I have been interested in guns, particularly handguns, since I was a little kid. Evidently, this became known in my fathers extended family (with 8 bothers and sisters and the families they married into). After an older relative died and a cheap handgun was found in a dresser drawer, it made its way to my father (if there were any more expensive guns found, they were kept or sold; I never saw them). When I was old enough, he gave them to me one or two at a time, with suitable restrictions attached. I was surprised how many of them there were. All in all, I was given approximately 10 to 12 of them during my mid-teenage to mid-20’s years.
The guns were what were called “Saturday Night Specials” in those days. The name was intended to be derogatory and for good reason. They were not made to last and they are not the kind of gun that is eagerly sought out or preserved by collectors. Because of this, they are rarely seen nowadays. My guess is that most of them were probably manufactured between the turn of the last century (1900) through the depression years of the 1930’s, although at least one of them was from the mid-1880’s. I saw similar guns in the reprint of an old Sears catalog from the early part of that era for sale at $1.00 to $2.50 each. I made it a point to try all of them and got a pretty good education on cheap handguns.
All but one of them were revolvers. None were semi-automatic. The calibers were either .22 Short, .32 S&W (only once or twice .32 S&W Long), or (rarely) .38 S&W. Most of the .32’s would take ONLY the .32 S&W, not the more “powerful” .32 S&W Long, because the cylinders (not the chambers) were too short. There were more 5-shot cylinders than there were 6-shot cylinders among them. Most of the guns were nickel plated, not blued. The nickel plating was either flaking badly or pretty much gone by the time I got them.
Most of the barrels were frosted or pitted, but all still had strong rifling (if they had rifling to begin with). I believe the original owner probably shot one or two cylinders-full of cartridges just after they bought the gun and then put it away without cleaning. It was probably rarely or never fired after that. Once in a while, a partial box of shells would come with the gun. There were often no more than 5 or 6 cartridges gone. Most of the boxes had black powder (BP) cartridges in them. I learned from one of my older relatives that BP cartridges were used long after smokeless cartridges became available because BP was cheaper. I now wish I had kept the boxes they came in. They are more collectable than the guns.
Almost all of the guns were double-action. Only a couple broke open for reloading. None had side-swing cylinders. Most had to have the cylinder removed in order to reload. A few were from manufacturers I recognized, like Harrington & Richardson, Iver Johnson, or Hopkins & Allen. One was an actual Smith & Wesson, but none were from Colt. Most did not have any manufacturers markings on them other than a threatening name like “Bulldog” or something similar. Several did not even have a serial number.
All of them worked, after a fashion, when I first got them. However, they did not work like we expect revolvers to work today. The majority of them did not have any way to lock the cylinder in line with the barrel when it fired (no bolt notches in the cylinder). With the hammer cocked, you could rotate the cylinder backwards, all the way around. It wasn’t broken. That was how they were built. They depended on inertia for timing (!). When the trigger was pulled, the cylinder-arm would kick the ratchet at the back of the cylinder, which would rotate until the shallow backwall of a small groove in the cylinder bumped up against the bolt. However, there was no notch for the bolt to drop into to hold the cylinder securely. The bolt would hit the backwall and the cylinder could (and often did) bounce back. When it fired, a piece of lead was usually shaved off the bullet and spit out sideways. This made standing beside the shooter when firing one of these guns dangerous.
Some of them depended on gravity to keep a critical piece in place (such as a lever to keep the center cylinder-pin in place). I once had a cylinder pin and then the cylinder fall out of the gun when I fired it inverted a few times (believe it or not, I fired it that way on purpose to see what would happen – and it did what I thought it would do).
Sights were pretty much useless. Some had none at all. At best, some had a very small notch at the rear of the frame or on the top of the hammer. The front sight (if there was one) was usually a very thin, half-round piece of sheet-metal that was pinned to the barrel. Only a few front sights were integral to the barrel and they were tapered, being only marginally thicker than sheet metal at the top. People’s eyes must have been much better back then. Even as a kid, I had trouble focusing on the thin front sights. The gap between the barrel and cylinder was wider than we expect nowadays. There was no forcing cone at the back of the barrel. The barrel was usually cut off straight and flush with the frame. The chambers were almost always bored straight through the cylinder, without a smaller diameter throat at the front.
Many had surface rust on them when I received them. Remember that houses were not temperature or humidity controlled in those days. They were hot and humid all summer and they had probably seen 40 to 60 summers before I got them. The nickel-plating did a reasonable (but not great) job of keeping the outside from rusting, but the internal pieces` were often coated with rust when I got them. I found that it was best to remove the grips, then soak the entire gun in solvent overnight. It was amazing how much red-brown stuff flushed out of the internals of some of them. Then its internals were coated in light oil before shooting. Of course, the solvent did not help what was left of the plating.
Shooting them was always an adventure. Accuracy was uniformly poor. Part of that was because of the sights (or lack thereof). The chambers being bored straight through the cylinder did not help. Part was undoubtedly due to other manufacturing shortcuts; poor design, cheap materials, sloppy tolerances, etc. Some inaccuracy was due to the ammunition. Hot and humid storage did not help the cartridges either. The old black powder ammunition would sometimes hangfire. A few times, they failed to fire altogether. The more corroded the bullet, the more likely it would misfire in some way. Newer cartridges that I bought off of gunshow tables fired reliably, but were not much more accurate. This does not mean the guns were not dangerous, though. If fired at VERY close range, they could hurt someone. Maybe even put an eye out.
For the most part, the Saturday Night Specials did not last long. Sometimes it took only one or two boxes of shells before something broke. Sometimes longer, but something always broke. Almost always, it was a spring. It was often the mainspring (hammer spring). When that happened, the gun was out of action. Sometimes it was the hand-return spring. When that happened, it could still be cocked single-action by pointing it downward, but forget about double-action shooting from then on. They were all leaf springs, not coil springs. In fact, I don’t ever remember seeing a coil spring in them. I have a feeling that the internal rust roughened the surface of the leaf springs (particularly the highly stressed mainspring) so that a crack could easily start once I started flexing the spring by shooting them. They probably would have lasted somewhat longer when they were new and had springs in them that were not rusty. However, the guns were never made to be passed down from generation to generation. They were made to be disposable before disposable became commonplace.
Being a teenager, I did not have the tools, materials, or most importantly, the skill to make replacement springs of my own and there was no place to get parts that fit. Numrich Arms was no help for no-name guns. On one gun, the springs lasted long enough so that the edge of a notch on the hammer wore rounded. That was easy enough to fix with a file. It took a few tries, though. I learned from that how critical the angle between the hammer and the trigger is. It did not seem like any of the internal parts were hardened. Sometimes a pin would back out and tie up the gun. There were very few (or no) screws in these guns other than the one holding the grips on. Pins were used everywhere. None were tapered and none were splined (or knurled) on one end to hold them in place. The pins were pretty soft and it was easy to find replacements (nails of various sizes worked well when cut off to length). I learned from this how important it is to stake pins.
After the guns broke once and for all, I kept the remaining parts around hoping that I could modify them in some way to fix another gun. It never worked out that way. Other than the fact that every one was a different size and shape, the same parts had a way of breaking on all of them. Stripping them down was fairly easy, but putting them back together was not always as easy. There were no instructions and some had a few tricky details. I took a breaktop revolver completely apart once. There was no way I was ever going to get that one back together again. I could not believe how many parts were in it, particularly in the hinge. Eventually, I realized that the parts were never going to come together again and threw them away.
One of my favorite Saturday Night Specials was a small, single-shot .22 Short derringer with a tiny birds-head grip. I believe it was made in Spain. It was smaller than the smallest present-day NAA revolvers. The barrel rotated sideways for reloading and I carried a short piece of bent coathanger wire to eject the case. It was both a smoothbore (it was built that way) and had no sights of any kind. Even so, I was surprised how often I could hit a soda can laying on the ground 10 to15 feet in front of me by “aiming” along the top of the barrel at an imaginary spot several inches to a foot beyond and to the side of the can. Back then, soda cans were tin-plated-steel, not aluminum, and the bullet would sometimes fail to penetrate the closer side. It would put a wicked dent in it, though. When it did penetrate, the hole was a perfect silhouette of the side of the bullet. It never penetrated both sides. I would pick up the can after shooting, shake it, and listen to the bullets rattle around in what was left of the can. The bore and chamber on this gun had been drilled visibly misaligned when compared to the outside shape of the barrel. Consequently, the chamber wall was thinner on one side than the other. I shot this gun quite a bit. What failed first on it was the thin side of the chamber. It blew out one day when I was shooting it. I was not injured and did not even get a scare from it. I thought something was wrong when I shot it, but did not realize exactly what happened until I tried to eject the last case. OK, it’s not entirely the guns fault. I did fire a lot of .22LR’s in it.
One was a .32 S&W caliber breaktop with a latch that was a little loose when I first got it and quickly got looser with shooting. Eventually, the gun broke open on its own when I shot it and it ejected the empty case up and over my head. I quit using it the second time that happened. That was entirely too close to my eyes. This was the breaktop I took completely apart and couldn’t get back together again.
The rest of the cheap guns have merged together in my memory. I remember that they were all solid frame revolvers with removable cylinders. Some of the cylinders had fluting; some didn’t. Some had a cartridge sized notch in the recoil plate behind the cylinder; some didn’t. When there was a notch, there was never any kind of latch to cover it when it was not in use. The open notch could be used for loading the gun without removing the cylinder, but removing fired cases through it was more difficult. The only major difference between the different guns was how the center cylinder pin was held in place. One had a screw into the front of the frame just under the pin. That made it impossible to remove the cylinder, and difficult to reload, without a correctly sized screwdriver (no, the rim of the cartridge did not fit). Another had a little sheet metal lever with a pin off center so that gravity would keep it held against a notch in the center pin. This is the one that lost its cylinder when firing it inverted. Another one had a small detent in the frame that matched a groove in the center pin. It worked pretty well. None of them had a spring loaded crosspiece like a Colt SAA has. Probably too expensive. In any case, none of these guns lasted very long.
I only have one of those guns left today. It is not really a Saturday Night Special, though. It is a Smith & Wesson 1883 series double-action revolver in .38 S&W caliber with a 3-1/4” long barrel. As near as I can tell, it is a 3rd Model that was made a few years later. Some of the later Saturday Night Specials tried to imitate its looks, but they did not (or could not) imitate its quality. Even though it is the oldest gun I was given, it is the only one still working. Both the breaktop latch and the cylinder on it still lock up tight. It also has notches in the side of the cylinder for the bolt to drop into in order to hold the cylinder firmly in place as the hammer drops. The timing is good, both single and double action. However, I would still not stand beside it when someone else fired it. There was rust all over it when I first got it. The exterior rust was removed by wire brushing; the interior by soaking in solvent. I put a grip filler on it that I had laying around. I have probably fired a half-dozen boxes of ammunition through it in the last 40 to 50 years. Nothing has broken yet, but its mainspring is rough (from rust) and I am concerned about how much life it has left in it. From previous experience, I know that there is little or no warning before a mainspring fails. It is more accurate than the cheaper guns, but not by much since the front sight is razor thin. It is set up to carry all 5 chambers filled with the hammer down between two cartridge rims (no empty chamber needed). There is actually a depression machined into the back of the cylinder halfway between each chamber where the firing pin rests in order to keep it off of a primer. I doubt that that would be considered an acceptable safety device nowadays. It appears that what higher cost bought you was more reliability, not more accuracy.
What did I learn about cheap handguns? I learned that a lot of people in those days owned or had access to a handgun. A lot of them were people I would have never guessed owned a gun. Both men and women had them. I doubt that any of them had ever been fired in anger, but they must have provided peace-of-mind. True, the guns were cheap, but they would have fired if needed. I am sure that that was all that was asked or expected of them. By that measure, I believe they were a success. Although gun people look down on cheap guns like these, there was a reason and a place for them. And, there still is.