Smith & Wesson's #3, Colt's Biggest Rival in the Old West
By: Tuolumne Lawman, SASS #6127
used by permission of the author
Part One: History
Very few people who are not students of Old west weaponry realize that Smith and Wesson's #3 .44 American Model was adopted as the US Army's first center fire issue revolver in 1870. This was three years prior to the actual adoption of the 1873 Colt as the standard US Army sidearm! Once again in 1875, the Army adopted the Smith and Wesson #3 .45 Schofield Model as a substitute standard. Both of these Smith and Wesson's had the advantage of being a break-top design, ejecting all of the empties simultaneously, and allowing the faster loading of fresh cartridges. This was much faster than the "eject `em and load `em one at a time" Colt 1873.
Before we go any farther, lets take a quick look at the origins of the venerable #3 S&W. Back before the Civil War, the partnership of Smith and Wesson was fortunate enough to hold the Rollin White Patent for the bored through cylinder. This was a necessity to produce revolvers using the newly developed self-contained metallic cartridges. After selling off the rights to the Volcanic repeating firearms to Oliver Winchester (later to evolve into the Henry Rifle), S&W developed their top hinged No.1 .22 caliber rim fire revolver. It was a fairly weak design, though, and the black powder .22 round lacked power. When the Great Conflagration broke out in 1861, the No. 1 was popular with Union Officers, even though it was a small seven shot pocket pistol. Realizing the need for a more powerful pistol, but still hampered by the weak top hinge design, S&W introduced the No. 2, or "Model 2 Army". It was a larger version of the No. 1, in a somewhat more potent .32 rim fire cartridge. The No. 2 held six shots, and was considered a "belt model" by Smith & Wesson. Throughout the Civil War, the No. 1 and No. 2 were the only metallic cartridge revolvers in use.
After the end of hostilities between North and South, the expansion westward with its own variety of hostilities prompted S&W to re-examine their pistol line. Virtually all of the revolvers in use in the west, with the exception of their own No. 1 and 2, were cap and ball designs. The 1851 and 1860 Colt, the 1858 Remington, Star, and Spiller and Burr were still more popular than the diminutive S&Ws because of their far superior stopping power over the small rim fires. After all, would you want to face a pack of howling Renegades with a .22 or .32 rim fire revolver?
S&W applied their Rollin White patent to a new "top break" design revolver. Instead of the barrel tipping up, like on the No. 1 and 2, the frame was hinged at the bottom, and the barrel tipped down. When the action was opened, the mechanism activated an ejector star in the middle of the rear face of the cylinder, simultaneously ejected all six empty cases. Six fresh rounds could then be quickly loaded. It was originally offered only in .44 Henry Rim fire, with its 210 flat point or 216 grain conical lead bullets over a charge of 26-28 grains of black powder. This new top break revolver was called their "No. 3 American Model." Released in 1870, it was submitted to the Army Ordnance Board for trials.
When the Ordnance Board suggested a center fire round to increase reliability, S&W created the .44 American round. It was essentially a center fire .44 Henry. Like the Henry, it had an outside lubed bullet (where the bullet is the same diameter as the case, with a rebated bullet base crimped in the case mouth like a modern .22 rim fire). In the military loading, its .442 diameter 225 grn. lead bullet was pushed by about 25 grns. of black powder. This round subsequently developed a well earned reputation as a fairly reliable fight stopper; superior to the .36 or .44 caliber cap and ball revolvers with their lighter, round ball bullets. When you factored in the tremendous increase in speed and ease of loading, it was impossible for the No.3 S&W not to be a success.
When it was released, many Officers and enlisted men preferred the the Smith & Wesson No. 3's to the much slower to load Colt Model of 1860 .44 cap and ball. While the US Army bought about 2,000 No.3 Americans for issue, large numbers were also privately purchased by the troops. The No. 3 S&W's were carried in many engagements against the Native Americans, long before the Colt was finally issued.
One Cavalry officer, Major George Schofield, was particularly impressed with the Smith & Wesson. He patented several modifications to the No. 3 to make it easier to reload on horse back while holding the reins. In 1875, Schofield submitted this modified No. 3 to the Ordnance Board. It was adopted as substitute standard in 1875. The "Schofield Model" was in a new .45 Smith & Wesson caliber, more powerful than the .44 American.
The .45 S&W round was shorter than the .45 Colt, and had a slightly larger rim to aid in the ejection process. It had a 230 grn. lead bullet, powered by 28-29 grns. of black powder, while the original .45 Colt round had a 250 grn lead bullet powered by 40 grns. of black powder. (As a note, the Army later down-loaded their .45 Colt rounds to 30 grns of black powder with card fillers to make them more controllable) If you have ever tried it, firing a .45 Colt SAA loaded with 40 grns of FFFG is truly an awakening!
Even after the adoption on the 1873 Colt SAA, the Schofield and the earlier .44 American were still very popular with the troops. Some people even claim that George Armstrong Custer carried a Schofield at the Little Big Horn battle, but recent archaeological finds tend to disprove that. These same digs did reveal, however, that at least three different S&W No.3 .44 American revolvers were there. It is not know which side, however, used them. Unfortunately the Army pulled the Schofield Models from service in 1887 due to supply problems with ammunition non-interchangability with the .45 Colt round. Most were sold as surplus, and a large number had their barrels cut to 5 inches. Many of these 5" revolvers were issued by Wells Fargo to their Guards and Agents, who appreciated the S&W No. 3s superior firepower.
The Top-break Smith and Wesson's were much more successful with the civilian population. The long list of notables on both side of the law that favored the Smith & Wesson is amazing. Some of the outlaws are: Frank and Jesse James, Cole and Jim Younger, Charlie Pitts, John Wesley Hardin, and Bob Ford. Some of the lawmen and scouts that favored the S&W are Texas Jack Omohundro, Pat Garret, Virgil Earp, Bill Tilghman, Marshal Dallas Stoudenmire, and the Indian fighter, Ranald MacKinzie of the 4th Cavalry. Even my paternal Grandmother's cousin, Buffalo Bill Cody, carried a pair of S&W No.3 American Models. They all liked the fast reloading firepower for which the Smith and Wesson No.3 was second to none.
Smith and Wesson's biggest supporters, however, were not who you would expect. In 1871 General Alexander Gorloff, the Russian Military Attach‚ in Washington D.C. was so impressed, that the Russian Government eventually ordered over 131,000 of S&W Model No. 3s. These "Russian Models" had some minor changes, including a change to an inside lubed cartridge. Large numbers of Smith and Wesson No. 3s were also bought by the governments of Turkey and Japan in the late 1800s.
In 1871, Grand Duke Alexis of Russia came to the U.S. to check on the pistols they had ordered. He was presented with a fancy engraved No.3 by the factory that cost over $400 to make. That was a huge sum of money in those days. Alexis also went on a buffalo hunting trip (paid for by the U.S. Government) with Buffalo Bill Cody, General Phil Sheridan, and George Armstrong Custer. While he was on this hunting trip, he was impressed with Cody's skill with his S&W No. 3's.
The .44 Russian cartridge, with its .429 caliber, 246 grain lead bullet pushed by about 24 grains of FFG, was still a reliable fight stopper. Unlike the .44 American, which was very mediocre in the accuracy department, the .44 Russian is an extremely accurate round. In fact, this .44 Russian round eventually "grew up" to be the .44 Special, and then .44 Magnum.
The final single action incarnation of the Smith and Wesson No. 3 top break was their "New Model No. 3". This was introduced in 1878. It was sleeker, a little stronger, and a little less fragile mechanically. In fact, some new model No. 3s were even made in .44 WCF!
Smith and Wesson big bore top-break revolvers were second in number produced only to the Colt; and not by as much of a margin as you might think. A total of over 250,800 No.3 S&Ws (all variations) produced by Smith and Wesson, and another half million made under license or copied in foreign countries. Their numbers even far out-stripped the total of all the other Colt competitors (such as Merlwin and Hubert, Remington, and forehand and Wadsworth) combined. Smith & Wesson catalogued the No.3 "top breaks" until 1917, a total of 48 years. In that almost fifty years they were produced, they were offered in a total of 15 calibers. These include .44 Henry, .44 American, .44 Russian, .45 S&W, 44 WCF (44-40), .32-44 and .38-44, and reportedly even .455 Webley.
Part Two: The No. 3 in Cowboy Action Shooting
In our last installment, we examined the history of the Colt Single Action Army's biggest competitor, the Smith and Wesson No.3. Now we'll look at it from our point of view, that of the Cowboy Action Shooter.
No. 3s in any variation are not as prevalent at CAS matches as they would have been in the old west. Granted, you will see a few at large matches like End of Trail. Just as original 1880s Colt Single Action Army's are seldom seen due to their collector value, and the necessity of exclusively using black powder loads; so it goes with original S&W No. 3s. Also as with original period Colts, the high price of an original S&W No.3 is a factor in their scarcity at matches.
With the exponential growth of interest in Cowboy Action Shooting and the Old West, there has been an equal growth in the prices of "Old West Shootin' Irons." An original Smith and Wesson No. 3 in its various models can run from $650 for a out of timing "beater" with a cut barrel (best for wall hanging), to five figures for a pristine and rare specimen. Generally shooters are from $1,000 to $5,000 depending on the model and condition. A good source for No. 3 S&Ws is Old Town Station Dispatch. The proprietor, Jim Supica, is probably on a par with S&W's own Roy Jinks when it comes to No.3s. Smith & Wessons. As with all other 1880's vintage guns, only black powder or substitutes (like Pyrodex) should be used in the feeding of these antiques! Metallurgy then was not what it is today.
Prior to about 1994, no one produced a replica of the S&W top break revolvers. At Val Forgett's urging, the Italian firm of Uberti was first to introduce the Schofield. They were an instant hit! I waited a full year for my .44-40, finally getting it in December of 1995. Currently the only replica Model No.3s now being produced is the1875 Schofield. These are now also produced for various importers by another Italian firm, Armi San Marco. Uberti is on the verge of releasing a New Model Russian No. 3 in .44 Russian. As far as I know, as of this writing, only a prototype has been made. When they are released, I WANT ONE!
The Uberti is slightly larger and more robust than the original, in order to handle the full size (and full power) .45 Colt and .44-40 cartridges. While a close copy of the Second Model Schofield, it differs internally from the originals. It comes in both 7 inch Military, and 5 inch Wells Fargo barrel lengths. These are imported under both the Uberti and Navy Arms brand names. Supply has caught up with demand, and they are readily available.
Armi San Marco, best known for their Hartford Model Colt clone, is the other manufacturer. These are imported and sold by EMF and Cimarron Firearms. The Armi San Marco Schofields are approximately the same size as the originals, and a little closer internally to the S&Ws. They also come with both 5 and 7 inch barrels, but are only available in .45 Colt caliber. Unlike the Uberti replicas, Armi San Marco chose to copy the First Model Schofield.
As to which is the better replica, you might as well ask which is a better automobile, a Chevy or a Ford. Some say the Ubertis have a better reputation for reliability than the Armi San Marcos. I don't know whether this is deserved or not. Both manufacturers had "bugs" to work out during early production runs. I personally prefer the slightly beefier Ubertis, and currently shoot a matched pair of .45 Cavalry models. I sold my original .44-40 Schofield (which had been highly engraved by "Texas Jack" Lehman) several years ago when economic necessity from a forced disability retirement occurred.
As for price, they both run pretty much the same, retailing from $700 to $750 each. While that is twice as much as a Vaquero or Hartford, in my book it's twice the gun! Besides, it's still cheaper than a "Real Colt. The Schofields cost more to make than the competition because the top breaks require more extensive machining. They really are engineering marvels!
When I got my .44-40 Schofield in 1995 (paired up with an Uberti 1875 Remington), it would always draw stares, ooohs, aaahs, and reverent requests to hold it at the matches. At Railroad Flat '96 I think other people held it more than me! Now, however, Schofield replicas have now become commonplace at almost all matches. In fact, I can't think of a monthly match where at least one other person didn't have a Schofield. At Adobe Walls '98 there were four of us on the same Posse that had Schofields! Two of us with a pair of the top breaks, and two Pards with one Schofield each. Granted, they are still not as common as Rugers or Hartfords, but they aren't as inexpensive, either!
The Schofield is a joy to shoot. I shoot Duelist (or "Double Duelist" Gunfighter Class when I can). Because of its "plow handle" grip shape, the Schofield lends itself very well to this one handed shooting. It seems to "hang in the hand" just a might better for me than the Colt clones. Its hefty weight seems to absorb recoil a tad better, too.
My Schofields have digested all the smokeless .45 Colt factory loads that I have fed them, though I have had to file the front sights down to get them to shoot point of aim at 15 yards. The only .45 Schofield factory load currently available is from Black Hills Ammo. It is excellent! I have used the 230 grn loading, grouping around 1"+ at 15 yards! It clocks out of the Schofields in the mid-to upper 700fps. Their brass is made by Starline. It has a slightly larger rim than .45 Colt (as the originals) to help in ejection. I used Black Hills .45 Schofield ammo exclusively at the last "High Sierra Shoot Out" annual match at Railroad Flat, CA. I never had a single misfire or malfunction, either in the Schofields, or the Marlin Cowboy I was using (which I shot clean with using the Black Hills Schofield loads).
I have two favorite handloads. For the load in Schofield cases, I use Starline brass, a 230 grain reproduction of the original Schofield bullet from AA Bullets, Winchester WLP primer, and 5.7 grains of Winchester WW231. This load will shoot sub-1 «" groups from a casual hand-held rest at 15 yards. It is a healthy load that approximates the performance of the original black powder Schofield load, though I wouldn't shoot it in an original Schofield. For the .45 Colt loads, I use Starline .45 Colt brass, a 250 grn RNFP Bear Creek Supply moly lubed bullet, 6.6 grns WW 231, and a WLP primer. This load is about half way between Winchester "Cowboy" loads, and full power .45 Colt. It also groups about 1-1 «" at 15 yards.
I have found, however, that the Schofield Replicas do not like black powder or Pyrodex! It is not that they don't shoot well with the loads, but rather that after a couple of rounds of Charcoal Burner loads, THEY JUST DON'T SHOOT! Because of the tight tolerances of the modern replicas (to accommodate the full size .45 Colt), the black powder fouling will bind up the gun. I have shot several hundred smokeless rounds in them without cleaning them, and had no problems. After only 3 or 4 rounds of BP, however, you have to turn the cylinder by hand. I have gotten as many as ten shots through one, without cleaning it, using SPG lubed bullets over a lubed Wonder Wad, 27grns (volume) Pyrodex P, WLP primer, and greased the heck out of the cylinder pin with SPG Lube prior to shooting. While the now defunct Black Canyon powder didn't foul as bad, it was terribly inconsistent. As to the new products like Clean Shot and Clear Shot, I haven't tried them. I plan on doing a test on them in the near future.
How does one carry a Schofield? I carry mine in a matched pair of right and left handed (butt forward) 1881 "flap" Cavalry holsters. They are on a "Fair Weather Christian" Officers belt with web bullet loops. I got this excellent rig from Major Debacle at Golden Gate Western Wear in San Francisco. It is a quality, heavy-duty rig. Navy Arms also offers a right hand 1881 « flap at a more modest price, and most major holster makers such as El Paso, Wolf Ears, and Rick Bachman make Schofield holsters. Most are "Slim Jim" types, as were favored by the originals, but other styles can be had. Red River Outfitters even has an exact reproduction of John Westley Hardin's S&W Slim Jim holster with 6 bullet loops on it. For those on a budget, the inexpensive Oklahoma Leather black powder holsters sold by Cabella's work well for the Schofield (and other pistols, for that matter).
Well, in closing I might offer that next time you see a Schofield or other Smith & Wesson No.3 at a match, you tip your hat to us shooters that are wearing them. After all, we are discriminating Shootists in the company of other great No.3 fans such as Pat Garret, Virgil Earp, and my own kin, Buffalo Bill Cody!