Inside A Smith & Wesson

New Departure Safety Hammerless

.38 S&W 4th Model

1898 Smith & Wesson Print Ad 

S&W New Departure Safety Hammerless

38 Snub Nose

Updated 09/01/22

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The Smith & Wesson New Departure Safety Hammerless in .38 S&W calibre was a very popular pocket revolver.  Manufactured in both .32 and .38 S&W calibres between 1887–1940.

This specimen is a 4th Model (1898-1907).  It sports the ultra-rare 1 ½” barrel, but did not come from the factory with that length.  Until at least 1930, the shortest barrel length advertised for the .38 S&W Safety Hammerless was 3 1/4”.  Several 2" barreled examples are around, but the 1 ½” barrel was manufactured only very late in production of the 5th Model (1907-1940).

Close examination of the barrel shows what is left of the standard markings found on the top of a normal length barrel.  A true 1 1/2" factory barrel does not have any writing on the barrel top. (Enlarge view approximately 5 times to see these markings.)

This revolver has been well used.  There are even some small external areas where moisture has been left to corrode in specific spots on the surface.  This does not seem to be from being left in a damp environment but rather at some point specific drops of water or some other corrosive liquid has been allowed to remain on the surface over a long period of time.  Oddly every spec of the interior is almost factory new clean.  Still factory tight, but well used.  Wear is consistent with a pocket revolver that has seen years of carry usage.  But not just pocket wear.  The back strap or grip safety is the most smoothly worn portion of the gun.  It has been shot.  Contrary to all this, the bore is as pristine a condition as I have ever seen on a black powder era gun.  In fact I believe it is very possible that this gun may have never seen a black powder cartridge.

I am confident that this modification is also not an attempt to deceive collectors into believing it is that super-rare factory item.  One look at the front sight blade can confirm that no one is looking to confuse this to an original.  Instead of the standard half-moon front sight blades, this example sports a thick Frank Baughman type ramp front sight.

I thrive on the story of old firearms.  Any associated patents and travel history of a gun.  When I do not know the history, I use those clues available to create what might have been.  So why did someone pay a competent machinist/gunsmith to make these specific changes to their pocket pistol?  Further, when was the work done?

It is obvious that the changes occurred sometime ago.  How long ago is unknown.  The why seems more obvious.  The owner actually carried this revolver and wished it to be as concealable as possible.  At the same time the owner must have also understood the benefits of a larger, thicker front sight blade.  A large wide blade is easier to quickly pickup than factory styled, very narrow blades of the half-moon design.  A ramp front sight is also less likely to drag on a pocket or holster when the firearm is quickly drawn from within.

It is doubtful that this owner created the idea of a ramp sight out of thin air.  If the knowledge was learned or seen, where and when?

The Registered Magnum first became available from Smith & Wesson starting in 1935.  Near this beginning, FBI agent Frank Baughman had the idea for what would become the Baughman Ramp front sight.  Baughman, an agent and close confidant of J.  Edgar Hoover placed a special order with Smith & Wesson for a Registered Magnum to have such a designed sight.  It became so successful that now virtually all revolver sights are of this type.(1)

But wait a minute you say!  A 1904 manufactured pocket pistol, still being carried by a knowledgeable person for self-defense after 1935?  This might not be as unlikely as you might think.

In an article for American Handgunner Magazine (2), martial arts instructor and Applegate associate Michael Janich supplied some interesting details that could help.

After his WWII exploits for the OSS, 1947 found Applegate in Mexico City serving as a go-between for American gun manufacturers and the government of Mexico.

One night he and another American were confronted on the street by a machete wielding individual bent on attacking them.  Applegate was able to get his revolver out first and fired five shots into the torso of his opponent, killing him.

The gun Applegate used in this gunfight was his 4th Model Smith & Wesson New Departure Safety Hammerless 2”, in .38 S&W.  Rex Applegate, the well-known firearms authority regularly carried this same snub gun until the creation of S&W’s .38 Special Centennial revolver in 1952.

While I cannot find any reference to the ammunition used in the event, I feel confident that Applegate was not using black powder filled cartridges in 1947.

So, one the world’s leading gunfight experts of the time was carrying in 1947 a nearly exact copy of this gun and successfully used it in a gunfight.  It is not a stretch to imagine that others who took their personal protection seriously and studied such things reached similar conclusions.

I conducted some research into what Smith & Wesson advertised about the subject of smokeless powder in their revolvers produced during early years of smokeless powder.  I attempted to read as many different year catalogs and brochures that I could locate.  I wanted to see exactly what S&W said in advertising on this subject, and how the language might have changed over the years.

I must say up front that I in no way recommend that anyone use modern smokeless cartridges in their Safety Hammerless if it is a 4th Model or older.  Having said that, it is obvious that many people have and do this exact thing.

Here is some condensed information from S&W's own catalogs:

1887 - 1st year of New Departure production.  "..... made entirely of the best cast steel....." ".....Caliber 38-100....." (3)

1900 - "Smokeless Powder.  During the past few years great progress has been made in the development of smokeless powder, but it is yet far from being equal to black powder in stability.  This is especially true in smaller charges.....  The nature of most nitro powder is such as to require entirely different treatment from black powder, and the compression and increase of charge, which are common practice with black powder, will result in extremely dangerous pressures with most of the smokeless powders......  Many of the smokeless cartridges made by the leading manufacturers possess valuable qualities not found in black ammunition.....  While we do not guarantee our Revolvers when used with smokeless powder, and strongly advise against reloaded smokeless ammunition, we do not wish to detract in any way from its merits or discourage the use of properly loaded smokeless cartridges." (4)

- "Smokeless Powder.  During the past few years great progress has been made in the development of smokeless powder.  To-day, there are several kinds superior to black powder for use in revolvers.....  On the other hand, these powders are at times, treacherously inconsistent, and accidents which cannot be explained will happen.....
  Smokeless cartridges made by the leading manufacturers possess valuable qualities not found in black ammunition, and do excellent work in our revolvers.  While we do not guarantee our Revolvers when used with smokeless powder, and strongly advise against reloaded smokeless ammunition, we do not wish to detract in any way from its merits or discourage the use of properly loaded smokeless cartridges." (5)

- "Smokeless Powder.  .....smokeless powders are at times dangerously inconsistent, and often with those most expert in their use accidents occur which cannot be explained.....  Cartridges in which smokeless powder is used are made by leading manufacturers, and possess valuable qualities not found in black powder ammunition.  They do excellent work in our revolvers, and while we strongly advise against reloaded smokeless ammunition, we have no desire to detract from its merits or discourage its use when properly handled, and guarantee our arms when factory ammunition loaded with this explosive is used." (6)

This is interesting reading.  The majority of the "Smokeless Powder" language in each of these catalogs, those parts I did not reference here, dealt with the extreme dangers with using smokeless powder in reloaded cartridges.  S&W was very concerned about that.  On the other hand the usage of quality factory loaded smokeless powder cartridges was not prohibited.  Just cautions provided.

Even as far back a 1900 S&W is not prohibiting smokeless powder cartridges in their revolvers.  Specifying the use of quality factory smokeless powder cartridges.  S&W only did not "guarantee" said revolvers when using such cartridges.  Almost appears to be a blanket statement designed to avoid liability issues mainly for those stupid enough to reload incorrectly using the new powders.

As early as the 1903 catalog S&W is stating "Smokeless cartridges made by the leading manufacturers possess valuable qualities not found in black ammunition, and do excellent work in our revolvers".

Sometime between 1903 and 1912 S&W finally made the leap and fully guaranteed their revolvers "when factory ammunition loaded with this explosive is used".  I am unable to locate any intervening S&W catalogs after 1903 and before 1912, so it is not possible for me to understand exactly which year S&W actually made the guarantee.

It does appear to me that customers during that timeframe would have read this material and believed that using quality factory smokeless powder cartridges in the New Departures manufactured by the start of the twentieth century was not dangerous or prohibited.  And supports why knowledgable people like Rex Applegate would have not used black powder in these guns.

Please do not draw a conclusion yourself about using smokieless powder in your New Departure from the information I provide here.  Obtain copies of actual S&W catalogs, read fully and decide on your own.  In any event, I would not even consider smokeless powder in any of the first three New Departure models.

All the above information causes me to reach the following likely hood for this specific hangun.  I believe it is a best guess that sometime between 1935 and 1952, the owner of this example had work completed resulting in the revolver we have here, and that the gun was fed a diet of smokeless powder cartridges when fired.

If only firearms could talk!

(1) Baughman Ramp Front Sight by Wiley Clapp, American Rifleman Magazine, December 11, 2011
(2) Origins of the New S&W Centennial Revolver, Col. Rex Applegate’s Shoot-out Leads to a Revolver Redesign by Michael Janich, American Handgunner Magazine Online:
(3) 1887 Smith & Wesson Firearms Catalog (
(4) 1900 Smith & Wesson Firearms Catalog (
(5) 1903 Smith & Wesson Firearms Catalog (
(6) 1912 Smith & Wesson Firearms Catalog (

This link: "Inside This S&W Safety Hammerless" directs you back to images and a discussion about how the revolver functions.

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Copyright: Bruce Varner, 1972 - 2022