Tales of Wells Fargo Part 1
Barra recreates the 5-inch Schofield model
By Dennis Adler
The Schofield model of S&W’s No. 3 American was designed by a military officer looking for a way to correct a problem with the original topbreak latching mechanism that was proving problematic for U.S. Cavalry soldiers trying to reload the gun on horseback.
The groundbreaking .44 caliber S&W No. 3 revolver had been adopted by the military in 1870 and was being issued to troops early in 1871. It was a fine handgun for most, but mounted soldiers found it problematic to handle on horseback. The S&W design had been intended to make reloading faster by breaking open the action, tilting the barrel down, at which point a cam rotated by this movement forced the ejector upward to expel all six spent shell cases at once. The open cylinder also provided quick reloading of all six chambers before rotating the barrel up and locking it. All well and good if you had two free hands, one to hold the gun and the other to raise the latch on the top of the frame so the barrel could be tilted down. On horseback two free hands was a little daunting. Army Major George W. Schofield regarded the S&W as an excellent sidearm but believed the latching mechanism was all wrong, at least for the Cavalry. He set about redesigning the latch and secured a patent to “first, provide a lock-fast for such weapons, which shall hold the barrel securely in the position for firing; second, to provide a cylinder-stay for holding the cylinder in position when the weapon is opened for loading or ejecting discharged cartridge cases; third, to provide a simple and effective ejector-spring stop.” Maj. Schofield’s changes also improved the rear sight by incorporating a sighting notch on the latch itself, which was easily opened one-handed by pulling the hammer to half cock and using the thumb to pull the latch back releasing the barrel.
His design incorporated other improvements to the gun’s operation and ease of ejecting spent shells and reloading. He moved quickly on his redesign and had it patented by June 20, 1871 hoping it would be adopted for the Military revolvers. But it took until May 1873 before initial tests of his improved design were evaluated by the Ordnance Department. By then the .45 caliber Colt Single Action Army was being adopted and put into service as the primary sidearm for the U.S. military. Still another year passed before extensive testing of the Schofield design was completed and guns were sent to troops to evaluate in the field. That was in June 1874. The results were so promising that in July the U.S. Chief of Ordnance recommended and the Secretary of War approved the purchase of 3000 Schofield-improved Smith & Wesson Revolvers with guns to be chambered for the new .45 S&W Schofield cartridge. The first guns were delivered in 1875 (inspectors mark and 1875 could be found on the grips). Between that point and a subsequent order for an additional 3000 guns, Horace Smith made an improvement to Maj. Schofield’s latch design making it stronger, a little larger with knurled edges and a serrated top to provide a more tactile surface to engage when opening the action. This would be the Second Issue with production beginning in 1877 (the date you find on the grips of later Schofield models, as well as the CO2 models sold by Barra).
In total, it is estimated that 5,018 Schofield-Smith & Wesson models were issued to the U.S. Army between 1876 and 1893 plus another 3,569 issued by the Ordnance Department to State Militias across the country (some of which may have been previously issued to the Army and refurbished).
A second life for First and Second Issue Schofields
The military was the primary customer for S&W’s large caliber revolvers in the early to mid-1870s and for almost all of the First and Second Issue Schofields. As time went by there were also civilian buyers, since Smith & Wesson built more guns than the military purchased, and as military guns were refurbished a percentage of those also went to the civilian market (Army surplus) and found their way into retailers like Hartley & Graham in New York, which listed both the standard barrel length and models with 5-1/2 inch barrels (there were also shorter barrels, 5-inches, favored by Wells Fargo, and as short as 4-inches). Wells Fargo & Co. and American Express purchased surplus Schofields to arm their field agents; both companies acquiring sizeable quantities of the guns and most with the shorter barrels. These were all specially marked, with Wells Fargo stamping their Schofields W.F. & CO. EX. on the right side of the barrel.
A percentage of refurbished military guns were also returned to service with shortened 5-inch barrels. Although they were primarily reblued, civilian guns and some for military officers were also nickel plated. The Schofield was, unfortunately a very short lived model; in 1878 S&W introduced the improved New Model Number Three and subsequently discontinued the No. 3 American, the Russian Models, and Schofields.
Despite comparatively limited manufacturing, the Schofield revolvers remained in use well into the 1890s, and Hartley & Graham (among other retailers like Bannerman) continued selling refurbished military Schofields in various barrel lengths, popularly 5-inch barrels and nickel plating, well into the late 1890s.
A revolver with a manual safety?
Here’s an interesting fact, and one that kind of plays into the hands of the CO2 models. S&W experimented with a factory fitted manual safety for the Schofield known as the Kelton Thumb Safety. Only a small number of guns were fitted with the device which consisted of a large checkered thumb piece on the right side of the frame, (extending far enough back to be easily activated with the shooting hand thumb before cocking the revolver). The safety prevented the gun from being fired until it was depressed. It was a large and awkward looking device that makes the small sliding safety behind the hammer on the Barra look brilliant!
The latest 5-inch Wells Fargo models from Barra, which should be available by December, will be offered in the new aged finish with aged faux wood grips, and nickel finish with faux wood (the current white faux ivory grips will also fit the new models).
In Part 2 we start shooting the Wells Fargo models.