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Handguns

Smith & Wesson’s .32-20 M&P

by Paul Scarlata   |  January 3rd, 2011 4

To anyone versed in firearms history, it will come as no surprise when i proclaim the most popular centerfire revolver of the 20th century was the Smith & Wesson .38 Hand Ejector Military & Police (a.k.a. M&P).


Pushing forward on the cylinder latch on the left side of the frame allows the cylinder to be swung open to load or eject six cartridges. This model is also known as the .32-20 Hand Ejector.

To anyone versed in firearms history, it will come as no surprise when I proclaim the most popular centerfire revolver of the 20th century was the Smith & Wesson .38 Hand Ejector Military & Police (a.k.a. M&P). Introduced in 1899, it not only gained undying fame in its own right, but it served as the launching platform for one of the most influential–and successful–handgun cartridges of all time, the .38 S&W Special.

Growing up in the shadow the .38 was the actual subject of this column, the .32-20 M&P, but I’ll get to that one in a bit.

Unlike the company’s earlier top-break revolvers, the M&P utilized a swing-out cylinder that was locked into the frame by means of a spring-loaded center pin passing through the ejector rod and projecting out the rear of the cylinder. When the cylinder was closed, the end of the center pin snapped into a recess in the recoil plate and locked the cylinder in place. To open, a thumb latch on the left side of the frame was pushed forward, forcing the center pin out of the locking recess and allowing the cylinder to be swung out to the left. Pushing back on the ejector rod forced out a star-shaped extractor and ejected all cartridge cases simultaneously.

In 1902, the locking system was strengthened by the addition of an underlug on the barrel that contained a spring-loaded pin that locked into the front end of the ejector rod.

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SHOOTING THE .32-20 S&W M&P

FACTORY LOAD VELOCITY (fps) 15-YARD ACCURACY (inches)
Winchester Super-X 100-gr. FP 757 3.10
Black Hills 115-gr. FPL 727 3.50
NOTES: Accuracy is the average of three, five-shot groups fired from a benchrest at 15 yards. Velocity is the average of five rounds measured 15 feet from the gun’s muzzle.

Much to S&W’s disappointment, the U.S. Army and Navy purchased only a few thousand M&Ps around the turn of the century. But despondency did not descend upon the offices in Springfield because civilians and police alike immediately embraced the M&P. Between 1904 and 1915, several improvements to the ejector and trigger mechanisms were incorporated into the design, and a new hammer-block safety was added and then further improved in 1926. The basic design proved to be so rugged and practical that, aside from cosmetic changes, it remained basically unchanged until 1944.

By the 1930s, the M&P was being used by a large percentage of the police agencies in the Western Hemisphere and was equally popular with civilian shooters. The reason for its renown was simple: The medium-sized K-Frame was the right size for the average person’s hand, permitting

it to handle the recoil of the .38 Special cartridge with aplomb. It came about as close to a one-size-fits-all handgun as could be wished for. Options included square- or round-butt grips; blue or nickel finishes; and a choice of 2-, 4-, 5-, 6-, and 61⁄2-inch barrels. With S&W’s reputation for quality and durability, the M&P became the standard by which all other medium-frame revolvers were judged. But while most shooters consider the Military & Police and the .38 Special as more or less synonymous, it should be remembered that S&W did produce this revolver in other calibers. One such was the .32 WCF, a.k.a. .32-20.

The .32-20 was one of the most popular rifle cartridges of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Introduced by Winchester in 1882, it combined low levels of recoil and noise with moderate penetration, and it was considered the perfect round for small- to medium-sized game and varmints. Its popularity and practicality led to Winchester, Remington, Marlin, and other companies producing rifles for it until 1940. Because of its size and ballistics, it was also adaptable to revolvers, and early on, Colt offered its Single Action Army in this caliber. The concept of a common cartridge for one’s rifle and revolver made a lot of sense and was quite popular with American shooters. It should be noted that for many years ammunition companies produced the .32-20, .38-40, and .44-40 cartridges in high-velocity rifle and standard-velocity revolver loadings.


The author and Butch Simpson fired the .32 M&P from the bench and offhand with Winchester and Black Hills factory ammo. The best five-shot
, 15-yard group
measured 2.88 inches.

S&W recognized the sales potential of revolvers chambered for the .32-20 and had offered it in the M&P from the very beginning of production in 1899. In fact, from that date until 1940, there were no fewer than eight recognized variations of the .32-20 and .38 M&P revolvers.

The .32-20 M&P aped the appearance and dimensions of its .38-caliber cousin. Built on the K-Frame, at various times in its production life, it was offered with 4-, 5-, 6-, and 61⁄2-inch barrels with a choice of blue or nickel finish. Until 1903, only round-butt grip frames were offered, but from that year on, there was an option of a square butt. All of the various models could be ordered with either fixed or target sights. The latter consisted of an adjustable rear and a square-cut blade mounted in a pinned boss at the muzzle and, from 1905 onward, could only be ordered with square-butt guns. All of the mechanical improvements and cosmetic changes made to the .38 M&P were duplicated on the .32-20 revolvers.

M&P revolvers were produced, on special order, in several other calibers, including .38 S&W/.380 Mk. 2 for use by British forces during and after World War II. Also, a very small number were built for .32 S&W Long. Of the two standard calibers, the .32-20 finished a poor second in the sales department. The primary market was sportsmen who used

.32-20 rifles who wanted a companion handgun in the same caliber. A smaller market consisted of rural law enforcement officers who carried the popular lever-action Winchester Model 1892 carbine. As .32-20 rifles were replaced with those firing high-performance, small-bore calibers, the cartridge’s popularity–and that of S&W’s revolver–declined.

According to S&W historian Roy Jinks, even though production lasted a full four decades, when manufacture of the model ceased in September 1939, only 144,684 units had left the factory. Compare that to the six million-plus .38 M&Ps that have been manufactured and are still are being produced today, and you can see that .32-20 output represented but a drop in the bucket.

Shooting A .32-20 M&P
When I asked my brother Vincent if he had any .32-20 S&Ws that I could shoot for this report, his eyes lit up. While his collection contains a bewildering variety of firearms, his all-time favorites are double-action S&W revolvers, so my inquiry was answered with an almost boastful, “What model and which barrel length do you want?”

After examining the selection available, I settled on an example of the Model of 1905, 3rd Change that was produced around 1912. It was a blued revolver in very good condition with fixed sights, square butt, walnut grips, and 61⁄2-inch barrel with “.32 Winchester Ctg.” inscribed on the left side. It showed only minor external wear, the cylinder locked up tightly, and the double-action trigger pull was stiff–reminiscent of a new, out-of-the-box gun. In fact, the only negative comment I can voice about it concerns the sights. A knife-like blade up front and a minuscule notch in the topstrap were going to be a trial for my not-so-young eyes.

According to History of Smith & Wesson by Jinks, 3rd Change .32-20 revolvers were produced with only 4- and 6-inch barrels. As there is no * marked after the serial number indicating it was modified or rebuilt at the factory, I can only assume that S&W assembled some guns with leftover 61⁄2-inch barrels or that this was a special-order item.


From the start of M&P production in 1899, the revolver was available in both .38 Special and .32 WCF chamberings.

Using .32-20 ammunition supplied by Black Hills and Winchester, my friend Butch Simpson and I decided to see what type of groups the M&P would produce when fired from a rest at 15 yards. When his first round of Winchester ammo demolished the little “10″ inside the 10-ring of the target, I heard Butch mutter, “Hmmm…Perhaps this gun has possibilities?”

After the next three rounds followed the first one inside of said ring, he had a wide grin on his face. But his last shot, a called flyer, wandered out into the 9-ring. That first group fired with Winchester ammo measured 2.88 inches and was the tightest of the day. Before moving on to some action shooting, I chronographed five rounds of both brands of ammo to see if the longer-than-standard tube upped the velocity. The averages were 757 and 727 fps.

And then the fun began. To see how the M&P would perform at its intended task as a sidearm for hunters or trappers, we set up a Champion prairie dog target out at 10 yards and proceeded to send

.32-caliber projectiles in its general direction. This expenditure of ammunition showed that the .32 M&P would have been very capable of taking care of various forms of vermin or supplying camp meat for the pot.

Neither Butch nor I could voice any real complaints about the .32-20 M&P. Despite the sights, it shot to point of aim and was more than sufficiently accurate. When the fine handling characteristics of Smith & Wesson’s K-Frame were combined with the light recoil of the .32-20 cartridge, we didn’t see any down sides. Actually, I found it sort of surprising that the .32-20 M&P was not much more popular during its 40-year production run.

  • True Tourtillott

    I've hunted with the Winchester 32-20 rifle backed up by the S&W 32-20 in my much younger days (now 70). Great to use the same ammunition in both firearms. The Winchester has dropped it's fair share of deer and the S&W has put more than a few rabits in the pot.

  • RRBunn

    My grandfather had a 32-20 M&P and it is a fun gun to shoot. I gave it to a relative and then went out and found another one for myself. As I hand load, ammo is not a problem. Reloading for 32-20 requires some care as the brass is very thin. Accuracy is great and I have paired it with my restored Colt Lightening Magazine Rifle and My more modern Marlin in 32-20.

  • Blaine

    I have my grandfather’s 1927 S&W in the 32-20 cal. He bought it new. When I was a kid I bought up a lot of Winchester 32-20 cartridges for my dad’s 1873 Winchester. My dad never wanted me to shoot the rifle cartridges in the pistol. So after shooting them in the rifle, I reloaded them for a handgun and still do today. My grandfather carried the pistol until he died at 70 in 1954. He was shooting flies off the wall of a logging shanty when he and my dad were cutting timber in northern Wisconsin, in the 1930′s. He had been drinking and shot himself through the foot. The gun was in perfect shape, but the bluing was worn off. I re-blued the gun about 30 years ago, with hot blue solution. It turned out great. I know it hurt the antique value, but the gun will go to one of my grandsons; so it doesn’t matter. I mold and size my own 115 gr bullets and I love to shoot it; and it is dead accurate.

    • Blaine

      I forgot to add; it has fully adjustable rear sights and a 6 inch barrel.

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