In the earliest days of concealed carry, it was easy to understand the materials from which firearms were made.
A handgun was simply an iron tube into which powder and shot were packed, and this iron tube was fastened to a wooden handle. Attach some lockwork, usually also largely made of iron, and there’s your pistol.
It wasn’t until the first really popular repeating handgun — the revolver — hit the market that the material of the frame became important. The frame not only held the lockwork but also had two separate pieces attached to it: the cylinder and the barrel, both of which had to contain explosive forces and the passage of the bullet.
Some early revolvers used brass frames, either for reasons of economy or necessity. It was easier to machine-finish a frame from a brass casting than from iron or steel. As for revolvers produced by the Confederacy during the Civil War, iron was needed for more important things, such as warships and cannons. Iron and steel were definitely preferred, as they stood up to extended use with more-powerful charges without a firearm’s frame gradually stretching over repeated firings.
Aluminum: As Precious As Gold
Aluminum was around in the mid- 1800s, but it was so hard to chemically extract from ore, such as bauxite, that it was practically a precious metal, costing as much as gold. Napoleon III had dinnerware made of aluminum, and the 6.25-pound capstone of the Washington Monument was a solid block of aluminum — the largest of its time — and a huge national flex in the late 19th century.
Refining aluminum ore took gobs of electricity, and the Aluminum Company of America set up plants near hydroelectric power sources all over the eastern U.S. With the extensive use of aluminum during World War II, it was understandable that, in the postwar years, the lightweight metal would be applied to firearms construction.
During the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, both Colt and Smith & Wesson introduced pistols and revolvers with aluminum frames, and the weight savings were very noticeable.
The first of the bunch, Colt’s Commander, was a variant on the time-tested M1911 Government Model, albeit in 9x19mm and with a 4.25-inch barrel and aluminum frame in place of the original 5-inch tube and steel frame. With the light metal frame, nearly half a pound was shaved from the weight of the original, which is not an inconsequential amount.
At about the same time, Smith & Wesson released its new Airweight models with aluminum frames, starting with the Model 37 Chief’s Special Airweight. This dropped the weight of the little five-shot snubbie from roughly 20 ounces to a hair under a pound.
That weight difference was a big deal. By the 1950s, the days of gentlemen wearing frock coats of wool with enormous pockets had long passed. In the late 19th century, it was no big deal to toss a middlin’ big chunk of iron in a coat or trouser pocket and not expect it to change the drape of the garment. But not so much with a modern blazer. New lightweight aluminum snubbies helped pocket revolvers remain viable choices.
Initially, Smith & Wesson fitted these Airweight revolvers with aluminum cylinders to match the frames, but it was quickly apparent that these weren’t going to stand up to hot ammunition. In fact, the U.S. Air Force ordered a bunch of M13 Aircrewman revolvers destroyed because the guns were unsafe to fire with any ammunition other than the loads they were designed to use, making the handful of survivors phenomenally rare.
The Titanium Craze
The search for a truly flyweight gun material stronger than aluminum would continue until after the Cold War, when titanium became more common on the commercial market, turning up on everything from pocketknives to golf clubs.
Titanium is almost as light as aluminum but nearly as strong as steel, and a proper titanium alloy with a protective coating could be used as a material for revolver cylinders for centerfire cartridges in a way that aluminum couldn’t.
The revolver industry went a little titanium-crazy in the late ‘90s. Taurus even machined frames from titanium. The expense of machining the metal and the care with which the coated cylinders must be cleaned to prevent damaging the clear coat has caused manufacturers to throttle back the titanium fad some in the years since.
The Magic Metal
No background on ultralight metals would be complete without mentioning the magic metal Smith & Wesson sprinkled into its aluminum to let Air-Lite revolvers stand up to magnums.
The original aluminum-frame, titanium-cylinder revolvers were limited to .38 Special-level pressures, but then Smith & Wesson released a line of revolvers with scandium frames.
In reality, these weren’t scandium frames at all, as those would be prohibitively expensive. Scandium is a very rare metal, as scarce now as aluminum was in the 1800s, and it went for thousands of dollars an ounce at the time. However, even a tiny percent of scandium added to the aluminum alloy of a frame dramatically increases its tensile strength — enough to stand up to the rigors of magnum rounds.
So if your revolver has that scandium logo on the frame, it wouldn’t be too far off to say it’s got some magic pixie dust in it.