Smith & Wesson .38 Single Action, 1st Model, aka the “Baby Russian”

They don’t get much better than this. The Smith & Wesson .38 Single Action, 1st Model was the first gun in the world to be chambered in the .38 S&W caliber. By 1876, Smith & Wesson needed to compete in the mid-tier market. The First Model American (chambered in .44 S&W and, occasionally, the .44 Henry rimfire round) established the company’s presence in the large frame market, but its 40+ ounce weight and hefty 8″ barrel made it unsuitable for any sort of urban carry. It was also clear that centerfire cartridges were the way of the future, and Smith & Wesson was eager to once again lead in this space.

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Introducing the .38 Single Action

Enter the .38 Single Action: a mid-sized revolver that packed more of a punch than the infirm .32 rimfire cartridge used by the Models 1½ and 2, and leagues ahead of the Model 1, whose .22 rimfire round took—to quote one famous author—”the whole seven to make a dose for an adult.”

The term “Baby Russian” is a bit of a misnomer, since this gun doesn’t have any official relationship to the Model 3 Russian Model. Its name came from the protrusion under the barrel that houses the extractor mechanism, which resembled that of its larger sibling. Subsequent .38 Single Action guns eliminated this protrusion and are thus not considered “Baby Russians” by collectors.

The .38 Smith & Wesson Cartridge

It’s worth spending a minute on the .38 S&W cartridge, since this evolved into one of the most ubiquitous handgun cartridges in the world (alongside the .22 rimfire cartridge—another Smith & Wesson innovation). Introduced in 1870, the .38 S&W did well for Smith & Wesson. After a few decades it was lengthened slightly into a new cartridge known as the .38 Special cartridge, which should need no introduction anyone that has a shot a revolver in the last 120 years. In the 1930’s the .38 Special was again lengthened, with the resulting cartridge being named the .357 Magnum. This is a phenomenal legacy for the .38 S&W cartridge of 1870—especially given the failures of other cartridges of its ilk like the .38 Short Colt and .38 Long Colt, which never achieved the same ubiquity in the arms industry. Whether one is superior to the other is moot; the .38 S&W was the first on the scene, and it set the benchmark that everyone else scrambled to catch up to.

The Montreal Connection

This particular Baby Russian has its own interesting history. It shipped from the factory in Springfield, Massachusetts on December 18, 1876 and was sent to R. H. Kilby of Montréal, Quebec. The shipment included 30 identical revolvers—all blued guns with 3¼” barrels and walnut grips. Each gun was invoiced at $12.50 per gun—a pricey sum back in those days. Canada, like the United States, had rapidly growing cities, and there’s little question that the inhabitants of those cities were looking for arms to supplant the meager municipal police forces that struggled to keep up with crime.

Ralph Hall Kilby was a well-known dealer of firearms and sporting goods in Montréal, and it’s not entirely surprising that he was able to get hold of these 30 Baby Russians. Ralph had a good personal relationship with Daniel Baird Wesson; the two of them and one of D. B.’s sons had gone deer hunting the year prior along Nation River, in the eastern tip of Ontario.

Born in West Yorkshire, England to the Reverend Thomas Kilby and his wife Mary Ann Hall Kilby, Ralph moved to Montréal in the 1850’s and subsequently married a Quebecois woman, Elizabeth Jane Judah—the daughter of prominent Jewish Montréal lawyer Thomas S. Judah. There is little question that Ralph’s father-in-law helped him establish his business, which thrived in the busy Marché Bonsecours (Bonsecours Market)—a hub of commerce for the City of Montréal.

Ralph didn’t manufacture any guns of his own, but he was a prolific importer of guns from both the United States and Europe.

The Montréal gun business thrived for many years before Judah encountered a series of legal setbacks in the 1880’s. The resulting financial strain forced the hardware business to scale back considerably, and by the early 1890’s they had gone out of business entirely. Judah died in Montréal in 1895, and Ralph died in London, England in 1897.

The Vermont Connection

There’s another interesting tidbit about this Baby Russian: while it shipped to a dealer in Montréal, it was bought by a man from Vermont.

Warren O. Kidder was born in 1844 and farmed in Swanton, Vermont. Like many others in northern Vermont, Warren had extended family in Quebec, and it’s not surprising that he would have made periodic trips to Montréal—the closest major city to him. Why exactly he purchased this Baby Russian is anyone’s guess, but he clearly took good care of it, penciling his name on the bottom of the box.

The gun is complete—so much so that it still has its original cleaning brush and wrench. The box itself is a work of art, with its delicately engraved picture of the gun.

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