesson Model #3 top-break .44 to make it more suited for military use especially on horseback. Schofield changed the Smith & Wesson latch from the back of barrel assembly to the main frame allowing it to be pushed in with the thumb of the shooting hand rather than opened with the off hand. This provided for one-handed operation even while on horseback. In 1873, a test was set up placing the Schofield Model Smith & Wesson against the Colt Single Action Army. While mounted on a moving horse, the horseman had to empty the sixgun, remove six cartridges from his belt pouch, and reload.
It took twenty-six seconds to unload the Colt and it was then re-loaded in sixty seconds. The improved Smith & Wesson Schofield took two seconds to unload and it was re-loaded in twenty-six seconds. One minute is an awfully long time to reload especially when being fired upon! The S&W Schofield took only one-third as much total time to unload and re-load as the .45 Colt. The Army was impressed to the point of ordering Schofields for field use, however they did not drop the Colt Single Action Army.
Both sixguns, the Colt and the Smith & Wesson, were chambered in .45 caliber, however the cylinder of the Schofield was shorter than that of the Colt .45 and would not accept the full length .45 Colt cartridge. While the Colt could handle the .45 Smith & Wesson ammunition, the .45 S&W, the Smith & Wesson would not chamber the longer .45 Colt. Cavalry units equipped with .45 Schofields too often received unusable .45 Colt ammunition, while those equipped with Colt Single Actions had no problem using the wrong ammunition if they were issued .45 S&W rounds.
How much of a problem was this? Enough so that it was at least given as a reason for ultimately dropping the Schofields. They became government surplus in 1880 and many of the 7” Schofields had their barrels cut back to 5” making them quite popular with Wells Fargo agents. It has also been advanced, and is more likely to be the reason, the Schofield was dropped as Smith & Wesson had other guns to build for other markets, and no longer wanted the Schofield contract.
To operate the Schofield for loading or unloading, the hammer is a placed on half-cock, the thumb pushes on the barrel catch, the barrel is swung open and down, which causes the automatic ejector to eject all cases, and then returns to battery. To reload, the new cartridges are placed in the cylinder and the barrel is moved up and latched tightly. Shooting the Schofield is also quite different from the shooting a Colt Single Action as to both feel and felt recoil. However, it is quite pleasant to shoot with black powder .45 Schofield loads, it balances well with the 7” barrel, and also has excellent pointability. The wide rear sight and narrow front blade combination are quite fast to pick up though not as precise as other sights such as found on the Colt.
As with all traditional single action sixguns, the best safety on the Schofield is the shooter and, as any traditional single action, it should be carried with only five rounds and the hammer resting on an empty chamber at all times. The half-cock is not a safety and engaging it will allow the cylinder to rotate possibly bringing a live round under the hammer, instead of having the hammer remain on an empty chamber.
Gunfighters on both sides of the law carried Schofields and we definitely know that Schofield Number 366 belonged to Jesse James and may have been carried by the famous outlaw even when Bob Ford, “that dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard”, shot him in the back. It is a tribute to the gunfighting ability of both Jesse and Bill Hickok that neither man’s killer would face them head on. Jesse apparently preferred both Colts and Smiths as it is generally believed he carried both a Colt Peacemaker .45 and a Smith & Wesson .45 Schofield.
Thanks to the late Val Forgett, who is also responsible for the replica of the New Model Russian mentioned in the previous chapter, we now have access to a replica of the Smith & Wesson Model 1875 Schofield manufactured by Uberti and imported by Navy Arms. The Navy Arms is quite faithful to the original Schofield except the cylinder is longer and it is chambered, not for what was the obsolete .45 S&W just a few short years ago, but the .45 Colt. First barrel lengths offered were 7” Cavalry Models, followed by the 5” Wells Fargo Model, and now a 3” Hideout version. They are also now offered in .44-40 and .38 Special.
My first Schofield test gun, which I did wind up purchasing, was a blued 7” Cavalry Model .45 Colt with smooth walnut stocks. The left grip bears the stamped mark of 1877 while both grips carry nineteenth century martial inspection initials. The serial number, 54, is stamped on the butt. The blued finish of the Schofield is nicely set off with a case colored trigger guard, hammer, and latching system. Two screws hold the female part of the locking latch above the cylinder and when the rear screw is backed out, the latch can be lifted upwards allowing the cylinder to be removed. The overall finish, as we have come to expect from Uberti, is excellent and the fit is quite tight. So much so that black power loads with their attendant fouling are a problem just as they were with original Schofields. Unlike the original Schofield, this replica is safe to use with standard smokeless powder loads.
Sights consist of a half moon 'German Silver' style front sight and a very wide rear "V" with a small "U" in the bottom of the "V". By centering the narrow front sight in the wide "V", I am able to get the Schofield to print to point of aim with 255 grain bullets at 800-900 feet per second. This load is quite traditional in that it is assembled with the standard .45 Colt conical bullet, in this case one that happens to come from an old three-cavity Lachmiller #454255LC mold. This 255 grain bullet over 8.0 grains of Unique also shoots into two inches and should be considered maximum and is as far as I will go with the Schofield.
Black powder loads utilized in the Schofield .45 are assembled with the same Lachmiller #454255LC bullet that had been lubed with SPG lube. Both 30.0 grains of Goex FFFg and 34.0 grains of Elephant Brand FFFg are used with muzzle velocities of 829 and 786 feet per second respectively. These loads shoot exceptionally well in other .45 Colt sixguns but, as mentioned earlier, are a problem with the Schofield. That problem is not accuracy but rather the fact the Schofield is so tightly fitted that the cylinder begins to bind after a few shots. This could very well be one of the reasons the Colt Single Action was more popular on the Frontier than the Smith & Wesson and the Remington, which also reacts to black powder loads as does the Smith & Wesson. Both of the latter bind after a few shots, however the Colt just keeps shooting.
Shooting the Schofield gives quite a different feel than shooting a Colt Single Action in all probability mainly due to the fact my hand has curled around Colt and Ruger Flat-Top grip frames for nearly a half century worth of years making it definitely used to the Colt shape. I found the Schofield to be quite pleasant to shoot and with a little practice it could easily be handled as well as a Colt and with its automatic ejection of spent cartridges and easy to load cylinder access quite a bit faster. It does balance well with the 7” and also has excellent pointability, while the shorter 5” Wells Fargo Model rivals the 4 3/4” Colt Single Action as a gunfighter’s top choice.
The original Smith & Wesson Schofield was only produced from 1875-1877 in two versions. Approximately 3,000 were manufactured in 1875 and then the shape of the cylinder latch was improved and approximately 6,000 were produced in 1876 and 1877 when production ceased. (With replica Schofields, the Navy Arms version follows the 2nd Model cylinder latch, while those which were offered by Cimarron have the 1st Model latch.) To celebrate the 125th Anniversary of the Schofield Model in 2000, Smith & Wesson offered the Schofield 2000, a completely new Schofield built on modern machinery from Smith & Wesson's Custom Shop, the Performance Center, while still adhering to the old original design as much as possible with today's considerations including a frame mounted firing pin. They did stay with the historically correct cylinder length that only accepts the .45 S&W, or .45 Schofield cartridge.
To build this new sixgun, Smith & Wesson not only found all the machinery was lost to history, the engineers also discovered there were no original drawings still in existence. They found it necessary to work from an original Schofield Model borrowed from Smith Wesson Historian and noted collector, Roy Jinks, to come up with all the measurements needed to re-create the 1875 Model as the Model 2000. Smith & Wesson said of the re-introduction of the Schofield Model: "American firearms historians have come to recognize what Colonel Schofield had instinctively understood the first time he held the Smith & Wesson Model 3 Schofield in his hand--it was the best revolver ever invented for the Horse Soldier. Now, 125 years later, Smith & Wesson reintroduces the Schofield. The Schofield Model of 2000 is a modern, top-break, single action from the Smith & Wesson Performance Center. It features the design concepts of the original Model 3 Schofield and incorporates the technical and engineering advantages the intervening 125 years have made possible. With its seven-inch barrel, bright blue finish, and walnut grips, the Schofield Model of 2000 is a modern classic."
The original Smith & Wesson Schofield was produced from 1875 to 1877 with less than 9,000 guns being manufactured. The Model 2000 Smith & Wesson Schofield was also produced for only a short time ending in 2003. These were virtually hand built one at a time, with a retail price somewhere in the range of $1,400. The original Schofield sold to civilians for $17.50.
As mentioned in the last chapter I have often contemplated what I would have done had I lived in the 1870's and had to make a choice between a Smith & Wesson or a Colt Peacemaker. Many of those gunfighter types who lived in the last quarter of the 19th Century also faced the same dilemma and we do know Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, and Bill Tilghman all carried both Smith & Wesson and Colt Single Action sixguns.
As with the Navy Arms New Model Russian in Chapter 2, the Smith & Wesson Model 2000 deserves custom grips, and I again went with Eagle grips and their Ultraivory. Although it costs only about one-third as much as real ivory, one has to look very closely to determine rather or not this is the real thing. The craftsmen at Eagle expertly fitted a pair of Ultraivories to the Model 2000 and followed my wishes to decrease the thickness by about one-third that of the factory grips. They not only look great, they feel exceptionally good.
A few years ago, just as with .44 Russian/.44 Special, I had to make .45 Schofield brass by trimming .45 Colt cartridge cases to length. Now Starline offers excellent .45 Schofield brass, while Black Hills offers a 230 grain bulleted Schofield load clocking out at a mild shooting 650 fps from the Smith & Wesson Model 2000. RCBS Cowboy Dies are crafted to load both Colt and Schofield rounds.
After nearly a century without big bore Smith & Wesson single actions we now have Navy Arms continuing to offer both the New Model Russian and the Schofield, Cimarron offered the Schofield for awhile also but have since dropped it, and we at least saw a short run of Schofields from the original manufacturer. Dare we hope to see a New Model #3 soon?