One of the few positive side effects of the four years of bloody battle during the U.S. Civil War was that the massive demand for guns and improvements in them created the greatest technological advancement in firearms in 200 years. In little more than a decade, rifles, pistols and shotguns went from using separate muzzle-loading components to using self-contained cartridges similar to those of today.
Two of the pioneers in that field were Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, who not only had developed the mechanism and cartridges for what became the Winchester rifles but also had formed, in 1856, their own company and bought the patent rights of gunsmith Rollin White, which gave them exclusive rights in the United States to manufacture cartridge revolvers with bored-through, rear-loading cylinders. It had been a slow process to develop a man-stopping cartridge caliber larger than the .22s and .32 Smith & Wesson had perfected. So it was not until the summer of 1870 that the company brought out its big-framed, .44-caliber single-action six-gun, officially designated the No. 3 Model. It would not be named the American until 1874, to differentiate it from its successor, the No. 3 Russian Model.
The company made the gun in .44 Smith & Wesson centerfire caliber, .44 Henry rimfire and, in 1873, .44 Russian caliber. Its original barrel length was 8 inches, with 6- or 7-inch barrels available later.
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The mechanism of the Smith & Wesson No. 3 American was unique in that its barrel and extractor hinged downward at the bottom front of the frame, with the barrel latch attaching to the top rear of the frame. It also featured a star-shaped extractor on the rear of the cylinder that ejected all six empty cartridge cases at once when the shooter opened the gun. Standard finish was blue with wood grips. Also available was nickel, silver or gold plating, engraving and plain or carved ivory grips. Before ending production of the gun in 1874, Smith & Wesson made some 54,000 No. 3s, with about 20,000 of them going to the Russian market. Their wholesale cost was about $14, the retail price usually $17–18.
In 1873 Bozeman, Montana Territory, gun dealer Walter Cooper wrote to the factory: “Do you make skeleton stocks or butt pieces to put against your shoulder like a rifle? The officers at the fort [Fort Ellis] bother me to death having them put on their pistols.” Cooper apparently didn’t know that in early 1873 Smith & Wesson had already begun offering a detachable wooden shoulder stock for the big .44s; William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody is known to have ordered one.
In December 1870, the U.S. Army ordered 1,000 of the No. 3 Models. On May 18, 1872, 7th Cavalry Captain Robert H. Young wrote to the factory: “I have been using your 8-inch six-shooter New Model caliber .44. It is a splendid pistol. …[But] on the saddle the barrel is a little long, for the belt holster when a person is mounted punches against the horse’s back and saddle.…I only want a pistol for use at very close quarters, say, not more than 10 yards distance.…I am up here in the [Kentucky] mountains, supporting the U.S. marshal after illicit distillers, moonshiners, Ku Klux bushwhackers and counterfeiters, and the country is full of the damned scoundrels.”
In April 1873 San Francisco gun dealer A.J. Plate wrote that he had “succeeded somewhat in establishing [Smith & Wesson] as the leading pistol on this coast, so that my sales now reach some 300 per month, mostly No. 3.” On June 9 that same year, Colorado resident George D. Merriam wrote: “Please let me know what a revolver will cost…that will use a .44 Rim Fire Winchester Cartridge. As I use a Rim Fire Winchester Rifle, I would like to have one of your .44 pistols that would fire the same cartridge, as carrying two sizes of or kinds of cartridges in this Indian country is a nonsense.”
Fifteen 1873 graduates of West Point bought Smith & Wesson American Models from the factory as personal sidearms. And at least two Medal of Honor recipients carried No. 3 Americans, one of whom was Louis Carpenter, a buffalo soldier with the 10th U.S. Cavalry. And Major Frank North became legendary when on a single run he killed 11 buffalo with 12 shots from his pair of No. 3 Americans.
But after using them personally in the field in June 1874, 7th Cavalry Captain Myles Keogh—who would die with George Armstrong Custer two years later on the Little Bighorn—reported, “The pistols are too complicated and constantly out of repair, necessitating replacement of portions of mechanism of the lock and ejector.” On the other hand, in a May 29 letter to the factory, American Sportsman correspondent Sumner “Cimarron” Beach had written from Ellsworth, Kan., about the No. 3 Smith & Wessons: “I was told …they got out of fix too easy and was not a good revolver any way. … I just told them that Mr. Smith & Wesson knowed what they was doing when they made that revolver. . . . I have been shooting your make and find it a perfect revolver. I can kill a man at 100 yards with my revolver every time. I, like all frontiersmen, like the Smith & Wesson better than the Colts.” In another letter, he added, perhaps with too much hair of the dog under his belt: “No buffalo hunter’s outfit is considered complete until he has a Sharps rifle and two Smith & Wessons. All the notorious desperadoes have your [revolver]. The notorious Hurricane Bill has a pair of your revolvers. He kills annually 25 to 30 Indians.”
John Wesley Hardin used a nickel-plated, ivory gripped, Russian-caliber American No. 3 to kill Deputy Sheriff Charlie Webb in Comanche, Texas, on May 26, 1874—Hardin’s 21st birthday. El Paso City Marshal Dallas Stoudenmire owned a nickel-plated one with ivory grips. Army scout John “Texas Jack” Omohundro owned one inscribed TEXAS JACK, COTTON WOOD SPRING, 1872.
The most ornate American Model was probably the elaborately engraved, wooden-cased one valued at $400 that the factory presented to Grand Duke Alexis of Russia when he went on his famed Nebraska and Colorado buffalo hunt with Custer and Buffalo Bill in 1872. And the most controversial No. 3 is a factory-engraved one with custom wooden grips that Wyatt Earp is alleged to have used in the 1881 Tombstone, Arizona Territory, gunfight near the O.K. Corral, but which was originally fitted with pearl grips inscribed to Tombstone mayor and editor John Clum.
In his classic 1984 book Gunsmoke and Saddleleather, renowned firearms historian Chuck Worman wrote: “As the first large-caliber revolver made in this country originally for metallic cartridges, the American represented a major step beyond conversions of percussion arms. Until the advent of Colt’s Single Action model [in 1874], its design was superior to that of any of its competitors. Production of the American ended in 1874, but it inaugurated a long line of largeframe No. 3 size S&Ws in various models, which found a niche among buyers west of the Mississippi.”
Unfortunately, in 1873, when Smith & Wesson began receiving huge orders from the Russian government for a redesigned, European-looking .44 Russian-caliber version of the American that it named the No. 3 Russian Model, the factory couldn’t keep up with the demand for both models. But the American Model became a true classic revolver after its basic mechanism evolved into the No. 3 Russian Model, the .45-caliber No. 3 Schofield Model and the No. 3 New Model in various calibers—all of which were forerunners of the large-caliber, double-action Smith &Wesson revolvers that turned the company into one of the 20th-century giants of the international firearms industry.
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