Smith & Wesson, more so than any other firearms company, stick to the tradition of naming their handguns, particularly their revolvers, by numerical model numbers.
When most of us think of their .44 Magnum we think Model 29, or 629 if it’s stainless. The first models were all tip-ups or top breaks in calibers we seldom use anymore.
Or were they?
Recently we looked at the Model 1 which was the undoubtedly puny seven-shot .22 Short peashooter. The Model 3 was better known as the Schofield or Russian Model, and we’ll look at the Model 2 in the near future.
So what’s with the Model 1 1/2?
Before the classic Model 2 (which is almost always a .38 S&W top-break in either double-action or single-action) there was the Military Model 2, which was a tip-up, six-shot .32 rimfire made in small quantities for military types who regarded the popular .22 Short Model 1 about as effective as we would consider it today.
For some reason, Smith & Wesson thought a more genteel version was desired for non-military use so they made a slightly smaller version that looked the same, with a bird’s head grip and a reduced capacity five-shot cylinder.
See, that prejudice on “what a civilian needs” goes way back and doesn’t always come from Democrats.
The factory retroactively called it the Model 1 1/2, and that model was used to describe the tip-up five-shot .32 rimfire pistol which required removal of the cylinder to load and unload.
However, the rapid advancements in firearm and cartridge development of the late 19th century seem to have outpaced nearly everything that came out in the twentieth century. By the time the .32 Rimfire tip-ups were taking off, the top-breaks in the more reliable centerfire calibers were ready to go.
Top-breaks gave a much better advantage over the tip-ups. There was no fumble-fucking around with a latch at the bottom half of the front of the frame. This was replaced by a top latch in front of the hammer and beneath the rear sight.
As an added bonus, a star-shaped ejector moved rearward as the cylinder opened up and ejected the empties so a shooter could rapidly load the entire cylinder at once instead of having to remove the cylinder to manually knock out each empty with the under-barrel spike.
The top breaks proved to be stronger and more accurate and were made as late as the 1940s. Col. Rex Applegate himself carried a later model well into the 1950s.
Still, when Smith & Wesson debuted its Single Action Centerfire .32 caliber top break, it referred to it as the Model 1 1/2, just like the older tip-up chambered in .32 rimfire.
150 years ago model numbers didn’t mean much as almost none of these early Smiths are stamped or otherwise marked as such. A shooter had to know the differences between ammunition type (centerfire vs rimfire for .32 S&W) as well as action type, in this case not so much as double or single action (though that would come soon enough) but between tip-up and top-break.
The confusion did not really come into play until self-described experts tried identifying these old handguns for modern (that’s post-1950’s era) collectors.
Depending upon your resource you could be reading about a completely different revolver than the one the person trying to sell you is referring to. For the modern S&W collector we refer you to The Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson by Jim Supica and Richard Nahas for the utmost in clarity.
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