The N Model

By John Taffin

" purled warmly one night in my ornate brass

Cbed (which was considered junk then, but now would sell to an antique dealer for enough to pay for an engraved .357), I opened a fresh copy of LIFE magazine and found myself glaring jealously at a full-page photo. There was smiling Gary Cooper, sitting in a Rocky Mountain hunting camp, his hat tilted back on his head, his handsome features highlighted by a comfortable campfire. The photo story was about Coop's hunt for mountain lions and what a great time he was having.

"The jealousy I felt looking at Cooper's picture didn't stem from the fact he was a little better looking than I was, nor that his hat had a wider band than mine and obviously cost more money, nor that he was chasing mountain lions while I was working my tail off for six bits an hour. The great film cowboy was posing with a revolver in his hand. Not a Colt Thumbuster, as you would expect, but a brand-new, postwar, unobtainable Smith & Wesson K-22 Masterpiece. I would have cheerfully shot it out with Gary Cooper or fought a mountain lion bareknuckled for that gun."

Skeeter Skelton wrote those words in 1976 speaking of the time he was a teenager in late 1946 and lusting after one of Smith & Wesson's Magnificent Masterpieces, the beautiful sixgun known as the K-22. Skeeter finally got his K-22 in the fall of 1948 when I was in the 3rd grade. My lusting would come about in a few years and it would be caused by Lucian Cary, firearms editor for TRUE magazine. I was still in high school when Cary did an article on holsters, one of which was a beautifully carved S. D. Myers Buscadero carrying exhibition shooter Ernie Lind's K-22. I knew exactly how Skeeter felt.

Skeeter had his K-22 in less than two years after his search began, however it would take me much longer. In fact, not until after Skeeter penned those words would I finally find my K-22. After waiting that long I made the mistake of allowing Diamond Dot to shoot it. From then on it was basically her gun with regular visiting privileges allowed. On our frequent trips to the mountains I had to buy a second .22, a Colt Officer's Model Special, so I would have a target-quality revolver to shoot. There is certainly nothing wrong with a system causing a fellow to come up with two great double action .22s!

Bull's-eye's Golden Years

The middle years of the 20th century were the golden years for bull's-eye shooters. The typical match consisted of three parts, .22, Centerfire, and .45 semi-auto. Many competitors

The well outfitted Law enforcement officer and competitor of the mid-1950s could easily choose these three S&W .38 Masterpieces (above), all with the same adjustable rear sight. Smith & Wesson offered the Masterpiece (below) chambered in .38 Special, .32 S&W Long, and .22 Long Rifle.

used a Colt Woodsman or High Standard .22 for the .22 phase and Colt's .38 Special Officer's Model Match was the most popular firearm for the Centerfire event until custom gunsmiths began providing .45 semi-autos which could shoot as well or better than the .38 Special revolvers. Smith & Wesson also had a following amongst competitive shooters with their Masterpiece line of matched target revolvers all built on the basic Military & Police frame dating back to 1899 (in fact the original model was available with adjustable sights). Roy Jinks, Smith & Wesson historian, relates 27 of the 40 United States Revolver Association records set in 1913 were made with the Smith & Wesson .38 M&P Target Model. This same model was used by Ed McGivern to put five shots in a group which could be covered by one hand in 2/5 of a second.

which could be covered by one hand in 2/5 of a second.

iIn the 1920s shooters began asking Smith & Wesson for a target model chambered in .22 and the result was the K-22 Outdoorsman. In 1939 this grand .22 was improved with better

S sights and a shorter action and became the K-22 Masterpiece. At the same time shooters were also asking for a target model chambered in .32 S&W Long and the first K-32 Target Model appeared in 1938. Of course, WWII stopped production of all three Smith & Wesson target models and even when Skeeter Skelton was trying to find one in the late 1940s they were still very scarce. The first postwar K-22 Masterpiece was produced in December of 1946 followed by the K-32 and K-38 Masterpieces six months later. According to Roy Jinks, weights for these three revolvers loaded were 38-1/2, 36-3/4,

(and 36 ounces, respectfully. Competitive shooters wanted three balanced revolvers so Smith & Wesson began experimenting with the width of the barrel rib and also a heavier barrel on the K-32 and K-38 Masterpieces. By 1950 the shooter could have all three chamberings in three revolvers in matching weights.

The Elusive K-32

It is fairly easy to find K-22s and K-38s in excellent shape at reasonable prices. I found my K-38 at a local gun show about five years ago along with a companion .38 Special Colt Officer's Model Match. Not so with the K-32 and I had pretty much given up any hope of having one. Then this past year a reader contacted me with a K-32 for sale for less than $400. I couldn't believe such a thing was possible! Somewhere along the line it had been re-blued, however I was interested as a shooter not a collector and this K-32 certainly does shoot. All of the original K-series Masterpieces had 6" barrels, however Smith & Wesson used the same basic revolvers to produce the Combat Masterpieces with 4" barrels. The .38 Combat Masterpiece was very popular with law enforcement officers and the .22 Combat Masterpiece is also an excellent outdoorsman's .22. Both of these are relatively easy to find but again not so with the middle bore as the K-32 Combat Masterpiece is very rare with only a very few being made.

For the law enforcement officer who also shot competition, S&W offered a trio of K-frame .38 Specials, a 6" Target Model, a 4" duty revolver, and a 2" hideout, off-duty, or backup all with the same grip size, action, and adjustable sights. In 1955 Smith & Wesson took the basic .38 Combat Masterpiece and used it as the platform for the Combat Magnum. Bill Jordan, then Chief Inspector of the Border Patrol, convinced S&W to come up with a .357 Magnum smaller than the large N-frame which in those pre-model number days was known simply as the .357 Magnum.

Along with improved metallurgy and heat treating Smith & Wesson also lengthened the cylinder of the Combat Masterpiece to more fully fill the frame window, used a 4" bull barrel with an enclosed ejector rod housing, and the result was the .357 Combat Magnum now known as the Model 19. Bill Jordan called it the Peace Officer's Dream. Anyone who carried the Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum all day and then did the same thing with the .357 Combat Magnum discovered very quickly how much easier the latter was to pack. It became very popular with LEOs.

In 1957 all Smith & Wessons were given model numbers. The K-22 became the Model 17, the K-32 would now be known as the Model 16, and Model 14 became the official designation for the K-38. I still prefer the original names. Nothing from the hand of man lasts forever in this world and the original S&W K-Masterpieces were all gone by the early 1980s. All of the original Masterpiece models had ejector rods without the enclosed feature. For a short time in the 1990s all three — .22, .32, and .38 — were offered with full underlugged barrels. They no longer had the same grace and style, however, they were excellent sixguns.

Serious target shooters in the time period prior to and after

Old time bull's-eye shooters stood on their hind legs and shot the S&W .38 Special Masterpiece like a man.

John's older K-38 ¡above, left) shoots pretty darn well, as does the new Model 14-8 Classic. It is easy to see why some shooters preferred the Smith & Wesson K-32 ¡below).

John's older K-38 ¡above, left) shoots pretty darn well, as does the new Model 14-8 Classic. It is easy to see why some shooters preferred the Smith & Wesson K-32 ¡below).


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