The Smith and Wesson M1917 revolver is an oddity; a wheel-gun chambered in an auto cartridge. It’s a military arm with a long and storied past. How much history? Well, mine is 98 years old. It’s so old that Smith and Wesson doesn’t even have web page for it. The closest thing you can find is their Model 22, a remake. More than just being historical, the M1917 is downright fun to shoot and one recently became part of my collection. I will admit that until recently, I’ve been rather utilitarian about my firearms purchases. Every gun filled a tactical niche. However, the Smith and Wesson broke me of that habit
Going into WWI (or the Great War, as it was known then), the United States simply didn’t have enough military hardware. We substituted M1917 Enfield rifles for the standard M1903 Springfield bolt actions and even used the French Chauchat machine gun, quite possibly the worst firearm of that age. Sidearms were not in any better supply, especially with the M1911 being a recent addition.
Thus the U.S. military contracted with both Smith and Wesson and Colt to re-design existing large-framed revolvers to fire the .45ACP round. The goal was to supplement the M1911 pistols with double-action revolvers. Both companies responded eagerly. Smith and Wesson was already producing their 2nd Model Hand Ejector for the Great War, chambered in .455 Webley for the British, who could not keep up with the demand of their soldiers for the Mk VI Webley revolver.
It was a simple matter to re-barrel the N-frame revolver in .45 and to design a cylinder that would allow the loading of a rimless cartridge, via moon and half-moon clips. Furthermore, Smith and Wesson machined a shelf into the cylinder. This ensured that the 45ACP would not slip to far forward in the cylinder and allowed the shooter to load and fire loose rounds.
Though the Colt and Smith are similar in both function and dimensions, they are completely different designs, unrelated to one another. Thus, there is no one M1917 revolver, but two distinct models. The Army’s Field Manual 23-36 describes Smith and Wesson M1917s as “single shot, breech loading hand weapons” a rather broad description that lacks a very specific adjective: badass.
Movie buffs will note that Indiana Jones carries a M1917 Smith with a shortened barrel in the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Arc. Throughout the rest of the movie, he carries a Mk II Hand Ejector chambered in .455 Webley, which makes sense, as the film is set in 1936.
Looking at the M1917, I couldn’t help but think of Indiana Jones blasting the evil Egyptian swordsman in what has to be one of the most iconic fight scenes in cinema history. Examining the revolver, I thought, “That’s my childhood.”
Of course I bought it.
Though my M1917 was made in 1918, it functions well. It speaks with authority and knocks steel down with ease. The double action trigger is heavy, but manageable. The single action… well, it’s a Smith. Simply beautiful. The heavy N-frame absorbs the moderate recoil of the .45 ACP round with ease.
When I purchased it, it had aftermarket grips (really just home-made ones). They were loose and rattled a bit. When I tightened the screw, I found that it was a simple wood screw and if tightened all the way, stuck out the opposite grip. Furthermore, the grips themselves were too long, hanging down below the frame’s butt. Finally, it was missing the lanyard butt swivel.
A quick trip online to Numrich Gun Parts solved my problems and netted me a handful of moon clips and half-moon clips. I actually don’t recommend the half-moon ones, as I find them to be incredibly flimsy. I had one break the first day when I tried to remove cartridges from it. The full-moon clips have thicker metal as part of their design. Stick with those.
With the new checkered grips installed, my M1917 is a joy to shoot. It’s not a sleek carry piece; an N-framed revolver isn’t small. It’s not a target gun; the sights are fixed. No, the Smith and Wesson M1917 is nostalgia, historic significance and rugged deadliness all in one heavy, stylish package. If you find one, grab it!