The Dan Wesson 15-2: The Forgotten Fourth Child of American Revolvery
When it comes to revolvers in the US, the “Big Three” of Colt, Smith and Wesson, and Ruger remain strong. But in the 1970’s a new company emerged and attempted to challenge these three (Smith in particular) with an innovative new design. This company was Dan Wesson and the Model 15 was that design.
Founded in 1968 by Daniel B. Wesson II after the acquisition of his family company by conglomerate Bangor Punta, Wesson sought to create a company to continue the tradition of innovative and high quality revolvers while also maintaining his independence and family legacy. For this he knew he would need a designer and ended up finding just the man in an unlikely place.
Karl Lewis was an engineer at Colt who designed the MKIII series and also the M16A1s first under-barrel grenade launcher, preceding the M203. Previously he had worked for Browning where he was integral to the design of the BLR rifle and after his success with that, offered them a design for an interchangeable barrel revolver, which they declined. When word got around that the enterprising black sheep of the Wesson family had left S&W, Lewis saw the opportunity for his brainchild to become a reality and he and Wesson joined forces.
Influence from Lewis’ previous MKIII design can be seen in the transfer bar safety, coil mainspring, and most obviously the clockwise cylinder rotation. Colt supremacists have touted this as an advantage since the cylinder turns into the frame as opposed to away from it into the yoke. Lewis expanded on this concept by moving the cylinder lock/release to the crane as opposed to behind the cylinder like pretty much every other DA revolver.
Unique aspects of the DW design were the grip “peg” that allows for one piece grips of any shape or size to be attached with a large hex head screw that secures from the bottom. The side plate screws are this more user friendly hex head as opposed to the standard flathead seen on most revolvers. Dan’s also have recessed cylinders such as those found on pre-81 S&W revolvers. No real practical advantage, but indescribably satisfying.
The Barrel Swap Feature
From the beginning, the interchangeable barrel design of the Dan was always its most trademark feature. Early models of the 14 (fixed sights) and 15 (adjustable) had an external barrel nut that soon became a flush one, and also had a “pork chop” type barrel shroud where the front part of the frame was also incorporated.
The improved and more common 14-2 and 15-2 changed to a simple indexing pin in the frame that would align with a hole in the shroud. With the additional support of the cylinder release/lock on the crane and in conjunction with the users ability to fine tune their own cylinder gap (the barrel removal tool kit comes with a gauge to set this) and lock it in place at the muzzle with the barrel nut, it was hard for competitors to deny the Dan’s outstanding accuracy potential.
The Dan Wesson 15-2 revolvers were available in a number of different variants. Available barrel lengths were 2.5, 3, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 15, as well as the following profiles: half underlug with a plain rib (Standard), half underlug with a vented rib (SV), full underlug with a plain rib (Heavy) and full underlug with a vented rib (HV). The most desirable of the 15-2s were made at the Monson, Massachusetts factory between the companies starting in 1968 to Wesson’s death in 1978. After that point the company changed hands and locations several times, and quality suffered until the company was bought by CZ USA in the early 2000s. Now the only revolver DW makes is a stainless 15-2 derivative called the 715, which is a fine revolver, but only sold as a 3 barrel “pistol pack” and is prohibitively expensive for most casual revolver shoppers.
My example: A Comedy of Errors
I picked up my 6” 15-2 Standard for a decent price (>$500) due to it being listed as a DAO model. After I learned that it could be converted by simply installing a DA/SA hammer, I jumped on it. When it arrived at my FFL, I pulled the hammer back and indeed, once it clicked to the rear, it immediately released and went forward again. I took it home and swapped grips from the Pachmayrs it had on it to some walnut targets. To my surprise, after I had swapped the wood and tightened the grip screw, the hammer all of a sudden would remain rearward when cocked and released at the pull of the trigger. Turns out if you over tighten the grip screw, the hammer will trip and not remain fully rearwards, making the gun effectively DAO. If you WAY over tighten it, the trigger won’t pull back at all.
Things Get Worse
Despite the grip screw debacle, I was glad that I no longer needed to buy a new hammer and received an even better deal than I thought I did. Next, I stripped it down to clean. I removed the barrel with a GREAT deal of difficulty and found that the previous owner either had a thing for over tightening his stuff, or hadn’t removed the barrel since they bought it, and the barrel nut was carbon locked on. After soaking in some penetrant, it came loose with a lot of muscle (and two broken barrel nut tools). The barrel and shroud were removed and all the metal parts took a nice long soak in a solvent tank. Once out, everything was hot, shiny and lubed. I reassembled it and took it home. Fast forward a couple of days for its first trip to the range.
Things Get “Worser”
Right off the bat, the DA trigger was atrocious. It’s a very odd sensation as the hammer travel on the DA stroke is very short, but also heavy and gritty. The trigger would also intermittently stay rearward after firing and would require some wiggling or a sharp slap to the bottom of the grip to get it to reset forward. Not only that, but when firing in single action I found that the gun started having “2020 Python syndrome” and the cylinder would not turn when I cocked the hammer. Remembering the grip screw issue, I figured maybe I had reassembled something wrong, or that there would be a quick fix. I ordered a new spring kit just in case and decided to take it to a competent revolver guru friend to dig in and diagnose it.
Things Finally Get Fixed
My friend took the side plate off, cleaned up the past 40 years of gunk inside, and replaced the very old and tired hammer/mainspring, trigger spring, and hand spring. He commented that while he normally discourages normies like myself from doing work inside a revolver, the DW was very simple internally and that messing something up beyond repair would be pretty unlikely. A second trip to the range ensued and the function had greatly improved, with all past issues absent and function at its best. DA pull was still nothing to write home about, and I considered a Wolff reduced power mainspring to lighten the pull, but read that they can cause light primer strikes with certain kinds of ammo, so I decided at this point that having a fully reliable gun was the most important thing to me.
Obviously when compared to a Trooper, GP100, or 686, the Dan is a little quirky. Bad/old springs are one thing, but including quirks like the grip screw tightness possibly disabling the gun, and needing to pay attention to round count to prevent the barrel nut locking up, these were things I had not taken into consideration when I made this admittedly hipster decision.
Most people who I’ve had shoot this are also less than enthralled with the cylinder release, and while I’m generally ambivalent towards that since this isn’t a gun I’m planning on getting into a firefight with, it’s hard to argue with the more intuitive nature of a Colt or Smith release. The only other issues I can level at it are that grip availability is a little scarce, though the options are varied. You’ll also be hard pressed to find a holster specifically made for a Dan, but a 686 or GP-100 should be close enough. Just be sure to test one out and see what fits your revolver correctly.
I’ve harped on the double action pull a lot but single action is excellent. People have often compared the frame size to a Colt I frame (AKA the frame for the Python). With a larger size frame like this and the way the barrel is installed, these guns can shoot magnums all day without worrying, to the same degree you might find with a K Frame Smith. Personally I think the Dan’s frame size coupled with the standard contoured 6-inch barrel balances terrifically well.
The swappable barrels feature is a little gimmicky and I doubt I’ll bankrupt myself buying every barrel length I can find secondhand, but I do find it interesting. I like the ability to remove the barrel completely for cleaning, set my own cylinder gap, and the noticeable accuracy lent by the barrel nut. My friend has a little 3 inch AR500 plate mostly as a joke, but after setting it up at about 15 yards he and I both nailed it hard with some Federal magnums and no practice shots.
Overall, would I recommend that a person in the market for a .357 revolver get this specific gun? Probably not. The Dan is an interesting part of history and is certainly a serviceable revolver with a little TLC, but when vintage pre-lock Smiths can still be picked up pretty easily for $500-600, it’s hard to recommend the Dan over those.
However, if you’re weird like me, don’t mind that, and still want one anyway, they can be found pretty cheap when they show up on the general market. You will also find a small but very passionate niche of Dan owners online on the DW forum for guidance and general info. After my friend commented on the simplicity and DIY potential of the DW design, I found a very popular and widely mentioned thread on the forum known as the Average Joe tune up method that has helped a great deal of new Dan owners get inside their guns and smooth up the action considerably.
The ammo I used to test this my second time out was re-manufactured plinking ammo I bought primarily for my .357 lever action. I’m hoping that after following the Average Joe tune up method and rolling some home brew handloads, I can really get this wheel gat performing at the next level on subsequent range trips.
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You are wrong about Dan Wesson, best revolver ever made!. I bought one in 1978, Fantastic firearm, very accurate. Better than a Colt Python or a Smith & Wesson, both garbage compared to the Dan Wesson I bought, with an 8 inch heavy barrel.
Thanks for your input
I have the dw 357 with the 6 inch barrel and it is a great pistol in my opinion
Love to fire it
I read an article where a person slighted it because of the front cylinder release and had problems loading it from a hand full of cartridges. Apparently never heard of speed loaders.
Again, love this revolver
Bought one in ’73,Balance and trigger aren’t bad, still use it. When my eyes were younger could shoot clay birds at 100 yds. Honestly never hit them every time, but had fun. At 25 yds. it’s on target all day. Wouldn’t part with it for twice its value. Shot smiths and colts and rugers and think it’s their easily their equal.
Bought mine new in ’77 with the 6″ barrel. Only problem I had was the same heavy double action pull, but no grit. A Smith 686 i fired was buttery light in comparison. Later switched out the 6″ for their 4″ bull barrel. In my opinion looked and shot better.
Excellent write up!
Learned quite a bit by reading it.
And so happens that very recently acquired two Dan Wesson revolver PACs: .357 & .44 magnum.
The former is blued steel; the latter stainless steel.
Have several Colt Python and S&W revolvers, so is going to be interesting to see how the DW revolvers fare against them.
My son is looking to get a 15” barrel/shroud for the .357 magnum because he thinks we ought to have a complete set; would be cool if he find one…
Best to start by admitting my first ever gun was the S & W 586 6″ Blue circa 1983, so I’m biased out of the gate, as I absolutely love that K-Frame pistol. That said, when I choose the 586, I had the opportunity to also fire the DW 15-2 357 Mag with both the 6″ & 10″ barrels and absolutely loved the quality & concept. The choice to go with the 586 was driven by affordability at the time as there was no way I was in a position to buy extra barrels, as much as I liked the concept. Now I have many S & W’s and several Colts, and DW’s; including the DW 44 SS 4″ & 8″ and a mid 70’s 15-2 Blue kit with the 4 barrels (no 10″ or 15″), although would love to get the 10″. I agree with many of the remarks left above, “dead balls accurate” & “a true engineering marvel” are the main reasons I love the DW revolvers. I swear the DW 44 is almost as heavy and sturdy as my S & W 500 8 3/8″. I love all these revolvers as they are a real blast to shoot and have that Dirty Harry persona that clearly came into play when I bought the 586. As a side note, I never had any of the issues mentioned above with the DW line, although, I did when I first got my 586, which was locking up when I shot mag loads, it went back to Smith 3 times and I was really irratated knowing the amount of $ I spent at the time, which I think was around $360. In closing, the only thing further i can add is “go ahead, make my day”.
I bought my DW 15-2VH USED in 1980, so it was manufactured before that, and after 1975/76. As stoutly built as a Colt or Smith all day, and AS accurate if not more so. I used it to get my CPL permit here in Mi in 2008(only other pistol I had at the time was a S&W39-2) and the rangemaster looked at my target when he had us point shooting the last 25 rounds of 100 we were required to shoot at 10 yds. and he says “you aren’t point shooting” as there was a ragged hole 3-4 inches in diameter. He stood and watched me shoot the remainder of the rounds(one more cylinder) and walked away saying “Wow, maybe you were” as they all went where the rest went. I wouldn’t trade or sell it for all the tea in China.
“Grip screw debacle”:
With my several DWs – as I learned with my first, if the grip screw is affecting hammer-trigger action, it is less an issue of “too tight” as it is of too long for that particular grip if even a correct DW screw in the first place.
Anymore – the last 35 years – I keep grips and screws together once proven. The differences between the longest reliable for ITS grip and the shortest for its own grip is striking.
“Gimmicky” barrel swap feature.
My first DW was my first pistol bought in the Army when we took home some whopping $180 every two weeks. The D.W. allowed me to continue learning to handgun hunt, plink, concealed and open carry with the same gun. HIGHLY valuable feature in general but then for so much quality to boot!
As to single or DA trigger feedback – I’ve never been anything but impressed with any of the 7 that I have owned so assume displeasure is an anomaly to the displeasing gun which speaks to previous owners more than design.
My only issue with DW pistols is that I wish that I had bought more when they were looked upon with such derision by the old-guard
Thanks for the reply. The input you had on the grip screw is interesting and I can see how that approach would also explain the problem and honestly makes a little more sense too. I’m revisiting the world of Dan Wessons as there’s a 44 Mag for sale in my area and I’m seeing if I can work out a deal on that. With my sample size (hopefully) expanding, I’m eager to see if the double action on my 15-2 was a fluke and if this one is any better.