Finding my 1917 Revolver

It was going to be a good day. I was headed to the gun show in Tallahassee FL. I had a nice chunk of change in my truck, and I had plans to hunt down a nice old revolver. The old days where you could find almost anything at a gun show may be gone but there are still a few stragglers who hold to the old ways. Old men who appreciate things other than the standard fare of either high-priced “tactical” or cheap, easy-sales stuff. You can recognize these men by the glass cases and old blued steel behind the glass. They may have small tables but there is certainly treasure buried there.

I had started my rounds, methodically searching for the Old Ones, those grandfathers who had grown up on the writings of Elmer Keith and Skeeter Skelton and who look at Clint Smith and John Taffin as new guys. As I started, my search was largely coming up empty. Cheap Cordura, poorly made holsters, someone trying to sell magic gun cleaner all there in force with few dealers selling the dusty old guns I was looking for. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of honest good dealers there. People selling quality guns, including some newer revolvers but just like when you get your mouth fixed on having a damned good steak, chicken joints lose their appeal. I wasn’t finding anything that made my mouth water.

I was on my fourth aisle when I saw what certainly looked to be a certified card-carrying Old One. He was set up to do business his way and not the way of current modern commerce. He had a single small table between him and the aisle, a chair for himself and a companion. The wall behind his back had a stack of boxes filled with small stuff and books. The most important clue I could see that this was who I was seeking was the two chairs he had set up on the aisle side of the table. He was a man not looking for quick commerce but for conversation. I still hadn’t had a glance at what wares he had on his table, as he had two people on the hook blocking my view and I was trying to flow with the crowd.

As the crowd eased by and I passed, I saw IT sitting there on the Old One’s table.

Dark, faded, blued steel, a long skinny barrel, and the massive cylinder of an N-framed Smith. Decent, well-earned wear on the high points and the smooth walnut grips that scream US MILITARY all on what appeared to be a genuine Smith and Wesson 1917 45 ACP revolver, restrained rather unpoetically with the white plastic zip tie required by “safety concerns” holding the hammer back. I felt that tug to go immediately to the table but instead, I decided to follow my grandfather’s rule of “Never interrupt a man who is doing business.”

In my mind, I was doing the math. It’s a Smith and Wesson 1917, but is it a .45 ACP or a 455? Is it original or a rebuild. Has it been converted from 455 or 45 Colt? Is it one of the Brazillian contract guns made from later parts or one of the US Property marked guns or even one of the Canadian contract guns in .455? And the most important question a man at a gun show has in his mind, which I certainly had in my mind was, “Do I have enough cash to make it mine?”

I kept walking to finish scanning the tables before circling back. I stopped here and there to see a couple of things before I made it back to the Old One’s table. No one was standing or sitting in front of him and a quick peek told me the 1917 revolver was still there.

I introduced myself and asked the Old One if I could sit and talk and he waives me into a chair.

Now for the younger men and women starting in this grand hobby of ours of guns and knives, this is where the real fun is. The Old One and I had a conversation about the 1917. In a room full of several hundred people they all disappeared, and it was just the Old One and me sitting there like long-lost friends discussing guns. We discussed the history of the model, how he wound up with it, why it was made the way it was, and exactly what the pistol was.

It was an original 1917, never reblued, not perfect but with some finish and a couple of light rust rashes, but functionally right. I checked the side plate and the screws, and I saw it had been opened before but by someone who knew what they were doing. The screw heads weren’t buggered up and there was no telltale pry mark on the side plate from a fool dickering with it.

I checked the serial numbers on the cylinder and the butt and to my surprise, they matched. Under the barrel, it was clearly marked US PROPERTY. At that point it had by far exceeded my hopes and dreams that right there in front of me for sale was an original US Property marked Smith and Wesson 45 ACP Model of 1917 with matching parts numbers and damned near all of the original bluing.

Truthfully, the 1917 revolver is a piece of history.

The S&W 1917 revolver.
The S&W 1917 revolver.
US property markings on the 1917 are located on the underside of the barrel.
US property markings on the 1917 are located on the underside of the barrel.
1917 revolver barrel roll marks showing patents
The barrel’s top roll mark shows patents from 1901, 1906, and 1909.

We reached the natural end of the conversation about what it was, and I was already smiling. The conversation alone was worth the price of entry. We bargained shortly and came to a MORE than fair price for me. I went to go get the cash from my truck, another of my grandfather’s pearls of wisdom, “Always walk and reconsider for at least a second before a bigger purchase”. I returned, if anything, more confident of the deal and we shook hands, exchanged money, and did the paperwork.

I spent the next hour or so finding stuff for the 1917 and I walked out of that gun show with a smile, a few full moon clips, a box of 45 ACP ammo, and that gun tucked in a cheap canvas case obtained in an expedient purchase from one of the other sellers. I left excited.

I knew I was in for a history lesson which I could now experience firsthand with the 1917.

The next opportunity I had, I packed the 1917 revolver up in that same canvas case and ran immediately to my buddy, Gunsmith Ed. Within minutes we had the gun open on the operating table. It was clear the gun had been opened before and cleaned and re-lubed properly. Probably not for a few years but the oil in it certainly wasn’t from 1917. The internal parts were unmolested, and no one had done an action or trigger job on it. Most surprising was all of the internal parts had matching numbers. The cylinder, barrel, butt, yoke, extractor star, everything but the grips were original to the gun. The grips were period-correct just no number on them. All in all, we decided I had really gotten a better deal than I previously thought. We left it as it was without any alterations except new oil.

The butt of the S&W 1917 has Military markings, the serial number and a lanyard loop.
The butt of the S&W 1917 has Military markings, the serial number, and a lanyard loop.
The roll mark reads “S.&W. D.A.45”
The roll mark reads “S..&.W. D.A.45”

I gathered up some standard pressure ammunition, jacketed ball ammo in a 220-grain load, and took the quick chance to fire off a few rounds to see if the old fixed-sight revolver shot anywhere near the point of aim. I didn’t have a loading tool for the moon clips, so I loaded the rounds by hand and had them ready. Lesson learned on that one. Even if you don’t cut yourself, you will pinch yourself and you will without a doubt curse moon clips during the loading. I had ordered a few (40) additional moon clips, but I only had six full moon clips and four half-moon clips on hand. I ran to the range and stapled up a sheet of paper with a single one-inch blue dot in the center.

I still get nervous when firing a new gun, particularly a new type or model of gun.

This was no exception. I loaded two half-moon clips in and went at it single action. The first round at seven yards ran low, no doubt my own nervousness showing itself. The heavy trigger didn’t help, yet blaming the trigger isn’t how I was taught. It was me. The next five shots left a nice clean cluster all slightly low and left, half on, half off the blue dot.

A quick shuck of the empties and I refilled the six chambers with a full moon clip. I took my time, and the next cluster was spot-on, right on top of the blue dot. Each time I repeated the drill on fresh targets the 1917 shot to the point of aim. Shooting it double-action opened the pattern, which easily diagnosed my limited shooting skill with DA revolvers. I had cut my teeth in the polymer age, and it was showing. I knew what I needed to know on that trip—that the 1917 Smith shoots to the point of aim, a real concern for a century-old gun with fixed sights and a pinned barrel.

I found myself a reproduction quality holster and lanyard and a friend gave me the finale.

An original 1917 trench knife made by Landers, Frary, and Clark.

I also came across a century-old French religious medal and matching prayer beads. All in all, a hell of a package. It only takes a moment of filling your fists with both the 1917 trench knife and the 1917 Smith, to cause you to think about the nasty trench warfare of WWI. Fighting Germans clad in heavy wool coats in muddy cold wet trenches. Not anything anyone ever wants to do. I could see how that big 45 ACP revolver and the knuckle duster with a foot-long needle attached would give a man a little comfort.

The full set, 1917 revolver, holster, lanyard, half moon clips and the 1917 trench knife
The full set, 1917 revolver, holster, lanyard, half-moon clips, and the 1917 trench knife.
L.F. & C. 1917 stamp on handle of 1917 trench knife
L.F.& C., Landers Frary, and Clark was a housewares company that produce a few different items as war materials including this trench knife!
Two revolvers: S&W 1917 and Victory .38 Special,. 1917 trench knife and Fairbairn Sykes dagger.
The 1917 shares a lot of its DNA with this Smith and Wesson Victory in 38 special, which was produced in WWII. The 1917 trench knife and the Fairbairn Sykes dagger both were designed primarily for stabbing.
1917 revolver and trench knife.
Large by today’s standards, the 1917 revolver and the trench knife were both meant for nasty trench warfare. The triangular blade of the 1917 trench knife was later banned because it made a wound that was difficult to close. It wasn’t designed for the nasty wound but more for the penetration capabilities of the design. It would pierce the heavy wool and leather coats worn by the Germans during WWI.

I started reading up on the 1917 and learned a few things.

Smith and Wesson produced 163,476 model 1917 revolvers for WWI to supplement the handgun production of the 1911. The half-moon and moon clip were invented by Joseph Wesson, the son of Daniel Wesson, and patented so they could use the rimless 45 ACP cartridge in revolvers. Smith and Wesson allowed Colt to use the clips to further the war effort. Smith and Wesson also was run by the war department to further the production of arms. 

moon clips
Two half-moon clips hold six rounds, help head spacing of the rounds, allow for extraction of the rounds without having to poke expanded cases out one by one with a tool. An added bonus was the moon clips made for easier loading and extraction, which certainly was a benefit during warfare.
Moon clip ejection
A single push of the ejector rod kicks out both half-moon clips at once. Moon clips have problems such as a bent moon clip can bind the cylinder and cause it to fail, but one major advantage is extraction of all six empties is almost guaranteed.

The 1917 was based on the 44 Special Hand Ejector second model, which eliminated the third locking point of the famous Triple Lock to lower the cost of production from $21.00 per to $19.00 per which equates to about a $60.00 savings today. I even learned the 1917 revolver saw service with the US Military in Vietnam by tunnel rats, soldiers tasked with clearing the underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong as bases.

I recently stopped by to see a friend, an old gunsmith we will call George, to talk revolvers. George was a gracious host and dug deep into his safe and broke out an original, extremely fine condition Triple Lock with the factory nickel finish and pearl grips in a five-and-a-half-inch or so barrel. Here I was holding the holy grail original N framed Smith and Wesson chambered in 44 special and instantly I understood it was where the 1917 came from. A check of the serial number later showed me his Triple Lock was a first-year production gun. Rare just isn’t the word for it.

Smith & Wesson Triple Lock
The Smith & Wesson Hand Ejector 1 st model 44 Special, AKA the Triple Lock—the Holy Grail for S&W collectors. Its clear at first glance that the Triple Lock was the ancestor of the 1917 revolver. The Triple lock was introduced in 1908 and was the very first of the N-framed revolvers.
Smith & Wesson Triple Lock revolver
The third locking point of the triple lock is clearly seen as is the notch in the frame. S&W eliminated the third locking point because there were worries that the notch weakened the frame, the mechanism might not work well when dirty, and to save $2.00 per gun (about $60.00 per gun today).

N-Frame Evolution

The N-frame was certainly a great gun when it was born as the Triple Lock, when the second model hand ejectors came out, and when the 1917 was introduced. The same guns later evolved into the 38-44 Outdoorsman and the Registered Magnum in 357 Magnum.

Smith & Wesson 1917 revolver and 29-1 in .45 ACP
The 1917 revolver evolved into this absolute 45 ACP spitting machine. Both use the same half and full moon clips.

The growth kept going and the 44 Magnum and the 41 Magnum arrived in an N frame format. The movie Dirty Harry popularized the 44 Magnum while Elmer Keith and Skeeter Skelton certainly kept it in the minds of shooters and hunters. Cops commonly carried the big N frames in 44 Special, and 45 Colt. More recently, Jerry Miculek, set the world record for six shots, reload, and six more shots on a single target in 2.99 seconds using a performance Center 45 ACP N Frame Smith which used the same moon clips designed for the 1917. Heck, if you do a quick check on for the most expensive gun on the site, you will find a shortened well-worn 1917 used by Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

lineup of revolvers
A 25-5 in 45 Colt, 1917, a 28-2 converted to 44 Special, and a 29-1 rebarreled from 44 Magnum to 45 ACP, with an unfluted cylinder for extra strength. The N Frame revolver is still going strong after its introduction in 1908.
29-1 square-butt revolver converted to .45 ACP
My 29-1 square butt, converted to shoot 45 ACP using the same moon clips as the 1917 revolver. Built as a bowling pin match gun it is an exceptionally capable firearm in the hands of a trained shooter. A similar performance center gun was used by Jerry Miculek to set a world record of six shots reload and six more shots on a single target in 2.99 seconds. Mine wears a great set of grips by VZ Grips of Tallahassee FL. They work so well I have 3 sets of the same grips in different colors.
Wheelguns: 25-5 in 45 Colt, 1917, and 44 Special converted 28-2
A 25-5 in 45 Colt, 1917, and my 44 Special converted 28-2. All three are powerful handguns in big bore calibers and any of the three can be loaded from mild to wild.

The 1917 is an over-engineered beast of a handgun, with features way ahead of its time. Robust and chambered in the 45 ACP cartridge it is certainly capable if you are.

1917 revolver
Make no mistake, at over a century old the 1917 is still a very capable handgun.

Finding this 1917 revolver has helped me start what I think may become a lifelong addiction to the big bore N-frame Smiths. Good luck and good hunting.

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