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Russian 44 Replica: What’s Old Is New Again

A PIECE OF HISTORY IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND

What follows here is the story of the Imperial Russian Smith & Wesson Model #3. The development of this gun directly involved the likes of one George Armstrong Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody, a healthy amount of Buffalo hunting, and an enormous f*ck you from Russia at the end of it all that nearly killed the Smith & Wesson company.

The interesting part of this story is that there weren’t strong diplomatic ties between the Russian Empire and the United States in the 1860s. A relationship did exist; however, Russians didn’t comprise a significant majority of immigrants at the time, and there wasn’t much of an established community of Russian expats. 

However, it’s known that Czar Alexander II sent his son, Grand Duke Alexis, to America to create lasting ties, as was the custom of many royal families. 

The exact details have been lost to time, but the young Duke was apparently a huge fan of the American frontier and requested to meet two of the most famous Americans of the day, George Custer and Buffalo Bill Cody. 

It could be argued that on the world stage at that time, Custer and Cody were akin to super stars. Custer was widely considered one of the best American warriors ever to enter the battlefield, and Cody was the creator of the mythology of the West we have today. 

When Grand Duke Alexis came to America in 1871, the Smith & Wesson Model #3 was about a year old, in essence a fledgling design, with fewer than 3,000 made in .44 Henry Rimfire and .44 American (a center-fire variant). 

Grand Duke Alexis of Russia with George Armstrong Custer and William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming; McCracken Research Library; MS006 William F. Cody Collection; P.69.0819.

The ambassadorial staff and military attachés at the time, namely General Alexander Gorlovka and Captain Ordinetz, took an interest in these guns, and, of note, so did Duke Alexis. The Duke was photographed with none other than Custer himself, the former having a #3 in his belt. 

Things get muddy after this point. 

The Russian government at the behest of its stateside staff indeed ordered the #3 in a large quantity, but deeply pissed off the S&W staff with their aesthetic choices. They requested not only modifications to the gun that included a hump in the grip and a distinctive spur on the trigger guard, but also wanted a new chambering. 

The gun would go through three variations until the Russian 3rd Model #3 was finalized. The Taylor’s version in this article is specifically a replica of that model, not the first and second versions, and it’s made for them in Italy by Uberti.

The distinctive hook on the trigger guard is unique to the #3 Russian. It’s an ugly and ungainly feature to look at, but it’s actually surprisingly useful when handling it.

Like a fatalist novel of the era, this short love story ultimately ends with the Russian government throwing S&W under the bus. Almost as soon as the first guns arrived, the Russians were already setting up shop to copy it domestically. 

Tula Arsenal and other plants began turning out the gun and, while allegedly not as good as the S&W, it proved to be damn near close enough. This led to S&W nearly going under, as you can well imagine. This royal f*ck you wasn’t received well, but the damage was done. S&W survived, and the 44 Russian became the grandfather of the 44 Special and 44 Magnum we enjoy today. 

THE SPUR

The most striking feature on the gun is the forward-pointing spur below the trigger guard. There’s heavy debate among historians and hobbyists alike as to its purpose, but no one really knows the right answer.

There are two common ideas — at least one is based in fact to a degree. It’s long been said that it was meant as a hook for wearing the gun in a sash, a common method of carry in the day. Russia at the time wasn’t as we know it now; vast parts of the country consisted of tribal land and semi-autonomous cities with ambiguous national ties. There’s evidence in archive photos that the hook was used for sash carry. 

Another theory is that it was for steadying the gun one-handed, the dueling stance being the standard of the day. This works surprisingly well — using the middle finger on the hook, the trigger finger is thus free to move around a bit and focus on breaking the shot without jerking. 

Some theories go so far as to say it was a part of cavalry training and that the guns were meant to be cocked going into battle, the hook being a finger rest. This seems to have the least grounds in reality. The gun was issued to all service branches, and there are photos of it holstered with Russian sailors. 

THE HOLSTER

For the purposes of this article, everything is as authentic as possible, even down to the ammo used and holster it was carried in. Cliff at Mernickle Holsters helped make as close to a 1:1 replica of the 1870s-era Russian military holster as possible, referencing  both paintings from the time and surviving examples where photos existed. Making a 150-year-old holster like this seemed like it would be a big problem.

But Cliff said it was no problem. He fit some leather to the Taylor’s replica, and in a few weeks turned out what’s likely the only exact holster replica for this gun in the world. Not only is it museum quality, but it’s also completely functional and can be worn on a regular gun belt if you so desire. The holster has six cartridge loops with a flap cover and a sealed body. 

If you like replica guns but dislike that there aren’t more period-correct accessories and holsters, you need to call Mernickle. Their attention to detail in leather is as on-par as Taylor’s with the gun itself. It’d be great to see this gun offered through Taylor’s with a production version of this holster as an upgrade or even standard accessory. 

THE 44 RUSSIAN CARTRIDGE

What the Russians inadvertently ordered for their own reasons, we now know as standard “inside lubed” ammunition, in that the bullets went inside the case and had their lubrication grooves protected from the elements. 

This was a divergence from outside lubricated “heel-base” bullets where the projectile itself was the same diameter as the case body. Modern .22 LR is a heel base design. 

Some experts don’t credit the Russians with this advance, noting that while they placed bullets inside the case as we do now, they still lubricated them on the outside for almost a decade before making the switch to interior lube. Let’s give them credit where it’s due and say “Nostrovia!”

Flick the barrel, and the cases come flying out. Extraction is healthy, but it’s possible to fail to catch a rim and have the ejector get stuck over top of it.

In keeping with the revival of the 44 Russian with research and a new holster, I also put together some loads to match the ballistics of the day. While this stuff is great, cleaning black powder is no fun, especially when there’s things to do and beer to drink, so I opted for smokeless instead. 

At the time this was written, there was only one mainstream company loading 44 Russian, Black Hills Ammunition. I had a stock of their 210-grain loads sitting on my back shelf for a few years and knew they would work but weren’t big on the oomph factor. Other small companies make 44 Russian in limited runs, but aren’t always in stock. 

With a Lee 3-die set, I made some of my own to run through this baby. The Starline brass cases are thicker than the old black powder versions, so even if I attempted to make some smoke, it wouldn’t be the same power as what they had back then. 

Rim Rock Bullets provided some RNFP bullets. The original loads were 247-grain over 23 grains of black powder at 750 fps or so. I chose TiteGroup and CCI primers for this task since they’re great for cast bullets. I worked up loads for 240- and 200-grain cartridges and put the Taylor’s Russian through its paces.

THE RUSSIAN IN ACTION

The gun started out stiff and hard to open. But, knowing Taylor’s quality, I figured it just needed a little handling to make it hum. I sat many a night watching Westerns while popping the action open over and over and over again, until my wife asked me if I wanted to stop or get a divorce. Some people will just never understand. 

Taylor’s has had these built very close to the originals, and if you carry this gun it needs to be hammer down on an empty chamber, just like a Colt SAA. With practice, you can flick the action open one-handed. This is great because if you do it right, all the brass is ejected automatically and the gun is ready to load again. 

The frame latch is lifted up to unlock the action. It must be at half-cock to do so. Sometimes this gets called the Russian Schofield, but that’s not accurate. Top-break actions were common in this day, and the Schofield refers to a modification on the latch to make it stronger. Schofield #3s served alongside the Colt Single Action Army. On that topic, a little-known fact is that the .45 S&W (aka 45 Schofield) is the reason we have “Long” in 45 Long Colt. The Schofield couldn’t chamber the longer 45 Colt cases, so the military primarily ordered the 45 S&W as a service round for use in both the top-break #3 and the Colt SAA.

These top-breaks are wonderfully fast to use but are prone to a few more failures than the Colt SAA. My fastest time from empty to reloaded was about 3 seconds. A handful of loose rounds pointed in the same general direction is all it takes. This gun would be a prime candidate for moon clips.

The accuracy of the 44 Russian is nothing to laugh at. This round held records and could probably win more even today. The BHA loads are a bit slow, but ramping it up with handloads allows 200-grain bullets to fly at over 1,000 fps with near pinpoint accuracy.

The 44 Russian and the Taylor’s gun is an example of very best sort of living history. 

SPECS

TAYLOR’S & COMPANY RUSSIAN

  • Caliber: 44 Russian (Also available in 45 Colt)
  • Capacity: 6 rounds
  • Barrel length: 6.5 inches
  • Overall Length: 12.2 inches
  • Weight: 43 ounces
  • Finish: Blue, Walnut grips
  • Origin: Uberti Italy
  • MSRP: $1,258
  • URL: taylorsfirearms.com

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