Smith & Wesson's 12 Most Important Guns
January 03, 2011
For 150 years S&W firearms have been changing history. Here are our Technical Editor's picks for the dozen most influential S&W handguns of all time.
Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson formed their first partnership in 1852--exactly 150 years ago.
Few companies in the United States can claim a history that long. And though Smith & Wesson has recently gone through some dark times, under new U.S. ownership and enlightened management it is working hard to return to the mainstream of the firearms industry community. It is rapidly reacquiring the support and good wishes of the American citizen-shooter who has supported it for so long. This is not the first time S&W has endured a hard period or suffered under less-than-enlightened management only to emerge as a stronger and a better company. The primary reason for its long survival has always been in the quality of its products, the committed core of its hundreds of long-term manufacturing employees, and its continuing history of innovation and leadership in handgun design and manufacture.
Smith & Wesson makes good guns. Some better than others, some more popular than others. But even its failures--the models and configurations that have come and sometimes quickly gone--have always advanced the technology of handgun design and pointed toward the future both for handgun shooters and competing manufacturers alike.
Before I was a firearms writer I was a historian. Historians are always leery of rankings and worry about confusing "most popular" with "most important." My experience is that over the long haul the two concepts merge into "most influential"--that is, those things that have lasting effect on both the makers and the users and also point the way toward important future developments.
As a hearty congratulations from Shooting Times to Smith & Wesson on its 150th birthday, here are my picks for the dozen most significant S&W handguns of all time with brief reasons why. (As a historian, I am interested in your ideas on which S&W models were important. I invite you to write me with what models you think I should have included or not included. If the response is sufficient, I'll report on your feedback in my "Handguns" column in an upcoming issue. If you want to add a different gun to the list, however, you also have to tell me why you think the one being replaced is less important.)
1. Model 1 (1857)
Smith & Wesson's first revolver tops the list not because it was the first revolver ever made (Colt patented that in 1836), nor because it was the first firearm to use a self-contained cartridge (Jacques Flobert patented that in France in 1846). The Model 1 is No. 1 because it was the first gun to combine those concepts. The S&W Model 1, introduced in 1857, was the first cartridge revolver. The S&W No. 1 load was the first commercial American metallic cartridge. (Today it's known as the .22 Short and has been in continuous production for 145 years.) All revolvers since, and all American cartridge ammunition, follow from that moment.
Messrs. Smith and Wesson, while working on the finger-lever Magazine Pistol produced by their first partnership in 1854, had patented improvements on a rimmed-case Flobert design with primer compound spread evenly across the base of the cartridge (for reliable ignition) and a tallow "cup" directly behind the lead ball over a propellant charge (to make the load waterproof for outdoor use). With a slightly longer case, a 29-grain bullet, and four grains of fine blackpowder, this would become the S&W No. 1. In 1856, while exploring ideas for expanded applications of the improved S&W self-contained cartridge, D.B. Wesson built a prototype revolver with bored-through cylinders to fire the rimmed .22. Remember that all Colt revolvers at the time were percussion cap with the cylinder chambers closed at the rear. Colt revolver patent had expired in February of 1856, so Wesson was free to manufacture revolvers. But Wesson discovered that a former Colt employee, Rollin White, had already patented a revolver design with cylinders bored end-to-end. Wesson met with White in November 1856, and they agreed on an arrangement giving S&W exclusive license to manufacture bored-through cylinders. Colt was thus frozen out of the new cartridge-revolver era for 18 years and could only continue to make percussion revolvers until the White patent finally expired (after some lengthy court conflicts) in 1872.
2. Model 3 American (1870)
Next on my list is the S&W top-break, self-ejecting .44- and .45-caliber Model 3 series that was initially introduced in 1870. These were the first American big-bore revolvers specifically manufactured for metallic cartridges and not the many after-the-fact "converted" big-bore percussion Colt, Remington, etc., revolvers that appeared on the handgun landscape during the period of S&W's cartridge revolver "monopoly" between 1856 and 1872.
The term "Model 3" as used by the S&W factory technically refers to a frame size and not to a specific Model, so there were in reality many different specific revolver configurations in the Model 3 series that we would today call "models" (the way there are currently many different S&W K-Frame models and N-Frame models). Collectively, these guns had great and lasting influence. The basic top-break design was copied by dozens of other handgun makers and remained a mainstay of many lines well into the 20th century.
The more than 130,000 of the Russian Model sold to the Tsar's government established S&W as an international manufacturer and was the company's first major government contract. The Model 3 American was a preferred handgun of frontiersmen and Western lawmen during the 1870s and '80s, with more than 120,000 sold--making it an equal candidate with the Colt Peacemaker SAA for the title of "Gun That Won The West." (Only 30,063 SAAs were bought by the U.S. government between 1873 and 1891, and only 150,683 total in .45 caliber were manufactured up to 1940.) The .45 Schofield version of the Model 3 is probably the most famous. The U.S. Cavalry purchased 7000, and historians still argue that had Custer's men been armed with quick-reload Schofields (and lever-action Winchesters) instead of the slow-punchout Colts (and single-shot falling-block Springfields) at least some would have survived the field of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Later, the.32-44 and .38-44 chambering versions of the Model 3 Target, introduced in 1887, were the first revolvers to have adjustable sights.
3. .38 & .32 Double-Action (1880)
S&W first designed a double-action (then termed "self-cocking") revolver in 1872 as a Model 3 variation offered to the Ru
ssian government. But commercial introduction of an S&W DA would not come until 1880 (after DAs from Colt and Forehand & Wadsworth had proved the market) in the form of a series of small-frame, 18-ounce, five-shot top-break .38 S&W and .32 S&W revolvers. These exposed-hammer top-break pocket-size DA .38s and .32s were among the most popular guns S&W ever built. Nearly a million total were sold before they were discontinued in 1919.
38 Double Action, Second Model
Moreover, the Safety Hammerless versions of these same guns are among the least recognized yet most influential guns S&W ever produced. Marketed from 1886 until 1940, they were the first revolvers to have hammers completely enclosed within the frame and were incapable of fire except by a long pull on the trigger--making them the first revolvers to be what is today commonly termed as "Double Action Only"--then termed the "New Departure" by S&W. They also had "hesitation" built into the trigger pull to allow the shooter to stage for a precisely aimed shot and a grip safety in the backstrap that required a firm grip on the butt to depress an internal hammer block before the trigger would work--a feature that would appear again in S&W's side-swing small-frame .38 Special Centennial models from 1952 until 1974.
The Safety Hammerless models are reputed to have been developed after D.B. Wesson heard that a child had been injured by cocking the hammer and pulling the trigger of a conventional revolver. He worked with his designer son Joseph to make a gun that would have an adult-grip compression safety on the handle and require a trigger pull too strong for a child to pull through. Apocryphal or no, the Safety Hammerless series clearly shows that S&W's concern for child-related safety long predates today's political correctness.
.38 Hand Ejector Target Model
4. .38 Hand Ejector (1899)
The .38 Hand Ejector Military and Police Model of 1899 (its full factory title) was the first Smith & Wesson Model K (K-Frame) revolver and was also the first gun ever chambered for the .38 S&W Special cartridge. It is the earliest S&W model that remains in continuous production today (with refinements and improvements, of course). If that's not enough to earn it a place on this list, consider that S&W's sales of K-Frame guns, all models, still exceed the combined sales of all other handguns the company has ever produced.
The term "Hand Ejector" refers to the solid-frame, side-swing cylinder design, which requires the shooter to use his hand to push the ejector rod to free the fired cases from the chambers (as opposed to the automatic-ejection system of the top-break design). It would eventually replace the top-breaks entirely because it could handle more powerful cartridges in a smaller form than the older system. The Hand Ejector was developed largely in response to the accelerating development of smokeless-propellant cartridges during the 1890s.
That being said, it is interesting to note that the smaller S&W Model I (I-Frame) five-shot hand ejectors for .32 S&W Long were introduced first, in 1896. (Reason: the K- and I-Frame models were both designed at the same time in 1894-95; the engineers simply signed off on the I-Frame first for production.) And it is important not to forget that the original .38 Special cartridge was a blackpowder load and not smokeless. The Model K was first intended to fire the .38 U.S. Service cartridge (.38 Long Colt), but D.B. Wesson wanted the S&W side-swing gun to be more powerful than its rival's namesake, so he suggested the case be lengthened to allow its powder charge to be increased from 18 grains of fine blackpowder to 21.5 grains and upped the standard bullet weight from 150 to 158 grains--creating a "magnum" .38 Long, if you will. When later loaded as a smokeless round, the new case allowed room for considerably more powerful charges, which led to the .357 Magnum, and so on.
It is often asked why S&W was later than Colt in offering double-action revolvers and solid-frame side-swing revolvers when it earlier had so little trouble in staying ahead of its rival with the original cartridge guns. The historian will answer: Monopoly inhibits creativity. Having beaten Colt to the cartridge era and developed a superior product in its large-frame top-breaks compared to the solid-frame SAA, S&W saw little reason for major changes until it was forced by the market success of alternative ideas. After being beaten, Colt was hungrier and became more aggressive. The ebb and flow of different competing companies taking turns playing lead and catch-up is a characteristic of the firearms industry (indeed all industries) even today.
.44 Hand Ejector, First Model
5. .44 Hand Ejector First Model (1908)
The first 20th-century gun to make it to this list is the legendary .44 Triple Lock, the first S&W Model N (N-Frame) and last of the original solid-frame hand-ejector styles introduced. With it came yet another new S&W cartridge: the .44 S&W Special, a longer case version of the .44 Russian with a heavier blackpowder charge of 26 grains and a standard 246-grain bullet.
Offered in .38-40, .44-40, and .45 Colt chamberings as well as .44 Special/.44 Russian, this First Model was produced for only seven years, but it laid the foundation for all the powerful large-frame, big-bore S&W revolvers that followed. Its important aspect was its strength. In fact, it was stronger than it needed to be. The nickname "Triple Lock" referred to a cylinder latch built into the swing-out yoke and barrel shroud, in addition to the conventional S&W Hand Ejector latch points at the rear of the cylinder and front of the ejector rod. This device was costly to produce and was eliminated from the design in 1915. The barrel shroud would come back by customer demand in the Third Model (1926), but yoke latch points would not be resurrected (save for some modern S&W Performance Center specialty guns). And if the later successes of Phil Sharpe and Elmer Keith in safely uploading the .38 Special and .44 Special cartridges to previously undreamed-of power levels in N-Frame revolvers is any indication, not really necessary.
.22/32 Kit Gun
6. .22/32 Target Model (1911)
The .22/32 Target Model was S&W's first revolver to fire the .22 Long Rif
le cartridge and is second only to the K-Frame .38 Special M&P in maintaining a continuous line of production through a variety of specific models, variations, and barrel lengths all the way down to the current stainless-steel Model 63. It originated with a San Francisco S&W dealer named Phil Bekeart, who in 1910 special-ordered 1000 revolvers chambered for the .22 LR with six-inch barrels and adjustable target sights built on the "heavy" (for a .22 rimfire) .32 Hand Ejector frame--hence the long-standing ".22/32" and "Heavy-Frame Target" labels in S&W's small-frame .22 revolver nomenclature. The four-inch version, the .22/32 Kit Gun introduced in 1936 ("Kit Gun" as in fishing or hunting kit and not "kit" as in to be assembled), has proven one of S&W's most enduringly popular items and has served as model for dozens of imitations and similar configurations from competing manufacturers. It's a true continuing classic.
7. .357 Magnum (1935)
Any list of significant S&W handguns that did not include the original N-Frame .357 Magnum would not have much legitimacy. With almost double the velocity and three times the energy of its 1/8-inch shorter parent .38 Special, the original .357 Magnum (launching a 158-grain bullet at 1515 fps) was at the time the most powerful handgun cartridge in the world. The load came from police requests for a more powerful .38-caliber cartridge than the .38 Special. S&W initially responded to the requests with the hot-loaded .38-44 S&W Special but then superseded that with the longer case .357. The S&W gun was originally available from the factory on individual order in any barrel-length from 31/2 to 83/4 inches with a choice of seven different front sight styles and matching rear sight, the new S&W Magna grip (with grip adaptor, if desired), and presighted with any ammunition out to 200 yards. A numbered S&W "Registration Certificate" carrying the customer's name and the gun's specifics was available at the customer's request.
The .357 Magnum changed the world's concept of handgun power and range. But from another perspective, there was nothing really new about it. As I've already noted, S&W had been in the practice of making guns for longer, more powerful versions of existing cartridges. The original S&W No. 1 (.22 Short) was merely a longer, more powerful Flobert (.22 BB Cap). The .32 S&W Long was an 1/8-inch longer and more powerful .32 S&W; the .38 Special was a longer and more powerful .38 Long Colt; the .44 Special was a longer and more powerful .44 Russian. And there were others. The thing most notable about the .357 was the magnitude of its leap (and the resonance of the new "Magnum" label), which was made possible by the capabilities of the N-Frame design and the greater power allowed in existing-dimension cases due to the smaller volume of smokeless propellant compared to blackpowder.
8. .38 Chiefs Special (1950)
S&W had been making five-shot revolvers in .32 S&W Long (1896) and .38 S&W (1917) on its small I-Frame since the dawn of the hand-ejector era. The snubnose .38 S&W Terrier version introduced in 1936 was wildly popular with plainclothes police, but many wanted it chambered for the more powerful .38 Special. In 1949, as the company reorganized its production for the post-World War II era, new S&W president Carl Hellstrom instructed his engineers to design an improved small frame that could also handle the more powerful load. The very slightly larger final result (longer cylinder window, extended grip frame, larger trigger guard) was the two-inch J-Frame .38 Chiefs Special, named in honor of its place of introduction: the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conference held in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in October 1950. (All the pre-existing models in the I-Frame line--like the .22/32 Kit Gun--were very quickly converted to J-Frame design.)
Later designated the "Model 36" when S&W began to assign modern model numbers in 1957, the .38 Chiefs Special was thus the first S&W J-Frame revolver, the first ultracompact .38 Special, and the ancestor of all the variant forms (from all makers) that followed--including the shrouded .38 Bodyguard, the hidden-hammer DAO Centennial series, and the aluminum-frame Airweights. Square butt and round butt, shorter and longer barrels, fixed or adjustable sights, stainless steel or blued--the Chiefs Special "family" of .38 Special (and today even .357 Magnum) revolvers remains one of the strongest-selling component of S&W's revolver production and a continuing format for some of its most striking recent innovations in fabrication materials. It also began a tradition of putting more power in smaller and smaller packages that continues today. (Incidentally, in 1952 the first-version .38 Special Airweight with an aluminum cylinder weighed only 9.9 ounces--actually less than today's titanium-cylinder AirLite models).
9. .357 Combat Magnum (1955)
Before Hellstrom talked to U.S. Border Patrol shooting team member (and later Shooting Times Field Editor) Bill Jordan at the 1954 Camp Perry matches, no manufacturer had attempted to chamber the high-intensity .357 Magnum cartridge in anything but a large, heavy frame revolver. Jordan's idea for a "peace officer's dream" sidearm was a heavy-barreled four-inch K-Frame .357 Magnum with a shrouded barrel like the big-frame .357 and adjustable sights. After a year of experimentation with improved-strength steels and special heat-treat processes, the result was the .357 Combat Magnum (later designated Model 19), with the first serial-number gun (K260,000) presented to Jordan on November 15, 1955.
Jordan's dream gun would be the first of many different makes and models of medium-frame .357 Magnum revolvers from virtually every handgun manufacturer in the world. It began what would become an ongoing S&W tradition of applying advanced metallurgical technology and innovative fabrication materials to existing, proven handgun designs to dramatically increase their capabilities and the variety of their applications. The S&W .357 Combat Magnum was instantly a best-seller, and initial orders were so great that in the first six months of 1956 the factory used the entire serial number block it had set aside for the model.
Model 29 (top) Model 629 (bottom)
10. .44 Magnum (1956)
Hellstrom had a
lso been listening to another shooter--an Idaho cowboy named Elmer Keith. Keith, who had earlier consulted with Col. Douglas Wesson in the early development of the .357 Magnum, was well known as a firearms writer and had visited S&W and Remington in late 1953. He argued for the introduction of a new, longer case .44-caliber cartridge and revolver that would duplicate the power and accuracy of the handloads he had developed for S&W .44 Hand Ejectors using .44 Special cases. It was, he knew, a Smith & Wesson tradition. Hellstrom talked with Remington, which provided case dimensions in late summer 1954, and prototype revolver tests were successfully completed about six months later in February 1955. The first Model NT-430 .44 Magnum revolver came out of the S&W production-assembly area on December 29, 1955. For the uninitiated, that official factory designation signified: "N" frame, "T" (for Target) configuration, and "430" for caliber (actually .429). Shipment began in January 1956. The next year the gun that would arguably become the most famous Smith & Wesson of all time would be designated the Model 29.
11. Double Action 9mm Pistol (1956)
The same month of the same year that saw shipment of the first S&W .44 Magnums also saw the introduction of the first DA autoloading pistol manufactured in the United States. The 9mm Double-Action, soon to be designated the Model 39, was another Hellstrom initiative. Aware of initial post-war U.S. military interest in the possibility of replacing the .45 ACP with the 9mm as a standard sidearm cartridge, Hellstrom tasked S&W engineer Joe Norman to develop a pistol with a DA first shot capability, similar to the European Walther pistols manufactured prior to the war. The design was finished in 1948. After back and forth interplay between S&W, the government, and the Springfield Armory, the aluminum-framed 9mm pistol finally went into the S&W commercial catalog in January 1956.
The Model 39 was ahead of its time. It sold slowly--only 426 units in 1957. When it was adopted as official sidearm of the Illinois State Police in 1968, it was the first 9mm double-action auto ever used by any U.S. state agency. By 1972, when S&W introduced the offshoot 14-round Model 59 (America's first high-capacity, double-stack 9mm pistol), things were changing. In the long term, S&W's view of autoloader needs was certainly prescient. Today, the progeny, offshoots, and imitators of these pioneering double-action, high-capacity S&W autoloaders have become the national standard for military/law enforcement sidearms--regardless of specific current make, model, or chambering.
12. Model 60 Chiefs Special Stainless (1965)
Completing this list is the world's first factory-production all stainless-steel firearm: the Model 60 Chiefs Special. Putting the same basic configuration on the list twice might raise some eyebrows, but the original Chiefs Special started a revolution in form factors while the Model 60 started a completely different revolution in handgun manufacturing materials.
Actually, the Model 60 was not the first all-stainless revolver S&W had sold. In 1959 Hellstrom had authorized a limited run of polished stainless-steel Model 15 Combat Masterpiece revolvers on special order for a law enforcement distributor in Chicago. Six years later, the Model 60 was an instant runaway best-seller, as were the other police-format stainless models introduced in quick succession afterward. And when S&W's sportsmen's stainless guns hit the shelves, in the form of the Model 63 stainless .22 Kit Gun, the six-inch version of the Model 66, and, spectacularly, the first stainless-steel .44 Magnum Model 629 (December 1978), the cake was fully iced. All other handgun manufacturers were in full pursuit, and today there are vastly more new handguns introduced in stainless steel with no blued counterparts than the reverse. (I have a personal attachment to the classic Model 629 as my report on it in the March 1979 issue of Shooting Times broke the story to the world. That write-up was my first cover story for ST.)
Model 386 AirLite Sc (top) Model 396 AirLite Ti (bottom)
13. Baker's Dozen?
The tradition of a "baker's dozen" stems from an ancient practice of tossing a thirteenth item into a box of pastry to ensure the customer gets a full 12 in case of a hurried miscount. I have certainly not hurried this list. (In fact, I've been considering it for nearly a year--since S&W's Ken Jorgensen casually posed the question of what I might think were S&W's all-time greatest firearms.) But I'll exercise my option to include the thirteenth breadstick: the Model 360 AirLite Sc .357 Magnum.
Yes, another Chiefs Special. (I could have chosen one of the other models in the AirLite series, but historians have a weakness for symmetry.) Why? In late 1999, at the IACP Convention in Salt Lake City, S&W turned the handgun world on its ear with the AirLite Ti series of aluminum-frame, titanium-cylinder small- and medium-frame .38 Special and .44 Special revolvers, which substantially reduced the carrying weight of previous steel-component versions of these models and sparked immediate follow-up by competing manufacturers.
The AirLite Sc series, embodied by the Model 360 and companion models introduced in 2000, takes the same concept to yet a higher level with an aluminum/scandium alloy frame that allows the same amount of weight reduction to small- and medium-frame .357 Magnum revolvers. Historic? Well, a workable and reliable five-shot small-frame .357 Magnum revolver weighing only 12 ounces is a long way down the road from the original three-pound N-Frame .357 Magnum of 1935.
Will the AirLite Ti and AirLite Sc family of revolvers have the same resonance and stand the test of time as well as my other selections have? Will Smith & Wesson produce other great design innovators like founder Daniel Wesson and his son Joseph or attract to its employ more engineering geniuses like Carl Hellstrom? Only history can answer.