Around the turn of the century, you could order just about anycustom features from firearms amekrs you wanted; they would bend over backward to follow your every request–at a slight increase in cost,naturally. Today, such requests are turned over to in-house custom shops, ifthey have one, and usually the options offered are engraving and specialfinished such as nickel, silver plating, and possibly grips of exoticwood, ivory or pearl. Nice options, but not necessarily what adedicated shooter, rather than a collector, might want.
For instance,suppose you wanted a Smith & Wesson .44 Special with a 3-inch barreland a “k” grip on an “N” frame? (For those notfamiliar with Smith & Wesson’s nomenclature, the “N”frame guns are chambered for the heavy duty, big-bore and/or magnumcalibers, while the “K” frame guns are their most popularframe size and are used for the various target models and regular-weightarms.) I am certain that Smith ; Wesson would by very polite onreceiving such a request, but the economics of building a single suchrevolver would be staggering. In short, it would be impossible to makesuch a unique revolver unless the person who ordered it was as rich asCroesus.
Enter Lew Horton, of Lew Horton Distributing Company, one of thelarger firearm wholesalers. Lew went to Smith ; Wesson and asked ifthey could turn out 5,000 Combat .44 Specials, equipped with fullyadjustable sights, special 3-inch barrels, smooth combat triggers,semi-target hammers, Goncolo Alves combat grips and, in addition, Lewconvinced Smith ; Wesson to equip this unique sixgun with the firstround butt ever offered on an “N” frame revolver. All in allquite a coup for both shooters and collectors.
Personally, I have always been a fan of the smaller frame size,even on a powerful revolver, as it lets you get a better grip on ahandgun, regardless of its recoil. Now, while S;W might laught atyou for ordering a unique pistol, 5,000 such pistols is no laughingmatter and Smith ; Wesson agreed to make this special run of Model24-3 sixguns. Not only would they make these distinctive revolvers, but theywould be priced right along with their regular line of handguns! So, forthe first time, you could eat your cake and still have it. For $397.
50retail you could own a gun that just has to become a collector’sitem, but you could also buy it at a price that makes it eminentlyshootable. With this in mind the handsome new S&W Combat .44 Special wasnot treated with kid gloves, it was given a normal full shooting test.Other Lew Horton limited editions might well be handled differently.
Forexample, there is a 7-1/2-inch barreled, blued Colt Single Action Army cased and ivory gripped which has the Colt logo tastefully inlaid ingold on the backstrap. Furthermore this small run is limited to just250 revolvers with 70 having fluted cylinders while the remaining 180arms will have non-fluted cylinders. I rather doubt if buyers of thishandsome sixgun will rush to the range to try it out. The .
44 S&W is another story. For one thing the 5,000 unit runputs it in the realm of “shooting without desecrating” asthere will be enough guns in the hands of shooters whose fingers willitch to pull the triger on this unique little snubby that no power onearth will hold them back from wringing them out as duty guns. No doubt there will be some misers hoarding these, guns, unfired,carefully greased and safe from the light of day in some bank vault, butthere will be a lot of others, like myself, who will be having the timeof our lives shooting this eminently shootable “collectible.” While the S&W Model 24-3 .
44 Special Combat revolver is thepistol we are writing about in depth, it merely serves to introduce thisnew run of factory arms that harken back to the 19th century heyday whenguns were customized at the factory on a relatively routine basis, butalways in small numbers. Today the factory “custom” arms ofthat period are eagerly sought after and always command a premiumamongst gun collectors. No matter how skillfully a firearm was alteredafter it left the factory, even by gunsmiths of the highest repute, itis the non-standard factory gun that is the prize. Perhaps today we areseeing a rebirth of that honored tradition.
True you won’t be ableto shoot off a letter to Colt, like some of the old-time marshals did,and order yourself a one-of-a-kind sixgun with special factory barrellength and sights, but you will have the opportunity to purchase amodern day “Ned Buntline Special”, even though your pistolwon’t be a unique product but will be numbered in hundreds orthousands. But, since this is almost the 21st century, we certainlycan’t judge things by horse and buggy standards. Consequently this particular arm was handled no differently fromany other practical, combat pistol. We wanted to know if, by some awfulchance, these guns were going to be produced as pampered “poodles” rather than robust using guns.
Our fears were notrealized and the Smith came through with flying colors. From a practical view I was also curious to find out how velocitywas affected by the snubby 3-inch barrel. Two different factory loadswere chronographed, Federal’s 200-grain hollow points andWinchester’s 200-grain Silvertips, also of hollow pointpersuasion, along with some reloads using 240-grain Alberts and asimilarly weighted Corbin swaged bullet. The latter two loads werepowered by a mild-mannered load of 6 grains of Unique.
The pair of factory loads were almost identical twins in that they,velocity-wise, averaged just 2 feet apart with the Winchester edging theFederal load by 743 fps (feet per second) to 741 fps. The Winchesterloading was extremely consistent with a spread of just 10 fps and anincredibly low figure of just “4” for the standard deviation.For the non-users of chronographs it should be stated that any standarddeviation figure that approaches 20 is deemed extremely good, and thelower the number, the higher the quality of the load. The reloads, using the heavier 240-grain bullet, ambled along at675 fps average.
All these figures represent instrumental readings 6feet from the muzzle and were not corrected to true muzzle velocity figures. Just how does this compare with listed factory ballistics?According to Federal their 200-grain bullet leaves the muzzle of their6-1/2-inch vented test barrel at 900 fps with Winchester claimingidentical velocities from the same barrel length. Winchester alsomarkets a 246-grain loading, similar to our test handloads, at 755 fpsfrom the 6-1/2-inch tube. Going back to my reloading logs I find that the Federal 200-grainload clocked an instrumental velocity of 855 fps from a Colt NewFrontier with a 7-1/2-inch barrel.
So, any way you look at it the3-inch barreled gun is not going to match velocities with its longerbarreled brethren. But does anybody care? This is a short range combatgun that may well be used at ranges measured in feet rather than yards. Using Col. Jeff Cooper’s figures to interpret thesevelocities into relative stopping power (RSP), it would seem that any ofthese loads fall closely enough into the power range of the time proven45 ACP pistol to be considered a practical combat arm and load.
Forinstance Jeff Cooper’s “short form” gives our 200-grainfactory .44 Special loads a relative stopping power index of 22.30 whilea hard ball .45 ACP at 850 fps boasts an RSP of 31 28, with Jeff givinga figure of “20” as a passing grade for a combat arm.
Usingstandard ballistic tables the 200-grain factory bullets at 743 fps havea muzzle energy of 245 foot pounds. Again, the factory 230-grain 45 ACPhardball load racks up 370 foot pounds of muzzle energy. Thesesometimes bewildering figures point up why there is so much confusionabout “stopping power.” Our .
44 Special load has only ninerelative stopping power units separating it from the .45 ACP but thereare 125 foot pounds of energy spread between the two rounds. I guessthe bottom line is that you still have to shoot straight because a badshot with a big more may not be as well off as a good shot with a lessercaliber. Another unknown was the ability of the hollow pointed .
44 Specialslugs to expand at the moderate velocities obtained with the bobbed-off3-inch barrel, this too could affect awarding a “gold ring”for excellence in elusive annals of stopping power. Firing a Winchester 200-gram Silvertip into a plastic gallon jug ofwater backed up by a dry telephone book proved that these bullets doindeed expand at relatively low velocities. The 430-inch aluminumjacketed hollow point Winchester bullet upset to a full .777 inches, a55 percent, increase in diameter.
That’s impressive! To further confuse things this same bullet, when fired into drytelephone books, had its expansion limited to 584 inches. This is aphenomenon we have seen time and time again. Certain types of materialseem to “pack” the hollow point and disrupt normal expansion.Sand and dry paper seem to be particularly notorious for inhibitingnormal expansion.
Hollow point bullets fired into these materials oftenact like solid projectiles rather than expanding as they do in flesh.Still, the Silvertip ended up a bit larger than a Civil War Minie ball showing that it is an all-around performer. What was also impressive was the way that this little 39-ounce(loaded weight) revolver shot and how well behaved it was. The small,round butt “K” frame really snuggles into your hand.
Now I am6 foot, 3 inches tall and have mitt-sized hands that can be wrappedaround some pretty hefty grips, so 11-year-old Jeff Hetzler, son ofG&A Senior Editor Dave Hetzler, was elected to try out the newsixgun. Firing full-power factory loads Jeff not only handled it withaplomb, but hit what he was shooting at! His target was an informal funone, the Seligman Dueling Tree written up in the October G&A ProofHouse section. The swinging metal arms of this target rotate 180degrees when struck, then can be blown back to their original positionwith another smack of a hard hitting pistol bullet. It was BANG! .
. .CLANG! on a satisfyingly regular basis. Obviously this is a gun thatwill not intimidate the smaller framed person, man or woman, yet willdeliver smashing power.
It seems that there is always both the good news as well as the badnews. So far it has been all good news. So here is the clinker; by thetime you read this there is a possibility that this first group of gunsmay have already been sold out. With just 5,000 of these arms availablethey are certain to move fast.
However, there is more good news to come. This is just the firstin the line of fairly priced, special issue guns that Lew Horton isbringing out, and, no doubt, he will be an inspiration to others to havemajor factories bring out actual, working guns for both shooters andcollectors. Commemoratives are nice, but I for one want something I canuse and shoot, not just hang on the wall. We have already mentioned the Colt Single Action Army in .
45 Colt,with gold inlay, fluted or non-fluted cylinders, ivory grips and aFrench-fitted (that is contoured to the lines of the gun rather thanhaving a loosely fitted partition) case. This pistol is admittedly onthe cusp, as far as a shooter is concerned, as only 250 pieces will bemade and the price is $1,261.41 at retail. Considering what a Model”P” is going for these days, less ivory grips, gold inlay anda genuine Colt case, the price is certainly not out of line.
A second Smith & Wesson that Lew Horton is offering to thepublic will be a Model 686 Compact .357 Magnum. This is the firststainless steel “L” frame–which is the frame style that isintermediate between the “K” frame (regular) and “N”(large) frames–to be fitted with a round butt “K” frame grip.Like the .
44 Special Model 24-3, Smith & Wesson also agreed tofurnish genuine S&W holsters for these guns as there are nocommercial holsters available for this unique frame variation. In a departure from the Model 24-3 .44 the Model 686 will feature a2-1/2-inch barrel, but other options remain the same; smooth combattrigger, semi-target hammer, red ramp front sight mated with a fullyadjustable white outlined rear sight and smooth combat Goncolo Alvesgrip panels bearing the S&W medallion. Again, just 5,000 units willbe produced and the retail price has been set at $366.
Will there be more special, limited editions from smith &Wesson? Time will tell but it looks like there is something on thehorizon. When, and if, it materializes you will read about it here. Meanwhile, back at the Colt stable, there is something for milady,a distaff side colt .380 Government Model.
Just 1,000 of these specialautos will be made and they will have a unique serial number range:LC001 to LC1000 with the “LC” standing for Ladies Colt. It israre for Colt to feature a special serial number range so this shouldenhance their value. In keeping with the Lady Colt theme the slide will be gold etchedwith a feminine pattern; a rose will be etched near the hammer and”Lady Colt” will be emblazoned on the slide as well. The grippanels will be of rosewood and the ensemble will be contained in a plushvelvet handbag featuring both the “LC” and the Colt medallion.
This edition lists at $546.81 retail. It is also possible that Colt, working with Lew Horton, could alsoride out of the west (from Hartford?) with other unique arms. Actually Iimagine that there are a lot of you who have ideas on special, limitedworking firearms you would like to present to the American public;perhaps this is your time to sound off! For further information on these firearms write: Lew HortonDistributing Co.
, Inc., Dept. GA, 175 Boston Road, South-borough, MA01772.