Gun of the Week #4: Iver Johnson Safety Hammer Automatic Double Action Revolver


original box

Every Wednesday- it is time for the gun of the week

This week’s gun of the week is  is a antique Iver Johnson top break 5 shot revolver in .32 SW (short). It comes with the original Box (Box is flat and very fragile.) The gun is in great shape and shoots well. The action is tight but the ammo is somewhat hard to find right now.  I bought the last box of .32 short at a local gun store. And I was able to find a box at the last gun show for $50.  I was paying for antique ammo box.


My Iver from the side


Iver Opened


Look at the chambers when open

I bought this gun at a local gun store for $125 this past summer.  This seems to be the same model that was used by Leon Czolgosz to shoot President William McKinley with in 1901. The gun is in nicer shape then the pictures show.  It also still shoots very well. I seem to have a fondness for these type of guns.  I have three similar models in .32 short and a larger one  in .38 short.


Iver Johnson gun revolvers ad

The Iver Johnson Arms & Cycle Works (yes, makers of handguns and fine bicycles), was started back in 1871 by a 30-year old Norwegian born inventor of the same name. Truth be told, it started as the Johnson and Bye Company, but eventually Johnson bought out Bye and went at it alone. The Fitchburg, Massachusetts based factory concentrated more on its bicycles than its firearms and employed many Scandinavian immigrants.
Just before Iver died in 1895, his company began to produce a new revolver that the late engineer had perfected late in life known as the Safety Automatic.

Design of the Safety Automatic

The Iver Johnson Safety Automatic neither has a manual safety, nor is it automatic. It’s a revolver. Its a double-action top break revolver similar in layout to the Smith and Wesson hinge frames of the 1860s era. What made the Iver different from the Smiths was in the fact that it had an internal transfer bar safety. This safety consisted of a bar that rested between the hammer and the rear of the cartridge in the cylinder/chamber. The bar prevented the gun from discharging if dropped and only fell away when the trigger was depressed all the way.


Iver Johnson Ad explaining the safety hammer

Designed by fellow Scandinavian immigrant Andrew Fyrberg while at Iver Johnson and patented in 1896 under #566,393, this ‘Hammer the Hammer’ action was positively revolutionary for handguns.  Up until then you risked an accidental discharge from a dropped revolver if the gun was carried with a hammer down on a loaded cylinder, which as you may imagine, was a real concern at the time.

These guns were sold in both a small frame version with a three to six inch barrel in 22LR (7-shot) or 32S&W (5-shot), and a large frame 38S&W version that came in barrel lengths as short as 2-inches. With so many options you could buy a small concealable revolver for discreet carry or hiding in a cash drawer, or a larger piece for home defense.

When introduced Safety Automatics retailed for $6, which in today’s money is about $150. A nice, safe, and (for the time) relatively powerful handgun with a fast reload for a price that almost anyone could afford made it a hit for the company. In short, they were the Kahr of the 1900s.

Some 250,000 First Model Iver Johnson Safety Automatics were made from 1894-96, a significant and brief production life if there ever was one. These guns use a single top latch to hold the revolver together, a simple design which boasts four patent dates listed on the barrel with the last one being ’93.  The first run of guns were all designed and built for low-pressure black powder cartridges. On the top of the barrel rib there is a serial number, which usually doesn’t begins with a letter code but sometimes does.

The Second Model was made 1897-1908 and these were (generally) black powder only. They are identified easily due to the fact that they have a double top latch, a patent date that ends in ’96, and serial numbers that start with letters A through F. Some 950,000 of these were produced.  It was one of these; serial number 463344 bought for $4.50, that anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot President William McKinley with in 1901.


Leon Czolgosz gun

A ‘hammerless’ version with a distinctive humpbacked shrouded frame was also made in this version. These Second Model Hammerless variants have a manual safety on the trigger, which makes them easy to spot .

The Third Model used coil springs rather than the flat springs of the first two models. The serial number ranges don’t go lower than a ‘G’, and all of these guns were beefed up to take smokeless powder rounds. These guns and a corresponding hammerless were produced as late as the start of WWII.

The distinctive monogram on the grips gives these guns the nickname of ‘Owl Head’ revolvers. The owl looks at the barrel but it is under these grips that you can find a date letter code that can help identify when your revolver was made. Late Third Model guns are usually found with wooden grips rather than the plastic and, in addition, on the First and Second Model guns, the cylinder freewheels when at rest, while the Third Model does not.

Sometimes these guns were called “Bicycle Guns”. Either because of the safety hammer, they would not accidentally fire if you fell off your bicycle. Or because they were made by a company that also made bicycles.

6 thoughts on “Gun of the Week #4: Iver Johnson Safety Hammer Automatic Double Action Revolver

  1. Pingback: What really happens at a gun show | crypticpunk [krip-tik] [puhngk]

  2. The transfer bar doesn’t drop out of the way, it is raised up, and the hammer hits it and the bar “transfers” the blow to the back of the firing pin. This means that unless the bar is all the way up (only happens when the trigger is all the way back) the top of the hammer hits the frame but there is air between it and the firing pin. So they used the “hammer the hammer” advertising, in a time when hitting a typical gun’s hammer with a carpenter’s hammer, even if it was in the “safe” notch, would usually cause something to break, and allow the gun to fire. Back then, dropping a gun on the hammer would often mean the gun went off.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s