For the first 60 years of the 20th century, handgun target shooting in the United States was relatively simple. Those shooters who participated in rimfire matches generally used a high-end Smith & Wesson or Colt revolver. Then, towards the end of the period, a certain percentage of shooters came to favor semiauto pistols.
Among the centerfire fraternity, the situation was even simpler. Except for the limited number of military and civilian shooters who participated in the National Matches and were thus required to use the .45-caliber Model 1911 pistol, just about every paper puncher of note was shooting a premium-grade Smith & Wesson or Colt revolver chambered for the .38 Special Mid-Range target wadcutter cartridge. These target revolvers had been perfected over the previous decades to the point where they provided all of the accuracy one could possibly desire, and as has been the wont of shooters over the centuries, the paper punchers saw no reason to mess with success. But things were about to change.
Beginning in 1946, S&W’s president, C.R. Hellstrom, embarked upon a program to improve and modernize the company’s production facilities and to develop new products for the civilian, military, and law enforcement markets. At the top of his must-do list was a modern, semiautomatic pistol that utilized a double-action/single-action trigger mechanism and was chambered for the 9mm Parabellum cartridge.
The task of designing the new pistol was assigned to the company’s chief designer, Joseph Norman, who completed a prototype by October 1948. Known as the X-46, it combined a Browning tilting-barrel lockup system with a DA/SA trigger and a hammer-drop safety. Rotating the slide-mounted safety lever downward interposed a steel bar between the hammer and the firing pin before tripping the sear, releasing the hammer to move forward. A short, inertia-type firing pin permitted moving the safety lever “Off” so the pistol could be carried safely with the hammer down, yet it could be fired without having to manipulate any controls.
Smith & Wesson provided samples of the new pistol to the U.S. Army for trials, but the military quickly lost interest and let the project drop. Smith & Wesson continued development and released the new 4-inch-barreled pistol in 1959 as the Model 39.
In 1960, the U.S. Army Marksmanship Training Unit was so impressed with the performance of the Model 39, it requested that Smith & Wesson produce a similar model chambered for a proprietary cartridge it had developed, the .38 AMU, which was little more than the .38 Spl. Mid-Range wadcutter load but using a semirimless case. The new pistol was designated as the Model 52A, and approximately 90 pistols were delivered. They were used by the Army’s pistol team for a short time.
S&W saw possibilities for this type of pistol, and in 1961, the company released it on the commercial market as the Model 52. It was similar to the Army pistol, except it was fitted with a longer, 5-inch barrel, used a setscrew to lock out the double-action option on the trigger, and it was chambered for the standard .38 Spl. Mid-Range wadcutter cartridge.
The company saw the Model 52 as the target pistol of the future, and great pains were taken to ensure quality. The company wanted to make sure it was the most accurate out-of-the-box target pistol available to the American shooter. One of the most prominent design features was the barrel shape, in that it increased in diameter at the muzzle so as to lock into a special threaded bushing that was screwed into the front of the slide and secured in place by a spring-loaded plunger. The setup removed all play in the barrel.
According to History of Smith & Wesson by S&W historian Roy Jinks, “To insure the accuracy of the pistol, extra rigid inspection was incorporated by having the Model 52 machine rest tested at 50 yards to insure that the pistol would shoot five-shot groups having maximum spread of two inches. Any pistol that could not meet this standard was returned to production for reworking.”
Insistence upon such tight tolerances meant that production was slow, and only 3,500 units were produced by 1963.
In 1963, the Model 52-1 was introduced; it incorporated a steel frame, a new single-action trigger mechanism, and a different hammer. With its innate accuracy, excellent balance, and the ergonomic perfection of its grip frame, the Model 52-1 was an immediate success with competitive handgun shooters. Smith & Wesson labored mightily to meet demand but without sacrificing quality.
In 1971, the Model 52-1 design was improved with the addition of a coil-spring extractor. The change resulted in the designation being changed to Model 52-2.
Model 52s proved very popular with bullseye shooters and soon became the dominant target pistol in the U.S. Many famous shooters, including Bill Blankenship, used Model 52s to win numerous world championships, and they were instrumental in weaning American target shooters away from .38 Spl. target revolvers.
As the manufacture of Model 52s required a great deal of hand fitting, production numbers were never high, but the price was. Combined with the fact that centerfire bullseye shooting was becoming dominated by customized .45-caliber 1911 pistols, this led to the Model 52-2 being dropped from Smith & Wesson’s catalog in 1993.
Shooting The Model 52
It took me some time to locate a Model 52 to shoot for this report. In fact, after several months of searching, I finally located one that was being used as a test gun at the Remington ammunition factory in Lonoke, Arkansas. Remington’s Linda Powell was kind enough to arrange a loan of the pistol; she also sent along a supply of Remington .38 Spl. wadcutter ammo.
The pistol I received was an original Model 52–no hyphen–that had seen a lot of use over the past decades. While the original, deep-blue finish was evident, there was a fair amount of wear and a lot of dings. The grips were oil soaked, but other than that, the pistol had been properly maintained, and it locked up as tight as an out-of-the-box gun. The bore was mirror-bright, and the trigger pull was without a doubt one of the lightest, crispest triggers I have ever felt on a pistol in my ent
ire 30 years of handgunning.
And the ergonomics! The Model 52 has, in my opinion, one of the most pleasing grips ever to grace a handgun. It is easily equal–if not superior–to Georg Luger’s Parabellum pistol, which most consider to be the epitome of ergonomic perfection. It fit my hand perfectly, and when I brought it to eye level, the sights were perfectly aligned on what I was looking at. It’s no wonder this pistol was the choice of serious paper punchers for more than three decades.
As I make no claims whatsoever to having any ability at one-handed bullseye-style shooting, I decided to maintain my self-esteem by test-firing the Model 52 for accuracy from an MTM Predator rest at the traditional distance of 25 yards. After firing the first two groups, I checked the targets. To put it mildly, I was flabbergasted. The largest group had five wadcutters in a ragged hole that measured only 1.25 inches. The smallest had an equal number of bullets in exactly 1 inch, with all inside the X-ring.
After returning to the shooting line, I fired four more five-shot groups, all of which measured 1.50 inches or less in size. Was I impressed? Heck yes!
To evaluate its offhand shooting abilities, albeit in an unconventional manner, I set up a USPSA target at 25 yards and sent .38 wadcutters downrange, firing the Model 52 with a two-handed grip. The pistol’s ergonomics were first rate, the sights provided a sharp sight picture, and the trigger pull was a joy to behold. The results of these rapid-fire drills was a very tight pattern, with every round inside the target’s A-zone.
For decades, I had read that the Model 52 was one of the most accurate pistols ever made, and now I know that my literary predecessors were not just blowing smoke. This pistol was paper-punching perfection.