The No. 1 just didn’t have enough firepower to suit most shooters.
Although Colt revolvers were the most commonly used handguns during the Civil War and in the Old West, fledgling gunsmiths Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson were in some ways more accomplished innovators than Samuel Colt. The two men, as historian William B. Edwards said in his 1962 book Civil War Guns, “had as principal assets Horace Smith’s improvement of the French Flobert metallic cartridge…. They were to found not only two gunmaking firms of lasting fame, but the metallic cartridge industry as well. Their company, Smith & Wesson, is well known today; less known are the roles they played in developing the copper self-primed cartridge and launching Winchester.”
In the 1850s, the firearms industry in the United States was trying to perfect self-contained breechloading cartridges to replace the separate components of cap-and-ball muzzle-loading firearms. Smith & Wesson’s contribution was development of unique .31- and .41-caliber cartridges and the lever-action repeating handguns that fired them. Colt gunsmith Rollin White was awarded exclusive U.S. patents to produce revolvers with bored-through cylinder chambers to handle the newfangled cartridges, but in 1856 he sold his patent rights to Smith & Wesson after Sam Colt turned him down. The purchase meant that only Smith & Wesson could produce cartridge revolvers in the United States until White’s license expired in 1869. So the company sold its interests in what became the Winchester rifle, and in 1857 it began producing .22-caliber cartridge revolvers at its factory in Springfield, Mass.
Smith & Wesson’s little seven-shot Model No. 1 revolvers were an instant hit. But when it came to stopping power, the .22- caliber bullets were pretty feeble. What’s more, the cartridge cases had a tendency to swell or split, jamming the revolver. It wasn’t until 1861 that the company was able to roll out its first large-caliber cartridge revolver—the .32 rimfire caliber Model No. 2 Army belt revolver, as it was officially designated.
Aside from minor technical improvements, the Model No. 2 remained unchanged during its 10 years of production. It was an iron-framed, single-action six-shooter with a spur trigger. The barrel was hinged at the top; to reload, a user would flip up the cylinder, then slide it forward off the cylinder arbor. To extract spent cartridge cases, a user would slide each chamber over a pin mounted beneath the barrel. The ribbed octagonal barrel came in lengths of 6, 5 and 4 inches, and standard grips were of rosewood. The standard finish was blue, but it could be ordered in any combination of blue, nickel, silver or gold finish, engraved, with pearl or ivory grips, plain or carved.
Although the U.S. Army never officially adopted the Model No. 2 Army, the revolver’s rapid reloading capabilities made it instantly popular with officers and foot soldiers alike during the Civil War. Edwards gruesomely relates that Union Army cavalry Colonel Edward Anderson owned “a pearl-handled specimen with 6-inch barrel with which he executed over 50 suspected Confederate spies or guerrillas.” In 1869 an admirer presented Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer with a cased pair of elaborately etched, pearl-handled No. 2 revolvers.
The Model No. 2 was also popular on the frontier. Preparing for an 1866 stagecoach trip from Leavenworth, Kan., to Salt Lake City, diarist William Hepworth Dixon wrote, “The new arm of the West, called a Smith-and-Weston [sic], is a pretty tool; as neat a machine for throwing slugs into a man’s flesh as an artist in murder could desire to see.” Buffalo hunter Henry Raymond reminisced that in 1872 he traded “two pistols [to] Joe for his Smith & Wesson No. 2 and $4 to boot.” Major John B. Thompson wrote that on an 1873 stagecoach trip from Fairplay, Colorado Territory, to Denver, he carried “a .32 Smith & Wesson pistol, with which I could, at that time, hit the size of a dollar every time at 40 feet.” Famed lawman Wild Bill Hickok also allegedly owned a Model No. 2.
The Model No. 2 filled a gap in Old West history that lasted just 10 years before manufacturers perfected more deadly, larger-caliber centerfire cartridges for revolvers. In 1870 Smith & Wesson brought out its 8-inch, top-break framed, single-action Model No. 3 American revolver in .44 S&W American centerfire caliber (a few were made in .44 Henry rimfire caliber). And in 1873 Colt developed the .45- caliber centerfire Long Colt cartridge for its new Single-Action Army Model, which became the most popular revolver caliber during the shoot-’em-up frontier days.
These man-stopping .44- and .45-caliber revolvers rang the death knell for Smith & Wesson’s Model No. 2 Army, which seemed a peashooter in comparison. Although the highest known serial number of a Model No. 2 is 88699, official production is listed at just 77,155 before Smith & Wesson stopped making the gun in 1871 and sold off its inventory of the weapon by 1874.
In little more than a decade, the Smith & Wesson .32-caliber Model No. 2 Army had gone from being the latest innovation in revolvers to the dustbin of obsolescence, ending a unique chapter in U.S. firearms history.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.