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Handgun Reviews

Smith & Wesson Thunder Ranch Model 22

by Patrick Sweeney   |  September 24th, 2010 3

Smith & Wesson brings back the four-inch, fixed-sight .45 ACP revolver.

The original Model 22 was introduced by Smith & Wesson in 1951 as the Model 1950 .45 Army. It wasn’t until 1957, when S&W started assigning number codes to the various models, that it became the Model 22.


The new Thunder Ranch S&W M-22 is what a lot of us have been waiting for: a fixed-sight bigbore wheelgun in .45 ACP. The top front of the frame has been scalloped down much like the old Outdoorsman model.

The idea (then and now) was to produce a durable fixed-sight bigbore
revolver. Yes, adjustable sights can be very useful in getting the last bit of accuracy out of a handgun. They allow you to precisely adjust the sights, even if you make a change in ammunition. But they can be fragile. When I was doing full-time gunsmithing, many of the local police departments still issued revolvers, and a lot of them had adjustable sights. I got so good at quickly replacing bent or busted blades that I could even do them on a “while you wait” basis.

(There is a fellow competition shooter who has abandoned the use of adjustable sights on his pistols. It doesn’t matter who made it or who installed it; he’s broken it. Name a brand, and he can show you the pieces.)

So a fixed-sight handgun, especially one intended for defensive use or use off the target range, has a lot of attraction. And then there’s the Indiana Jones phenomenon. A fixed-sight bigbore revolver has a certain mystique, an aura, especially if it has retro styling.


The author has seen many a moon clip dropped from this height cleanly chamber.

The S&W Model 58 is certainly a fixed-sight bigbore. No one can argue that its .41 Magnum chambering is lacking in horsepower. But the M-58′s design is modern, an N-frame built like a late Model 10. No, what gets a certain segment of the shooting culture excited is a bigbore M&P, a wheelgun like the .38-44 Outdoorsman but in something bigger than .38 Special.

The Army had Smith & Wesson produce such a thing back in 1917. Called the Model 1917, it was a square-butt .45 ACP revolver but with an exposed ejector rod and a five-inch barrel–cool but a bit bulky. Cutting one to four inches isn’t easy, as the skinny barrel makes soldering a new sight in place a tough proposition. If you have one with a Brazilian crest on it, that’s a 1937 contract gun–again, a five-inch barrel, not the four-incher we all really, really wanted.

Which we now have. Actually, we’ve had two. Last year’s Thunder Ranch four-inch, fixed-sight revolver–the Model 21–was chambered in .44 Special, which is understandable, as Clint Smith and the others who pushed for it are smitten with the .44 Special. Me, I respect it, but I’m not enamored of the .44 Special. More on that in a bit.

The new Model 22 comes to us in .45 ACP, taking either moon-clipped ACP rounds or the much less common .45 Auto Rim. In a pinch you can use .45 ACP ammo without moon clips, but the extractor won’t be able to do its job. The rimless cases offer the extractor no purchase. For fast extraction, and fast reloading, you need moon clips, preferably full-moon clips.

The new Thunder Ranch M-22 comes in a carry case with the TR logo on it and the TR logo in the grips. No gold inlay on this one. (Nothing personal, Clint, but if I want a gold inlay, I have a few other designs I’d prefer to see.)

RETRO STYLE
The M-22 is definitely retro in looks. The M-58 was simply the adjustable-sight N-frame, without the rear-sight machining cuts made. The forward part of the frame has the same contour as the adjustable-sight frame. Not so the M-22. The front of the frame is scalloped down near the barrel shoulder, as on the old-style M&P revolvers and the Outdoorsman. The barrel is tapered and round, with the forward locking plunger in the front of the ejector-rod housing. The ejector rod is enclosed, unlike the M-10 precursor–the M&P–and I like the look and balance it gives the 22.


The Thunder Ranch logo is on the grips this time around.

Another retro touch is the addition of the top screw on the sideplate. Yes, the Model 22 is a “four-screw” S&W; decidedly not retro is the key lock on the left side. Despite the sputtering of some, I haven’t had any problems with sidelock Smiths, nor do I expect any. As a sop to the anti-gun crowd, it is a pretty benign one, and the design doesn’t cause problems with trigger pull.


It’s hard to beat accuracy like that–25 yards and Black Hills ammo.

The grips are old-style skinny but can easily be changed. After firing the first few cylinders-ful, I swapped them for a set of Kim Ahrends’ grips. I need the area behind the triggerguard filled in order to shoot with any comfort, accuracy or speed.


SOURCES
Ahrends
(515) 532-3449
Black Hills Ammunition
Cor-Bon
PMC
Remington Arms
Smith & Wesson

One chan
ge from the old style is the front sight. In shape it is the same half-moon that you’ll see on literally millions of Military & Police and Outdoorsman revolvers made before 1960. But the sight on the M-22 is pinned to the barrel. The base is machined from the barrel forging, and the upper half is a fitted and pinned blade. With the old guns, if your load, grip or whatever didn’t shoot to the sights, you had few choices, all bad: You could modify the sight, altering an expensive part (the barrel), or you could try to apply Kentucky windage. With the modern Model 22 you can file, grind, serrate, sculpt or do whatever you want. With a supply of replacement blades and a correctly sized pin punch, you can take out the old one and put in a new one to start over after each iteration. Kudos to S&W for that. If that were the only change it had made, it’d be worth it. But it has made the other changes mentioned, and the result is a revolver with great potential.

One potential is for licensed concealed carry. Without the sharp edges of adjustable sights, your tailor has less to worry about. Sharp edges shred clothing. If you dehorn or remove the hammer spur, you have a carry gun that is the very definition of “no sharp edges.” The M-22 is as compact as you can get in a bigbore wheelgun, and with a good pancake holster, it will carry easily and conceal without a problem. You can have two spare full-moon clips on your belt for less space than a cell phone takes.

Back in the day, one big cause of rear-sight damage was door frames. Car doors and building doors take their toll, but I had one rear sight brought in to my shop damaged by a freezer door. The owner had leaned in to take something out of the chest freezer, and the door slipped, hit his sight and cracked the blade. None of that is going to happen with the Model 22.

For someone who wants to compete with his carry gun, the Model 22 is not going to put you at a disadvantage. If you shoot in USPSA or IDPA, the M-22 can easily make Major, it reloads wicked fast, and the felt recoil and sight setting can easily be the same between your carry load and your competition load. It doesn’t matter if you carry 230-grain JHP +Ps or 185s; you can load the same for competitor and not have to change the sights.

For ICORE, you simply get a supply of Berry’s 185-grain hollowbase roundnose bullets. On the outside they look like 230s, but they weigh only 185 grains. You need only exceed the threshold power factor in ICORE of 120, which translates to getting those 185s up past 650 fps. The M-22 isn’t the heaviest N-frame around, but a 185 at 650 fps is definitely mild in recoil.


The front sight is pinned, and the barrel is marked with the old name.

In shooting, I and my testers had a grand time. The M-22 never failed to set off a primer. Regardless of what ammo we fed it, if it was good enough to stuff into an S&W, it went off. I didn’t test it with really grubby or bad ammo, as I know what will happen: Your (or my) box of “reloading mistakes”–the high primers, the cockeyed bullets, the ones that are the wrong length–will cause it to stop–not always, but now and then. They’ll do it to most anything, so we aren’t really testing anything by using such ammo.

One thing others have mentioned and I found with this M-22 is that it hits a bit low. Now, I’ve had some shooters tell me that their M-22 hit so low that they were off the target. Unless I shoot theirs, I can’t be sure what’s going on. Mine hit a bit low, but not by much. At 15 yards, on falling eight-inch plates, I could hold center and still drive down the plate. I wasn’t hitting anywhere near the hinge. At 25 yards I found regular 230 hardball almost three inches low. The 230 JHP +P ammo was more like two inches low. Two inches at 25 yards? I’ve had out-of-the-box pistols that were off by that much. And look on the bright side: Low hits can be adjusted by filing the sight. If it were hitting high on you, you’d need a new, taller blade.

As a home-defense gun, the Model 22 has several advantages. First, getting it loaded, even in the dark, is a snap. Even the opening on hollowpoints on 230-grain bullets is not a hindrance. If you load with plain old hardball, the bullets are practically “chamber-seeking missiles.” Anyone who has watched Jerry Miculek reload knows that a well-aimed throw will usually get the moon clip to properly seat. If you turn over your M-22 to a gunsmith, he can easily chamfer the charge holes to make loading even slicker. With such a fast load, you can access a stored but unloaded M-22 almost as fast as a similarly stored auto pistol.


If the author is to shoot comfortably, he has to have the gap behind the triggerguard filled. Ahrend grips do that for him, and they look good doing it. Ah, for the old days: a dusty rucksack, a heavy-duty sidearm, a map and a horizon.

Reloading is another advantage. If your spare ammo is in a full-moon clip (which it should be), you have six more rounds at the ready. One of the advantages of being a gunwriter with a large group of eager test shooters is that I’m always seeing new things. Now, I thought I knew just about everything about handling a bigbore revolver. Gary showed me different. He worked for the City of Detroit, and as with all city employees, he had to live in the city. Don’t let anyone kid you; at the low point, Detroit was pretty much Baghdad without the car bombs. No one went unarmed. Everyone had a gun in the house, or more than one.

A trick Gary invented was to place his loaded Model 1917 on the nightstand with a moon clip at the grip, bullet noses up. When he picked up the 1917, his little finger would slip right into the center of the full-moon clip. He now had a loaded revolver with a reload on his pinkie finger and a flashlight in his left hand. To reload, he simply opened the cylinder and ejected the fired rounds. The spare moon clip was right there on his hand. After a bit of experimentation, the fine-tuning was to pick up the revolver and moon clip, then push the moon clip onto his pinkie to make it more secure. Why the extra push? Occasionally, in practice he had the moon clip fall off in recoil.


(Right) Here you see Gary’s extra-moon-clip method. (Left) If you need six more rounds, just grab the extra moon clip off of your pinkie.

.45 ACP vs. .44 SPECIAL
Caliber selection can be very personal, and I’ve seen shooters almost come to blows arguing the advantages of their favorites. I’ve had others mention that they didn’t see the need for a new Model 22–the .44 Special does anything the .45 ACP does, and better
. I’m not looking to “dis” the Special, but that isn’t true. First, you can’t use moon clips to load a .44 Special, at least not without spending a bunch of money getting your .44 Special cylinder machined for moon clips. There may be someone out there who is every bit as fast with a speedloader as the rest of us are with moon clips, but I haven’t met him yet. Nothing reloads a revolver faster than 230-grain FMJ and full-moon clips. If you need more, and quickly, that’s the combo you want.

“But power–the Special has more power.” Yes and no.

The .44 Special, factory-loaded or reloaded to SAAMI specs, has no more power than the .45 ACP. If anything, factory ammo is slightly weaker, a 246-grain lead roundnose at 700 to 750 fps. You can easily get .45 ACP ammo that clocks more than 800 fps. Yes, traditional reloads of the .44 Special improve greatly on that, but they do so by going past SAAMI specs. Do the same thing to the .45 ACP, and you’ll get the same results.


S&W M-22 Four-Inch .45 ACP
MANUFACTURER BULLET VELOCITY (fps) POWER FACTOR
PMC Auto Rim 200-gr. J-SWC 735 147
PMC ACP 230-gr. FMJ 776 178
Black Hills-Blue 185-gr. JHP 979 181
Speer 230-gr. Gold Dot 806 185
Remington 230-gr. Golden Sabre 835 192
Black Hills-Blue 200-gr. L-SWC 844 168

Don’t believe me? Vihtavuori shows its most ambitious .44 Special load as a 240-grain bullet at 889 fps. It shows the .45 ACP with a 230 booted out the muzzle at 935 fps. Hornady, with minor differences in the top velocity, shows us the same thing. Yes, we all know you can load a .44 Special with a 240 up past 1,000 fps. But you do so by exceeding SAAMI pressure levels. Do the same to a .45, and you get the same results. Neither of them is a magnum round, so expecting magnum-like ballistics is, at the very least, optimistic.

If you are enamored of heavy bullets, you can find heavyweights in both diameters. With pressure being the limiting factor, I don’t see that going much past the standard weights gets you a whole lot. Yes, in a Ruger SuperBlackhawk in .44 Magnum you can push a 315-grain bullet 1,200 fps. But in a Special or ACP? If you want or need that much power, don’t go looking at a Model 22.

For me, the speed of reloading with moon clips outweighs any nostalgia for the .44 Special. Make mine a .45. Better yet, make mine a stainless version; that way I won’t have to get this one hard-chromed.

  • Houston Fitzgerald

    I don't see thee in the SW line up, only the one with the 5.5-inch barrel. Where to get the 4-inch?

  • Rick A

    I've seen nickel plated Model 22 4" revolvers in 45ACP and 44SPL locally.

  • Jeff W

    I have both and I find the only advantage in the .44 SPL is being able to fire 2 or 3 rounds and then top off the cyl. with speed strips. Can't top off with a moon clip.

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