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Smith & Wesson No. 1 1st Issue revolver w/ Original Gutta Percha Case
The gutta percha casing seen here is an original example. Most of these early thermoplastics have not survived; consequently, they are rarely seen today. The S&W No. 1, Ist Issue revolver model inside was manufactured from 1857 to 1860 and about 11,000 were made.
The Smith & Wesson Model No. 1 1st Issue Revolver represents
two significant firsts in the history of firearms - it was the
first in a long line of revolvers produced by the Springfield gun
makers, and it was also the first U.S.-made arm to employ a
self-contained metallic cartridge. The genesis of this new design
was made possible by three factors.
The first was Rollin White's 1855 patent for a cylinder that featured bored-through chambers. Smith & Wesson obtained exclusive rights to use this innovation in return for royalty payments of 25 cents on each revolver produced. One year later, Samuel Colt's U.S. patents for revolving arms expired, opening the marketplace to competing designs based on Colt's revolving cylinder principle. A third key factor in the development of the No. 1 revolver was Daniel Wesson's success in perfecting a self-contained rimfire cartridge based on the French-designed Flobert round. Gunsmiths Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson had collaborated on the development of a lever-action magazine pistol based on the earlier Jennings repeating rifle design.
This pistol, known as the Volcanic, failed in large part to the lack of suitable ammunition, but it later became the basis for the Henry and Winchester repeating rifles. These famous long arms did yeoman service with U.S. Army troops, settlers, and peace officers during the Civil War and the Westward Movement. Smith left the financially-strapped Volcanic Arms Co. in 1855, but Wesson continued with the struggling firm. During this period, he continued the duo's earlier work on metallic cartridge design. In late 1856, the two were re-united and had secured the rights to White's cylinder patent.
By the following year, Smith & Wesson's revolver factory in Springfield, Massachusetts was in operation. Initial No. 1 production models featured a square butt with rosewood grip panels; a silver-plated brass frame with rounded surfaces; and blued non-fluted cylinder and octagonal barrel. The top barrel flat bore the stamping, "SMITH & WESSON SPRINGFIELD MASS." Originally priced at $12.75, the firm later offered an optional gutta percha case for an additional charge of $1.25. Approximately 5,000 of these cases, which were produced by Littlefield, Parsons & Co., included a bas relief design featuring the revolver and the Smith & Wesson name on the lid. These cases are rarely encountered today.
These seven-shot repeaters were chambered for the equivalent of today's .22 short rimfire cartridge, and although they were lacking the potency of many of their contemporaries, they represented a watershed in the development of personal protection arms. Their metallic cartridges were also far more robust than the skin or paper varieties commonly used with percussion sidearms. In addition, they required neither percussion caps nor a powder flask, thus they could be re-loaded much more quickly than the larger-caliber competitors marketed by Colt, Remington, and other firms. Their bottom-break/top hinge tip-up design also added to the ease with which re-loading could be performed. Empty cartridge cases could quickly be punched out of the cylinder through the use of short rod mounted beneath the barrel, and fresh loads were inserted just as quickly. The use of the small "No.1 Cartridge," with its light three-grain charge of black powder, was made necessary by the tendency of the copper cartridge case heads to bulge when used with larger calibers or powder charges. This condition caused the cases to bind against the frame, thus preventing cylinder rotation.
Aside from the use of a small, low-power cartridge, Smith & Wesson's design also included a rotating recoil shield that was fitted to the rear of the cylinder to eliminate this problem. Unlike other revolver designs of the time, the No. 1 featured a cylinder stop that was mounted to the top strap and activated when the two-piece hammer was pulled backward to cock the piece. These pistols employed no half-cock or other safety mechanism, and their sheathed spur trigger had no trigger guard. Several modifications also appeared during the production run of the No. 1 revolver, including the replacement of the bayonet-type barrel latch common to the original design with a spring-loaded side projection button-type catch; inclusion of a non-rotating recoil shield, and a change from three grove/left-hand twist rifling to five grooves with a right-hand twist.
More significant alterations were incorporated into the No. 1 Second Issue and No. 1 Third Issue revolvers. In the former, a larger, irregularly side plate replaced the smaller round plate common to the First Issue, and the rounded frame was replaced with a flat-sided design. The Third Issue is easily identified by its bird's-head butt and fluted cylinder. The No. 1 First Issue was produced between 1857 and 1860, with a total production of approximately 11,671 pistols. Introduced in 1860, the No. 1 Second Issue enjoyed a production run of approximately 117,000 before it was discontinued in 1868. The No. 1 Third Issue was produced between 1868 and 1881, with a total production of approximately 131,000 examples. Serial numbers for the First and Second Issue were sequential, beginning with #1 and continuing through 11,671 for the First Issue, and concluding in the 128,000 range for the last production Second Issue revolvers. Third Issue serial numbers range from #1 to 131163.
These revolvers met with widespread popularity, and several companies on both sides of the Atlantic produced counterfeit versions of the No. 1, or they introduced their own metallic cartridge designs in violation of existing patent and license agreements. American producers, most notably Manhattan Fire Arms Manufacturing Co., were held by the courts to be guilty of illegal infringements on Smith & Wesson and Rollin White patents, while European manufacturers were immune from such lawsuits because U.S. patents were not recognized overseas at that time.
The original Smith & Wesson versions were in such demand that by 1863, the company was faced with a one-year backlog in orders. Some found their way to the fighting fronts during the Civil War, and noted American humorist Samuel L. Clemens was among those who purchased these diminutive sidearms. From somewhat humble beginnings, Smith & Wesson would capitalize on their successes with the No. 1 series, eventually becoming the dominant manufacturer of revolvers worldwide.
Although production ceased more than a century ago, interest in these ground-breaking firearms remains strong among collectors. Popularity is high in a variety of circles, including collectors of Civil War and Smith & Wesson arms. Prices for surviving examples in premium-grade condition far exceed their original 19th century price tag.