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Did you ever "accidentally" and unexpectedly run into a "find?"

And, it's a big 'un.

I always carry on about guns being too small but finally found a gun with more than enough size and weight to suit me. While helping to staff a gun show this past weekend I stumbled into an early to mid-1950s 4-inch Smith & Wesson Heavy Duty .38 Special on Friday night. It's a model I've yearned to add to the collection but had figured that collectors' prices had left me behind.

Now most folks have no clue that the Heavy Duty was once a staple product in the Smith & Wesson catalog for many years. Never extremely popular, it saw acceptance mostly in the law enforcement community of the day. Several police departments issued them including the Austin P. D. and the Amarillo P. D. here in Texas. Available in 4, 5, and 6 1/2 inch barrel lengths, the 5-inch was most common, with the 4-inch being more scarce and the 6 1/2-inch being downright rare. With a total production of a little less than 32,000, from the model's introduction in 1930 to its discontinuance in 1966, they aren't something seen every day. When one considers that over 6 million Military & Police/Model 10 .38 Special revolvers have been produced since its 1899 introduction with Smith & Wesson still cranking them out, it puts the total production of the Heavy Duty in perspective.

This big 'ol revolver is everything the modern handgunner doesn't seek ... and more. Weighing in at 40 oz. this large .38 Special revolver was built on Smith & Wesson's N-Frame. The idea was to provide for a rugged revolver that would handle the .38-44 cartridge which was also introduced in 1930. This was a strange yet original name for a hot factory loaded .38 Special round made to shoot in Smith & Wesson .38 Special revolvers built on their .44 frame (the N-Frame). The .38-44 cartridge is said to offer performance above modern .38 Special +P loadings, trodding on the heels of the .357 Magnum cartridge. Velocities for 158 grain bullets ran well into the 1200 fps range.

The .357 Magnum cartridge, introduced in 1935, was sort of an improvement over the .38-44 cartridge introduced five years earlier. In the pre-war years Smith & Wesson envisioned .357 Magnum revolvers as something of a limited production custom item; not anticipating the enthusiastic acceptance of such a high-performance revolver cartridge. .357 Magnum chambered guns finally killed off all demand for big .38 Special revolvers once manufacturers began producing them in quantity. The demand for the Heavy Duty declined by the late 1950s.

The Heavy Duty and it's premium target N-Frame .38 Special companion model, the Outdoorsman, enjoyed a degree of mild popularity for the first years of production. World War II halted all commercial revolver production in the U.S. but Smith & Wesson resumed both the Heavy Duty and the .357 Magnum revolver after the war. The .357 Magnum remained hard to come by for years after the War so the Heavy Duty remained popular with departments and individual officers who wanted a strong, durable .38 Special revolver which could hold up to the heavy .38-44 loadings. Indeed, the Heavy Duty was commonly converted to be able to accept .357 Magnum ammunition by gunsmiths through the simple expedient of reaming out chambers. The revolvers handled the warm factory .357 Magnum ammunition of the day with no complaints as far as may be determined. It is very common to see these revolvers with modified chambers, so much so that a collector who is interested in originality would do well to check any Heavy Duty or Outdoorsman he intends to acquire. My brother-in-law has a 5-inch blue Heavy Duty. When we got around to checking it out, it was found to have been reamed to accept .357 Magnum ammunition. He's fired it since with full-bore .357 Magnum handloads with no problems.

Did I say that this gun is heavy? I weighed the cylinder on a postage scale this afternoon to find that the cylinder alone weighs in at 10.8 oz.! That's more than my Kel Tech P3AT weighs. More than a lot of other popular tiny .380 models weigh. By itself, the cylinder only weighs about 2 oz less than the entire Smith & Wesson Model 340PD weighs. There's a lot of "meat" around the chambers of the cylinder of a Smith & Wesson N-Fame .38 Special. The gun is massive. I'm not in favor of using handguns to club an assailant except in direst of circumstances but, if I needed to do so, this would be the handgun to use. Thwacked up side the head with a Heavy Duty, an assailant would know he'd been hit with something substantial. Of course using a handgun in such a way, not intended by its maker, is prone to put the gun out of order. Even the Heavy Duty wouldn't be well served by being mistreated in this fashion ... but it would leave a mark. Try doing that with a puny .380 automatic!

The Heavy Duty I picked up at the gun show just has to have been a lawman's piece. It has the look, the wear characteristics, the feel, and even the smell of being an old lawman's gun. Don't know it's history. I'm not as keen on nickel guns but this one's 55-60 year-old nickel plating has maintained its integrity with no peeling or major wear-through. A testament to the nickel finish applied "back in the day" it cleaned up to be quite nice with a light application of Mother's Mag Polish to remove the myriad of tiny scratches and all the gun show finger prints. The rest of its bumps and wear in no way detracts from it's appearance and lends an air of "experience" to the gun. The gun no longer wears the "diamond" Magna walnut stocks with which it would have been factory equipped but rather is sporting a pair of common 1970s style factory Magnas. I intend to mount a search for some "original equipment" Magnas for the gun.

Action on this one is so very smooth. It gave no sign of ever being worked on and given an "action job" when I took a peek inside. Just well used. The double-action trigger has to be tried to be believed, it is so smooth. Nothing beats a well-used N-Frame for double-action revolver work and this one's especially nice. The single-action sear on the trigger is so light and crisp. I can't wait to shoot it. Some dry-fire work on the night I got it gave a very favorable impression. In fact it is moved to the head of the class of all Smith & Wessons here as having the smoothest, nicest trigger.

I have to admit that both the grooves in the trigger and the knurling on the hammer are a bit much to take. It doesn't take much dry-firing work to end up with a trigger finger that is positively burning from the chewing administered by the trigger grooves cut in the 1950s triggers. Same for the knurling cut into the hammer spur. Very aggressive and positive to cock, it saws on the thumb in short order. Both would require modification if I was to take the revolver seriously.

Took some photos on a very gloomy, rainy day here in Texas just to be able to share them. I had to wipe off blowing rain drops in order to get the shots. Not that I mind. We're having a major rain even here in west central Texas! 3-inches and counting! More forecast to follow! In Texas! In July! I'll take better photos in future when proper stocks are installed.






It's almost laughable to see the .38 Special chambers housed within the N-Frame cylinder. Lots of steel surrounds those chambers.


To give an idea of relative size, here are three Smith & Wesson .38 Special revolvers, all likely made within two years of each other. The 4-inch Heavy Duty which I anticipate will prove to have been produced in 1954 seen on top, a 4-inch 1954 production K-Frame Military & Police predecessor to the Model 10 in center, and a very early March of 1952 snub J-Frame Chiefs Special predecessor to the Model 36 seen at bottom. Most folks these days like their .38 Special cartridges to be housed in the small one.




Link for more reading on the Heavy Duty
38-44 HEAVY DUTY HISTORY

With any luck perhaps OD* will again show a photo or two of his most excellent Smith & Wesson Outdoorsman, the premium target version of the large N-Frame .38 Special revolver. I try hard not to covet his revolver.
 

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Wow, what a beauty and I'm glad you were able to come across it. I wish I could say more but I can't find the words at this moment.
 
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Beautiful revolver and a great write up, learn something new here at DC every day. Looking at the cylinder that thing is massive and even appears to have more metal than my Model 28.
 

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Thanks. And yes, appearances can be deceiving. I have a Model 27, similar to your Model 28. The main reason for the difference in appearance is the lack of recesses cut around the charge holes on the Heavy Duty. Our big Smith & Wesson .357 Magnums have the "recessed cylinders." The non-magnum Smith & Wesson guns of years gone by didn't feature cylinder recesses.
 
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Bryan, what a magnificent find! Your writeups and photos are something I've come to look forward to.

The pic of the open cylinder is nearly laughable! I bet even Elmer Keith would be challenged to blow that one up. And the 3-gun lineup, well that's like a Clydesdale next to a couple of ponies!

I notice the ejector star isn't plated. Do you think that's original? Based on the gun's vintage, the nickel finish must be electroplated which means a total plating thickness of 0.002-0.004". I think of all the additional dimensional differences the plated guns had to have relative to the blued ones - chamber diameters, pin hole diameters, possibly even tapped holes. I'm impressed at the condition of the finish after 60 years, as well. Congratulations on the nice score!
 

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Very nice, congrats! Love that Chiefs, btw. That's got to be one of the first few thousand j-frames, right?
 
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Thanks, smitty!

Actually, the surest sign of a re-nickled Smith & Wesson or a blued one converted to nickel is that the ejector start is plated. Factory guns never featured plated ejector stars, or hammer and trigger. Perhaps a customer would have special-ordered a nickel gun to specifically have plated trigger and hammer but I've never seen an instance where that occurred or an example of a completely plated revolver from the factory. Now aftermarket, yeah. And such re-nickels are invariably passed off as factory. They never are. You can take that to the bank.

Thanks for the comment on the plating thickness and all the ramifications. I had no ideal what thickness was on plating. Never thought of making allowances for the plating either. Guess I wasn't aware it was so thick as that so that dimensional allowances would have to be made. That's a topic that is right down the alley of your expertise.

Thank you, Maxwell97. That little Chief serial number is just a whisker over 2000.
 

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Beautiful looking gun.

Definitely looking for a range report, once you take it through its paces.
 

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Congrats on a great find!
 
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bmc that's an excellent find and a great looking gun. Congratulations, and thank you also for the history lesson, I appreciate it.

Now on to the negotiations .... I'll give you $10.00 for it right now, sight unseen other than the pics.
 
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Now I'm officially jealous! Great find Bryan.
 

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I believe you've scored a rare find Mr. Mcgilvray. I don't think I've ever even seen one of those. Your collection has become even more impressive. The pictures you post along with the accompanying information are always a treat. Please keep 'em coming.
 

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Oh my God, Bryan, that is absolutely beautiful!! (and a great write-up on the ol' girl) :hand10:

I try hard not to covet his revolver
Now we're even, I would love to have that monster!

I know it's sacrilegious, but Ham Bowen has done several conversions to .45 Colt I would love to own.



+ Bowen Classic Arms + Workshop
 

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bmcgilvray, nice find and great write up; thanks for sharing both.

I bought my first S&W revolver (442) a few months ago, and now I understand the hype; their wheelguns are awesome firearms. I've enjoyed researching them, and I learned a lot from your post.

I'll bet your hand wears out before that Heavy Duty model does!

Congrats on finding a winner.
 

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I only wish I could make a find such as that! The nearest I have come to that recently was a Winchester Model 64 in near mint condition. I had been looking for one for some 20 years on the local market to be a match for my dad's own M64 that he bought....for $2! Congrats on a once in a lifetime find!!
 
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