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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 ejector cap.(1915)
  • 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 in length.
        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.

    The Magnums

             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 high.
        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 exclusively.
        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 considerably heavier,  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, by comparison.
        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 28.
        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

    Model Barrels Finishes Features Caliber
    Model 27 4" 6" 8 3/8" Blue, Nickel (SS)
    .357 Magnum
    Model 29 4" 6" 8 3/8" Blue, Nickel (SS)
    .44 Magnum
    Model 57 4" 6" 8 3/8" Blue, Nickel (SS)
    .41 Magnum
    Duty Guns

    Model Barrels Finishes Features Caliber
    Hand Ejector 5.5" Blue
    .44 S&W/44Russian
    M1917 5.5" Blue
    .45 A.C.P.
    Model 58 4", 6" Blue
    .41 Magnum
    38/44 4", 6" Blue, Nickel
    .38 Special
    Model 28 4", 6" Blue
    .357 Magnum
    Other Models

    Model Barrels Finishes Features Caliber
    Model 25 4", 6", 8 3/8" Blue, Nickel (SS)
    .45 A.C.P.
    Model 24 4", 6" Blue, Nickel (SS)
    .44 Spcl.