February 2002

S&W Triple Locks: Three New Tack-Driving, ‘Ancient’ Revolvers

Our view: S&W continues its reproduction of historic handguns with stellar results. If you want superb performance — and can stand the price tags — these wheelguns are worth the money.

In 1908 Smith & Wesson came out with a new cartridge and a new handgun, the combination of which was to set a new standard for finely built, high-performance handguns for at least the next half-century. The gun was officially called the New Century Hand Ejector, but was commonly referred to as the “Triple Lock,” because of a third lockup at the swing-out crane which augmented two other latches, one at the front of the ejector rod and the other at the rear of the cylinder.

The new cartridge, originally loaded with 26 grains of black powder, was called the .44 S&W Special. Barrel lengths for the Triple Lock were 4, 5, 6.5, and 7.5 inches, and according to Elmer Keith, in addition to the .44 Spl., the Triple Lock was also chambered for.450 Eley and.455 Mark II cartridges, with a very few in .45 LC. Roy Jinks, in his “History of Smith & Wesson” said the Triple Lock was also chambered in .44 Russian, .38/40 and .44/40. Finish was blue or nickel plate, and both target and fixed-sight versions were offered. The total number produced, from 1907 to about 1915 (though a few were assembled from existing parts into the 1930s), was just over 15,000. Good specimens of original Triple Locks today bring a strong premium, anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 or more, depending on condition, configuration and caliber. Target-sighted versions bring higher prices.

Continuing with our history lesson and simplifying it a bit, with the coming of WWI, S&W developed a revolver for U.S. military needs. Shortly before WWI, S&W had come out with the 2nd Model Hand Ejector, and from it was developed the .45 Hand Ejector. It did not have the complex and costly crane lock; eliminated the shroud-type ejector housing because some military fellows thought it would fill with mud on the battlefield, and tie up the gun; and added a lanyard loop to the butt. The fixed-sight-only result had a 5.5-inch barrel, was chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge, and became known as the Model of 1917, synonymous with the year of U.S. entry into WWI. (By the way, Colt’s also made a Model 1917, using machinery that wasn’t required to pump out 1911 autoloaders.)

The .45 Auto Rim
The S&W M1917 revolver accommodated the rimless semiautomatic pistol cartridge by means of half-moon clips, each of which held three cartridges. There were also clips for two cartridges, and today of course we have full-moon clips. These provided fast reloading of the revolver, at least until you ran out of clips. After the war, a commercial ammunition company brought out the .45 Auto Rim cartridge specifically for the many war-surplus revolvers by both S&W and Colt that were chambered for .45 ACP. Both S&W and Colt continued production of their 1917s after the war, so there were lots of .45 ACP revolvers around. This new cartridge had a thick rim to make up for the space of the old half-moon clip and the thin auto rim.

During the war, when only the .45 Auto cartridge was available, if the shooter ran out of clipped cartridges during a gun battle, he could drop a .45 Auto cartridge into the chamber. It headspaced properly on the mouth of the cartridge, and would fire. The chambers of original 1917 S&W revolvers were cut to permit this process. Because of their rimless nature, empties would have to be picked out with the fingers, or poked out with a stick or rod, but at least the shooter could reload and fire the revolver in an emergency without the need of clipped cartridges. The 1917 and similar .45 ACP revolvers have had a dedicated following ever since their introduction, and have been offered by S&W in various guises over the years. S&W actually produced the .45 Hand Ejector (M1917) until 1949, by which time the company had produced over 200,000 units of the gun.

Looking back, the time of triple-lock manufacture was short. After the intricate third lock was dropped around 1915, and except for a very few made up from existing parts after WWI, the Triple Lock was completely absent from S&W’s inventory. Until now, that is.

To our everlasting surprise, S&W recently began remaking a simplification of the Triple Lock design, and also the old, long-dead Model of 1917. These fine new revolvers came out of the S&W Performance Center, which recently produced the S&W Schofield (April 2001 GT). We acquired one of the new .45 ACP Model 1917s, $1,050, and also two Triple Locks, an $1,110 case-hardened 24-5 in .44 Special; and a 25-11 in .45 LC, all-blued and $1,050. (A case-colored version is $1,100.) We never dreamed we’d be able to wrap our mitts around a brace of absolutely brand-new Triple Locks, but life is full of surprises.

First, however, a clarification. Original Triple Locks had a positive lockup at the crane. The current version utilizes a spring-loaded ball within the yoke or crane, and a matching detent notch on the back of the ejector-rod housing. The intent, however, of both locking systems is identical, and that is to prevent the crane from bouncing sideways during firing, which would cause the chamber openings at the front of the cylinder to deviate from perfect alignment with the back of the barrel. The results, with either the original Triple Lock mechanism or the new ball-detent version, should be improved accuracy and better retained accuracy and tightness during the life of the gun. Anyone familiar with S&W revolvers has pressed against the crane of a revolver fitted with only the two normal latches, and has seen the crane move significantly away from the frame. This is especially noticeable on guns that have been fired a lot.

Evaluating these guns posed something of a problem because of Gun Tests’s matchup style. We normally pit products of similar use or design head to head, and with results gleaned from that unique testing format, we’re able to recommend one gun over another. But because there are no contemporary guns with similar design features, or costs, we were forced to use an even higher standard in testing these triple locks: How do they rank against the field of all revolvers our testers have ever handled? Could they possibly have enough performance, historical value, or collectible interest to justify their four-digit prices? Basically, would we buy them for ourselves? Initially, we were skeptical, but we shot the dickens out of the revolvers, and here’s what we discovered.

S&W Heritage Series Model 24-5 .44 Special, $1,100
Our eyes popped out when we saw the case-colored frame of this beauty. We had seen case coloring on Colt percussion handguns, but never on a modern cartridge revolver. We were assured by S&W’s Ken Jorgensen that this case hardening was the real thing, not just a pretty wash. Therefore, with its very hard surface finish and third “lock” at the crane, we feel this particular handgun will outlive ten owners, if given good care along the way.

Click here to view the S&W Heritage Series Model 24-5 .44 Special features guide

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The bluing on barrel, cylinder, and adjustable rear sight was extremely well done, and it looked like charcoal bluing, rich and lustrous. The sharp edges were, unfortunately, not totally preserved on the cylinder flutes and at the beveled portion of the front of the cylinder, but were not too badly buffed. The edges of the frame were, for the most part, appropriately crisp, and the frame sides were flat enough, if not as perfect as on very early Smiths. This was a very attractive and well-done piece of handgunnery, though it had a minor flaw, as we discovered.

The 6.5-inch unribbed barrel was capped with a tall, integral ramp for the pinned-in front sight blade, which itself was absolutely sharp-cornered, flat-backed, and had the old “Call” gold bead insert at its top-rear edge. The shooter’s eye saw a gold bead when the light was from the back or side, and a clean, square-edged flat-top post with front lighting. The adjustable rear sight had a square notch with no extraneous white borders or other embellishment. The frame was drilled and tapped beneath the front sight if someone wanted to sacrifice the authentic “antique” look and mount a scope on this gun.

The frame, trigger, and hammer were case colored. The frame was a four-screw, meaning that number of screws retained the lock plate onto the right side. Originals were five-screw, the fifth going into the top-front corner of the trigger guard, and retaining the bolt-spring and plunger.

The stocks, apparently of finely figured walnut but perhaps a synthetic (S&W calls it “Altamont” wood), were small, nicely checkered, and fitted reasonably well to the frame. We guessed (correctly) that this handgun would not be comfortable with heavy loads because these small grips left the thin frame above them exposed, and it would bite into the web of the hand in recoil. The butt shape was rounded in back, like most current S&W frames. Originals were square-backed, but we can’t seriously fault the current shape, and had no big authenticity problems with the grips. If anything, the new version pointed more naturally than the old one because of the rounded butt.

The trigger was smooth and had an insert in its rear face which formed the over-travel stop. All three new guns had this stop, and they gave varying amounts of over-travel. None of it was excessive. The SA trigger pull measured 4 pounds. The DA pull was very heavy, but smooth. We reduced the main hammer tension by loosening the screw in the front grip strap three-quarters of a turn. This is not recommended, but it got the SA pull down to 3 pounds. Ignition was still completely reliable during our testing, in both SA and DA modes.

The hammer was smaller than Smith’s normal target version, shaped like a teardrop, and well checkered for easy cocking. The firing pin was retained in the frame, per normal Smith configuration today. Originals had it pinned to the hammer.

On the range, we got very good to outstanding accuracy. We shot at 15 yards, and used a mix of commercial loads and handloads featuring Elmer Keith’s Lyman number 429421 bullet, which we cast ourselves, having become enthusiastic about this historic handgun.

Our initial groups were 2 inches or smaller, but before we shot for record we slugged the bore out of curiosity, and found a tight spot at the frame. This comes, according to one very wise gunsmith, from the threading process, which is normally done in one cut. That heavy cut, he said, distorts the barrel steel inward toward the bore. We had thought tight spots came from tightening the barrel into the frame too snugly. No matter the cause, the barrel had a tight spot. Tests indicated both the .45 LC version and the new M1917 were tight there, too.

We fire-lapped the .44 Special Triple Lock enough to eliminate the tightness, and went back to the targets. Our best groups were well under an inch at 15 yards. Should, or could, Smith have done something about that tight spot? We have very mixed feelings because of our test results with all three new Smiths. They all shot extremely well, much better than ordinary revolvers. We didn’t like the tight spot in the bore, but eliminating it would drive up the cost, and in truth, any shooter who would not be wildly happy with the as-issued accuracy would have to be out of his mind, or capable of far superior shooting than 99.9 percent of the handgunning public. We left the .45 LC and the M1917 strictly alone, and they shot far better than any of us were capable of holding, no matter the slight tight spots in their bores. We conclude it doesn’t matter. Still, for what it’s worth, our now-fire-lapped .44 Special does not even begin to lead, even with cast-lead bullets driven over 1,000 fps. We did get noticeable leading — at the tight spot — with the as-issued .45 LC gun with our warmest cast-lead-bullet handload.

We shot the .44 Spl. with two handloads featuring Elmer Keith’s 250-grain Lyman 429421 cast bullet, and with Blazer 200-grain JHP loads. Our hottest handload gave the Keith bullet 1,015 fps velocity at 10 feet. All three loads averaged around 1 inch for five shots. We know that better shooters could cut ragged holes with this handgun. We could see no reason to shoot loads any hotter than our hottest, and that load was not uncomfortable even with the as-issued grips. Our hottest load with the .45 LC was much less comfortable by comparison.

S&W Heritage Series Model 25-11, .45 Long Colt, $1,100
This all-blued .45 LC Triple Lock was just as charming as the .44 Special version. We could not determine if either or both finishes — all-blued, or with case-colored frame — are available on both guns.

Click here to view the S&W Heritage Series Model 25-11, .45 Long Colt features guide

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We were hard-pressed to choose one over the other for finish, and for caliber as well. The .45 LC can be loaded to give more power than the .44 Special, and there are probably more over-the-counter loads today for the .45 LC than for the .44 Special. Yet the .44 Special will do most if not all the chores anyone could reasonably ask of a fine handgun, and because most original Triple Locks were in .44 Special caliber, we’d guess that version will be more popular. Most of today’s buyers of these handguns, we suspect, are handloaders, so the practical difference is moot. Brass for either cartridge is not a problem, nor are bullets. It’s a buyer’s choice.

But we don’t recommend you shoot this .45 LC revolver with heavy loads rapid-fire, double action, with the grips that come with it. It’ll hurt your hand. The gun rides up and bites the web of the hand, especially when shooting it one-handed. That’s not a complaint about the gun. If you want to shoot heavy loads, you can always replace the beautiful, but small, fancy-wood stocks with whatever suits your mitt. We liked the overall historic look of all the new guns from Smith, and if we owned any of ‘em, we’d leave the grips alone.

The .45 LC was a tad lighter than the .44 Special version, the outside of the slim, 6.5-inch barrels being about the same size. The balance was slightly different, but with our limited shooting we could not come up with a preference. Several of our test shooters declared they’d love to own both, but then there would be the question of which one to shoot on any given day.

The DA and SA pulls again seemed to be too heavy, if smooth and creep-free. We measured the SA pull as-issued at 4 pounds. We shot this one with the spring-tension screw fully home. The fit and finish of the .45 LC was as good as that of the .44 Special. These limited-production handguns are all made with a good deal of care, it seems.

The hammer and trigger were case colored, and were quite dark. The hammer was again checkered, with the same teardrop shape of the .44, and the trigger was smooth on its front. Both this gun and the .44 Special version had tastefully done markings impressed into the barrel designating the caliber and company name. No laser-marking was on them. The Performance Center logo was impressed onto the left side of the frames beneath the cylinder latch button. Cylinder lockup was very tight on both guns, and like the .44 Special, the .45 LC promised to be a real shooter.

And so it was. We tested with Blazer 200-grain JHP, Black Hills Cowboy loads, and one warm handload put together on our Dillon RL 550 press. This pushed out a 250-grain cast bullet at 1,100 fps. All three loads shot into groups that averaged 1 inch at 15 yards. Again, better shooters could probably beat our groups, and would be able to cut ragged holes. The nice thing was that both of these new handguns shot all manner of loads into tiny groups.

We didn’t much like our hot load in this gun. We would never load to that level if we owned the gun. We’d stick with loads around the performance level of the common Cowboy loads, and as we realized that, we started to favor the .44 Special, which would give us all the “fun” performance we’d ever need out of this handgun for slightly less reloading-component costs than the .45.

S&W Model 25-12, Model of 1917, $1,050
We were not yet done being amazed by the new Smith & Wesson handguns. The finish on our new Model 1917 was excellent. The bluing was rich and famous, suggestive of the highly finished post-WWI production by S&W. Most of the wartime originals we’ve seen were Parkerized, and had other war-expedient shortcuts to their finish. This new sixgun was very nicely fit and finished throughout. Inside the crane the metal showed very few machining marks, though we noticed the absence of the huge gouge put on originals into the top strap right behind the barrel. Its purpose was to make room for lead fouling and extra-harsh service without maintenance during wartime. We agree with S&W that you don’t need that feature today.

Click here to view the S&W Model 25-12, Model of 1917 features guide

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The new 5.5-inch-barrel 1917 weighed 42.3 ounces empty, exactly as much as a full-size 1911 auto. Recharging the revolver can be nearly as fast as slapping a new magazine into a 1911, as long as you have half-moon, or better yet, full-moon clips available. These hold three or six shots en bloc, and the full-moons can be thrown into the chamfered chambers as fast as lightning by trained shooters. We noticed that S&W chamfered the new gun’s chamber mouths, eliminating any sharp edges that could hang up the reload. There were three full-moon, and four half-moon clips with the new gun.

Unfortunately, the chambers of the new gun were cut too deep to allow the firing of unclipped rounds. Original 1917s permitted dropping a round directly into the chamber and firing it. That emergency expedient might have saved a few GI lives along the way. With the new gun you’re stuck with using clips, or Auto-Rim ammunition.

You may have a hard time finding .45 Auto Rim ammunition today. Remington was the last major company to offer loaded ammunition, and apparently stopped producing it 20 years ago. However, today you can get it from Georgia Arms, (800) 624-6861. That company offers both a 230-grain lead round-nose load and one stoked with 200-grain JHPs. We have been unable to find a source of brass, or of other loaded ammunition.

The new gun’s hammer was similar to that on the new Triple Locks, fairly wide and easy on the thumb, in drastic contrast to the hammer on original 1917s. The front of the trigger was rounded and smooth, a ringer for the old 1917 trigger. The action seemed to have more spring tension than it needed for either double- or single-action shooting. The SA pull measured 4 pounds, and it was an excellent trigger. The DA pull was smooth enough to be useful. The bore slugged 0.4505 inch, and there was a significant tight spot where the barrel passed through the frame.

Our shooting tests began with a handloaded full-jacket SWC design of 200 grains in a target-level load. These went into 3/4-inch groups at 15 yards, exactly where the sights looked for elevation, but 1 inch left of center. Next came a 230-grain JHP Federal Hydra-Shok factory load, and it went into 1.3-inch average groups, an inch high and an inch left of point of aim. Finally we tried some Black Hills commercial FMJ 230-grain ball, and it drilled a ragged hole an inch left of point of aim. We also tried, but didn’t record, a handload featuring a cast 230-grain lead round-nose bullet loaded to the equivalent power of commercial ball ammo. The 1917 had a reputation for not shooting lead bullets as well as jacketed, because of the shallow rifling of original Smith 1917s. This load averaged just over an inch in the new gun, but struck 2 inches left of point of aim.

This Smith was a tack driver, making the score three out of three for the new S&W handguns. The sighting of the M1917 would be more than adequate for almost any shooting needs, and for all close-range self-defense situations. The sights could be perfectly centered for the individual, once you’ve got your perfect load, by filing either the rear notch or the thick front blade. A left-handed shooter might find the sights of this gun perfectly centered, because handguns tend to shoot slightly away from the center of mass of the supporting hand. We could not fault this sighting setup, or the gun in any way.

The clips loaded easily, but as always with clip-fed handguns, a “de-mooner” would be a welcome accessory to get the empties off the clips. We couldn’t find ours, and used a pencil to remove the empties. Some shooters carefully file the clips to make loading and unloading easier, and that can make a big difference.

Gun Tests Recommends
While some companies issue commemoratives, which are usually normal guns with special markings and wood presentation boxes, you probably should not shoot them if you want to get the most investment value out of them later. By contrast, these Heritage Series revolvers from S&W are made to shoot, and they shoot very well indeed. We do not believe that shooting them will harm their value over time, assuming reasonable care and sensible loads.

Why should anyone want to buy one of these Performance Center revolvers of the Heritage series over, say, normal — and normally priced — S&W revolvers? Fit and finish of these special guns are two good reasons, for starters, and nothing shouts “special” like a case-colored frame. Also, their accuracy would almost surely surpass that of normal revolvers because of the care put into their assembly. Next we have the question of retained value, and without doubt a limited edition, hand-fitted revolver will bring much more in resale value at a later date, when you can still get normal S&W revolvers, but these limited-edition items are no longer being made.

Finally, these special handguns are made more with an eye toward fun, rather than as hunting or self-defense sidearms. Of course they could be used for those purposes, but they wouldn’t be our first choice. Any of the three would be just grand in an NRA centerfire match, and for all informal target shooting as well. We would never scope them, because there goes the historic look, and that’s one of the best reasons to buy these over normal handguns. They are wonderful links with the past, tie-ins with the history of our great country. As such, they’re priceless. Here’s what we think of them individually:

S&W Heritage Series Model 24-5 .44 Special, $1,100. Buy It. The .44 Special was a joy to shoot, and we liked it very much. The overall effect was that, yes, we had our hands on a Triple Lock, it looked and felt great, and it’s a piece of history even if not made just like the originals.

S&W Heritage Series Model 25-11, .45 Long Colt, $1,050. Buy It. The only problems we’d have with this gun is determining the finish we’d prefer. The case coloring may have given a harder and therefore longer lasting surface, but either finish would outlive many generations of shooters. We liked the .45 LC as much as we did the .44 version. We’ve seldom seen such accurate or well made handguns.

S&W Model 25-12, Model of 1917, $1,050. Buy It. This new 1917 would make an ideal outdoorsman’s gun, sighted in with your favorite all-purpose load. The lanyard loop could be used with a sling placed around the neck to keep the gun from being lost in your favorite fishing lake, and also can be used as a brace while shooting. Those who favor the revolver and want the power of the .45 Auto need look no further than the new 1917.

The simplicity of this handgun design was very appealing. There was not much to it except the clean lines of a fine DA revolver, simple and sturdy sights, great accuracy, reliable function. and that great big hole in the barrel. We preferred the new gun’s rounded grip to the original’s square-butt. We’d like to see the 1917 added as a regular part of the S&W lineup, maybe with a utility finish and whatever other corner-cutting would let S&W sell it for a reasonable price.

Other than the chambers being cut too deep, we could not fault this handgun. We could nit-pick it, and say that some of it was not exactly like the originals, but old 1917s are getting scarce, and they have their own little problems. If you want a good 1917 today this is clearly the way to go.

All these guns are available exclusively from distributor Lew Horton, whom readers will need to contact to find a Horton-supplied dealer. The company’s email address is questions@lewhorton.com, or you may call (508) 366-7400.

 

Also With This Article

Click here to view "Overview: Gun Tests' Revolver Picks and Pans."


Click here to view accuracy and chronograph data

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