Iver Johnson Top-Break Round-Up

OK, the time for denial has passed, and it’s all Iver Johnson’s fault. See, I have been maintaining that my accumulation of top-break revolvers was a sort of ‘reference library’ of late 19th- early 20 Century concealed carry guns. But last week when Chris at McAllen Defense offered me a sweet deal on a couple I took it… because they were variations of models I already had. That was the final straw and there’s no further point in denying it. I’m a… it’s OK, I can write the words. Really. I am a collector. It’s a collection. There, I said it!

Right, moving on. One of the things I have a very modest collection of are Iver Johnson top-break revolvers, all dating from the late 19th Century to about WW1. Three of them are chambered in .32 S&W (the short one) and two are in .38 S&W.

Iver Johnson was the company that introduced the Transfer-Bar Safety, meaning that the hammer cannot contact the firing pin unless the trigger is fully to the rear. This allowed the guns to be carried fully loaded with no concern that dropping the gun might cause it to fire.

New Models and Iver Johnsons That Aren’t

The Iver Johnson Arms and Cycle Company was nothing if not prolific. In the first three years after opening their doors they made hundreds of thousands of modestly priced, decent quality revolvers. Not the best, mind you; for American top-break revolvers S&W was the king. But IJ’s revolvers were better quality than most of their direct competitors.

In 1909 they introduced upgraded versions of their top-breaks that used a stronger locking mechanism and were generally a little ‘beefier.’ This made them more expensive of course, and the upgrades were subtle enough that the gun-buying public might miss them or not understand their importance. They needed something to convince people to buy these new guns, something obvious… At some point the lightbulb lit and they had it. The new guns were safe for smokeless powder.

OK, never mind that people had been shooting smokeless loads in these guns for years. Ammunition manufacturers weren’t idiots; when they transitioned to smokeless powder all guns were ‘made for Black Powder.’ Not being any more fond of being sued than the next fellow, they formulated smokeless loads that were safe in existing guns, and people did it all the time.

There was just enough validity to this idea of ‘smokeless guns’ to make it plausible, but it didn’t come from people firing smokeless in ‘black powder’ guns; it came from people hand-loading cartridges at home, specifically people that weren’t clear on the difference between the types of powder. They loaded the new-fangled powder just like the old and blew up their guns. The difference wasn’t the type of powder, it was that you use much less smokeless to achieve the same effect.

So they marketed the new guns as ‘safe for smokeless powder’ and the idea that smokeless wasn’t safe for old guns became cemented in gun-lore. The new models were successful, but IJ still had literally tons of barrels, cylinders and frames for the old models. What to do, what to do…

What they did was to simplify the guns slightly, mainly omitting the Transfer Bar Safety, to make them less expensive. They registered the US Revolver Company to sell these old-style guns to mail-order companies like Sears Roebuck to sell through their catalogues. These were advertised as ‘safe for all modern ammunition,’ meaning smokeless. Of course these were the exact same parts used to make the old guns that they at least implied were not safe for then-modern ammunition, but hey, marketing. I’ve included a US Revolver .38 in this round-up.

All the guns in this test originally came standard with a 3-1/4″ barrel and a nickel finish. For an additional cost they could be had with a blue finish and/or barrels ranging from 2-6″ in length.

Iver Johnson .32s.

From top to bottom: Model 1 (1894,) Model 1 First Model 2nd change (1896) and a Model 3 (1909)

All three of these guns hold five rounds of .32 S&W, and the Model 1s both include a ‘Safety Trigger,’ an innovation later used on Glock pistols many decades later. The .32 S&W cartridge is not very powerful, but it’s a step up in both reliability and power from a .22 LR in the same size gun.

Model 1: These are characterized buy the single side-latch. You just pivot the lever up and the gun opens. Cartridges are ejected automatically, then the ejector snaps back into place for reloading when the gun is fully-opened. It’s best to tilt the gun upside down when doing this to insure none of the empties slip under the ejector and jam the gun up. The cylinder can free-rotate when the gun is at rest, but there is a flat-spring in the cylinder-pin that resists this. When the trigger is pulled the cylinder rotates until it hits the stop, and is ‘pinned’ between the hand and the lock. This system was pioneered by early European revolvers and works well enough, but it is not as robust as the Colt system which uses a locking bolt that engages a slot cut into the cylinder. Wear on the hand can cause these guns to loosen up, eventually to the point where safety is compromised by the bullet striking the edge of the forcing cone as it leaves the cylinder. These guns use a transfer-bar safety that prevents the hammer from striking the firing pin until the trigger is pulled far enough to fire, making the guns safe to carry fully loaded.

The Model 1 (first model) with a 3-1/4″ barrel shoots well, though I was hitting a bit high with it at seven yards. The trigger pull is pretty good; reasonably smooth, and the ‘safety lever’ doesn’t interfere.
The Model 1 (First Model, 2nd change) with a 2″ barrel that may have been customized by the factory shot very well indeed at seven yards. The trigger on this gun is even better; very smooth. I still had a tendency to group high with this gun. This was far and away my favorite. The excellent trigger and short barrel make it a very handy, very pleasant little gun to shoot.

This rapid-fire group was shot at seven yards. Not too shabby, and would probably improve with practice.

Model 3 .32: These guns are an improved version of the earlier Models. They retain the transfer-bar safety and auto-ejection of the earlier guns, but have an actual bolt that engages a slot in the cylinder both at rest and when the trigger is pulled. This system is much less likely to go out of time as the gun is used. These guns also lack the safety-lever trigger. They replace the flat mainspring of earlier guns with a coiled spring which, while theoretically more robust, sometimes results in a less smooth trigger-pull. They are most easily distinguished from the earlier models by the slots in the cylinder. Though they are more robust than the earlier guns I find them a bit squarer in the frame and less elegant.

The model 3’s trigger was slightly heavier than the older guns, but still decently smooth. The ‘flier’ in this group is my fault, not the gun’s.

Iver Johnson .38s

From top to bottom: Model 2 made in 1895, Model 3 (1909 0r later, modified,) US Revolver, serial number indicates production prior to WW1, but I haven’t been able to pin it down any closer than that.

The Model 2 is characterized by the T-shaped lock. This isn’t as strong as the lever-type, but it’s the most common type on American top-breaks and I imagine it’s a lot less expensive to manufacture. Early Model 2s had the safety lever in the trigger, later guns did not. Early guns, like the one on top in the photo above, had a separate cover over the hammer like the Model 1s. Later variations had a one-piece frame that covered the hammer but mimicked the shape of the earlier models.

The Model 3 had a thicker lower frame, and shared all of the improvements from the .32 caliber guns described above. I borrowed this Model 3 from Chris at McCallen Defense. A previous owner had shortened the barrel to about 1-1/2″ and installed a new front sight.

The final gun of this round-up is a US Revolver gun. Visually speaking aside from the markings on the barrel and frame it’s a late production Model 2, and the cylinders and barrels interchange flawlessly between this and the Model 2 shown above. This is only to be expected, since the USR gun was made from Model 2 parts. It lacks the transfer-bar safety or the Model 2, relying on a rebounding firing pin instead. Honestly this is probably pretty safe; the firing pin is so light and has such short travel that I’m not sure you could jar the gun hard enough for it to detonate a primer. This particular gun dates from prior to WW1 according to it’s serial number, but I was unable to refine its date of production further than that in time for this article. Given that, it’s in an astonishing state of preservation; it might be only a few years old instead of over a hundred! Yet there are none of the tell-tales of refinishing; everything is just as new. I haven’t come across a lot of guns that have survived this well, but I have seen a few and this appears to be another.

There’s a reason these guns look virtually identical…

All three of the .38s shared one problem- the ejector doesn’t have enough travel to reliably kick the brass all the way out of the cylinder. It’s a mixed blessing; it makes reloads slower as you have to knock the brass off, but on the other hand the expended cartridges never get stuck under the ejector star, which takes a lot more time than just knocking the empties loose! With the .32s it took care to avoid having empty shells fail to clear and get stuck.

The Model 2, with a 3-1/4″ barrel, shot quite reasonably at seven yards. The antler grips, by the way, are not stock and no, I don’t know where you can buy a se;. I had to make these. This gun originally had a very tatty nickel finish; I stripped it and rust blued it.
The Model 3 snubby has a very smooth, very nice trigger… but whoever installed the new front sight got it wrong; it shoots very high. I had to aim for the bottom edge of the target to shoot this group. Note the flyer on the upper left that keyholed.
Rapid-fire at seven yards- again, the flier was all me. Oops.
I’m not sure what distracted me, but I forgot to put the USR gun in the photo with this target. Sorry ’bout that. Anyway you cans see two of the bullets on the right are key-holed. I haven’t slugged the barrels on any of these guns so I don’t know their actual bore diameter, but this is typically a result of an oversized bore does not allow the bullet enough ‘bite’ in the rifling well enough to fully stabilize. I’ll have to check this later to see what’s up.

The Loads Used

The ammunition I used was hand-loaded to be ‘antique-friendly,’ using lighter bullets than factory loads and modest charges of powder.

As always approach new loads with caution; it is prudent to start 10% below the listed load and work up to it. The author assumes no responsibility for the use or misuse of the data presented. Always insure that any antique gun is in safe condition before firing.

.32 S&W

73gr. TCL, 1.2gr Red Dot, Federal #100 Primer

3? Barrel 557 fps. 50ft./lbs ES: 51

This load is very similar in performance to Remington factory ammunition, and ought to be usable in any gun that is safe to fire.

.38 S&W

Rimrock 125 gr./.361″ LSWC, 3.0gr. Universal & Fed #100 primers.

3-1/4″ barrel, 598fps, 99 ft./lbs, ES: 15

This load is actually less powerful than Remington factory ammunition, which is already underpowered.

All rounded Up!

Iver Johnson revolvers are not particularly collectible and were produced in very large numbers; for example from 1894-1908 something over 700,000 Model 1s were produced in .32 Caliber. Consequently they can be had for very little money, starting at a bit under $100 for examples that are in good enough condition to be fired and seldom exceeding $200 for the best examples. Shop carefully and you can find something quite nice for little cash. With their decent triggers and mild recoil these can be very pleasant and fun guns to shoot.

There are some caveats to that, of course; most of these guns depend on ‘pinching’ the cylinder between the hand and the lock, and as such are liable to loosen under excessive firing as the hand wears. Also let’s face it; the majority of these guns are over a century old. Things are going to break, and while the sheer number of guns produced means there is a relatively good supply of spare parts, even a simple repair by a gunsmith can cost more than you paid for the gun. Then there’s the ammunition, which is not always easy to come by and usually expensive when you do.

The expense of repairs and ammunition costs make these guns best-suited to a do-it-yourself-er.’ Ammunition can be reloaded quite cheaply, and with the sort of low-pressure loads used your brass might outlive the gun. Likewise while they can be a bit fussy there are few parts that cannot be replaced by someone who is reasonably handy and has some basic tools.

My opinion is that if you intend to shoot a top-break revolver a lot invest the extra money to buy a Smith & Wesson. In my experience they are more durable and better made; I’ve put something over 3,000 rounds of hotter-than-factory ammo through my favorite S&W top-break, and it’s still going strong.

That being said, if you just want a cheap, fun piece of history that’s fun to shoot occasionally you could do worse than an Iver Johnson.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 24 November 2020

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