The Other Gun of the American West
By Marc Cammack
Bangor, Maine – -(Ammoland.com)- While Colt’s Single Action Army is widely known today as the “Gun that Won the West”, Smith and Wesson’s Model 3 was its closet rival for that title.
The Smith & Wesson Model 3 Revolver came in many different variations and calibers.
The revolver was used by many famous figures in the Old West, and by the US Army. It would also have an international history seeing use in Australia, Japan, and Russia.
Today the company Smith & Wesson is synonymous with revolvers. Like many other firearms designers the first company Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson started did not succeed, but ironically one of the investors in this firm was a shirt maker named Oliver Winchester. This first company was called the Volcanic Arms Company and their product was a lever action repeating pistol that served as the basis for later lever action rifles like the 1860 Henry and the 1866 Winchester. The Volcanic Repeating Pistol was also quite innovative due to the fact that it fired a self contained cartridge.
The Volcanic Repeating Arms Company ran into financial difficulty, and the company was sold. In 1856 Smith and Wesson started a new company focused on revolvers. Their background with self contained cartridges and a patent from Rollin White for a bored out cylinder paved the way for a successful firearms company. Their first revolver called the Model 1 and it was chambered in .22 Short. The Model 1 began production in 1857, and during the American Civil War many soldiers purchased them privately for use on the battlefield.
In 1870 Smith & Wesson introduced a large frame revolver in a more practical caliber. This was of course the single action Smith & Wesson Model 3 Revolver, and it was chambered in the .44 S&W American centerfire cartridge. These early Model 3’s were also known as the “American” Models due to their differences from Russian and other models. The American Model 3s featured a square butt frame, and the latch mounted on the barrel. 1,000 American Model 3’s were tested at Springfield Armory. The American Model 3 was tested alongside the Colt Single Action Army. The Colt was judged superior in everyway except for speed of ejecting empty cartridges.
The Smith & Wesson Russian Model 3 Revolver
Other governments purchased the Model 3 for use by their militaries. The Russian government lacked a modern revolver in the late 1860’s and found a suitable design in the United States. Aleksandr Gorlov, an officer in the Russian Ordnance Department had been in the U.S. to purchase 90 Gatling guns and oversee Colt’s production of Berdan rifles. Gorlov signed a contract with Smith and Wesson for 20,000 Model 3 revolvers. Changes were made to the revolver such as markings in Cyrillic, and most importantly the caliber was changed. The .44 Russian round had a larger case diameter than the projectile, and this .44 Russian round paved the way for the more modern .44 Special round.
The first 20,000 Russian revolvers were known as the First Models. Changes to the guns were made throughout the gun’s production life. These changes resulted in the Second and Third Model Russian revolvers. Smith and Wesson was not the only producer for the Russian government, the German firm Ludwig Loewe and the Russian Tula factory also produced the firearm. The Russo Turkish War saw widespread use of the revolver by both the Turks and the Russians. The Russian Army replaced the Smith and Wesson in 1895 with the adoption of the Nagant double action revolver. A total of 131,138 revolvers had been produced by Smith and Wesson for the Russian Government.
The Smith & Wesson Schofield Model 3 Revolver
Due to the Smith & Wesson Model 3 Revolver's poor performance in the US Army’s tests, Smith & Wesson sought to make improvements to the Model 3 that were desirable for the Army. The most important modification to the Model 3 was moving the latch from the barrel to the frame. The caliber was also changed to .45 Schofield, which could be fired through a Colt Single Action Army, but a .45 Long Colt could not be fired through a Schofield Model 3 revolver.
The fact that Schofield was could not fire the .45 Long Colt round proved to be a major logistical problem and it caused the revolver to have a short service life.
About 8000 Schofield revolvers were purchased by the US military. The revolver saw widespread use across the United States. Some military units such as the Buffalo Soldiers used Schofields during the Indian Wars. State militias were also issued the Schofield as a sidearm. Many Schofield revolvers were sold off as surplus through large dealers. The infamous James Gang was said to have used Schofields in their robberies. The Wells Fargo Bank Company purchased many surplus Schofield revolvers use by their agents. The Wells Fargo revolvers would have their barrels cut from 7 inches to 5 inches to make them easier to use.
The New Smith & Wesson Model 3 Revolver
In 1878 the improved New Smith & Wesson Model 3 Revolver was introduced. The New Model 3’s latch was mounted on the barrel, and had a round butt frame. It was produced from 1878 until 1912 and replaced all other Smith and Wesson Model 3s made previously. The Japanese Navy was a big customer for the New Model 3 starting in 1879 and continuing through the 1890’s. Other countries purchased the New Model 3 including Australia which purchased 310 for the Colonial Police. These revolvers were chambered in .44 Russian, and most had detachable shoulder stocks to make them easier to shoot. The Australian contract guns were proofed with a broad arrow, and were finished with nickel.
Smith & Wesson Today
In the 20th Century Smith & Wesson would become known primarily for their double action revolvers with swing out cylinders. The company would produce many innovate guns such as the Registered Magnum and the Model 29, and many police officers were armed with Smith and Wesson Revolvers.
But the single action Smith & Wesson Model 3 Revolver in all of its variations is still popular amongst collectors and Cowboy Action Shooters. Like the Colt Single Action Army, many Italian companies today produce clones of the different Model 3 variants.
* Images: Rock Island Auction Company ( www.rockislandauction.com )
About Marc Cammack
Marc Cammack has been collecting firearms since he was 14 years old.
His interests are primarily military surplus firearms of the late 19th into the 1950's. He has studied these in depth, and currently volunteers at two local museums providing them with accurate information about their firearms.
He is a graduate of the University of Maine with a bachelor's degree in history. He has studied modern European and American history since the age of 9, and has been shooting since the age of 11. He currently resides just outside of Bangor, Maine.