The Cartridge Era Begins
At the end of the Civil War, big changes were coming to the world of sixguns, and those changes were originating in Springfield, Massachusetts. Still, revolver manufacturers in general were about to see some busy times – and the state of the art in revolvers was destined to change dramatically over the next forty-odd years.
Smith & Wesson
The Smith & Wesson #1 and #2 revolvers served as proof of concept, but the pipsqueak factor didn’t do S&W’s sales any favors. If a pistolero wanted something that packed a real punch, he still had to go to a cap and ball revolver. So, in 1870, the Springfield company brought out the #3, the gun that would change things for the cartridge revolver market.
Bear in mind that Smith & Wesson still held Rollin White’s patent at this time, guaranteeing them to be the only ones that could make a revolver with a bored-through cylinder in the United States. This did White little good, as the terms of the patent agreement with S&W required White to defend against patent infringement, a bonehead move on White’s part that left him penniless while Smith & Wesson was coining a lot of money with their modern revolvers.
The #3 was made in two versions. The first was the Russian, chambered for the .44 Russian cartridge, and the second became known as the Schofield after Major George W. Schofield, who offered design advice to Smith & Wesson; the latter arm was initially chambered for the .44 S&W American, which later became the basis for the .44 Special and the .44 Remington Magnum cartridges. S&W later offered the Schofield in .44 Henry Rimfire, .44-40, .32-44, .38-44, and .45 Schofield.
Unlike the #1 and #2, the #3 guns were hinged at the bottom of the frame in front of the cylinder. This removed the necessity of removing the cylinder for loading and allowed the addition of an extractor to make the removal of spent brass easier. Now the soldier, hunter or pistolero had a gun that was quick to load, reliable and powerful. Quite a few notorious personages favored the big Smith, including Jesse James, John Wesley Harding, Pat Garrett, Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid and a young fellow named Theodore Roosevelt.
Later, Smith & Wesson continued to innovate, bringing out some of the first production double-action revolvers. The New Departure double-actions were offered for sale beginning in 1887 in .32S&W and .38S&W calibers, with the break-top design of the #3. Also known as the “Safety Hammerless,” these guns were striker-fired and had a grip safety.
But while Smith & Wesson was cranking out revolvers, the competition wasn’t idle. During the post-war years the folks at Colt went through some bad times but were about to come roaring back in spectacular fashion.
Colt Wasn’t Just Sitting Around
Smith & Wesson notwithstanding, the late 19th century story of revolvers is largely Colt’s story.
Sam Colt’s decision to sell a mess of sixguns to the newly-formed Confederacy was to end up costing the company badly. Sam Colt had been derided in the press as a traitor, and the Colt manufactory lost both reputation and revenue due to that decision. But when Rollin White’s patent expired in 1869, the folks at Smith & Wesson soon learned that the Colt people hadn’t just been sitting on their hands; they were planning a comeback in their own cartridge revolvers.
The first production cartridge-firing Colt, the 1871-72 Open Top, firing the .44 Henry Flat cartridge. The Open Top seemed as much as anything like a reason to use up a bunch of old cap & ball parts, and indeed prior to its introduction Colt did convert a lot of old percussion guns. The Open Top was never a big seller, carrying over the percussion Colt’s open topped frame and primitive sights. Colt also offered two versions of a pipsqueak revolver chambered in .41 Rimfire, the 5-shot House Gun and the 4-shot Cloverleaf.
But in 1873, everything in Colt’s past was wiped away when they introduced a gun the likes of which only comes along a few times in a century, a gun that was to become the stuff of legend: The Single Action Army.
Also known as the Model P, the Peacemaker, the M1873, the Frontier Six-Shooter (in .44-40 caliber) and the Gun That Won the West, the SAA was quickly adopted by the U.S. Army, who purchased many of these guns in two forms, the 7 ½” barreled “cavalry” revolver and the 5 ½” barreled “artillery” version. A 4 ¾” version was available for civilians, and quickly became much sought after by lawmen, cowboys and guntwists of all sorts. Colt’s new single action was remarkably well balanced, had a grip that was admirably suited to be fired one-handed while the shooter’s other hand was holding reins. In fact, many modern shooters may look at the Colt and wonder about the placement of the loading gate on the strong side of most shooters which can make reloading a bit awkward, but it’s important to remember that the gun was designed for military use – and in those days, that meant use by horsemen.
The SAA was initially offered in .45 Colt but later also chambered in over thirty calibers, from the .22 rimfire to the .44-40, .44 Special and .357 Magnum. In 1890 Colt offered a flat-t
op target model with improved sights, and in 1894 the Bisley model was brought out, named for the famous Bisley pistol range in England a
nd intended to appeal to target shooters. Barrel lengths were eventually offered ranging from the 3” “Shopkeeper” to the 18” “Buntline” versions.
The Peacemaker quickly overshadowed Smith & Wesson’s offerings for several reasons. First, the solid frame of the Colt was generally regarded as much stronger than the hinged-frame Smith. If a cowboy or gunsel ran out of ammo and had to settle a scrap by banging his sidearm over an opponent’s head, the Smith was liable to break at the hinge or the catch; the solid-frame Colt was far more likely to survive being abused in this manner. But the primary reason was that the Colt was much handier, better balanced and performed better under conditions of dust, dirt, damp and cold. It was a one-in-a-thousand design, one that persists today not only from Colt but from a dozen or more replica manufacturers.
Colt didn’t neglect the double-action market, either; in 1877 they introduced the 1877 double-action, which loaded through a gate in the same manner as the Peacemaker; it was offered in .32 Colt (the Rainmaker) .38 Long Colt (the Lightning) and .41 Long Colt (the Thunderer.) No less than Billy the Kid favored the Thunderer, carrying a brace of them on his adventures. In 1878 they brought out the last of their rod-ejector double-actions, the big Colt Alaskan in .45 Colt.
In 1889, Colt made another technological innovation when they introduced the M1889, the first production double-action revolver with a swing-out cylinder released by a sliding latch; thus, was the modern form of the double-action revolver completed. The .38 Long Colt cartridge it used, however, was sorely lacking. But in 1898 Colt addressed that by releasing the New Service revolver, a big, tough handgun chambered in .38-40, .44 Russian, .44-40, .45 Colt, .455 Webley, and later .45 ACP, .38 Special, .357 Magnum and .44 Special. This was the first modern combat magnum and following the much-discussed failure of the Colt 1889 revolver and its anemic .38 Long Colt cartridge in the Philippines and other venues, both Army and Marines bought a number of .45 Colt New Service revolvers as the Model 1909, which remained in use even after the adoption of the 1911 automatic.
A few years back I ran into a guy on our gun club’s pistol range who had an old 1909 Colt. I fired a couple cylinders through it, and while this big gun was adequately tough for its day, I wouldn’t run any of my own heavy .45 Colt loads through it; in an abundance of caution I restrict those to my own modern revolvers. With factory ammo, the New Service points naturally, shoots well one-handed or two, and the gun’s weight makes the recoil very manageable and quick follow-up shots are easy. It’s a damned fine piece.
Meanwhile, though, while Colt was moving from triumph to triumph, those folks up in Ilion were busy as well.
Remington Stays in The Fray
Remington Arms was beginning to transition more and more into a company that made rifles and shotguns more than handguns, but in 1875 they did introduce their answer to Colt’s Single Action Army. The 1875 Remington Improved Army revolver was a near-copy of Colt’s more successful Single Action Army, using most of the lockwork of the old 1858 Army revolver and retaining that gun’s removable cylinder. The 1875 was later refined into the 1890 Army, but Remington never succeeded in landing any big U.S. Army contracts, and so the Ilion company’s revolver line eventually fizzled out.
And a Surprise Entry!
It’s not widely known, but Winchester made a few prototype revolvers, intending to market them alongside the company’s famous lever-action rifles. Four prototypes were built, including one double-action with a swing-out cylinder; the prototypes were designed by Winchester engineer Hugo Borchardt. If that name sounds familiar, it is because he also was the brain behind the toggle-action Borchardt pistol, which formed the basis for the Luger. So, it isn’t unreasonable to say that the Winchester revolver prototypes were first cousins to the European P-08.
Even so, no Winchester revolvers ever saw production. While the history is uncertain, word is that a gentleman’s agreement was struck between Colt and Winchester, the result of which was Colt discontinuing their Colt-Burgess lever-action rifle, and Winchester giving up on the revolver market. This agreement still holds true today.
And Then This Happened
In 1908, a combination of events occurred that would once again shake up the sixgun market. The first was Smith & Wesson’s introduction of the very fine First Model New Century and its .44 Special cartridge. The New Century became known as the Triple Lock, due to its three locking mechanisms. It was by many accounts the best revolver made to date. In fact, some consider it to be the finest double-action revolver ever made, and it’s true that the Triple Lock with its redundant mechanisms and fair amount of hand-fitting would likely cost several thousand dollars were the identical gun made today. (In 1908 the gun sold for the princely sum of $21.)
The second thing that happened had longer-lasting implications. The excellent Triple Lock caught the attention of a young Montana cowboy, pistolero and novice gun writer. That young man’s name was Elmer Keith, and his work with the Triple Lock and his own heavy loads for Smith & Wesson’s “38-44” and .44 Special cartridges, along with his own trademark hard-cast, flat point bullets, would change the rules for handgunners once again. In fact, Keith’s bullets and his loads for various rounds are in large part the basis for my own experiments with heavy .45 Colt loads.
More on that in the penultimate segment of this history, Part 5.