By Mike Cumpston, GUNS Magazine
In 1857, in a livery stable on Market Street in Springfield, Mass., Horace Smith and Daniel Baird Wesson assembled a crew of 25 workmen and began producing the first (or at least the first of any note) metallic cartridge revolver. The concept rested upon the ownership of the Rollin White patent and a monopoly on the through-bored revolver cylinder and the rimfire cartridge developed for parlor shooting in Europe in the previous decade.
The Flobert pistols and rifles were quite popular then and have remained in production through modern times. The 6mm BB (bulleted breech) cap via Messrs. Smith & Wesson was given a longer case as well as a conical bullet to replace the roundball, becoming the Smith & Wesson Number 1 Cartridge—the black powder loaded .22 Short. The revolver itself became known as the Model 1 and it went through three variations between 1857 and 1881.
The immediate acceptance of the Model 1 and the subsequent Models 1-1/2 and 2 revolvers in .32 rimfire are a testament to the alacrity the public displayed in abandoning front-loading sidearms with their loose powder and ball or flimsy envelope cartridges. The arms were puny in the extreme. Almost 12,000 of the Mod. 1, 1st Issue were produced between 1857 and 1860. Collectors find a tedious number of sub-variations but the basic model was about 6-1/2 inches long with a barrel slightly over 3 inches and weighing almost nothing.
The second variation totaling 117,000 revolvers from 1860 to 1868 retained the brass frame, though it was now flat-sided rather than rounded and the sideplate was much larger. Sales began to taper off with the end of the Civil War, but the significantly improved 3rd variation picked up in 1868 and remained in production until 1881. A bird’s-head grip replaced the original square-butt profile, the frame was now made of cast iron and the cylinder was now fluted. Serial number ranged from 1 through 131,163 with at least one source estimating the yearly production as 10,000 units.
After 1872, when the Rollin White patent expired along its protections, the Model 1 picked up several imitators (Marlin being one prominent example). This first Smith & Wesson revolver pioneered some enduring features. The hammer stirrup/hammer/mainspring configuration resembles the set-up continuing to the present. The mainspring is tensioned by a strain screw placed through the lower front of the grip frame—a design which never required much updating.
Called “tip-up” or bottom break (above), these revolvers were strong enough for the .22 and .32 rimfire cartridges, but it would not do to put one in your back pocket and sit on it. The top of the hammer nose (below) impinges on this spring-loaded bolt stop and releases the cylinder for rotation when the hammer cocked. At full cock, the bolt stop re-engages the cylinder notch and locks the chamber in line with the barrel. The rear sight notch is small but usable and the sights on this example were “well regulated.”
The Model 1 has a spring-loaded latch at the bottom front of the frame releasing the barrel to be tipped upward for loading. The press-fitted pin under the barrel serves as the ejector. The cylinder is removed for charging, then replaced and the barrel returned to battery. The cylinder has seven chambers and no safety whatsoever. The only safe carry option is six beans in the wheel and hammer down on the empty. This may or may not have been the prevailing practice, as Mark Twain compared the projectiles to homeopathic pills and posited all seven as the recommended adult dose. Of possible significance is the observation that the chambers on my example are tighter than on my K-22 revolver and the barrel is enough smaller that a cleaning loop fitting modern .22 barrels will not enter.
Our revolver is a Model 3, serially numbered in the 29,000 range. Best guess is that it comes from 1870-’71 period. It is perfectly timed with tight lock-up and a small barrel-cylinder gap with no end float. The chambers appear to align perfectly with the barrel. It may have been fired before I got it but if so, somebody took the unusual step of cleaning it properly. The bore, chambers and internals appear pristine. The trigger pull is nice and the rear sight—a small notch in the cylinder stop—is serviceable for those with good eyes.
Most data regarding the shootability of the Model 1 comes from Mark Twain who dedicated a significant portion of the second chapter in his book Roughing It to making fun of the weapons (and passengers) on his Nevada-bound stagecoach. One traveler had an Ethan Allen Pepperbox that either fired not at all or went off with a “rattling crash,” deploying all barrels and destroying everything in its path—including the “nigh mule of a farmer’s hitch.” One worthy carried his Colt revolver uncapped because he was afraid of it.
Twain loved his S&W Model 1 but declared you couldn’t hit anything with it including the cow he claimed they had chosen as a target. The jackrabbit he shot at departed at high speed and, “long after it was out of sight, you could still hear it whizzzz.” One modern-day gun board contributor said his shot about 7 feet high at “combat” distances.
Out to 10 yards, the Smith proved much easier to hit with than history records.
Compared to the North American Arms .22 WMR the S&W is very similar in size, but the NAA is much more powerful.
It’s not a myth—use of modern .22 Short ammunition is not a good idea. Some people do it and nobody admits to damaging one of these revolvers. Still, the thin cylinder walls and the thinner, iron rear aspect of the barrel, coupled with the narrower bore dimensions mentioned above, militate against it. It was even a bit spooky when I clocked some CCI Mini-caps. They averaged 576 fps (about what they do from a modern revolver with 6-inch barrel).
Legend states the original .22 Short cartridge was loaded with 4 grains of black powder. This is now a much repeated and indelible cultural artifact. The expert opinion is bereft of observation but delivered with resounding authority. It is possible to pack 2.9 grains of 3Fg or 4Fg black powder into a Short case but then there is no room for a bullet. The 100 percent density load is 2.3 grains of either granulation under the heel of the 29-grain bullet. Loaded with a generic sort of 4Fg prime, my loads were loping along in the 300 fps range. High energy Swiss 3Fg upped the average to 443 fps while the traditional and probably guessed-at velocity is given as “circa 500 fps.” I got pretty good at the black powder conversions but there is room to hope the original Shorts were a bit better than my “reloads.”
Cheerfully, it develops that Mr. Twain went a bit overboard in his critique of the Model 1’s potential accuracy. Shooting the CCI Mini-caps, I got a pretty decent group shooting at 3, 5, 7, 10 and 15 yards. The black powder loads were just as good. I extended the range to 20 yards on a freshly painted 15×18-inch steel target, again keeping all shots somewhere on the target. I delivered my shots 1-handed just as somebody clutching a bank bag or a fist full of Crédit Mobilier stock certificates might have done.
The lock work is very simple. The hammer strut, mainspring, mainspring seat and strain screw configurations stayed with the Smith revolvers into the 21st century.
There were several grip options including mother of pearl and ivory. These are rosewood and like most examples, they are in very good shape. They had good varnish back then. Metal finishes included silver plate over brass on the first variation, nickel, blue or 2-tone on the later two.
Shooting collectible antiques and reloading modern rimfire cartridges with black powder present certain hazards to the gun and the shooter as well, so I am not going to recommend them or describe the fairly obvious and tedious steps. The process was interesting and hopefully somewhat informative, being presented in the spirit of helpfulness and good will!
Model 1 3rd Issue
Maker: Smith & Wesson
Action type: Single-action, tip-up
Caliber: .22 Short
Barrel length: 3-3/16 inch
Overall length: 7.5 inches
Weight: 15 ounces
Sights: Half moon front, rear notch on frame latch
Grips: Varnished rosewood
Price: $600 (35th Edition of Blue Book of Gun Values, by S.P. Fjestad)