September 26, 2022
By J. Scott Rupp
John Wesley Hardin was a murdering son of a bitch. From the time he was 15 until he was shot in the back of the head in 1895 at the age of 42, he left a trail of dead bodies—nearly 30 that were corroborated and a lot more he or others claimed he’d killed. Most of his killings were done with cap-and-ball revolvers and a few long guns, but the murder for which he was finally apprehended and jailed—the killing of lawman Charles Webb—was with a Smith & Wesson Model 3.
Few figures in the American West were more notorious, so it makes sense that Uberti would include Hardin and the Smith & Wesson Model 3 top-break revolver in its Outlaws & Lawmen series. The Hardin gun is a classy mix of color case-hardening, bluing and simulated buffalo horn grips. It’s chambered to .45 Colt—.45 Long Colt, if you insist—and it’s a great reproduction of an effective single-action revolver design.
Smith & Wesson’s Model 3 top-break was the first big-bore cartridge revolver, according to the Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson by Jim Supica and Richard Nahas. Production of this single-action design outstripped the Colt Single Action Army, which is much more famous today, until early in the 20th century. Standard Catalog indicates 195,000 Model 3s were produced in its first decade from 1870–79, compared to the 85,000 first-decade Colt SAA revolvers manufactured from 1873–82—although the authors note two-thirds of the Model 3s were sold under foreign military contracts.
The top-break’s popularity in its day makes sense because it was much faster to load. Solid-frame guns like the Colt require opening a loading gate and then inserting or removing one cartridge at a time. With Smith & Wesson’s top-break, opening a latch allows the barrel and cylinder to pivot downward—automatically pushing the ejector upward and kicking out all empties or loaded rounds simultaneously. The shooter then has easy access to all six cylinder charge holes, which speeds the reloading process considerably. Smith & Wesson models were numbered by frame size during this period, and the Model 3 was the largest of the top-breaks. Others included the .32 caliber Model No. 1½ and the .38 caliber Model 2.
The Model 3 single action (there was also a later double action) breaks down into four families. The initial model was the American, the first cartridge revolver adopted by the U.S. military. It was chambered to .44 S&W American, one of the first centerfire revolver cartridges, although a few rare Americans were chambered to the rimfire .44 Henry. Smith & Wesson’s top-break design caught the eye of the Russian military, and the company scored a large military contract for Model 3s that were slightly modified and chambered to .44 Russian—hence known as the Model 3 Russians. And, in fact, all the sources I could find indicate the Model 3 that Hardin used to kill Webb was a Russian First Model.
The final iteration was the New Model No. 3 (1878–1912) . The standard chambering was .44 Russian, but it was also rarely produced in such cartridges as .38 S&W, .41 S&W, .45 Webley and others. This brings us back to the Uberti Hardin, part of the company’s 1875 No. 3 Top Break line of revolvers. It’s in the Model 3 Schofield family, a version that was originally chambered to .45 S&W Schofield and manufactured from 1875–77. Maj. George W. Schofield, a cavalry officer for at least part of his career, changed the Model 3’s latching system so it could be operated with one hand and thereby make it easier to load while on horseback.
Previous Model 3s employed a latch on the topstrap that was lifted to free the barrel and cylinder to swing down for loading and unloading; operating the latch required two hands. Schofield’s modification placed the barrel latch on the frame, with a separate cylinder catch attached to the rear of the topstrap. Now the gun could be opened by pulling back on the barrel latch with the shooting-hand thumb.
The other big change with the Schofield guns was the ejector system. Earlier models used a rack-and-gear arrangement. Schofield’s design employed a much simpler rotating hooked extractor cam that pushes up the ejector rod against spring tension. Opening the gun fully ejects all brass or unfired rounds, and at the end of travel, the ejector shroud pushes on the ejector pawl at the bottom of the frame. This disengages the cam, allowing the ejector to snap back to the flush position for loading.
The Hardin is a second-model Schofield. In this variant, a V-shaped sight channel runs the length of the barrel, and the barrel latch—which also incorporates the rear sight notch—is serrated across the top for surer operation. A minor change moved the “U.S.” stamp on the bottom of the grip portion of the frame from the front to the back. The serial number is also found here. The left side of the Hardin’s barrel is stamped “Schofield’s Pats June 20th 71. April 22nd 73.”
Schofield guns were offered in both nickel-plated and blued versions. David B. Chicoine’s excellent book Smith & Wesson Sixguns of the Old West indicates the blued revolvers had a color case-hardened hammer, trigger guard, barrel latch, cylinder catch, extractor pawl and rod while the frame, barrel, cylinder, front sight and trigger were blue. On the Uberti Hardin, the frame is color case-hardened instead of blue. The half-moon front sight blade is brass. The Hardin also departs from the original with a hexagonal ejector rod, as opposed to the hallmark round one that made its debut with the Schofield models.
I’m a sucker for color case-hardening, and the combination of it and the intriguing blue color on the cylinder, barrel and trigger—more of a bright or French blue than a black-blue—strikes me as really attractive. The barrel is the historically correct seven-inch length, although many Model 3s were purchased and cut down to five inches, including several hundred Schofields that Wells Fargo bought to arm its messengers. Original Model 3 Schofields came with walnut grips, but I really like the simulated buffalo horn grips on the Hardin. They’re two-piece and concave at the top, creating a comfy shelf for your firing-hand thumb. The grip screw escutcheons are brass and contrast nicely with the black “horn” of the stocks. Model 3 Russians had a knuckle or hump on the backstrap, but the Americans and Schofields did not, and the Hardin lacks one as well.
S&W Model 3
As mentioned, this version of the Model 3 was chambered to .45 S&W Schofield. At the time of the Model 3 Schofield’s development, the U.S. military was interested in it but wanted it to be in .45 Colt since the Army had already fielded a large number of Colt Single Action Army revolvers in that cartridge. However, the Model 3 was initially designed for the shorter .44 American cartridge, and Smith & Wesson would’ve had to redesign the Schofield around a longer cylinder in order to accept the .45 Colt. So the company developed the shorter .45 S&W Schofield round for the gun instead, and the combination was adopted by the military for a time.
While the Schofield cartridge could be fired in the Colt revolvers, .45 Colt ammo couldn’t be loaded into Model 3 revolvers. This incompatibility was likely at least partially responsible for the Colt gun’s ascendancy over the S&W top-break in the years to follow.
The Hardin is chambered in .45 Colt, and .45 Schofield rounds can be fired in it—although some shooters report that heavy use of the shorter cartridge can cause a stubborn carbon-fouling ring to develop in .45 Colt cylinders. I did fire half a box of Schofields through the Hardin, and while I could see the early formation of a ring, it’s nothing a good cleaning didn’t take care of. I should mention here that while the process is not described in the manual, removing the cylinder for cleaning is simple. Open the unloaded gun, slightly loosen the front screw on the cylinder catch and take out the rear screw entirely. This allows the catch to be raised enough to remove the cylinder.
Aside from the Black Hills Schofield load, I was able to get my hands on two other ammo types. The accuracy results are shown in the accompanying table. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do our standard 25-yard distance for this barrel length due to the old-style sights, but the sight picture is surprisingly easy to shoot, even for aging eyes. The rear sight has a wide V, and it has a tiny little step about halfway up that proved a good reference point, and the base of the V matches up really nicely with the width of the front blade. Still, it’s not a sight setup conducive to tack-driving accuracy, and I did discount obvious fliers caused by me misaligning the sights—although all accuracy averages are based on at least four of five shots for each group.
At 25 yards the gun shot about four inches low and two to four inches to the left, depending on the load. But at 10 yards elevation was spot on, and it was just a touch left. Shooting at the shorter distance was a hoot. The Hardin’s balance is fantastic. Due to the long, sloping grip, I was unable to cock the hammer with my firing-hand thumb without significantly shifting the gun in my hand. But for those who can, they’ll find the gun comes on target quickly and hangs there nicely when shooting one-handed.
Two-handed? Whether sweeping the gun up for a quick single shot, emptying the chamber methodically or shooting as fast as I could cock the hammer with my support-hand thumb, the Hardin is really easy to hit with. If you’ve never shot a .45 Colt wheelgun, they’re pussycats with commercial loads. Out of a gun weighing 2.6 pounds and with a seven-inch barrel—and a nice, clean trigger pull that breaks just a bit over three pounds—it’s a dream.
If you’ve shot single-action revolvers like the Colt SAA and its clones, loading and unloading will show you why the Model 3 was a popular gun in its day. Load the gun by placing the hammer in the first position and opening the latch to access the cylinder charge holes. After firing, draw the hammer back to first position, open the latch with your thumb and snap the gun open smartly. This will fling cases forward with vigor. If you don’t feel like hunting for your brass, open the gun slowly until the ejector pushes the empties just far enough to pluck them out with your fingers.
And if you want the ejector to remain in the down position, press on the spring-loaded extractor pawl and maintain pressure on it as you open the gun. This can be handy if you’ve decided not to fire the rounds in the cylinder and either want to open the gun for safety—say a cease fire is called on the range—or simply decide to unload. Then just dump the unfired rounds into your palm. It’s worth noting that Uberti also offers nickel-plated Schofields for $200 more than the Hardin. Blued versions—more along the lines of the original in terms of what’s blue and what’s case-hardened, plus walnut grips—go for about $300 less. The blued gun can be had in both .45 Colt and .38 Special. (The company also sells a Russian model. It has the frame hump and the unique “hook” at the bottom of the trigger guard that made its debut with the second-model Russian.)
There are some other Schofield reproductions out there—including special edition/Performance Center guns Smith & Wesson itself produced a couple decades ago. Originals? Sure, if you’ve got deep pockets. Most of them are worth more than my car. The floor seems to be in the $3K range, and it goes up—and up and up—from there. But I think the Uberti Hardin is the best of the bunch. Sure, it’s not an exact replica due to the grips and the finish scheme, but it’s a really sharp-looking, distinctive gun that handles well and shoots well. It will provide a lifetime of plinking fun, and it’s always a pleasure to have a significant piece of Americana in the gun safe.
Uberti Hardin 1875 NO. 3 2ND Model Top-Break Revolver Specs
- Type: Single-action revolver
- Caliber: .45 Colt
- Capacity: 6 rds.
- Barrel: 7 in.
- Overall Length: 12.8 in.
- Weight: 2.6 lbs.
- Finsih: Blue barrel, cylinder, trigger; color case-hardened frame, barrel latch, hammer
- Grips: Two-piece simulated bison horn
- Tigger: 3 lbs., 4 oz. (tested)
- Sights: Open rear, brass blade front
- Safety: First-position hammer notch
- MSRP: $1,699
- Manufacturer/Importer: Uberti USA