Late February at A Tale of Two Thirties

DSCF2011The ice is getting rotten at this site near ATOTT Headquarters. Some of it has disappeared already and the rest of it won’t last more than a day or two.  A bit early, perhaps, but this bald eagle doesn’t mind at all.  He will have better fishing.  As a sporting month, February doesn’t amount to much, but when it gives me a sunny day with a view like this I have to be in a good mood.  I see more than ice going out.  I see myself soon going back to the range.  I see myself shooting some groups with the revolver shown below.

Smith & Wesson Model 1905, 4th Change

Smith & Wesson Model 1905, 4th Change

A Smith & Wesson Model 1905

This revolver descended from the model of 1899, the first medium-frame (K-frame) hand ejector model in the S & W line. The hand ejectors introduced the side swing method of opening the cylinder for loading and ejecting empties, a design that persists in revolvers right up to the present day.  The Model 1899 introduced the .38 S & W Special, which became the most common and useful chambering of the K-frame revolvers.  Indeed, the K-frame .38 specials are probably the most important revolvers ever made by Smith & Wesson.

The Hand Ejector Open

The Hand Ejector Open

This Model 1905, however, is chambered for the .32 WCF, which we also know by the name .32-20 Winchester. Improved models of the 1905 were known as the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th change.  This one is a 4th change, made from 1915 to 1940.  My serial number of 73XXX would place shipment at about 1916.  A total of over 144,000 were made in .32 WCF, many fewer than were made in .38 Special.  It has a 6” barrel.  It still carries most of its blue finish and the case hardening on the trigger and hammer is very good.  It is fitted with square, wooden grips, checkered and with the button S&W logo.  There is no S&W logo on either side of the frame.  The left side of the barrel is marked “Smith & Wesson.”  The right side of the barrel is marked “.32 W.C.F. Ctg.”  The top of the barrel carries “Smith & Wesson Springfield Mass. USA” and the patent dates. The bore is very good and the action is smooth and tight.  The single action pull is crisp and the double action pull is exceptional.  I would rate the workmanship and function of the revolver to be as good as that of any S&W produced in any age.

The .32 WCF is a real grandpa of a cartridge. It appeared in 1882 as a cartridge for the famous Winchester lever action of 1873, giving hunters a light-caliber option for that arm that had been offered in .38-40 (.38 WCF) and .44-40 (.44 WCF).  Even though a bit light for anything but predators and small game, the 32 proved popular, so Colt also chambered their Single Action Army revolver for the round.  The rifle and revolver made a nice combo.  The cartridge began its life with black powder (20 grains, as indicated in the name) but smokeless powder was used when it became available.  Velocities with cast bullets were in the 800-900 fps range from handguns, with another 100-200 fps added for rifles.  High-speed rifle loads, for guns as strong as the Model 1892 Winchester, were available years ago.  One of these loads put an 80-gr bullet out over 2000 fps, but it disappeared from the market years ago.  There is too much pressure in this load for older rifles or for any handgun of 1920s vintage.

Factory loads are not numerous. Remington and Winchester offer loads with 100-grain bullets.  There are a couple of brands made for Cowboy Action Shooting, where the .32-20 is popular because of its light recoil.  All of these are pricey and would lead you to handloading if you are set up for it.  Dies are available from several companies and Starline makes new brass.

Handloads can use cast bullets in the range 90 – 115 grains and will comfortably produce velocities of 700-900 fps in a handgun and around 1200 fps in a rifle.  Standard 32-20 loads should be held to 16,000 psi, according to SAAMI.  Good load data for the 32-20 appears in several of the popular manuals.  With the S&W 1905, its fairly large frame and its 6-in barrel, 90 to 115-gr cast bullets can be driven safely to a bit over 1000 fps.  (Of course, the revolver must be in very good condition)  Note that the 32-20 chambering will have thicker cylinder walls than the more popular 38 Special in this revolver.  My piece was made before S&W began to heat treat the cylinders of the model.  Presumably that made them stronger, but how much stronger?  I do not know, but I do not worry about the safety of firing my 32 WCF with ammo at the levels described above.

Case capacity for the 32-20 is large for a 32 handgun round, as you can see by comparing it with other 32s,  the 32 S&W Long and the 32 H&R Magnum in the picture. All of the performance you want or need can be supplied by medium rate pistol powders such as Alliant Unique,

Left to Right: .32 S&W Long, .32 H&R Magnum, .32 WCF. The WCF cannot be fired in revolvers made for the other two.

Left to Right: .32 S&W Long, .32 H&R Magnum, .32 WCF. The WCF cannot be fired in revolvers made for the other two.

Hodgdon Universal Clays, and Accurate #5.  Plinking or target rounds will be served by fast burners in the Bullseye range.  I like Hodgdon TiteGroup for its ease of ignition and its insensitivity to the position of the powder in the case.  With small charges, the 32-20 is subject to pressure variation due to powder position.  With Universal and Accurate #5 I needed to handle the pistol so as to set the powder near the primer with each shot in order to get consistent velocities.

A Little Handloading

Using a 115-grain cast bullet (.313”) from Hunter’s Supply I found that 3.2 grains of Universal pushed the flat-nose out at 710 fps.  A little slow.  Upping the charge to 3.7 grains of Universal gave 857 fps.  This should make for a good load.

The same bullet was boosted by 4.5 grains of Accurate #5 to 800 fps.

A 95-grain cast semiwadcutter (.313”) from Cast Performance bullets with 2.9 grains of Hodgdon Titegroup left the barrel at 753 fps.  This would be OK as a plinking load, but I think the charge could be increased a bit.

The uniformity of these loads was OK, not especially bad and not especially good. In further work attention needs to be given to case length and amount of crimp.  The three powders used would take care of all needs for ammo for small game and pests, plinking cans and other unfortunate containers, targets, and overripe mushmelons.  With the two slower powders one could easily and safely get over 900 fps. with either bullet.

I have not fired the 1905 enough for a reliable accuracy evaluation but it looks like it has good potential. Generally, the 32-20 has a reputation for good accuracy in both rifle and revolver.  I hope to write more about handloads and accuracy performance at a later date.

Would You Want A Smith & Wesson 32-20????

Well, first of all, you must be interested in revolvers. Then, you must like the products of Smith & Wesson and think that you would enjoy having a vintage example.  That said, we can point out that you could find a 1905 .32-20 for quite a bit less outlay of pelf than many other 100-year-old Smith models, especially .44 caliber arms.  If in good condition, the 1905 will give you the fabled S&W quality and some opportunity to shoot the piece with moderate loads.  And, it will only increase in value.

A broad collection of historically important S&W revolvers would require a serious financial commitment. However, limiting your interest to a narrower range of models would not diminish your standing as a serious collector.  Note that the Model of 1905 was also made for the .38 Special.  Now you have two guns.  Then, consider that each caliber was made with 4”, 5”, 6”, and 6-1/2” barrels.  See how it grows.  It is up to you to draw the line, but I can say that just one is plenty of fun.




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