Sunday, October 22, 2006

Smith & Wesson Model 15 Combat Masterpiece .38 Special

This revolver’s pedigree goes back to the turn of the 19th Century. President McKinley was in the White House and Smith & Wesson was battling Colt for revolver supremacy. Smith & Wesson had evolved from producing breaktop handguns to revolvers with the new swingout cylinder. Colt had been evolving in the same realm and came out with their revolvers chambered for the .38 Long Colt. The U.S. Military jumped on board and soon regreted it as the new cartridge was not a good manstopper (see last week’s posting for the Taurus PT1911 which includes the history of the .45 ACP cartridge). Smith & Wesson lengthened the cartridge and introduced their 1st Model Hand Ejector in the more powerful .38 Smith & Wesson Special (most commonly referred to as just the .38 Special) and in doing so the .38 Special became the most popular centerfire revolver cartridges in History. (Note: the .38 Smith & Wesson Special/.38 Special should not be confused with the .38 Smith & Wesson which is a different cartridge and is not interchangeable with the .38 Special. Similarly the .38 Super is also a different round designed for semi-automatic pistols only. The .38 Super semi-automatic round should not be confused with the .38+P/ .38 Special+P, the later referring to a .38 Special revolver cartridge that is loaded to a higher pressure making the round more powerful. By now you should be thoroughly confused…so let’s continue.) Both Smith & Wesson, Colt, and many, many other manufacturers, both domestic and foreign, have produced revolvers for the .38 Special and prior to the high-capacity 9mm bonanza of the early 1990’s this cartridge was the overwhelming choice of police departments across the country. Even departments who issued a .357 Colt or Smith & Wesson revolver generally only allowed their officers to carry it with a .38 special load. The 1st Model Hand Ejector was a handsome revolver with a tapered barrel available in several different lengths and fitted with basic fixed sights.

Smith & Wesson continually found ways to improve their handguns and, in 1905 the .38 Special which was issued in Smith’s familiar and famous K-frame became designated the .38 Military & Police Model. Fixed sights remained and while different barrel lengths were available 4 or 5 inch barreled revolvers were the most common versions produced.
From 1905 until 1940 Smith & Wesson produced some 1 million .38 Special Military & Police revolvers. During World War II Smith & Wesson produced a variation on the M&P called the Victory Model. This was war-time production and these revolvers generally seem to be a little rough around the edges. The four inch barrel was by far the most common length and most were parkerized rather than sporting a blued finish. In fact I have seen some that appear to have been painted black. The Victory Model was issued to a lot of Navy Airmen and Army tank crews many of which were carried in shoulder holsters. Victory models also went overseas to England chambered in the shorter and less powerful .38 Smith & Wesson Cartride (as opposed to the .38 Special). The .38 Smith & Wesson was, at the time, the standard military handgun cartridge issued to Great Britan’s soldiers and when Webley was unable to manufacture enough of their own revolvers the Crown turned to Smith & Wesson. By the end of WWII Smith & Wesson had cranked out another 1 million M&P/Victory model revolvers.

In 1949 Smith & Wesson came out with a new .38 Special model entitled the Combat Masterpiece. This revolver was basically a Military & Police with a 4 inch ribbed barrel and adjustable sights. In 1957 Smith & Wesson changed it’s cataloging system with their descriptive handgun names being replaced by a drab numerical moniker. As such the M&P became the Model 10 and the Combat Masterpiece became listed as the Model 15. Both the fixed sighted Model 10 and the adjustable sighted Model 15 became stalwarts in the police arsenal and this takes us to the revolver being examined in this review

Smith & Wesson Model 15
Return with us now to those golden days of law enforcement yesteryear as we go all the way back to…the 1980’s. This revolver is curiously marked as belonging to “OR. CO. CAL. (presumably the Orange County, California Sherrif’s Department).

This is a basic K-frame Smith & Wesson with the ribbed barrel and plain black adjustable sights (no white dots, no gold beads, no red ramp, no fiber optics, no glow-in-the-dark inserts). This specimen also sports finger-grooved rubber grips with very slight palm swells. In the 1980’s rubber grips were very popular and Smith & Wesson did offer them as a standard option most being from Uncle Mike’s of Oregon. This set however, has no exterior markings as to the manufacturer. Upon removing the grips the interior of both panels are marked “S&W K Frame—Square Butt—Made in Italy”. Therefore nothing definative was gained as to their origin.

As mentioned earlier, at one point the blued S&W K frame .38 Special revolver ruled the law enforcement roost for many years and has since pretty much vanished. While it is easy to think that the move toward the high capacity 9mm semi-automatic pistol in the late 1980's caused the demise of the blued .38 Special revolver the decline actually came several years earlier with the advent of stainless steel .357 Magnum revolvers. In the 1970's the Smith & Wesson Model 66 Stainless Steel .357 Magnum revolver became the holy grail of the law enforcement crowd as well as the civilian shooter and Smith & Wesson could not keep up with the demand. I remember putting a $100.00 down payment on a Model 66 in the summer of 1978 (and $100 was a lot of money for me at the time) at my local Em-Roe Sporting Goods store in Indianapolis, Indiana. The revolver was ordered and my name went on a waiting list. In December I got the deposit refunded and used the money to buy Christmas presents. The demand for the revolver was hyped by many misconceptions about the Stainless .357 revolver. The three most common were:
1. Stainless Steel is rustproof. False--while it may be considered rust-resistant, it will rust if mistreated.
2. Stainless Steel handguns do not need to be cleaned. False again and if left uncleaned you would eventually discover the difference between rust resistant and rust proof.
3. Here's the biggest misconception I heard in those days: A .38 Special cartridge fired from a .357 revolver became somehow magically more powerful than if fired from a .38 Special revolver. Again, false. In fact, the longer .357 cylinder chamber also allowed more gas and energy to escape while the bullet jumped the gap into the barrel's forcing cone. Not a huge amount but there was some loss of velocity and energy. I will admit that advances in higher pressure .38 Special ammunition rendered .38+P cartridges unsuitable in vintage, President McKinley-era revolvers. Both the ammunition manfacturers and firearms producers did a lot of advertising to educate the gun shooting consumer that these new +P cartridges should only be fired in modern revolvers. Many shooters gravitated to the .357 revolver for the +P .38 Special ammunition, but a modern .38 Special revolver would work just fine.

But let's get back to this Model 15. One of the first things noticable on this revolver is the condition. The barrel and rifling are in outstanding shape with no evidence that the revolver has been fired. The finish is original and probably in 95% condition or slightly better with absolutely no holster wear. Is it possible that Orange County never issued this revolver and it sat in the armory virtually unused? I am really curious about this piece. If anyone knows a retired O.C. deputy who worked in the armory and can provide some color, please let me know.

The second thing noticable about this revolver is the trigger. My assumption would be that this trigger had been tuned, possible by the Orange County Department Armorer or possibly by some civilian gunsmith. I wish I knew who worked on the trigger because I would send them every revolver I own. The double action pull is extremely smooth and just about as light as you would want on a defensive revolver. The double action pull is so good that there is no need to fire it in the single action mode.

This brings me to accuracy. It doesn’t get much better than this. While I have owned two Model 10s in the past, this is the first Model 15 I have ever fired. It is easy to understand why Smith & Wesson originally dubbed this revolver the “Combat Masterpiece”.

(Click on image to enlarge. Six rounds fired at each target from 21 feet)

Living in Los Angeles at the time I remember that soon after the Military retired their Model 1911 .45 ACP pistols in favor of the Beretta Model 92 in 9mm the L.A.P.D also switched from their Model 15 .38 Special revolvers to the Beretta. This was around 1988 and I am sure that Orange County followed suit soon after. While I can understand the rationale behind the argument for the Beretta’s higher capacity 9mm magazine I cannot imagine finding a Beretta (or Glock, which has become the current law enforcement standard) that is more accurate and easier to shoot than this Smith revolver.
(Click on image to enlarge. 2o rounds fired at 50 feet.)