The Gun Control Act of 1968 effectively prohibited the importation of most sub-compact ‘pocket pistols,’ leaving a void in the market that Smith & Wesson was quick to try to fill. They announced the Model 61 Escort in 1969, but they did not become available until 1970. They were produced until 1973, with a total production across four variants of around 65,000 guns.
The design was based on the Pieper Bayard, a small Belgian .380 ACP gun produced in 1908, with the recoil spring and slide mounted above the barrel. The slide had an under-slung breech block to engage with the barrel, and the design was a simple blow-back gun with a concealed hammer.
Two different finishes were available- a nickel-plated gun with white plastic grips meant to resemble Mother of Pearl, and a blued gun with plastic grips meant to resemble wood.
The first three variants had a die-cast aluminum frame. In the first two the barrel was pressed into the frame. In the third variant the barrel was mounted in the frame with a bushing, which led to greater accuracy in the placement of the barrel. This improved both accuracy and- more importantly- reliability. Early guns had issues with malfunctions, and many guns were returned to the factory for warranty service, eroding the meager profits from these guns.
While the early guns had issues the bulk of production was -2 and -3 guns, which did not have these issues. The gun received a boost in publicity when it was featured in the movie ‘Taxi Driver.’ While somewhat oddly proportioned they were attractive enough, had surprisingly decent sights, a good trigger and were easy to maintain. So why were these guns not a success? There were a number of reasons.
For one thing it isn’t that small; it’s noticeably larger than most of its direct competitors. It also had a five-shot magazine, where most guns in its class had 7-8 round magazines. Another problem was that it was a relatively expensive gun; it was very well constructed but that came at a price. It also took long enough to get to market that competition was heating up. Colt and FIE had ‘on-shored’ production of their sub-compact offerings, and Raven had started manufacturing its MP25. Other companies were beginning to step up as well- and every one of them cost less and held more shots than the Model 61. Despite rectifying most of the Model 61s shortcomings the gun never gained any traction in the market, and in 1973 production shut down permanently.
I purchased this gun from Pinto’s Guns for $130. This is quite a bit less than these guns typically go for; it was discounted because of the condition of it’s finish. The gun is mechanically sound however, and I’ve always found these little guns interesting. As mentioned it is a straight blow-back with an internal hammer. The safety, located just behind the trigger on the left, allows the gun to be carried ‘cocked and locked.’ At the top rear of the left grip there is a tiny stud that protrudes slightly when the hammer is cocked, which is very easy to feel without looking at the gun.
Disassembly is dead simple- press in the stud at the front of the slide (actually the recoil-spring guide rod,) lift the front sight out. This releases the guide-rod and recoil spring- which will shoot out of the gun and across the room if you don’t control it. Then the slide may be drawn to the rear and lifted off, and the gun is field-stripped.
Naturally I was eager to test-fire the gun, so after setting up and decorating the Christmas tree and stringing some lights I headed for Champion Arms in Renton, Wa.
While I have some Winchester and CCI ammo on-hand I chose to take some vintage Sears-brand ammo that was produced around the same time as the gun. Seemed fair as it’s the sort of ammo the gun might have been loaded with when new. In fifty rounds I had one failure-to-fire; the primer struck true and crushed the rim adequately but the round simply didn’t ignite. Hey, this stuff is fifty years old- I can make allowances.
So how is it to shoot? In a word- it’s fun. The sights are very good for a pocket-pistol, the trigger isn’t heavy, has short travel and breaks clean. The trigger reset is very short. The low bore-axis means your sights come back on target quickly, the safety is well-located and easy to use. On top of that it’s ridiculously easy to shoot well.
I started at five yards, unsure what to expect, but the gun shoots to point-of-aim. Initially I was more interested in whether the gun functioned so I was firing rather quickly, so I was delighted to see all of the bullets had landed in the black.
Heartened by the results I backed the target up to seven yards and tried to fire at a 1-shot/second rate. At Champion Arms you can rapid-fire- if you are a member and have been checked out by the staff. If not the request that you restrict yourself to one shot per second, and I generally comply. Mostly. Sort of…
I backed it up to ten yards…
After shooting at ten yards I threw caution to the winds and rolled the target out to the maximum range, twenty-five yards. I fired carefully at this distance, and the results were impressive for a gun of this type.
I’m certain I can improve on this with practice. I’ll get that practice, too- this gun is a ball to shoot, and it’s going to be a regular on range trips for the foreseeable future.
Curiously these guns have not attracted the attention of collectors, and with the pitting and bubbling nickel this one would be unlikely to be seen as ‘collectible’ in any event. I’ll likely strip and polish the aluminum frame and strip the slide then rust-blue it. The grips I’ll replace with some custom exotic hardwood grips.
As their name indicates these were designed as a self-defense pistol, so the question is, ‘Will I carry it?’ Nope. As much as I like this gun it’s too big for a six-shot .22, and I’m not that interested in finding a second magazine for it. I might drop it in my pocket when checking the mail or going out to my workshop, but I’m afraid it’s really not suited to it’s original purpose. But as an interesting and fun range gun? That it will do, and very nicely too.
Prices on guns in good cosmetic condition are running $200-$400. If you fancy one I think you’ll find it’s worth it.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 16 December 2018