THE FIRST .44 SPECIAL—SMITH & WESSON’S TRIPLE-LOCK

BY JOHN TAFFIN

            In 1881, Smith & Wesson was well on the way to finding the niche it would accompany as no other manufacturer ever did, or ever will again, and I also doubt that they will ever be seriously challenged as the most prolific of the double action sixgun producers. This was the year that a modified Model #3 was introduced. It was still in .44 Russian caliber but it was no longer a single action. The first Smith & Wesson big bore double action sixgun had arrived! Ten years earlier an experimental .44 double action had been built probably at the request of the Russian government and during the next decade numerous small caliber double actions would be introduced, but the .44 Double Action would be the beginning of a dynasty that lasts right to the present. From this point forward all double action sixguns would be judged by Smith & Wesson double actions. 

            While the Smith & Wesson single actions had been beautifully engineered with superb looks and balance, they were not the best choice as a basis for a double action design. To put it mildly, the double action .44's, with their weird looking trigger and strangely shaped trigger guard, were homely to say the least and it took me quite awhile to appreciate them for what they were, a real beginning and an excellent shooting and handling sixgun. But single actions do not become great double actions by installing a double action mechanism. However, greatness was just around the corner of the next century.

            In 1899 Smith & Wesson brought out their first modern double action sixgun, the Military & Police .38 with a swing out cylinder and simultaneous ejection of spent cartridges. The .38 Long Colt, official cartridge of the U.S. Military, used 18 grains of black powder and a 150 grain bullet. For the M&P Smith & Wesson lengthened the case to allow the use of 21.5 grains of black powder, the bullet weight was increased to 158 grains, and the .38 Smith & Wesson Special was born. By 1905, the M&P had been improved to the basic model that still exists today. The M&P is a medium framed six-shot revolver that soon found great favor with the constable on patrol. More M&Ps have been produced than all other Smith & Wesson revolvers combined. It is simply a grand design destined to become even better. 

            In 1907 Smith & Wesson corrected their initial double action design error by building on the .38 caliber 1899 Military & Police expanded to a .44 caliber frame and in 1908 brought out the epitome of double action sixguns the New Century, the .44 Hand Ejector First Model, which would forever be known to its loyal followers as the Triple-Lock. Not only was this a new sixgun, it was chambered in a new cartridge, the .44 Special. In addition to enlarging the frame of the M&P to produce the New Century, two other improvements were made. A shroud was added to the bottom of the barrel to enclose the ejector rod, thus not only protecting the ejector rod but also improving the looks of the S&W revolver. The second, unfortunately short-lived, improvement was the addition of a third lock giving the Triple-Lock its unofficial name. Before the .44 Hand Ejector First Model, Smith & Wesson cylinders locked at the rear of the cylinder and at the front of the ejector rod. On the New Century, a third lock was brilliantly machined in the front of the frame at the yoke and barrel junction to solidly lock the cylinder in place.

            I would rate the New Century as one of the most important revolvers of all times. Not only was it beautifully designed and engineered it also introduced a new cartridge, the .44 Smith & Wesson Special. In less the ten years, Smith & Wesson had introduced two of the most important revolver cartridges of all time. Important not only in themselves but for what they would eventually become.

            The .44 Special was simply the .44 Russian case lengthened from .97” to 1.16” and as such was an improvement over the .44 Russian but only mildly. With the lengthening of the case the powder charge increased from 23.0 to 26.0 grains of black powder under a round-nosed 246 grain lead bullet; yes the .44 Special was originally a black power load. Everyone doesn’t agree the first .44 Specials were black powder with some holding out for smokeless; it is a sure thing there was no smokeless powder which could be used in the .44 Special with a charge of 26 grains nor in the .44 Russian with a charge of 23 grains. The .44 Special has never been loaded to its true potential by the ammunition factories and it is only very recently that the load has been offered in defensive type loadings with 180 and 200 grain hollow point bullets as well as 1,000 fps loads using 255 grain bullets.

            The Triple-Lock was offered in both fixed and adjustable sighted models in barrel lengths of 4”, 5”, 6 1/2”, and the rare 7 1/2” in both blue and nickel finishes and was also rarely offered in .38-40, .44-40, and .45 Colt in addition to the .44 Special. With its excellent locking feature one would think the basic Triple-Lock design would have survived even to this day. It lasted exactly seven years! Someone decided the design was too expensive to produce so the third locking feature was dropped. With the ending of the third locking feature and enclosed ejector rod, the retail price was dropped $2. Two dollars!!!! For the sake of two dollars we lost one of the finest double action sixguns ever produced. To be honest we have to put it in perspective and admit a dollar was worth a whole lot more than it is today. But still, a $2 savings?!?!?!?

            The .44 Special cartridge was loaded to a mediocre 750 fps and gathered a small, but knowledgable following. Like its older brother, the .44 Russian, the .44 Special was a superbly accurate cartridge. I have run tests with black powder and Pyrodex loads in both the old .44 Russian and balloon head .44 Special brass, using the original load and they were both capable of one-inch groups at 25 yards from handguns of the period. The .44 Special may have started with a standard loading of 750 fps, however it would not stay there very long as sixgun experimenters would spend several decades bringing the .44 Special cartridge to the apex of perfection and performance.

            Gordon Boser was a New York gunsmith who also designed bullets and wildcat cartridges. One of his bullets for Lyman was #401452, a semi-wadcutter for the .38-40 and also his wildcat .401 Boser built on cut down rifle brass and used in re-chambered and re-barreled Colt Single Actions. He also designed a similar SWC bullet for the .44 Special and that bullet is #429360. It is a most attractive bullet but I have never had great success with it in .44 Specials. 

            In the August 1944 issue of American Rifleman we find an article by Boser entitled The S&W Triple-Lock And The .44 Special Cartridge. He shares: “Back in the early 20s, when I first saw the Smith and Wesson Triple-Lock revolver, I decided that if I ever found one of these guns in perfect or near-perfect condition it would be mine. As the years went by I saw several Triple-Lock guns, all with ruined barrels, but with the tightest cylinders and cranes that I ever saw on any gun of the double action type. In April, 1943, when a dealer showed me a perfect Triple-Lock, Target Model, in original condition, it didn’t take long to make a deal.

            This arm has some special features very much to my liking.  It has a groove diameter of .431” to correspond to a bullet throat of .432”; a perfect set up for a groove-diameter-sized bullet.  It is head spaced to .009”, with a barrel-cylinder joint of .003”. The cylinder and barrel are in line perfectly at all chambers; and above all, it is one of the few .44 Special Smith & Wesson guns that do not lead regardless of the type of lubricant used.

            This particular gun has a very excellent pre-World War I blue finish, a three-and-one-half pound pull, smooth as glass, and the action as a whole is superbly smooth.  The cylinder chambers are .456”. (Factory loaded cartridge cases are .454”.) There is absolutely no end play, and the cylinder-stop play is only such as to permit free function. This is the finest double-action revolver I have ever used…to my notion, this crane lock feature makes this Triple-Lock the finest double-action revolver in existence.  The one I have has a serial number of four figures.  I have seen some of these guns with numbers well over 16,600, and am told some of these guns above number 16,600 had heat-treated cylinders. However, since the .44 special case is designed for only 16,000 pounds pressure, and since the one I have will stand all of that and more, the serial number makes no difference to me. The fellow who thinks he must use super loads had, of course, better get the modern arm, since it undoubtedly has better steel in the cylinders.”

            The Triple-Lock was also known as the First Model .44 Hand Ejector. Since this was written in 1943 the modern arm Boser referred to was the Third Model .44 Hand Ejector also known as the Model 1926. Notice the barrel and cylinder measurements of the Triple-Lock, namely a .431” barrel with .432” cylinder throats. This seems to be the standard for Smith & Wesson revolvers beginning with the .44 Russian. At the same time Colt was using very tight barrels and cylinders in the neighborhood of .424” to .426”; this is why anyone shooting an assortment of the old-time sixguns, or for that matter newer versions, needs to be a reloader tailoring the bullet diameter to each particular .44 sixgun.

            Boser finishes with, “On the Triple-Lock Smith & Wesson, in which the cylinder is .432” and the groove diameter is .431”, the bullet should be sized to .431”…Loading the .44 special is as easy as loading a .38.  It is just right for smokeless powder.  Tools are more accurately made, as are barrels and cylinders; more generally so than in any other large caliber.  The factory loads are not as powerful as the .45, and .38 or .44 Winchester calibers, but when handloaded the .44 special has excellent possibilities.  Its bullets, long and heavy in proportion to its caliber, carry out better than the .45 or the Winchester calibers…in more than 30 years of hunting with a handgun, I have killed over 8,000 animals (mostly eastern ground hogs).  After using the Triple-Lock, my conclusions are that it and the .44 Special cartridge are tops over any other commercial caliber and load.”

            Boser’s serial number discussion is quite confusing as the Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson says the serial number range for the Triple-Lock was from 1 to 15375 with a total of 15,375 manufactured from 1907 to 1915. Perhaps Boser was referring to the heat-treating of the later Second Model .44 Hand Ejector. Smith & Wesson also produced Triple-Locks chambered in .455 Mark II for the British during World War I. Approximately 660 .44 Triple-Locks where converted to .455 and another 5,000 .455s were produced with serial numbers ranging from 1 to 5000 with all being manufactured in 1914 and 1915. So it is possible for a collector to have both a .44 Triple-Lock and a .455 Triple-Lock with the same serial number. The British Triple-Locks will have a lanyard ring and many will be found converted to .45 Colt. It is probably this substantial order from the Brits that eventually caused the dropping of the third locking feature rather than the $2 savings; more on this later.

             Triple-Locks are mostly found with fixed sights. Those known as Target Models had a Patridge front sight pinned to an integral raised block on the barrel. They will be found to be quite crude compared to today’s Smith & Wesson adjustable sights. They were, however, state-of-the-art prior to World War I. The first .44 Special Triple-Lock I ever was privileged to both handle and shoot was a Target Model and it belongs to fellow gun writer, friend, and one who is as appreciative of .44 Smith & Wessons as I am, Mike Venturino.

In the March 1989 issue of Guns & Ammo Mike says, “Nowadays, quality is a word bandied about loosely in reference to guns.  How often have you heard of some gun company’s newest model referred to as their usual quality?  Well, there is nothing usual about the quality of the Smith & Wesson .44 Hand Ejector First Model commonly known as the Triple-Lock. It is simply fantastic…Perhaps that is to be expected of this model, since it comes from a an era when men still wore gold pocket watches, every day clothing was tailor made, and boots and shoes were often produced on the town cobbler’s bench. Handguns were expected to exhibit the highest standards of precision manufacture, fit, and finish especially when they were such high-priced items as the Triple-Lock, which sold for $21 throughout its short life.”

            Elmer Keith writing of the Triple-Lock in his monumental work, Sixguns By Keith (Stackpole, 1955) says, “In 1907 Smith & Wesson brought out their Triple-Lock, perhaps the finest revolver ever manufactured anywhere, at any time.  Today no example of finer revolver making is to be had.  The rear end of the barrel and the cylinder steel of the old Triple-Lock are not as strong as in the present 1950 Model Target S&W .44 caliber or the .357 S&W Magnum, but the old New Century was, and still is, one fine gun in any company…The third latch which led to its being called the Triple-Lock was located at the front of the frame and certainly was a masterpiece of close fitting.  We still consider it the finest job ever produced of locking a swing-cylinder gun.”

My .44 Special Triple-Lock is first year production, with a 6 1/2” barrel and a fixed-sights. It came from a dear friend, Hal Swiggett. Hal born in 1921, served in World War II and has been a newspaper photographer, gunwriter, handgun hunter, guide, Baptist preacher, recipient of the Outstanding American Handgunner award, and then chairman of the Outstanding American Handgunner Awards Foundation. He chose me as his successor in 1990 and we then worked together until 1999. When he was raising money to buy a new station wagon I was most happy to purchase his Triple-Lock. So it is not only special for what it is but also for who previously owned it.

Keith wrote of using his heavy loaded .44 Specials in the Triple-Lock, however due to its age and history I use it only with carefully chosen .44 Special loads. The 250 grain SWC bullet over 6.0 grains of Unique pretty much duplicates the original load. Besides the old steel and unknown heat-treating found in the Triple-Lock there is another reason to avoid heavy loads. The grips found on the Triple-Lock are very small and do not fill in up to the top of the grip frame. Keith said they became uncomfortable for him after a couple hundred rounds of his heavy loads. I do not want to even contemplate shooting any heavy loads with those tiny grips. In 1935 with the advent of the .357 Magnum Smith & Wesson brought out the Magna grip which filled in on both sides of the grip frame all the way to the top providing much more comfort for shooting not just heavy loads but standard loads as well. The heaviest load I use in the Triple-Lock, and then only sparingly and with Magna grips installed, is 7.5 grains of Unique for around 950 fps. This is my favorite every day load for the .44 Special no matter what sixgun I am using. It came from Skeeter Skelton who got it from Elmer Keith.

 Speaking of the .44 Special in Sixguns Keith also said, “The cartridge has been badly handicapped all its life by being sadly underloaded.  The factory load of a 246 grain slug at 770 feet is no more than a light target load and a disgrace to so fine a cartridge.  There is no earthly reason why the loading companies cannot load this cartridge to at least 1,000 feet in factory loads.  All guns chambered for the .44 Special, including the old Triple-Lock Smith & Wesson, will safely handle it, and even heavier loads.  The straight case sizes easily, and while there has been a demand for solid head cases, for many years, we have seen no need of them as we have never had any trouble with the old balloon primer cases in .44 Special caliber. Today Winchester and Western have brought out excellent heavy, solid head cases for the .44 Special, so that gripe is now water under the bridge. They have the cases, but still refuse to give us an effective load.”  The Keith 250 grain bullet over 7.5 grains of Unique is pretty close to what Keith was asking for as a minimum loading of the .44 Special.

The Triple-Lock sold for $21 in 1908; one can barely contemplate what such a magnificently crafted sixgun would cost today. Sixguns as well made and fitted as the Triple-Lock are available today from Freedom Arms and such custom sixgunsmiths as Hamilton Bowen, David Clements, Andy Horvath, Ben Forkin, John and Dustin Linebaugh, and Jim Stroh. Take the $21 figure and add a few zeroes to it. 

 

 

 

 

 

8-1) This Triple-Lock .44 Special may be 100 years old, however it still

shoots standard .44 Specials very well.

 

 

8-2) The target sights may be crude by today's standards, but this old

Triple-Lock Target Model was the best available .44 sixgun prior to World War I.

 

 

 

8-3 & 8-4) Taffin shooting the Target Model Triple-Lock .44 Special.

 

 

 

8-5) To come up with the first N-frame, Smith & Wesson enlarged the .38

M&P, bottom, and added an enclosed ejector rod housing plus the third lock;

the result was the Triple-Lock .44.

 

 

8-6) A beautiful example of superb craftsmanship is this first year production

.44 Special 1st Model Hand Ejector, the Triple-Lock.

 

 

8-7) The evolution of the Smith & Wesson .44 Special from 1907 to 1950

is shown by four examples all with 6 1/2” barrels:

the Triple-Lock Target Model, 2nd Model HE, Model 1926, and 1950 Target.

Photo courtesy of Mike Venturino.

 

 

8-8) The third locking latch of the Triple-Lock is shown below and to the

left of the ejector rod.

 

 

 

8-9) The first .44 Special ammunition was loaded with black powder as

shown by this original box of UMC .44 Specials.

 

 

8-10) This old article on the Triple-Lock from the American Rifleman was

written by Gordon Boser in 1943.

 

 

8-11) Four beautiful examples of the Triple-Lock: a 6 1/2” nickel-plated with

pearl grips, a 6 1/2” Target Model, and 6 1/2” and 5” engraved versions.

Photo courtesy of Jim Supica’s ArmsBid.com.

 

 

8-12) When Taffin tires of getting beat up by the really big bore sixguns out

comes the Triple-Lock for real sixgunnin’ enjoyment. 

 

Chapter 7       Chapter 9