50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
SMITH & WESSON
Little did Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson realize in 1856 that their newly formed company would be embarking towards a classic revolver design that would transcend the centuries. Although many of the pair’s large-framed single-actions, such as the American and Schofield, would become legendary, it was S&W’s double-action, swing-out cylinder that came to personify the modern revolver.
The concept began in 1894, with a base pin that projected underneath the barrel. When the pin was pulled, the cylinder swung out to the left for loading. The pin was then used to “punch” out empty cases all at once, via a ratchet. Thus the term “Hand Ejector” differentiated this new design from S&Ws earlier bottom-break revolvers, which automatically ejected empties when the gun was cranked open.
The first pistol to feature this innovation was Smith & Wesson’s .32-caliber Hand Ejector First Model in 1896. In 1903, the company changed the cylinder release to a more reliable latch on the left side of the frame, though the lengthened cylinder base pin remained as the ejector. These early Hand Ejectors were chambered for .22, .32, and .38 calibers, but Smith & Wesson was well aware of the potential for a larger, more powerful version of its new model. Thus, the company’s Hand Ejector design culminated with what many perceive as the classic, big-bore double-action revolver, the .44 Hand Ejector Model, which was built on what came to be known as the N-Frame.
The first version debuted in 1908, and was known as the .44 Hand Ejector First Model or, more stoically, as the Smith & Wesson .44 Military Model of 1908. It was also cataloged as the .44 New Century. However, shooters and collectors now refer to it as the Triple Lock. This was the most advanced—and, in some ways, over-engineered—handgun Smith & Wesson had ever produced. In many ways, it still is.
The Triple Lock derived its name from the fact that its cylinder locked up three different ways: with a spring-loaded catch between the end of the yoke and the tip of the extractor shroud; by a center pin indentation in the frame that secured the cylinder; and with another catch in front of the extractor. The Triple Lock was also the first Smith & Wesson to sport the now-familiar under-barrel shroud, which protected the extractor and also put more weight in front of the frame, which aided accuracy. Barrel lengths were four, five, and 61⁄2 inches, and both fixed and adjustable target sight versions were offered. Finishes were either blued or nickeled, and standard grips were checkered walnut.
Adding to the Triple Lock’s solid yet graceful heft was the fact that it was built around a new cartridge S&W specifically developed for this revolver, the .44 Smith & Wesson Special. Although many today do not realize it, the .44 Special started out as a blackpowder cartridge and was basically a lengthened and slightly more powerful version of the old blackpowder .44 Smith & Wesson Russian. However, the .44 Special sported a slightly elongated case, thus permitting three more grains of blackpowder than the .44 Russian. But in these early transition years of blackpowder to smokeless, it was soon discovered that the .44 Special cartridge, as well as the gun for which it was designed, the Triple Lock, adapted exceedingly well to smokeless powder. Interestingly, the Triple Lock was also chambered in the less powerful .44 Russian. Later, .38-40, .44-40, .45 Colt, and .455 Webley Mark II chamberings were offered, but it was the .44 Special that garnered the spotlight. In fact, the gun is often generically referred to as the .44 New Century Hand Ejector.
The Triple Lock’s high production cost of the three locking systems and the under-barrel lug hampered sales; the gun wore a price tag of $21, a sizable sum back then. In addition, with the outbreak of World War I, both the British and Canadian governments began purchasing .455 Webley-chambered Triple Locks for their troops and became concerned that the under-barrel shroud and its accompanying third locking mechanism (the most delicate feature of the gun) could collect debris and cause a malfunction. As a result, the Triple Lock was discontinued in 1915, with only 15,375 having been produced. Today, it is the most collectable of the .44 Hand Ejector series, with even a worn .44 Special in 60-percent condition bringing around $800, according to S.P. Fjestad’s Blue Book of Gun Values. A minty version tops out over $3,000, and factory target sights bring a premium.
The .44 Hand Ejector First Model was replaced by a substantially more popular variation—you guessed it, the .44 Hand Ejector Second Model. This was essentially the same solid gun, but without the costly under-barrel lug and the locking point between the yoke and the extractor shroud. This third lock was deemed unnecessary, given the relatively underpowered loading of even the smokeless powder version of the .44 Special. With an initial price of $19, the Second Model proved to be immensely popular, especially in .44 Special. It was also offered in the same alternate calibers as the original Triple Lock, but those chamberings are extremely rare. As an example, out of approximately 35,000 guns produced between 1915 and 1940 (with interruptions by World Wars I and II), only 565 were made in .44-40, while 727 were in .45 Colt.
In 1926 a crossover gun emerged, the .44 Hand Ejector Third Model, which was basically the same as the Second Model, but reintroduced the under-barrel shroud. Overwhelming demand from shooters and lawmen resulted in this new model, which remained in the line alongside the Second Model until 1940, when it replaced it completely. After World War II, the Model of 1926, as it is also known, continued in this large-frame series with the addition of a new hammer block safety. Like all the .44 Hand Ejectors, they are superb shooters, but do not have the collectability of the pre-war guns.
The .44 Hand Ejectors were favorites of lawmen like the Texas Rangers and outdoorsmen who wanted a rugged, big-bore double-action at their side. They were also chosen by handloading pioneers like Elmer Keith and helped set the stage for the subsequent Model 29 and its .44 Magnum cartridge. Even today, carrying a .44 Hand Ejector afield harkens back to a time when crackling campfires sent ribbons of smoke curling into a sky unmarred by jet streams overhead, and a man could arm himself with the finest double-action available, which, with all deference to the excellent Second and Third Model Hand Ejectors, was the Smith & Wesson Triple Lock.