September 3rd, 2011


french and german revolvers for sport and social work

I own and shoot a good number of Korth revolvers that I personally imported from Germany on an ATF Form 6. I have a similar number of Manurhin revolvers, which I am able to compare to a passel of Colt Pythons, Bankers and Police Positive Target Specials and Single Action Armies, as well as a good selection of Smith & Wesson’s best, ranging from prewar Kit Guns to Registered Magnums and a Triple Lock Target.

As a preliminary evaluation of these revolvers, here are some talking points.
  1. Based on my experience, the quality ratio of Colt to Smith & Wesson is proportional to that of Smith & Wesson to Harrington & Richardson. The Colts are much better made and more precisely fitted, of finer and stronger materials, than Smith & Wessons. I base this statement on the personally observed differences in working internal parts with a diamond file, and wear and peening in contact surfaces with comparable round counts.
        The Smith & Wesson single stage lockup is not nearly as precise as, but much more durable than, the Colt double stage lockup. The Smith & Wesson bolt is softer but less stressed than the Colt bolt. The S&W action is much easier to work on than the Colt action. All the more so for the Manurhin MR73 action, a S&W derivative relentlessly rationalized in the true Cartesian tradition. The Korth is easy enough to work, but the need never seems to arise. As with the MR73, the only part subject to wear on it is the forcing cone that erodes from firing Magnum ammunition. In principle, the shrouded barrel of the Korth should be relatively inexpensive and easy to replace. In practice, I wouldn’t know how to go about it. The MR73 seems to resist this erosion a little better. The only part liable to break on it is the floating firing pin.

  2. The Colt V-spring action as used in the Python with its “Bank Vault Lockup”, is a licensed derivative of the Schmidt Galand patents. As the trigger of these revolvers is pulled, the double hand forces the cylinder against the locking bolt. The harder the trigger is pulled the tighter the cylinder is locked. Consequently, as the cylinder recoils, it compresses the hand, eventually peening it out of spec. This is all the more applicable to Magnum chamberings never contemplated by the original European inventors. The ensuing requirement for periodic maintenance is the price you have to pay for shooting a Python.
        The basic features of Colt double action revolvers are well summarized by Grant Cunningham: “Colt revolvers have actions which are very refined. Their operating surfaces are very small, and are precisely adjusted to make the guns work properly. Setting them up properly is not a job for someone who isn’t intimately familiar with their workings, and the gunsmith who works on them had better be accustomed to working at narrow tolerances, on small parts, under magnification.” On the other hand, by referring to a copy of Kuhnhausen’s shop manual, I was able to fit a new bolt to one of my Bankers Specials using NSk calipers, S&W screwdrivers, the diamond-coated file of a Leatherman Charge TTi, and a wooden shaft. So I agree that Colt actions are highly refined. I also agree that they require working at narrow tolerances, on small parts, under magnification. But much of that is within the reach of a hobbyist equipped with a $30 manual and $200 worth of hand tools.
        In this regard, Grant Cunningham says: “On a properly timed Colt, the cylinder bolt (which is the piece in the bottom of the frame window) will drop into the cylinder’s locking notch just before, or just as, the hammer reaches full cock (in single action) and just as the sear releases (in double action.)” On the other hand, every Colt double action revolver that I own, including unfired and factory overhauled guns, fails to carry up when thumb-braked in the course of cocking the hammer, though it carries up when the cylinder is free to rotate in the course of cocking the hammer, no matter how slowly I cock it. So either this tuneup represents a factory error, or the factory rightly or wrongly considers this condition normal.

  3. The Manurhin MR73 is the best fighting revolver ever made, designed as a significantly improved S&W, crucially strengthened at the yoke, ingeniously refined at tensioning the hammer and the rebound slide, and manufactured to the quality standards of 1950s Colts. I have tried the current S&W revolvers. There is no comparison. In a nutshell, an early Python is a better revolver than a Registered Magnum, in the same sense whereby a Ferrari 330 P3/4 is a better car than a Ford GT40. But the MR73 is the only revolver I would take in harm’s way, in the way I would choose the Citroën ZX over the Ferrari and the Ford for entry in the Paris-Dakar rally.
        American shooters tend to be impressed by popularity. Smith & Wesson is the most successful revolver maker in history, and the biggest handgun maker in the world. But these ratings attest to the quality of S&W handguns in the same way, and to the same extent, as the international market proves that the Big Mac is the king of burgers. To disparage Manurhin for refining the S&W Hand Ejector instead of following the example of Willi Korth in designing a revolver from scratch, is to disparage Colt for copying Schmidt-Galand designs in the wake of its homegrown failure to develop a robust and reliable double action revolver. The problem with S&W is not design, but quality. Their basic action layout is capable of uncompromising performance, as witness this Manurhin chambered in .32 S&W Long, beating match guns by S&W, SAKO, and Walther. But in order to get a current production S&W to perform like that, you would have to rebarrel it and replace its MIM lockwork with increasingly unobtainable forged parts. And even then, it will not approach the quality of Manurhin’s hammer-forged frame, barrel, and cylinder.
        The SIG P210 remains my favorite autopistol. I consider the Manurhin MR73, the last and best revolver to be designed and adopted for constabulary service, as its wheelgun counterpart,. Apart from the gloomy Olivier Marchand polar, my favorite MR73 story unfolded on the day after Christmas of 1994, when Captain Thierry P. of GIGN entered the hijacked Air France Flight 8969 plane, grounded at the Marseille airport. He served as the point shooter, armed with a 5¼" .357 Magnum Manurhin MR73 and backed by his partner Eric carrying a 9mm HK05 submachine gun. Thierry killed two Islamist terrorists and wounded a third with his revolver, before taking seven bullets from an AK47 fired by the fourth hijacker. In spite of then absorbing a full complement of grenade shrapnel in his lower body, Thierry P. survived the assault, as also did 171 hostages. Not so the four terrorists, who had been planning to deploy the plane as an incendiary missile against the Eiffel Tower. Thierry could have armed himself with any firearm. He chose an MR73. I have mine at my side right now.
        You cannot appreciate a tool without considering its intended purpose. Like the SIG P210, the Manurhin MR73 was designed and built for an administrative market that formally required extreme precision and durability orders of magnitude greater than that expected from and built into contemporaneous U.S. police sidearms. The aesthetic sensibility of most American shooters derives from an appreciation of fancy sporting goods and service sidearms meant by their makers to be surplused after firing several thousand rounds. Although that is no longer the case owing to the worldwide decline of revolvers in constabulary use, throughout its history Smith & Wesson and Colt never had an economic incentive to forge their gun parts out of tool steel. It was far more cost effective to sinter and machine softer materials, replacing the products under warranty in the rare instances of their being put to hard use. That was not an option for Manurhin in making deliveries to GIGN and SIG, to KTA. Hence the unexcelled durability and precision of their military and constabulary service handguns, combined with a more or less utilitarian finish in most of their variants.

  4. The Korth is by far the best made modern revolver, comparable in quality only to the best of the pre-WWI classics, from the French M1873, the Mauser M1878, and the Swiss M1878 and 1882. It is equal in mechanical precision to a Target Triple Lock, and far superior to it and the Registered Magnum alike in ruggedness and durability. Among post-WWII revolvers, only the first generation Colt Pythons compare to it in fit and finish. It is arguably the best sporting revolver ever made, as distinct from a social work tool such as the MR73. Its lockwork is hand ground out of steel forgings and deep hardened. It is nowise stressed at ignition, resulting in unexcelled durability and enabling Willi Korth to guarantee the same accuracy even after firing 50,000 Magnum rounds. Its design incorporates some Colt traits such as clockwise cylinder rotation, within an original layout that bears some resemblance to S&W two-point lockup and transport. Its ingenious hand detachable yoke is a great boon to regular maintenance, and its spring tensioned ejector built into the optional 9mm Para cylinder is the best such system that I ever used with rimless ammo in a revolver.
        Korth revolvers are a breed apart. For all its mechanical excellence, the MR73 is fitted and finished like a Seventies handgun. Whereas the fit and finish of Korth revolvers rivals that of an S&W Registered Magnum, if not quite coming up to the standard of a Triple Lock. Speaking of the latter, it was obviously easier for S&W to achieve their superb surface preparation before they belatedly followed the example of Colt by starting to heat-treat their revolvers in 1920. Doing it nearly as well with steel hardened to a remarkable grade of 60 RC is a testimony to the diligence of Willi Korth. Like the MR73, a Korth revolver never wears in normal use, except for the inevitable forcing cone erosion caused by firing Magnum ammo. Every S&W revolver I ever saw suffer a high round count had its cylinder notches thoroughly peened. Every double action Colt revolver I ever tested, including brand new and freshly factory tuned specimens, failed to carry up in hand-cocking the hammer while braking the cylinder. Nothing of the sort is evident even in hard worn MR73 or Korth revolvers. And unlike the MR73, the Korth is refined to a fare-thee-well, with mirror finish on the major components and barely discernible joints between them. It is, however, a quintessentially sporting handgun, with the tightest possible clearances between its moving parts and a finely tunable two-stage double action trigger pull that is not meant for fast combat style shooting in the Bill Jordan fashion. If you want a range toy, the Korth is your finest choice. If you want a top notch tool for social work, get an MR73 or a P210.

I cannot answer the question of subjective value. In Germany, used Korth revolvers of the latest design cost between 1,200 and 3,500 Euros, depending on the condition, configuration, and luck of the draw. By contrast, you would have to spend between 700 and 1,800 Euros for a used Manurhin MR73, and between 400 and 1,000 Euros for a used Colt Python. To put this in perspective, my nicest blue steel Korth cost me around $2,200 to acquire and import in a large combined lot. I wouldn’t part with it for three times that price.