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Old October 5, 2017, 04:48 AM   #1
wileybelch
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Top break revolvers

Maybe this post belongs in the smithy forum, but here goes.
I would like to explore the 19th and 20th century top break revolvers made by Iver Johnson, H&R, S&W, etc., with the intention of satisfying my nostalgia for this niche in our firearms history.
My local gunsmith refuses to work on them and claims there is no parts market for them, therefore a waste of time and money. Is this true?
I would like anyone's opinion about pursuing this urge (shooting a .32 S&W short looks like a lot of fun!).
What advice do you have for a beginner in this category (give as much detail as you can).
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Old October 5, 2017, 04:55 AM   #2
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You might want to move up in years, Enfield and Webley Revolvers. They can be worked on.
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Old October 5, 2017, 10:23 AM   #3
Driftwood Johnson
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Quote:
I would like to explore the 19th and 20th century top break revolvers made by Iver Johnson, H&R, S&W, etc., with the intention of satisfying my nostalgia for this niche in our firearms history.
My local gunsmith refuses to work on them and claims there is no parts market for them, therefore a waste of time and money. Is this true?
I would like anyone's opinion about pursuing this urge (shooting a .32 S&W short looks like a lot of fun!).
What advice do you have for a beginner in this category (give as much detail as you can).
Howdy

It's a pretty big topic. Much too big for an adequate discussion in a forum like this.

The very first Top Break revolver made by anyone was the Smith and Wesson model that eventually came to be known as the American Model. This large, 44 caliber revolver, first introduced in 1870, was built on what S&W called the #3 frame. The Rollin White patent, which S&W controlled was about to expire. This patent gave S&W the exclusive right to make revolvers with the chambers bored through to accept cartridges from the rear. With the White Patent due to expire in 1869, Daniel Wesson was sure the other gun makers would be ready to jump into the cartridge revolver market with their new cartridge revolvers, so he came up with something revolutionary. A revolver that would except cartridges from the rear, and could be broken open to eject all the spent rounds simultaneously. As it happened, the next really big thing in revolver design, the Colt Single Action Army did not debut until a few years later in 1873. Being a very crafty old New Englander, Daniel Wesson took out patents on this design which prevented other manufacturers from making Top Break revolvers until the patents expired.

This is a photo of the S&W American Model.



The American Model was followed by four other large frame 44 and 45 caliber Top Breaks; the Russian Model in 1871, the Schofield Model in 1875, the New Model Number Three in 1878, and the 44 Double Action in 1881.




Smith and Wesson began building smaller Top Breaks in 1876 with the 38 Single Action nicknamed the Baby Russian. This revolver was chambered for the then new 38 S&W cartridge, not to be confused with 38 Special, which came along later. The 38 Single Action had a spur trigger, no trigger guard, as did many early revolvers.

Not a Baby Russian, this one is a 38 Single Action 2nd Model (the Baby Russians command a lot of money). The main difference is the Baby Russian had a longer extractor housing under the barrel. This one was made in 1877.






Smith and Wesson started making 32 caliber Top Breaks in 1878. This one was made in 1889. By the way, the proper name of the cartridge is 32 S&W, not 32 S&W Short. You will see some boxes labelled that way, but it is incorrect.






S&W also made double action Top Breaks chambered for both 32 S&W and 38 S&W.




Then there were the Safety Hammerless revolvers. These were double action only. They had a grip safety, much like the 1911 does, which had to be squeezed to pull the trigger. That resulted in their nicknames the Lemon Squeezers. The 38 Safety Hammerless revolvers first appeared in 1887, the 32 Safety Hammerless revolvers first appeared in 1888.

The 38 Safety Hammerless, 3rd Model at the top of this photo was made in 1905, the 32 Safety Hammerless, 2nd Model at the bottom of the photo was made in 1896. These revolvers are pictured with their appropriate ammunition, 38 S&W for the 38, 32 S&W for the 32.







The last Top Break that S&W introduced were the 38 Double Action Perfected Model. This was an unusual model in that it incorporated both a thumb piece to open the action, and a Top Break latch at the top of the frame. In order to open the gun, both latches had to be operated at once, or the gun would not open. This model was made from 1909 until 1921. As such, they were made with modern steel and are the only S&W Top Breaks that I can recommend shooting with modern Smokeless ammunition. All the others should be shot with ammunition loaded with Black Powder.






At some point, Smith and Wesson's patents on Top Break revolvers expired and other companies were able to get into the Top Break market. Sorry, I do not know exactly when that happened. I don't know much about the other companies, such as Iver Johnson and Harrington and Richardson, except to tell you that they were making Top Breaks long after S&W moved on to Hand Ejectors. I can tell you that around the turn of the Century Iver Johnson completely redesigned their revolver line to be safe to fire with Smokeless Ammunition. Better steel was used. There are three ways to identify an Iver Johnson Top Break revolver that is safe to fire with modern Smokeless ammunition.

The little owl on the grips faces backwards, not forwards. If the grips are removed, the hammer spring will be seen to be a coil spring, not a leaf spring. And the shape of the slots that the bolt pops into to latch the cylinder in position are different. On the Smokeless models, the slots have two straight edges, so the bolt is captured on both sides. The earlier models only had one straight edge, these revolvers relied on hand preventing the cylinder from rolling backwards.






Regarding parts availability, your gunsmith is pretty much correct. Difficult to find parts for the old Smiths. Not so bad for the newer guns.

Last edited by Driftwood Johnson; October 5, 2017 at 10:28 AM.
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Old October 5, 2017, 11:27 AM   #4
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I'm not an expert, but I can back what Driftwood is saying. I see a lot of H&R's and some Iver's that are sold as "parts only" guns, so parts are available.

I'm currently in a top break phase myself and the only S&W top break I'd be interested in would be the S&W model 2's aka Baby Russians. Other than that, H&R and Webley/Enfield's are better buys for non-repro top break revolvers.

One more thing I should note... If you intend to shoot them, I would suggest you stay away from .38 S&W, unless you are a reloader. .38 S&W is uncommon and expensive. .32 S&W Long is quite common and easy to get online and for less than $20 per 50 rds.

The 5 shot top breaks made by H&R cannot chamber .32 S&W Long, they are .32 S&W only, but the H&R 6 shot revolvers, at least those that have the cartridge listed on the barrel indicating they are rated for smokeless powders, can chamber and shoot .32 S&W Long.

I would stick to shooting only lead wadcutters in them. .32 wadcutter factory ammo is very low power and won't hurt the weak top breaks.
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Old October 5, 2017, 02:06 PM   #5
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Unless your willing to take a gamble it's smart to only buy guns you can inspect in person. The biggest problem with the common S&W's is timing. More often than not the 32's I've seen for sale have serious timing problems. The 38's have been more reliable in my experiences. I have 3 S&W 38 Double Actions and they all shoot OK.

Personally I am not interested in the Iver Johnson's or H&R's. I have never run across an antique break top that functions correctly from them. I have seen numerous "parts" guns, but you cannot expect to take two 120 year old parts guns and create a functioning gun. Often times the same parts break in each gun and even if a part is not broken it is probably worn to the point it will not correctly function in the other 120 year old gun.

Regarding ammo availablity - Both 38 and 32 S&W calibers are currently found online for about $15 a box. I had a much more difficult time finding anything 32 S&W for long stretches time over the previous panics. You could always find 38 S&W and my local Scheels even sell boxes.
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Old October 5, 2017, 03:34 PM   #6
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I've got an H&R Sportsman in .22 made in 1935 that's never been a minutes trouble. A .22 true but still a reliable top break.
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Old October 5, 2017, 07:43 PM   #7
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I inherited my Grandfathers S&W top break 38S&W Double action 4th model, 5 inch barrel. Usually they have shorter or cut down barrels. My mom said during the 1930's depression in East Texas her Daddy killed a lot of small game with it to keep the family fed (rabbits, squirrels and armadillo) Mom's words "We would have starved slap to death if not for Daddy's hunting with that pistol . "
It came with two boxes of ammo and I couldnent wait to shoot it !
At the range I discovered, the latch was hard to operate, the front sight was a thin silver blade...too thin, the rear sight was a tiny notch...not adjustable, I couldn't shoot it worth beans (I'm a pretty good shot) the grips were too small to get a decent grip, my daughter said it was like gripping a tooth pick...I agree. Ejecting empties and getting them to clear the chambers was iffy. Empty cases would fall back into the cylinders and the extractor would snap down on top of them tying up the gun.
I shot 25, my daughter shot 3 , I have never wanted to shoot it again.
The whole experience pretty much sucked rocks....now I can REALY appreciate the S&W K frame in 38 special, it is light years ahead of the top breaks.

Go ahead and shoot it , if you have young eyes maybe you can see the sights better, I couldn't), go slow loading and reloading...it's not a fast, easy to operate gun, the latch on mine was stiff. But for the shooting experience it is worth doing, if you have one or know someone who does.
Honestly , I have much more fun with a modern K frame , model 64 in 38 special or a S&W 22 LR revolver. If you already have modern guns, then be sure get a top break in excellent condition for shooting. When they have been shot a lot and parts start wearing and breaking ...that's just a money pit and no fun. Mine is well worn , rode hard and put away wet. no finish, pitting and old rust spots, I'm going to retire the old girl .
Get one that looks like it's almost brand new with lots of finish , it will be best for shooting.
Gary

Last edited by gwpercle; October 5, 2017 at 07:50 PM.
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Old October 5, 2017, 09:07 PM   #8
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Thanks for the terrific information Driftwood!!! Excellent!!!
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Old October 6, 2017, 01:19 AM   #9
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Quote:
Ejecting empties and getting them to clear the chambers was iffy. Empty cases would fall back into the cylinders and the extractor would snap down on top of them tying up the gun.
This can happen with any top break and can also happen with swing out revolvers, as well. Simply put, you are not holding the revolver correctly when you are ejecting the empties.

I don't know that any body teaches it, being as top breaks are kind of rare, and don't show up in training classes much, these days, but the correct way to empty the revolver, both top break and side swing cylinder is to do it with the muzzle pointed UP.

its the exact opposite of loading, where you point the muzzle down, so that gravity aids the shells going into the chamber. When ejecting, point the muzzle UP, so that gravity helps pull the empties out of the gun.

It SEEMS natural with a top break, to just hold the frame level and open the action but as you found out, if you do that, the empties don't ALWAYS clear and fall out before he extractor snaps back down. Working the action slowly just makes the problem worse.

Point the muzzle UP when you open the top break, and those empties will fall clear, it really is that simple.
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Old October 6, 2017, 01:39 AM   #10
wileybelch
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Clarification

I reload and do not fear any cartridge (except for brass). From the responses, I get the feeling this project is at the mercy of the FFL game: you can go broke paying an FFL for each 'parts gun' shipped. I'll take a closer look at the C&R approach. Remember, I'm at the mercy of my nostalgia for this niche in American history.
Note: I'm pretty sure the Iver Johnson owl grips are interchangeable. So it would be possible for original owl orientation to be reversed by replacing with an incorrect owl, n'est pas? So the coil spring is the only reliable indicator of Model?

Driftwood: Are all the revolvers shown in your reply shootable? In your research, did you find any interesting facts about the black powder ammunition sold for them as the decades rolled on?

Last edited by wileybelch; October 6, 2017 at 01:45 AM.
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Old October 6, 2017, 08:45 AM   #11
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Quote:
I don't know that any body teaches it, being as top breaks are kind of rare, and don't show up in training classes much, these days, but the correct way to empty the revolver, both top break and side swing cylinder is to do it with the muzzle pointed UP.

its the exact opposite of loading, where you point the muzzle down, so that gravity aids the shells going into the chamber. When ejecting, point the muzzle UP, so that gravity helps pull the empties out of the gun.
Howdy Again

While holding a Hand Ejector muzzle up is easy to do, I have found that holding a Top Break muzzle up to eject is awkward. It requires more manipulation of the gun. It is much easier to flip the gun sideways when opening it. That is the way I do it. I hold the gun normally, grasping the barrel with my left hand and the frame with my right. As I open the latch, I flick the gun to the side, so it is horizontal as the extractor extracts the empties. I do it all the time. A little flick of the wrist while holding it sideways helps propel the empties out sideways. Much easier and simpler than trying to open the gun muzzle up. It takes a little practice, but I can't remember the last time I got a shell stuck under the extractor.



gwpercle: Here is a S&W 38 Double Action 3rd Model, made in 1888. Yes, the sights are very rudimentary. But these guns were not meant to be hunting guns, they were meant for up close personal defense. As such, the sights are completely adequate. It is a tribute to your grandfather's skill that he was able to take small game with it.





Quote:
I reload and do not fear any cartridge (except for brass). From the responses, I get the feeling this project is at the mercy of the FFL game: you can go broke paying an FFL for each 'parts gun' shipped. I'll take a closer look at the C&R approach. Remember, I'm at the mercy of my nostalgia for this niche in American history.
Note: I'm pretty sure the Iver Johnson owl grips are interchangeable. So it would be possible for original owl orientation to be reversed by replacing with an incorrect owl, n'est pas? So the coil spring is the only reliable indicator of Model?

Driftwood: Are all the revolvers shown in your reply shootable? In your research, did you find any interesting facts about the black powder ammunition sold for them as the decades rolled on?
Regarding paying an FFL for an old Top Break, if it was made before 1899 it is an antique and no paperwork is required. The C&R route is also a good route to go.

Because this board only allows six photos per post I was not able to show a comparison between a Black Powder Iver Johnson and a Smokeless one. So here is a comparison. As I said earlier, the three ways to tell the two apart is the direction the little owl is facing, the hammer spring, and the shape of the cylinder slots that engage the bolt.

This is a Black Powder version. Notice the owl, and notice the shape of the slots. Notice there is only one straight edge on the slots. The bolt engages that slot, to keep the cylinder from rotating forward, but the hand prevents the cylinder from rotating backwards.






This is a Smokeless Iver Johnson. Notice the owl, and compare the slots to the cylinder slots on the Black Powder version. Notice there are two straight edges on the slots, allowing the bolt to keep the cylinder aligned without rotating too far forward or too far backwards. I have no idea if the grips are interchangeable, but these photos should show you all you need to know to tell the two apart.






By the way, the Smokeless Iver Johnsons incorporated a transfer bar inside, making them much safer than the old Black Powder guns. This led to their famous 'Hammer the Hammer' advertising campaign.








Yes, all the guns I have posted are shootable. I do not own the American Model, but all the others are in shootable condition. Of course, I only buy them when I can inspect them personally. I wouldn't dream of buying a firearm I have not been able to inspect personally. When I inspect them I go over them pretty thoroughly to make sure everything works properly. If anything is wrong, I don't buy it. I attend a few large gunshows every year and most of what I have posted I have bought at gunshows.

You never know what you are going to find at a gunshow. Just last week I lucked into this incredible S&W New Model Number Three, chambered for 44 Russian. The finish is a bit worn, but the mechanism is in perfect working order and the bore and chambers are as bright and shiny as the day it left the factory in 1896. I shot it at a Cowboy Match last weekend. Unloading it as I described earlier.





What 'interesting facts' do you want to know about Black Powder ammunition? I collect old cartridges, and I have quite a few boxes of old ammo, but I never shoot them. I prefer to keep them as I found them. I seldom shoot the pocket pistols, but I load 44 Russian and 45 Schofield with Black Powder all the time.

Last edited by Driftwood Johnson; October 6, 2017 at 08:59 AM.
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Old October 6, 2017, 10:04 AM   #12
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Assuming the seller knows the law and is willing to ship one, an antique can go through the mail directly to the buyer. It is best to confirm this before buying or bidding on anything as some buyers will require and FFL irregardless.
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Old October 7, 2017, 09:16 PM   #13
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For historical interest and shooting fun the guns Driftwood shows are great. I especially recommend the S&W single action 38 S&W 2nd issue and the S&W single action .32, which is also called the Model 1-1/2. These are well designed, sturdy, good-shooting guns. The 1-1/2 takes only 32 S&W which is, as you surmise, fun to shoot. I have several H&Rs in about new condition but my advice is to stay away from H&R and Iver Johnson initially. The average hock shop or gun shop H&R or Iver is much more likely to be loose goosey in the latch or hinge and to have indexing issues. The S&Ws will function better, albeit they will cost you more.

Money well spent in my opinion, but I try to buy only shooter grade items for good prices. If you get stressed when a gun needs fixing then this is not your cup of tea. If I find a beater I might buy it for parts, but I am not going to worry about fixing these poppers. I will not worry about breaking one, finding the part and finding a guy to fix it, then worrying when I will get it back. (Unless maybe it is a Model 3, which I do not have) These things are almost 140 years old. If one breaks, I will consider it has fulfilled my historical thirst and build a shadow box for it. Then I will look for another one.
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Old October 8, 2017, 12:10 AM   #14
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That's a beautiful collection you have.
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Old October 9, 2017, 09:32 AM   #15
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"While holding a Hand Ejector muzzle up is easy to do, I have found that holding a Top Break muzzle up to eject is awkward."

I've never found it to be at all.

On firing the last shot, I'll rotate my shooting hand (while still holding the gun) so that my palm is facing generally forward, grab the barrel latch with my non shooting hand and essentially rotate my hands out, which opens the gun, breaks the action, and dumps the empties down to the ground.

Then I release the barrel latch, rotate my shooting hand back to a shooting position, and grab my reloads. The barrel is down/cylinder up for reloading.

Granted it's a bit easier/faster with a hand ejector because I can pop the cylinder latch with my shooting thumb and open the cylinder with my index finger while I'm grabbing a speed loader with my non shooting hand.

Then I rotate the muzzle up, slap the ejector rod with the thumb pad part of my palm, and rotate the muzzle down to reload.
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Old October 9, 2017, 02:58 PM   #16
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Look both into a C&R license & the Curio and Relic forum here.

That should address a lot of FFL fees.
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Old October 9, 2017, 04:46 PM   #17
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Wileybelch, I don't know a lot about top break revolvers, but I'd say pursue your interest. I only own a couple, but the top breaks have always held a kind of fascination for me. There always seems to be parts available somewhere for our out of production and/or non-mainstream guns.

Driftwood, I enjoyed reading your comments, and perusing your photos of top breaks. I have lately followed a couple of auctions for S&W Perfected Models. May spring for one of those yet
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Old October 18, 2017, 03:12 PM   #18
rice48082
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S&W Age and Value ?

Hi new to this forum but I'm trying to find out the age and value of an old S&W top break my father left me. It takes the 38 S&W round, The gun looks to be chrome plated and has pearl handles. First 4 of the 5 serial numbers are 5129. Can't figure out how to attach a Picture on here or I would. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Last edited by rice48082; October 18, 2017 at 04:56 PM.
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Old October 19, 2017, 10:40 AM   #19
Driftwood Johnson
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Quote:
Hi new to this forum but I'm trying to find out the age and value of an old S&W top break my father left me. It takes the 38 S&W round, The gun looks to be chrome plated and has pearl handles. First 4 of the 5 serial numbers are 5129. Can't figure out how to attach a Picture on here or I would. Any help would be greatly appreciated.
Not enough information. The SN alone will not tell us what you have.

If you cannot post a photo, you need to at least describe it better.

Single Action, or Double Action?

Exposed Hammer or Hidden Hammer?

Spur Trigger or Trigger Guard?

Does it look like any or the photos I posted?
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Old October 19, 2017, 10:51 AM   #20
otasan
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Compared to these photos, my S&W 629 looks space-aged.
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