A Heavy Russian from Montgomery Ward

For most people, thinking about the venerable (and now defunct) Chicago retailer Montgomery Ward doesn’t conjure up images of guns. Over the years they sold plenty of branded guns (like this rebranded Stevens rifle), but the gun I’m writing about today is actually a Smith & Wesson .44 Double Action, First Model, that was shipped to the Chicago firm on July 15, 1892.

The first thing you notice about this gun is its weight. Clocking in at X pounds and X ounces without any rounds in the cylinder, this is a heavy piece of hardware. Robustly made and with a jewel-smooth action, this gun opens and closes with confidence.

This gun’s weakness may simultaneously prove to be its greatest strength. At some point in its past it was refinished. Normally I would buy a gun that was refinished (especially one that isn’t particularly unique … and this was one of over 53,000 of this type made from 1881 to 1913), but this gun has a clue that may tell us a lot about its history.

Under the left grip panel is an odd little stamp:

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556 doesn’t refer to the 5.56mm NATO caliber here (you’ll recall that this gun is chambered in .44 S&W Russian). Rather, it refers to the date that this gun was refinished by the Smith & Wesson factory: May of 1956.

It’s a good quality refinish, and they wisely left the remaining case hardening on the trigger, the hammer and the barrel catch. But what’s even better is the possibility that documentation may still exist to tell us who had this gun refinished.

From the perspective of a firearms historian, this is a rare opportunity to get a glimpse into a gun’s unique and storied past.

Smith & Wesson collectors are familiar with the practice of getting a factory letter for their gun which, among other things, will usually tell when the gun was shipped from the factory, and the distributer, wholesaler, or (if you’re really lucky) the retailer that the gun was shipped to.

What is less well known is the Smith & Wesson Historical Foundation, which was established to preserve the company’s extensive historical materials.

I have made application to the Smith & Wesson Historical Foundation to see if they have any documentation on this gun’s refinishing. With luck, it may offer a glimpse into one of this gun’s past owners, and perhaps a bit about the gun’s history. Was it carried as a duty weapon? Used for hunting?

Whatever the case, someone cared about it enough to see to it that its finish was returned to factory-new.

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