The following information on the Smith & Wesson New Model No. 3 comes from Smith & Wesson Hand Guns by Roy C. McHenry and Walter F. Roper. Smith & Wesson Hand Guns is also available to purchase in print.
Smith & Wesson had given much thought to improving the design of the Russian Military model during the four years that followed completion of the Czar’s order. In succession, they eliminated the spur on the bottom of the trigger guard, altered the tilt of the handle so that it did not turn downward so abruptly, and widened the grip to provide a better hold. They rounded the edges of the prawl to do away with its saw-tooth outline and blend it more harmoniously into the sweep of the receiver. Finally, they substituted the simplified extractor gear of the .38 model and thus gained better balance by discarding the underpinning on the barrel which had contained the retracting spring for the old-type ejector.
The cartridge remained as it was until 1887, when A. C. Gould demonstrated to officials of the Union Metallic Cartridge Company that cartridges with outside lubrication were messy things which shed their protective coating with unpleasant results if left in the sun or near a hot stove. Thereafter, the lubricant was deposited in grooves in that portion of the bullet encased by the shell; but as the Colt .45 cartridges had been made that way for years, this could hardly be termed an innovation.
The New Model Single-Action .44 went on the market in 1879 and before the serial numbers had mounted very high it established itself as a precision weapon through circumstances which need to be related even though they diverge from the main text.
Appreciation had never been lacking for the multiple-firing virtue of the revolver, but as an instrument for precise shooting it was held in something approaching contempt. A few celebrities like Buffalo Bill and Captain W. P. Schaaf had traveled around the country exhibiting their prowess with a six-gun, but when it came to placing closely-centered shots in a paper target, popular opinion was unanimous in selecting a long-barreled, single-shot pistol like the Stevens.
Around 1880, Ira Anson Paine came into prominence as an expert pistol shot, and having defeated all competitors in the United States he betook himself to Europe with his trusty Lord Model Stevens. There it was the same story. The pistol experts of the Old World, including several noted duellists, were helpless when pitted against the master, and they finally put their heads together to see what could be done.
M. Gastinne Renette of Paris was a celebrated manufacturer of pistols and he frequently supplied the accessories for duelling. On the side, so to speak, he operated the most famous shooting gallery in Europe. He may have felt that the Renette honor was at stake in seeking an answer to the problem of Ira Paine, for he was one of the leaders in the search which finally led European marksmen to the Smith & Wesson.
After collecting specimens of every kind of revolver and every type of ammunition, these Old World experts decided that the S&W .44 single-action with the Russian cartridge was the combination needed to beat the interloper from across the seas.
But Paine was a Yankee to the core. Instead of trying to lick the combination, he joined them. He put on exhibitions with the .44 S&W which dazzled the eyes of the crowned heads of Europe. The King of Portugal admired him so greatly that he gave him the royal accolade and a title. Paine returned to America with a magnificent set of gold-plated harness and the title of chevalier and continued for some years to give exhibitions of pistol and revolver shooting.
Aside from laying up for himself a comfortable nest egg, Paine forced home the conviction that revolvers were target arms, and not just casual weapons suitable for train hold-ups and Indian uprisings. After watching Paine smash glass balls from the hands of his attractive spouse, owners of revolvers were known to make furtive visits to vacant lots on the outskirts of town, where they proved to their own satisfaction that their pocket revolvers would ventilate tin cans at a moderate range if held steadfastly on the target.
Practice with pocket arms encouraged the purchase of larger calibered revolvers for target work, and it was natural that many amateur sharpshooters should favor the .44 S&W which they had seen in the hands of the master—Ira Paine. Their scores didn’t approach those of the chevalier, with his years of practice and unlimited ammunition. They didn’t constitute a serious challenge to orthodox performers with single-shot target pistols. But they kept at it, and their persistence finally was rewarded in 1886 when a revolver match was included in the National Rifle Association’s annual program at Creedmoor.
In point of novelty, the match compared with that staged by Captain J. G. W. Dillin many years later for shooters of “Kaintuck” muzzle-loaders. Riflemen brought their revolvers with them and burned a lot of powder, with more or less encouraging results.
The range for revolvers was 25 yards, and competitors were permitted to shoot as long as their ammunition and entrance fees lasted—their best three targets being turned in to the judges. A high score of 143 out of a possible 150 was scored by a .45 single-action Colt Army revolver in the hands of C. E. Gillette, and the match was unanimously applauded.
It was the first of many. The Massachusetts Rifle Association held a revolver match in the fall of the same year, with Chevalier Paine among the entrants. Gillette’s score fell to the experienced professional, as might have been expected, and the new record was 148 out of 150. Paine was still using the .44 Smith & Wesson with the Russian cartridge.
The fad spread and soon the average revolver enthusiast’s accuracy was such that the target was moved from 25 to 50 yards with no increase in the diameter of the target circles. The chevalier proceeded to put on an endurance contest at the new range and scored 791 out of a possible 1,000 with his trusty Smith & Wesson. Major C. C. Foster tried to better his mark the following month and came within 9 points of doing so—a feat remarkable if only because he was using a double-action Colt of the current model, with its peculiar “back porch” frame and birdshead grip, shooting the .38 long Colt cartridge, already known for its accuracy.
Ira Paine celebrated the following St. Patrick’s Day by breaking his own 50-yard, 100-shot record with a score of 841 out of 1,000, including one 10-string of 90. Apparently he believed he was above competition, for he laid aside his .44 and spent some time trying out a .38/44 cartridge of his own design. He should have clung to the gun with which he was familiar, for a pair of Bennett brothers was out to beat his record.
W. W. Bennett had been on the Boston police force and there had developed ideas about revolver shooting which were considered revolutionary. Although only 28 years old in 1887, he was a husky fellow of six feet height and 243 pounds avoirdupois with no excess fat. He differed sharply with his fellow officers in regarding his revolver as a real weapon, whereas they had considered it as a heavy accessory carried under compulsion of regulations. They depended on the nightstick for maintaining the law.
While still a rookie cop, W. W. Bennett and another youngster on the force took to target practice with their revolvers, setting up a 20-yard range in a vacant foundry building near the precinct station house. At their own expense and in spite of the jeers of their fellow cops, they kept at it until Bennett could hit a two-inch bull seven times out of ten. Either because of the disapproval of his superior officers or for reasons known only to Bennett, he resigned from the force and found a job which allowed him to buy a better gun than the .38 Merwin & Hulbert on which he had cut his marksman’s eyeteeth.
Influenced, no doubt, by Ira Paine’s accomplishments with the Lord Model Stevens, Bennett purchased a pistol of that make chambered for the .22 short and became a habitue of the Mammouth Shooting Gallery, a famous Boston place of that period. When he had beaten the best men who congregated there, he determined to do the same thing at the Walnut Hill Club range. Meanwhile, he had interested his younger brother, Fred, in the game and the latter began to run up scores which compared favorably with W. W.’s.
Members of the Walnut Hill range had gone in heavily for the .44 Smith & Wesson, and on his second trip there W. W. brought along one of his own—the standard model, with factory-loaded ammunition. Shortly thereafter, on May 21, 1887, the elder Bennett ran up a ten-shot string of 91, which was a point better than Ira Paine’s best score. Both Bennetts were using the same S&W, but in one of the matches Fred was top shooter and won as a prize a .44 Smith & Wesson which was destined to figure in a later match. Both Bennetts continued to use full-charge ammunition, although Paine had made many of his better scores with reduced charges.
As previously mentioned, Paine was making no attempt to improve his March 17 record because he was experimenting with .38/44 ammunition*, but on November 4 of the same year the chevalier’s score was smashed by the younger Bennett with a total of 857 on 10, 10-shot strings, which was 17 points better than Paine’s. Perhaps it is significant that he did not break his brother’s 10-shot record. [*This .38/44 is not to be confused with the present .38/44 used in the Smith & Wesson Outdoorsman and Heavy Duty models.]
But Fred Bennett was not satisfied, and on November 14 he ran his total score record to 877, 20 points higher, and nine days later he boosted the 10-shot score to 95.
The two Bennetts did not compete against each other except for unrecorded practice shooting, but Fred accepted a bet that he couldn’t shoot 841 or better at 50 yards for six consecutive days. Unfortunately for him, he had one bad day when his total was only 832, although the rest of them were well over the mark.
On December 9, 1886, Chevalier Paine brought to the range his new, specially made revolver, shooting the cartridge of his own design known as the .38/44. It had a long, cylindrical case containing 11 grains of powder and 83 grains of lead, the nose of the bullet being flush with, and crimped inside, the mouth of the shell. The revolver was built on the .44 Smith & Wesson frame, and with this specially-constructed arm he ran up a 100-shot aggregate of 878, a point higher than Fred Bennett’s best. Then he went back to the old reliable .44 and on consecutive days carded scores of 882, 886 and 904.
Although W. W. Bennett had refused to shoot against his brother’s best scores, he had no compunction about taking away laurels from Ira Paine. On December 31 he did so in fine style, making 914 with two 10-strings of 96 each. W. W. then decided to leave the field to his younger brother, who made an agreement with the chevalier to shoot 100 shots per day for six consecutive days, the range being 50 yards. Both were to use .44 Smith and Wesson Russian Model revolvers with three-pound pulls and 6 1/2 inch barrels using factory ammunition.
Paine withdrew from the match on the fifth day after a protest which was rejected by the National Rifle Association, and Fred Bennett went on to run up a total of 5,093. Although his score did not equal either his brother’s best 100-shot score of 914 or the chevalier’s of 904, he was awarded the title of Champion Revolver Shot of America.
In passing, it may be mentioned that no rules regarding the cleaning of revolvers were enforced in these matches. Fred Bennett wiped out the bore after every five shots in the championship match, but W. W. ran a brush through the barrel after every shot in compiling his big score. These records were made more than half a century ago with cartridges containing black powder and lubricated on the outside, but they have never been broken.
The New Model single-action .44 had reached a serial number of 38,796 before it was taken out of the catalogue. Although it isn’t easy to get the Russian cartridge today, such few S&W’s as are still to be found are eagerly sought at prices far exceeding the original.
Take a good look at the illustrations of this arm. It was a favorite gun of the late Walter Winans, the American-born revolver expert who spent most of his life in England. It isn’t the .44 S&W with which he won the British matches against all comers, or one of the pair he used when chasing tame deer around his park on horseback, as described in his books. But take a look through a magnifying glass at the pair of carved ivory grips! The revolver was later owned by J. N. George, author of “English Pistols and Revolvers.”