Wednesday, November 17, 2010

From Russia with Love

Though less well known today than the iconic Colt Single Action Army, the Smith & Wesson Model 3 is every bit as much a classic American handgun. The Model 3 was a top-break revolver, which automatically ejected all spent shells on opening, a significant advantage over the one-at-a-time ejection and reloading of the Colt. And while the .44 S&W cartridge wasn't in the same league as Colt's powerful .45 round, it was solidly in the range of modern defensive ammunition, and more powerful than most other revolvers of the time. Tastes and beliefs about its relative simplicity and reliability made the Colt slightly more popular in the domestic big-pistol niche, but the Model 3 is a fine gun, and enjoyed respectable success among American soldiers, frontiersmen, and target shooters.

While it lived in the shadow of Colt's revolver back home, the Model 3 was a superstar overseas, where it was adopted by foreign militaries and widely copied by foreign manufacturers; a full two thirds of Smith & Wesson's first-decade production of the revolver was made for export. It was eventually selected for issue by the Imperial Russian army, which requested a handful of changes to the design. The most significant were a switch from the .44 S&W cartridge to the new .44 Russian, and the addition of a dramatic spur to the trigger guard:

From General interwebs

[image source:]

The new cartridge was an unqualified improvement. The trigger spur, not so much. Elegantly Victorian as it looks, and as much as it makes me want to load up a train of porters and set out for Kukuanaland*, its usefulness is dubious, to put it generously. The Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson describes it thus:

It certainly makes the gun very difficult to cock without changing the hand's position on the grips, unless the shooter is endowed with orangutan thumbs.

There are several hypotheses about the utility of the trigger guard spur. Some contend that it was simply a rest for the middle finger of the shooting hand. Others have reported that it was utilized as a hanger, to secure the pistol when tucked through a waist sash. Bill Powell reports a theory that it was originally called a Parry guard, intended to allow a revolver-wielding Cossack to deflect a saber slash with his sidearm and still retain all his fingers. My personal favorite, at least in terms of creativity, is the theory that military tactics of the time called for cavalry to charge with revolvers already cocked, and the spur provided a gripping surface for the trigger finger in such a situation (don't try this at home!). Be that as it may, the spur was often considered cumbersome by American users, and specimens are not infrequently found with this enhancement lopped off.

A feature specifically added to an already well designed gun, which gives a very minor advantage at best and harms the gun's ability to do its primary job well. All par for government work, but why did they keep it up? Imperial Russia ended up buying well over a hundred thousand of these revolvers, and never listened to all the shoters who told them it was getting in the way of efficiently recocking the gun?

I never understood this until this morning, when I was linked to a post at Backyard Safari about Russian pistol stances. The blog is auf Deutsche, but the gist of it is that Russians followed a pretty questionable pistol doctrine before the Revolution:

From General interwebs

That there is not a man who's especially concerned with quick and accurate followup shots. I've been told that most of the world didn't take handgun marksmanship as seriously back then as the Americans and British did, and this does little to dispel that perception. If all you're concerned about is looking elegant while you slow-fire at the Gospodin Outdoorsmen's Social Club, a triviality like actual combat effectiveness is unlikely to cause you much insomnia. There may also be a hint of the reason for that spur:

From General interwebs

Those are definitely not Model 3 Russians, but there's still something weird going on with the shooters' middle fingers. The image and era would suggest they're probably Nagant revolvers, which don't have trigger-guard spurs. Anybody have any idea what's up with that unusual grip?

[* - Yes, yes... Allan Quatermain carried a Colt. Sue me.]

1 comment:

  1. With the undercut behind the trigger, they might be making/hand-adapting something of the Tyler T-grip effect on the skinny, pole-like grip?