The Smith & Wesson Model 31

by Home Defense Gun Staffer Bob

Charlie’s First Gun – The Smith & Wesson Model 31smith and wesson model 31

It’s funny the stuff that sticks in your head. Personally, I have the odd habit of remembering guns from movies. In a lot of cases I couldn’t tell you the name of the actors when the film is over but I make a mental list of the heat they’re packing. Why? Who knows? There’s not a lot of logic to the quirks of strange people. Maybe I just like guns more than actors. Anyway, that’s the reason I recognized the S&W Model 31 revolver sitting in a local gun store as a Hollywood star of yesteryear.

What, you don’t remember the Model 31? Well, let me remind you, then. The Model 31, chambered for the 32 S&W Long, is the pistol given to Charles Bronson by his buddy in Arizona in the first Death Wish flick. If you never knew this or haven’t heard of Death Wish, don’t feel too bad. When I started bragging to people my own age that I’d bought Charlie’s first gun, most of them didn’t know what I was talking about. I guess Charles Bronson isn’t as popular as he used to be.

I picked up the Model 31 for a modest price, ostensibly to fill out my S&W collection, but I have to admit I always wanted to see how well Charlie’s pistol really worked. My hazy recall of the movie told me that the 32 S&W Long was a real man killer, but my reloading manuals told a different story.

To find out for myself, I picked up a box of loaded ammo, reloading dies, brass and some .312 caliber bullets. Naturally, I couldn’t test the smith and wesson model 31gun like Charlie did. If you recall, everybody gets pretty peeved with Charlie in the movie and he more or less has a good reason for what he’s up to beyond ballistic experimentation. I resigned myself to some accuracy and penetration tests out on the range.

The lead cast factory loads I tried out of the Model 31 were a little disappointing; they’d only offer roughly five-inch groups at 15 yards. Handloading improved things a bit, though. With Hornady XTP bullets and some extremely fussy powder measuring to make sure I got only a tiny pinch of powder in the tiny cases, my groups improved to roughly three inches. I consoled myself with the fact that the 31 is supposed to be a short range defense revolver and not a target pistol.

It should also be kept in mind that the 32 S&W Long can only propel 85-90 gr bullets up to about 750 fps, so if you’re shooting at anything bigger than a chipmunk past 15 yards you’re probably not going to kill it. There was a time when this little 32 was considered adequate for police work, but I think cops were either tougher back then or the crooks were a lot softer. These days the ballistics of the 32 S&W Long seat it firmly as a short range, last ditch defense round and nothing more. In terms of ergonomics the first thing I noticed about the Model 31 is that you have to have hands the size of an elf to work it well.

The 31 is an I-frame Smith, which is a scaled-down version of all the other hand ejectors, and it’s definitely meant to be a pocket gun. Mine came equipped with a larger aftermarket grip which made things go pretty well, but I have no idea who would have found the gun comfortable with its decidedly smaller factory grips.

The unfortunate thing is that with a four-inch barrel my Model 31 isn’t really any easier to conceal than a four-inch 357 Magnum. The combination of the small frame, low power cartridge and a rather heavy trigger pull makes it hard to find a really good role for the gun. Let’s put it this way: it’s probably pretty impressive compared to no gun at all, which was the case for Charlie in the movie, but it wouldn’t be my first choice if I actually had a choice.

While I now own a revolver that will probably only get used for rabbit hunting, owning the 31 did make me locate a DVD copy of Death Wish. Admittedly, I’d only really given the film a cursory viewing in the past, but re-watching it made me realize that it really is a well-thought out, well-written film. The later installments to the Death Wish franchise are basically 80s-era action flicks to help Bronson pay the rent, but the original film is altogether different. Death Wish asks serious questions about violence, self-defense, the rights of citizens and revenge.

All the issues discussed in Death Wish 30 years ago are still being debated in our society today with as few clean-cut answers as ever. While I can’t recommend buying a 32 S&W Long for self-defense purposes, I can recommend watching Death Wish. If nothing else, you’ll learn that terms like “castle doctrine” and “stand your ground” are just new names for very old issues in America.

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