Custom S&W Model 1917… Sort Of.

British S&W Model 17, originally chambered in .445 Eley.

The model 1917 is the Military designation for these revolvers, and they were made by both Colt and S&W for WW1, then more were made for Brazil. In Britain they ordered these in their service caliber, .455 Eley. Technically these guns are 2nd Model Hand-Ejectors, but they are still commonly referred to as Model 1917s.

The Military Model 1917s were a second-standard gun for the US Military to make up shortfalls in the available numbers of 1911s at the beginning of our involvement in WW1. They were chambered in the new service cartridge, .45 ACP. Since this was a rimless cartridge and would not eject from a standard revolver the ammunition was packaged in a flat, 3-round spring-steel clips and the cylinder was cut to accommodate these. The clips also insured positive ejection of spent rounds and made it faster to reload. The S&W version was based on their .44 Hand Ejector, and Colt based theirs on the New Service revolver. These weapons served through WW2.

I recently purchased a Brazilain-Contract S&W 1917 to use as a model for making custom N-frame grips. Ever since I stumbled into an Astra Jovino Terminator .44 Magnum in the late 1980’s I’ve had a thing for big-bore snubbies and there was a great temptation to modify the Model 1917. I resisted manfully, but when it turned out a friend had one he was not committed to, well…

The Gun

It’s a British-proofed gun that was chambered for .455, but when it was re-imported they polished the bejeezus out of it, refinished it and bored the chambers for .45 Colt, in the thought that this would sell better in the US. My friend replaced the badly corroded side-plate and the missing lanyard ring. He also fitted it with a set of reproduction grips. The gun had a nice double-action trigger, but was very difficult to cock for single-action firing. I had something he fancied that I was willing to part with and the trade was made.

Oh Baby That’s What I Like!

When it comes to revolvers I have well-established preferences for a carry gun. I like a 3″ barrel, I normally bob the hammer, replace the grips, smooth the trigger-face if needed and relieve the right side of the trigger-guard so my trigger-finger can get from the safe position on the frame under the cylinder to the trigger without hanging up on the guard.

OK then, make it so.

First thing was to remove the side-plate and see what was up with the single-action. I dismantled the action and found… Nothing. I cleaned the interior and parts thoroughly, did a bit of stoning on contact surfaces in the action and reassembled the gun. The single-action worked fine now. No idea what did the trick, but OK then.

I cut the barrel at 3″ and re-crowned it. Then I looked it over and decided, for esthetic reasons, to take off another 1/8″. I used the belt-grinder for this, re-crowned it again and polished the muzzle. 2-7/8″ is close enough.

Next I used sanding drums in the Dremel at low speed to cut and polish the side of the trigger-guard, then touched it up with Oxpho blue.

For the front sight I snagged a piece of 0.10″ mild steel and cut a small rectangular piece to form the sight. I ground the sides to 240 grit. I put a cutting wheel in the Foredom tool (a kind of industrial-quality Dremel with the handpiece on a flex-shaft) and made a slot in the blade to accept the base of the sight. I indexed this on the stamped printing on the top of the blade; this seems to always be well-centered. I soldered the sight in place using low-temperature silver solder so as not to overly soften the barrel. I cleaned that up with files and sandpaper, cut the sight to the profile I wanted then cleaned up the sight and barrel with 1500-grit wet-or-dry sandpaper.

I used a 40 pli. checkering file to cut serrations across the sight. I finished the barrel and sight with oxpho blue, then painted the serrations with orange enamel. I decided not to bob the hammer; again, an esthetic decision.

The final touch was a set of Goncalo-Alves-wood grips precisely fitted to my hand. It’s contoured to provide a firm three-finger grip.

The Result

OK, How’s It Shoot?

Well. The double-action trigger pull went from good to very good, and the single-action is also very good. That’s just a nice bonus; the Theory of Use for a gun like this mandates double-action fire only.

The loads I used were a 200gr. LRNFP bullet over 9.0gr. of Unique and a 185gr. XTP JHP also over 9.0gr. of Unique. Both used Winchester WLP primers. Neither of these is a maximum-pressure load but they are fairly stout, with posted velocities a bit over 1050 fps. from a standard-length gun. Recoil was moderately stout from both loads, but the 200gr. bullets kicked noticeably harder.

Results were acceptable for the first time out.

DA at 7-yards, Fired with a six-o’clock hold on the black bullseye.
Rapid-fire at 7-yards.
Now it gets a little weird. This is also rapid-fire at 7-yards, but this group is well-centered on the point of aim. OK then.

Wrapping It Up

I like it. Shoots well, looks good. Mission accomplished. But…

The thing is, how practical is it, really? The modern understanding is that with all of the variables in a gunfight caliber is one of the least important considerations; the most important thing is to be able to fire a round with enough penetration to interrupt vital structures rapidly and accurately. My 3″ K-frames, my Detonics Combat Master and other guns will do this faster than this gun will. The recoil is not extreme, but I can shoot those other guns faster because of it.

All things being equal the 45 Colt might provide some advantage over the .38s, but all things are never equal; given an adequate caliber skill and training are more likely to be the determining factor in a self-defense shooting.

I’ll practice with this gun, not least because it’s fun, and shoot an ASI match or two. It might be that in absolute terms something else would serve me better, or the difference might be so small as to have no practical effect.

Whatever. I’ve finally got my big-bore snubby, and I love it!

Stay safe and take care.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 7 November 2021

1 thought on “Custom S&W Model 1917… Sort Of.

  1. Brett

    Some 40 years ago I remember reading an article in Guns and Ammo about an NYC Detective that carried a S&W N frame snubby .44 Special and your gun reminded me of that article. Back in the day before modern bullets all you had was diameter and bullet shape. I think a 45 SWC is still relevant.

    I always remember that Ruby dumped Oswald with 1 round of 38 Special round nose from a Colt Cobra. Down he went, never recovered consciousness, and died a few hours later. If a .38 RN can do that a .45 SWC should be even better.

    I need to run across a beat up cheap (yah right) 2nd Model HE and do the same thing


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