The Smith and Wesson K-22 Masterpiece
Its heirs and assigns
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The first of the K-22s hit the scene in 1931-a close copy of and companion to the .38 Special Military and Police Target revolver of the time. The high speed loading of the .22 long rifle cartridge was becoming popular and the people at Smith & Wesson set out to provide the best of all worlds- maximum impact and maximum accuracy all wrapped up in the same package. Until about 1940, the first of the K-22s were marketed under the name “Outdoorsman”, latching onto the tag assigned to the heavy-duty 38s and distinguishing it from the smaller 22-32 Target revolver thought to be plenty heavy enough by the match men of the era. It was an outdoorsman’s revolver. Specifically designed around the high speed loading, it was the first modern revolver to have fully recessed chambers in case of rim failure and the factory admen made much of its superiority with the optimum performing field loading of the rimfire.
The original version weighed 35 ounces and each succeeding variation has gained weight. It picked up a couple of ounces with the addition of the barrel rib and my 617 with its full lugged six inch barrel weighs 45 ounces. By 1940, the Outdoorsman had taken on the name “Masterpiece” and soon became closely identified with the K-38 and K-32, popular in the years following World War II. This Masterpiece Series was quite the rage among the top shooters and was marketed with the claim that the revolvers would group into one and a half inches at 50 yards. By the early ‘50s, the set of three all wore barrel ribs. The ribs were of different width for each caliber with the aim of making all three of the Masterpieces weigh and balance identically.
A couple of generations of shooters would have liked to have cut their handgun shooting teeth on the K-22. It was the Cadillac of sporting handguns from its inception and the youthful shooter of the Depression Era probably had to make do with an Owl Head or something from H&R. Post war shooters found the High Standard Sentinels, Colt Scouts and Ruger Single Sixes more affordable but the K-22 and its numbered successors remained the ideal. Many shooters call it their favorite handgun of all time and there is much to recommend it as such. I have a very strong liking for the traditionally configured N-Frames but have to admit that my best Smith revolver-work is done with the K-Variants.
Variations on the Theme
Like all long-lived Smith revolvers, the K-22 family includes a bewildering hodge-podge of major and minor changes including external configuration, action design and barrel length. I have three of them and will concentrate on them. The earliest of my K-frame rimfires comes from the first full year of production after World War Two. It is your basic short action 6” barrel with 1/10” checkered and undercut front sight and stretches my RCBS trigger pull gauge to the 2 pound 8 ounce mark. The next is a Model 17-5 with bull- proportioned but un-lugged 8 3/8” barrel and 1/8” patridge front sight. This revolver has the overall appearance of the K-22 in the decades after World War II and into the 1990’s. It pegs the trigger pull scale at an even three pounds. The most current of my Ks is the stainless 617 weighing in at a nominal 2 pounds 13 ounces and weighing a full three pound eight equipped as it is right now with an aim-point dot sight.
Equipped with their factory sights, I find that I generally need my one-diopter reading glasses to do good work with the narrow sights of the 1947 model. I almost always need them with the 617 as the front sight shows very little light to each side when aligned in the narrow and shallow rear. The 17-5 with 1/8” patridge front presents an ideal sight picture and in reasonable light, I can use this one without any vision correction. In terms of shootability, I would rank the 617 and the 8 3/8” dead even with the light-barrel K-22 just a bit behind. The chief advantage of the heavier guns comes in precision double action shooting. When I’m in practice, I can shoot almost as well in the trigger - cocking mode as single action. This is a bit more of a challenge with the K-22 but I have the distinct impression that the disparity would disappear with a great deal of practice regularly maintained. The K-22 trigger has a single action pull of about two and a half pounds while the newer guns let go at about a pound heavier. They likewise have heavier double action pulls. Their muzzle-heaviness seems to cancel out the advantage that should go to the light action of the older revolver. Regardless of pull weight, all three of these revolvers have the crisp single action and smooth double action expected of the Smith and Wesson.
I have the strong impression these three revolvers possess virtually identical intrinsic accuracy. In shooting 25 yard bench rest groups with the iron sights, I regularly produce equal accuracy with all three guns. A great many of the five shot clusters fall into the one inch and less category often putting three or four of the rounds into one adjoining hole. The 617 is drilled and tapped for Weaver mounts allowing quite a higher standard of accuracy. The Aim Point dot sight puts sight and target on the same focal plain and eliminates the bias associated with imperfect vision. A recent range session with the 617 produced a three group fifteen shot twenty five yard average of .85” with Remington Golden Bullet Hollow points. The smallest group measured 58 caliber. CCI Mini-Mag Hollow Points produced a small group of .665” and a three group average of .93. Stingers averaged out at 1.01” with a small group of .80”-quite a good performance from this ammunition. The hierarchy of accuracy: Remington then CCI then CCI Stingers remained the same when I shot groups with the iron sighted revolvers. Given the overall high level of accuracy, I saw no advantage to even trying standard velocity dedicated target rounds.
The CCI Stinger ammunition provides a pretty good diagnostic tool for evaluating chamber-barrel integrity in revolvers and the feed sequence in self -loaders. Any roughness of barrel or chamber or any glitch in the trip from magazine to chamber will frequently produce atrocious groups with this light, fast and finicky bullet. I was happy to find the Stingers producing usable accuracy from all three K-22s. The long barrel gave me groups of .98 and 2” while the fifty-five year old did 1.7” & 2” shooting under somewhat less than ideal conditions. The accuracy of the Stingers is a real plus in these revolvers. When the round first came out and for a few years thereafter, I applied it to a variety of targets including Jackrabbits, ‘coons and skunks. All were stopped with a great deal more authority than might have been the case with the usual run of high velocity hollow points. My first kill with the stingers came when I tapped an East Texas Skunk with a Ruger Mk II short barrel. He stopped like a two- dollar pocket watch. The longest target was a jackrabbit sitting in profile at 60 yards. I missed him on the first shot but knocked him flat with the second.
The 8 3/8” 17-5 is the kind of gun you can shoot with satisfying results on your worst day. The long barrel and ideal sight picture hangs on target and good twenty-five yard off-hand scores are to be expected. The general expectation is that the longer barrel will also produce higher velocities with a given load. This advantage did not emerge until I got around to the hypervelocity Stingers. With the CCI and Remington , the 6” K22 actually produced slightly higher speeds over the chronograph. This was not totally surprising since I had seen the same phenomena with my Ruger Single Sixes. The 6.5” Bisley was faster than the 9.5 until I got to the Hypervelocity loadings and then the long barrel edged out ahead. In previous sessions, I had clocked the CCI Mini-Mag Hollow Points from the 617 getting readings in the 1100 fps range. This is quite a bit faster than usually occurs with the load in revolvers. I recently chronographed the three loads under discussion in the 1947 K22 and the 1988-90 vintage 8 3/8” 17-5. The CCI MMHP did 1083 from the six-inch and 1053 from the longer barrel. Remington Golden Bullet HPs - the accuracy champ - did 989 from the old revolver and 940 from the long one. Stingers reversed that trend by giving 1347 from the 8 3/8” barrel and 1327 from the six. Additionally, the Stingers from the longer barrel registered an extreme spread over 15 rounds of 75 (s=24) while the six inch produced a couple of wild rounds that extended extreme spread to 246 fps with a standard deviation of 68.
An Icon for the Revolver Enthusiast
Revolver men prize K22s of every vintage and variation. While I earlier dwelt on the different variations on the Outdoorsman/Masterpiece theme, there is a certain commonality in the design, whether it was made in 1931 or 2002. My small stable of Ks display equivalent accuracy that translates into satisfying results in the field or on the range. The .22 rimfire cartridge does not place much stress on a handgun with the happy result that the older K-22s are usually found in practically new condition. My three variations display the same absence of end-shake, the same degree of cylinder side play, the same tight lock up and absence of timing irregularities. The B/C gaps, though not measured, look about the same. I suspect that the chamber and barrel dimensions have remained constant since the first third of the previous century.
The 617 will likely continue to wear the Aim Point sight or a scope of good design. It is useful for testing the full potential of various loads and the optical sighting extends the usefulness of the arm into the twilight time and beyond. The K-22 is a page out of history - an accurate recreational piece exhibiting the careful hand-fitting and metal work of previous generations while performing on a par with the most modern of sporting handguns. It is a light-package belt gun for the woods and hills. The 8 3/8” Model 17-5 seems to be one of the last of the general production hand ejectors made from carbon steel and utilizing the color case-hardened forged lock-work of tradition. You could walk across West Texas and get fat on jackrabbits and rattlesnakes with this one.
The K-22s and their progeny deserve a place on anybody’s short list of classic handguns.
Aside: Grips, Gripes and Apotheotic Epiphany
Rubber grips - Monogrips with memory grooves, molded-in checkering and bi-lateral palm swells - really do a lot for practical accuracy. That’s why I still have a pair on my totally modern 617. The only problem with these excellent grips is they aren’t wood. Good wood goes good with the older Hand Ejectors and my vintage five screw now wears a set of walnut target types from the early 50’s. I bought them today in a well-stocked gun shop for $38. They are worth it. Likewise the rubber Hogues came off the 17-5 in favor of a set of Goncs - flat given to me by Leo Bradshaw - a piece of revolver history in his own right. The traditional Smiths look really good with these grips. Both sets are checkered with the diamond in the middle and make the blue K22s look and feel like the classic handguns they are. Current offerings from the Performance Center- see the Lew Horton Heritage Series - are supplied with figured, high grade walnut grips of traditional form. There is a market for high-grade wooden grips.
Eagle Grips now has a Heritage Series in Rosewood diamond pattern and checkered in the form of the early 1950s. They look very pretty in the web site pictures. They cost about $85 a whack. Assured that square butt K frame grips were in stock, I ordered a pair for the 17-5. Two weeks later, I check my Visa Card and found that the order had not been processed. They are still trying to figure out what happened. Perhaps some of you will have better luck and we will someday find out what the Eagle Heritage Grips look like in real life.
since the website crashed AUG 2003