The Smith And Wesson
Military and Police Hand Ejector
Model of 1905, .38 Special
written and photographed by Mike Cumpston
edited by John Dunn
Click any thumbnail for a larger photo.
The M&P is frequently cited as the most prolifically manufactured handgun in history and it certainly did define the double action revolver during the 20th Century. A pocket history is in order and I will dwell on certain high points of its development rather than attempting to cover the many evolutionary changes in the design. The history is obligatory--although off-repeated and undoubtedly boring to those familiar with the subject.
It appears that the modern, service caliber swing-cylinder, hand-ejector revolver dates from the Colt Army and Navy Models of 1889-1892 then chambered for the .38 Long Colt Cartridge. The Smith and Wesson First Model Hand Ejector Military and Police came out in 1899 and closely resembled the Colt in size and function. Like the Colts, this First Smith and Wesson had a free standing ejector rod and the cylinder locked into the frame at the breach only. The .38 Long Colt Cartridge was a step up from the very early .38 Colt which became known as the .38 Short Colt. The switch was made from a case diameter healed bullet much like that of the current .22 Long Rifle to a hollow based round nosed projectile of 150 grains. The hope was that the bullet would slug up to fit the bore and afford some degree of accuracy. Loaded over 18 grains of black powder, the nominal velocity is reported in the mid to high 700 fps range. It was a cartridge that could be expected to lob a bullet well into and frequently, all the way through a human torso and was reported to be less intimidating than the large bore revolvers previously issued to minimally trained military and police personnel.
The .38 double actions saw some use in the Philippine Campaign of 1899 and afterward and there were reports of inadequate performance on the highly motivated and reportedly drug enhanced Moro adversary.
This is the reported motivating factor for the development of the .38 Special Cartridge and the improved Hand-Ejector 2nd Model of 1902. The Special had a slightly elongated case and a 158-grain round nosed bullet over 21 grains of black powder. Velocity is reported at 870 fps but it is notable that current smokeless powder cartridges frequently show velocities in the high 700 fps range. Some sources report that examples of the First Model M&P of 1899 were chambered for the Special cartridge making it possible that the round actually predates its official introduction in 1902. The hand ejector model of 1902 and its successors had a front locking lug under the barrel and a number of important action changes took place over the next several years. The Model 1905 incorporated a passive hammer block in the "4th Change" variation of 1915. Heat treating of cylinders began in 1919 and, in 1922 the front sight and rear sight groove were widened for better visibility. From 1915 through 1940 (or 1942 in some references) changes were relatively minor. Serial numbers began with the First Model of 1899 and reached about 700,000 before World War II. Barrel length options on the basic service revolver included 2 (1933), 4, 5 and six inches with the five inch length being particularly popular.
The design underwent further lock-work changes directly after WWII with linear descendents of the M&P remaining in production into the 21st Century.
AK Church (http://milesfortis.com/church/akc07.htm) aptly characterized this model as being so common as to slip into the woodwork. Everybody from Bogart to Jungle Jim to Rocket Man had one and the M&P became the archetype handgun in the public eye for most of the last century. Its association with snap-brimmed hats, flap holsters and pith helmets, not to mention police uniforms sent many a potential handgun buyer to the hardware store in search of "one of those .38 Police Specials."
My present example of the M&P is a Model of 1905 4th change produced in 1938 or 39 equipped with a 4" barrel and the original numbered service type stocks. It retains most of its high polished commercial finish and appears to have spent much of its life span holstered in a drawer. It has been fired, cycled and handled very little and the impression is that the action is mechanically new. The single action trigger breaks at between 3.5 and 4 pounds and the cylinder reaches full lock-up well before double action release. Overall handling and shooting characteristics are very much like those of my old 1947 5" barrel M&P and a 6" Model 10 from 1958 or 59. If anything, the current example is less-used than the others and is a bit less smooth at the end of the double action cycle. There is no evidence that anyone has removed the side-plate and tampered with the action. Upon first inspection, I primed several cases with CCI magnum pistol primers and tried the double action. One primer of six detonated giving rise to the possibility that (1) somebody had shortened the mainspring strain screw or, more likely (2) like many old and modern double action revolvers, it was never designed to function against the unreasonably tough CCI primer cups. I wondered if possibly the leaf mainspring might have lost some of its strength during the past 64 years. This idea was shot down by premier pistolsmith, Alex Hamilton who said "your mainspring will last forever…"
I found a spent large pistol primer with the anvil gone and capped the strain screw. The additional purchase proved a positive fix.
There is now a bewildering array of .38 Special load variations. The standard loading in the first half of the 20th Century was a smokeless powder loading of the 158 grain lead round nose. There was a "Super Police" loading of a round nosed 200-grain bullet, a metal capped RN and the 148-grain wadcutter target load. The "High Speed" or 38-44 loads as well as the sharp pointed jacketed 150grain metal piercing load were recommended for the larger frame heavy duty revolvers. It is widely held that the M&P revolvers that predate the Model 10 of the late 1950s are happier off with the standard pressure load not exceeding 15,000 pounds per square inch. Notably, by 1959 Speer was testing 18,000 PSI loads in K-frame revolvers and I used a bunch of these loads in my old early post-war model. This was an accepted practice at the time but not one I care to repeat or recommend with my vintage 1905 4th Change. Accordingly, I concocted several loads matching nominal factory performance.
The cast semi-wadcutter over 3.5 Bullseye and the swaged Hornady SWC over 4.3 Unique closely duplicate actual velocities I have gotten with modern factory round nose loading. The 700X load approaches the published velocity of the same factory loads. The 2.7 Bullseye /cast wadcutter load is a traditional bulls eye shooter's standard with many target shooters upping the charge a bit for the 50 yard segment of the NRA bulls eye matches. These loads will do everything I expect of the vintage K-frame revolver. The present example preferred the wadcutter and swaged Hornady bullet loads over the cast SWCs, turning in two-inch 25-yard groups from my bench set-up.
This appears to be about the best accuracy I can produce with the 4" revolver--which is to say, not quite up to the full potential of the gun-loads. During bench shooting, I saw that the gun was printing several inches low at
25 yards. The same was true of my earlier five and six inch models. It becomes necessary to cover the desired point of impact with the sight picture during practical shooting and makes the revolver suitable for small game hunting at close range only. It also throws an important crimp into enjoyable precision bulls eye shooting at the usual distances.
Said limitations being what they are, I set out to explore what of a practical and enjoyable nature might be gleaned from the M&P. When my Model 1905 4th Change came out of the factory at the tail end of the Great Depression, what formal handgun training that existed leaned heavily toward the techniques of bulls eye shooting. The gun was extended from a single hand and fired single action to take advantage of the light and short trigger pull. In contrast to current practical training the targets were placed at great distance – 20 to 25 yards at the shortest and consisted of a primary aiming point somewhat smaller than the common tea saucer. The cursory nature of most handgun training programs combined with the approximate nature of fixed sight regulation and such matters as the expense of ammunition gave rise to such cultural truisms as, "Can’t nobody hit nothin’ with no pistol! Pistols is inaccrit!"
While few people approached anything like proficiency with the short gun, an enthusiast with a modicum of practice could give the lie to the generally held perspective. This would be particularly true if the bygone shooter was equipped with an M&P. The single action break of under 4 pounds coupled with a double action pull in the 11 to 12 pound range compares favorably with most service actions of history which, more often than not, exhibited single action trigger pulls of six pounds and more and double actions-where present- in the 15-17 pound range.
After using up one of the TXTP silhouette targets in general familiarization, I set one at 25 yards and began to shoot "for the record." That the historic lack of respect for the double-action firing mode persisted into the late 1930s was evident in that the hump-backed hammer at rest obscured much of the rear sight notch. This hold-over from the double actions of the 19th Century made it necessary to refine the sight picture after initiation of the DA stroke. This proved no real impediment to effective one-handed double action shooting at 25 yards. The rounds, launched with a straight--through pull impacted, with one exception, in the high scoring five ring of the target. I made an early correction to move the group upward and to the right, but even so, the majority of the shots would have A-Zoned one of the IPSC targets. The overall geometry of the revolver and notably a favorable trigger reach contributed to shot breaks a bit over the one-second mark. Recoil with the frame-fitting service stocks made itself known on my thumb joint but did not approach the painful over the course of several extended shooting sessions. Two-handed twenty-five yard double action shooting narrowed group size but perhaps not to the degree that might be expected. In the course of any practice session, I like to do a bit of off-hand single action shooting trying for precise placement at 25 yards or thereabout. I combine this with some work on the head segment of the targets when shooting silhouettes. One- or two-handed single action shooting lands almost all shots some where in the head or neck region.
In the early shooting session, I moved the Silhouette back to fifty yards and fired twelve rounds one-handed single action using the head as an aiming point. Eleven of the twelve rounds impacted the 5 zone while one round landed about 4" outside the silhouette and over the left shoulder. The Hand Ejector Military and Police Model of 1905 4th Change accomplished the above described process in a confidence building and satisfactory manner. Group sizes are somewhat larger than I have come to expect firing the same drill with an accurate 1911 .45 or a heavier Smith or Ruger revolver. On the plus side, the overall ergonomics of the revolver provide a speed advantage over the larger cylinder guns and just about equals that of the self-loader. This is not a shabby testament to a compact sidearm that, at 30oz or a bit less, is eleven or twelve ounces lighter than the revolvers I wear about on a daily basis.
The M&P is no less well suited to the more modern shooting modes. Drawing from strong side concealment, I fired a series of doubles from three and seven yards. Initial shots were in the 1.5 to less than 2 second range while I guess my shot intervals to be in the .20 to .30 second range. Precisely aimed double action shots into the head from seven yards produced a nasty twelve round ulcer that stood testament to the surgical capabilities of the old handgun.
A sixty (or even eighty) year old hand-ejector revolver gives up very little in comparison with the revolvers of the present time. My example retailed for $33 in the 1940 Stoeger Catalog, which translates to $426.86 in Y2K fiat dollars. This is comparable to current prices of the M&P progeny representing a pretty good weeks’ salary then and now. Mine proves a particular bargain at $250. This is right in line with the current Blue Book estimate--no ad valorum tacked on for such intangibles as the commercial carbona blue finish, the forged lockwork, the hand polishing and the finely checkered figured walnut grips. A modern nostalgia-piece knock-off of the M&P recently went out of the Smith Performance Center to one of the major distributors. It attempted to recreate the flavor of the old M&P using modern technology with the added flourish of a color case-hardened frame in the same style as the more recent Heritage Series. The retail bite of $700 to $1,000 is motivation enough for the modern shopper to direct a bit more attention to the old Hand-Ejectors than has here-to-fore been the case.
Further Notes on the .38 Special Cartridge:
With some regularity it is demonstrated that a person shot with a given firearm will not react in the expected manner. The standard operating procedure is to fall down and quit whatever you were doing immediately prior to being shot. When this does not happen, there is much consternation and all the wrappings and trappings of "cognitive dissonance" come into play. The ubiquitous nature of the .38 Special has allowed it to fail (and succeed) in its assigned role perhaps more than any other round in history. Never mind that everything from the .22 Short through the .44 Magnum demonstrate failures to stop on reasonably frequent occasions, the .38, by virtue of its universal distribution quickly developed a reputation as a poor stopper. That it also developed a reputation as a good stopper is beside the point.
Recently, I read a story about an early 20th century lawman who entered a bar and shot down five or six gentleman killing them outright and immediately with his model 1902 M&P Second Model loaded with black powder round nosed CTGs. Colonel Charles Askins described killing two men with the .38 RN load and was quite delighted with the results. More recently, Bernard Goetz plugged four gang-bangers on a New York train and every one of them lived to admit that they had been planning to jack him with their sharpened screwdrivers and did not do so only because they were shot. The civil rights of the disadvantaged youths were vindicated when a New York jury convicted Goetz of feloniously shooting them with an illegally carried firearm. Many things have been written on the subject of stopping power as it applies to the traditional .38 Special load and many of them are not true. Likewise many of them are true and it becomes a thankless, life-long task figuring out which is which. Meanwhile, the reader is requested to develop his own personal theory of stopping power and his own take on the utility of the .38 Special.
The 1905 M&P 4th Change was produced in huge and bewildering numbers. Assistance in dating this example was provided by:
Who pulled out their reference books, personal revolvers and factory provenance letters to narrow the production period of number 667,XXX to 1938-39.
Thanks is also due to AK Church (not his real name) who wrote the reference piece located at:http://www.milesfortis.com/church/akc07.htm
His shooting impressions of the M&P and Model 10 were much appreciated.
As usual the smart work and editorial oversight is provided by Mr. John Dunn, the Lone Gunman who occupies the Chair of the Creative Cybercide Foundation also located at this address.
Mr. Miles Fortis himself provides the bandwidth and willingness to host and publish this and other ramblings of your humble correspondent and his indulgence is appreciated.
Historical references are drawn, in part from W.H.B. Smith’s Book of Pistols and Revolvers and; Sixguns by Elmer Keith. Other sources, as well, contribute to the historical data and it may be important to note that none of them are in perfect agreement.
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