The S&W N-Frame
||Pictured at left, is my current collection of Smith and Wesson N frame
pistols. Production dates on this collection range from the dawn of the
First World War, up to about the early 1990's. The left hand row, from top
to bottom, includes:
Model 27 8 3/8" (357)
Model 28 6" (357)
Model 28 4" (357)
Model 657 8 3/8" (41) Model
57 6" (41)
The right hand row, form top to bottom, includes:
Model 1917 5.5" (45)
Model 629 8 3/8" (44)
Model 29 6 1/2" (44)
Model 629 4" (44)
Just before the turn of the century, the new smokeless
powders began to come into their own. This new development was first used
by the military, in order to help mask the positions of troops. In the past,
gunners had given themselves away by the billows of white smoke which resulted
from the firing of their weapons. Though "smokeless" powder is not truly smokeless,
the volume of smoke produced is negligible, compared to that generated by
the old black powder loads. The reduction of smoke residue, also meant that
the new ammunition would not foul guns as badly, easing the job of gun cleaning.
The new smokeless powders had a somewhat different ignition
curve, than the old black powder. Smokeless powders tended to burn more slowly,
though this could be varied. They were also capable of generating higher pressures.
Many of the old black powder guns could not be used with the new smokeless
powders. This was particularly true of pistols. The higher pressure, and
slower ignition curve, made these new powders very useful for rifles, however
and really pushed the envelope, for range, and power. Pistol development,
and adaptation to the new smokeless powders, lagged a decade or two behind
that of rifles.
The classic cartridge revolver of the late 1800's was
little different from the classic black powder revolver of the mid 1800's.
In both cases, a sold frame, single action revolver contained a cylinder holding
six charges. The cartridge revolver updated the design a bit by introducing
a loading gate. The loading gate permitted cartridges to be punched out, and
reloaded, one chamber at a time, as the cylinder was slowly turned. The cylinder
itself could be removed, as had been required for the old non-cartridge revolvers,
but the use of the loading gate allowed the loading of the cylinder while
still in the frame. This was much faster than the old process, which had
required the pistol to be partially disassembled in order to be reloaded.
These cartridge revolvers were found wanting, by the turn of the century,
but firearms developers were soon to advance the art. Advances were being
made in metallurgy, and a number of patents were about to expire, leaving
the field open for combining and refining a number of ideas which had lain
fallow for years.
Smith & Wesson had developed a new double/single
action lockwork, around the turn of the century. They had also come up with
a new basic design for a swing out cylinder revolver frame, in which to house
this new lockwork. There was nothing very revolutionary about the new lock
work. There had been single/double action revolver mechanisms in production
for a couple of decades, though none had really found favor in the marketplace.
What was unique about the Smith action was it's smoothness, and the robustness
of the delicate internal parts. It was also a fairly simple action compared
to others being produced at the time. Colt had actually introduced a similar
revolver, though the lockwork differed, several years previous to the S&W.
Still, despite their lead, Colt never really became synonymous with double
action revolvers in the way that S&W did. Most people associate Colt with
the SAA of cowboy fame, or with the classic 1911 automatic pistol.
The new swing out cylinder, was a feature to aid in fast
reloading. It exposed the entire cylinder at once, and permitted all rounds
to be expelled at once, by a single stroke of the ejector. The only way found
to accomplish this, previously, had been through the design of the top break
revolver, as embodied in the Schofield, and Webly designs. The break top,
and swing out designs coexisted for some years, but time has proven the merits
of the swing out revolver. The swing out is stronger, faster, and more secure
than the top break. The top break has all but disappeared from the scene.
The swing out cylinder revolver was made possible by new alloys, and new steel
making methods which allowed the frame to be split for the addition of a
cylinder crane, while still remaining strong enough to handle the forces generated
by the firing of the pistol.
The combination of the swing out frame, and the new double/single
action lockwork, were melded into a basic design from which several revolver
frames were developed. All were designed for smokeless powders, but
were proportioned for different calibers. The N frame was the military oriented
member of the new S&W series of "Modern" swing out, double action revolver
frames. The N frame was often referred to as the 44 frame; the K frame was
the 38 frame, and the J frame was the 32 frame. It is upon these three frames
that the entire S&W revolver line was built, up until the introduction
of the L frame in the seventies. Even to this day, the bulk of the Smith &
Wesson revolver line is based upon these three original smokeless powder frames.
S&W called these guns "Hand Ejectors", because the ejector rod needed
to be stroked manually, as opposed to the auto ejectors found in top break
revolvers. A much smaller M frame was also produced. This was the 22 frame,
and was tiny, even alongside the small J frame. The M frame was only chambered
for the 22 rimfire, and was quickly dropped form the line, to be replaced
with J and K frame models in 22 chamberings.
The N frame, largest of the new hand ejector models,
set new standards for strength and durability, at it's inception. The new
frame was designed to handle the pressures generated by the, then new, smokeless
powders. It was proportioned for the big bore calibers, popular at that time.
The initial gun based upon this frame was the Hand Ejector of 1908. This fired
the .44 S&W cartridge, at standard velocities. The famous Model 1917,
was one of the other early pistols based upon this frame. For a century, until
the recent introduction of the X frame revolver for the new 50 Magnum, the
N frame continued to be the heaviest, and strongest revolver frame that Smith
& Wesson made. This frame was designed around the turn of the century,
and has yet to be seriously improved upon. There have been some minor updates,
and external changes; the style of the ejector shroud has been changed several
times. Internally, the hammer mounted firing pin has been replaced by a frame
mounted one, and more recently, an integral lock has been added, but the lock
work, basic style, and dimensions remain unchanged.
The massive cylinder of the N frame, proportioned for the 44, provides for
generously thick chamber walls in the 357 chambering of the Model 28 (left).
The much smaller cylinder of the K frame Model 13 is shown along side.
||A side by side comparison between the popular K frame, and the much
beefier N Frame, both introduced at the turn of the century. The two guns
are the Model 28, and the Model 13. Both are chambered for 357. Both of
these particular examples have four inch barrels.
The major changes, which S&W has applied to the
N frame over the years, are listed below. The list is hardly exhaustive,
and many small changes of detail have been made, as was seen fit at the time.
In some cases, as many as eight or ten different variations of a given model
might be found. The original triple lock models were in somewhat of a demand,
after the system was changed. It was thought by many, that this was a stronger
action, than the double lock which replaced it. Later, the old pinned barrel
models, with recessed chambers became the sought after models, when the design
was changed to use crush fitted barrels, and non recessed chambers.
First model: triple lock system, under barrel lug (1908)
Second model: double lock system, barrel lug replaced with
Third Model:: Under barrel lug reintroduced. (1926)
Fourth Model: Chambers no longer recessed; barrels crush fitted,
rather than pinned. (1981)
Fifth Model: Frame mounted firing pin, beefed up frame, most
models with full barrel underlug (1996)
clinton model: Frame mounted safety lock added.
Smith and Wesson has essentially offered two lines
of revolvers, based on the N frame. These are the target series, and the duty
series. Among the most desirable of the target series have always been, the
classic target magnums. All of these revolvers, of whatever series, weighed
in at between 40 and 50 ounces, depending upon barrel length. All can use
the same holsters, and have the same handling qualities. Though the same frame
and cylinder blanks are used in the various models, there are lighter and
heavier barrels. The cylinders of this assortment of models, may vary somewhat
The duty guns have consisted of the 357 Model 28, the
41 Magnum Model 58, and the old Model 1917, Model 1908, and Model 38/44.
All of these guns are now out of production. In general, the duty versions
had fixed sights (with the exception of the Model 28), a matte blued trigger
guard, and back strap, and standard bluing on the rest of the frame. They
had the regular grooved thin duty trigger, and small spur hammer. It is unlikely
that S&W will introduce any duty guns based on the N frame, in the future.
The target guns, though using the same frame and lockwork
as the duty versions, are much more finely finished, and featured. These guns
were offered in either a bright blue finish, or nickel plated. In addition
to the fancier finish, the guns had white outline target sights, with a target
front ramp. They also featured target hammers, with wide spurs, and wide target
triggers (grooved or smooth). These were considered to be semi custom guns,
and could be ordered with several different styles of target hammers or triggers,
as well as in custom barrel lengths. The top straps of these guns had a nice
checking, rather than the sandblasting of the duty guns. S&W considered
this series to be the flagship of it's line, and took special care in their
production, crafting these pistols with the finest fit and finish they were
capable of giving. To add to the prestige, a wooden presentation case,
fitted to the individual revolver, could be ordered. These were made of walnut,
and had a nice. blue flocking inside.
Shown in the photograph
at left, are examples of each of the magnum series revolvers offered in the
S&W N frame. Nearest is the stainless steel Model 629 (44 Magnum), in
the center is the stainless steel Model 657 (41 Magnum), and to the far left
is the blue steel Model 27 (357 Magnum). All have the longest (8 3/8") barrels
commonly available on the series. The cylinders are open so that the bore
size can be compared, as well as the thickness of the chamber walls, in the
various calibers. The Smith and Wesson target magnums were, for decades, the
cutting edge of pistol cartridge development. These were target revolvers
chambered for what, at the time of introduction, was a new concept in handgun
cartridges. Until recent times, each cartridge was the most powerful offering
in it's class.
The N frame was the platform which made possible the
development of the magnum cartridge. First came the souped up, experimental
38 Special loads, fired in the 38/44 revolver. The huge N frame cylinder
of the 38/44 was so strong, that some of these loads rivaled the performance
of some rifles. S&W had initially thought to come up with a series of
ultra powerful 38 special loads, to take advantage of the strength of their
new revolver. Common sense dictated that a safety measure would be required
to prevent the use of these cartridges in smaller framed 38 revolvers, not
up to handling the higher pressures. In 1935 The first ever, magnum
cartridge was introduced in the N frame. A standard 38 was lengthened, so
that it could not be made to fit into a 38 Special chamber. This was the
357 Magnum, and the pistol was called, simply, the 357 Magnum model. This
was latter changed to the Model 27. The cartridge was developed in this frame
because it was the strongest, and heaviest that Smith (or anyone else of
the day) produced.
These first cartridges were very hot, by today's standards.
In the fifties, they were toned down a bit to prevent the
destruction of the new K frame revolvers being chambered in 357. The K frame
guns answered a request for something a bit lighter (and cheaper) for duty
use, and field carry. They were meant to be used with 38 Special rounds, most
of the time. The magnum cartridges were only to be used for defense, emergency,
or patrol work, where the guns would seldom be fired. The N frame guns, on
the other hand, were strong enough for a steady diet of the powerful round.
The Model 27 was the top of the line handgun, produced
by S&W, for twenty years, and remained the most powerful handgun in
the world, until the advent of another N frame based model --- the Model
29. The Model 29, and it's impressive new cartridge, were introduced in 1955.
In a similar fashion to the Model 27, the new gun was simply referred to as
the 44 Magnum Model. In 1957, both guns were given numerical designations.
The 44 Magnum cartridge was not really developed by any
one individual, many handloaders, hunters, and assorted gun enthusiasts experimented
with ultra high power loads in their 44 special revolvers. However, if no
one person developed it, certainly one man championed it, and petitioned S&W
to sanction these experiments by introducing a new gun/cartridge combination.
This man was Elmer Keith.
In 1955, S&W took some specially heat treated N frames
and cylinders, and produced the 44 Magnum pistol. Remington was to produce
the new cartridges. The gun was a winner, though it's price and power meant
that it was not for everyone. Certainly it had no police use, Dirty Harry
aside. The recoil was severe enough, that a new bull barrel was added, and
the cylinder was lengthened to fill the entire frame. The 44 Magnum, arguably,
was the most powerful handgun cartridge in production for twenty to thirty
years. During this reign, the Model 29 was the handgun to have, and was the
new king of the S&W line.
In 1964, the gap between the 44, and the 357 was filled
by the sadly neglected, 41 Magnum. This was another cartridge advocated by
Elmer Keith. S&W, remembering the success of the 44 Magnum, took him at
his word. Keith had worked up, what he thought would be the ideal police cartridge.
It consisted of a fairly powerful powder charge, driving a relatively heavy
bullet, at moderately high velocities. He had suggested that it be designated
the 41 police, but S&W had other ideas, and wished to round out it's
line of magnum revolvers. In keeping with it's two, top of the line Magnum
handguns, S&W called the new cartridge the 41 Magnum, and created loads
which were considerably more powerful than those of Elmer Keith. The Model
58 M&P revolver was produced, as a duty gun, and a new addition to the
flagship line of revolvers, the Model 57, was introduced.
The Model 58 was a duty pistol version of the N frame,
and was one of the few N frame models to have fixed sights. The gun had the
spartan mate blue finish of the model 28, and was offered with a four inch
barrel only. The short, standard weight barrel, along with the souped up cartridges,
made the gun somewhat difficult for police officers to master, and qualify
with. It was adopted by several departments, but only those which used the
lower powered loads recommended by Elmer Keith, were happy with it. The gun
was dropped from the S&W line, and never really did become a hit with
police. Smith & Wesson missed a real opportunity here. The 41 has a clear
advantage over the 9mm, and it may be that, had S&W offered the gun and
cartridge in the controllable form that Keith suggested, many police departments
may have seen little advantage in abandoning these revolvers for 9mm automatics.
Though the police and the shooting public may not have
much to be thankful for, in S&W's handling of the 41 Magnum, it is a different
story for hunters. The 41 Magnum may be the finest hunting cartridge ever
produced for a pistol. It is, in most cases, the equal of the 44 Magnum. Some
claim the cartridge to be a better stopper, at least on medium size game.
At the same time, the 41 Magnum generates only two thirds of the recoil of
the 44. On top of all of this, the 41 Magnum has a flatter trajectory, and
vastly improved long range performance over all but the heaviest bullets in
the 44. The cartridge has generated quite the following, in handgun hunting
circles, and has taken on a certain mystique. It is to the handgun hunters,
that the 41 owes it's continued existence.
The Model 57, and later model 657, in 41 Magnum, are
the final members of the S&W target magnum triad. as with it's two companions,
this is a heavy, finely made revolver, capable of exceptional accuracy. If
the duty model 58 was an expression of Elmer Keith, then the target Model
57 was the final expression of the magnum idea, by Smith and Wesson. This
was the final gun/cartridge magnum combination designed by S&W, and completed
the series begun in the thirties with the 357. Together, these three cartridge/gun
offerings give the shooter a range of options with which to tackle any conceivable
shooting requirement, from big game (I do not suggest hunting lions with a
pistol, however, or elephants either), to a day at the target range. There
is so much versatility offered by the S&W magnum line, that one of these
cartridges would probably suit any use to which a handgun could be reasonably
put. Though I am a die hard fan of the 45 auto, I can see no great hardship
in being limited to the three S&W magnum rounds. Of the three cartridges,
the 41 is probably the best compromise, and the Model 57 is the equal of any
revolver in the world.
In the mid seventies, the old N frame was beginning
to show it's age. In part, this was brought about by the development of the
magnum cartridges, which the N frame had made possible. These cartridges
had taken the N frame pistols far beyond anything that was conceivable back
when the design first came off the board. There were rumors of the big smith,
particularly in the Model 29, shooting loose, going out of tune, and even
blowing cylinders. The magnum fever of the seventies, and eighties was taking
it's toll on the big revolvers. So was the competition.
Decades had seen the N frame as the only platform
on which to build a large magnum. Though Colt, Ruger, and nearly every other
gun manufacturer, eventually came out with a medium framed revolver chambered
for 357 Magnum (as did S&W itself), no one produced the big 41, and 44
Magnums outside of Smith & Wesson. This was reflected in the cost of the
big guns. Few people could afford them, and fewer could justify the expense.
It was also true, for the most part, that few people could really shoot the
big magnums well. These factors combined to make production low, and prices
During the late seventies, early eighties, with the guns
selling at two to three times their suggested price, and being severely backordered,
the idea of producing a big, double action magnum, began to appeal to several
other manufacturers. During this time, Ruger, High Standard, and Dan Wesson,
all began to offer competing models. In latter years, Taurus, and Colt would
come out with their own big frame revolvers. All of these companies began
to carve out little areas of their own in the expanding market of the large
frame revolver; a market which had traditionally belonged to Smith & Wesson
Though it would seem as if they had their work cut out
for them, most of these companies had a couple of advantages, in competing
with S&W. Ruger, in particular, had the option of using the newest CNC
machinery, and of being able to design a revolver particularly well suited
to this method of production. All of the new companies had the luxury of a
clean design sheet, and an extra seventy years of mechanical design advances,
compared to the engineers who had designed the N frame at the turn of the
century. One thing each of the newcomers did was to undercut S&W on price.
Another thing which all of the new models have in common, is that they are
and more massive than the N frame. These guns have been designed with the
large bore magnum cartridges in mind. This is something which was not a consideration
in the days during which the N frame was designed. In the comparison photo
to the left, it can be noted that the Ruger Redhawk (center), is quite a
bit more robust than the N frame based model 29 (bottom), while the Taurus
raging Bull is massive. Both guns make the old N frame seem quite petite,
Another problem facing the big revolver was the general
softness of the market for revolvers, in the face of the new high capacity
automatic pistols. These developments had all but killed the once lucrative
police market. This was particularly hard on the medium framed "K" models,
but affected the entire line. This has caused S&W to jump on the semi
auto bandwagon, and sharply reduce revolver production. Until recently, Smith
& Wesson has produced what are, at best, indifferent semi automatic pistols.
They have come close on many occasions, but always seem to just miss the mark.
They have, thus, always fallen back on the strength of their revolver sales.
It seems that with the last generation or two of semi autos, S&W may
finally have done it right. This might be good news for the company, but
could end up being a sad development for revolver fans. As S&W sees success
in it's production of the semi auto, more resources, and R&D may be shifted
away from revolver production. It seems that this is already happening, with
the N frame.
As of this writing, all of the N frame duty guns have
been discontinued, most for many years. The Model 27, first of the magnums,
had been discontinued, in it's original form, decades ago. A new model 627
had been in production, with an 8 shot cylinder, but this too, is discontinued.
The 41 Magnum is being offered in a single barrel length, of 7 1/2". There
is but a single offering in 45 A.C.P. The only pistol still being offered
in the full range of barrel lengths is the 44 Magnum. All of the current,
small crop of N frame revolvers are being produced in stainless steel only.
S&W does offer occasional special models, and limited
runs of various models for it's custom gun shop, and for commemoratives,
in the N frame. This is reminiscent of the Colt policy, many years ago, of
offering the old Single Action Army pistol, of cowboy fame, in a similar
fashion. Colt did this to cater to the nostalgia for the old gun, and because
it considered these classic pistols to be obsolete, and not worth the costs
of tooling up for regular production runs. I can only hope that the similar
strategy being adopted by S&W does not indicate a similar mindset.
Personal experiences, and collection
I presently own at least two examples of an N frame,
in each of the classic magnum calibers. I also have an old M1917, in 45 A.C.P.
I will consider my collection complete, when I have a set of all three calibers,
in all three of the standard barrel lengths (4", 6", 8 3/8"). I am only missing
a 4" Model 57 (or 657), and an 8 3/8" Model 27. I may consider the purchase
of a few others, as the mood strikes me.
I have found these big revolvers to be a joy to shoot.
The heavy frames soak up recoil, and there is a reassuring sturdiness to the
guns. The single action trigger pulls, on all of the guns I have yet been
exposed to, is remarkably crisp. the double action trigger varies, and seems
to be considerably lighter and smoother on the target guns, than on my Model
28's. This may simply be a perception caused by the narrow trigger of the
These guns are, of course, big and heavy. They are certainly
not suited to concealed carry, though, in a properly set up belt rig, or shoulder
holster, open carry is no hardship. There are some fine holsters available
for the series, and I have purchased a Dirty Harry holster, claimed by the
manufacturer, to be identical to those used in the movie series. There is
also a Bianchi XP100 shoulder holster, a couple of Uncle Mikes nylon shoulder
holsters, and a great old clamshell holster on a Sam Brown belt. In a properly
constructed holster, I find that the often remarked upon difficulty in carrying
these big guns is overstated.
An incomplete listing of the N frame series revolvers
The table below gives a sampling of the most popular
models based upon the N frame. Barrels were available, on special order or
in limited production models, in lengths from 3" to 12". many of the earlier
models of the M27 were offered in 5" and 3 1/2" barrels. There were also
6 1/2" barreled models of the M29, and M27 available in the late fifties/early
sixties. I have not included models from the custom shop, nor have I listed
special models like the silhouette guns, or the Mountain Guns.
The Target magnums
||4" 6" 8 3/8"
||Blue, Nickel (SS)
||4" 6" 8 3/8"
||Blue, Nickel (SS)
||4" 6" 8 3/8"
||Blue, Nickel (SS)
||4", 6", 8 3/8"
||Blue, Nickel (SS)
||Blue, Nickel (SS)