October 22, 2020
By Leroy Thompson
When I saw the film Divergent, I was intrigued by those who chose Dauntless as their faction. While watching them hanging off of trains it occurred to me that most of the guys with whom I had grown up would have been in that faction. About a block from my home was a large railroad siding, almost a mini-railroad yard. It was one of our preferred playgrounds. We hopped freight trains, occasionally getting on top of them from a bridge above the tracks. I wouldn’t classify us as brave as much as stupid! We also had a “hideout” under the bridge.
“Cinder Dicks” (railroad police or detectives, word comes the famous fictional comic strip character detective Dick Tracey) visited the siding periodically and we got to know and RESPECT them. They cut us slack about hanging around in return for our keeping an eye out for anyone attempting to break into cars and writing down license plate numbers or getting descriptions. There were also hobos around. Our attitude was generally live and let live, but the railroad detectives often worked them over, though they didn’t throw them off the top of moving trains, a standard object lesson among the railroad dicks! My family was composed of staunch union members; hence, while our house was marked with hobo signs indicative of the fact my grandmother would give an egg sandwich in turn for yard work, I was warned by my family to stay away from the “Pinkertons” (i.e. railroad police), those minions of management.
I didn’t obey and occasionally got to see their weapons. All of the ones I knew carried blackjacks or slappers in a back pocket. They also carried what at the time appeared to be immense revolvers. In retrospect, they were probably Colt Official Police or S&W M&Ps, though I remember one had a shrouded ejector rod, so it may have been a S&W Heavy Duty. The one I really remember, though, was a small S&W top break revolver carried by one of the railroad cops in his vest pocket. One day, he unloaded it and let me handle it. I was surprised that it didn’t have an exposed hammer, as did all of my toy guns. Instead, it was a DA-only with a grip safety. I thought the way the shells were ejected when the revolver was “broken” open was fascinating. He showed me how he turned it upside down when dumping empties to make sure they ejected. I was also impressed with how short the barrel was. That little gun made an impression on me that I retain well over a half-century later.
When I began buying handguns some years later, I realized that the revolver I had seen come out of the vest pocket was a Safety Hammerless (aka Lemon Squeezer), but it took a while until I realized it was the scarce version with a two-inch barrel normally termed “Bicycle Revolver,” presumably because it could be tucked into a pocket while out peddling along. I also realized that the revolver that had made the impression on me was probably a .32 SW version is it could fit in a vest pocket. S&W also made .38 S&W Safety Hammerless revolvers, but they were bulkier.
That initial encounter with a “Bicycle Revolver” while leaning against a boxcar’s coupling has remained with me to the extent that whenever the opportunity has arisen to acquire a S&W “Bicycle” revolver I’ve bought—assuming I had the money! Other firms made their own versions of the Bicycle Revolver, most notably Iver Johnson and Harrington and Richardson, but I’ve remained true to Smith & Wesson. Well, in college when I was broke I did have one of the Iver Johnson “Safety Automatic” models. I would guess I fired less than 25 rounds through it, though I did carry it for a time.
Smith & Wesson produced eight models of the Safety Hammerless revolver, three in .32 S&W and five in .38 S&W. They all had five-round cylinders and were hammerless with a grip safety. The revolvers were available with blue or nickel finish and with black hard rubber or pearl grips. The first model .32 was made from 1888 to 1902 and is noteworthy for its push down barrel latch, as opposed to later models that required the latch to be pulled up. The second model .32 was made from 1902 to 1909. The third model was made from 1909 to 1937. Around 240,000 .32 caliber Safety Hammerless Revolvers were produced in total. The most common barrel lengths were three inch and 3½”. The two-inch barreled “Bicycle Revolvers” were scarce, while 1½” barreled versions were rare, special order items.
The first model .38 Safety Hammerless was produced in 1887 and employed a “Z-Bar” latch that was pushed sideways to tip the barrel forward. The second model .38 was produced from 1887-1890 and utilized a push down latch. The third model .38 was produced from 1890 to 1898 and also used a push down latch. The fourth model .38 was manufactured from 1898 to 1907 and used a T-shaped pull up latch. The fifth model .38 was manufactured from 1907 to 1940 and used a pull up latch. .38 models were available in blue or nickel with either hard rubber or pearl grips. About 261,500 .38 Safety Hammerless Revolvers were manufactured. “Bicycle” versions of the .38 Safety Hammerless were available with scarce 2" barrels or rare special order 1½” barrels.
An interesting aspect of the 1½” and two-inch Safety Hammerless revolvers, especially the 1½” ones is the number that were shipped to the coal mining areas of West Virginia. Given the frequency of violent strikes in the coalfields, it is easy to speculate that mining executives wanted a compact revolver they could tuck into their vest or trousers pocket in case they encountered disenchanted miners! The short-barreled safety hammerless also found a market among others who needed a compact revolver that could be carried safely in a pocket yet drawn and fired quickly. Bankers, world travelers, gamblers, lawmen, elegant ladies (and some not so elegant), and storekeepers among others provided a market for the short-barreled S&Ws.
As appealing as the Bicycle Revolver (or the three-inch barreled Safety Hammerless for that matter) was for its small size and safety in pocket carry, it was slow to reload, and its rear sight was minimal. In 1936, S&W introduced its .38 Terrier, which was also a five-shot revolver but with a swing out cylinder and slightly better sights. An earlier rival was Colt’s Pocket Positive in .32 Colt or .32 S&W caliber. Originally introduced in 1905 with a 2½” barrel available, the Second Model produced from 1927 to 1940 was available with a two-inch barrel and better sights, as well as a swing-out six-round cylinder. At least some users of the Safety Hammerless continued to use it as a house gun or police backup gun, though, because small children could not fire it due to the small size of their hands and lack of strength to operate the grip safety and trigger simultaneously.
There were a number of potential customers who had liked the Safety Hammerless, especially with Bicycle Revolver two-inch barrels but who wanted an updated more powerful version. As a result, in 1952, the Centennial J-frame .38 Special was introduced in both steel frame and alloy frame versions that were double action only and retained the grip safety, but with a swing out cylinder. As the Models 40 and 42, this revolver remained in production until 1974. I had two friends who were in law enforcement who carried a Centennial as a backup gun—one a steel frame and one an alloy frame. As they had small children at the time, this was also the gun they carried off duty and kept loaded around the house. One later went to a larger S&W revolver with a Magna-Trigger Safety.
The DA-only snub with grip safety has remained popular with some S&W lovers, resulting in S&W introducing the design again in 1992 as the Model 042 Centennial Airweight, then in 1993 as the 442 Centennial Airweight. Other versions of the Centennial have been manufactured including the 940 Centennial in 9x19mm, the 642 Centennial Airweight in stainless steel, the 640-1 in stainless and .357 Magnum, and the 342TI Centennial in Titanium. One of the latest descendants of the Bicycle Revolver is the M&P 340CT in .357 Magnum with a Crimson Trace laser. There may be others I’m forgetting, but all of those Centennial type two-inch revolvers are modern iterations of the classic “Bicycle Revolver.”
As I worked on this article I tried to remember the last time I had fired a S&W Safety Hammerless revolver. I couldn’t remember. Now, that may be partially the result of age, but it also is because it’s been a really long time. As a result, I decided that this article would not be complete unless I fired one of my Bicycle revolvers. I didn’t want to fire one with pearl grips and take the chance on cracking them, so I decided on a .32 S&W blued revolver with black rubber grips. I removed the grips and put a couple of drops of oil on the action and was ready to go.
Currently, a few manufacturers offer .32 S&W ammo, but the only one that I found readily available was Winchester 85-grain lead round nose, which is a traditional load in this caliber. NOTE: for Safety Hammerless Revolvers you want .32 S&W not .32 S&W Long. Because the sights are so rudimentary on the Bicycle Revolvers, sophisticated adjustment of point of impact is futile—at least for me!
I fired a couple of five-shot groups at seven yards on a silhouette target: one-handed point shooting from a crouch. I felt this would have been the likely use of the little revolver for self-defense in the day. Four out of five rounds stayed in the silhouette, with the fifth barely clipping the edge. All were high and left from point of aim. I tried a second group at the same distance but adjusting my aiming point and they all impacted in the torso.
Still firing one-handed but using the sights, I fired five-rounds at 15 yards on a bullseye target. The group was better than when point shooting but was still high and left when I used center aim.
There were no surprises. This is a pistol with a small grip that requires squeezing the grip while squeezing the trigger, which has a heavy pull; and while attempting to sight using a tiny rear sight. Users of the Bicycle Revolver would have expected it to be a weapon for use when they were threatened at close range. It would have performed that mission acceptably, though I would hope anyone relying on it took the time to fire a few cylinders full of ammo periodically so that that the heavy trigger pull did not come as a surprise is they had to use the revolver.
I collect Bicycle Revolvers because they conjure up images of figures who might have used them. The railroad dicks I knew as a kid were tough and, at times, ruthless, but one of them took the time to show me his hideout Bicycle Revolver. When my father was in charge of floor security at a casino in Reno, NV, during the 1950s, I remember one of his subordinates carried a Safety Hammerless in his pocket. I think it was a three-inch barreled gun, but it might have been a Bicycle Revolver. Oddly, the only handgun my father ever carried was a Beretta M1919 .25 auto. He did carry a blackjack; he was more a punch and kick kind of guy! I’ve seen S&W Safety Hammerless revolvers that were sold in the UK and its colonies marked with the retailer’s name and address. I’d like to believe at least a few Bicycle Revolvers traveled in the pockets of those visiting faraway-places-with-strange-sounding-names in far-flung parts of the British Empire.
I guess I can sum up my fascination with Bicycle Revolvers by saying: I picture men or women of my grandfather’s or grandmother’s age tucking a short-barreled “Lemon Squeezer” into pocket or purse the way I tuck a Glock 43 into my pocket today. It’s a link across the decades.
Sources of .32 S&W Ammunition