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S&W .44 special combat sixgun.

Around the turn of the century, you could order just about any custom features from firearms amekrs you wanted; they would bend over backward to follow your every request--at a slight increase in cost, naturally.

Today, such requests are turned over to in-house custom shops, if they have one, and usually the options offered are engraving and special finished such as nickel, silver plating, and possibly grips of exotic wood, ivory or pearl. Nice options, but not necessarily what a dedicated shooter, rather than a collector, might want. For instance, suppose you wanted a Smith & Wesson .44 Special with a 3-inch barrel and a "k" grip on an "N" frame? (For those not familiar with Smith & Wesson's nomenclature, the "N" frame guns are chambered for the heavy duty, big-bore and/or magnum calibers, while the "K" frame guns are their most popular frame size and are used for the various target models and regular-weight arms.)

I am certain that Smith & Wesson would by very polite on receiving such a request, but the economics of building a single such revolver would be staggering. In short, it would be impossible to make such a unique revolver unless the person who ordered it was as rich as Croesus.

Enter Lew Horton, of Lew Horton Distributing Company, one of the larger firearm wholesalers. Lew went to Smith & Wesson and asked if they could turn out 5,000 Combat .44 Specials, equipped with fully adjustable sights, special 3-inch barrels, smooth combat triggers, semi-target hammers, Goncolo Alves combat grips and, in addition, Lew convinced Smith & Wesson to equip this unique sixgun with the first round butt ever offered on an "N" frame revolver. All in all quite a coup for both shooters and collectors.

Personally, I have always been a fan of the smaller frame size, even on a powerful revolver, as it lets you get a better grip on a handgun, regardless of its recoil. Now, while S&W might laught at you for ordering a unique pistol, 5,000 such pistols is no laughing matter and Smith & Wesson agreed to make this special run of Model 24-3 sixguns.

Not only would they make these distinctive revolvers, but they would be priced right along with their regular line of handguns! So, for the first time, you could eat your cake and still have it. For $397.50 retail you could own a gun that just has to become a collector's item, but you could also buy it at a price that makes it eminently shootable.

With this in mind the handsome new S&W Combat .44 Special was not treated with kid gloves, it was given a normal full shooting test. Other Lew Horton limited editions might well be handled differently. For example, there is a 7-1/2-inch barreled, blued Colt Single Action Army cased and ivory gripped which has the Colt logo tastefully inlaid in gold on the backstrap. Furthermore this small run is limited to just 250 revolvers with 70 having fluted cylinders while the remaining 180 arms will have non-fluted cylinders. I rather doubt if buyers of this handsome sixgun will rush to the range to try it out.

The .44 S&W is another story. For one thing the 5,000 unit run puts it in the realm of "shooting without desecrating" as there will be enough guns in the hands of shooters whose fingers will itch to pull the triger on this unique little snubby that no power on earth will hold them back from wringing them out as duty guns.

No doubt there will be some misers hoarding these, guns, unfired, carefully greased and safe from the light of day in some bank vault, but there will be a lot of others, like myself, who will be having the time of our lives shooting this eminently shootable "collectible."

While the S&W Model 24-3 .44 Special Combat revolver is the pistol we are writing about in depth, it merely serves to introduce this new run of factory arms that harken back to the 19th century heyday when guns were customized at the factory on a relatively routine basis, but always in small numbers. Today the factory "custom" arms of that period are eagerly sought after and always command a premium amongst gun collectors. No matter how skillfully a firearm was altered after it left the factory, even by gunsmiths of the highest repute, it is the non-standard factory gun that is the prize. Perhaps today we are seeing a rebirth of that honored tradition. True you won't be able to shoot off a letter to Colt, like some of the old-time marshals did, and order yourself a one-of-a-kind sixgun with special factory barrel length and sights, but you will have the opportunity to purchase a modern day "Ned Buntline Special", even though your pistol won't be a unique product but will be numbered in hundreds or thousands. But, since this is almost the 21st century, we certainly can't judge things by horse and buggy standards.

Consequently this particular arm was handled no differently from any other practical, combat pistol. We wanted to know if, by some awful chance, these guns were going to be produced as pampered "poodles" rather than robust using guns. Our fears were not realized and the Smith came through with flying colors.

From a practical view I was also curious to find out how velocity was affected by the snubby 3-inch barrel. Two different factory loads were chronographed, Federal's 200-grain hollow points and Winchester's 200-grain Silvertips, also of hollow point persuasion, along with some reloads using 240-grain Alberts and a similarly weighted Corbin swaged bullet. The latter two loads were powered by a mild-mannered load of 6 grains of Unique.

The pair of factory loads were almost identical twins in that they, velocity-wise, averaged just 2 feet apart with the Winchester edging the Federal load by 743 fps (feet per second) to 741 fps. The Winchester loading was extremely consistent with a spread of just 10 fps and an incredibly low figure of just "4" for the standard deviation. For the non-users of chronographs it should be stated that any standard deviation figure that approaches 20 is deemed extremely good, and the lower the number, the higher the quality of the load.

The reloads, using the heavier 240-grain bullet, ambled along at 675 fps average. All these figures represent instrumental readings 6 feet from the muzzle and were not corrected to true muzzle velocity figures.

Just how does this compare with listed factory ballistics? According to Federal their 200-grain bullet leaves the muzzle of their 6-1/2-inch vented test barrel at 900 fps with Winchester claiming identical velocities from the same barrel length. Winchester also markets a 246-grain loading, similar to our test handloads, at 755 fps from the 6-1/2-inch tube.

Going back to my reloading logs I find that the Federal 200-grain load clocked an instrumental velocity of 855 fps from a Colt New Frontier with a 7-1/2-inch barrel. So, any way you look at it the 3-inch barreled gun is not going to match velocities with its longer barreled brethren. But does anybody care? This is a short range combat gun that may well be used at ranges measured in feet rather than yards.

Using Col. Jeff Cooper's figures to interpret these velocities into relative stopping power (RSP), it would seem that any of these loads fall closely enough into the power range of the time proven 45 ACP pistol to be considered a practical combat arm and load. For instance Jeff Cooper's "short form" gives our 200-grain factory .44 Special loads a relative stopping power index of 22.30 while a hard ball .45 ACP at 850 fps boasts an RSP of 31 28, with Jeff giving a figure of "20" as a passing grade for a combat arm. Using standard ballistic tables the 200-grain factory bullets at 743 fps have a muzzle energy of 245 foot pounds. Again, the factory 230-grain 45 ACP hardball load racks up 370 foot pounds of muzzle energy. These sometimes bewildering figures point up why there is so much confusion about "stopping power." Our .44 Special load has only nine relative stopping power units separating it from the .45 ACP but there are 125 foot pounds of energy spread between the two rounds. I guess the bottom line is that you still have to shoot straight because a bad shot with a big more may not be as well off as a good shot with a lesser caliber.

Another unknown was the ability of the hollow pointed .44 Special slugs to expand at the moderate velocities obtained with the bobbed-off 3-inch barrel, this too could affect awarding a "gold ring" for excellence in elusive annals of stopping power.

Firing a Winchester 200-gram Silvertip into a plastic gallon jug of water backed up by a dry telephone book proved that these bullets do indeed expand at relatively low velocities. The 430-inch aluminum jacketed hollow point Winchester bullet upset to a full .777 inches, a 55 percent, increase in diameter. That's impressive!

To further confuse things this same bullet, when fired into dry telephone books, had its expansion limited to 584 inches. This is a phenomenon we have seen time and time again. Certain types of material seem to "pack" the hollow point and disrupt normal expansion. Sand and dry paper seem to be particularly notorious for inhibiting normal expansion. Hollow point bullets fired into these materials often act like solid projectiles rather than expanding as they do in flesh. Still, the Silvertip ended up a bit larger than a Civil War Minie ball showing that it is an all-around performer.

What was also impressive was the way that this little 39-ounce (loaded weight) revolver shot and how well behaved it was. The small, round butt "K" frame really snuggles into your hand. Now I am 6 foot, 3 inches tall and have mitt-sized hands that can be wrapped around some pretty hefty grips, so 11-year-old Jeff Hetzler, son of G&A Senior Editor Dave Hetzler, was elected to try out the new sixgun.

Firing full-power factory loads Jeff not only handled it with aplomb, but hit what he was shooting at! His target was an informal fun one, the Seligman Dueling Tree written up in the October G&A Proof House section. The swinging metal arms of this target rotate 180 degrees when struck, then can be blown back to their original position with another smack of a hard hitting pistol bullet. It was BANG! . . . CLANG! on a satisfyingly regular basis. Obviously this is a gun that will not intimidate the smaller framed person, man or woman, yet will deliver smashing power.

It seems that there is always both the good news as well as the bad news. So far it has been all good news. So here is the clinker; by the time you read this there is a possibility that this first group of guns may have already been sold out. With just 5,000 of these arms available they are certain to move fast.

However, there is more good news to come. This is just the first in the line of fairly priced, special issue guns that Lew Horton is bringing out, and, no doubt, he will be an inspiration to others to have major factories bring out actual, working guns for both shooters and collectors. Commemoratives are nice, but I for one want something I can use and shoot, not just hang on the wall.

We have already mentioned the Colt Single Action Army in .45 Colt, with gold inlay, fluted or non-fluted cylinders, ivory grips and a French-fitted (that is contoured to the lines of the gun rather than having a loosely fitted partition) case. This pistol is admittedly on the cusp, as far as a shooter is concerned, as only 250 pieces will be made and the price is $1,261.41 at retail. Considering what a Model "P" is going for these days, less ivory grips, gold inlay and a genuine Colt case, the price is certainly not out of line.

A second Smith & Wesson that Lew Horton is offering to the public will be a Model 686 Compact .357 Magnum. This is the first stainless steel "L" frame--which is the frame style that is intermediate between the "K" frame (regular) and "N" (large) frames--to be fitted with a round butt "K" frame grip. Like the .44 Special Model 24-3, Smith & Wesson also agreed to furnish genuine S&W holsters for these guns as there are no commercial holsters available for this unique frame variation.

In a departure from the Model 24-3 .44 the Model 686 will feature a 2-1/2-inch barrel, but other options remain the same; smooth combat trigger, semi-target hammer, red ramp front sight mated with a fully adjustable white outlined rear sight and smooth combat Goncolo Alves grip panels bearing the S&W medallion. Again, just 5,000 units will be produced and the retail price has been set at $366.

Will there be more special, limited editions from smith & Wesson? Time will tell but it looks like there is something on the horizon. When, and if, it materializes you will read about it here.

Meanwhile, back at the Colt stable, there is something for milady, a distaff side colt .380 Government Model. Just 1,000 of these special autos will be made and they will have a unique serial number range: LC001 to LC1000 with the "LC" standing for Ladies Colt. It is rare for Colt to feature a special serial number range so this should enhance their value.

In keeping with the Lady Colt theme the slide will be gold etched with a feminine pattern; a rose will be etched near the hammer and "Lady Colt" will be emblazoned on the slide as well. The grip panels will be of rosewood and the ensemble will be contained in a plush velvet handbag featuring both the "LC" and the Colt medallion. This edition lists at $546.81 retail.

It is also possible that Colt, working with Lew Horton, could also ride out of the west (from Hartford?) with other unique arms. Actually I imagine that there are a lot of you who have ideas on special, limited working firearms you would like to present to the American public; perhaps this is your time to sound off!

For further information on these firearms write: Lew Horton Distributing Co., Inc., Dept. GA, 175 Boston Road, South-borough, MA 01772.
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Title Annotation:limited edition revolver
Author:French, Howard E.
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Dec 1, 1984
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