James' thread about 1950's era S&W's got me going on this snowy January Sunday afternoon, and it inspired me.
Early post WW2 through the late 1950's was a period of intense development at Smith & Wesson with many new models and updates on existing designs finding their way into the catalog.
The small ".32" Hand Ejector frame platform was no exception. There is much confusion amongst budding collectors about the meaning of "I", "Improved I" and finally the familiar "J" frame's evolution.
What follows is my feeble attempt to explain this development with photographs of guns in my humble collection. I hope you enjoy this and that it may answer a few questions.
Post War "I" Frame.
This example of the .32 Frame Handejector is from the earliest Post War production, and carries with it many of the pre-war features.
Note the "Hourglass" Cylinder Release, Half Round Front Sight, "Round-Top" Service Stocks, but the small-head Extractor Rod.
The Strain Screw on the fore grip strap is evident, and is a tip off that this gun has a flat main spring, a key in identifying the pure "I" Frame.
This gun's serial number nominally puts it circa early 1947, possibly 1946. According to the Production Tables in the Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson, the first Post WW2 I-frame serial is 536,685 in 1946.
Improved "I" Frame
This .32 Handjector is 574,833 from about 1949 and is a classic "Improved I Frame". Note the retention of the prewar front sight, but the elimination of the Strain Screw in the fore gripstrap due to the introduction of the coil mainspring and the appearance of the modern, familiar Cylinder Release. Also, the Grip Strap Length is the same as the earlier "I" Frame. Magna style stocks are now standard.
"Baby Chief" .38 Special.
By 1950 the first Chief's Special makes it debut on the "Improved I-Frame". This early .38 Special "Baby Chief" is serialed just over 1,000 and is a fair representation. It is believed to be from 1950 production.
Note that the Half Round Front Sight, the Small Trigger Guard, and shorter "I" Frame Grip Frame have been retained. Introduced are the true "Flat Latch", and the Lengthened Cylinder.
By serial number 19,000 (circa 1952) or so the now familiar "J" frame has emerged.
While still a 5-screw frame, this early J shows off the hallmark design features that would be prominent for more than 30 years in subsequent production. Note the lengthened grip frame and stocks. (A hint.... count the number of checkering lines below the "Diamond"). Also now standard are an enlarged Trigger Guard and Ramp Front Sight. An improvement over the "Flat Latch" Cylinder Release, this so called "Ramp" or "Burr" Latch will remain common and intermittent through the 1960's on some derivatives of the J-Frame, particularly the lighter weight Model 37's, etc.
I make no claim on authority of this topic, what I have shown is the results of my study so far and I stand to be corrected by further research or correspondence with my fellows.
It should be noted that there is still much to be learned about the Post War to 1960 .32 frame development and there is contradicting information existent surrounding these guns even within the Standard Catalog. Additionally, I have seen guns with "overlapping" features and with shipped dates out of sequence with their serial numbers. This makes the study of these neat little guns an exercise in clearing murky waters and uncovering previously unfound facts. Therein lies the goodness of the exploration.
".... Evil Flourishes When Good Men Do Nothing...."