A Look at the History of Smith & Wesson Revolvers

It was 1857, and business partners, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, were about to release a handgun that would revolutionize the gun industry.  Known simply as the Model One, it was the first of many Smith & Wesson revolvers that would cement the company’s position in firearms history for well over a century.

Prior to the Model One, revolvers were loaded in much the same way as Revolutionary War muskets were.  A round ball was backed by black powder and a percussion cap was inserted at the rear of the chamber.  While this made for an effective weapon, it required a time-consuming loading process.  It was also necessary to frequently dump unfired rounds and reload, as the loose powder was often ruined by moisture.  Wild Bill Hickok’s famous 1851 Navy Colt revolvers worked this way, which is why the legendary gunfighter kept his powder bone-dry.

Smith & Wesson corrected this problem by introducing a self-contained metal cartridge, roughly equivalent to the .22 short that is still available today.  That first revolver went through three versions.  The Model Two was chambered for .32 caliber and used by Civil War officers.  The Model Three, a personal favorite of Wyatt Earp, held .44 caliber center fire rounds.

The next great leap forward for the company was in 1880, when they released their first double-action revolver, chambered for the .32 caliber. This was followed in 1887 by their first hammerless revolver.  It made concealed carry a much safer proposition, by eliminating the danger of the hammer snagging while drawing the weapon. 

In 1899, the company released the revolver that would make it a household name: the Model 10.  It had fixed sights, a cylinder chambered for six .38 caliber rounds, and a fluted, side-ejected cylinder.  The US military immediately ordered 3,000 of these Smith & Wesson revolvers.  After reports that the cartridge was proving ineffective in military use, the company redesigned it, adding three extra grains of powder and increasing the bullet weight.  Thus was born the most famous round in firearms history: the .38 Special. 

As the 20th century unfolded, the weapon became the sidearm of choice for police departments coast to coast, as well as shopkeepers who were wary of being robbed.  It also saw duty in both world wars.  To date, there have been over six million Model 10s manufactured in its various forms, including 2, 2.5, 4, 6, and 6.5 inch barrel lengths.  Although most law enforcement agencies have replaced it with modern semi-auto pistols, it remains a favorite weapon for collectors and home defense users.

The post-World War 1 era saw the introduction of the first so-called “bulletproof vests.”  Quickly adopted by gangsters, they could stop most rounds traveling at under 1000 fps.  In response, Smith & Wesson went back to the drawing board, experimenting with higher strength steels and improved heat-treating processes.  The company also called on famous firearms expert, Bill Jordan, to help it design a beefed-up handgun for a new era. 

The result was the first magnum revolver, the .357 caliber Model 19, released in 1935.  In its 125-grain form, the bullet left the barrel at 1600 fps, more than enough to blast through the ballistic vests of the day.  It was quickly adopted by law enforcement and military buyers, as well as civilians looking for a premium round for both hunting and self-defense.

“Go ahead punk, make my day!”  Fans of the Clint Eastwood character, Dirty Harry, are familiar with those words, muttered by the fictional lawman while holding a suspect at bay.  The weapon Eastwood is holding in that famous scene is the Smith & Wesson Model 29.  Introduced in 1955, it’s chambered for the massive .44 caliber round, although it can also fire the lower powered .44 Special.  The Eastwood movies made the revolver the most famous gun in modern history, with the possible exception of the Glock.

With the 21st century well under way, Smith & Wesson continues to be an industry leader in the development of cutting edge firearms.  Only time will tell what the next great Smith & Wesson revolvers will be.

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