This post discusses the first Smith & Wesson revolver to use the side-swing design for opening the cylinder. The .32 S&W Long cartridge was introduced by this revolver.
When you want to do a serious shooting project, you need to get your ducks (and geese) lined up. These seven goslings are really focused on what is ahead of them as the family takes a swim on a blustery day last spring, just off the bank at ATOTT headquarters.
I definitely have a soft spot for .32 caliber revolvers, and there is one such that does not get the attention it deserves. That is the S&W First Model Hand Ejector that appeared in 1896. First Model means just that; it was the first S&W that opened by swinging the cylinder out to the side of its solid frame. Being the first of a very important family usually guarantees lasting attention. Not in this case.
Smith & Wesson introduced a larger-frame model for its new .38 S&W Special cartridge just three short years later, in 1899. Then, even larger frame models firing the new .44 S&W Special appeared shortly after the turn of the century. From that time on, these biggies and their even more powerful and improved descendants have garnered most of the glory.
But, the hand ejector design is still used for S&W revolvers in 2016, and the Model of 1896 is still the first of this long line. I am going to give it some attention here in the year of its 120th birthday.
The generations of Smith and Wesson revolvers are well-defined. The first generation models appeared circa 1858 and are known as “Tip-ups” because the barrel assembly tipped up to allow removal of the cylinder for loading and emptying. This occurred by means of a latch on the lower front of the frame and a hinge on the upper front (see the pic). There was no axis rod extending through the cylinder. There were three sizes of these Civil War vintage revolvers (Model 1, Model 1-1/2, and Model 2) with different models firing the .22 short, a .32 short and a .32 long, all rimfire rounds.
The second generation models are known as “Top breaks.” They began to take over in the early 1870s. A latch at the top rear of the frame allowed the cylinder and barrel to be tilted down around a hinge at the lower front (see the next pic). The cylinder was supported full length in alignment with the barrel and an extractor rod through the center automatically ejected fired cases when the action was opened. Both the hinge and the latch were much stronger than those of the first generation revolvers. This allowed larger frames and more powerful rounds of the centerfire type. Single action models came first, then double action revolvers. Smith and Wesson introduced the .32 S&W, .38 S&W, and several .44 caliber cartridges for this generation, the most famous of these being the .44 S&W Russian. Regardless of advances in design, black powder was still the propellant used for these cartridges when they were introduced, but the design was strong enough to hold moderate smokeless loads when the new powder became available.
The third generation of Smith and Wesson revolvers was initiated by the First Model Hand Ejector of 1896. The new design was accompanied by a new cartridge, the .32 S&W Long, which was simply a lengthened version of the .32 S&W used by the top break guns. Hence, the Hand Ejector could also fire the earlier .32 S&W. The term “hand ejector” came to denote all revolvers in which the action opened by swinging to the left side of the frame. Empties were ejected by pushing
back the cylinder/extractor rod, hence the common name for this design. The frame of the hand ejector was stronger than previous designs because the frame was solid, that is, not weakened by the presence of a latch and a hinge. This was needed in order to safely fire the more powerful cartridges made possible by smokeless powder around the turn of the
century. The yoke that carried the 6-shot cylinder fit in the front of the frame and a pin at the rear center of the cylinder locked it into the recoil shield. Thus, the cylinder was supported at both ends, but there was no latch under the barrel for the end of the cylinder rod. An odd feature of the First Model is that S&W chose to use a cylinder stop located in the top of the frame. Odd because this stop design, entirely actuated by the hammer, was used in the first-generation, tip up models of S&W revolvers introduced almost forty years previously. The stop was relocated to the bottom of the frame in all subsequent models of hand ejectors and remained there throughout the twentieth century and into the present day.
A competitor for the HE was offered by Colt in various pocket models. Colt called their 32 cartridge the .32 Colt New Police, which was identical to the .32 S&W Long but allowed Colt to avoid using the name of its competitor in describing their product. I must qualify that by saying that cartridges sold as “.32 Colt New Police” were different in that they had a flat nose as opposed to the round nose of the .32 S&W Long.
Neither the Colt nor the S&W version of the 32 Long had much success as a police revolver. Thirty-twos were adopted by a few police departments in the eastern U.S., and it is interesting that the New York P. D. adopted the .32 Colt New Police at the direction of Theodore Roosevelt. Police use was short-lived, and when the more powerful .38 S&W Special appeared the .32 quickly disappeared from law enforcement circles.
The historical significance of the First Model Hand Ejector revolver has always attracted me but I never had one until recently. They are scarce on the market because only 19,712 copies were made before an improved model was introduced in 1903. Mine came to me with a six-inch barrel in good condition but it is not of collector grade. You can see in the first pic above that it has been refinished over some shallow pitting. It appears the rust was well-removed in advance of the refinishing. The S&W logo on the right side plate is strong. Unlike other S & W products, the First Model HE had no marking on the barrel sides or top. The S & W name, address, and patent dates are on the cylinder and are strong and crisp. Removing the grips revealed a number that did not match the serial number of the frame. Being the first example of what was to become known as the “I” frame, the gun is light and very slim, almost dainty.
The best thing is, I wanted to do some shooting with it and it looked to be up to that. The bore of the 6-in. barrel was good and the action was smooth, with good timing and a tight lockup. The cylinder is opened to the left by pulling forward on the extractor rod. The chamber mouths measured 0.314” and the bore, 0.311”. The half-moon front sight is pinned at the end of the ribbed barrel. The rear sight is a notch located on the bolt stop lever near the front of the cylinder. The trigger break is fairly light with just a bit of creep.
Now you will get something that you can’t find in the excellent historical reference works on Smith and Wesson revolvers, namely, some info on shooting performance and what it is like to fire the piece under discussion.
Winter weather dictated firing the First Model on a 7-yard range indoors. I fired several brands of factory ammo, including some with round nosed bullets and some with wadcutters, and a couple of handloads. Function was very good. The action was quite smooth and positive. The throwback cylinder stop in the top strap worked very well. Though inferior to later designs, the top stop is actually a very clever way to do the needed job. If you run into a gun that uses it, take a good look at how it works. The long, straight grip filled my hand well and was comfortable. Recoil and report were light but enough to let you know you were firing a revolver. You could shoot it all day and, even though this was the first of the hand ejectors, I think you would not mistake it for anything but a Smith and Wesson revolver.
Chronograph Results .32 S&W Long Factory Loads :
Winchester 98 gr. RN, 692 fps
Remington Target 98 gr. RN, 679 fps
Magtech 98 gr. RN, 660 fps
Fiocchi 98 gr. Wadcutter, 598 fps
LaPua 98 gr. Wadcutter, 705 fps
Federal 98 gr. Wadcutter, 706 fps.
Remington Target .32 S&W (short) 88 gr., 660 fps
Magtech .32 S&W (short) 85 gr., 699 fps
Bullseye 2.0 gr and MagTech 98-gr WC, 706 fps (SD 11 fps)
Bullseye 2.0 gr and Berry’s 83-gr plated WC, 781 fps (SD 23 fps).
These velocities seem a tad slow for a 6-in. barrel and that may be due to a large cylinder gap. The cylinder has very little end play, but the gap is wide. This caused no problem as long as all body parts were behind the cylinder upon ignition. That is safe practice and should be observed when firing any revolver. In general, factory round-nosed ammo is mediocre stuff, loaded very light, as everyone knows, so pressures are erratic with large spreads and standard deviations. The wadcutter loads give the most uniform performance. The Smith & Wesson First Model is strong enough to safely fire ammo with a bit higher pressure, but there were many low-priced brands, inferior revolvers, even some top breaks, chambered for the Long. That is why the SAAMI specs for pressure and velocity are kept quite low for the cartridge.
Accuracy was good. I fired over a sand bag and used a Merit optical disc on my glasses. The round nose loads gave five-shot groups of 0.6 – 1.0” at 7 yards. For the factory wadcutters, the best 4 in each of 6 five-shot groups average 0.64.” (See the first pic below) That figure extrapolates to 2.3” at 25 yards. The weighting factor is applied because I can be counted on to heel or jerk at least one flier in a five shot group. I hope you will let me get by with that. Hey! Four of the Fiocchis in a one-quarter-inch clover leaf? How nice is that?
A surprise was how well the gun fired standard, short .32 S&W rounds. Note that the point of impact is not very different from that of the long loads. The best 4 of 5 in these five-shot groups averaged 0.73.” (See second pic). This value extrapolates to about 2.6” at 25 yards and it makes me want to investigate how well my other 32s shoot the short round.
Testing this revolver was just plain fun and the accuracy results were very encouraging. It should be capable of some precision shooting at 15 – 25 yards so I would like to do more shooting with it but not sure how much in view of the nearly 120-year age. Still, it seems to be very solid and should be able to withstand quite a bit of work with light to moderate (for .32 Long) handloads. That would be about 650-700 fps with 90-100-grain cast bullets. Offhand plinking and target work are about the best activities for .32 revolvers, and knowing that you are popping the coffee can with the very first S&W Hand Ejector is a great feeling.