How much do you know about Smith and Wesson wheelguns?
You may already know that Smith & Wesson labels the frame sizes of their revolvers. The smallest frame size available today is the J-frame like the Chief’s Special. But what you may not know is that there was once another, smaller handgun on the S&W. This little revolver, the Smith and Wesson 1896 Hand Ejector (meaning the cylinder swung free, rather than the top-break style of the other revolvers of its time) has the distinction of being first truly modern revolver. It laid the groundwork for Smith & Wesson’s strong presence in the handgun market that continues today.
Back in the 1890s, Smith & Wesson wanted to compete with Colt’s monopoly on the handgun market. Colt’s 1892 Army and Navy models in .38 Long Colt had been adopted by branches of the US military, and many American police departments followed suit. At some point, however, there was a gradual rise in popularity in the softer shooting .32 caliber revolvers at the turn of the century. Smith & Wesson responded to this need with their very first modern revolver in 1896, the Hand Ejector. It was a small framed six-shot revolver chambered in the new .32 S&W Long cartridge. It featured a swing out cylinder, cylinder release, and the lock work we still see today in current manufactured revolvers.
The .32 caliber Hand Ejector and its Colt counterparts became standard among police departments around the world, but their supremacy was short lived. .38 Special revolvers were replacing these small guns by the time of the mobster era in the 1930s. However, a lack of concealable handguns in the .38 caliber kept the .32 around. By the end of World War II, little I frames in .32 S&W Long and .38 S&W were the only concealed handguns in Smith’s lineup, and they had fallen behind Colt in that market. The existing I frame could not handle .38 Special pressures. To address this shortcoming, Smith beefed it up and hence, the J frame was born. With that the I frame’s days were numbered. By 1974, they were completely out of production.
I came into a late 1940s Hand Ejector with a 3¼ inch barrel, chambered for the .32 S&W Long cartridge. These handguns are commonly seen with walnut grips and a blued steel finish, along with the tapered barrel and half moon front sight typical of early Smith revolvers. Loading and firing the little revolver is straight forward procedure. The I frame has fixed sights, the half moon front sight and a groove cut into the frame that acts as a low profile rear sight. While some may consider the understated sights a handicap, the .32 is gentle to shoot and the cartridge’s legendary accuracy is shown well with groups measuring within 2 inches at seven yards, in both double action and single action mode—the twenty-five yard grouping was a bit bigger.
The standard I frame comes with an exposed hammer that may be cocked for a lighter, single action trigger pull, or the gun may be fired by simply pulling the trigger in double action. Despite its small size, the I frame’s narrow full grip allows for complete control of the revolver while firing. I found it comfortable to shoot one handed and two handed. On the note of size, I frames are rather small handguns—even compared to petite J frames we have today. The cylinder, frame, barrel, and top strap are all thinner than the J-frame Model 36 referenced earlier. In fact, the cylinder is a full ¼ inch thinner.
Shooting, and occasionally carrying, this fine little handgun made me realize why they were first issued to the policemen of the early 20th century. The tiny I frame is easily concealeable, and easy to shoot well, even if its cartridge’s ballistics are lackluster. Having shot a few of today’s J frame revolvers, such as the Model 36 and Model 642, I’d much rather equip a newer, or recoil sensitive shooter on the docile 1896. Those who have been around .38 Special snubbies know how their excessive and recoil contributes to making these bantam wheelguns tricky to shoot well. Is the I frame still viable? I vote, yes. Even though Smith and Wesson no longer produces the Hand Ejector .32, regardless of caliber, company, or size, all modern revolvers owe the humble I frame a nod.