THE HISTORY STUFF
Iver Johnson’s Arms and Cycle works was formed under that name in 1891 in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. In 1894 launched the production of their ‘Safety Automatic’ revolvers, and shortly thereafter launched hammerless versions of these guns. The ‘Safety’ referred to the use of a transfer-bar safety, which allowed the gun to be carried with the hammer down on a loaded chamber. The Automatic portion of the name referred to the fact that it automatically ejected the cartridges when the revolver was opened.
They were nothing if not prolific; they made 100,000 revolvers in their first year of production, which sold, depending on the model, for $4-$8. In succeeding years they made inexpensive solid-frame revolvers and single-barrel top-break shotguns as well. They advertised prolifically, with a strong emphasis on the safety of these guns.
The gun we are discussing is an Automatic Safety Hammerless Model 1. It’s chambered in .32 S&W and holds five shots. It uses their famous transfer-bar safety, and additionally has a trigger-safety that would later see use on the uber-popular Glock semi-automatic pistols. The locking mechanism is very strong, using a single side-lever to turn a solid bar to disengage. Both of these features were eventually discontinued; the trigger-safety was removed and the lock was replaced with a simple T-Bar lock similar to S&W revolvers of the period. I expect that this was done in the interest of cost savings; the original lock was stronger and more fool-proof.
I found this gun at Pinto’s Guns in Renton, WA. marked $100. It was there for months but I had little interest because… well, because it was an Iver Johnson and when it comes to top-breaks I am a total S&W snob. Hey, acknowledging that there is a problem is the first step, right? Anyway I eventually looked at it and was surprised and impressed at the quality. It locks up very tight and the trigger, while quite heavy, is very smooth. I have large hands but the grip is only slightly awkward for me; I may or may not remedy this with a custom grip.
The gun has a one-piece frame with no sideplate. All of the internals are accessed either from the bottom by removing the trigger-guard, or from the top by removing the hammer-shroud. The gun’s serial number indicates it was from the first year of production- 1894 or 95, depending on who you ask. The nickel on the frame is in quite good condition, the barrel rather less so, with significant loss of the plating in front of and above the cylinder. The bore is acceptable, with some light pitting, and the chambers are pristine. I suspect that this gun was seldom, if ever, fired. Many arms of this type and period were bought, loaded and tucked in a drawer, then largely forgotten.
So, how does it shoot? Pretty well, actually. The smoothness of the trigger outweighs the heaviness, and the gun sits very low in the hand; this not only minimizes the already trivial recoil but makes the gun point very naturally.
.32 S&W Centerfire
The cartridge this is chambered in is still available as a factory load. The original loading used black powder, and unlike other cartridges that switched to smokeless at the dawn of the 20th C., it continued to be loaded with black powder until World War 2. Typical loads for this gun propelled an 85-95gr. projectile at about 700 fps. from a 3″ barrel. Modern commercial loads are rather slower than this, possibly to avoid liability issues in antique guns, but are adequate for target shooting and plinking.
There are many who insist that you only fire Black powder in this and guns of similar vintage. While this is not necessarily true it is the safest path, with the next best, in this caliber at least, being commercial ammo. This is available as round-nose lead only, and in a modest load carefully balanced not to damage antique- or poorly made- guns. The original ammo for this gun was no powerhouse, but the modern loads are even more anemic. Of course any antique firearm should be carefully examined by an expert before firing, and if the gun is judged safe to fire at all, commercial offerings are liable to be safe.
This gun, and literally millions of similar guns, were designed for self-defense. At the time many, perhaps even a majority, of households kept a small revolver around for this purpose. These small inexpensive revolvers were the gun of choice for people who weren’t into guns. They were sold across the counter in hardware stores or by mail-order through Sears and Montgomery Ward with little or no formality. Most of them were never used on anything more serious than tin-cans if they were even fired at all. But they were designed, marketed and made for self-defense, and there was a time when an awful lot of people relied on them.
So is this a suitable gun for self-defense? Yes, and at the same time very much no. Most people, when shot, give it up as a bad job and either run or sit/fall down. But the only way to stop a truly determined attacker is to break something they can’t function without, and your odds of accomplishing that with a gun firing the .32 S&W cartridge are less than average. This cartridge falls in the same category as pocket-guns in .22 and .25 Auto; better than nothing, but far from ideal. Using such a marginal caliber requires greater proficiency; something you will be unlikely to attain given the expensive and often hard to find ammunition. You can hand-load this cartridge, and I do, but for the time and effort required you’d be better off with something else to fill your self-defense needs.
IN THE END…
This gun and guns like it can be a lot of fun. They’re generally inexpensive to purchase, often mechanically interesting and fun to shoot. But bear in mind that these guns were meant to spend a whole lot of time in a pocket or night-stand drawer, and are not designed to shoot thousands of rounds. They may well wear out more quickly than you expect if fired excessively. Best to shoot them occasionally and enjoy them for what they are- a tiny window into a particular era of modern history.