Smith & Wesson No. 3 (Schofield) Revolvers

By Chuck Hawks

Uberti 1875 No. 3 revolver
Uberti replica of the S&W 1875 No. 3. Illustration courtesy of A. Uberti S.R.L.

Smith & Wesson developed their famous No. 3 single action (SA) revolver around 1868 and it remained in production until 1898. Like any single action revolver, the No. 3's hammer had to be manually cocked before the weapon could be fired. This, plus the fact that the cylinder held six cartridges, was about its only similarity to the popular SA revolvers of the period, particularly the excellent Remington and Colt models.

There is no side loading gate or external ejector rod housing on a No. 3. Instead, it was a top break design. There are only two hammer notches; full cock and quarter cock. The quarter cock position permits the cylinder to rotate freely and allows opening the action for loading or unloading. The principle advantage of this design is that all fired brass can be removed simultaneously. (Actually dumped out, since there is no ejector.) In addition, all of the cylinders chambers are exposed for somewhat more rapid reloading compared to SA revolvers that load via a loading gate.

At first (circa 1868), the No. 3 was chambered for the .44 S&W American cartridge, an anemic centerfire round developed by Smith & Wesson for use in the original, rather weak, top break No. 3 action. In 1970, the U.S. Government ordered 1000 No. 3 revolvers in .44 American, but no further orders for No. 3 revolvers followed until the advent of the improved Schofield model five years later. It was the Schofield version that ensured the revolver's lasting fame.

The .44 American cartridge's main claim to fame is that it was soon developed into the .44 Russian (in 1870) for use by the Imperial Russian Army, which ordered some 41,000 No. 3 revolvers with seven inch barrels in 1871. The .44 Russian proved to be a successful cartridge and when early smokeless powders were developed the .44 Russian case was lengthened and the .44 Special was born. The .44 Special was no powerhouse, either, but it served as the basis for high pressure load experimentation and in 1956 Remington lengthened and strengthened the .44 Special case, creating the present day .44 Magnum. The .44 Remington Magnum is the most popular and probably the most useful of all big bore revolver cartridges and its lineage goes all the way back to the .44 American.

There were actually three consecutive variations of the No. 3 revolver designed for the Russian government, each incorporating minor changes demanded by the Czar's army. S&W produced thousands of these Russian Model revolvers under contract, but the Russians cloned the No. 3 and began producing it themselves, refusing to pay for the bulk of the S&W revolvers they had already received or to accept the large number of Russian Model No. 3's already produced by S&W and awaiting shipment. This dishonorable behavior nearly drove Smith & Wesson into bankruptcy.

Subsequent to the Russian debacle, Major George Schofield, an officer in the U.S. Cavalry, redesigned the No. 3, improving it in several minor and one major way, reputedly for mounted use. Major Schofield's most significant improvement to the No. 3 revolver was a frame mounted, spring loaded, stirrup-type latch (replacing S&W's original barrel mounted latch). This stronger system used heat treated parts that could be replaced in the event of excessive wear. The rear sight is an integral part of the Schofield latch.

The Schofield revision was clearly a better No. 3 and it was put into production by Smith & Wesson as the 1875 No. 3 revolver, more simply known as the "Schofield." As with previous No. 3 models, the standard barrel length was seven inches, but many Schofields sold by civilian distributors had five inch barrels.

In 1875 the U.S. Army and Smith & Wesson signed a contract for Schofield revolvers in .45 Colt caliber. The No. 3 cylinder was not long enough to accommodate the .45 Colt cartridge, so S&W simply shortened the cartridge, creating the .45 Schofield (.45 Short Colt), which could be used in both the Colt SAA and S&W Schofield revolvers. In the event, after a relatively short production run, the Army cancelled the S&W contract, instead standardizing on the Colt Single Action Army revolver and the original .45 Long Colt cartridge.

In 1898, the Army sold as surplus their remaining Schofield revolvers. Wells Fargo & Company purchased many of these Army surplus Schofields, shortening their seven inch barrels to a handier five inches for carry by their Agents. These Wells Fargo guns have become collectors' favorites.

There were actually two Schofield model versions, the First Model and Second Model. The Second Model can be identified by a slight round bulge on both sides, near the top, of the frame mounted stirrup latch. Perhaps these were to allow a better grip for the thumb and index finger of the weak (supporting) hand, if it was used to open the action. A dished area at the top of the stirrup, just behind the rear sight, allows opening the action with the thumb of the strong (shooting) hand.

To open a Schofield revolver, bring the hammer to the quarter cock position and then pull back the rear sight / cylinder latch. This unlocks the action and allows the barrel/cylinder assembly to swing downward. A star extractor raises the cartridge cases as the action is opened. Invert the pistol as it is opened to allow the cases to drop free (there is no ejector). When the barrel assembly reaches its fully open position, the extractor snaps back into place and fresh cartridges can then be loaded into the cylinder.

The Schofield's cylinder rotates clockwise, like a Colt cylinder. This is the opposite of modern S&W double action revolver cylinders, which rotate counter-clockwise.

An empty chamber should always be centered under the Schofield's lowered hammer. With the hammer all the way down, the tip of the firing pin would be resting directly on the primer of a cartridge aligned with the barrel and even a moderate blow to the hammer could result in an accidental discharge. An empty chamber or a fired case must always be kept under the lowered hammer of a Schofield revolver.

The Schofield hammer cocks with two definite clicks, one as it passes the loading notch and the second when it reaches the fully cocked position. The force required to cock the hammer is moderate.

The firing pin is fixed, machined as an integral part of the hammer. This design should be completely trouble free in normal use and allow unlimited dry firing. However, if the tip of the firing pin wears or breaks the hammer must be replaced.

The Schofield's hammer is smaller than a Colt Peacemaker's and, although easy to cock, it is placed farther forward in relation to the shooter's hand position on the revolver's smooth walnut, two-piece grips. This is due to the length of the frame behind the cylinder. Colt single actions have shorter rear frames and larger hammers that are, consequently, located closer to the shooting hand.

The rear sight is a "V" notch machined into the top of the action latch. There is a full length rib atop the barrel into which is set a brass, semi-circular, front sight blade.

The final evolution of the No. 3 was the "New Model Number Three," introduced in 1877. This incorporated additional improvements and replaced all previous models, such as the American, Russian and Schofield. The New Model incorporated the Schofield improvements and can be considered a Schofield variation. New Model revolvers were sold as Frontier and Target models and chambered for the more powerful .44-40 Winchester cartridge, as well as the .44 Russian, .38-44, .38-40 and .32-44 cartridges.

Smith & Wesson showed their New Model No. 3 revolver at a exhibition in Melbourne, Australia in 1880 and caught the attention of the South Australia Police. That organization subsequently ordered some 250 nickel plated New Model revolvers with seven inch barrels and detachable shoulder stocks for use by their mounted troopers. Additional No. 3's were ordered as late as 1888 by both the South and West Australia Police. These were retained until 1953, when they were finally sold as surplus and returned to the U.S.A. for sale, mostly to collectors. These "Australian Model" No. 3's were chambered for the .44 Russian cartridge. In addition to Russia, the U.S. and Australia, No. 3's were purchased for use in Canada (by the RCMP), Argentina and Japan.

No. 3 revolvers, especially Schofields, were widely used on the Western frontier and in the various Indian Wars (on both sides) in the U.S. and Canada. They were also pressed into service during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and to a limited extent during the Spanish-American War, Phillippine Insurrection and First World War. Japan had purchased a batch of Russian Model No. 3's before the First World War and a few of these, their grips marked with Japanese characters, turned up in the Second World War.

The No. 3 was a successful design and one of the few Smith & Wesson models that was not basically a copy of some competitor's popular firearm. A number of well known frontier persons owned No. 3's at various times. Perhaps the most famous of these was the outlaw Billy the Kid (William H. McCarty, Jr., aka William H. Bonney), who was known to prefer the No. 3. Others associated with the No. 3 at some point in their careers include Pat Garrett (who killed Billy), Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin, Wyatt Earp, Wyatt's brother Virgil and Annie Oakley.

Today, original No. 3 revolvers in good condition are highly prized by collectors and seldom fired. For shooters who want to experience using one of these unique revolvers, replicas of various No. 3 models, especially the Schofield, have been marketed at various times by various distributors in the U.S. As far as I know, all of these revolvers were and are manufactured overseas, primarily in Italy. Uberti, Beretta (who owns Uberti), Cimarron (basically the Uberti gun assembled to Camarron specifications), Navy Arms (made by Uberti), Armi San Marco and Smith & Wesson (made, I believe, by Armi San Marco) are among the best known brands. Today (2014) the Uberti product dominates the field and reviews of Uberti No. 3 Schofield revolvers can be found on the Handgun Reviews and Product Reviews index pages.

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Copyright 2014, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.