Editor’s Note: This article was a submission by Rock Island Auction’s Joel Kolander.
In the 1800s, any idea for how to improve firearms was fair game, and it resulted in some inventions and innovations that are still in use today, virtually unchanged from their birth roughly 200 years ago. We have this golden age of firearm invention to thank for percussion firing systems; the pepperbox and revolver; cased, rimfire, and centerfire ammunition; the lever action; the bolt action; and even the earliest semi-automatic firearms. Obviously, these are success stories the likes of which have changed firearms and even the fates of nations forever. However, for every success story, there are dozens of ideas that didn’t make it. Some didn’t get the military contracts they needed, others were eclipsed by more popular designs, many were impractical, and then there were those that were just goofy or downright dangerous. Even the vaunted Smith & Wesson was not immune from the pitfalls of 19th Century firearms design. Case in point: the Model 320 revolving rifle.
The origins of stocked pistols traces back to flintlocks, so the design was nothing new, yet Colt had been producing revolving rifles since his First Model Ring Lever rifle was made in 1837 at his new Paterson, New Jersey, factory that had previous been sitting around as an unused silk mill. In later decades, both Colt and Smith & Wesson produced versions of their revolvers that accepted stocks. That said, Smith & Wesson was relatively new to the game. They had an opportunity to sit back, see what worked, and improve upon it. I’m sure when Smith & Wesson designed the gun, they were initially pleased with the flexibility the gun offered to customers.
It was essentially a new Model No. 3 revolver with slight modifications to the hammer, trigger, and cylinder to allow for an adjustable trigger weight, plus an extended barrel. In fact, the barrels, available in 16, 18, or 20 inches, were so long they had trouble forging them. To solve this they were to be manufactured in two separate pieces. This can be observed if one looks about two inches ahead of the breech (2 1/8 inches, to be precise) where a seam can be seen where the two pieces are screwed together. These changes aside, most of the rifle’s improvements hinged on its new and proprietary ammunition. First and foremost, unlike many of the other stocked revolvers or revolving rifles that had been introduced earlier, the Model 320 was not a percussion gun. Because it utilized cartridges, it eliminated the risk of chain fires, a common failure with early percussion arms, made all the more catastrophic on a longarm that required the support hand to be placed in front of the cylinder.
The rounds were a centerfire cartridge referred to as the 320 S&W (a.k.a. .320 S&W rifle and .320 Revolving Rifle). Attempting to address several of the shortcomings of revolving rifles, which will be covered later in this piece, Smith & Wesson designed the brass of the round to be as long as the chamber. It looked a lot like a round of .30 carbine if the bullet was seated too deeply, with the nose of the bullet flush with the rim of the brass. If you’re thinking that’s quite a bit longer than your average handgun cartridge, you’re right.
The 320 S&W rounds were still using blackpowder, so to get the velocity that S&W wanted, they had to utilize a longer piece of brass. This would allow for more propellant, but with slow-burning blackpowder, it also increased the efficiency of the round by allowing less unused propellant out the muzzle. It was also thought that this longer brass would increase accuracy by shortening the distance the bullet would travel unguided between the chamber and the rifling. Information is scarce on the velocity and power of these rounds, but it is documented that they used a 98-100 grain round nose, lead bullet with a 17-grain charge of blackpowder. This was not incredibly powerful. Even a rifle using a similar cartridge would have a muzzle velocity of around 1,200 fps. Respectable, but a revolving rifle would have a cylinder gap to contend with, further diminishing the power of the round. The stock, elongated barrel, special order scopes, and new round all seem to indicate that Smith & Wesson was going to be heavily marketing the accuracy of their new rifle. Combined with such features as mottled red and black rubber grips, factory cases, and other high-end touches, they were also clearly taking aim at marketing a high-quality arm.
It should have been a wild success. The New Model No. 3 revolver was already being custom ordered by famed exhibition shooters such as Ira Paine and William F. Cody. Outfitters in the West were also writing to the company requesting to “take your new style pistol, give it an eighteen inch barrel and a cylinder heavy and long enough to use a long cartridge if necessary, with a rifle stock.” Another letter from Black Hills wrote, “I want a rifle with a revolving cylinder made upon the same principle as the small S. & W. Revolver… something suitable for deer hunting, bear hunting and also Indian hunting if necessary.” For the record, those willing to hunt bear with this cartridge either had a death wish or more bravery than they had brains. The demand was present, the reputation already established, and the new cartridge created. The only thing to do now was to put it out to market.
The first rifles rolled off the line in August 1879, though delays with the optics from Spencer Optical Mfg. Co. pushed the release date back to April 1880, and even then guns were shipping without them. When finally introduced to a public practically begging for the new rifles, they came with some lengthy ads. One such ad was clipped out of a newspaper and sent to the factory by a customer wanting confirmation that there wasn’t some sort of scheme taking place involving the Smith & Wesson name. The ad read:
“This is an entirely new arm, different from anything else in existence, and embodies the finest workmanship ever seen in firearms. The principle of this arm is similar to the Smith & Wesson new Model Revolver, the barrel tipping up and ejecting the shells automatically. The stock is detachable, and when attached is perfectly firm, being held by a very powerful fastening. The buttplate, pistol grip stocks, and fore stock are rubber, chased and engraved; the stock is selected English curled walnut; the lock rebounding. It uses an extra long, reloadable, centre-fire shell, made expressly for this arm. The shell is very thick and strong, like the “everlasting” shells, and will last for years. It is unnecessary to say anything about the mechanism, workmanship, or material in this arm – the makers’ names are sufficient. We can state from experience, however, that it is the most marvelous shooter that we have ever handled. It will shoot accurately 300 yards, and we have put twenty-three successive balls in a 4-inch circle at 110 yards. Its wonderful accuracy is due, partly to the peep and globe sights, which are made specially for this Rifle. The peep sight is adjustable to any elevation, by a very fine screw, and has a double motion, moving from right to left, answering the purposes of a wind gauge. The globe sight is a magnifying crystal inside of a short tube. In the exact centre of the crystal is a small black dot making the finest sight ever put on a firearm of any kind. It has a set trigger (set by inside screws), and with the sights full on a squirrel, at 100 yards, it would seem impossible to miss him. The person owning the above rifle can outshoot the whole community.”
The rifles came in a myriad of options, some of which are listed in the below chart of wholesale prices. Other options included a factory case, engraving, ivory grips, and pearl grips.
Many of the initial production were nickel-plated, but changed to a blued finish for the vast majority of those manufactured. Serial number one went to Joseph H. Wesson and number 25 was reserved for D. B. Wesson, who also presented one to his stockbroker as a birthday present. Despite the delays in getting the rifles to market, by July 1880 all but a half dozen rifles of the production run were complete. Unfortunately for Smith & Wesson, that number was only 976. Numbered from 1 – 977, sales of the rifle were surprisingly sluggish. They may have had a great deal of promise, but the Model 320 had flown far too close to the sun and was ready to hurtle back to earth.
Perhaps the most damning characteristic of the Model 320 rifle’s issues is the one discussed ad nauseam in any subject matter you find on the gun: blowby. As Colt discovered more than 20 years prior (and other makers before), when a revolving rifle fires, and the bullet traverses the gap between the cylinder and the forcing cone, hot gasses and unburnt powder escape and are generally directed into the underside of the shooter’s forearm and potentially their wrist and hand. If that wasn’t enough to dissuade buyers, the bullet also shaves off tiny amounts of lead as it strikes the entrance of the forcing cone. This lead, or “spall,” can also travel at some pretty high speeds into parts of the body that don’t necessarily take too well to hot shards of metal.
Besides this issue, consumers had several other reasons to not buy this rifle.
- Repeating rifles already existed.
- Repeating rifles with more powerful cartridges already existed.
- Repeating rifles can hold more than six rounds.
- Repeating rifles won’t put fragments of lead into your hand during regular use.
- Ammunition for other guns was more readily available.
Granted, many rifles of the day also came in pistol calibers. This was seen as a convenience and often allowed a shooter to carry a single type of ammunition. One should also concede that the Model 320 had a detachable stock, allowing the carrier more concealability than a standard carbine or rifle. Even with these two advantages, the Model 320 still was lacking in capacity, availability of ammunition, and safety. All the accuracy, fine construction, and high-end touches in the world won’t make a difference if you run out of ammunition or the gun is hazardous to shoot.
Sales were atrocious throughout the 1880s and by 1890 the gun was no longer shown in the Smith & Wesson catalog. In its final year, it was available for $23 including the hunting sight, case, and cleaning tools. The final example was shipped in 1896.
Collectability by the Numbers
The Model 320 is extremely desirable by collectors. Not only does it have an unusual appearance and high quality, but it is one of, if not the, rarest production gun made by Smith & Wesson. As mentioned before less than 1,000 were made, of which 137 were exported to various countries (a dozen bound for Australia were lost when the vessel carrying them sank into the Pacific), leaving 840 to be sold in the United States. Nickel plated versions are especially scarce, with different sources citing between only 76 to 90 rifles that were ever given this finish—less than 10% regardless of the figure used. To make models even rarer, different barrel lengths were produced in varying quantities:
- 239 were produced with 16-in barrels
- 514 were produced with 18-in barrels
- 224 were produced with 20-in barrels
When you start combining features, you get even rarer guns. What if you have a 20-inch barrel that’s nickel plated? Without knowing the exact figure produced, but knowing that 20-inch barrels accounted for around 22% of total production, you could say that a nickel-plated, 20-inch Model 320 is one of as few as 16 ever produced (22% of 76)! Those are serious bragging rights for any collector. Add original accessories still with the gun, and the numbers will likely drop lower still, like this one (see below) sold by Rock Island Auction Company in 2013. Nickel plated, 18-in barrel, tube scope, and globe front sight for use when the scope is detached all drove the price of this beauty to $37,375.
Improvements to design are not enough if the design is still bad. Staying one step ahead of Colt is still bad if it’s a step behind the curve. However you want to say it, the Model 320 was a massive flop. In May of 1880 D. B. Wesson had written to an acquaintance, “We have made but 1000 of these arms and do not intend to make more, at least not for some length of time… The prospects are that sales will be quick,” but by 1883 the factory had written to one customer that “demand will hardly justify out making them in any quantity,” It would appear that regardless of how well they sold, the Model 320 was destined to become a collector’s item.
Rock Island Auction Company somehow comes into these rarities pretty regularly. In fact, the 2016 June 24-26 Regional Auction has three examples available for bid, one of each barrel length, that have been shown in the photographs of this article. They are three of the nearly 6,800 firearms held in over 3,400 lots that will be auctioned during the weekend event. Smith & Wesson aficionados, students of 19th century revolvers, or just collectors of the unusual and rare would do well to take notice.
About the Author: Joel Kolander writes for Rock Island Auction Company, manages their social media, as well as various special projects. He enjoys well-made revolvers, any excuse to fire a shotgun, and exploring the best craft brews. With a long held an interest in American military history and stories told by individual firearms, a good afternoon is spent researching either one and separating the fact from fiction. You can reach Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Chicoine, David R. Smith & Wesson: Sixguns of the Old West. Lincoln, RI: Andrew Mowbray, 2004. Print.
- Jinks, Roy G. History of Smith & Wesson. North Hollywood, CA: Beinfeld Pub., 1977. Print.
- Neal, Robert J., and Roy G. Jinks. Smith & Wesson, 1857-1945:. Livonia, NY: R & R, 1996. Print.
- Parsons, John E. Smith & Wesson Revolvers: The Pioneer Single Action Models. New York: William Morrow, 1957. Print.
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