Airguns of the American West Part 5
The Schofield Revolver
Colt’s perpetual rival
By Dennis Adler
By 1870, the self contained metallic cartridge introduced by S&W, had grown up from an anemic 7-shot .22 Short pocket pistol in 1857, to the man-stopping .44 caliber top break revolver. And S&W beat Colt’s to the draw by almost two years, introducing America’s first large caliber cartridge revolver in 1870, the .44 caliber S&W Model 3 American.
S&W’s control and enforcement of the Rollin White patent for the bored through cylinder, which they purchased in 1855, prevented Colt’s or any American arms maker from producing a breech-loading cartridge revolver until 1869, by which time S&W had established itself as the leading manufacturer of cartridge-firing arms in the U.S.
The Model 3 name was S&W’s classification for its large frame revolvers (just as N Frame designates a large frame S&W today). The Topbreak single action was faster to handle, load and unload than any other handgun up to that point in time. When broken open the S&W simultaneously ejected the shells in all six chambers. (Unfortunately it also ejected any unfired rounds if opened prematurely.)
The Model 3 American was chambered in both .44 rimfire Henry, though only around 200 were produced, and in .44 American (also known as .44 S&W or .44/100). The next .44 in the line was the 2nd Model American which differed in the frame design with a bump in the bottom of the frame to accommodate a larger trigger pin. The 3rd variation was the New Model No. 3 manufactured from 1878 to 1908 with a standard barrel length of 6-1/2 inches and chambered in .44 Russian. Barrel lengths varied from a short 3-1/2 inch length up to 8-inches. The model was also produced in .32-44, .38-40, .44-40, and in .320 caliber revolving rifle variation with a detachable shoulder stock.
Between 1870 and 1912 total production for No. 3 Americans, the New Model No. 3, New Model No. 3 Frontier, and S&W’s foreign contract production totaled over 110,700 guns. This impressive number does not, however, include the U.S. military’s Schofield variations of the No. 3 for the U.S. Cavalry, introduced in 1875, 1876-1877.
The S&W Schofield Models
Although the vast majority of sidearms carried by the U.S. Army in the 1870s were Colt Single Actions, S&W also provided a significant number of Topbreak models for the U.S. Cavalry beginning with the No. 3 American in 1870. The most noteworthy was a variation designed specifically for the mounted soldier, the Schofield. This version, chambered in a new caliber, .45 Schofield, arrived in 1874 as an improved No. 3 American and was designed by U.S. Army Major George W. Schofield.
He decided to make changes to the S&W design since the first .44 caliber S&W models used by the U.S. Army had been criticized for the way the topbreak latch operated. It had the release mounted at the back of the barrel and this often proved hard to use on horseback, since it had to be lifted up. Schofield redesigned the latch mechanism to fit on the back of the frame, and thus release the barrel by simply pulling the latch back (with the hammer at half cock) and pressing the barrel down against one’s leg or saddle to pivot it open. S&W adopted the design and the U.S. Ordnance Dept. ordered almost the entire production of this distinctive model. The standard barrel length for the Schofield was 7-inches.
There was only one drawback to the S&W, from a military logistics standpoint. The .45 Schofield cartridge was shorter than a .45 Colt cartridge, and thus while the .45 Schofield cartridge would fit into a Colt SAA, the .45 Colt round was too long for the S&W’s cylinder. Ultimately this led to Colt’s Model 1873 being carried by the majority of U.S. soldiers and Cavalrymen.
For sale to the civilian trade a number of military Schofields were refinished and altered to barrel lengths of 4-1/4 inches. Others were specially built with 5-inch barrels for use by Wells Fargo & Co. agents, as well as surplus guns with cut down barrels sold through New York retailers Schuyler, Hartley & Graham and Francis Bannerman & Co. The Schofield found a welcome home on the trail in the holsters of cowboys, lawmen, and outlaws alike throughout the remainder of the 19th century. Total Schofield production, in all variations, accounted for approximately 8,969 guns.
The modern day Schofield .177 caliber
Following on the success of the Umarex Colt Single Action Peacemakers, the next logical western handgun to reproduce was the S&W American, or the later Schofield model. It was the latter that Bear River Outdoors, located in Frisco, Texas, recently introduced. The standard Schofield model, copied from the original S&W design, has the approximate weight and balance of the real guns, and operation is nearly identical to the original .45 Schofield models. The airgun has a modest hammer draw of 3 pounds 13 ounces, a light 3 pound, 5 ounce average trigger pull, and a very easy to operate topbreak latch to release the barrel.
The rebounding hammer has no firing pin, but does have a nicely checkered hammer spur, and an added manual safety mechanism at the base of the hammer that rotates into a locked or unlocked position with the thumb. Once locked the hammer cannot be cocked. If the gun is cocked, the locking mechanism cannot be reached. To lock the action, the gun has to be manually de-cocked by carefully lowering the hammer, just as it was in the Old West.
Unlike the original S&W design, the airgun’s cartridge ejector (actuated by the camming action of the barrel being released from the frame and rotating downward), stops short of kicking the six empty rounds out of the cylinder (you really don’t want to go hunting for them on the ground to reload!), so you have to manually dump them. This is a concession to the original design you’ll be glad they made.
The BB shells are the same as those used in the Webley topbreak double action revolver and the spares also come with a modern-style speed loader. While not exactly Old West, the first practical six-round speed loaders were in use before the turn of the century for both S&W topbreak revolvers and the British Webley topbreak revolvers. The earliest designs for a speed loader actually date back to 1879!
In Part 6 we examine the fit and finish on the .177 Caliber Schofield and put some steel downrange.
A word about safety
Blowback action airguns provide the look, feel and operation of their cartridge-firing counterparts and this is one reason why they have become so popular. Airguns in general all look like guns, blowback action models more so, and it is important to remember that the vast majority of people can’t tell an airgun from a cartridge gun. Never brandish an airgun in public. Always, and I can never stress this enough, always treat an airgun as you would a cartridge gun. The same manual of operation and safety should always apply.