Classic replica air pistol review: Smith & Wesson 78G and 79G

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Replica air guns actually manufactured by the original maker of a firearm are very rare indeed.  The only other example I can think of is the Baikal MP654K by IMZ, but back in the early seventies, Smith & Wesson got there first.  The 78G and 79G air pistols are replicas of the S&W Model 41 semi-auto target pistol and were produced by Smith & Wesson in their Springfield, Massachusetts and Tampa, Florida plants.  Both the 78G and 79G (the only difference between the two is calibre: the 78G is .22″ and the 79G is .177″) are hefty, well made, powerful, single shot, CO2 powered air guns.

I owned and enjoyed a late model 78G version of this fine replica, so most of the shooting and functional information in this article comes from my experience of that pistol, though I believe that the 79G is very similar to use and shoot.

Real steel background

In the decade following World War Two, the majority of production from Smith & Wesson involved revolvers for law enforcement and civilian use.  However, in the early 1950s a new president joined S&W, the dynamic and forward thinking Carl “Swede” Hellstrom.  Hellstrom wanted to diversify the S&W range to meet the needs of a market that was starting to look towards semi-auto pistols, and under his leadership new developments in the mid-fifties included the Model 39, the first US made semi-auto to chamber the 9x19mm round and the Model 41 target pistol.

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Smith & Wesson Model 41

Introduced in 1957, the Smith & Wesson Model 41 was a .22 calibre semi-auto target shooting pistol.  In contrast to many contemporary .22 rimfire pistols, the Model 41 quickly gained a reputation for quality, reliability and extreme accuracy.  Construction was all-steel with attractive walnut grips and a hard-wearing glossy black finish.  The Model 41 was provided with a fully adjustable rear sight, a ten round magazine, a 7⅜” barrel and a light and precise single action trigger.  The Model 41 proved extremely popular and S&W sold very large numbers over the following twenty years, with supply sometimes struggling to keep pace with demand.

In 1963 the glossy black finish on the slide was replaced with a matt, dark grey finish to reduce glare.  In 1978 some additional minor design changes were made to the design of the Model 41, and some people felt that the new version didn’t provide the same high quality of fit and finish seen on early models.  The Model 41 was dropped from the S&W range in 1992, but was reintroduced in 1994 as the Model 41 (New Model) with detail changes and improvements.  The Model 41 has remained in intermittent production since, and was last reintroduced in 2013 (with a price tag of $1,400!).

Despite the introduction of many more modern designs, the S&W Model 41 is still a highly regarded target shooting and competition pistol – as recently as 2010 more than one title at the World Speed Shooting Championships was won by competitors using the Model 41.  Not a bad performance for a design that was more than fifty years old at the time.

The Smith & Wesson 78G and 79G

In 1965, the Wesson family sold Smith & Wesson to British conglomerate Bangor Punta.  By the late 60s, Bangor Punta was pushing S&W to diversify their range, and one of the solutions was to produce an air pistol which could be used to provide an inexpensive practice tool for the Model 41.  The S&W Sporting Goods Division employed an engineer from Crosman who produced a design for a single shot air pistol which was functionally very similar to the Crosman Mark I and Mark II models from the mid 1960s.  A cocking hammer is pushed forward to prepare for shooting and a metal loading probe is used to push a single pellet into the breech.  The pistol uses a standard 12g CO2 cartridge inside the grip (the “G” part of the name stands for “Gas” – all S&W air guns were designated either “G” or “A” for Air on pump-action models).  From 1970 two functionally identical versions were introduced: one in .22″ calibre (the 78G) and one in .177″ calibre (the 79G).  Both versions have adjustable power levels, a manual safety and a fully adjustable rear sight.

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The 78/79G pistols are beautifully made and designed to handle and shoot just like the Model 41.  The weight and balance of the replicas is almost identical to the rimfire version and at up to 50ft, the 78G is said to be almost as accurate as the Model 41(the 78G is actually claimed to be more accurate than some .22 rimfire target pistols at ranges under 50ft).  Grips are wood-effect plastic on the 78/79G, but are almost identical in shape and feel to the walnut grips on the original.  Each pistol has a unique serial number stamped on the left side of the frame, above the trigger.

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The 78G and 79G were initially produced in the S&W plant in Florida before the S&W Sporting Goods Division was moved to Springfield in 1973.  Having pushed S&W towards diversification in the early seventies, Bangor Punta then reversed that decision and decided towards the end of the seventies that the Company should rationalise their range and concentrate on the core firearms business.  The last production of the 78G and 79G was in 1978, though both continued to be sold by S&W until 1980 when the S&W airgun business including the tooling required to manufacture the 78G and 79G was sold to Daisy.  Over 170,000 78Gs and 79Gs were produced by S&W between 1970 and 1978.

Daisy 780, 790 and Model 41

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Daisy Model 41

From 1980 Daisy continued to produce both versions as the Daisy Powerline 780 and 790 and introduced a nickel-plated version of the 79G as the Powerline Model 41 which also incorporated a revised CO2 loading system.  The 780 and 790 are visually identical to the 78G and 79G other than for markings, and they remain powerful and accurate pistols though many people felt that the Daisy models lacked the high quality of fit and finish which characterised the S&W versions: the metal loading probe, for example, was replaced by a plastic version on the 780 and 790 and the trigger action was said to be less precise.  These models were not strong sellers in the Daisy range and all production ended by 1985. The Daisy variants of the 78G/79G are not as popular with collectors or shooters as the original S&W pistols.

Model changes

The first versions of the 78G and 79G featured an adjustable trigger, where the release point of the sear could be changed by using a small allen screw in front of the trigger.  Early versions also included a two-stage cocking process:  the cocking hammer could be moved partly forward to cock for a low-power shot, or fully forward to cock for a full power shot.

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Early black finish 79G (top), later grey finish 78G (bottom)

Finish was originally a sprayed semi-gloss black paint, but was changed on later versions to a dull grey, baked powder-coat finish, which looked somewhat similar to a Parkerised finish.  The earlier black finish seems to be more prone to chipping and wear than the later grey finish, which is very hard-wearing.

From approximately 1973 (when production moved to Springfield) the new finish was used on all 78G and 79G models and the adjustable trigger and two-stage cocking were dropped.

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78G markings (top), incorrect 80G markings, below

A very small number of 79Gs were wrongly stamped by S&W.  The model identification is stamped on the left side of the slide, but some 79Gs are marked as “Model 80G .177 calibre” – the 80G was a CO2 powered air rifle also produced by S&W, and it would appear that someone used the wrong stamp on at least one batch of 79Gs.  This has led some people to suppose that there is a third version of the S&W air pistol, but pistols marked in this way are simply misidentified 79Gs.

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Function and Shooting

The first thing you notice on picking up one of these replicas is weight.  These are hefty pistols.  They may be made of alloy rather than steel, but they are notably heavier than most modern replicas.  The finish also seems thickly applied and very long lasting, especially the grey finish on later models.  Everything about the 78G and 79G feels like it was made to last.

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Power adjustment screw

Before you start to shoot with your 78G or 79G, you may want to adjust the power level.  All models of both types have a slotted power adjustment screw under the barrel which is accessed from below the muzzle.  This screw adjusts the tension on the hammer spring: turning it clockwise increases power and anti-clockwise reduces power.  S&W claim that setting this screw in the low power position will result in a 50% saving in CO2, though I can’t say that I noticed that this led to a huge difference in CO2 consumption on mine.

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To prepare a 78G or 79G for shooting, you must first load the CO2.  The CO2 chamber is inside the grip and accessed by unscrewing the CO2 piercing assembly (the large knob on the bottom of the grip).  There is no way to check whether there is a CO2 cartridge in place, and if you unscrew the piercing assembly with a charged CO2 inside, there will be a loud bang as the assembly flies across the room.  So, it’s always best to cock and fire the pistol in a safe direction to confirm that there is no CO2 pressure before you unscrew the assembly.  If it is pressurised, move the cocking hammer towards the rear to release gas pressure.

Next, you insert the CO2 cartridge.  This goes in upside down compared to most modern replicas (i.e. with the piercing neck facing down).  The piercing assembly is then replaced and screwed finger tight.  Piercing is achieved by tapping sharply on the piercing knob on the base of the piercing assembly.  S&W recommend holding the pistol in one hand and tapping the knob with the heel of your other hand, but I never seemed to be able to get this to work, and I usually found that gently tapping the piercing knob on a worktop or other hard surface was a better way of piercing, which happens without any loss of CO2.

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Next, you will want to load a pellet.  This is done by pulling back on the charging handle at the top rear of the pistol.  This moves the loading probe back and exposes the loading trough and breech, and a pellet can then be placed in the trough.  The charging handle is then pushed forward until it latches, and the loading probe pushes the pellet into the barrel.  Both versions accept a variety of pellet weights and types without any problems.

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The cocking hammer in the discharged position.  Moving it forward cocks the gun, moving it backward releases CO2 pressure

Finally, it’s time to cock the gun.  This is done by firmly grasping the lugs of the cocking hammer which project from the frame above and in front of the trigger,  and pushing it forward until it latches.  On early versions there are two positions in which the cocking hammer will latch: the first gives a lower power shot, the second gives full power.  On all later versions, the cocking hammer latches only on the full power position.  The manual safety, a crossbar type behind the trigger can be applied only when the pistol is cocked – pushing the safety to the right makes the pistol safe, pushing it to the left allows it to fire.

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The grips have a distinct thumb ridge, but these are identical on both sides and are equally comfortable for right and left-handed use.  The sights are a simple notch and post design without white dots or aiming aids, but they are clear and easy to use.  The rear sight is fully adjustable for windage and elevation using slotted screws.  Some people fit some form of optical sight on to the top of the slide, though this involves drilling and tapping holes in the top of the slide.

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All 78Gs and 79Gs fire with a loud bang, the cocking hammer is fairly heavy and the spring that propels it when the trigger is pulled is powerful, but this is a hefty pistol and felt recoil is minimal.  The single action trigger pull on my 78G was short, but not especially light or crisp.  I’m told that the earlier versions with adjustable triggers have a much crisper trigger pull, but I haven’t tried one so I can’t comment on this.

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78G, six shots free standing, six yards, standard sights

A 78G in good condition will shoot at over 450fps in the high power setting with most pellet types (strangely, S&W claim only 365fps for the 78G on high power, but most owners report considerably higher velocities – mine regularly shot at 450 – 460fps).  Many 79Gs will produce over 500fps.  All versions shoot with awesome accuracy and the 78G is probably the only replica air pistol I have tried which was consistently more accurate and more powerful than my 6″ Umarex S&W 586.  Even at 10m, my 78G was capable of 1″ groupings and I believe that these are also capable of very good accuracy at up to 50ft (though the heavier .22 pellet from the 78G works better at longer ranges).  For most of the shooting I did, the 78G was far more accurate than I was capable of utilising, and I had to work hard on my technique, grip, breathing and stance to get the best out of this replica.

Loading and cocking for each shot is a slightly cumbersome process, and these certainly aren’t action shooting pistols, but they are more powerful and accurate than almost any replica air pistol you can buy today. The only thing that stopped my S&W 78G being my favourite replica in terms of shooting was my Crosman Mark 1. The S&W 78G and 79G are very similar to the Crosman Mark 1 in terms of design and function (unsurprising since the same designer was involved in both projects) but, for me at least, the Mark 1 is just a little better balanced, a bit less cumbersome and has a more comfortable grip angle than my 78G. These are very good replicas. It’s just that, in my opinion, the Crosman Mark 1 is slightly better.

Quality and reliability

The S&W 78G and 79G are made from zinc alloy, though this feels rather heavier than the alloys used on contemporary replicas (these air pistols actually weigh a little more than the Model 41 pistol).  However, the alloy used is also quite brittle, and care is needed to avoid damage during disassembly and use.  There are also issues with the use of dissimilar metals – on my 78G for example, the sleeve round the power adjustment screw was firmly stuck in place.  Several O rings were leaking, and the only way to disassemble the pistol is to remove this sleeve.  I eventually managed this, following several applications of penetrating oil and the use of more force than I would have liked, but it could easily have ended in disaster.  I found similar problems in a number of areas – the use of steel and brass components in an alloy shell can cause parts to become firmly wedged in place over time (the tiny allen screw used for trigger adjustment in early examples is another part which suffers from corrosion) and unless you are  confident in your gunsmithing skills, refurbishment of a 78G or 79G may be something best left to a professional.

The castings on some of the earliest 78G and 79G models also turned out to be porous and these can lose gas fairly quickly through the CO2 channels cast into the frame.  Sadly, there is not a lot you can do if your 78G or 79G is losing gas through the castings.  Later models (with the dull finish and non-adjustable trigger) don’t seem to suffer from this problem.

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There are also a couple of quirks in the operation of these replicas.  Once a 78G or 79G is cocked, it cannot be safely de-cocked other than by shooting.  It is also possible to unscrew the piercing assembly while a charged CO2 is in place, launching the assembly across the room with a great deal of force.  It’s best to release gas pressure by moving the cocking hammer fully to the rear and then test fire the pistol in a safe direction to confirm there is no residual pressure before removing the piercing assembly.

There also seems to be some variability in CO2 usage.  I generally used my 78G in the high power setting, and I found that I was getting 25 – 30 shots per CO2 (though I have seen claims of as few as 12 – 15 shots per CO2 for these models).  However, I have also seen claims of 100 and even 200 shots per CO2 from some users.  S&W claim 65 shots per CO2 on high power and 125 shots per CO2 on low power – the lower the power setting the less CO2 you’ll use, and the ability to cock to a half-power setting on early models may also help, but even so there seem to be wide differences between examples in the level of CO2 consumption.  I found that my 78G used a lot of CO2 though I was entirely willing to accept that in return for the high levels of power and accuracy the pistol provided.  On the other hand, other people seem to get much better CO2 consumption while retaining good power and accuracy so there does seem to be some variation.

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Another slightly worrying quirk of the 78G and 79G is a tendency to fire if they are dropped while cocked.  A stray .22 pellet traveling at over 450fps is definitely something you want to avoid, so careful handling is in order.  In the US in 1983 a recall was ordered on all S&W 78G and 79G models in addition to the Daisy 780, 790 and Model 41.  Recalled pistols were modified to prevent them from firing if dropped.  Apparently all pistols modified in this way have the letter “D” stamped on the angled part of the base of the grip.  I have handled a number of these pistols, but I have never seen one marked in this way so I wonder how many were actually modified?  Unless your 78G or 79G is marked in this way, be very careful when handling it cocked.

Keeping it working

If you buy any elderly air pistol, it is probably sensible to assume it will need to be resealed.  On the 78G and 79G most of the seals are simple O rings which can be replaced with modern Viton versions which will cure leaks and may even improve power.  Disassembly isn’t technically difficult and no special tools are needed, but some of these pistols are now more than forty years old, and many parts are likely to be firmly lodged in place.  This, combined with fairly brittle alloy casings can cause major problems, so approach with caution.

Conclusion

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Lots of 78Gs and 79Gs were produced and large numbers still turn up for sale.  If you do buy one of these, you aren’t buying a replica: this is a Smith & Wesson handgun which happens to use CO2 and pellets rather than cartridges.  For that reason alone, they’re worth considering, but they also happen to be extremely accurate and powerful, so they aren’t disappointing to shoot.  Of course, even the most recent 78G or 79G will be more than thirty-five years old now, so you have to expect some wear and tear and it’s probably sensible to budget for re-sealing to get the best out of one.  But for your money you’ll get one of the most accurate and powerful replicas around and you’ll own a real slice of S&W history.  Which can’t be bad, can it?

Related pages:

Crosman Mark 1 and Mark 2

Home

Classic replica air pistol reviews

Links

Very detailed article on re-sealing a 78G – Part 1

And Part 2

How to add a sight rail (to a Daisy 790) – Part 1

And Part 2

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2 thoughts on “Classic replica air pistol review: Smith & Wesson 78G and 79G

  1. i have one of these S&W 79g, tin of pellets,box,papers and the box the powerlets came in, i used the blue cylinders but still have the box, it holds air as long as it’s there,you have to shoot it to empty the cylinders. is it collectable and do you know who to contact to find a value,i am willing to sell. I am 73 and have had it a long time, it was built in Mass but later because no trigger adj and one stage cocking. please advise……Jim

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    • To Jim LaFoe; Hell, I’m 87 and still have a “never used” Model 78G in the original box. Will sell it as I now recently bought a S&W SD9VE ( 9mm).Dick Merrill

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