Iver Johnson .38 Automatic Safety Hammerless

Another old-school Roscoe- this is an Iver Johnson .38 Automatic Safety Hammerless (2nd Model) made in 1897 or so. It is a five-shot double-action only top-break revolver. It is chambered for the .38 S&W cartridge, similar in power to a .380 ACP. Around 1900 the Sears Roebuck catalogue sold these for $6. Not a cheap gun, but not expensive either.

Iver Johnson was trained as a gunsmith in his home-country of Norway and emigrated to the US in 1863, at the height of the Civil War. He worked as a gunsmith and designer, and eventually entered into a partnership in a business that became Iver Johnson Arms and Cycle Works in 1891 and began production of top-break double-action revolvers starting in 1895. These were very popular mid-priced guns, with over seven million made in .32 S&W and .38 S&W calibers. In 1909 Iver Johnson adopted the trade brand name US Revolver Company, in part to use up remaining stocks of parts for their 2nd Model top-breaks when the line was upgraded for smokeless powder in 1909.

Initially the only differences between the Iver Johnson line of revolvers and the U.S. Revolver Company guns was that the hammer version does not have the transfer-bar safety of the regular line and the hammerless version does not have the safety trigger.

It’s interesting to note that while IJ upgraded their top-break guns ‘for smokeless powder,’ the USR guns were all rated for smokeless… even though they used cylinders and barrels from the supposedly ‘black powder’ guns, indicating that the ‘upgrades’ were made for reasons having little direct connection to the sort of propellant used in their cartridges. More on this later.

IJ revolver opened for loading. HKS Model 36 speedloaders work quite well with this gun.

The ‘Automatic’ refers to the auto-ejection feature. The ‘Safety’ refers to the transfer-bar safety and the hammerless part is pretty obvious (and a lie- it has a hammer under the shroud.) It also has a safety-bar on the trigger identical to a Glock Safe-Action trigger. The cylinder free-rotates when not being fired; it’s lock system is similar to the older Webleys- when firing the cylinder is pinned between the hand and a fixed stop mounted on the trigger assembly. The gun is fully locked when the trigger is pulled all the way to the point where it releases the hammer. The design is quite clever; the action-bar that works the hammer is also the transfer bar.

When I got this the hand-spring was broken, and since both the hand and the action-bar that operates the trigger depend on this it was non-functional. I fabricated a replacement and the gun is surprisingly good in several respects.

The first surprise is that the internal parts are heat-treated and tempered, which is often not the case in inexpensive firearms of the period. The second is that while this gun appears to have been fired quite a bit it is tight and the cylinder lock-up is tight and solid with zero play. The last and most pleasant surprise is the trigger- the pull is short, smooth and surprisingly light.

While these guns aren’t up to the standards of fit and finish that Colt and S&W revolvers of the period maintained they are really decent quality.

This is a ‘Black Powder Gun:’ it does not incorporate the changes made in 1909 to accommodate the new smokeless powders- or, to be brutally honest, to allow for the mistakes of stupid hand-loaders. Factory smokeless ammo for these guns was originally, and remains, tailored to not blow up even poor-quality guns, and was designed to be safe in older guns. But handloaders in the early 20th Century, used to black powder, often didn’t do their research when switching to smokeless.

You can’t fit enough black powder into a pistol-cartridge case to blow up a reasonable quality gun. You can fit enough smokeless powder, and people did. By 1909 smokeless powders had pretty thoroughly edged out BP, and Iver Johnson introduced the slightly beefier 3rd Model which was ‘proofed’ for smokeless powders. Of course what this really meant was ‘less likely to be blown up by idiots.’

Regardless, I have always fired smokeless loads in my cartridge-firing antiques. Mild, conservative loads to be sure, but I have never experienced an issue from doing so.

So how does it shoot? Honestly I am not sure… I ran across an old box of .38 S&W that I had loaded with 125gr. LRN and took that to shoot through the IJ. I very shortly remembered why that box was sitting around- they suck. About 3 out of five bullets from this load keyhole at seven yards, no matter what gun I shoot them through. The few bullets that hit properly were reasonably on-center, but the key-holed hits were all over the target. OK, the targets were 5-1/2″ circles and even the bad hits were in the circle, but a 5-1/2″ group at seven yards is no one’s idea of good. I need another trip to the range with some proper loads, then we’ll see what is what.

All in all I am quite pleased with this little gun. I think I am likely to get creative with this one; even in excellent condition they aren’t worth much or particularly collectible, and this one is not in excellent condition. I am likely to strip the nickel off and rust blue it at least… perhaps some fancy grips too.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 4 June 2019

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