Wednesday, May 19, 2010

SHOOTING IMPRESSIONS: SMITH AND WESSON MODEL 1917 BRAZILIAN CONTRACT .45 AUTO REVOLVER


As I recently wrote, I discovered a forgotten treasure in guns that my father kept in his collection. One was a Smith and Wesson Model 1917 in .45 Auto caliber. My particular gun is a Brazilian contract gun made in 1937. It was made in America for the Brazilian Military Contract, and I forget how many were shipped over to them over the years but in the 1960's through 1970's both American and Brazilian military surplus began being sold to the public.
Some 11,ooo of these Brazilian Contract Model 1917's, as they were called, were imported back in the USA. Many of these guns made their way to Smith and Wesson, who parkerized them, refurbished and replaced the springs, firing pins and other interior parts, and they were then resold.
The model 1917 served well in both World Wars, and I saw numerous scenes in the HBO series The Pacific in which period correct holsters and ammo carriers and belts for these guns were used. They were particularly popular with those soldiers carrying the .45 Tommy guns, as they shared the same ammo. And could be counted on not to jam.
With half moon (3 rounds), quarter moon (2 rounds) and full moon (6 rounds) clips, these guns are faster to load than with a speedloader. But the beauty in the Smith M1917 over the Colt M1917 was that the Smith would chamber and fire rounds not mounted in any clips. The Colt would not fire shells not mounted in a form of clip, as I understand.
So if you fire without using the moon clips, you have to hand pick or poke out the emptys, often swollen from being fired. And hot, I might add. The moon clips allow the rounds to be ejected by the extractor wheel, since the .45 auto have no rim to eject the shell by themselves.
The trigger was nice on this family gun, very nice. More like a Model 19 Smith than a Python, both of which I have much experience with. I took it to my local gunsmith, John, and he was fascinated by the gun. As I suspected by the notch sight configuration (different than that issued to the American Military), he was very excited by the gun and it's history. He's a big Colt man, loving the Practical Police, and Official Police and the Colt version of the Model 1917.
So he put a bit of break free, just a dab will do it, he said, on the seal on the right side of the faceplate. It was a Brazilian State Seal. After removing the Pachmayer presentation grips my dad bought the gun with at some gun show or pawn shop, John excitedly exclaimed that the interior parts of the gun were damned near brand new. They were shiny.
John excitedly told me that this gun had undergone and extensive trigger job, a very careful and safe job designed to make the double and single action pull smoother, not necessarily dangerously light. He agreed it was definitely a high-dollar trigger job, possibly done at the Smith factory. In fact, he surmised that the gun was in near 100% condition, not counting the refinishing, which certainly would cost some points.
He's going to work on the extremely large front sight for me, as it was grouping 2" to the right and about that same distance down. He refuses to alter the gun in any way. "It's a piece of history, man". But he did agree to straighten the front blade sight and perhaps do some minicule filing, as it appears to be not straight not even across the top.
Shooting it at the range was a joy. Both El Fisho Jr. and I were astonished by the lack of felt recoil. My gun weighs in at just over a couple of pounds, less than both of the 6" S&W Model 25-5's I've owned chambered in .45 Long Colt. And I could not believe that the recoil from the moderate federal solid bullets I was shooting was just SO MUCH LESS than the 25-5's I've shot. The more modern Model 1917, which is the Smith and Wesson Model 22, is heavier than the Model 1917 yet also has more recoil, and the M22 shoots the same .45 ACP ammo as the M1917.
So it's hard to explain how this 73 year old handgun, based on a 1917 production weapon and virtually unchanged in those 20 years between design and the manufacture of my gun, shoots better and nicer than the guns based on it's design that have been made by Smith in the intervening years. Many say the Colt variant shoots even better than the Smith M1917.
I like the gun so much I would strongly consider it as a carry gun. It is damn long with that 5 1/2 inch barrel, but it didn't seem as wide as the modern Smith Model 325 .45 auto combat revolver he produced as an option to me cutting the barrel of my gun.
Besides, he said, it would cost more to have the Model 1917 barrel customized than it would to buy a nice used Model 325 for carry purposes. That may be true, but deep in my mind, I feel a desire to customize it for a family hierloom for El Fisho Jr.
John looked it up in some gun value book, and based on it's condition he said from $800 to $1,000. Which is nice but he was resolute that the gun unaltered would be very valuable by the time El Fisho jr. is in his 30's.
I tend to disagree, based upon my research about the Brazilian contract gun. I'll write to Smith to see if there is any info on the refurb, if they still offer this service. Much of this info may be online. It might be worth that much now, but it is such a damn fine shooting gun with such minimalistic recoil (think .38 short in this same size gun) that you can't believe it blasting out a FMJ practice ammo of 230 grains of .45 auto.
If I did customize it, I'd leave the grips, as they surely contribute much to the less felt recoil. They are handfilling and perfectly fit my hand, as well as El Fisho Jr's, despite the disparity in our hand sizes. El Fisho Jr. was shooting nice groups one handed and the recoil was no biggie to him.
After John made an ever so slight adjustment to the trigger spring tension screw under the grip, El Fisho Jr. is able to accurately shoot rapid fire double action in both groups of twos and threes with no issues at all. Some of my DA revolvers have a bit strong of a double action pull, but El Fisho Jr. had no control problems or accuracy issues doing rapid double and triple taps at the range. It was a new gun to us and we were both getting used to it, just as El Fisho Jr. is easing into range practice, but he attracted a crowd of several other shooters who stopped to watch him shoot some pretty nice groups (albeit with the M1917 off center) with the M1917 and the Combat Masterpiece M67 4".
SO I'm totally impressed with this firearm. Low recoil. With a slight bit of sight work, I'll have excellent accuracy, but it has fair accuracy as it stands now for defense purposes. I'm going to hit a 2" radius from where I'm aiming, but I look forward to having that problem solved with the sight work.
And somewhere in the back of my mind I see this gun with a 3" barrel. A deep rich blue finish, with a gold plated ejector rod, cylinder release lever, trigger and hammer. I don't know if the parts are interchangeable, but I'm sure a good gunsmith could adapt a wide target hammer and trigger to this gun from a Model 22 or perhaps an earlier model of Smith gun featuring the wider models.
I've always been skeptical of trigger shoes, despite the huge worship revolver and holster guru Chic Gaylord had for them, but I might try one on this gun. The current trigger and hammer are not untenable. The hammer reminds me of the one on the colt D frame snubnose revolvers.
In any event, there won't be any customization anytime soon. I think of the history of these guns. They found all over Brazil, and in America, they used them as late as Vietnam, being issued to various naval forces, particularly gunboat soldiers. I have spoken to several naval fellows who worked the exteme backcountry rivers, constantly under fire, who often carried two of these at a time, in crossdraw holsters, with a ton of moon clips in large pouches, a few grenades and M16 clips and a canteen on their pistol belts.
I can see why they liked these pistols. John the gunsmith is also going to look for me a nice concealed carry holster for this gun at the gun shows he works, although I think any wear of this gun is going to be limited to winter clothing months.

3 comments:

  1. Nice gun. I wish you had posted a picture of it instead of a stock photo.

    Seriously, do NOT cut the barrel. Leave it just as is. Finding one of thrse guns in anything but a dogged finish is rather rare nowadays. Plus their value is going to skyrocket in the next 5-10 years. In my area a Brazilian 1917, even a refinished one (as long as the markings are still rather crisp) is worth decent money. But cut the barrel to three inches and its value would drop to about $200.
    Now, if this was a S&W refinish, there should be markings on the frame to indicate it. Look for a star on the butt or on the frame under the grips. Or a diamond or a rectangle with letters inside. Some factory refinishes have a 3 or 4 digit number on the grip frame under the grips. This indicates the month and year of the refinish.

    You can replace the trigger with any of the current K, L or N frame triggers. But you are pretty much stuck with that hammer. What you have there is what is known as the old long action. S&W changed the geometry of the hammer pivot point in 1956/57 and finding a target hammer made before 1957 is going to be extremely difficult. The last one I saw for sale, and I have only ever seen three for sale and I've been doing this for 35 years, sold for $400.00!!! For concealled carry the hammer you have is actually better. The number one problem is that the straps on some holsters won't fit properly. Back when I carried a 1917 I took a leather K-Frame holster and wet fit it. Then the thumb break worked perfectly.

    Be care of that mainspring screw. While loosening it willl give you a lighter trigger pull it will also weaken the hammer fall. This can cause misfires. Recoil from normal shooting can even cause it to loosen even more. Not a good thing with a self defense gun. A good revolversmith* will stone the screw every so slightly and then tighten it back in the frame to ensure reliability.

    As for your statment regarding less recoil than the heavier new Model 22... I think you are experiencing softer FELT recoil due to those big Pachmayr (no e) grips. They were designed to tame the big magnum revolvers. Put identical grips on both revolvers and the heavier one will then feel softer. Face it, there is always going to be the same foot pounds of recoil (from the same ammunition) and physics dictate that, all things being equal, comfort will favor the heavier gun. And yes the new guns are a wee bit heavier (and as such, wider) because they have a slightly beefed up cylinder to handle modern .45acp +P ammunition. The heat treatment on your 1917 (if there was any) is very different from what is done today and I would be careful with +P ammo since the cylinder walls are relatively thin and we're talking 70 plus year old steel here. In fact the original US 1917 revolvers were not heat treated at all and S&W won't say at what point the commercial 1917 revolvers started using HT cylinders. (S&W offered the 1917 in their catalog through 1949 when it became the Model 1950 Army and that became the Model 22 in 1957.)

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  2. Keith Applegate - part 2July 28, 2010 at 1:27 AM

    As for your statment regarding less recoil than the heavier new Model 22... I think you are experiencing softer FELT recoil due to those big Pachmayr (no e) grips. They were designed to tame the big magnum revolvers. Put identical grips on both revolvers and the heavier one will then feel softer. Face it, there is always going to be the same foot pounds of recoil (from the same ammunition) and physics dictate that, all things being equal, comfort will favor the heavier gun. And yes the new guns are a wee bit heavier (and as such, wider) because they have a slightly beefed up cylinder to handle modern .45acp +P ammunition. The heat treatment on your 1917 (if there was any) is very different from what is done today and I would be careful with +P ammo since the cylinder walls are relatively thin and we're talking 70 plus year old steel here. In fact the original US 1917 revolvers were not heat treated at all and S&W won't say at what point the commercial 1917 revolvers started using HT cylinders. (S&W offered the 1917 in their catalog through 1949 when it became the Model 1950 Army and that became the Model 22 in 1957.)

    While Pachmayr Presentation Grips are great for range use they are less than optimal for concealed carry. They are kind of large and cover garments often 'stick' to them. I think you'll find that full size Pressies just won't feel right with a 3 inch barrel. (Especially if it is a cut back skinny barrel.) And the balance on your belt will also be affected.
    My every day carry guns in cooler weather are two 3 inch round butt S&W N-Frame revolvers. One is a Model 29-3 in .44 Magnum and the other is a Model 657 in .41 Magnum. So I sort of know of that which I speak regarding CCW of large revolvers. I also often CCW a 4 inch S&W Model 58. That is a square butt, fixed sight M&P revolver chambered in .41 Magnum. Very similar in looks to your 1917. In fact the balance with its 4 inch heavy barrel is almost the same as the five and one half inch skinny barrel on your 1917. So with a good shoulder holster it would be no problem to CCW your 1917. I carried a full sized US 1917 in a Jackass rig 30 years ago. A high ride cross draw holster should also work well.

    Also,
    According to the good folks at Colt, only the very first, earliest, Colt 1917 revolvers had a completely bored through cylinder that required moon clips. Those guns are so few and far between that I have never seen one in the 45 years I've been actively shooting and collecting large frame revolvers and I don't know anyone else who has ever seen one either. I HAVE, however, seen revolvers CONVERTED to .45 ACP that used bored through cylinders. But that was just sloppy smithing.

    *Revolersmiths are different from gunsmiths. They are much harder to find. I have known many gunsmiths that were not very well skilled in most handgun work. To be honest, and I don't wish to insult anyone, but any gunsmith who will loosen the strain screw on a revolver and leave it loosened, I consider to be suspect. Don't get me wrong, he may be great at drinning holes and mounting scopes stuff like that, but I would doubt his ability to properly work on revolvers. Be thankful you don't have a Colt 1917 since older double action Colts (such as the Python) are much more complicated than the Smith & Wesson types. Many so-called gunsmiths will not eveb attempt to repair a Colt. Which is a good thing They can be quite tricky and easy to mess up horribly.

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  3. Thanks for the emails, Keith. I appreciate your info and opinions. I must ask, any relation to the late Col. Rex Applegate?

    My gunsmith is a revolver freak and has actually done quality work on both my Python and my Cobra. I'm not sure he didn't secure that screw. He did, however, gingerly and gently take two blocks of wood and some large plier and get that front sight square and aligned again.

    I hit tin cans laying on the ground at about 25' last week, and am laying 3 to 4" groups at 15 and 25 yards, rapid double action fire. What a great gun.

    My gunny offered me $1k cash on the spot for the gun, and after being told it was not for sale, said he might go as high as $1,500, if I took it as a store credit.

    I'm not interested in selling the gun. El Fisho Jr., my son, is already in love with the gun as a big WWII fan and budding historian.

    I agree after thinking about it that doing any alteration to the gun would be foolish and disrespectful.

    The guns that were compared to this gun were indeed sporting pachmayr grips themselves. Both of the Model 25-5's and the recent snubnose lightwight Smith 45 ACP that I shot all had Pacs or Hogues on them.

    As an experienced long time shooter, I am amazed at the lack of recoil, felt or otherwise from this gun. I have not yet shot any of the Federal low recoil 45 acp's that I've been carrying and shooting in my auto's, mainly because I have not been able to find any locally and the few I have are being used in carry guns.

    As an LE officer for almost 30 years, I've carried a lot of medium and large frame revolvers. I too, carried a Python for many years in an original jackass shoulder rig, and I'll dig it out and see how the M1917 fits since the Jackass holster has an open toe.

    I'm afraid the barrel of the M1917 would extend too much for any type of off duty or concealed carry, since that rig was designed for a 4" Python. I've also got an old Roy Baker pancake for the Python that I'll try as well, also running an open toe.

    I really do like this gun, and I plan to get a nice field rig from El Paso Saddlery for it. Maybe even the Patton type holster and belt. I've got a nice version of a bowie knife and if I could get El Paso to make a matching knife sheath for the rig, I'd be ready when pond and river fishing in Hog Country. A lot of my fishing is in hog infested country, and since the best fishing is often before or at daylight or before or after sundown, that's hog activity time.

    When I get a chance, I'll check the frame for the marks you mentioned to indicate refurbishing. Whatever the story, this gun is in remarkable condition, and if it could talk, I'm sure it would have some stories to tell.

    I'll update at some future point, and again thank you for your sage advice and opinion. I agree the Pac Sig grips are unweildy for CCH, yet I persist after 30 years carrying them on various guns because I shoot so much better with them. They do snag clothing at times and can be difficult to conceal, but I have no problem using them on my beloved Cobra revolver instead of the Pac Compac grips and they are just a bit harder to effectively conceal.

    Say, one more question. Ever run across a Smith and Wesson Model 29 made with Aluminum frame pre-1980? My friend as one, blued with a 6" barrel. I've shot it and held it multiple times, and it is significantly lighter than the standard Model 29. Just curious...

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