A Gun Worth the Gamble Smith & Wesson’s five-shooter set the standard for hideout guns.

Smith & Wesson’s five-shooter set the standard for hideout guns.
Smith & Wesson’s five-shooter set the standard for hideout guns.

“I’ve got four aces. What are you holding?” exclaims the shoddy sharper as he takes a puff on his cheap cigar and lays his tattered cards on the table.

His opponent, a well-dressed gent, quietly leans forward, stares the professional cheat in the eye and calmly proclaims, “That’s a marked deck.”

Then he smiles and says, “And I’m holding a fifth ace. It’s under the table, and it’s aimed right at your gut!” cocking back the hammer of his Smith & Wesson Model 1½ pocket revolver.

Without another word, the cigar-puffing trickster slowly pushes back his chair, stands up and nervously utters, “Sir … it’s your game; I do believe you’ve bested me.”

Although this is the stuff of Western novels, the drama is drawn from real life where a pocket pistol often did make the difference in the outcome of an ugly affair.

One of the more popular concealed handguns in use in the 19th century was Smith & Wesson’s Model 1½, five-shot revolver, commonly called a .32 Single Action. Eventually replaced by more up-to-date pocket revolvers, this little Smith &?Wesson was a milestone in its day and was one of the many firearms that helped pave the way for future generations of handguns.

Produced from 1878-1892, with a total of 97,574 made, it combined features of Smith & Wesson’s “Model 1½ First Issue” (Old Model) with the “Model 1½ Second Issue” (New Model), along with a number of refinements of its own.

The five-shot revolver was the first small-bore Smith & Wesson to use “automatic” ejection via the now familiar star-type cylinder ejector and a rebounding hammer—making it safe for carrying with a fully loaded cylinder.

As a black powder, metallic-cased centerfire cartridge arm, it also differed from its predecessors in that its barrel pivoted on the bottom frame strap and the top strap latched to the frame behind the cylinder, instead of in front of it, as did earlier Smith & Wessons.

The .32 Smith & Wesson cartridge, which was designed for this revolver in 1878, is considered anemic by today’s standards, throwing its 85-grain lead bullet out of a three-inch barrel at about 705 feet per second and packing only 97 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. Yet given the short range intended for this “card table” or undercover gun, and the primitive state of medicine at the time, this sub-caliber handgun’s bite was indeed effective during the Old West era.

Gamblers, detectives, ladies of the evening and just about anyone who felt the need for a firearm—and discretion—favored this diminutive handgun. Whether hidden inside a coat, vest, trouser pocket, under a petticoat or among the voluminous folds of a Victorian-era skirt, this small but deadly sidearm added greatly to one’s sense of security—an important consideration in certain “professions.”

Reading S&W

Smith & Wesson fans are sure to enjoy the book Smith & Wesson American Model: In U.S. and Foreign Service by Charles W. Pate. This tome provides in-depth coverage of the development, history, production and importance of this historic big-bore revolver that was the first successful large caliber revolver to be manufactured. Smith & Wesson’s revolver outsold the Colt in the 1870s West and set the tone for full-size handguns for generations. Good graphics and solid research make this a reference work to include in any firearms student’s library.

Andrew Mowbray Publishers

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