Awesome, Ed! Thanks!
Shortly after WWII, Smith & Wesson was reenergizing its commercial production, and it was apparent that they were a little behind the curve in the small "pocket" snubby market. The 2 " M&P was a fine gun, but was a little on the chubby side. Colt's Detective Special had been around since the late '20s, but was really only fractionally smaller than the M&P. S&W had fielded their "I" frame Terrier since the mid '30s. It was a tiny 5-shot with a 2-inch barrel, but was chambered in the 38 S&W cartridge. This was considered to be a little on the anemic side by a lot of folks, and the Terrier was never a big seller.
What they needed was a tiny-framed 5-shot snubby that would accept the .38 Special cartridge. They decided to make some adaptations based on the "I" frame. The cylinder and corresponding cylinder window were enlarged to fit the larger cartridge, and most of the other "I" frame dimensions were kept "as-is". The mainspring was totally redesigned. The old leaf spring was replaced with a more durable coil type mainspring assembly, and the new creation was designated "J" frame. The "I" frame guns, across the board, were quickly switched over to the new mainspring design, and S&W designated them "Improved I-frames". The new "J" frame gun, at a National meeting of Chiefs of Police was decided to be named the Chiefs Special. Serial number sequence for the new frames started at #1.
The small guns began shipping in late 1950. Serial number 1 now belongs to Mr. Roy Jinks, and resides in the S&W museum. According to factory documentation, serial number 6 shipped October 27, 1950.
The earliest guns had a round (half-moon) front sight, a 5-screw frame (4 dome-head sideplate screws, and 1 screw in the front of the triggerguard), the coil type main spring, and a small "round" triggerguard. They had a "standard" thumblatch. This was a direct carry-over from the "I" frame guns of the era. There were two earlier thumblatch styles (with collectors now referring to them as "hourglass", "double-hourglass", "undercut", "pinched", and other names) on the "I" frames, but these earlier latches appear to not be pertinent to the Chief. The latest (third type) standard latch is the only one I have ever encountered on one of these early guns. I assume the other styles had been exhausted by the time the Chiefs were actually assembled. The stocks (or grip panels) were of the small round-top "service" style. These were also a direct carry-over from the "I" frame guns, and again were the last version of this grip design. There was an earlier version with flat silver medallions, and very fine (18 l.p.i.) checkering in a checkered field with very distinct "square" sharp corners. These were from the prewar era and carried over very briefly into postwar manufacture. The grip panels used on the Chiefs had more coarse (16 l.p.i.) checkering in a field with distinctly rounded corners, and were a tad more "plump" than the earlier ones. Again, every early Chief I have seen has had the later design grip panel. It appears that the early ones were depleted by the time the Chiefs were assembled.
It is a matter of conjecture just how many of these earliest versions of the Chief were produced. Great pics of what I assume is #61 are in the SCOSW/3rd, and it is attributed to a private collection. The highest serial number I have seen is #90. I saw a picture of a Chief that had the standard latch and service grips that was said to be number 12X, but I can't confirm that the grips were numbered to the gun, or even the actual serial number of the gun. I would think it is very likely that the early parts "tapered" out over a series of serial numbers, as the earlier parts were used up.
early gun with all the early features:
The first set of changes to the new platform were a change to the new "flat" thumblatch, and a switch to magna type stocks. In this case, the Chief used the earliest version of the new thumblatch. These early latches are usually referred to by collectors as an "oval" flatlatch. There would be two more designs used in future years. The switch to the larger magna style grips was most probably to alleviate some of the recoil being absorbed by the more powerful .38 Special cartridge in such a tiny gun. They offered more surface area and covered more of the backstrap to spread the impact to a larger portion of the web of the hand. These stocks also "hid" the rearmost sideplate screw, and at this time, this screw was switched to a "flat-head" type screw, to allow the larger grip to fit flush against the frame. The round front sight was retained, as was the basic 5-screw frame layout.
At this point the new Chiefs were evidently still very slow sellers. #9X shipped in August of 1951, well over half a year after the introduction of the new guns. But they were evidently catching on, because #38X, #65X, and #97X (factory documentation) shipped in November of '51.
Again, it is hard to say exactly how many guns shipped out in this configuration. Production was quickly picking up, and serial number crossovers were soon to get more interesting! For several years, #372X (shipped in February 1952) was the highest round-sighted Chief I had heard of, but recently #116XX popped up and lettered to April of 1952.
The next transition was a change to a more "modern" ramped front sight. The first several had a smooth rear surface, but they were quickly changed to a "serrated" rear surface to knock down glare. The new sight would be a little smoother while drawing from a holster or pocket, and gave S&W a "modern looking" heads-up on Colts' Detective special.
The smooth ramp sights were most likely produced over a very short period of time. The Chief is evidently the only small-framed gun to use them. There was serial number overlap as they were introduced, and as they were switched over the the serrated ramps. The earliest smooth ramp gun I have run across is #297X, but I don't have a ship date for it. #636X shipped in May of 1952. On the high end #1234X shipped in August of '52. This makes it appear like the smooth sights were available for a short period of time, but also shows that the Chiefs were really moving off the shelves quickly, at this time.
The serrated sight guns are definitely the most widespread of the early guns. The serial number overlap gets way more pronounced, too. For a long time, the earliest number I had seen was #1328X, shipped in September 1952, but recently a pretty well verified #654X popped up with the serrated ramp, so it is hard to settle on a hard timeline. There is a pretty big gap at the upper end, too, with 3821X shipping in February, '54, and 4777X shipping on July 21 of '54.
Ramp sight early Chief:
The "model of 1953" changes began somewhere in late 1952/early 1953. These were fairly sweeping changes to several of the small gun lines, including the Chief. The triggerguard screw was eliminated, making the new gun a "4-screw" frame. The triggerguard was enlarged and ovalized, making for more finger/glove room, and making for a smoother holster/reholster action. The gripframe was lengthened by about 1/8", presumably to help with recoil again. These changes created a more "modern" looking gun, and its introduction bracketed the earlier guns as what collectors now refer to as "Baby Chiefs". At this time, new lightweight guns were also introduced with an aluminum frame, and marketed as "Airweight Chief Specials". These were serial numbered in conjunction with the steel Chief serial number range. Theoretically, there are a handful (maybe less) of the Airweights built on the "Baby" frame specs. These were mostly experimental and some or all may have been serial numbered in a special range. There is a small pic in SCOSW/3rd of one in the 13000 (I assume) serial number range attributed to a private collector, but that is the only one I have ever seen or heard of. And I have looked hard! In the real world, the Airweights were built on the new "Model of 1953" design, and started appearing in the 24000 serial number range. They had some interesting features as they began to hit the market. The earliest ones had a cylinder made of aluminum, but it quickly proved unable to withstand the cartridge safely, and was quickly replaced with steel. The upper sideplate screw on some of the early ones had a small locking screw, ostensibly to keep the screw from backing out. Airweight production was evidently very scattered, by serial numbers, and by timeframe. I have seen a couple in the 24000 range and a few in the 27000 range. The earliest number I have seen is #2430X, which shipped on Feb 20, 1953.
The new longer stocks appear much like the previous "short" (or "Baby") stocks, and are often misidentified. The only surefire way of identifying the difference is by looking at the proximity of the stock locating pin hole to the bottom edge of the grip panel, on the back side of the panel. The additional length was added directly to the bottom of the frame, with the pin remaining in the same location. This makes it fairly obvious which panel is "short" or "long". The hole on the "short" grip panel is very close to the bottom edge of the grip, while the hole in the longer panel is about 1/4 inch away from the bottom edge. It is very difficult to tell the difference from the checkered side, as different patterns were used (Don't ask me how I figured this out!).
Early "Model of 1953" Chief Airweight with small locking screw (some collectors call it a "bug" screw) on the upper sideplate screw, and "long" grip panels, also showing the new larger triggerguard shared with the steel Chiefs This one has a numbered steel cylinder. Whether it came with it originally, or had it replaced/ renumbered by the factory at a later date is unknown, but I would assume it came with it:
I am most definitely not an expert in any field, but I have collected S&Ws for 34 years, and am extremely interested in postwar snubbys. I have done a lot of research on these little guns over the past few years, and find them fascinating. There seems to be a lot of conflicting and misleading (sometimes downright confusing!) information out there, and it tends to keep recurring. I hope I have provided something useful to someone. There is no doubt that new info will surface, and previously held thoughts will be proven wrong, but the search is half the fun! These guns are very scarce. They were mostly used as they were intended, as backup police guns, and undercover guns in someone's pocket. Lots of them haven't survived. Lots of them are in very poor condition. Some of them are probably in the bottom of various rivers! S&W most definitely didn't create them with any consideration of future gun collector's headaches. There are big overlaps, unusual anomolies, factory redone guns, backyard gunsmith-redone guns, and who knows what else? But the current fact is that they are getting hard to find, especially in nice condition. They have historically been overshadowed by their larger brethren, as verified by the sparsity of information on them, but I am confidant that their rarity is going to continue to make them more of a "mainstream" collectible.
Overview of Quick "Baby" Chief Identification:
All Chiefs are "J" frames.
All Baby Chiefs are "J" frames.
All Baby Chiefs have 5 screws (4 on the sideplate, 1 in front of the triggerguard).
All Baby Chiefs have the "short" gripframe.
All Baby Chiefs have the small "round" triggerguard.
Side note: There are actually a few different hammer variations, too. The earliest guns have a finely checkered hammer spur, and a "dainty" looking profile with a tiny nub. I haven't touched on the hammer variations because they seem to be unbelievably widespread. I kept a database on a few of the differences for a year or two, and the overlap was unbelieveable. My personal thought is that at least a couple of different hammers had to be manufactured concurrently to be on such a wide range of serial numbers. Maybe they just made up lots of them, and some kept ending up "in the bottom of the box". I don't know. My information became so confusing that I deleted it all, and decided I wouldn't rule out any hammer on any early Chief.
Any new information is greatly appreciated! Lettered ship-dates are always appreciated. Corrections to my Information is always appreciated!
I hope you all don't find this too boring!
*NOTE* i apologize for the pictures disappearing! i will post some at the end of the thread!!!
i replaced some of the pics in posts 38 through 44 on pages 4 and 5.
Last edited by ar15ed; 01-14-2018 at 12:43 AM.
Awesome, Ed! Thanks!
S&WCA #2629 | Ex-Navy Vietnam Vet. / Submariner | NRA Member | S&W Historical Foundation
thanks, very illuminating.
Appreciate you sharing your research w/ us!
"He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment & buy one" Jesus - Luke 22:36
Nice post, I made it a sticky!
Let go of anything that stops you from having everything…DM
S&WCA | SAF | GOA Life | NRA Benefactor | VCDL
Thank you, Ed, for passing on all of this information. It was both enlightening and helpful. I have just acquired a M37 in very nice condition, #242xx.
Thankful to God for my role model - My Dad, "God, Country & Family"
Nice read, and thanks. A person can come here to be both entertained, and educated !
Nice job, very educational, and now I want one! Mike
MIKE 3:16 YOU GOT TWO OPTIONS AMIGO, SLIM AND NONE!
I certainly enjoyed your post. I've had "J" frame before and recently bought a new Airweight. Although rated "+P ", they are a little harsh for such a light gun. Regular .38's work fine.
My 63 is probably one of the nicest revolvers I have ever shot. Myself and others have used it to take the CCW test and my wife will also .
Again, great post....
Last edited by sarg; 02-10-2014 at 10:26 AM.