During one of my rare sojourns away from Castle Doghair, I was privileged to encounter an old First Model Iver Johnson Owl Head revolver in caliber .38 S&W that was still actually functional…which means that it wasn’t fired very much in the last hundred or so years.
With wrought iron frames and low carbon steel cylinders and barrels the Iver Johnson Owl Heads weren’t very strong or durable, but they were cheap. In 1914, the year my salty old pappy was born, they could be purchased from a local hardware or feed store for less than three US dollars, and the proprietor would often throw in a 40-cent box of ammunition to cinch the deal.
While three dollars in 1914 was a considerable sum to a man who earned a whole dollar a day digging coal or laboring on a farm, it was a smoking deal when a Colt or a Smith & Wesson would set you back 25 or 30 dollars.
With the Owl Head, Iver Johnson made it possible for people of limited means to have a reliable revolver for personal defense without having to forego eating for a month.
No, they weren’t very durable, and they didn’t stand up well to a lot of use, but with ammunition so frightfully expensive…nobody could afford to shoot for recreation and they weren’t especially accurate anyway.
No, these weren’t big boy toys. These charming little guns were strictly business, and they filled that niche very well. Today, finding a working example of a 1st or 2nd Model is rare, but it’s also moot because proper ammunition loaded with black powder is scarce, and most of the stuff loaded with modern smokeless powder is hard to come by and expensive as well as being unsafe to fire in the 1st and 2nd Models. The 3rd Models were proofed for smokeless powders, but weren’t much more durable than their two older cousins. They just wouldn’t come apart in your hand when fired with smokeless ammunition.
Neither were the two most popular calibers…namely .32 S&W Long, and .38 S&W…very powerful by today’s standards. What they were was nasty to get shot with. The outside lubed lead bullets picked up everything except women and money, and even a superficial wound almost guaranteed a raging infection, if not outright sepsis, which…in the days before effective, broad-spectrum antibiotics…sentenced many people to a slow, agonizing death.
Everyone understood this, and they were rightfully afraid of being on the wrong end of an Owl Head, which made them an effective deterrent to any foolishness. If a farmer or shopkeeper was known to carry an Owl Head, nobody was in an itching hurry to push his buttons.
The cheap, low-tech Owl Head was a raging success for its intended purpose. We will never see its like again.