U.S.A. –-(Ammoland.com)- There have been some handguns over time that have been considered legendary by their design, the Colt Single Action Army, the 1911 Government Model, the Glock, and then there are those that have come and gone without much notice even though they were innovative and ahead of their time. One such gun was the Smith & Wesson New Departure Safety Hammerless revolver.
One has to trace the Smith & Wesson's New Departure line of revolvers back almost to their first design, the Number 1, which was the first cartridge firing revolver. While Colt was still building their black powder guns like the 1860 Army and looking ahead to when the patent on the bored through a cylinder, held by Smith & Wesson, that company was taking advantage of the patent. The Number 1 which was only in .22 and somewhat underpowered for a personal defense gun still proved to be very popular. One of the features was that to unload the revolver the barrel tipped up from the frame exposing the cylinder and allowing the empty cartridges to be dumped out although by hand.
Once Colt was able to make use of the bored through cylinder design the legendary Single Action Army was unveiled and started being produced which became the standard for the next few decades. Smith & Wesson though stuck with the design of having a revolver that could break open to load and unload, and with the Number 3 Schofield, they reached their high water mark. It was chambered in a powerful cartridge, the .45 Schofield and to someone on horseback or in combat, the ability to quickly eject the empty cases and load new rounds over having to do this one at a time as with the Single Action Army was a huge advantage. The only drawback was, of course, the ammunition, having two cartridges of different sizes issued to troops that could only work in one of the revolvers, the Colt, pretty much sealed the fate of the Schofield in the hands of the US Army. The .45 Colt was too long to fit in the cylinder of the Schofield, but the shorter length of the .45 Schofield meant it could still be used in the Single Action Army, much like a .38 Special in a .357 Magnum revolver.
Smith & Wesson did not abandon the design, instead, they moved into an entirely different market, smaller more concealable revolvers. While the Colt Single Action Army was a wonderful gun, it is large and not the easiest gun to put in a vest or trouser pocket. Smith & Wesson also went in the direction of a double action revolver meaning that the shooter didn't have to rely strictly on single action guns that would be slower to fire when the need arose.
The first Smith & Wesson Double Action revolver was introduced in 1880 in both .32 and .38 S & W cartridges. These were five shot guns available in a variety of barrel lengths and either nickel or blued finish. They were double action but had an exposed hammer so it could be fired single action as well. They were small, fairly compact guns, especially compared to the larger guns out there like the Single Action Army but weren't tiny derringers that only fired one or two rounds, usually of a tiny caliber rimfire round. They were a huge hit, especially in the east or where a man was more likely to be wearing clothing that made carrying a gun more discreet.
The success of the Double Action model led to some very innovative chances being taken by Smith & Wesson, which in 1887 led to the New Departure being introduced. Smith & Wesson, even at that time, realized the benefit of having a double action only revolver for concealed carry. There is no hammer to snag on clothing when trying to pull it from a pocket, and under stress not having a hammer to thumb back or in the way is one less thing that can go wrong.
In addition to the fact the New Departure model, also known with the moniker of Safety Hammerless, had with being double action only, was that Smith & Wesson also added a checkered safety that runs nearly the entire length of the revolver's grip. The safety had to be depressed in order for the trigger to be pulled and was considered almost revolutionary for the time. Like the Double Action model before, the Safety Hammerless dubbed the “Lemon Squeezer” was chambered in both .32 & .38 S & W cartridges and still held five rounds.
I picked up a .38 S & W version of the Safety Hammerless recently, and I was shocked at how good the double action worked and really how smooth it operated. The serial number puts the gun as having been made sometime around 1907, so to have a gun that is 112 years operate so well is even more astounding.
Ammunition for .38 S & W guns is not that easy to come by, a few makers do offer it but it is not something that is going to be found at your local big box store. I found a box of new 146 grain lead round nose Remington ammo, which has a listed muzzle velocity of 685 fps which is certainly no barn burner, it's even about a hundred feet per second slower than the slowest .38 Special round. Still, one has to consider, when these guns were being carried, there was no .38 Special, at least at first, and no 9mm, .380, or any of the other popular pistol cartridges.
I set up a couple of targets and first tried shooting a cylinder full at 10 yards. The front sight on the little Smith & Wesson is about the same thickness as a dime and the notch for the rear sight which is on the latch that is on top of the takedown is about the narrowest I have ever seen on a gun that I can recall. Recoil in .38 S & W is pretty much non-existent even in a small gun like this. It's not hard to see why these revolvers were so popular, the action is smooth and it groups as any gun even made today.
I put up another target, this time at 15 yards and the results were the same, although the Smith & Wesson seems to shoot a bit left. I found that was a bit more apparent when I set up a silhouette target at 7 yards and shot a cylinder full fairly rapidly. . With a bit of practice and a bit more time getting used to the trigger pull of the Smith & Wesson I’m sure the group size couple be improved on, but I doubt there were a lot of people practicing as we do now in 1907.
The Smith & Wesson Safety Hammerless was ahead of its time when it was designed. It was made for the sole purpose of self-defense and concealability. It’s hard to imagine that a company was working on that problem only a couple of decades since cartridge revolvers had been introduced.
The fact that the Safety Hammerless was made for so long was a testament to its popularity even after newer, more advanced handguns were introduced. Some 260,000 of these revolvers in both .32 and .38 S & W were made until 1940 when the guns were discontinued, not because they weren’t selling, but because the factory was gearing up for wartime production. Following the war, the Safety Hammerless was considered old fashioned and out of date and the line was allowed to fade into history.
There was also a slew of companies that copied the premise of the Safety Hammerless and pocket break open revolvers that were not quite up to the standards of the Smith & Wesson but were made for decades. Iver Johnson, Harrington & Richardson and others made copies of the Smith & Revolvers well into the 1940s.
For the collector and shooter these guns are still very affordable and are a downright joy to shoot. Having a Safety Hammerless shows where Smith & Wesson’s start in smaller compact revolvers, something that they continue to do so well today, began all those years ago.
About David LaPell
David LaPell has been a Corrections Officer with the local Sheriff's Department for thirteen years. A collector of antique and vintage firearms for over twenty years and an avid hunter. David has been writing articles about firearms, hunting and western history for ten years. In addition to having a passion for vintage guns, he is also a fan of old trucks and has written articles on those as well.