Crafted to provide an emergency revolver for Uncle Sam's Doughboys, the Smith & Wesson Model of 1917 ended up sparking America's longstanding love of the N-frame.
When the U.S. entered what was then termed the Great War and is now better known as World War I, the country's Army went from an oversized border defense force to one capable of taking on the Kaiser. In April 1917, when Congress at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson declared war against Imperial Germany, the U.S. had a standing Army of just 127,500. By the end of the war the following November, this grew to a force of well over 4 million.
All those troops needed weapons, and they needed them fast.
Just as the M1917 "American Enfield" .30-06 manufactured by Remington, Eddystone, and Winchester augmented the standard M1903 Springfield rifle, the Army turned to Colt and Smith & Wesson to produce a revolver capable of firing the same .45 ACP rimless ammo that the standard M1911 Government used. For Colt, that meant a variant of its M1909 New Service chambered in .45 ACP. For Smith, this meant revamping the Hand Ejector 2nd Model from .44 Special or .455 Webley to the shorter .45 ACP.
While only something like 15,000 S&W 1st Model Hand Ejector revolvers – known as the Triple Lock because its cylinder locked up with the frame in three places – were made between 1908 and 1915, the simplified 2nd Model (which deleted the third lockup point) saw a bit more success. This was because the British government had ordered almost 70,000 modified guns chambered in their standard .455 Webley for use in the Great War before America joined the conflict. A quick redesign to allow the 2nd Model to run .45 ACP, and Smith soon had their M1917 revolver in production for the U.S. Army.
Once Europe grew quiet, the Roaring 20s saw the M1917 used by both cops and robbers back home. Notably, both the Denver and Los Angeles police departments placed orders for the revolver while, on the other side of the law, John Dillinger's purloined Army-issue M1917, borrowed from a National Guard armory during his travels, now rests in the FBI's collection.
Post-war, Smith & Wesson continued making the 1917 for the commercial market with better grips and finish than was seen on wartime guns, and filled overseas contracts for the increasingly popular revolver. One of the latter was for the Brazilian government which, in 1937, ordered 25,000 M1917 revolvers for the Brazilian army.
Speaking of WWII, the M1917, both in Colt's and S&W's version, was still very much in Uncle Sam's arsenals heading into the conflict. Records show that the Army Ordnance Corps had no less than 96,530 Colt and 91,590 S&W M1917s still in reserve. These were soon broken out and put into service, arming MPs, second-line units, and tank personnel early in the war.
After the war, the Army liquidated its stockpiles of M1917s, and Smith & Wesson ended production of the model in favor of newer variants. Serial numbers would suggest just over 210,000 were made.
One of the last hurrahs of the Smith M1917 came in 1946 when Brazil ordered another 12,000 guns, typically made up of everything left in the factory at the time – including some guns originally made in the 1920s. As I said, the Brazilians liked these big .45s and kept them in service into the 1980s.
The company continued to make .45 ACP N-frames after the M1917, such as the Model 1950 and 1955 Target, but they never saw anywhere near the same production numbers that the old moon-clipped wonder reached. Smith took a hiatus from the caliber for a while, then introduced the stainless Model 625 in 1979 followed in 2004 by the Model 325 Thunder Ranch, a more modern defensive sixgun, both of which have since ceased production. Sadly, there is not a .45 ACP-chambered Smith revolver currently in the company's catalog.
Nonetheless, the M1917's popularity as the first large-production Smith & Wesson N-frame revolver ensured the company would keep cranking them out in different calibers. You could argue that, if there had been no M1917, there might not have been a Model 29 .44 Mag for "Dirty Harry" to launch into legend. In a real way, the old .45 ACP S&W revolver carried "Over There" by the Doughboys is that gun's grandpa.
Today, Smith still makes a wide range of N-frames besides the Model 29 including the 27, 57, 329, 610, 627, 629, and 929, among others. In each, a little bit of the M1917 lives on.
Turns out, maybe people everywhere just really like N-frames.