The Smith & Wesson L-Frame Story

Revolver Frame Wars

With a company history that dates back to 1852, Smith & Wesson has seen a lot of milestones and has delivered a host of classic designs to the shooting public. Some of those favorites have come and gone from the Smith & Wesson catalog over the years, but the ever-popular L-Frame family of revolvers remains, and continues to sell strong for the team from Springfield, Massachusetts.

We’ve covered a bit of the L-Frame’s history before in the pages of RevolverGuy, but it’s time to take a deeper look at how this revolver design came about, and pay tribute to its creator, Mr. Dick Baker.

Origins

The beginning of our story starts with the early .38 Hand Ejector Model, which was the second of the solid frame, swinging cylinder guns produced by Smith & Wesson (the first being the .32 Hand Ejector, which barely preceded it). The .38 Hand Ejector went through several minor changes and eventually morphed into the legendary Model 10, in 1957, following a change to the hammer block mechanism in December of 1944, and the incorporation of a new “short action” hammer throw in February of 1948.

Smith & Wesson .38 Hand Ejector Model (photo from http://www.elephantandcastle.biz/product_info.php?products_id=1768)

In these medium-frame, .38 S&W Special guns (“K-Frame,” in factory parlance, as opposed to the smaller “I-Frame,” designed around the .32 caliber), the barrel extension that poked through the frame and formed the forcing cone was slightly relieved at the 6 O’Clock position to make room for the swinging yoke and cylinder to close.  This milled flat reduced the wall thickness of the barrel extension a slight amount, but did not create a structural problem at the low pressures of the .38 Special (which began its life as a blackpowder round, and only produced a SAAMI-spec, 18,300 psi maximum pressure), nor the later (1970s era) .38 Special +P round (21,500 psi maximum).

Revolver Frame Wars
The barrel flat is evident on this K-Frame Model 13.
The minimal clearance between the gas ring / yoke and the barrel flat is evident on this Model 19-3. Without the flat, there would be insufficient room for the cylinder to close.

Magnum Era

We previously discussed in these pages how the legendary Border Patrolman, Bill Jordan, encouraged then-S&W President Carl Hellstrom to produce a K-Frame revolver chambered in the .357 Magnum cartridge during the Camp Perry, Ohio, National Matches in the summer of 1954. Prior to this date, the .357 Magnum had only been chambered in the much larger, N-Frame revolvers by Smith & Wesson, and it was Jordan’s wish to combine the cartridge’s legendary energy with the smaller and lighter K-Frame, to develop a powerful, yet compact, duty revolver.

All rise!

Hellstrom and S&W made good on the deal, introducing the Combat Magnum in 1955. In order to make the combination work, they had to heat treat the barrel extension, and the svelte, K-Frame cylinder and frame to handle the greater pressures generated by the powerful .357 Magnum cartridge (37,800 psi, SAAMI maximum—more than twice the limit of the .38 Special that the K-Frame had originally been designed around).

Barrel flat on a Combat Magnum.

The barrel flat at 6 O’Clock remained on the Combat Magnum, to allow room for the yoke to swing into the gun, as it did on the earlier .38 Special models. The more powerful .357 Magnum pressures threatened to damage and crack the thinner barrel wall in that spot, but the common practice of the day—encouraged by Jordan, himself—was to shoot a very limited amount of .357 Magnum ammunition in these guns, and do the majority of shooting with .38 Special ammunition.  As a result, the early years of the Combat Magnum didn’t see any notable complaints about barrel cracking at the flat.

This would soon change, however.

Gas Rings

When a cartridge is fired in a revolver, a voluminous spray of high-pressure gas exits the end of the chamber and radiates out in a circle, parallel to the cylinder face. This gas contains lead and carbon particulates, which can accumulate and cause a buildup (as anyone who has ever cleaned a revolver can attest).

Photo courtesy of RevolverGuy Dean Caputo.

To prevent a buildup of contaminants on the axle that the cylinder spins on, revolvers incorporate a shield that we call the “gas ring.” The gas ring’s purpose is to prevent carbon and lead from building up between the axle (“arbor”) and the cylinder itself, which would impede the rotation of the cylinder.

The gas ring is on the cylinder on this model 19-3. You can see it on the cylinder face, at the base of the ejector rod.

The Combat Magnum (later designated the Model 19, in 1957) was originally built with the gas ring as part of the cylinder, as it had been since the .38 Hand Ejector was first built.  Actually, the gas ring was pressed into the cylinder during assembly, but since it was not intended to be removed, it had always been considered to be part of the cylinder itself.

This state of affairs apparently lasted from the pre-19 era until sometime around 1974-1976, when S&W made a decision to move the gas ring to the yoke.

Dick Baker, the design engineer who created the L-Frame.

Why the change?  When Senior Product Engineer Richard L. “Dick” Baker asked that question after arriving at S&W–from Ruger–in 1976, he was told that the gas rings had been coming loose on some guns (actually separating from the cylinder) and binding things up, so it was decided to make the gas ring part of the yoke in order to correct the problem. Others have speculated that heat-related, cylinder binding issues in the new (circa 1971), stainless steel versions of the Combat Magnum may also have encouraged the switch to a yoke-mounted gas ring.

This is a J-Frame cylinder, but it demonstrates what a yoke-mounted gas ring looks like. The cylinder face is flush, and there are slots in the yoke barrel to redirect the gas. In this photo, the slot is the dark black line, facing you, at the base of the yoke’s barrel—look down and right from the assembly number, which ends in “4”

Regardless of the reason, S&W moved the gas ring to the yoke during this era (somewhere in the middle of the Model 19-3 production, and the latter part of the no-dash Model 66 production—H/T the guys at the S&W Forum for figuring this out). With the ring removed, the cylinder face was now completely flat, and the axle (or “arbor,” or “barrel”) of the new yoke had a pair of grooves milled in the top that were designed to flow gases away from the tunnel in the cylinder that accepted the yoke, thereby preventing crud from entering the tunnel and building up between the cylinder and the yoke itself.

Interestingly, the switch to a yoke-mounted gas ring did not generate an engineering change number (commonly referred to as a “dash” number), which would frustrate S&W collectors in the future, as some 19-3 models (and some no-dash, Model 66s) would have cylinder-mounted gas rings, and others would have yoke-mounted gas rings. This situation may have even stretched into some early 19-4 and 66-1 models, since S&W would exhaust the supply of old parts before switching to the new ones—leaving some transitional guns with a mixed assortment of parts from different dash changes.

A flaw is born

The significance of the gas ring change, for our purposes, is that it drove a change to the barrel flat.

Dick Baker explained to RevolverGuy that moving the gas ring to the yoke changed the dimensions significantly enough that it was now necessary to remove even more material from the barrel flat than before, to make room for the modified yoke to swing in and out of the frame. This left a significantly-reduced amount of material at the bottom of the barrel extension, weakening what engineers like Baker called the “hoop strength” of the barrel extension.

Early Model 66 (no dash) with cylinder-mounted gas ring barrel flat. (Photo courtesy of Dean Caputo)
The switch to a yoke-mounted gas ring required a much more aggressive cut on the barrel flat, which left less material in place. Unfortunately, this aggressive cut remained as a legacy after S&W went back to a cylinder-mounted gas ring. (Photo courtesy of Dean Caputo)

Smith & Wesson didn’t realize it at the time, but they had just planted the seed that would later blossom into a big problem for the Magnum K-Frame.

More changes

Unfortunately, the move to a yoke-mounted gas ring created more problems than it solved.

It turned out that the yoke-mounted gas ring fouled more quickly than the cylinder-mounted gas ring.  Users would complain about sluggish cylinder rotation after as few as a hundred rounds of ammunition (particularly if they were shooting unjacketed, soft lead bullets, which were very dirty).  Additionally, the new design didn’t do anything to solve the problem of heat-related binding in the stainless models, because the problem was the steel itself. Stainless conducts heat differently, and has a tendency to heat and expand quickly, which could wreak havoc on guns with close tolerances. It would take a while for S&W and the rest of the industry to figure out how to deal with this issue, but moving the gas ring to the yoke was not the ticket.

The S&W Stainless Combat Magnum was incredibly popular from the start, but early guns suffered from some heat-related binding issues that helped encourage S&W engineers to move the gas ring to the yoke.

The problem with the yoke-mounted gas rings was no surprise to Springfield Engineering’s  newest arrival, Baker. When he arrived at S&W in August 1976, Baker was puzzled to see the gas ring on the yoke, because he had just come from Ruger, where this kind of system (relief cuts on the arbor, to redirect/deflect gas) was already in use on the Six-series double action revolvers. Bill Ruger, Sr. was unsatisfied with the arrangement, due to the fouling issue, and had already directed Ruger engineers to correct this. In response, many law enforcement contract Sixes were built with gas rings on the cylinder (particularly for those agencies who issued the all-lead, .38 Special 158+P LSWCHP “FBI Load”), and the later SP/GP-series of revolvers that replaced the Sixes would be designed with cylinder-mounted rings as well.

Ruger’s Six-series guns, like this Security Six, featured yoke-mounted gas rings at first, but the rings were moved to the cylinder for certain production runs that were destined for LE customers who issued heavy-fouling loads. Some of the surplus guns, after the order was fulfilled at the end of a production run, were channeled to the commercial market as well.

Baker figured that he could design a better cylinder-mounted gas ring which would fix the problem of it coming off, and eliminate the fouling issue. He explained to RevolverGuy that, “I added an undercut in the cylinder recess for the ring, and swaged a new design gas ring (with internal belt) in place so it was locked in. It never came loose again and we eliminated the problem of fouling binding the cylinder.”

Unlike the previous switch, this modification generated an engineering change number. Collectors know it as engineering change 4 for the Model 19 (19-4) and engineering change 1 for the Model 66 (66-1).  Jim Supica, in the Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson, properly dates this change to 1977 (“1977–Change gas ring from yoke to cylinder”).

Barrel flaw exposed

Baker fixed the gas ring issue, but the Magnum K-Frame’s barrel flaw persisted.

When the gas ring moved back to the cylinder with the 19-4 / 66-1 engineering change, Smith & Wesson did not return to the less aggressive cut on the barrel flat that pre-dated the yoke-mounted guns.  Although it was no longer necessary to make extra room for the yoke-mounted gas ring, they continued to remove an excess of material from the 6 O’Clock position of the barrel extension. To explain, we can only presume that a certain amount of institutional inertia existed, and the company wasn’t nimble enough to abandon the recent production change and return to the old method, which left more material in place on the barrel flat.

It was about this time that S&W began to receive numerous complaints of cracked barrels in the 6 O’Clock area, and a number of warranty returns for the same.

This S&W Model 66 not only suffered a cracked barrel, but also a cracked frame. (Image from https://waguns.org/viewtopic.php?f=48&t=59338)

For shooters, this problem first seemed to manifest itself as a difficulty in opening or closing the cylinder, since the barrel extension would flare slightly after being cracked, and bind on the yoke. Further examination would determine that the barrel extension had cracked, requiring a complete barrel change.

Why now?

The problem with K-Frame barrel cracks was obviously related to the thinner barrel wall that was an unfortunate leftover from the yoke-mounted gas ring, but there was another factor that contributed to the problem—a change in police training that had officers shooting more .357 Magnum ammunition in the guns than they used to.

Prior to the development of the K-Frame Magnums in the mid-1950s, the home for the .357 Magnum was the burly, .44/.45 caliber frames produced by S&W (Pre-27 and 27) and Colt (New Service).  These large frame guns could easily handle the power of the standard 158 grain .357 Magnum loads that defined the caliber, and while they were quite powerful by the standards of the day, they were reasonably controllable.

The mighty N-Frame was the original home of the .357 Magnum cartridge. Photo courtesy of RevolverGuy Steve Tracy.

When the svelte K-Frame was chambered for the .357 Magnum, those 158 grain loads produced a lot more felt recoil in the lighter gun, and the truth is that there were few shooters who were willing to do much shooting with the heavy-kicking ammunition in the Combat Magnum.  Even Bill Jordan, the driving force behind the project, testified that the Combat Magnum was best viewed as a .38 Special that could shoot a limited diet of Magnums:

The K-Frame is perhaps a bit light to stand up under a steady diet of full charge .357 loads. Anyone wishing to do all his firing with maximum loads would do well to stick with the heavier frame of the original [N-Frame] .357 revolver.

This fit in neatly with the police training doctrine of the time, which encouraged officers to shoot low-powered target ammunition (particularly 148 grain, .38 Special wadcutters) during training and qualifications, then load up with more powerful 158 grain loads (in either .38 Special or .357 Magnum) for duty.

By the early 1970s though, there were a few trends which combined to change the landscape for ammunition.

Revolver Frame Wars Model 19
The 1970s saw many changes in police firearms training, to include a growing requirement to train and qualify with the ammunition carried on duty. The slender K-Frame, with its barrel flat, didn’t like being fed a steady diet of Magnums.

First, the burgeoning “Officer Survival” movement of the era (encouraged by events like the LAPD Onion Field incident, the civil unrest and violent crime spikes of the mid-60s and early 70s, and disasters like the CHP’s Newhall Gunfight) changed the nature of police training, equipment, tactics and policies, and encouraged officers to shoot duty-equivalent loads during training and qualifications.  It was now frowned upon, in the most progressive police training circles, to shoot light loads in training and carry heavier loads on the street—the expectation now was that officers who wanted to carry Magnum ammunition on duty should also train and qualify with it. After they got a taste of continuous shooting with the heavy, 158 grain Magnums in smaller guns like the popular Combat Magnum, they started looking for cartridges loaded with lighter bullets, which wouldn’t kick as much.

A second trend was the growing belief during this time that lightweight, high-speed projectiles were more effective loads for stopping violent opponents. This theory of “stopping power” was popularized by the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) project, which evaluated duty ammunition according to their newly-developed Relative Incapacitation Index (RII) model.

The RII study’s “computer man” was composed of anatomical cross-sections that were divided into “volume elements.” Each of these volume elements was assessed by a panel of physicians to determine its importance with regards to “instant incapacitation,” and assigned a point value (from 0 to 10, with 10 being the most important). The computer man was “shot” from the front, via Monte Carlo statistical analysis, to generate a number of likely bullet trajectories, and each trajectory was assessed to see which volume elements it passed through. From this, a value called the “vulnerability index” (VI) was generated. When the VI was combined with test results from bullets fired into 20% calibrated gelatin, the bullets were assigned a measure of their effectiveness—a Relative Incapacitation Index (RII). Because only frontal shots were assessed in the study, bullets that expanded quickly over a short distance were determined to be more effective than loads that expanded slower and penetrated deeper—a model that would be turned on its head, two decades later, after the FBI Miami Gunfight. (Image from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/87004NCJRS.pdf)

When the LEAA’s report on duty ammunition was published in 1975, the loads that earned the highest RII ratings featured high speed, lightweight, rapidly-expanding bullets.  Loads like the traditional, 158 grain .357 Magnum did not perform as well in the LEAA test as the new generation of 110 and 125 grain bullets that were introduced circa-1965 by manufacturers like SuperVel, so these loads quickly gained favor with many police departments who were influenced by the LEAA study.

Lightweight Magnums grew in popularity during the 1970s, and increasingly filled the cylinders and speedloaders of police guns during this era. Shown is the Hunt / Kel Lite / Safariland speed loader that was one of the earliest loader designs adopted by police.

The intersection between officers looking for lighter-kicking Magnum loads to shoot in K-Frame size guns for training and qualification, and an authoritative source claiming that loads with lighter bullets made better “stoppers,” meant that there was a skyrocketing interest in the new 110 and 125 grain .357 Magnum loads at precisely the same time that S&W was aggressively milling the flat on the Model 19 and 66 handgun barrels.

This was problematic, not only because it encouraged officers to shoot more Magnum ammunition, but because the lighter 110 and 125 grain bullets might accelerate wear on the forcing cone.

The short and long of it

There’s a theory out there that shorter (lighter) bullets may allow more gas to bypass the bullet and enter into the bore ahead of it, causing more damage than you’d see with a longer (heavier) bullet.

When a longer bullet (like the 158 grain that was standard for the caliber) enters the forcing cone, the aft end of the bullet is still contained within the chamber throat of the cylinder, and has obturated to completely seal the ball end of the cylinder. This seal prevents gas from escaping past the bullet. By the time the tail end of the bullet clears the cylinder, the nose of the bullet has already started to seal the forcing cone and leade area, preventing a significant bypass of hot ignition gases.  The surplus gas which does not follow and propel the bullet down the barrel is vented out the barrel-cylinder gap, to the sides.

The profile of the 158 grain bullet on the right is slightly different than the 125 grain on the left, but most of the difference is on the inside. The longer, 158 grain bullet sits deeper in the case.

With a shorter bullet, there’s a greater tendency for ignition gases to bypass the bullet and enter the forcing cone and barrel ahead of the bullet itself.  This is because the barrel has not been sealed yet by the nose of the shorter bullet when the tail of the bullet clears the ball end of the cylinder.  This allows more time for very hot, high-pressure ignition gases to bypass the bullet and enter into the bore ahead of the bullet, where they can cause increased damage.

Treasury Load
Winchester’s +P+ .38 Special load generated a lot of high pressure, high temperature gas, just like the lightweight (125 grain) Magnums. These loads could be tough on guns, especially the K-Frames with their barrel flats.

We don’t have our own lab to test that here at RevolverGuy, but it seems like a logical explanation to us. One thing we are sure of, is that the propellant gases are different between heavy and light bullet loads, and these differences could account for accelerated fatigue in a barrel. As longtime industry veteran, Ed Harris explains:

Lighter bullet .38 Special +P+ (Treasury Load) and .357 Magnum loads, optimized for barrels shorter than 4 inches, are generally loaded with faster-burning, higher energy, double-based powders producing a higher flame temperature. With these powders, temperature and pressure peaks about the time the bullet is transitioning from the cylinder throat across the barrel-cylinder gap.

In contrast, Harris explains, heavy bullet loads use slower burning powders with deterrent coatings (to slow the burn). This changes the pressure and temperature curves, shifting them “forward,” so that the peak doesn’t occur until after the bullet has left the cylinder and entered the barrel.

As a result, the lighter bullet generates a gas which is is both hotter and at a higher pressure than the gas produced by a heavy bullet load. This potentially subjects the forcing cone and leade to more damaging gas than they would experience if a heavier bullet (with its slower burning powders)  had been used.

Therefore, it’s likely that the mechanism of injury for the cracked K-Frame barrels was a combination of the following:

-A weakened barrel extension, caused by the aggressive milling of a flat at the 6 O’Clock position (which was required for the models with yoke-mounted gas rings, but unnecessary—yet still continued–for later 19-4 / 66-1 models with cylinder-mounted gas rings), and;

-An increased use of high-pressure, .357 Magnum and .38 Special +P+ ammunition which placed more stress on the forcing cone than standard pressure .38 Special ammunition, and;

-An increased use of .357 Magnum ammunition loaded with lightweight (110 and 125 grain) projectiles, which exposed the forcing cone to greater amounts of high pressure / temperature blow-by gases, which caused accelerated wear on the forcing cone.

(Photo from https://www.smithandwessonforums.com/threads/is-it-possible-to-rebarrel.17873/ )

Warnings

Baker indicated that his first awareness of this barrel cracking problem was circa-1979 (about 3 years after the barrel flats grew larger), when S&W was conducting some endurance testing of the Model 66, using .357 Magnum ammunition. One of the test technicians encountered the “sticky yoke” condition on two of the test guns (unfortunately, Baker did not indicate how far into the test this was, or how many guns were in the test), and upon examination, they were found to have cracked barrels at 6 O’Clock.

After becoming aware of this issue in the Stainless Combat Magnum, Baker stated that he went to the Outside Repair Department at S&W, and, “inquired if they had ever seen cracked barrels in the (blued Model 19) K-Frames, and they said they had,” suggesting that the problem was linked to “hot handloads.”

They apparently didn’t fully understand the cause of the problem yet, but Baker knew it was an unacceptable situation, and set about to fix it, with the full support of management.

The super K

Baker began to design a new prototype that would fix the known issue by increasing the size of the frame and cylinder window, as necessary, to avoid having to make the flat cut on the barrel extension.  He called his new, proof of concept prototype the “Super K”:

I first made a layout of the breech end of the barrel with no flat for hoop strength. I went down to Assembly and asked if there were any problems in assembling M19’s or M66’s, and the assemblers said, “yes, the cylinder is too close to the bottom of the frame window when trying to fit the cylinder stop and adjust the timing.” So, I went back to my prototype “Super K” layout and put in .003 or .004 more thousandths clearance for that area, which later proved an advantage in fitting Model L guns. The cylinder became larger working around the no-flat barrel breech.

Revolver Frame Wars
The “Super K” had a barrel extension without the flat, improving the hoop strength of the element. It solved the problem of cracked barrels neatly, and became the key feature of the L-Frame revolver, as shown here on this Model 686.
The surplus of clearance between the yoke and barrel is evident on this Model 586—no barrel flat is necessary, here.

Baker said that his goal was to use as many K-Frame parts as possible in the prototype “Super K.” The hammer had to be longer for the taller frame, and the hammer nose had to be shorter (because it was a shorter reach to the rear of the cylinder window, up there where the frame tapered), but he was able to keep many of the internals the same. He planned to use the same barrel, with slight modifications, such as a change in the location of the ejector rod cut, and the obvious elimination of the barrel flat which had caused all the difficulties.

Baker made the necessary drawings and the team settled on building 20 samples in blued steel. The drawings were sent down to the Model Shop, where Baker’s old friend, Norm Spencer (Baker’s partner from the .40 B&S cartridge project), and nine other model makers began to build the prototypes in cooperation with workers from the manufacturing floor.

As Spencer explained to RevolverGuy, “the gun was a regular K-Frame from the hammer stud down, so we had Manufacturing run about two dozen frames for us using production fixtures to do as much of the work as possible.” Once the common operations were complete, the Production workers hand-carried the incomplete frames to the Model Shop, where Spencer and the other model makers did the non-standard work required to turn them into “Super Ks.”

There were a lot of details to attend to, as Spencer explained:

We opened up the top strap an additional 0.118 inches, which allowed us to move the center pin hole up 0.059 inches as well, to accommodate the bigger cylinder. We did the firing pin hole and barrel hole in the shop, and built a special hammer, hammer nose, and yoke as well. I worked on the frames, and other guys worked on the cylinder—which was a lot of work—while others worked on the barrel, with its relocated ejector rod slot.

In a fun bit of RevolverGuy trivia, Spencer described how the S&W Model Shop got some help from an unexpected source during this project. “We needed a tap for the barrel hole in the frame,” said Spencer, “and Dick borrowed one from a friend of his at Colt.” The borrowed tap was for a Python frame, so the “Super K” frame got a Python-sized barrel hole, and the same thread pitch. “We were in competition with each other, of course,” said Spencer, “but the companies cooperated a lot more back then than people thought they did.”

The Model Shop produced the experimental guns—which were marked with an “X” prefix before the serial number—in less than a month, and Baker’s new hot rod was off to the races.

Super Feedback

Baker said the resulting prototypes looked “like a blued Model 19 at a glance,” and they were “sent upstairs to the Academy’s gun assembly class, to have John Contro evaluate them and fit the action. He found a couple small problems that I quickly fixed.”

The Super K prototypes (which later disappeared—Baker isn’t sure if any of them survived) were handed off to Marketing whiz Roy Jinks, who brought them to a big match. The guns were a big hit with the shooters, but Jinks decided that they looked too much like a Model 19, and deserved a unique look of their own, so he suggested that Baker should add a full lug barrel.

The classic Python barrel served as an inspiration for Baker’s work on the L-Frame barrel.

“I took a Dan Wesson and a Colt Python barrel, and used them as a guide,” said Baker:

However, to make it distinctive I put a slight curve at the top and bottom of the muzzle–put on by turning, so they were slightly spherical. They were distinctive and different. My thought on the curves was they were a distinctive shape, and would guide the muzzle into the holster without snagging, like the sharp edge on a Python muzzle would. I can’t believe it turned out to be a classic that is often imitated.

Baker’s L-Frame barrel profile became an instant classic in its own right.

Model barrels were made from Baker’s new drawings, and they were an instant hit when everyone saw them. Management gave the go-ahead to start producing the new guns, which would be called the Distinguished Combat Magnum (adjustable sights version) and Distinguished Service Magnum (fixed sights version).  The new, Medium-Large frame they were built on would be called the “L-Frame.”

New member of the family

Smith & Wesson started production in 1980 with the blued steel Models 586 (adjustable sights) and 581 (fixed sights), but Baker said, “interest in the gun quickly took off with the classic 686 in stainless steel.” A fixed-sight, stainless Model 681 was also produced.

The Stainless Distinguished Combat Magnum (top) and Stainless Distinguished Service Magnum (bottom)

The timing of the L-Frame couldn’t have been better. Smith & Wesson sales had slumped, and strong demand for the new L-Frame guns prevented layoffs during the recession of the early 1980s. Baker noted that, “the L-Frame is considered one of the top 10 winners in the history of S&W! Not too bad!”

Super K Revival?

The L-Frame reached its apex with the wildly popular Model 686, but there were a few other L-Frames that were interesting and worth mentioning, even if they were short-lived, or didn’t get into production at all.

Two great examples were the Models 619 and 620, which were introduced in 2005. By this time, the K-Frame Magnums had disappeared from the catalog, and they were already being missed by RevolverGuys who wanted a medium-frame .357 that weighed a little less than the 686, with its full lug barrel.

The Smith & Wesson Model 620 is the closest match to the prototype “Super K” of Dick Baker’s creation. (Open source photo)

The 620 was as close to a modern incarnation of Baker’s Super K as you could get. For the 620, S&W hung a 5” barrel on the stainless L-Frame that looked like it came off a K-Frame Model 66, but its construction was very different.  Instead of being forged from one piece, the half lug barrel on the 620 was actually made in two pieces, with a thin liner surrounded by a shroud.  The barrel on the companion, fixed-sight, Model 619 was built similarly, but didn’t have an enclosed ejector rod.   Instead, the 619s profile was reminiscent of the Heavy Barrel Model 65, with the tip of the unshrouded ejector rod locking up into a small lug, up front.

The Smith & Wesson Model 619 was like a HB Model 10 on steroids. (Open source photo)

In a departure from the Super K, both the 619 and 620 had 7-shot cylinders, made possible by the larger cylinder in the L-Frame. Norman Spencer explains that, “the 7-shot cylinder is actually stronger than the original 6-shot,” because the cylinder stop slots on the cylinder are offset from the chambers, instead of directly on top of them, which creates a thicker and stronger chamber wall.

Neither of these guns lasted more than a year or two in the catalog, even though the lighter guns (about 3 ounces less) handled a little more nimbly than a 4” Model 686. Personally, I was fond of the 5” barrel length and the profile of these guns. As a traditionalist, I wasn’t super fond of the 7-shot cylinders and the two-piece barrels, but they weren’t deal-killers, and I would have eagerly bought one of each, had it not been for the infernal, internal lock that plagued these guns, like almost all post-2001 Smiths.

Some things just couldn’t be overlooked.

Skeeter Special?

Before he left S&W in 1986 to pursue other interests, Baker had a model maker build a 6-shot, L-Frame snubby chambered in .44 Special. It wasn’t an official project—it was just another one of those itches that he liked to scratch as a gun guy, like the .40 B&S he invented with Norm Spencer “during lunch hours.” The L-Frame cylinder didn’t leave a lot of room for 6 rounds of .44 Special, but Baker thought it might work because the .44 Special is not a hot round.

The Model 696 was an attractive gun that would probably sell much better in today’s market. (Photo from https://www.auctionzip.com/auction-lot/SMITH-WESSON-MODEL-696-1-REVOLVER._04348D195E/)

The .44 Special, L-Frame snubby idea didn’t go anywhere for the longest time, but S&W eventually took a whack at it with the Model 696, in 1996. The 696 had a round butt frame, a 3” full lug barrel, an external hammer, and a 5-shot cylinder. You can think of it as Smith & Wesson’s version of what Ruger recently accomplished with their GP100 in .44 Special, and it’s a shame this handsome gun only lasted in the catalog from 1996 to 2002, because it would probably be very competitive today with the Ruger product that reignited interest in this class of gun.

The Model 296Ti didn’t last long in the catalog, having only been produced from March 1999 to December 2001. (Photo from https://www.turners.com/info/online-gun-rack )

The unique Model 296Ti followed the Model 696 in 1999. While the 3” barrel of the 696 arguably took the medium-large-framed gun out of the snubby class, the 2.5” barrel on the Model 296Ti was definitely an attempt to qualify. The 296Ti featured a round butt, Centennial-style, aluminum alloy frame, with a 5-shot, .44 Special titanium cylinder. The frame looked more like a Bodyguard-style, with its distinctive humpback, but it was a closed, “hammerless” frame, and therefore marketed as an “Airlite Ti Centennial.“ The shrouded, two-piece barrel was marked for a maximum bullet weight of 200 grains.

The distinctive Model 296Ti wasn’t well-received and didn’t last long in the catalog. Neither did the companion Model 242Ti—a similar gun with a 7-shot, .38 Special cylinder, that disappeared even faster, after only a year. Other guns, like the Model 386Sc (a scandium alloy-framed, 7-shot, .357 Magnum with a titanium cylinder and 3.125″ barrel, which was also built in the PD trim package with a black finish and 2.5″ barrel)  and Model 396Ti (an aluminum alloy-framed, 5-shot, .44 Special with a titanium cylinder and 3.2″ barrel) also came and went quickly in the early 2000s.

After a few years of quiet, the .44 caliber L-Frame concept was revived in 2014 as the Model 69 Combat Magnum—a 5-shot, .44 Magnum L-Frame with a 2.75” barrel.

Smith & Wesson’s Model 69 Combat Magnum is the newest addition to the L-Frame family. (Photo from https://www.smith-wesson.com/firearms/model-69-combat-magnum)

This time, S&W was cooking with gas. The Model 69’s traditional looks appealed to consumers, as did the combination of .44 Magnum power in a Medium-Large frame. The Model 69 continues today in the catalog as one of only two L-Frames not chambered in .357 Magnum (the other being the Performance Center Model 986–a 7-shot, 9mm).

It’s hard to say if Dick’s early experimentation had anything to do with inspiring the current Model 69, but it did please him to see a successful, production, .44 caliber L-Frame in the catalog before he passed away.

great work

What pleased him most though was to see the resounding success of the L-Frame family, as a whole. Almost four decades after its introduction, the Model 686 is still one of Smith & Wesson’s best-selling revolvers, and one of the most-recognized revolver profiles ever.

It’s definitely a favorite here at RevolverGuy!

*****

The author would like to thank Dick Baker (R.I.P.), Dean Caputo, Ed Harris, Mark Humphreville, and Norman Spencer for their assistance with this article.

Author: Mike

Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Mike Wood is a certified revolver nut, an NRA Law Enforcement Division-certified Firearms Instructor, and a columnist at PoliceOne.com. He is also the author of Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis, the definitive study of the infamous, 1970 California Highway Patrol shootout in Newhall, California. Please visit the official website for this book at www.newhallshooting.com for more information.

17 thoughts on “The Smith & Wesson L-Frame Story”

  1. Excellent article, Mike! The detail on the factors that resulted in the perfect storm of K frame failures is appreciated. These issues should be considered by those shooting and carrying classic K frames today to keep them serviceable. Thank you for recognizing Mr. Baker’s wisdom and work, and the L frame that resulted.

    1. Thanks Kevin! I’m glad you enjoyed the results of all the research!

      Dick was truly a talented engineer and designer. I really regret that I didn’t spend more time talking to him about his work on the Trooper Mk.III action for Colt. Maybe I’ll still try to tackle that project someday.

      And yes . . . we need to baby those beautiful K-Frames a bit! Gotta make ‘em last.

    2. Yes, great article. I have a nice 66-2 but only shoot .38s in it. I have shot 158 grain full power magnums in it and that is quite unpleasant.

      I would add that in the old days a cracked forcing cone was no big deal since you just sent the gun to S&W and they installed a new barrel. Unfortunately they don’t make these one-piece barrels anymore, so if you crack the forcing cone on an older Combat Magnum you are out of luck, unless you can find a used barrel in good shape (the current Combat Magnums have redesigned two-piece barrels that don’t have the 6 o’clock cut, but they are not usable on the older 19’s and 66’s).

      1. That’s an excellent point, Paul. Not only that, but it’s getting harder to find parts like hands, hammers, etc. We’ve been used to treating these guns like workhorses, but may need to switch gears a bit and start thinking about protecting and conserving them.

  2. Mike, This is a great history of the L-Frame. After reading this, I realized that there was one other limited production .357 magnum L-frame that was almost a reinvention of, or close cousin to, Mr. Baker’s Super-K!

    That was the 1998 issue of the 686+ Mountain Gun. It is a 7-shot, L-Frame in the typical mountain gun configuration with: adjustable sights, a one piece 4 inch tapered barrel, 3/4 length light weight ejector rod shroud instead of a full length underlug, a round grip frame, and NO internal lock.

    If I ever decide to regularly carry a 4 inch revolver again, that 686+ Mountain Gun is the one I would probably pull out of the safe. With the right IWB holster (Fist #19 for me) I have comfortably carried while effectively concealing this gun for many a long, busy day. It shoots very well with any ammo I give it, and it is one that I will pass down to my children or grandchildren some day.

    Regards,
    Colt

  3. I gladly shoot .38 out of my prized model 13… it’s had a dozen or so magnums since I bought it, and probably no more, unless in a life or death situation. Would love to get a hold of an L frame, but the GP 100 will do! Great article Sir, thank you.

  4. One of your best yet !! Obvious a LOT of time and research went into this, and the result was a superb treatise.

    The late and great Dick Baker was to the double action revolver what Paul Mauser was to the bolt action rifle. He saw serious flaws in the big picture of revolvers that went missing-in-action to most others.

    Between his time at Colt, Ruger, and S&W, he left us with a legacy of some of the toughest, most durable DA revolvers ever made: The Colt Mk III/V; the Ruger Security Six series that would morph into the Redhawk, GP and SP series; and with S&W – the L frame.

    The former U.S. Customs Service had special runs of the 686 made with round butt configuration – 4″ went to the uniforms and 3″ went to the plainclothes agents. The 3″ carried like a K frame, easy to conceal, and was a dream to shoot. When the 686 had its first mod done (change out of the hammer nose and recoil plate), it became the 686-1. All the USCS service guns will be marked 686-M.

    1. Thank you Sir! You’re right—Dick had a special knack for fixing problems and creating excellent designs to fix them! The Customs guns are quite desired by collectors, I understand. I’ve never had my mitts on one.

      The first L-Frame mod would be a good standalone piece. Thanks for the idea!

      Mike

  5. I always wondered why by much beloved 66-3 had that flat. Bought it in 1989 and during my first trip to the range a LEO told me to only feed it 38’s, which I have done almost exclusively. The action is so smooth it rivals my Python of the same vintage…… how can you not love a revolver?

  6. Congratulations! Very detailed and informative article!

    I´m a police officer in São Paulo, Brazil. My service gun is a Taurus .357 Magnum model 66, blued, 4-inch barrel, factory wooden grips. I prefer to keep the revolver due the constant troubles with the new Taurus .40 S&W pistols.

    It was made in 1992. K-frame, gas ring on the cylinder and has no flat under the barrel entrance.

    Our Police Department has few .357 Magnum revolvers (some are Taurus 65, fixed-sight model, recessed chambers, bought in the middle of 80´s), that was carried only by high-rank or special units officers in the end of 80´s and 90´s beggining. I got this gun due the retirement of this personnel.

    Our issued ammo is CBC/Magtech 158 grain, both soft and hollow point. The gun becomes VERY hot after two or three cylinders, but I never had malfuncions or cracks.

    In the last training, I spent 200 rounds of SJSP CBC/Magtech 158 grains. Indeed, the cylinder axis remained very dirty after the exercise – that not happen with .38 Special ammo.

    Thanks to RevolverGuy to provide us with valuable information. Best wishes from Brazil!

    1. Thank you for this excellent update from Brazil! We are very happy to hear from you and we’re glad you enjoyed the article!

      I have some questions about the Magtech ammo:

      1. Is soft point used for training only, or does it also get used for duty?

      2. Do police officers in Sao Paolo get to choose if they will carry .357 Magnum ammo or .38 Special?

      We wish you and your fellow officers the best. Be safe and thank you for writing!

      1. Hello, Mike!

        Answers:

        1 – We have old lots of soft point ammo. At the time of purchasing, SP ammo was use for duty. Today, we are burning that ammo on training.

        Soft point 158 grain ammo is very effective against vehicle bodies.

        CBC/Magtech ammo made in 80´s and beggining of the 90´s had a serious problem of case cracking. Years ago, I worked with an confiscated S&W Highway Patrolman. It was impossible to reload using that ammo, because a hammer was needed to operate the extracting rod. The cases almost always cracked on the first shot. Fortunately, this problem is past.

        2 – Yes, we can. The standard ammo for .38 Special is +P 158 grains, semi-jacketed hollow point.

        There´s two police forces in each state: the Military (uniformed) police, that retired all revolvers (both .38 Special and .357 Magnum) from service in 2010, and the Civilian Police (investigative, that I´m a member), that has a more diversified armament.

  7. A very informative article, thank you.
    I know I’m persona non grata here so this won’t see the light of day in your comment section, but I think your readers would appreciate an article on the law-enforcement-proprietary revolvers of the 70s and 80s: the Model 66s with the Treasury-badge sideplates and special serial numbers that were only sold to ATF; the 2.5-and 3-inch K-frames that were made for the FBI and DEA (the 3-inchers were so popular they ended up being sold to the public); the 3-inch Ruger Speed-Sixes that Ruger made around 10,000 of for the old INS and Postal Inspectors (factory barrel length was 2.75 inches); the CS-1, the Customs-proprietary 686; and the (in my mind) holy grail, the Model 68 which, to my knowledge, was only sold to the California Highway Patrol and the LAPD and was never offered to the public. I think a lot of your readers would be fascinated by the history of the revolvers used by the good guys. (If I remember right, Smith also made DAO Model 10s for NYPD back when their officers could only carry blued revolvers in DAO. Maybe some other big PDs had large special orders like that, too.)

    1. I’m always glad to hear from our readers and happy you wrote in. I’m fascinated by many of those guns as well, but just haven’t been able to get my mitts on any of them, outside of the Model 68. If you have some of these guns and you’re offering to loan them . . . well, we need to talk! 😉

      I don’t know if you saw our prior story on the Model 68, but I think it’s the best coverage available out there on this beautiful revolver:

      https://revolverguy.com/missing-link-smith-wesson-model-68/

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