Obscure Object of Desire: Smith & Wesson Safety Hammerless (1st Model) in .32 S&W

Smith & Wesson Safety Hammerless

Courtesy Tom in Oregon

Last weekend, I was at a friend’s man cave discussing some business. As usual, the topic of guns came up.

As I was getting ready to leave he said he had something to show me. Out of his safe came the unusual purse-like case you see above made of ostrich skin. Before I opened it up, I knew this was going to be something special.

I admired the fine stitching and craftsmanship with simple soldered buttons that went into making the case. After I opened it and pulled out the diminutive gat inside, I chastised my good friend for not making me wear linen gloves to handle this museum piece.

Smith & Wesson Safety Hammerless

Courtesy Tom in Oregon

If you look closely, you can see two of my grimy mitt prints on this museum piece. As best as I can tell by serial number, this beautiful Smith & Wesson Safety Hammerless was made around 1899.

Some info on the pistol from Wikipedia:

The Smith & Wesson .38 Safety Hammerless models were produced from 1887 (1888 for the 32) to just before World War II. They were chambered in either .32 S&W or .38 S&W with a five-shot cylinder. They were most often produced with a 2-inch, 3-inch, or 3.5-inch barrels; but some 6″ barrelled versions are known to exist.[1]

These top-break revolvers were designed for fast reloading and concealed carry as the hammer was internal and would not snag on drawing the revolver from a pocket. They were known as “The New Departure” to reflect the company’s new approach to designing revolvers.[1]

Minor design changes were made to these revolvers over the years, resulting in several different design models, as termed by collectors. The first model was manufactured between 1887-1902. The 38 was based on S&W’s medium frame, while the 32 was based on the smaller sized “1½” frame.[2][3]

The Safety Hammerless is also know as the lemon squeezer. Why? I’m glad you asked.

It’s not that slightly raised hump to the right of the Smith & Wesson medallion ensconced in the stunning mother of pearl grips. That’s a grip safety.

Yup. JMB had a good idea including a grip safety on the venerable 1911, but it was preceded by a few years. In doing some reading on this beauty, I found that it was designed this way so that a child couldn’t accidentally pick it up and shoot it. The grip safety on this beauty is pretty stiff.

Not to sound all Shannon-esque, but apparently children accidentally shooting others was a problem back in the day.

The reason the Safety Hammerless is called the lemon squeezer is because of its general resemblance to the kitchen tool when broken open.

Actual lemon squeezer (Courtesy invaluable.com)

After close inspection, I doubt whether this specimen has ever been fired. Maybe at the factory, but not since. Unfortunately, the cylinder has been turned and you can see a very light score mark.

The bluing and polish work on this 121-year-old firearm is stunning. It’s better than my Colt Python. I didn’t try the trigger. Somehow, it seemed wrong in my mind to dry fire such a beauty.

Smith & Wesson Safety Hammerless

Courtesy Tom in Oregon

After a careful wipedown with a soft cloth, this little gem was slipped back into its remarkable case and went back into the safe.

My friend has no plans to shoot the inherited piece. It only comes out of the safe in the man cave during times of quiet contemplation.

 

[This post was originally published in 2016.]

comments

  1. avatar JB Gleason says:

    Please, please, please take that beautiful handgun out of that case and store it properly. The case is an uber cool part of that collectible but it shouldn’t be stored in it. Natural (and artificial) fabrics can collect moisture and excrete acids/oils. Clean and oil the weapon and store it on a rack or stand to preserve it. Toss it into the case to show it off. Heck, tell your buddy I will be happy to hang onto that for him if he wants. Really good post on a nice revolver.

      1. avatar Brian Walters says:

        I have one of these that belonged to my great grandfather. Unfortunately it is not in as good of condition as this one. It sat in my grandfathers safe in a leather holster for about 40 years and the nickel plate is patchy in places from the acid in the leather.

  2. avatar Tyrannosaurus Sex says:

    Nice piece, but I can’t imagine wanting to own a gun I’m afraid to even handle. The article notes that the thing appears to have never been fired, almost as if that’s a good a thing?? It hasn’t ever performed its intended function.

    I have some antiques in fairly good condition (older than the gun in the article) that I treat with care, but they get handled and shot like all the rest. To each his own I guess.

    1. avatar Hannibal says:

      At that point it’s a work of art or antique rather than a gun. And that’s fine by me. I’d like owning it! I just wouldn’t pick owning it over owning something functional I needed.

  3. avatar WillS says:

    I had a .25 Colt or FN (don’t remember which at this point) pocket pistol come through the shop at one point. Perfect bluing, all numbers matching. I know for a fact it had never been fired because the firing pin channel was drilled so far off center, it struck the side of the case instead of the primer! Hopefully no one ever relied on it.

  4. avatar SCW says:

    I’ve got a S&W 4th Model in .32S&W. It belonged to one of my great-great grandparents and sat in a drawer for decades. I’m probably the only person to ever fire it. The blueing was pretty much crap by the time it got to me so I stripped it and did some cold blueing just to protect the bare metal. It still looks like crap though.

    It fires full power factory ammo just fine, but .32S&W is a little hard to find and pricey so I used to take empty cases and load 1 grain of Bullseye with some 0 buck (.32 caliber ball) as the bullet. Load the ball a little less than half way, give it a hard crimp so it stays in place. Its practically a gallery load and you can see the bullet very easily as it travels to the target.

    My grandfather has a nickel plated “lemon squeezer”. I believe its in .38S&W.

  5. avatar jwm says:

    My brother has one of those in .38. Right down to the ivory grips. His is in good shape but not as sweet as that one. When I was a kid these type of guns were still quite common. A lot of these ‘pocket’ type handguns were bought for just in case and were mostly not used much. It was not unusual to find them in pretty good shape in the day.

    Like the comment above. I would not store one in a case like that.

  6. avatar Prndll says:

    This is a very nice piece.

    A hammerless revolver is like a bladeless fan. Better than a meatless burger and just as hidden as the driverless car. Maybe I’m thinking of a ghost gun and it’s ghost hammer.

    1. avatar John in AK says:

      To be accurate, the little monsters DO have hammers; They’re just fully shrouded by the closed frame extension. Other than having concealed and inaccessible hammers, AND the grip safety (it’s more of a ‘hammer blocker’ than a safety, actually), the internal bits are exactly the same as the exposed-hammer models, generally based upon Adams and Beaumont patents from the 1850s.

      I have several of these critters, in both .32 S&W and .38 S&W; Each one is an amazing exhibition of what old-time gunmaking could accomplish in the way of fit and finish.

      1. avatar Prndll says:

        This would make a fine addition to any collection.

  7. avatar conrad says:

    A person would be surprised at the mist of spit which comes out of the mouth when you talk, especially if you are from Rio Linda. I had a knife purveyor remark that if he didn’t wipe down knives after every handling tiny spit droplets would mar the surface forever.

    1. avatar Yep says:

      You dont speak in its presence…

  8. avatar Hugh Glass says:

    Looks like it has been stored fine. Also doubt the buddy would give it to random dude on the internet.

  9. avatar Specialist38 says:

    I have shot many. And it was the first gun I ever fired.

    My Mom had one which she loaned to my older brother to run trot lines. At night.

    One stump later and it now lies in the bottom of Red Creek.

    He replaced it with H&R 732 in 32 S&W….kind of a downer.

    Lots of fun to shoot but I do hate reloading 32 S&W.

    The daddy of the centennial model….pretty good lineage.

  10. avatar RKC says:

    Good for you for preserving a piece of history. No point in firing it. Just the same these things were built to last and will run for decades. After all they have not been used hard.
    These revolvers were carried in back pockets and purses, put up in nightstands, and hardly used or fired. They gave the owner peace of mind. You have to ask sometimes where they all are? Hundreds of thousands made, hardly used, and yet you never see one. Thanks for sharing!!

    1. avatar Specialist38 says:

      What are you talking about!?

      It NEEDS to be fired…..cause its cool ….. and a piece of living history.

      And its gets lonely if you dont use it.

    2. avatar John in AK says:

      Seriously, these guns are readily available, and are relatively inexpensive in comparison to Colts, for example, of the same vintage. This one, for example, might bring no more than $500ish ( no box, no cleaning brush).

  11. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

    Cool article! More of this!

  12. avatar John in AK says:

    Looking more closely at the photographs, this is NOT a 1st Model New Departure .32.

    1st Models had a spring-loaded ‘button’ at the very back of the top strap that was depressed to tilt the barrel assembly; 2nd Model and forward guns had the more typical T-bar piece that was lifted to raise the barrel up for loading. Also, this gun apparently has the calibre stamping on the left side of the barrel, more typical of later guns.

    It’s still a beautiful piece.

  13. avatar Steve says:

    One of my dream guns would be a modern remake of the old bicycle gun (Hammerless, two inch barrel), but as a five shot 9mm. I know….top breaks aren’t as strong as swing out cylinders, but it’s 2020. Technology should be able to engineer a solution. I’m not sure what the real advantage would be. Maybe a bit quicker to reload using a speedloader, but it would most likely require moonclips.

  14. avatar Derfel Cadarn says:

    I own several Over Johnson safety b.s.keyless revolvers like these S&Ws. The 38 S&W gun shoots remarkably well. I load hollow base watchers up side down and at the ranges these guns were intended for you will have a unpleasant day if it comes to shots being fired. Are these the best defensive weapons ? That depends on the situation. Knowledge carry a fighting knife, but I ‘d draw this revolver first if you intend to prove how stupid you can be.

  15. avatar john clark says:

    i have one but it is nickle plated. It belonged to my grandfather. It is hard to shoot well because of the tremendous trigger pull.

    1. avatar John in AK says:

      That long, heavy trigger pull (combined with the rebounding hammer) was considered an additional safety feature when the guns were new; Both attributes negated any real need for a hammer-block or transfer-bar safety, as the rebound system made the guns ‘drop-safe’ along with their being ‘inert’ (no stored mainspring energy to speak of) until the trigger was pulled all of the way to the rear.

      They were never really intended to ‘shoot well’ past about arm’s length in any case.

  16. avatar 91BDoc says:

    This post has been a treasure trove of information. I recently acquired the same gun but in the .32 caliber (3rd model) with the 2 inch barrel, about 98% of the original bluing and excellent rifling. Considering selling it as I realize I can’t really shoot it without the value taking a hit. Any interest?

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