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Honest Gun: Smith & Wesson .38 Military and Police Target Model of 1905

Wear and tear can reveal a gun's true character.

Honest Gun: Smith & Wesson .38 Military and Police Target Model of 1905

Smith & Wesson .38 Military & Police (Model of 1905, 3rd change) Target Model. Some 94,803 were manufactured between 1909 and 1915. Target models command 50 percent more in value. (Keith Wood photo)

My gun collecting mentor, whose name many of you would recognize, has a phrase he repeats now and then. “That’s an honest gun,” former Guns & Ammo columnist Ross Seyfried sometimes tells me.

“Honest” means that the gun is not mint or unfired. An honest gun is unaltered and shows signs of normal use, but not abuse. Restored guns need not apply. Honest guns are what I look for when an auction catalog lands on my doorstep or arrives in my inbox. Sometimes they are relatively affordable, at least in context of fine-looking guns. I let the collectors with deep pockets fight over the “mint” examples, and it gives me peace to know that those that got away may never pop another primer. I like to shoot my guns — all of them.

I found an honest gun in a recent Amoskeag Auction (, a Smith & Wesson .38 Military and Police Target Model of 1905. These were square-butt K-­frame revolvers that were catalogued with 6-­inch barrels and adjustable sights. A Patridge front and square notch rear were standard, and that’s the arrangement that this gun wears. According to collector and dealer David Carroll, this gun’s serial number establishes it as likely made in 1914. Unlike later M&P Target models, this revolver has a smooth trigger and backstrap.

What’s so special about a 107-year-­old gun? In the context of Smiths, “pre-­war” usually means the Second World War. However, this example was made before The Great War, qualifying it as pre-­war by anyone’s definition. Not only are pre-war guns more valuable, they are better than those that appeared later. These were revolvers built carefully by skilled hands long before wartime manufacturing necessity eliminated some of the finer touches in gunmaking.

Pre-­war guns are both beautiful and functional. If you’ve never experienced the trigger on a Smith & Wesson revolver of this era, you are missing out. The trigger pull on these is that by which all other handguns should be judged. In single-­action mode, the trigger break on my piece measured 2½-­pounds. The “glass rod” cliché deserves to be applied here. And the double-­action pull is a buttery-­smooth 9 pounds. There is no creep or hiccups, only perfection. Between the trigger and its sights, you have to work hard to make it miss.

The gun shows signs of use, but not abuse. There is some holster wear at the muzzle and minor pitting on the frame. Some rubbing exists on the ejector rod and there’s a thin turn line on the cylinder. These are signs of honest use. The last time that this gun saw the inside of a bluing tank was during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, but for the minor flaws that qualified my ability to afford it, the mirror-­like burnished finish is as only a gun of this vintage could offer; bright case colors still appear on the hammer and trigger. It was aptly described by the auctioneer as “mechanically excellent.” Those two words are what I want in a gun.

These days, most of my shooting is done in the course of evaluating firearms. Sometimes, though, I still get to shoot just for fun. After receiving the old target pistol, I headed to the family farm with plenty of wadcutter target handloads. I cocked the hammer slowly to hear the clicks and clacks of its movement, found the crisp front sight and eased my finger onto the trigger. The gun barked, probably for the first time in decades. Downrange, the lead bullet cut a sharp, clean hole within the 25-­yard X-­ring. Five more shots preceded a five-shot group shaped in a ragged oval of satisfaction at the target’s center. An honest gun should shoot better than its owner.

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