The "I"s Have It

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While no longer made, the Smith & Wesson I-Frame still holds a lot of appeal.
A svelte little .32, this late model version shows the pinned barrel and is hiding
the nifty “flat latch” cylinder release on the other side.

As we’ve been told so often, there’s no “I” in team. But you do need it to spell words like interesting and iconic. Similarly, there’s no Smith & Wesson without “I” as the wheelguns we know and love arguably all began with the company’s “I-Frame.” While the frame size has been out of production for several decades, these great guns are far more than just a historical footnote.

Prior to the I-Frame, Smith and Wesson’s bread and butter lay in producing designs relying on a hinged frame. Think of classics like the Schofield and Model 3 as well as the Safety Hammerless designs affectionately — or perhaps derisively — nicknamed “lemon squeezers.” Ingenious as those auto-ejecting top breaks were, there was a limitation to the design: Since the frame wasn’t solid it placed a ceiling on the power of the cartridges it could handle.

I-Frames varied much in terms of finish, stocks, sights and latches across the production run.

Trend-Setter

S&W introduced its first I-Frame, the .32 Hand Ejector, in 1896. It was so named because, quite literally, the user had to swing the cylinder out of the solid frame and eject the empties by hand. It’s surprising to think this was a radical departure for the time, but there you have it. Three years later in 1899, S&W introduced a scaled-up version of the I-Frame capable of handling the higher pressures of the .38 Special cartridge. This gun, the venerable .38 Military & Police, was built on a sturdier “K” frame and eventually morphed into what we know today as the Model 10.

Admittedly, Smith’s .32 Hand Ejector wasn’t the first-ever solid frame design with a swing-out cylinder, but it was the model essentially defining the “before” and “after” periods of the company’s revolvers. From the I-Frame forward, just about every revolver coming out of Springfield, Massachusetts, generally looked like we think a Smith is supposed to. The company did make a few adjustments to the lock work, including moving the cylinder stop from the bottom to the top of the frame, and by 1903 the cylinder release was relocated to where we’re used to seeing it.

Really, the only thing antiquated about this I-Frame is the cartridge it shoots. The .32 was introduced chambered for the .32 S&W Long, a round intended to give the 32 S&W a little more oomph. By any modern standard, it’s still anemic, pushing a 98-gr. bullet at about 718 fps for about 112 ft.-lbs. of energy. By comparison, your rack-grade .32 ACP will produce about 158 ft.-lbs. of energy and a .380 ACP will clock in at about 200 ft.-lbs.

A nice touch on the I-Frames is the pinned barrel — although
perhaps not required for the lowly .32 Long.

“this revolver is like a tiny little jewel in terms of its size and craftsmanship, it’s also worth owning because it’s scarily accurate.”

The I-Frames can be real shooters! If you don’t believe it, check out Clayton’s group here.

Where It Counts

If you absolutely have to press your .32 Hand Ejector into the role of a self-defense gun, Buffalo Bore has some rounds they developed, in their words, “after countless customer requests for ammunition that will make this cartridge lethal....” While the round-nosed .32 Longs of yore are better than harsh words, let it be known this cartridge isn’t a manstopper in a conventional sense.

No matter. Aside from the fact this revolver is like a tiny little jewel in terms of its size and craftsmanship, it’s also worth owning because it’s scarily accurate. Shooting a quarter-sized group at 7 yards with any full-sized handgun is an accomplishment for me on a good day. I was gobsmacked when I was able to cloverleaf shots with my I-Frame after only a few cylinders worth of warm-up. Now, sure, I had to modify my grip with my pinky underneath the butt of the gun to be able to get a straight-line purchase on the trigger. That said, I’d stand on one leg and put my thumb in my ear if it allowed me to regularly print groups like the one pictured. It’s worth the hassle!

The .32 Long, while not a powerhouse, is still a handy little round.
From left to right: .22 LR, .32 S&W, .32 Long and .357 Magnum.

A Common Treasure

The good news is if you want an I-Frame like mine, you’ll likely be able to find one. Smith made hundreds of thousands of the little guns up until 1961, at which point it became hard to justify I-Frame production with the similar-but-stronger J-Frame in their product catalog.

Since purchasing my first I-Frame, I’ve since added another, and I’m sure more of these diminutive and eminently fun revolvers are in my future. Find one and shoot one, and I have no doubt you’ll fall in love.

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