Historical Handguns: The Model 1917 Smith & Wesson Sixgun

Designed as a supplemental sidearm in World War I, this .45 ACP sixgun was made to commercial specs and is still a great shooter.
Following the sinking of the liner RMS Lusitania in 1915 and the interception of the “Zimmerman Telegram” (in which Germany proposed an alliance between herself and Mexico) in 1917, America’s pacifistic attitude toward the war in Europe took an abrupt turn, and a clarion call to arms was heard throughout the country.

Unfortunately, when the Yanks entered the conflict in World War I, stocks of arms, while not unsubstantial, were still deemed to be inadequate for the large number of troops that were being raised.

Model 1917s were widely used during World War I as a substitute standard to the 1911 Government Model. Here General John J. Pershing inspects military policemen armed with ’17s.

While the standard 1903 Springfield rifle and the 1911 Government Model pistol were being produced with as much speed as possible, other arms, such as the 1917 Enfield rifle and modified Colt and Smith & Wesson revolvers, were also pressed into service.

In 1915 and 1916 Smith & Wesson had made almost 75,000 of its high-quality Second Model Hand Ejector double-action revolvers in .455 for Britain and Canada. In anticipation of America’s involvement in the war, the factory, under the guidance of S&W President Joseph Wesson, stepped up existing experimentation on a similar arm to handle the U.S. service .45 ACP round.

The butt of the S&W Model 1917 was marked with the gun’s designation as well as the serial number. All 1917s had lanyard rings.

The gun itself was an apt choice, for it was strong, reliable, accurate and possessed of a crisp single action and smooth double action. The Second Model Hand Ejector, as might be inferred from its name, was a 1915 follow-up of the First Model Hand Ejector of 1908, but it lacked the premier gun’s triple locking system (at the breech, front of the extractor rod and the yoke), substituting a dual system that eliminated the yoke lock. The newer revolver also did away with the First Model’s full ejector-rod shroud.

Civilian calibers included .44 S&W Special, .38-40, .44-40 and .45 Colt, with barrel-length options of four, five, six and 6½ inches. Either blued or nickel-plated finishes were offered, and grips were checkered walnut with S&W logo escutcheons.

The 1917’s cylinder could be swung open by simply pushing forward on a frame-mounted latch.

In 1916 Smith & Wesson, in conjunction with Springfield Armory, came up with a version of the Second Model Hand Ejector that chambered the .45 ACP round. The gun was basically a stock DA with the cylinder altered to handle the rimless rounds, which were snapped into a pair of three-round spring steel half-moon clips to facilitate loading and ejection. In a pinch the .45s could be fired in the gun without the clips, but as they could not be engaged by the star extractor, it was necessary to poke out spent cases one at a time with some sort of rod.

The Model 1917 Smith & Wesson, as the gun was now called, featured a blued finish, case-hardened hammer and trigger, 5½-inch barrel, smooth walnut grips and a lanyard ring on the butt. As well as standard Smith & Wesson markings, the gun was stamped “United States Property” beneath the barrel in front of the ejector rod and “US/Army/Model/1917” on the base of the butt. Fit and finish was commercial-grade.

While .45 ACP rounds could be loaded and fired in a 1917 in a pinch, the half-moon clips allowed the rounds to be easily ejected via a star extractor. Without the clip, cases would have to be poked out individually with some sort of rod.

For a year S&W made 1917s under its own leadership, but in September 1918 the U.S. government moved in and took over the company reins for a few months. In all, some 163,476 Model 1917s were produced during the war.

This was not the end of the 1917 story, however. For a few years following the Armistice, Smith & Wesson sold commercial versions of the .45 ACP Second Model Hand Ejector (in fact, in response, in 1920 Peters developed a .45 Auto Rim round that could be used in these guns without clips), and in 1937 the company received an order from Brazil to turn out 25,000 more Model 1917s.

A large number of these Brazilian 1917s has been imported back into the U.S. in the last few years. They are virtually identical to the World War I guns, though some do have the commercial-style checkered grips, and all have the Brazilian seal emblazoned on their sideplates.

Usual M1917 markings included the inspector’s stamp on the top left of the frame and S&W/caliber/property designations.

While the Brazilian contract was satisfied in 1938, Smith again offered civilian 1917s from mid-1946 to 1949 with new-made guns and revolvers assembled using leftover frames.

Along with the Model 1917 Colt New Service, the S&W 1917 has always been one of my favorite early double-action revolvers. Our evaluation piece was a standard near-new 1917 configured as described. As well as the usual markings, the gun has the initials for Col. Gilbert H. Stewart, who inspected 1917 Colts and Smith & Wessons and 1911 Government Models during World War I.

As with practically all of the other Second Model Hand Ejectors that I have had the opportunity to examine, this gun has a silky-smooth double-action and extremely smart single-action pull. For the record, they measured eight pounds and 5½ pounds, respectively.

The 1917 was taken along with a supply of 230-grain FMJ Black Hills and Pro-Load ammo (approximating the original GI-issue round) and a handful of half-moon clips to our shooting facility at the Petersen Ranch in Lake Elizabeth, California.

Unlike the 1917 Colt, the S&W had a forward ejector-rod lock.

The gun was fired single action from a rest at 25 yards, double action in the same manner and rapid-fire DA at a combat range of seven yards.

Loading the ammo into the cylinder with the half-moon clips was a cinch. While the setup was really intended to aid ejection (which it did), it anticipated the speedloader by a number of years (though to be fair, the Brits had their Prideaux “quick-loader” for use with the .455 Mark VI Webley and Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver at just about the same time).

The gun handled like a dream in all modes, with balance, reliability and general handling characteristics being in the A+ category. Accuracy, too, was excellent. Single-action groups ran in the 1¼-inch range, rested DA spreads came in at around 2¼ inches, and combat shots all spotted well under three inches. For the most part, the gun shot pretty much to point of aim.

The bottom line is, were I a doughboy in the trenches of World War I, I would certainly not feel that I was ill-equipped to deal with the Hun.

The nice thing is that there are enough of these guns around right now that they are not all that hard to find, and prices (at least with the Brazilian revolvers) are in the decidedly affordable category, which is great. 

In any event, the S&W 1917 was a more than adequate wartime stopgap that has provided shooters and collectors with a high-quality, history-packed double-action sixgun for more than a half-century.

Smith & Wesson has even offered a retro version of the 1917 in its classic line of revolvers. Specifications are true to the originals with a 5½-inch barrel, lanyard ring on the grip and a pinned, half-moon front sight. Though it doesn’t have the military markings of a true 1917 and does sport checkered grips, in all other ways it is every bit as good as the original. 

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