Old stuff is still good stuff: you gotta respect the classics!
It takes hands, very good hands to create positive changes, and we have added some very good hands. One of those hands is Payton Miller. If you've been around gun magazines for a while you should recognize this name. I'd like to say I've been reading his stuff since I was a kid, however, that won't fly as I am much older than he is (it just seems like it's been a very long time).
In the March '14 issue Payton was introduced as our new executive editor. I think that just means he does everything else no one else does. I know Payton not only from reading his stuff for a long time as well as seeing him on TV gun shows, he is also the editor of my two latest, and probably last books, Book of The .45 and Double Action Sixguns. So we have talked on the phone as well as exchanged emails and one major thing 1 found out about him is the fact he really knows stuff, including old stuff. He brought this out with his very first "GUNS Insider" column with "Old Stuff Is Good Stuff." I certainly could not have said it better myself. And as I turned the pages of the issue and stumbled on his first column what should I see smack dab in the center of the page but a picture of a Smith & Wesson 1950 Military .44 Special. With his very first printed effort for us it went right to my sixgunnin' heart, soul and spirit.
He then went on to relate this particular Smith .44 belongs to editor Jeff who also subscribes to old stuff being good stuff. In fact if you check out both GUNS and American Handgunner you will find we are among very few publications which actually pay any attention to anything which is not black and polymer (yes, I believe black and polymer is good, however it is definitely not the do-all and end-all). So I not only thank Payton and Jeff but also Roy Huntington at AH. Some would call us dinosaurs. I think open-minded is more appropriate.
We do have to work on Payton a little as he confessed when Jeff "... was unleashing an S&W 4th Model Hand Ejector 5-inch in .44 Special that literally defined the term 'patina,' which to my way of thinking at the time was a desperate cry for a full-on rebluing job ... I quickly learned rebluing was a dirty word as far as Jeff was concerned." Hallelujah!
I have very deep-rooted feelings for the .44 Special 4th Model. It brings up thoughts of Elmer Keith, Skeeter Skelton, and unfortunately some missteps both on my part and others. Let's take a look at a brief history of the S&W .44 Special. Smith & Wesson has come up with many firsts over the more than 160 years of producing quality firearms. In 1857 they were the first company to produce a workable cartridge firing revolver, namely the Model No. 1 a Tip-Up, 7-shooter chambered in the greatest cartridge ever, the .22 Rimfire. Other models came, the Model No. 1-1/2 and Model No. 2, and then three years before the 1873 Colt Single Action Army, S&W introduced the first successful big-bore cartridge-firing revolver with the top-break S&W Model No. 3 American. Mainly chambered in .44 S&W it is also found rarely in the .44 rimfire cartridge used in the 1860 Henry rifle.
The Russians liked the S&W, however they made two changes. The grip frame was changed by adding a hump at the top and a spur on the bottom of the triggerguard to help with controllability. But the most important change was the cartridge itself. The .44 American cartridge used a 2-diameter bullet with the base being slightly smaller and fitted inside the case. The Russians wanted a bullet of uniform diameter with grease grooves inside the case and the result was the magnificent .44 Russian cartridge. S&W would go on to chamber this cartridge in the Model No. 3 Russian and New Model No. 3 and then in the 1880's their double-action revolver which was still of top-break design.
In late 1907 S&W did almost everything right with the introduction of their first swing-out cylindered big-bore sixgun, the 1st Model Hand Ejector (also known as the "New Century" and more lovingly known by sixgunners for over a century, as the Triple-Lock.) This revolver's cylinder locked at the back, at the front of the ejector rod, and a third lock beautifully machined at the front of the cylinder in the yoke/frame area. This was also the first S&W to feature an enclosed ejector rod, and most importantly the first S&W .44 Special. To come up with the .44 Special the .44 Russian was simply slightly lengthened. Smith & Wesson proved they really didn't know what they had as the ballistics of the .44 Special were the same as the .44 Russian and the first cartridges, even though we were now in the smokeless powder age, were loaded with black powder. It would remain for experimenters after WWI to begin to unlock the true potential of the .44 Special.
In 1915 the Triple-Lock was removed from production to be replaced by the 2nd Model Hand Ejector without the third lock and without the enclosed ejector rod. It was certainly a sad day for sixgunners who began to clamor for a return to the original or at least the enclosed ejector rod. The pleas fell on deaf ears at S&W; however, in 1926 Texas distributor Wolf & Klar placed a large order for what would become the 3rd Model Hand Ejector or the Model 1926. It came to be very popular with shooters and especially law enforcement officers in the Southwest. Both the 2nd Model and 3rd Model would be produced side-by-side by S&W until the beginning of WWII. After the War the 2nd Model was gone, however production of the 1926 Model was resumed and would last until 1949. All three of these Hand Ejectors were made with both fixed sights and target sights with the latter being rare and especially rare in the 1926 Model. The 1926 Target Model, if it can be found, sells for approximately $8,000 to $10,000. I have lusted after one ever since I saw one pictured in Elmer Keith's Sixguns By Keith (1955). At today's prices I will never own one.
In 1950 S&W upgraded their .44 hand ejectors with a more modernized short action and readily available target-sighted models with highly upgraded sights. With target sights this .44 Special is known as the 4th Model Hand Ejector, or more commonly as the Model 1950 Target. Emotion says the Triple-Lock is the finest .44 Special ever made by S&W, however, reality gives the vote to the 1950 Target Model. This beautifully crafted .44 Special was offered with barrel lengths of 4 and 6-1/2 inches and rarely with a 5-inch barrel. At the same time as the Model 1950 Target, S&W also offered the version pictured by Payton in his first column, namely the .44 Hand Ejector 4th Model Military better known as the Model 1950 Military. From 1950 to 1966 more than 5,000 Target Models were produced, however the fixed sighted version, the .44 Military is much more rare with only 1,200 produced. In 1957 both of these versions lost their names to be replaced by numbers with the 1950 Target becoming the Model 24 and the Military version became the Model 21.
In the late 1960's I bought a .44 Military for $60. Then it all went downhill. I came up with a .44 Target barrel and an S&W adjustable rear sight and changed my .44 Military to a 5-inch Target Model. Although the work was performed beautifully I lost hundreds of dollars in value by doing this. Just a few years ago I found another .44 Military being offered for sale on a gun forum. The owner had asked about converting it to .45 Colt and I was all over him like (as Gunsmoke's Festus would say), "Ugly on an ape." I wound up buying that .44 Military for an extremely low price because of what another former owner had done. The butt had been crudely roundbutted with a very coarse file and the hammer had been bobbed. I was able to replace the hammer and a friend polished the roundbutt and fitted it with a pair of custom stocks. It now looks and works fine but--just as my original--hundreds upon hundreds of dollars of value have been lost.
If you should come upon one of these older Smith & Wessons, please leave it alone. Editor Jeff will tell you don't re-blue. I will tell you the same thing. If it needs internal parts to make it workable that is perfectly acceptable. Eddie Janis of Peacemaker Specialists absolutely will not refinish an old Colt Single Action, which has never been finished before. He believes in saving history. So do I. At least now. Too bad I did not wake up 40 years ago!