Back around 1910 dealer Philip Bekeart placed an order for a variation on the small S&W I-frame. He specified .22 LR, 6″ barrel and adjustable sights. S&W shipped the first 292 revolvers in 1911. In 1915 Bekeart’s design became a regular cataloged item. Collectors refer to them as the .22/.32 Hand Ejector, .22/.32 Bekeart and .22/.32 Heavy Frame Target (though at 23 ounces it was not very heavy).
By the mid 1930s target shooters wanted heavier guns on medium size frames, such as the Colt Officer’s Target and the S&W K22. Sales of the lightweight .22/.32 languished. S&W fitted the I-frame with a 4″ barrel with ramp front sight and adjustable rear sight. They called the result the Kit Gun, meaning a gun a hunter, fisherman, or camper could pack along with other outdoor gear in a kit bag. The concept proved very popular, and in fact Kit Guns are being built to this day.
There have been many variations, in .22 LR and .22 Mag, with 2″, 3″, 31/2″ and 4″ barrels, with blued or nickeled carbon steel, stainless steel, aluminum alloy and scandium frames, with 6-shot and (currently) with 7- (.22 Mag) and 8-shot (.22 LR) cylinders.
By 1950 S&W felt there was a market for a small-frame, .38 Special revolver. The I-frame cylinder at 1.25″ long was too short, so S&W designed a new size, the J-frame, with a longer cylinder and longer frame window. However I-frame production continued through the ’50s, used in the Kit Gun and for .32 Long and .38 S&W models.
To my admittedly old-fashioned tastes this is the handsomest Kit Gun,
a Model 51 with 3½” barrel and very comfortable oversize grips. I like
the added performance of the .22 Magnum cartridge. If I only had one
Kit Gun, though, it would be a .22 LR just from an ammunition cost aspect.
In 1953 S&W introduced the “Improved I-frame” with a coil spring mainspring rather than the original leaf spring. These were used on the 1953 .22/.32 Kit Gun. The Kit Gun Airweight was built on an alloy J-frame, the same frame size as used on Airweight .38 Specials. The .22 Magnum version, introduced in 1960 as the Model 51, was made on the steel J-frame.
When the factory began using model numbers in 1957, the steel-frame version was assigned #34, the alloy-framed Model #43. Making two frame sizes, so similar the casual observer couldn’t even tell them apart, wasn’t very economical. In 1960-1961 S&W phased out the Improved I-frame in favor of the J-frame. The 43 and 51, already made on the J-frame, kept their numbers. The Model 34 remained, but with a -1 added.
I’ve owned or tested half a dozen Kit Guns and still have three. Personally I don’t care for the 17/8″ models, except as a training understudy to a .38 Special. Inherent accuracy is fine, but the short-sight radius affects practical accuracy. Performance-wise the 4″ barrel is best, though aesthetically the 3″ and 31/2″ versions look “just right.”
My most “collectible” Kit Gun is a 1954-era model on the Improved I-frame. The others are a 34-1 and a 51, both from the early 1970s. Actually the most practical Kit Gun is one I don’t have, but which is still in production, the stainless-steel Model 63. Current Model 63s have a 3″ barrel, adjustable rear and a HiViz fiber optic front sight. Handsomely proportioned, rust-resistant and tough as nails, the 63 is a darn near perfect outdoorsman’s revolver.
Three “magnum” S&W revolvers. From left, Model 57 .41 Magnum (1964);
Model 19 .357 Magnum and a Model 51 .22 Magnum (1970s).
If revolvers don’t appeal to you there’s nothing wrong with a pocketsize .22 semi-auto. It’s strange S&W has never made what I’d call a good pocket .22 auto. The great Model 41 is my favorite target .22, while the 22A pistols are excellent for plinking, informal target shooting and small-game hunting.
Back around 1970 S&W made the Model 61 .22 for about 3 years. It was well enough made, but with a tiny misshapen grip, was hard to hold, much less shoot. I didn’t think S&W was capable of making an ugly gun but they succeeded with the Model 61. More recently S&W has been the USA distributor for Walther pistols, including the P22. Initially, I heard of reliability issues with the little guns. Walther may have modified the magazines a bit, in any event, the sample I have has been reliable and provided good accuracy.
However as I write this the arrangement for S&W to distribute the P22 is winding down, though you may be able to find S&W-marked models on dealer shelves for a while. The fine M&P .22 will still be available from S&W, while Walther will set up its own facility for several other models, including the P22.
Right now S&W is working hard to meet demand for current models. Someday, I’d like to see an S&W compact .22 semi-auto with the same appeal as the Kit Gun. Long ago famed knifemaker Bob Loveless made a few “trail guns” on cut-down Model 41s. Something similar, using an alloy frame to save weight, would suit me just fine.
By Dave Anderson
For more info: www.americanhandgunner.com/smith-wesson, (800) 331-0852