Smith & Wesson Style. Are Revolvers Still An Option? What Do You Think?
“Packin’ Pistol (pack-in pis-tol) a revolver, normally a big bore sixgun, relatively light in weight, having a barrel length of not less than 4″ nor more than 5-1/2″, easy to holster, and chambered in a caliber which can be depended upon to do any job or task encountered. It may operate single action or double action, and be chambered in any caliber from .32 Magnum to .500 Linebaugh, however most packin’ pistols fall into the .44-.45 category.”… Taffin Unabridged Dictionary of Big Bore Sixguns.
I have been on a quest, a continuing quest, for the Perfect Packin’ Pistol much of my shooting life, and most of these sixguns have been single actions. The Colt New Frontier, the Ruger Blackhawk, the Texas Longhorn Arms Improved #5 and the Freedom Arms Models 83 and 97 are all in the running for the Perfect Packin’ Pistol Single Action Style. The Colt New Frontier (back with us now!), until its demise in 1984, was offered in both the .44 Special and.45 Colt. It was, and is, capable of handling 250 gr. bullets at around 1,100 fps. Ruger’s New Model Blackhawk is currently available in packin, pistol lengths and offers shooters a choice of .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum and .45 Colt as well as .357 Magnum.
The first true packin’ pistol from Ruger in 1955 was the original .357 Magnum Blackhawk Flat-Top. It was followed one year later with the introduction of the .44 Blackhawk, however the .44 was never offered in a packin’ pistol barrel length, a situation easily remedied by a good gunsmith. With the barrel cut back even with the ejector rod housing, the .44 Flat-Top becomes a superb single action Packin’ Pistol.
During its relatively short manufacturing run, the Texas Longhorn Arms Improved #5 chambered in .44 Magnum and .45 Colt was not only a frontrunner for the title of Perfect Packin’ Pistol it was also reminiscent of the original Perfect Packin Pistol, Elmer Keith’s #5SA, a 5-1/2″ .44 Special that came from the ideas and talents of Harold Croft, J.D. O’Meara, R. F. Sedgley and Neal Houchins. At the time, it was the best there was, in fact, so far ahead of its time Keith wrote it up in a 1929 article entitled “The Last Word.”
Freedom Arms has all the single action bases covered with two models, the large framed 4-3/4″ Model 83 5-shooter chambered in the .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum and three extremely powerful cartridges, the .454 Casull, .475 Linebaugh and .500 Wyoming Express. For those, who are willing to sacrifice a little power for more portability, the medium framed Model 97 is offered as a 5-shooter chambered in .45 Colt and .44 Special. It can also be ordered in .41 Magnum, and if .357 Magnum is the choice the shooter reaps the benefit of an extra round as Freedom’s Model 97 in the original Magnum chambering is a true 6-shot sixgun.
In 1983 Smith & Wesson resurrected the 4″ 1950 Target/Model
24. Custom ivory stocks by Paul Persinger.
If one is good, two is even better. A pair of 4″ .44
Specials stocked by Paul Persinger with El Paso Saddlery leather.
Single actions, great as they may be, are not the only choice for Perfect Packin’ Pistols; there just seems to be more of them. The double action field is not quite so crowded with most candidates for the coveted Triple P crown coming from a long and varied line bearing the Smith & Wesson label dating back nearly 100 years beginning with the introduction of the first .44 Special, the New Century, or 1st Model Hand Ejector.
It’s much better known as the Triple-Lock due to the fact the cylinder locked in three places, the back of the cylinder, the front of the ejector rod and a beautifully machined mechanism in the frame and yoke locked the cylinder at the front. Mostly found in .44 Special and with long barrels, the Triple-Lock is rarely encountered with a 4″ or 5″ barrel, and even less often encountered in .45 Colt.
The Triple-Lock lasted only seven years, from 1908 to 1915, when it was replaced by the 2nd Model without the third locking feature and without the enclosed ejector round housing. Most sixgunners want what they can’t have and this was definitely true in this situation. The pleas to Smith & Wesson to reinstate the Triple-Lock fell on deaf ears, however the 3rd Model arrived in 1926 thanks mainly to a large order being placed by the Texas firm of Wolf & Klar. The third locking feature did not reappear, however the Model 1926 was a .44 Special and it did have an enclosed ejector rod housing.
All three model Hand Ejectors were handicapped by the fact .44 Special ammunition at the time was nowhere near as powerful as the sixguns could handle. The main factory load was a 246 gr. round nosed lead alloy bullet at a relatively slow 750 fps. It would be up to handloaders in the middle third of the 20th century to correct this situation with a 250 gr. hard-cast semi-wadcutter at 1,000 fps, and more.
The first post-war big bore Packin Pistol from
Smith & Wesson was the 4″ 1950 Target .44 Special.
The 4″ 1950 Target .44 Special, or Fourth Model Hand Ejector,
evolved from the Third Model Hand Ejector, the Model of 1926
.44 Special. Breakfront holster is 1950s Berns-Martin.
The search for more powerful revolvers began in earnest in the late 1920’s. The gangs that had arisen during this period were using .45’s, both 1911 and Thompsons, while most law-enforcement were still equipped with .38 Specials using round nosed bullets at about the same muzzle velocity as factory .44 Specials. Law-enforcement particularly had a need for handgun rounds capable of penetrating automobiles used by the new breed of criminals. Colt was the first on the scene with a new cartridge chambered in the 1911. Actually, the cartridge was simply the .38 ACP loaded to much higher pressure as the .38 Super with a muzzle velocity of 1,200-1,300 fps.
Smith and Wesson stayed with the sixgun and using their Model 1926 as the platform, in 1930 introduced the .38/44 Heavy Duty using a .38 Special with a 158 gr. bullet at around 1,100 fps. The Heavy in Heavy Duty referred to the fact this .38 could handle heavier than standard ammunition, however it could just as easily have signified the weight of the new sixgun. Although the .38/44 was much heavier than the .38 Military & Police, it found widespread acceptance, especially when equipped with 4″ and 5″ barrels.
We live in a semi-automatic age. This was not always the case as the revolver was king for well over 100 years. Since the early 1900’s the self-loader has been the dominant choice for most military use, however until roughly 1990 both law-enforcement and civilians were predominantly revolver users. Firepower seems to be the number one reason for the big switch. Texas Ranger Capt. Frank Hamer when asked why he carried a Colt Single Action .45 with no extra ammunition was reported to have replied if he couldn’t handle it with five rounds he was guilty of sloppy peace officering. That may be a little extreme but it is also extreme to believe several high-capacity magazines and a semi-automatic can somehow take the place of proper training and shot placement.
Is the revolver still a viable option? This could well one of those “if you understand, no explanation is necessary; if you don’t, no explanation is possible” cases. Yes, the revolver is still a perfectly good choice, probably the best choice, as an every day workin’ handgun for most of us. When roaming the desert, foothills, forest and mountains, the sixgun just seems to be the natural choice. Let us take a look at some of the candidates for the title of Perfect Packin’ Pistol Smith & Wesson style. To keep things simple we will categorize by calibers.
Smith & Wesson .44 Magnums and El Paso Saddlery Tom Threepersons holster.
The .357 Magnum
In 1935, five years after the advent of the .38/44 Heavy Duty, Smith & Wesson used specially treated Heavy Duty sixguns equipped with adjustable sights as the basis for the first truly powerful sixgun, the .357 Magnum. The original .357 was a beautiful, basically custom-built revolver with a tuned action, a high polish bright blue finish, checkering on the top strap and barrel rib, and was available in barrel lengths from 3-1/2″ to 8-3/4″ and just about anything in between. Equipped with either a 4″ or 5″ barrel, the .357 Magnum became the model for all subsequent Packin’ Pistols. It was easy to carry, easy to holster, and up to that time the most powerful pistol ever offered commercially.
By definition, a Packin’ Pistol must be capable of handling any situation. In most parts of the country, and for most of us, the .357 Magnum still fits the definition. Short of hunting really big game, I can’t think of anything in my area the .357 Magnum is not capable of handling. It would not be my deliberate choice for elk or moose, black bear, nor even our Rocky Mountain mule deer, however for woods bummin’, which is second only to plinkin’ as an activity requiring a good sixgun, the .357 Magnum would do quite well.
In 1954 and 1955 Smith & Wesson did two things to make the .357 Magnum even more desirable as a packin’ pistol. The original .357, always in short supply, ceased production with the coming of World War II and it would be into the 1950’s before they started to show up in gun shops again. They were also relatively quite expensive. Smith & Wesson remedied this situation by producing a no-frills .357 Magnum. Using the same basic revolver, a dull satin blue finish .357 emerged. It still had adjustable sights, however no options were available and it was offered only in 4″ and 6″ barrel lengths.
Now known as the Model 28, in those pre-number days of the 1950’s it was the Highway Patrolman and cost less than 70 percent of the price of a regular .357 Magnum. For me, in 1958, that difference was one week’s pay. Consequently my first double action .357 Magnum, in fact my first new double action sixgun was a Highway Patrolman. It was very popular with peace officers and packin pistol enthusiasts alike. Although long out of production, the Model 28 is the still relatively easy to find in gun shops and at gun shows and still at very good prices, a situation which is fast changing. The checkering found on the top strap and barrel rib of the original .357 Magnum may be missing and one may even find the tool marks on the rear sight assembly, however it remains a rugged revolver capable of a lifetime of service.
What has to be considered the top candidate as the Perfect Packin Pistol in .357 Magnum arrived with the Combat Magnum of 1955. Bill Jordan of the Border Patrol convinced Smith & Wesson to bring out a K-framed, or Military & Police sized, .357 Magnum. The answer was a beautifully finished, 4″ barreled .357 Magnum complete with an enclosed ejector rod housing.
Definitely not as suited for ultra-tough duty as the Highway Patrolman, what the now named Model 19 sacrificed in strength it made up for by being so much easier to pack. By using the medium-framed Military & Police as the basic platform for the .357 Magnum, Smith & Wesson was able to reduce the weight by one-half pound. Whether packed every day by a peace officer or just serving as a Perfect Packin’ Pistol, that shaving of weight made a real difference especially at the end of the day. I’ve carried both all day and I can say from experience it is very noticeable after a long hike in the woods or mountains. The Highway Patrolman or, for that matter the original .357 Magnum, may feel extremely heavy when carried all day, however an N-frame .44 Special packs easily. The N-frame .357 may not be nearly so comfortably packable as the .44 Special, but the Combat Magnum corrects this.
Berns-Martin leather and S&W .357 Magnums from top-right,
clockwise: Model 27, Model 19 Nickel, Model 28 Nickel and
Model 28. The Model 19, the Combat Magnum, is the easiest
packin’ of the four. Three pair of stocks are Skeeter Skeltons
by BluMagnum. The Herrett’s Troopers on the Model 28 have
been in use since 1963.
Model 24’s all, an original 4″ 1950 Target with a pair of
1983 Model 24’s. Carved ivories by Paul Persinger,
leather by El Paso Saddlery.
The .44 Special
Smith & Wesson’s .44 Specials may go back several years before World War I, however around 1950 it appeared in Perfect Packin’ Pistol style. Actually there were some before this time as the Triple-Lock and Model 1926 were found rarely with 4” and 5” barrels and adjustable sights. This rarity carried on with the introduction of the 1950 Target Model .44 Special, which became the Model 24 in 1957. Standard models carried 6-1/2″ barrels, however Triple P candidates though scarce were available in 4″ and 5″ lengths. For my own personal taste it would be hard to find any Packin Pistol more qualified for the title than the 4″ 1950 Target. My longtime quest for such a .44 Special appeared in the October 2003 issue of Guns in an article entitled “The Searcher.”
The 4″ 1950 .44 Special has all black adjustable sights, and a standard hammer and trigger. No extras, no-frills, just a standard, every day working sixgun. Using 250 gr. hard-cast semi-wadcutter bullets, it can be loaded to standard velocity .44 Specials at a very easy shootin’ 750 fps with 6.0 grs. of Unique; to 875 fps with 7.5 grs. of Unique or 950 fps with 17.5 gr. H4227; or loaded up to 1,050 fps using 16.5 grs. of Alliant’s #2400. A 250 gr. hard cast bullet at 900 fps from a .44 Special can be expected to produce total or near total penetration in game animals such as deer, black bear and hogs. Before the advent of the .44 Magnum it was an excellent choice as a Packin Pistol. It still is.
In 1983-84, Smith & Wesson re-introduced the Model 24 .44 Special for a very short time with less than 2,700 being produced in the 4″ version. Smith & Wesson found themselves in a dilemma. When the new run of .44 Specials were produced they announced only a certain number would be made for a certain period of time. This was probably done to assure they would all be sold. As a demand arose for more .44 Specials, Smith & Wesson made a wise decision. They held to their promise of no more Model 24’s, however they made shooters happy by bringing out a stainless-steel version, the Model 624. These were made only from 1985 to 1987 and in the standard barrel lengths of 4″ and 6-1/2″. Everything we can say about the Model 24 applies to Model 624 with the extra-added bonus of being available in weather beatin’ stainless-steel construction. Currently, thanks to our own Clint Smith, S&W offers the fixed-sight, 4″ Model 21-4 in .44 Special.
From 1950 until his debilitating stroke in 1981, Elmer Keith
carried a 4″ Smith & Wesson daily. This Elmer Keith
Commemorative pays homage to his memory.
The 4″ pre-29 .44 Magnum.
The .45 Colt
In 1978 Smith & Wesson added the .45 Colt to the list of Triple P candidates with the introduction of the Model 25-5 with a 4” barrel. Unlike the 1950 Target, the 25-5 has a full bull barrel and the full-length cylinder adding somewhat to its total weight package. Even so it is slightly lighter than Model 29 .44 Magnum. The 25-5 is not a revolver to be “magnumized.” I am quite happy with it using 250-275 gr. hard-cast, semi-wadcutter bullets at 1,000 fps. Just as with the .44 Special, these relatively slow moving (when compared to full house magnum) loads still provide excellent penetration.
The original .45 Colt bullet, a conical shape, also provides excellent penetration. With the demise of black powder loads, Remington and Winchester standardized their smokeless powder loads at around 850 fps with its ancient bullet. This level load has performed exceptionally well on close range shots at game for over 125 years.
In 1989, Smith & Wesson began producing the stainless-steel Model 625 in .45 Colt. Just as with most current production big bore revolvers from Smith & Wesson, this first stainless-steel .45 Colt had a heavy under-lugged barrel, which is great for shooting but not so great for packing, and a round butted grip frame. For my use, Smith & Wesson can lock the switch on the machinery back to standard barrels and square butt grip frames at any time. The round butt does have one advantage in allowing more leeway as to the size the custom grips, but I still prefer the original square butt.
Smith & Wesson has offered the Mountain Gun in several chamberings over the years including .45 Colt. Unlike the 25-5 with its bull barrel or the original 625 with its heavy under lugged barrel, the .45 Colt Mountain Gun has the tapered .357 Magnum-style barrel found on the 1950 Target. This definitely adds points when totaling up the score for Triple P status.
A trio of 4″ .45 Packin’ Pistols from Smith & Wesson,
Mountain Guns in .45 Colt and .45 Auto Rim/.45ACP; Model
25-5 .45 Colt. Custom stocks by BluMagnum
Fifty-plus years of 4″ Perfect Packin’ Pistols from Smith & Wesson: 1950 Target .44 Special, pre-29 .44 Magnum, .44 Magnum Mountain Gun and .44 Magnum 329PD. The last two sixguns have custom round butt to square butt stocks by BluMagnum
The .45 Auto Rim
At the same time Smith and Wesson introduced their 1950 Target Model, now Model 24, in .44 Special they also brought out the same basic gun chambered in .45 Auto Rim/.45 ACP. This version of the 1950 Target became the Model 26 in 1957. This 1950 Target was originally designed with shallow grooved rifling for the use of jacketed bullets, however most target shooters at the time were using cast bullets. Five years later the 1955 Target Model .45, now Model 25, arrived with rifling more conducive to cast bullet shooting, a bull barrel, target trigger and hammer and target stocks.
It was never offered with a 4″ barrel, however as in the case of the original Ruger .44 Flat-Top, a good gunsmith can easily remedy that situation. An even better solution is the 4″ Mountain Gun persuasion of the 625 chambered in .45ACP. In 1994 Lew Horton Distributing Co. offered the Springfield Armory Commemorative, a specially embellished .45 ACP Mountain Gun, and in 2000 Smith & Wesson produced the first official .45 ACP Mountain Gun.
Either the Model 25 or 625 can be used with .45 Auto Rim brass and 250 gr. hard cast .45 Colt bullets loaded to .45 Colt levels. Add to this the fact it can also be used with full moon clips loaded with six .45 ACP rounds, and this .45 Smith & Wesson is seen to be quite versatile. The use of .45 ACP rounds also opens the door to a large list of very effective self defensive ammunition. Currently S&W offers the Model 22-4, a 4″ fixed-sight .45 ACP/.45 Auto Rim sixgun.
The same four sixguns inspired Taffin to do his own leatherwork.
A high emphasis on “packin’” places the 329PD high
on the list of candidates for Perfect Packin’ Pistol.
The .44 Magnum
In January 1955 the first five prototype revolvers which would become the .44 Magnum were built. Earlier, especially heat-treated 1950 Target Model .44 Specials had been chambered in .44 Magnum, however the decision was made to add more weight. This was done by replacing the slim 1950 Target barrel with a bull barrel, and lengthening the cylinder to more fully fill in the frame cylinder window. The first .44 Magnum sent to Remington for testing had a 4″ barrel. Definitely a Triple P candidate!
My first three .44 Magnums were a 6-1/2″ Ruger Flat-Top in 1957, a 6-1/2″ S&W .44 Magnum in 1962 and a 4″ S&W .44 Magnum in 1965. Recoil was personally judged to be very heavy and it took me a long time to be able to handle them successfully. I still have all three. The Ruger was trimmed to 4-5/8″ early on and packed as such for several decades. When I needed the barrel for a .44 Special project, I had Ruger re-barrel it to 7- ½”. The 6-1/2″ .44 Magnum remains as it was originally, however the 4″ was fully engraved by Jim Riggs 20 years ago and also fitted with ivory micarta target stocks. If it isn’t the Perfect Packin’ Pistol, it certainly is one of the best looking of all candidates.
In 1957, the .44 Magnum lost its unique and simple name to become placed in an endless sea of numbers as the Model 29. Model 29’s were offered in both Bright Blue and nickel plating along with target hammer, target trigger, target stocks, red ramp front sight and white outline rear sight. They were chambered in the most powerful cartridge which can be used in a sixgun of this size with a six-shot cylinder. Although high on the list of Perfect Packin’ Pistols, the Model 29 was removed from production in 1999.
The same basic sixgun in .41 Magnum was offered as the Model 57 beginning in 1964. It’s also gone from the Smith &Wesson catalog. For the 50th Anniversary of the .44 Magnum S&W brought back the Model 29 and it’s currently offered in both blue and nickel with a 6-1/2″ barrels, but at least as of this writing no 4″ versions.
In 1981, the first 4″ Model 629, the stainless-steel equivalent of the Model 29 arrived. Whether most shooters prefer stainless-steel over bright blue is arguable, however one cannot argue the fact stainless-steel revolvers are easier to produce than the high polished finish of the original Model 29’s. Shooters may have lost out aesthetically, however they gained a revolver much more suited for heavy-duty use in all types of weather.
In 1989, the Model 629 took a forward step backwards by being offered as the Mountain Revolver with the slim, tapered .44 Special style barrel and a round-butted grip frame. It was brought back in 1993 as the Mountain Gun. In either persuasion, it very early became a favorite Packin Pistol of many sixgunners.
In 2003, Smith & Wesson introduced two new .44 Magnum Packin’ Pistols. One is the blued Model 29 version of the 4″ Mountain Gun. It also has the slim barrel and round-butted grip frame of the 629 version. Then Smith & Wesson went really radical and introduced a 329PD, a 4″ .44 Magnum with a scandium frame, titanium cylinder, matte black finish, Hi-Viz front sight and a total weight of 26 ounces. That is just about one pound less than the original 4″ .44 Magnum. Recoil? With .44 Specials and 180 gr. .44 Magnums not bad at all. Try it with full house 240-250 gr. loads and things change dramatically. It kicks, and kicks hard.
Having always felt the 4″ Model 29 with full house loads was one of the worst kicking sixguns extant, I admit the 329 is all that much worse. However no one needs to complain about the recoil. This sixgun was built with the emphasis on portability. It can be carried in as close to total comfort as we’re going to get with a 4″ .44 Magnum sixgun. If I ever need it in a tight spot I doubt very much I will even notice the recoil. Actually Buffalo Bore’s 255 Keith .44 Special load at 965 fps does me just fine. If I feel the need for a little more I go with the Black Hills 240 XTP .44 Magnum load for 1,200 fps .
The Perfect Packin’ Pistol will hopefully never be found. If it was, the quest would end, and after all it’s the quest that’s all-important.
By John Taffin
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