Smith & Wesson’s Model 1 was the first commercially successful cartridge load revolver to be manufactured in the United States. Earlier cartridge load revolvers tended to use pinfire ammunition, which was more difficult to load and less reliable. The Model 1 was a runaway success for Smith & Wesson, and it catapulted the company onto the world’s stage of preeminent gun makers.
Model 1 production record keeping is a perennial source of frustration for Model 1 collectors. Most of the guns were sold through Smith & Wesson’s sole sales agent, Joseph W. Storrs. Storrs’ sales records have never been located (if they ever existed), making the distribution of most Model 1’s virtually impossible to trace.
Still, the guns themselves offer a wealth of information about this important facet of early American manufacturing, and these pages will present data about surviving Model 1’s.
There were three major issues of the Model 1. When identifying a Model 1, the first thing that needs to be ascertained is the issue.
If your gun has a round barrel and a fluted cylinder, then it’s a third issue gun. Third issue guns can also be identified by the round shape grip (sometimes called a “birds head grip”).
If your gun has an octagonal barrel, then you’ll need to look at the left side of the frame to identify the issue. Guns with a small circular side plate are 1st issue guns, while guns with a flat irregular-shaped side plate are second issue guns.
One of the most asked questions is, “when was my gun made?” Manufacturing dates for any firearm are difficult to ascertain since the manufacturing process can be a lengthy one. Shipping dates are more commonly discussed among collectors, since they are more readily obtained from the company’s records.
It’s important to note that guns aren’t made and shipped in order of serial number. The only way to positively ascertain the exact shipping date of a gun is to procure a factory letter from the Smith & Wesson Historical Foundation. This should indicate the date that the gun was shipped from the factory, where the gun was shipped to, and its original configuration (grips, finish, etc.). Record keeping was an imperfect science in the 19th century, so some guns are better documented than others.
That said, the serial number of a Model 1 can be used to approximate its shipping date. I have spent years tracking the shipping dates of Model 1’s and can usually estimate a shipping date to within a month and year. Fill out the form below and I’ll do my best for you.
Caveat emptor: I provide this service as a courtesy to my fellow collectors. This is in no way meant to compete with or supplant the excellent research services that the Smith & Wesson Historical Foundation provides. I don’t have access to the factory records so I could be wrong, and I make no representations that this is anything other than an estimate. If you do get a factory letter for your gun and you want to help me out, please fill out the form below and I will add it to my database. The more data I have, the more accurate my estimations will be!
A common question that gets asked is “how much is my Model 1 worth?” What follows may be a longer answer than you want, but this question is deceptively simple and deserves a fuller response.
My grandfather was a coin and stamp collector of good repute, and he used to tell me that “something is only worth what someone will give you for it.” So it went for coins and stamps, and so too with guns. All of the collecting guides and price guides and internet sites are just estimates, so caveat emptor.
Most collectors learn to buy the best condition guns that they can afford. Condition is tied closely to the originality of the gun, and it’s most often the case that a gun in its original state of finish (even if it’s suboptimal) will be worth more than a gun that has been “cleaned up.” That said, the NRA Museum has an excellent page on how to describe a gun’s condition in the most objective manner possible.
That said, here are some observations about what Model 1’s are selling for these days.
The most common Model 1’s (and the least valuable) are the garden-variety 2nd and 3rd Issue guns with the 3 3/16″ barrel. With some exceptions (see below) these seem to fetch $200 to $400 in NRA “very good” condition. Guns approaching NRA “excellent” condition may fetch $750 to $1,000 from the right buyer.
The Model 1, 1st Issue is subdivided into seven different “variants,” with the earliest variants being the most valuable. A 6th variant in NRA “very good” condition should get $750 to $1,000, with the prices steadily rising for the earlier variants. 1st and 2nd variant guns are almost never seen for sale; the few that come onto the market generally sell for high five figure to low six figure sums.
The factory short barrel Model 1, 3rd Issue (identified by the barrel roll marks on the side of the barrel, NOT the top) are fetching $750 to $1,250 in NRA “very good” to “fine” condition.
The rare “straight side plate” variant of the Model 1, 2nd Issue will get somewhere between $1,500 and $3,000. These guns are extremely rare and are seldom seen for sale, but are generally only sought by advanced collectors.