This is the first installment in “A Trio of Smiths” series
In The Roaring Twenties, during the heyday of Prohibition and organized crime, the standard issue law enforcement sidearm was either a Colt, or a Smith and Wesson revolver in .38 Special. With a 158 grain lead round nose bullet lazily frolicking at around 750-800 feet per second, it made for an adequate man stopper, was exceedingly accurate, and had mild recoil. However, it did make for poor penetration, especially in cases of the new fangled bulletproof vests and armored cars that the bad guys had. The alternative for those in law enforcement on the cutting edge was the 1911 in .45 ACP. Unfortunately, its 230 grain slug going a smidgen faster than the 38’s didn’t improve the penetration enough to make a difference.
In light of this, Colt and S&W both got to work on solutions to the problem. In 1929 Colt introduced the .38 Super Automatic. This hot little round, an update to the old 38 ACP and chambered in the 1911, drove a 130 grain full metal patch(jacketed) bullet at a blistering 1300 fps. This made short work of the bulletproof vests and the armored cars of the time. However, most Law Enforcement was mistrustful of semi-auto pistols and required a revolver to be carried by patrol officers. In 1930, Smith and Wesson came up with a solution called the 38-44. This was the 38 Special cartridge loaded with a 158 grain full metal patch bullet flying along at 1150 fps, but chambered in the heavier S-Frame pistol built originally for the .44 Special. There was an obvious problem though, both of these rounds could be chambered in firearms designed for the older and weaker cartridge. Colt and Smith and Wesson both tried to fix that by changing the head stamps on the cartridge rims but people still put 38-44HV rounds in their much weaker K-frame revolvers. Along with help from Elmer Keith, S&W set about to fixing the problem and developing an even hotter round, and hotter pistol.
In 1934-35 S&W introduced a completely new cartridge: the .357 Magnum. This round was 1/8 of an inch longer than a .38 so it could not be chambered in a pistol that was designed for the .38 Special. The new round’s ballistics were originally a 158 grain bullet at 1500 fps! That is roughly double what the humble .38 Special was capable of. They also introduced a new pistol, called the “Registered Magnum” to house the new round. This pistol was, and is, the most desirable of all Smith and Wesson revolvers as it was completely hand made and customizable with a myriad of barrel lengths in ¼ inch increments, grips, finishes, sights, etc. Even though it was introduced in the middle of the Great Depression and was extremely expensive for the time, Smith & Wesson was backlogged with orders for the entirety of time that it produced the Registered Magnum. The Kansas City Police Department issued the Registered Magnum to its officers, and many other law enforcement officers across the United States carried the Registered Magnum. In 1939 Smith & Wesson stopped producing the Registered Magnum and replaced it with the 357 Magnum, which was still the Registered Magnum, but with the lack of customizable features, and standardized for ease of production and economy. In 1955, Smith and Wesson changed how they named revolvers and began using a numeric system instead of the old titular style. The Military and Police became the Model 10, the Chief’s Special became the Model 36, The Highway Patrolman became the Model 28 and the 357 Magnum became the Model 27, etc.
Owning the 357 Magnum
My example is a Pre-Model 27, on a 5 screw, S-Frame. It has a 6 ½ inch pinned and ribbed barrel, with pinned front partridge sight. The chambers are recessed as well. All of these features are very desirable in early S&Ws. The best I can figure is that this pistol was probably made somewhere in the early 1950s as it has the second model hammer. The finish, even though it is sixty plus years old, still has a lovely luster. Somebody really did like shooting this pistol because it has a deeply impressed cylinder ring, but the rifling in the barrel is still sharp. The big wheel-gun balances very nicely, and is easy to shoot accurately with one or both hands, despite its 3lb weight when loaded. The trigger breaks at a clean 3 pounds in single action, and about 10lbs in double action. Overall it is probably the most beautiful pistol I have ever shot.
On the Range
“What?!” you are probably thinking. “You still shoot this pistol?” Oh yes, yes indeed. In fact, this revolver is the most accurate pistol that I own. It makes me look good. Too good, in fact.
When I was on Active Duty Some years back, some Army buddies and I would go to a local gun club off post on our time off. I would bring my trusty Smith with me. My buddies would then bet the local patrons, and on one occasion the owner of the establishment, that no one could hit the little green man in the top left corner of a standard B-27 target from the back of this indoor pistol range, which If I recall correctly was about 100 feet, so roughly 33 yards. Some money would exchange hands, the marks would take their turns shooting, almost everyone would miss. Then, I would roll up to the line, drop in one 148 grain match wadcutter in the big cylinder of that Smith, assume a good Weaver stance, and let fly. When the target came back, there would always be a perfectly round hole in the center of that little green man. We would then leave with our fruits of labor.
Like I said, I am a middling-to average shot, but when I benched this pistol the other day at the range, only shooting Mags, the largest group I got at 25 yards was a touch over two inches, with the smallest just under 1 and a quarter inches from center to center. No telling what a Match grade 38 Special could do in this behemoth. I shot several types of 357 through the pistol; Hornady 158gr XTP, Federal 158gr JSP, Grizzly 200 gr LNFP, and some handloads with Keith-style 158 gr LNFP. It favored the Federals in this trial, but I have some more playing to do with this pistol.
The 357 Magnum is one of those few truly iconic American pistols and I feel very fortunate to be one the few that has a working example. This pistol exudes history and nostalgia, but not so much to have become obsolete. The classic lines, hand tooling, musclecar-like performance, and tank-like reliability make this one a keeper.