Friday, March 24, 2017
A fascinating piece of firearms history
Readers may remember that, a couple of weeks ago, Miss D., Old NFO and myself went up to Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle, where we met Alma Boykin and spent a couple of days doing research for future books. One of the places we visited was the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, which has an outstanding firearms collection. Thanks to their generously cooperative curator, we were able to spend a couple of hours examining that part of their collection that isn't on display, which contains some real historical rarities.
I was fascinated by one example of Smith & Wesson's Model 3 revolver, which looked as if it had started life as a second variation Russian model. These were ordered by the Russian government for its army, chambered for the .44 Russian cartridge, progenitor of the later .44 Special and .44 Magnum rounds. Most were manufactured in 1873. A limited number were sold on the US civilian market as well. Here's what the original second variation Russian model looked like. The picture is courtesy of Mr. G. W. Leiper, whose Web site 'Russian Revolvers' offers encyclopedic coverage of that very interesting subject. Recommended reading for firearms enthusiasts. (Click all images for a larger view.)
The revolver in the Panhandle-Plains Museum has been extensively modified from its original configuration. I'll show it to you first, then discuss what's been done to it.
This must have been somebody's cherished possession, because the amount of work put into it far exceeds whatever its monetary value may have been. For a start, the 'hump' on the backstrap of the grips has been ground or filed down until it's almost round, much like the original 'American' variant of the Model 3 (scroll down at the link for photographs) or the first variation Russian Model 3's. The spur on the trigger guard has also been expertly removed.
Next, the six chambers and the barrel have been reamed out and filled with inserts in .22 caliber. I suspect that the unknown gunsmith may have turned down on a lathe the outside of a .22 rifle barrel, cut lengths off it to suit, and then sleeved the original barrel and chambers with it. The chambers would then have been bored out to take the rimfire cartridges, and a new extractor star fitted, to eject the much smaller rounds. Here's the back of the cylinder, showing the sleeves. (The white-gloved fingers holding the gun are mine! Old NFO took the pictures, for which my grateful thanks.)
The barrel is only 5" long, down from the original 7". This is often referred to as the "Wells Fargo conversion", as that company bought a large number of Smith & Wesson Model 3 revolvers from US Army surplus stocks (usually the later Schofield variation), and cut down the barrels to issue to its stagecoach drivers and guards. There are a great many forgeries in circulation, probably more than there were original Wells Fargo conversions, making positive identification difficult. This may not have been a Wells Fargo revolver at all, of course; any gunsmith could have cut down the barrel, re-crowned it, and remounted the front sight.
The engraving covers the surface of the firearm, but it's not as even or as high-quality as factory-engraved guns I've seen. I suspect that either a gunsmith or artisan added it later, or perhaps the owner of the gun tried to do it himself. I suppose we'll never know. At any rate, the gun has also been nickel-plated, common in the days of blackpowder rounds, as nickel resisted the corrosive powder salts better than blued steel. I suspect this gun was not originally nickel-plated, because the plating has filled up the letters and engraving to a certain extent.
Another interesting modification is the repaired hammer. At some point, I suspect the gun was dropped and the hammer spur broken off. Someone has formed a new hammer spur out of a piece of steel, ground and/or filed to approximately the same pattern as a standard S&W Model 3, but not exactly identical, as one can see if one compares it to an original hammer. A dovetail was then cut into the broken hammer, and the new spur inserted and (probably) pinned and soldered into place. Here's a close-up photograph of the repair.
The repair must have been made after the gun was nickel-plated, because the replacement hammer spur is still in blued steel.
I can't help but wonder what was so special about this gun, to make someone spend a great deal of time, energy and money converting it like this, and preserving it. Was it carried by an Old West lawman or outlaw, whose descendants wanted to hold on to the memories it carried for them? Why would someone have gone to all the trouble and expense of sleeving the barrel and chambers for a different caliber, and engraving and plating the gun, and repairing the hammer, when the cost of those repairs and restorations would have paid for not just one, but several new guns? Who did the work, and when, and where?
If only this gun could talk . . . I reckon it would have a lot of stories to tell!