The following information on the Smith & Wesson Schofield 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.
At about the time the last lot of Russian Military Model revolvers was being readied for shipment to the Czar, Smith & Wesson received an order from Uncle Sam for 6,000 of the weapons. It must have seemed picayune after the Russian contract, but the firm prepared to fill it despite alterations which must have cut drastically into the profit margin.
The new revolver was known as the “Schofield Model” because it utilized a barrel catch improvement patented in April, 1873, by an Army officer of that name. Although somewhat more robust in its contours, as befitted a .45 caliber, it was practically identical with the American Model .44 in general outline. The latter arm already had been given a test with the United States cavalry.
The Schofield Model had an improved extractor gear in addition to the new barrel catch and no longer carried the rather cumbrous and complicated cogwheel arrangement with its accompanying spring and plunger release. A neat spring with a single tooth was substituted, along with a cam release which operated when the tooth made contact with the front end of the lower strap—the whole device being patented by Smith & Wesson July 25, 1871. Reduction in length of the barrel from 8 inches to 7 made it a better gun for fast shooting.
Instead of designing the new revolver to shoot the .45 Colt cartridges, Smith & Wesson developed a less powerful cartridge of their own, known as the .45 S&W. Some justification for this is to be found in the fact that the original .45 Colt’s 40-grain powder charge was too strong for the average shooter, and reduction of a few grains brought manifest improvement. But Smith & Wesson—perhaps still under the influence of the Russian ballistician—cut the weight of powder to 28 grains and the bullet from 255 grains to 230, making an appreciable difference in the punch of the missile. Relative velocities were: Colt, 810 f.s.; S&W, 735 f.s. Energies; Colt, 356 ft. lbs.; S&W, 266 ft. lbs.
Both cartridges were of the same diameter, but the S&W was shorter and could be used in the Colt even though the point of the bullet did not come flush with the front of the cylinder. The Colt cartridges were too long for the Schofield Model. Inasmuch as both revolvers were regulation, the government made cartridges of the shorter size to fit either make up to the time the .45 was replaced by the .38—in 1892.
The Schofield Model was an accurate arm in spite of any ballistic shortcomings in the .45-28-230 cartridge. “Pistol whipping” was not countenanced in the Manual of Arms, so the jointed frame was not a military handicap. The .455 Webley which the British used in World War I was much like the Schofield and it was highly regarded. The .38 model of World War II is a fairly accurate copy of the .455.
Schofield Models quickly attained popularity in branches of life other than military. Many U.S. marshals and their deputies carried them, and so did Wells-Fargo employees.
One man who had neither uniform, badge, nor permit carried a Schofield as part of his working equipment. He had a Colt Peacemaker in his other holster to balance it, for he was a two-gun man and had daily need for both weapons. His shooting never won him any medals, although he was probably as good if not better than Wild Bill Hickok was alleged to be. He died like Wild Bill, shot from behind by a coward who did not dare to face him. Undoubtedly he had it coming to him, but it was too bad he had to go that way…Jesse James was the man.
Introduced in 1875, the Colt New Line revolvers included a .32 caliber model which chambered Colt short and long center-fire cartridges. These cartridges were “shouldered” like the first Colt .38’s, and the short had the same charge of 9 grains of powder and 80 grains of lead as the corresponding rim fire. Although Smith & Wesson had discontinued their .32 rim fires in 1875, they did not get around to producing a centerfire model to compete with the Colt .32 until February of 1877 (8?).
They improved the cartridge along the same lines as the earlier .38, giving it a bullet without a shoulder, crimped inside the shell, with a weight of 85 grains backed up by a 9-grain powder charge. This gave a more accurate cartridge than the Colt with only trifling ballistic differences.
The revolver built to chamber the new cartridge was a graceful antitype of the New Model 1 1/2, with its birdshead grip, but of course it was a “top break” instead of a “tip-up.” No half-cock notch was provided for the hammer and it seems to have been regarded as a non-essential, although it was used on their .38 model. It was risky business all the same, and careful people sacrificed one of their five shots for the sake of an empty chamber in which the hammer could ride. With the exception of their revolving rifle, this was the only single-action .32 centerfire revolver manufactured by the firm and it enjoyed a steady sale until 1892, when it was discontinued. The serial numbers ran from 1 to 97,540. It was available in a 6-inch barrel for those who fancied themselves as target shooters, but the 3 1/2-inch barrel for pocket carry was standard.