1911 Tuner’s take on revolvers and making them last.

Many have come to know me through my technical posts on the 1911 pistol, but what most don’t know is that I don’t love the 1911, even though I shoot it a little better than other pistols. I’ve just got a lot of experience with it and I understand it well…but I don’t love it.

I love revolvers, particularly Smith & Wesson revolvers…and most especially the K Frames…and most especially the fixed-sight or M&P versions. This carried over to the L and N Frames as well. 581/681, Model 13 and the .41 Magnum Model 58 are among my most prized.

But, the Model 10, or as it was originally called…the .38 Hand Ejector…was my first love, and it started with the old Superman TV series of the 50s. When I watched that part of the opening segment, I wasn’t thinking of Superman being faster than a speeding bullet…I was homed in on that .38 M&P K Frame. I had to have one or cease to exist.

When I was 12, that dream came true. After saving my lawn mowing money over the summer, my salty old pappy drove me to Pleasant’s Hardware in downtown Winston-Salem…and there it was…a long-action Victory Model .38 Special that he’d laid away unbeknownst to me a month earlier. I counted out the remaining 18 dollars owed on it and another three bucks netted me two boxes of Peters 158 grain round nose lead ammunition. Though that little revolver’s finish was nearly worn off, it was the most beautiful gun I’d ever seen hands down…and it was mine.

Fortunately, we lived in an area where I could walk to the edge of the property and shoot it, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that a hundred rounds of ammunition didn’t last long…and that store bought .38 Special ammunition was very expensive. Mowing season was almost over and leaf-raking season hadn’t begun…so I had to conserve my ammunition.

This led to my lifelong excursion into reloading and bullet casting. At the time, the old man was a tool and die maker at Western Electric, and he whipped up a single-cavity bullet mould that dropped the prettiest truncated cone 151-grain bullet you ever saw. A used sizer-lubricator…furnace…dipper…and a Lyman hand press later, and I was in business. All I needed was lead. A trip to the local Esso station solved that problem. I had 20 pounds of good lead and after a little instruction from Pop…I was pourin’ my own bullets like a pro.

Then, about 12 years later, I discovered the Model 19 .357 Magnum. In those dear, dead days, the only .357 ammunition to be had was the 158-grain LSWC loaded to OMG velocities and pressures. It was the real deal…not the neutered stuff available today…and it was off the scale expensive, so I reloaded for it, and…following dad’s advice…backed off on the pressures a little, using 13.5 grains of Hercules 2400. But being the adventurous sort and really lovin’ that blast and sense of power…I soon upped it to a full 15 grains.

Then…jacketed bullets started showing up, so I bought and loaded those to 15 grains…and my beautiful little Model 19 soon paid the price for my insolence. I’d read Bill Jordan’s advice to use .38s for practice and .357s for business…but he couldn’t have meant MY revolver. MY revolver would take it and beg for more.

Until it didn’t. There was so much endshake from the stretched frame that it sounded like a slide hammer, and the barrel-cylinder gap allowed so much gas to blow out the sides that it wasn’t safe to stand within 15 feet of it. Smith & Wesson was able to repair it…barely…but the gun was returned to me with a letter advising me to stick to .38 Special level ammunition from that point on…and only with lead bullets at that.

I began to question that lead bullet requirement, and asked dear old dad…an engineer by this time…and he explained that the friction of the bullet pulling forward on the barrel against the recoil driving the gun backward had caused the frame to stretch…and that jacketed bullets were worse in that respect because of the higher frictional forces that they produced. He reminded me that the Smith & Wesson Hand Ejectors were designed to be used with lead bullets…in 1899…and although modern steels and better heat treatment helps a lot, they can’t cover everything. The design is still a hundred+ years old.

Of course, I didn’t believe him, and the next Model 19 that I acquired was shot loose in short order, even though over half my ammunition was loaded with lead bullets. Just couldn’t break my addiction to all that power.

I began to suspect that he might be onto somethin’ there.

Not long after, the original .357 ammunition disappeared, and the handloaders busied themselves trying to duplicate it with 2400 and jacketed bullets…and shortly after that…Smith & Wesson threw in the towel and brought the L Frames to the market. They fared much better than the K Frames, so I bought one. It had the K Frame grip, and enough beef in the frame to hold up, and it wasn’t all that much heavier than my Model 13s…so I practiced with it and saved the 13s the pounding.

And then the 581 started to loosen up. I admit that I shot the pea green soup outta that revolver, but full-throttle 357 Magnum ammunition eventually takes its toll, even on an N Frame.

So, I acquired a 681…dropped my charge to 14 grains of 2400…and went back to cast bullets exclusively. And wonder of wonders, the gun didn’t show any endshake for many thousands of rounds!

Wow. Who woulda thunkit?

The point of all this? If you want your classic revolvers to live long and prosper, lighten up a little on the powder charge, and use lead bullets. That’s what they were designed for, after all.

The K Frame Smiths are fine little revolvers, but they’re not especially strong or durable revolvers. Be kind to’em, and they’ll return the favor with many years of reliable service. Abuse them, and they’ll return many years of paperweight duty and memories.

Cheers!

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2 Responses to 1911 Tuner’s take on revolvers and making them last.

  1. Doran December 21, 2016 at 6:47 am #

    Excellent letter!
    It made me chuckle as it brought back memories of my youth. and I would bet that it can be said for all of youth of the fifties sixties and seventies era in particular.
    Though I have never had a super passion for guns I have always shooting them and a cpl of sentimental favorites are the 45 magnum and 38 special though I currently own a cpl of semi autos.
    It seems as a young man as young men everywhere, I always thought I knew more than my mentors. My quote to them was ” I want to make my own mistakes so I really know!”. Not the wisest choice even if it had some small amount of logic. That would usually cost me in money…bruises and ego! Did I learn??? Probably not as fast as I should have. Thankfully I wised up some and did take the advice of my aviation mentors before something really uncomfortable happened and thanks to them when a few things have happened… Well I am still here.
    I am in my mid-fifties and for the most part enjoying life a whole bunch partly because I finally wised up and decided that some people did know more than I did and do. Thanks for the trip down memory lane! And Merry Christmas!

  2. Tom Crawford December 21, 2016 at 7:38 am #

    John,

    Great post. It brought back memories of my first “real handgun” (not a .22), which was a pencil-barreled Model 10 purchased for $45. I recall my late older brother, who was a police officer, taking me to the police supply shop, showing his badge, and buying the used Smith for me at a cop discount because I was too young to buy it for myself. I also recall that from time to time, a box or two of .38 wadcutters made their way to my house from the police department range for use in that revolver. I wonder how that happened? I also recalled making my own “handloads” of sorts, using a painfully slow Lee Loader and 000 buckshot pellets for bullets. I read how to do it in an old Skeeter Skelton article.

    I never really did get bitten by the Magnum bug, so most of my Smiths fired thousands of rounds of .38 Special, and only a few Magnums, even though I did make up some light Magnum level loads with cast bullets that improved a lot on .38 Specials, but were by no means full-house loads.

    When I was old enough, I entered law enforcement as well, upgrading to a four-inch blue Model 19. I still have it from the late 70’s, and a 2 1/2 inch Model 66 which is my current favorite revolver. I have a 686 as well, but it seems a bit much for what I do with it most of the time. But, if there are any actual Magnums around here that need shooting, they go in the L-frame. The only Magnum factory loads that go in my K-frames are the Remington Golden Saber 125 grain cartridges, which although not marked as such, are a medium velocity loading at about 1200 fps. I really do not shoot many of them even. I’m hoping my two K-frame Magnums will outlast me and that my son will enjoy them as I did.

    Oddly enough, I got my start shooting those .38 wadcutters that mysteriously were “donated” by my brother’s police department. I ultimately became a firearms trainer for that very agency years later. I guess I was just getting an early jump on the job with the old Model 10.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane, and for good advice on ammo selection.

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