Airguns of the American West Part 5

Airguns of the American West Part 5

The Schofield Revolver

Colt’s perpetual rival

By Dennis Adler

By the early 1870s S&W had become the first American armsmaker to offer a large caliber, cartridge-loading revolver. This S&W Second Model American with nickel plated finish and 8-inch barrel is pictured in this daguerreotype portrait of a man holding a nickel plated S&W American. (Mike Clark Collection/Collectors Firearms)

By the early 1870s S&W had become the first American armsmaker to offer a large caliber, cartridge-loading revolver. This S&W Second Model American with nickel plated finish and 8-inch barrel is pictured in this daguerreotype portrait of a man holding a nickel plated S&W American. (Mike Clark Collection/Collectors Firearms)

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.

Smith & Wesson was second only to Colt’s when it came to the popularity of its innovative handguns in the 1870s. Pictured are a variety of models, at top, S&W’s Model 320 revolving rifle with detachable should stock. This example has a 20-inch barrel is nickel plated and in the standard .320 S&W caliber. The second gun is a Second Model American nickel plated, with an 8-inch bbl and chambered in .44 American. The third gun is a rare Ludwig Loewe Russian Model in .44 Russian with 6-1/2 inch barrel. The bottom example is a Number 3 Target chambered .32-44 caliber with a 6-1/2 inch barrel. (Mike Clark Collection/Collectors Firearms)

Smith & Wesson was second only to Colt’s when it came to the popularity of its handguns in the 1870s. Pictured are a variety of models, at top, S&W’s Model 320 revolving rifle with detachable shoulder stock. This example has a 20-inch barrel, is nickel plated and in the standard .320 S&W caliber. The next gun is a Second Model American with an 8-inch barrel and chambered in .44 American. Next is a rare Ludwig Loewe Russian Model in .44 Russian with 6-1/2 inch barrel. At the bottom a Number 3 Target Model chambered in .32-44 caliber with 6-1/2 inch barrel. (Mike Clark Collection/Collectors Firearms)

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.

By 1874 the better handling S&W Schofield, as improved by U.S. Army Colonel George W. Schofield, was being adopted by the federal government. The first S&W large frame revolvers used by the U.S. Army in 1870 had been criticized for the top-break design, which had a barrel-mounted release latch that was often hard to use. Schofield redesigned the latch mechanism to fit the frame and 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 other surface) to pivot it open, thus automatically ejecting all of the spent casings for a quick reload, the gun’s greatest advantage over Colt revolvers. (.177 caliber Schofield by Bear River Outdoors, c.1875 Cavalry holster, military belt and buckle and cartridge pouch courtesy John Bianchi Frontier Gunleather)

By 1875 the better handling Schofield, as improved by U.S. Army Major George W. Schofield, was being carried by the U.S. Cavalry. The first S&W large frame revolvers used by the U.S. Army in 1870 had been criticized for the topbreak design, which had a barrel-mounted release latch that was hard to use on horseback. He redesigned the latch mechanism to fit the frame and 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, and automatically ejecting all of the spent casings, the gun’s greatest advantage over Colt revolvers. (.177 caliber Schofield by Bear River Outdoors, c.1875 Cavalry holster, military belt and cartridge pouch courtesy John Bianchi Frontier Gunleather)

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.

The standard Schofield model, copied from the original S&W Schofield design, has the approximate weight and balance of the real guns, and operation is nearly identical to the original .45 S&W (.45 Schofield) caliber models.

The standard .177 caliber Schofield model, copied from the original S&W design, has the approximate weight and balance of the real guns, and operation is nearly identical.

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.

Still using the same tactics as the Civil War era Cavalry, soldiers wore their guns on the right hip, holstered butt forward, and thus requiring a reverse draw. This was slower (unless you were Wild Bill Hickok), than a conventional strong side holster.

Still using the same tactics as the Civil War era Cavalry, soldiers wore their guns on the right hip, holstered butt forward, and thus requiring a reverse draw. This was slower (unless you were Wild Bill Hickok), than a conventional strong side holster.

While it is debatable as to which gun was more accurate, the Schofield’s rear sight was part of the rear latch that released the barrel for reloading, providing a larger rear sight (and larger front sight) than the Colt SAA, which had a small rear V notch and topstrap channel.

While it is debatable as to which gun was more accurate, the Schofield’s rear sight was part of the barrel latch mechanism, providing a larger rear sight (and larger front sight) than the Colt SAA, which used a small rear notch and topstrap channel.

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.

For accuracy in details, operation, and general handling the 1.77 caliber Bear River Schofield (top) is an incredibly close match to a real .45 S&W caliber Schofield revolver (bottom).

For accuracy in details, operation, and general handling the .177 caliber Bear River Schofield (top) is an incredibly close match to a real .45 caliber Schofield revolver.

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.

Using the same manufacturing concept as the .177 caliber Colt Peacemakers, the Schofield load the CO2 into the grip frame by removing the left grip panel, which also has a built-in hex head wrench for tightening the seating screw built into the bottom of the grip strap. The cartridges for the airgun are approximately the size of a .38/.357 Magnum round and load the BB into the front of the bullet which is integral with the brass cartridge case.

Using the same manufacturing concept as the .177 caliber Colt Peacemakers, the Schofield loads the CO2 into the grip frame by removing the left grip panel, which also has a built-in hex head wrench for tightening the seating screw built into the bottom of the grip strap. The cartridges for the airgun are approximately the size of a .38/.357 Magnum round and load the BB into the front of the bullet which is integral with the brass cartridge case.

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 S&W’s greatest advantage over the Colt was quicker reloading. There was no need for an ejector housing or loading gate. The topbreak S&W Schofield could be opened with one hand to pull the latch to the rear and by pressing the barrel against one’s leg or other surface, tilted down to automatically eject all six spent shell cases at once. The .177 caliber model does not eject them since the BB cartridges are re-loadable. As a result of this design deviation, the .177 shells have to be manually “dumped” from the cylinder to reload.

The S&W’s greatest advantage over the Colt was quicker reloading. There was no need for an ejector housing or loading gate. The topbreak S&W Schofield could be opened with one hand and all six shells automatically ejected. The .177 caliber model does not eject them since the BB cartridges are re-loadable. As a result of this design deviation, the BB shells have to be manually “dumped” from the cylinder to reload.

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.

5 thoughts on “Airguns of the American West Part 5

  1. Some shooters have stated that their revolvers shoot low . The barrel is heavy and tend to droop. With a center hold it hits point of aim pretty much for me, especially with a two hand hold. The Webley cartridges fit , but the speed loader is too large and doesn’t line up/ Pyramid should remedy this with a cartridge only box of 12 cartridges . Would be nice to see an industry standard cartridge like with firearms. A medium frame Colt or S&W HKS speed loader works fine with mine and fits existing pouches. Next up ,after nickel finish , should be a 5 inch Wells Fargo version.




    • For those of you who have asked, here’s the final word about replacing the CO2 seal in an Umarex SAA. I spoke with the Umarex service department and they do not recommend leaving Pellgun oil on the seal when stored, as it puts too much Pellgun oil into the gun next time you load a CO2 cartridge. The Pellgun oil is blown through the gun when the first shot is fired and it lubricates the mechanisms and barrel. Too much oil can lead to an excessive buildup of debris and dirt. There are seal replacement kits but Umarex cautions that it requires a level of disassembly that demands a working knowledge of the airgun’s assembly and internal operation. Internally it is not the same as a cartridge-firing Colt SAA and it is easy to get in over your head. Seals do wear out, that’s a fact, and Umarex makes repairs. To replace the seals on the Peacemaker, Umarex charges about $70 and this includes new seals, labor, and return shipping.


  2. I can’t find it on the website, but Pyramid was talking about offering an extended service package ,which , too me seems like a good idea. Looking forward to the shooting evaluation.Keep em comin


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