The S&W Model 1903 – Affordable Old Guns

Who remembers the days of 89-dollar Mosin Nagant rifles? What about Nagant revolvers and CZ 52s for less than a hundred dollars and ammo costing almost nothing for bulk-packed corrosive stuff? Those days are long gone, and it might feel like you can’t find any old guns for a decent price. I can see why you think that, but it’s not entirely true. Admittedly, the military surplus market has mostly exploded, but you can still find old guns at great prices, including the S&W Model 1903 revolver. 

The old S&W I frames, often overlooked, have a unique charm. It’s true, they have an awkward size frame, smaller than the J-frame and almost awkwardly small. Guns like the S&W Model 1903 Hand Ejector are too big to be pocket pistols with long barrels and elongated frames. The size of the S&W 1903 guns is somewhat awkward, but they hold a significant place in history. The I Frame was the first S&W hand ejector design, a pioneer that introduced the swing-out cylinder and an ejector rod, features we see on 99% of double-action revolvers produced today. 

These were produced in 1896, too late to be picked up by cowboys and too soon to be the guns of private detectives. They didn’t get a pop culture push or famed users to make these guns collectible or desirable. That’s a good thing if you like old guns and want an affordable model. I’ve picked up two of these guns this year and spent less than $150 on each. That’s a Hi-Point and a half for a S&W revolver. 

What’s the Catch With the S&W 1903? 

There isn’t a catch unless you want a Model 1903 for defensive use. I would say the safety features are a bit out of date. Okay, if I had to come up with a downside, it would be the caliber. The gun fires the .32 S&W Long cartridge. This little cartridge isn’t bad per se, but it’s expensive and somewhat tough to find. However, the round has seen a slight revival with the advent of the S&W 432 UC. I’ve been able to find .32 S&W long quite easily at my local gun store and even Academy. 

It’s still 60 cents a round, but I can find it. The .32 S&W Long delivers crazy good accuracy. How accurate? Do you know those high-end Italian super pistols designed for competition? Due to its absurd accuracy, it’s one of the rounds that often finds its way into those pistols. You can easily find wadcutters designed specifically for these guns that also work well in revolvers. 

Old Gun – Old Charm 

The blued finish of these guns is gorgeous. It’s a beautiful gun, and that shiny reflexive finish holds a ton of charm. The S&W Model 1903 is downright charming. The little gun is simple with its thin wood grips, or should I say stocks, and front blade sight. The ejection rod remains unshrouded and has that big circular knob that makes it easy to punch out empties. Speaking of, the gun holds six rounds. It’s deceptively small for a six-shooter, but the smaller size of the .32 S&W Long makes it easy. 

These guns have that old-school turn-of-the-century revolver design that just eeks charm. They are beautiful enough to be display pieces. The barrels are round without flats, the grips and the frame have humps and lines we don’t often see. The S&W Model 1903 is the definition of a cool old gun. 

These Model 1903s were popular options for city law enforcement. The little .32 wasn’t seen as a poodle shooter like it is today. A lot of metropolitan police were largely unarmed, so when the first firearms were adopted, they went with lightweight, somewhat compact frames. 

To The Range 

The Model 1903 hand ejectors are fun little shooters, and they are, in most cases, safe to shoot. Obviously, if the gun was beaten up, abused, and rusted out, then consult a knowledgeable gunsmith. In most cases, the low-pressure .32 S&W Long wasn’t abusive on these guns, and they are safe and easy to shoot. 

If you like low recoil, then you’ll love the S&W Model 1903. Even for their small size, the recoil is downright pleasant and enjoyable. It’s a step above a .22 Magnum, but not by much. You get plenty of smoke from the old cartridge but not much more. What’s also fun is the accuracy. You quickly learn why high-end bull’s eye competition shooters utilize the cartridge. The gun is very accurate, even with a tiny rear trench sight and the thin front blade. 

The long, heavy double-action trigger pulls are often smoothed by time, and the single-action triggers are super light. Pair a good trigger with an accurate round, and you can send rounds into a quarter-sized group at 7 yards. At 50 the little round can ding a 10-inch gong easily and consistently. 

The .32 S&W Long is a solid small game cartridge. The S&W Model 1903 can be used to hunt rabbits and similar-sized game. That’s probably one of the few roles this gun could be used for in the modern era. It can be a good option for dealing with all sorts of pests, too, but it’s a pricey way to replace a .22LR. 

Cool Old Guns 

Old guns are rarely affordable these days. It’s smart to snatch one up when you find one because cool old guns rarely remain affordable. The S&W Model 1903 series is one of the few old guns that remains affordable, relatively easy to find, and a ton of fun to shoot. 

Travis Pike
Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine gunner who served with 2nd Bn 2nd Marines for 5 years. He deployed in 2009 to Afghanistan and again in 2011 with the 22nd MEU(SOC) during a record setting 11 months at sea. He’s trained with the Romanian Army, the Spanish Marines, the Emirate Marines and the Afghan National Army. He serves as an NRA certified pistol instructor and teaches concealed carry classes.