Smith & Wesson's sixgun history has been closely linked to two totally different cartridges, the .22 Rimfire and the .44 Centerfire. In 1858, two years before the advent of the Civil War, Smith & Wesson brought forth the Model 1, a tip-up revolver with the barrel hinged on the top of the frame at the front of the cylinder. This seven-shooter was loaded and unloaded by unlatching the barrel end, swinging it upwards, then removing the cylinder for loading and unloading. The Model 1 was the first cartridge firing revolver as well as the first gun chambered in .22 rimfire.

It was advertised as "The Seven Shooter" and "It is the lightest Revolver in the world, and shoots with the force of any other arm." Whatever that meant. The diminutive little Model 1 was very popular with the officers during the Civil War as it was so easy to conceal beneath an Army tunic. With its weight of 10 ounces it was hardly noticeable when carried. Now, 140 years later, the Model 1 is back in modern guise as the eight-shot Model 317 AirLite with a weight of less than ten ounces.

This little .22 is without a doubt one of the best ideas to come forth from Smith & Wesson in a long time. About the size of 2" Chief's Special, it is the first revolver that I have ever encountered that can easily be carried in a pants pocket with no more distraction to the wearer than a set of keys. My wife has already claimed it as the number one gun for carrying in her vest while fly fishing. It is so small and light she won't even notice it is there plus has the extra added benefit of not being terribly hurt when she is dunked in a deep pool.

Made almost entirely of a lightweight alloy except for internal parts, hammer, and trigger, the barrel of the Model 317 is also an alloy fitted with a steel .22 liner for its 1 7/8" barrel. The backstrap carries an integral lanyard ring so this little pistol can be even slung around the neck, and with a weight less than many necklaces, one would hardly notice it is there. The Model 317 comes with either Uncle Mike's Boot Grips or Smith & Wesson's new exotic laminated Dymondwood grips at weights of 10.9 and 9.9 ounces respectively. That is for the whole gun, not just the grips!

The original prototype Model 317 with a steel barrel came in at 13 ounces. Going to a lined barrel brought it down to 11 ounces, and the removal of material from the backstrap brought the weight down to the production level of under 10 ounces.

With its small size, light weight, and almost non existent sight radius, the AirLite is very difficult to shoot when treated as a target pistol. Using a solid rest and shooting at 50' I also found the sights very difficult to see on paper. All of this is of little consequence as the main use of the AirLite will be for those who want a dependable defensive revolver with minimum recoil, or simply want the smallest, most concealable revolver possible. When pressed into use it will be up close and on large targets. A cylinder full of Stingers would be a serious payload for reckoning with by any bad guy. Eight 22's certainly are handier and quicker than 911.

As it comes from the box, as nearly all double action sixguns today from all manufacturers, the .22 AirLite is usable but desperately in need of a Master's Touch. Such a touch comes from gunsmith Teddy Jacobson, Actions By T. As a former police officer, Jacobson knows what should and should not be done to a defensive sixgun. His forte is smoothing and polishing and he will not do anything that would have a negative connotation should the handgun be used and the user find himself in court because of the situation.

As it came from the factory the Model 317 had a double action pull of 16 pounds(!) and a single action pull of 3 pounds. Imagine if you will exerting a 16 pound pull against a 10 ounce gun. The double action pull, after being smoothed over by Jacobson is now 9 1/2 pounds while the single action pull remains at 3 pounds albeit in a much smoother form. Jacobson also performed a complete action job resulting in an easier operating sixgun.

Fourteen .22 Long Rifle loads were fired through the Model 317 AirLite with all loads hitting 2" to 4" low at 50'. It will be a small task to file the front sight in to hit point of aim when a carrying load is decided upon.

All loads were fired with a full cylinder of eight rounds and groups were measured with the full eight rounds as well as the best six shots of the eight being measured. The best .22 round for six shots turned out to be CCI's Green Tag (1 3/8") followed by CCI's MiniMag HP, Federal's Hi-Power, and Winchester's Power Point, all at 1 1 /2" for six shots. Federal's Hi-Power, Winchester's Wildcat, CCI's SGB, and CCI's Green Tag all turned in the best performances at 2-2 1/2" for eight shots. Complete results follow:

.2 LR Load MV
6 shots
8 shots
CCI Mini Mag HP 917 1 1/2" 3 1/4"
CCI SGB 914 1 3/4" 2 1/2"
CCI Stinger 1090 2 3/4" 3 1/4"
CCI Green Tag 816 1 3/8" 2 1/2"
Federal Champion 885 2 1/2" 3 1/4"
Federal Hi-Power 876 1 1/2" 2"
Federal Hi-Power HP 894 2" 3 3/8"
Remington Target 882 2 1/4" 3"
Remington High Velocity 849 2 1/8" 3 1/8"
Winchester T22 849 1 7/8" 3 3/8"

Winchester High Velocity HP

906 2" 2 7/8"
Winchester Power Point 911 1 1/2" 3 5/8"
Winchester Wildcat 885 2 1/8" 2 1/2"
Winchester Super Silhouette 845 2 1/2" 3 3/4"

The first .22, the Model 1 evolved into the Models 1 1/2 and 2, rimfire revolvers in .22 and .32, and the Model 3 came forth in the first big bores, both .41 and .44 Rimfire chamberings. In 1870, the Model 3 American arrived in .44 Henry Rimfire chambering to mate with the Winchester Model 1866 Yellow Boy lever action rifle. For the first time, a man on the frontier could have a sixgun and levergun chambered in the same cartridge. Smith & Wesson's first Centerfire offering was this same American Model chambered in 44/100 with 1,000 revolvers being ordered by the U.S. Army in 1871, a full two years before the advent of the 1873 Colt Single Action Army.

In 1871, Smith & Wesson also signed a lucrative contract with the Russian government to supply modified Americans in .44 Russian chambering. The .44 Henry was a rimfire cartridge, the .44/100 the first Centerfire .44, and the Russian modernized the .44 by changing the bullet type to one that resided inside the cartridge case rather than being a heel type bullet with a main body that was the same diameter as the cartridge case. The new .44 Russian required two-step revolver chambers being one size at the back end for the cartridge case and a smaller diameter at the front end for the bullet.

By 1878, the Smith & Wesson Single Action had become the New Model #3. Chambered in .44 Russian, it was one of the finest sixguns ever offered. During the 1880's, Smith & Wesson came forth with their first double action sixgun chambered in .44 Russian, but it would be after the turn of this century before the double action by which all double actions would be judged arrived.

The .44 Russian cartridge was lengthened, a new sixgun was designed, and in 1908 the sixgunning world received the magnificent New Century or Triple-Lock. This big bore six shot revolver received its Triple Lock tag by the fact that it locked at the back of the cylinder, at the front of the ejector rod housing, and also a third lock was added at the front of the cylinder. In double action persuasion, this First Model Hand Ejector was built like the proverbial Swiss watch. It would be followed by the Second Model in 1915, the Third Model in 1926, and the Fourth Model in 1950. The third locking feature as well as the encased ejector rod housing was dropped to save money on production with the Second Model all to save a grand total of $2 per gun! The third locking feature never returned, however the encased ejector rod came back with the 1926 Model.

The new chambering for the Triple Lock and all subsequent Hand Ejectors in the series was the .44 Special. Originally a dead ringer ballistically for the old black powder .44 Russian, in fact the first .44 Specials were also loaded with black powder, the .44 Special would become the cartridge for those experimenters who wanted the ultimate in sixgun power from the late 1920's into the 1950's. Properly loaded in large framed Smith & Wesson and Colt revolvers the .44 Special attained 1200 feet per second with a 250 grain bullet from a long-barreled sixgun. The .44 Special, thanks mainly to the efforts of Elmer Keith, would lead directly to the .44 Magnum in 1956.

The .44 Special returned briefly in the 1980's with the Smith & Wesson Models 24 and 624, blue (7500 made in 1983-1984) and stainless versions, with both 4" and 6 1/2" barrel lengths. Combat style .44 Specials were also turned out with round butts and 3" barrels. A total of 10,000 of these latter special Specials, with 3,000 blue and 7,000 stainless, were offered through S&W distributor Lew Horton.

The .44 Special Model 1950 was dropped in 1966, resurrected in 1983, dropped in 1984, replaced by the Model 624, subsequently dropped in the early 1990's. The .44 Special is a survivor and as the first big bore cartridge from Smith & Wesson in this century, it is fitting that it is back ready to build a bridge to the 21st Century. Not only is the .44 Special back, Smith & Wesson has finally brought forth a medium framed big bore sixgun.

I use the term "sixgun" in a generic sense as this latest sixgun from Smith & Wesson is in reality a five-shooter utilizing the L-frame platform. At first glance the Model 696, as this .44 is dubbed, looks like a 3" barreled, heavy underlugged, round-butted .357 Magnum Model 686. It is only when one opens the cylinder and sees five rather large charge holes that one realizes this is a completely different departure for Smith & Wesson and is in reality the first five-shot .44 from Springfield.

This .44 Special, as the .22 AirLite Model 317, is a keeper so it was sent along with the AirLite to Teddy Jacobson for his professional services. When the .44 Special left Springfield Massachusetts and arrived here in Idaho, the double action pull was 14 pounds while the single action pull came in at 3 1/2 pounds. After Jacobson's complete action job and smoothing, the double action pull is now 8 pounds and the single action pull a smooth 3 1/4 pounds.

Teddy also polished the chambers, re-contoured and smoothed up the trigger to make it more "user friendly", polished the cylinder release latch, it was sticking, polished the bore, re-cut the crown, squared up the forcing cone, adjusted the timing, and mated the hand to the cylinder ratchet. This sixgun left the S&W factory as a useable factory production sixgun; Jacobson turned it into a nearly perfect defensive insurance policy. His work is first rate and I recommend him highly.

As final touches, Jacobson replaced the red ramp insert with a highly visible fluorescent orange insert, and the strain screw in the front of the grip strap for adjusting the tension on the main spring is now an Allen type for easy adjustment. Jacobson also uses Wolff main springs and trigger return springs in all of his action jobs.

With the work Jacobson performed to bring this sixgun to near perfection combined with the proven track record of the .44 Special cartridge in its best loadings, I now have total confidence in this sixgun as a concealed carry gun.

The Smith & Wesson Model 696 was an easy shooting .44 with two factory finger groove grips installed, both the highly functional original Uncle Mike's grips as well as the optional Dymondwood laminated grips. It was also tried with a pair of smooth BearHug Grips from my wife's Model 65 Ladysmith with total comfort. I have settled on the Dymondwood grips for my use.

Ten factory loads and one handload were tried in the Smith & Wesson Model 696 .44 Special. The one handload, a 240 grain bullet over 7.5 grains of Unique, is the standard loading for my six shot .44 Specials but is regarded as a little too hot for this medium cylindered forty- four. Extraction was sticky, and while I would use it if I needed it, I would not recommend its use as a normal practice.

The best factory load choices for use of the .44 Special as a carry gun are probably the 180 and 200 grain hollow points being offered. With 180 grain jacketed hollow point loads from both Cor-Bon and Hornady, muzzle velocities were highly respectable at 964 and 881 fps, and five shots from a rest grouped into 7/8" and 1" respectively. Three 200 grain hollow points, Blazer's Gold Dot, Federal's lead semi-wadcutter, and Winchester's SilverTip all put five shots into 1 1/2" at 50'. All of these are highly adequate for defensive shooting.

Complete results of test firing the Model 696 .44 Special follows. I would choose the lead bullets for general shooting and plinking and go with the hollow points for serious use.

SMITH & WESSON MODEL 696 .44 Special x 3"

Load MV Group (5 shots @ 50')
Black Hills 240 LSWC 711 1 3/4"
Black Hills 210 Cowboy Load 669 1 1/2"
Blazer 200 Gold Dot HP 816 1 1/2"
Cor-Bon 180 HP 964 7/8"
Federal 200 LSWC-HP 792 1 1/2"
Hornady 180 XTP-HP 881 1"
Remington 246 RN 661 2 1/4"
Winchester 200 SilverTip 749 1 1/2"
Winchester 246 RN 606 1 1/2"
Winchester 240 Cowboy Load 679 1 3/8"
Bull-X 240/ 7.5 gr. Unique 893
1 1/2"

These two new sixguns from Smith & Wesson may well be the perfect one-two punch with the .44 Special being carried as the main sixgun either openly or concealed and the .22 AirLite filling the bill as a side pocket or ankle holster sixgun. I would expect many peace officers to go to the AirLite as a back up gun that will easily carry in the front pocket of the uniform. This winning pair is more like a full house.

Just a few short years ago, the wondernine was king, revolvers were written off as archaic in general with single action sixguns being particular dinosaur-like. Now the game of Cowboy Action Shooting has brought forth a real resurgence of interest in the grand old single action sixgun and Smith & Wesson brings out two of the better sixguns of recent memory. Kind'a makes a believer of you doesn't it?