The “Smith & Wesson Automatic,” as it was advertised, or the “Model of 1913” as the collectors refer to it, is a gun that by all measures should have done well. Its innovations still delight and amaze, and were it not for some bad timing, this gun could have been far more influential than the historical footnote that it has been relegated to.
The basics: the .35 S&W Auto chambering is almost identical to the .32 Automatic Colt Pistol round that would come to dominate the world of semiautomatic pocket pistols for decades. Manufacturers knew that getting the public hooked on a particular caliber of ammunition with the manufacturer’s name in it was a source of free advertising (like the ubiquitous .38 Smith & Wesson round). In the early years of Smith & Wesson when the Model 1 was the only gun sold by the little company, it was sufficient to simply purchase ammunition for the Smith & Wesson, and the earliest ammunition was known thus.
But times change. There were no lack of calibers available to prospective buyers in 1913, and this included the popular .32 ACP caliber, which had made its debut in 1899. The wisdom of introducing another caliber (and one that was virtually identical to .32 ACP) can be endlessly speculated now, but at the time company president Joseph Hawes Wesson thought this was a great idea.
Modeled on a European gun made by a fellow named Charles Clement, Smith & Wesson’s first automatic pistol has a few design features that make excellent sense. The recoil spring is located above the barrel, giving the gun a very low bore axis (and I know that some consider a low bore axis less important than others, but all things equal I’ll take a lower axis). Field stripping the gun means hinging out the brilliantly-fitted trigger guard, and there’s little risk of dropping the barrel since it, too, is hinged to the frame. The slide has a little catch that releases it from the trigger spring, making it very easy to cycle the slide (especially important since the trigger is single action only). And the overall fit and finish of the gun hearkens back to a time when craftsmanship mattered.
(As an aside: I would argue that bu the nineteen-teens, the industrial revolution was in full swing, and the idea of compromising quality for the sake of saving a bit of money was very much a part of the economic calculus that challenged every manufacturing concern. All the same, the Model of 1913 exhibits the deep blued finish, the carefully rounded corners and the hand fitting that is only found among the most expensive contemporary guns.)
Alas. Regardless of how well made the Smith & Wesson Model of 1913 was, it was competing with an equally worthy competitor — Colt’s Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless. Despite its not being pocket sized and despite having a hammer, the 1903 was an otherwise superb gun that, along with the Model 1908 Vest Pocket and the venerable Model 1911, helped to reestablish Colt as an incorrigible force in the gun industry. The wraparound slide of the Colt made it far easier to cycle, and its 10 year head start on the Smith & Wesson gave the buying public plenty of time to adopt the .32 ACP cartridge.
Smith & Wesson eventually relented and re-tooled the Model 1913 as the “.32 Semi Automatic,” but the damage had been done and the company made less than a thousand of these now-rare unicorns before Smith & Wesson abandoned semi-automatic pistols. The company wouldn’t dabble in autoloaders again until the 1950’s, when the venerable Model 39 was introduced.