Printer Friendly

San Juan Hill 1898: in a manner of speaking, the most famous battle of the Spanish-American War pitted colt against Smith & Wesson.

The Spanish-American War gave the United States its first overseas possessions and provided an avenue to the presidency for an ex-assemblyman, cowboy, police commissioner, governor and assistant secretary of the navy. It also began a conflict in the Philippines that would far outlast the actual war itself, and would ultimately be the burial ground of two of Uncle Sam's less-successful firearms.

The U.S. could have been a little more prepared for the war, but thankfully the Spanish were in even worse shape though they did field a rifle, the Model 1893 Mauser, that was considerably superior to the Yankee Krag-Jorgensen. Handguns were another matter. In 1889 America's military adopted its first double-action revolver with a swing-out ? cylinder, the Colt New Model Army and Navy. Many Colt Single Action Army revolvers were also seen in the American ranks. The Spanish, on the other hand, were fielding a conglomeration of different arms, including the Smith & Wesson No. 3 Russian.

The Colt had the advantage of novelty of design, while the No. 3 had the edge of being a well-tested, rugged and reliable arm that had found favor with nations around the globe.

Few battles are won by handguns, and San Juan Hill was no exception. The capture of a Spanish-held blockhouse was achieved by rifles, machine guns, balloons and artillery. Still, American officers and troopers were armed with handguns, as were Spanish officers and noncoms, so there is no question they saw some use in the struggle. And, as we will see, Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt was more than elated with the performance of his Colt.


Colt had been working on double actions for some time with varying success. While the company's Model 1877 "Lightning" and Model 1879 "Frontier" revolvers were extremely popular with the public, their actions, when compared to some of the British and European designs, were somewhat lacking. Both guns had solid frames and loaded and ejected in the manner of the Single Action Army.

After some experimentation, Colt came out with a gun that would ultimately satisfy military requirements. Featuring a double-action and swing-out cylinder, this sleek new revolver was chambered in an equally updated round, the.38 Colt--though it was also available in the older.41 Colt that was offered in the Model 1877.

The new.38 "Long" Colt cartridge fired a 150-grain lead bullet--backed by 3 1/2 grains of smokeless powder--at some 770 fps for a muzzle energy of 195 ft-lbs. Compared to the.45 Colt's 400-plus ft.-lbs, the.38's performance was really somewhat embarrassing. But officials figured it was up to the job and, in 1889, the revolver and cartridge were accepted for use by the U.S. Navy. Civilian versions were also sold by Colt; a practice that would continue throughout the model's production life.

The revolver featured a counterclockwise rotating cylinder, which could be opened for loading and ejection by simply pulling back on a catch mounted on the left side of the frame behind the recoil shield. It was easily manipulated by the thumb of the right hand and upon release the cylinder could be poked out sideways with the shooter's forefinger. Empty cases were removed by simply pushing back on an ejector rod to activate a star extractor. The six-shooter could then be quickly reloaded and the cylinder clicked back into place.

Sights were the basic rounded front blade and topstrap notch. The finish on all military revolvers was blue, though civilian guns could be had nickeled or with other special finishes and embel-lishments.

In 1892 the revolver was adopted by the Army and given the appellation "New Army and Navy." Initial experience with the gun caused officials to request some improvements. This would be an ongoing condition, resulting in Models 1892, 1894,1895,1896, 1901 and 1903--not to mention a Model 1905 Marine Corps variant.

Modifications consisted of such things as cylinder redesign, the addition (in 1894) of trigger and hammer locks, different barrel markings, the addition of a lanyard ring and the reduction of bore diameter.


Grips, depending upon model, were either hard rubber or walnut. Military revolvers will be found with inspectors' stampings at various locations. Civilian guns, obviously, do not have these.

While the A&N was reasonably well received by the troops, it really would not get a true baptism of fire until the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the later Philippine Insurrection. At this time Single Action Colts with 5 1/2-inch (and some 7 1/2-inch) barrels were also issued to selected troops.

In his "crowded hour" during the Rough Riders' charge up Kettle Hill toward the blockhouse on San Juan Hill, Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt, wielding a Model 1892 A&N recovered from the sunken Maine and given to him by his brother-in-law, Navy Capt. W.S. Cowles, fired at two Spaniards at a range of about 10 yards, missing one and killing the other. But despite Roosevelt's success with his Colt, some soldiers were having reservations about its lack of power.

Later, the problem came to a head during fighting in the Philippines. A typical instance occurred in 1905 and was later recounted by Col. Louis A. LaGarde.

"Antonio Caspi a prisoner on the island of Samar, P.I. attempted escape on Oct. 26, 1905. He was shot four times at close range in a hand-to-hand encounter by a .38 Colt's revolver loaded with U.S. Army regulation ammunition. He was finally stunned by a blow on the forehead from the butt end of a Springfield carbine"

Lest one think the bullets might have been badly placed, LaGarde goes on to note that three bullets entered the chest perforating the lungs. One passed through the body, one lodged near the back and the other lodged in subcutaneous tissue. The fourth round went through the right hand and exited through the forearm.

While many tried to blame the problem on the "fanatical nature" of the Moro tribesmen the Americans were encountering, it was difficult to escape the fact that the.38 just didn't have what it takes. As a result,.45 Single Actions were carried by many men, and M-1902 versions of the 1878 Colt DA with larger triggerguards and longer triggers (said by some to allow the smaller Filipinos to use two fingers to fire the gun) were issued to the Philippine Constabulary.

Much has been made of the Colt Army and Navy's double-action deficiencies, but I must admit over the years I've seen scores of these guns, both military and civilian, and unlike many Lightnings I've encountered, their mechanisms generally seemed to be in good order.

While not as serviceable as later Colts and S&Ws, the Army and Navy was an important weapon if for no other reasons, 1 believe, that it legitimized the use of the swing-out cylinder and, rather backhandedly, caused the U.S. Military to go back to.45 caliber, which ultimately resulted in the adoption of the 1911.


Following in the footsteps of the lighter caliber Models 1 and 2 revolvers, First Model No. 3 was unlike anything Smith & Wesson had produced earlier. The top hinge on the No. 1, No. 2 and later No. 1 1/2 had been found to be a tad on the weak side and certainly unsuited to a larger.44-or.45-caliber cartridge. The No. 3 featured a top-break setup with the hinge at the bottom of the frame. Also, the gun was fitted with a simultaneous extraction system that involved a star extractor, which sat flush with the face of the cylinder. When the rounds were expended and the gun broken open, the extractor was forced out, pulling the cases free from the chambers by their rims.

Once it reached its extreme of travel, the extractor snapped back into place by means of a return spring. Never before had it been possible to load, fire and clear a revolver with such rapidity.

The No. 3, chambered for a.44 cen-terfire cartridge, was submitted to U.S. government trials, and a number were given to cavalrymen in the field with generally favorable results. From their responses, the troopers apparently liked them, though some officers were inclined to be a bit more critical. But when Colt submitted the SAA, it sounded the death knell for the No. 3 as it was then designed. The Smith system was felt to be more delicate and prone to clogging.


Smith & Wesson was not beaten, though, and in response served up an improved No. 3 featuring a latching system devised by Col. George W. Schofield. Unlike earlier No. 3s, the Schofield's latch was mounted on the frame rather than the topstrap. This sturdy arrangement allowed the mounted soldier to more easily pull the latch back with his thumb and then push the barrel against his leg to open the pistol for extraction or loading.

The gun piqued the Army's interest, and a contract was signed with Smith & Wesson to provide 3,000 of their new revolvers for trial, and was adopted on a limited basis, some 8,969 guns being produced, of which only 649 were sold commercially. From 1880 Schofields were taken out of regular service and issued to National Guard units.

Despite the Schofield's failure, the standard No. 3 "American" continued to be manufactured for civilian sales, and though we get a bit ahead of ourselves, in 1878 a New Model No. 3 was introduced that would be manufactured in several calibers until 1912.

Despite the U.S. Military's lukewarm reception of the No. 3, other countries were not quite so reluctant to take advantage of the gun's obvious merits. The most important contract was one that was signed by the Russians.

Initially contacted by Gen. Alexander Gorloff, Smith & Wesson began work on a sixgun for the czar's forces. While the No. 3 was deemed an adequate platform, the Russians were less than thrilled with the externally lubricated.44 American round, which they felt would collect dirt and thus hinder performance. Accordingly, S&W reduced the diameter of the bullet and incorporated internal lubrication grooves in the base. The case itself was slightly longer than that of the American so the higher powered load could not be chambered in the older revolvers. The cylinder on the Russian was also stepped down to handle the smaller.429 bullet, as the case's neck diameter was.456 and the base.457.

There were three distinct versions of the Russian, varying in such things as grip and frame shape. The first delivery of 20,000 Russians reached the motherland from Smith & Wesson in late 1873, and a second 20,000 arrived in 1874. The Third Model Russian was the most widely produced by far. Its most noticeable differences from the Second Model being a 6 1/2-inch barrel as opposed to a 7-inch tube, a shorter extractor housing and integral (rather than pinned) front sight. Though Smith & Wesson supplied many thousands of Third Models to the czar's forces, a large number were also manufactured under contract by Ludwig Loewe & Co. in Berlin and at Tula Arsenal in Russia.

The Russian Models proved to be so popular that in 1874 the Turks purchased some 1,000 in.44 Henry Rimfire, as many of their troops had already been issued with Winchester Model 1866 carbines in that caliber. Later, as the Russo-Turkish War heated up, the Turks ordered 7,000 more revolvers, but as S&W could not produce newly made Third Models in that quantity in such a short time frame, the Turks accepted 2,000 Second Models that had been converted from centerfire and 5,000 Third Models.


The Japanese also expressed interest in the Russian and purchased 5,000 Second Models and 1,000 Third Models. The caliber was .44 Russian. Most of these guns went to the Japanese Navy and were marked on their butts with anchors.

The .44 Russian cartridge itself was something of an everyman round. While not as powerful as the.45 Colt, it was more than a match for the 11mm French or.450 Adams and.455 Webley. Initial black powder military loadings pushed out a 246-grain lead bullet at 770 fps and an ME of 324 ft-lbs. The.44 Russian proved to be a particularly accurate round and was a popular target load, chambered in a number of different types and makes of U.S. and foreign revolvers--even the Colt SAA.

As mentioned earlier, from the last quarter or so of the 19th century, the Spanish fielded a number of different revolvers--most of them copies of the originals turned out by the prolific Eibar gunmakers. These included the French Lefaucheux pinfire, British Adams and Kerr and Smith & Wessons, to include the No. 3 Russian and New Model.


I've had a Spanish-style Third Model No. 3 Russian, manufactured by Ludwig Loewe for civilian market, as well as a good-condition Model 1894 for some time. Now was the time to see just how well they stacked up against one another.

I used two of Black Hills' excellent Cowboy Action offerings. The company's.38 Colt load features a 158-grain, round-nosed lead bullet at 650 fps. Its.44 Russian ammo features a 210-grain flat-nosed lead bullet, also at 650 fps.


Both guns were fired from a rest at 25 yards and offhand at seven yards.

The Colt, with its swing-out cylinder, was easy to load, but then again, so was the top-break S&W. I'd say we have a wash here. The S&W had a crisp 4 1/2-pound trigger pull, while the Colt's SA pull came in at seven pounds--hefty but not unmanageable. A slight edge to the No. 3 here. Sights on both guns involved narrow blade fronts and tiny V-notch rears.

Accuracy wise, the S&W managed average 2 3/4-inch groups at 25 yards, with the best coming in at just two inches. The Colt did not fare as well, with spreads averaging about an inch larger.

At seven yards, offhand, groups were about the same. We also tried the Colt DA, and I was able to manage to fire all six-shots in about half the time of the SA-only S&W. Ejection of spent rounds was very positive with both revolvers--the Smith being a little faster and requiring less manipulation than the Colt.

I must admit the Colt had a more modern feel than the Russian and was much easier to thumbcock--though I would definitely opt for the.44 Russian load over the.38 Colt. Then again, for combat use, the more modern Colt DA would have a definite edge.

Which gun is best? A tough call. Given the S&W was simpler and, based on period testimony, more reliable than the Colt, I'd give it the edge--but not by much.

As handguns had little to do with either winning or losing the war--Roosevelt noted that only one other officer at San Juan Hill had killed a Spaniard with his handgun--perhaps this evaluation is more philosophical than anything else. But it was an interesting comparison of old vs. new--and a heck of a lot of fun.


The Battle of San Juan Hill not only was one of the most important battles of the Spanish-American War, but also was one of the most famous in U.S. history because of the publicity it received at the time in jingoistic American newspapers and subsequent memoirs of many of those who participated in it, notably Theodore Roosevelt. Still, it was a hard-fought battle with American's sustaining casualities five times greater than their opponents.

On July 1,1898, some 15,000 American troops, comprising regular and volunteer cavalry and infantry supported by Galling guns and artillery, attacked entrenchments at a fortified blockhouse defended by 800 Spanish infantry and five field guns on the top of San Juan Heights

Charging San Juan and Kettle Hills;(names coined by the Americans), after repeated attacks and counterattacks, U.S. forces finally secured the objective.

American casualties at San Juan Hill were 205 dead and 1,180 wounded. The Spanish losses were 58 dead and 170 wounded.


During the Spanish American War, John J. Pershing, then a brevet major, was with the 10th Cavalry during their assault on San Juan Hill, where, constantly exposed to enemy fire, he was described by a comrade as being, "cool as a bowl of cracked ice." Nicknamed "Black Jack" because he had commanded black troops of the 10th Cavalry, Pershing eventually commanded the American Expeditionary Force in World War I and rose to the rank of General of the Army.

After graduating from West Point with honors, Pershing served with the 6th Cavalry at various locations and was then assigned to the 10th in 1892. Following that assignment he want back to West Point as an instructor and then to Cuba again for service with his old regiment.

Contracting malaria in 1899, he was given an office job overseeing occupation forces in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. Prior to the U.S. entering World War I, Pershing led the Punitive Expedition into Mexico to apprehend Francisco "Poncho" Villa. One of his aides was then-Lt. George S. Patton.

Pershing remains one of America's most esteemed military heroes.


By Garry James Photos by Lynne McCready
COPYRIGHT 2012 InterMedia Outdoors, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:James, Garry
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Feb 1, 2012
Previous Article:Critical duty: barrier busters: Hornady's new handgun ammo exceeds the infamously exacting FBI test protocols.
Next Article:Shotgun safari: a brace of new Franchi shotguns- an elegant over/under and an inertia-driven autoloader- proves itself in Kenya.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters