While semiautomatic pistols have become the most popular handguns on the market for both self-defense and target shooting, revolvers continue to maintain a place in many shooters’ armories. That’s particularly true within the hunting community, which has seen handgun hunting become much more popular in recent decades.
With rimmed cartridges requiring the use of a revolver, .35-caliber, .44-caliber, .45-caliber, and .50-caliber revolvers remain popular. The longer revolver cartridges allow shooters to use heavy-for-caliber bullets, with 180-grain .357 Magnum bullets, 300-grain .44 Magnum bullets, 360-grain .45 Colt and .454 Casull bullets, and 440-grain .500 S&W bullets making up part of the heavy bullet lineup.
The granddaddy of all those revolvers is undoubtedly the Smith & Wesson Model 29, built on S&W’s N-frame. The N-frame, S&W’s large frame revolver frame, dates back to the Triple Lock revolver introduced in 1908. The large, heavy frame was thought to be a necessity for the new .44 Special cartridge that had been developed. S&W further developed the N-frame through production of the M1917 revolver for the US military, and then the .38/44 revolvers of the 1930s and 1940s.
Postwar experimentation with high-pressure revolver cartridges resulted in the creation of the .44 Magnum cartridge, which paired a lengthened .44 Special case with a 240-grain bullet. Leaving the muzzle at nearly 1200 feet per second, the .44 Magnum created nearly 750 foot-pounds of muzzle energy, making it the most powerful handgun cartridge in the world at the time. While it was soon eclipsed by the .454 Casull, the Casull remained in such limited production that the .44 Magnum was still the world’s most powerful regular production handgun cartridge.
The new .44 Magnum cartridge was introduced in 1955 along with the Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver, ushering in a new era of handgun hunting with powerful revolver cartridges. The expense of the Model 29 ($140 in 1956, equivalent to $1,320 today) resulted in slow sales for over a decade. But the use of the Model 29 by Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry series of movies popularized the revolver in the public eye and led to an explosion in sales.
That helped pave the way for other companies to produce their large-frame revolvers too, and led to an increased popularity of revolvers in the United States for self-defense as well as hunting. If you’re looking for strong, well-built revolvers that will stand up to punishing loads, the Smith & Wesson N-frame revolvers may very well make your day.
Advantages of the Smith & Wesson N-Frame Revolvers
1. Build Quality
With S&W’s long experience in building revolvers, the S&W Model 29 and other N-frame revolvers benefit from decades of tweaks and improvements. The Model 29 itself has seen about 10 iterations since 1955, as successive generations of the revolver have been improved to ensure a lifetime of solid service and reliability.
The N-frame revolvers will take a licking and keep on ticking. While lighter-framed revolvers can loosen up or get out of time from heavy loads, the N-frame revolvers are built to digest a lifetime of heavy hunting loads.
While the Model 29 was only chambered for .44 Magnum, other revolvers in the N-frame series have been chambered in .45 ACP/.45 Auto Rim, .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, and 10mm Auto. The Magnum-chambered revolvers have the advantage of also being able to fire Special-series ammunition (.44 Special, .41 Special, .38 Special), thus allowing revolver shooters a wide range of ammunition choices at various different power levels.
Disadvantages of the Smith & Wesson N-Frame Revolvers
N-frame revolvers haven’t gotten any cheaper over time. MSRP is still around $950-1,000, and even used Model 29 revolvers will command prices at or above $1,000. Since 10mm semiautomatic pistols are available at half that price, with more than double the ammunition capacity and with power rivaling the .44 Magnum, many handgun shooters will think long and hard before purchasing an N-frame revolver.
2. Weight and Bulk
An unloaded N-frame revolver with a 4” barrel weighs 41.5 ounces, nearly 40% more than a Glock 20. Wearing that for an entire day will wear on your hips. The N-frame is also thick and bulky, making it unwieldy for concealed carry.
Even with the heavier weight, the recoil of the N-frame revolvers is not for the faint of heart. The lack of a slide and recoil spring to help manage recoil will make the revolver’s recoil feel far worse than a semiautomatic pistol. Women and small-handed shooters may find shooting these revolvers in the harder-hitting calibers to be very uncomfortable. Even larger-statured shooters may find shooting more than a couple dozen rounds in a session to be quite unpleasant.