Smith and Wesson brought out their No. 2 Model in 32 rimfire in 1861, just in time for the Civil War. Of the 77,000 made from 1861 to 1874, approximately 35,700 were made during the War.
The rimfire metallic cartridge was a recent invention when Smith & Wesson put this model into production. Smith & Wesson's first successful revolver was their No. 1 Model in 22 Short that came out in 1857. The Henry rifle and it's 44 rimfire cartridge had just been introduced in 1860 when the 32 rim fire made its debut.
The Henry 44 rimfire in a revolver (didn't happen until Colt made such a revolver in 1872) would compare favorably with handgun cartridges used today for serious self defense, such as the 38 Special. But the 32 rimfire would not. Using average numbers, the muzzle energy for the 44 Henry when used in a revolver is 270 (technical name is foot pounds of energy). For the 36 & 44 cap and ball revolvers commonly used in the Civil War, about 170. But the 32 rimfire is only about 100. Yes, it is dangerous, and can be lethal, but an invigorated adversary can more easily absorb hits from a 32 rimfire and continue the fight even if they are to die several days later.
In the middle of a battle or other chaos, the sound of the 32 rimfire wouldn't be as noticeably loud as the 36 & 44 revolvers of those times.
The early S&W pistols, including the No. 2, were hinged at the top allowing the cylinder to be completely removed. The cylinder was pushed over the center pin to remove the fired cartridge cases. This was much faster, 10 or 15 seconds with experience, then two minutes to load the much more common cap and ball revolvers. But reloading the cartridge 32 revolver takes about the same amount of time as switching a previously loaded cylinder in the much more powerful Remington 44.
Smith and Wesson's Model No.1 in 22 Short was carried in the Civil War but not much as it is very underpowered. Smith & Wesson made a five shot 32 on the same frame as their 22 calling the same sized 32 as their Model No. 1-1/2, but it didn't enter production until 1865--the year the Civil War ended.
Although the Civil War cap and ball revolvers are being made new in Italy, the Smith and Wesson cartridge revolvers are not, for among other reasons, the spur trigger without a trigger guard is deemed unsafe in cartridge revolvers by modern standards.
For more information, consult "Flayderman's Guide To Antique American Firearms" by Norm Flayderman, Smith and Wesson 1857-1945 by Jinks and Neal, or Standard Catalog of Smith and Wesson by Supica and my good friend Rick Nahas.
Length 10 inches
Weight 1 1/4 pounds
Caliber 32 (.316")
Bullet Weight 80 grains
Power Charge 9 grains
Muzzle Velocity 750 feet per seconds
Muzzle Energy 100 foot pounds