Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Wadcutter's Delight: The S&W 52

In postwar America, Target shooting was, too many people, a way of life. It was a wildly popular hobby, as common as bowling, running, or biking, and equally accepted. After all, pistol shooting is an especially difficult art to master. It was in this climate that most real serious shooters preferred K frame S&W rimfires or Colt Officer Match revolvers. In fact one of the most popular revolvers of the time was actually the .32 Colt Police Positive and its derivatives, however .32 was officially banned from many matches for consistently out shooting the more common .38 Specials and .38 S&Ws. More people owned the .38s for duty and protection guns as well, this ban was more of a level playing field. This also served to set a sort of standard cartridge, the .38 Mid Range Wadcutter, as one of the most accepted target calibers.

Not everyone desired a Revolver, however. The hard fact was that if you preferred an automatic, you were more or less stuck with the Colt 1911 National Match, not a bad gun at any stretch, but still pretty much your lone choice. Beginning around 1946, S&W began work on designing a new double action automatic, meant for 9mm and built to fulfill the needs of police, military, and civilians. The "X-46" as it's prototype was designated, featured a Browning style tilting barrel lockup, as well as what was essentially a hammer transfer bar, preventing accidental discharges (Think Ruger Single Actions). This was one of the first pistols you could truly and safely carry with the hammer down. The Army loved it, but had no intentions of kicking their 1911's out the door so soon. Lots of people read into this as a 9mm vs 45ACP argument: it wasn't. In postwar times we were sitting on enormous stocks of 1911's, so why should they have been tempted by a gun switch and a caliber change? After being turned down by the Army, the X-46 was eventually released on the civilian markets as the Smith and Wesson Model 39 Pistol.

S&W was extremely proud of their Model 39, and saw much potential for it. It was a hugely successful pistol and platform, serving as the genesis for hundreds of derivatives and other models. The Army may have turned it down as a service pistol, but they knew a home run when they saw it. The Army Marksmanship Training Unit expressed a big interest in the 39 as a target gun, and eventually requested that the company produce a special model chambered in their proprietary round, the .38 AMU, a sort of semi-rimmed and hotter loaded .38 Special Wadcutter. S&W complied, delivering just 90 of these S&W 52A pistols to the team.

Smith and Wesson saw the opportunity. .38 Wadcutter was the target caliber, after all. And they wanted to prove the capability of their platform, seeing it as the true future of target pistols. In 1961 they released the Smith and Wesson 52. It sported some new features: a single action only trigger, with the DA being blocked by a set screw. It was chambered in .38 Special Wadcutter. It had an enlarged magazine release. High, adjustable target sights. Most fascinating of all is the barrel: trumpeted at the muzzle and tapering rearwards, and locked into the front via a big knurled bushing, and held with a spring loaded plunger. These guns were carefully made and fitted, mostly by hand. In order to leave the factory, each unit had to shoot a minimum 2" group at rest from 50 yards. If that doesn't demonstrate how eerily accurate these are, nothing will.

S&W continued with the 52 line, introducing the 52-1, featuring a new, true SA trigger, a new hammer, and a steel frame. This was the most common civilian variant seen today. In 1963 the 52-2 arrived, featuring a coil spring extractor. These variants made the pistol a hugely popular success, with S&W hitting the mark with an insanely accurate gun. If there was a singular pistol that helped steer us away from the .38 Revolver as the dominant target gun, it was the 52.

But enough of history: this is a gun that I have shot. A shooting friend with a rather large S&W collection brought it to one of our range trips last year, and I was allowed the first magazine's worth of rounds. I was already a big 39 fan, but at the time I was pretty hung up on the 52 and this whacky idea of it's wadcutter ammo. To myself at the time, I almost regarded it as a gimmick. I couldn't help admiring the gun: it was obviously worn, with bluing wear at the grips and muzzle as well as under the slide, and the worn checkering of the grips feeling smooth under my hands. It struck me as very comfortably worn in, like an old leather couch. The grip was fairly difficult to get used to, with the permanent curved rear jutting into your palm it probably suits a GI 1911 shooter more than me, who is used to the smooth inline feel of a flat 1911 MSH. Still, it fills your hand wonderfully. The sights are excellent and crisp, a far cry from the huge combat sights we favor today, but easily shot at distances greater than 25 yards.

The 52 I had range time with. Note the Wadcutter Ammo.

The mag slid in easily, the slide pulled back without any effort. I noted that pretty much all the springs in the gun were light and easy to work, and when I brought it up and fired my shot I realized why. The recoil of the .38 Wadcutter is a soft, gentle push, possibly the smoothest recoil of any centerfire pistol I've fired. I did not concentrate too hard on my grip or stance through the first magazine, instead just settling in and getting comfortable, my target being 25 yards away (my friend's idea of a good starting distance). I finished up and reeled it in and was amazed at the group I produced. I am not a target shooter, but the group spoke otherwise. I was pretty damn happy with myself until I tightened up and took a few more magazines, my groups opening up and peppering the paper erratically. I learned this much: the 52 doesn't feel it, or look it, but it is a completely unforgiving gun. If you are tensed up, improperly gripping, standing incorrectly, or squeezing incorrectly, the gun will tell you right away. I managed to shoot a few more good groups, but nothing approaching the quality of my initial magazine.

The S&W 52 deserves a spot of recognition in American Firearms history. It served as a pivotal bridge between the world of Revolvers and Automatics, and won many a bullseye competition. It also deserves to keep being shot, so if you see one at the shop or know a friend with one, take it for a spin.


  1. Great writeup, and another wonderful example of why I tend to roll my eyes when people spout off "common knowledge" that Smith and Wesson don't make very good automatics. I haven't had the good fortune to shoot a Model 52 yet, but one of the reasons I've heard for why the 52 tends to be relatively unforgiving is because of the amount of time that the .38 wadcutters spend in the barrel. Simply put, the shooter has a lot more time (even when measured in milliseconds) to push the barrel in any given direction.

  2. I agree! The owner of the 52 actually gave me the tip to keep concentrating a few seconds after the round went off and after the slide has cycled. Kind of like following through with a golf swing or a pool cue strike. And S&W Autos do get a bad rap. It's too bad, lots of those 5906's and later models came with great sights, handle perfectly and do just as good a job as lots of other comparable guns, but seem to have an undeserved negative reputation.

  3. S&W's Performance Center offers an accurized 9mm called the 952, which was created to fill the gap where the 52 was. Available in 5" and 6" barrels.

    Gun Tests magazine reviewed the 952, and loved it for target work. It shot 1.1" to 1.6" groups at 50' with 3 types of basic ammo; better/target ammo would probably improve on that.