Revolver Rivalry: Colt vs. Smith & Wesson
Article first appeared at Shooting Illustrated.
Sam Colt invented the revolver as we know it, offering the first one for sale in 1836. That first Paterson was a five-shot, cap-and-ball revolver. An earlier—and very complicated—flintlock revolver, the Collier, came out of the United Kingdom and may or may not have had some influence on the young Yankee entrepreneur. The gun’s introduction as a repeating handgun was a radical innovation, ideally suited for America’s westward expansion. Much of that movement was on horseback, where the one-handed repeater was ideal. Various models of the Colt revolver followed, each offering improvements of one kind or the other. There were many imitators, but Colt was pretty much the main firm through the end of the Civil War. Serious competition came when two guys named Smith and Wesson got their take on the revolver, which fired metallic cartridges, up and running with serious calibers. By the early 1870s, the two companies were building the majority of the fighting revolvers in active service. It was a fierce competition that continued for about a century.
In the time of the Indian Wars, Smith & Wesson made some huge sales overseas, so the company’s revolvers were not that well-known in this country. Several of its guns—like the break-top Schofield—were used and respected. But this was a time when Colt pretty well ruled the roost with the Peacemaker in its many chamberings. Both companies offered double-action/single-action guns by the 1880s. Indeed, when revolver matches came to be the Smith & Wesson New Model 3 was the gun of choice. In the 1890s, both manufacturers developed revolvers in a format that we have come to regard as typical. It involved a solid (not hinged) frame with a cylinder that swung outward to the left. Trigger pressure would cause the hammer to come fully back, as the cylinder revolved around to index with the barrel. It was also possible to thumb-cock the hammer and then press the trigger to fire. The first is double-action, and the second is single-action. The two systems are often confused, but that’s an issue for another day.
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My point is simply that by the turn of the century, both of America’s major handgun manufacturers made revolvers that looked quite similar, behaved much the same and even sold at roughly the same price. They fired the same cartridges and came in small, medium and large configurations. From that point in time forward to the 1970s, it was a battle for supremacy. One firm might be ahead in sales on the strength of a new innovation, as when Colt introduced an aluminum-frame revolver for concealed carry. It was quickly answered by a similar gun from Smith & Wesson. Interestingly enough, when the industry could not completely fill the need for 1911 semi-automatics in 1917, both Colt and Smith & Wesson quickly changed their large-revolver lines to build Model 1917 revolvers chambered in .45 ACP. Both companies were more than capable of offering upgraded revolvers for special purposes—the first Registered Magnums from Smith & Wesson as opposed to Colt’s Shooting Master revolvers in a significant amount of chamberings.
Was there any difference? Of course there were, but whatever differences there may have been, it did not relate to quality. Both companies made their guns in America, forged from steel smelted in this country and put together by Yankee craftsmen who took fierce pride in the product. There wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference in the fit and finish of the two makes. Once in a while, either of the two companies would get distracted and quality might suffer a bit, but that never lasted. Thus was the situation when I got involved with revolvers. That was 1969, when I became a deputy sheriff and carried a revolver by mandate from the department.
At that time, Smith & Wesson dominated the law enforcement market and I have to believe much of that dominance had to do with quite aggressive marketing. We used the .38 Spl.-chambered Model 15 Combat Masterpiece, with a few guys opting for the slightly heavier Model 19. Stainless steel versions of both handguns were a few years ahead. The Colts in use were by the individual officer’s choice and were usually Troopers or the legendary Python with its highly recognizable ribbed front sight paired with a full-length underlug.
Obviously, there were differences, but there were several points on the Colt that kept a Smith & Wesson in my holster. For one thing, the Colt ejector rod in the front of the cylinder worked fine until you bent it. Believe me, there is no tool on earth that gets the abuse of a policeman’s revolver. Smith & Wesson used a protected system for this part. Also, Colt’s quirky action, with a V-shaped mainspring, was prone to timing problems. They were difficult to adjust and pistolsmiths who could do it were few and far between.
Smith & Wessons had their problems, too, and for me, they were associated with size and shape. The K-frame was a little small in the grip area and almost demanded the use of oversize stocks in order to shoot well. I came to love the smooth Smith action in both double- and single-action modes, but the difference in trigger action between the two was noticeable and required time to learn.
Late in the period where a duty revolver was my daily companion, I started to develop an interest in Colt revolvers. The butt shape was just about ideal for double-action shooting, particularly when Colt’s target stocks were in place.
When Bill Davis, the California Highway Patrol’s ace competitive shooter, started gunsmithing, one of the custom-crafted handguns he produced was the so-called “Smython” or “Smolt.” This hybrid revolver combined a Smith & Wesson Model 19 frame with a Colt Python barrel. I first examined one of these odd-looking wheelguns as a candidate for PPC (Police Pistol Competition) and I liked it enough to ask Davis to build a 4-inch model for me.
Colt vs. Smith & Wesson revolvers? Yeah, the rifling twist is different and even the cylinders turn in direction directions, but in the end it matters little. The trigger action can be learned in either case, so what can I say?
It is simply what you like best in your fightin’…ahh, revolver.