The 1930's were tough times. The roaring '20's became the depression '30's putting many honest men out of work, and the dishonest ones had caused bootlegging and bank robbing to reach epidemic proportions. Police officers, already overworked and underpaid, found themselves facing a better armed, better organized adversary. Suddenly the peace officers at all levels were inadequately armed with double action .38 Specials from Colt or Smith & Wesson, while the other side had gone to .45 semi-autos and the infamous "Chicago Chopper", the Thompson sub-machine gun.
The two major firearms companies immediately went to work to provide new handguns for the nation's peace officers. Colt seemed to sense what coming, and was first on the market introducing the .38 Super in 1930. This was simply the Model 1911 .45, chambered for a new high speed .38. The .38 Super pushed its 130 grain full metal jacketed bullet at 1300 fps and did it ten times before reloading was necessary. It seems that neither shooters nor police officers were yet ready for a modern semi-automatic, and Smith & Wesson stayed with the tried and true traditional revolver. After the .38 Super was introduced, the Springfield firm started working with their .44 frame (now N-frame) revolver in a hotter version of the .38 Special. Both gun and ammunition were dubbed the .38-44 Heavy Duty. Those .38-44 Outsdoorsman Models with adjustable sights and fixed sighted .38-44 Heavy Duty double action sixguns were some of the finest revolvers ever turned out by Smith & Wesson.
Elmer Keith reported his testing of an early batch of .38-44 ammunition through a five inch .38-44, and Phil Sharpe, noted ammunition expert of the 1930's also worked with the new .38 with the end result being both a new gun from Smith & Wesson and ammunition from Winchester as the .357 Magnum was introduced in 1935. The new sixgun was nothing more than the .38-44 with specially heat treated cylinder and frame and chambered for a new cartridge that was one-tenth of an inch longer than the .38 Special and named, of course, the .357 Magnum.
Those first .357's were in reality custom-made, one at a time and in addition to being serially numbered, they were also registered by Smith & Wesson, that is marked with a second number and a special certificate made out to the original owner. They were available in barrel lengths from 3 1/2 inches up to 8 3/4 inches and virtually any length in between. The longest and shortest were the most popular with two groups of people: outdooorsman and peace officers.
Colonel Doug Wesson promoted the first Magnum by using it to take antelope, moose, elk, and grizzly bear. The age of handgun hunting had arrived. Early 3 1/2 inch .357 Magnums became popular with FBI agents after one of the first was presented to J. Edgar Hoover. And no less a future personality than soon-to-be General George Patton, purchased a 3 1/2 inch .357 Magnum in Hawaii in 1935. Fitted with ivory grips to match his Colt Single Action .45, Patton called his .357 his "killin' gun." Patton used the ivory gripped mis-matched pair as a trademark and actually had two holster rigs made up by S.D. "Tio Sam" Myres so he could wear either gun on either side as desired. This caused much confusion as it is still often erroneously reported that he carried a pair of Colt Single Action .45's.
The first Magnum became an instant hit and Colt chambered both their Single Action and New Service Model for the .357 Magnum. Many of the Colt Single Action .357 "pre-war" models went across the Atlantic to take part in the Battle of Britain.
While the guns chambered for the first Magnum were successes, the early ammunition was not. The first .357 Magnum ammo was powered by a large rifle primer, a plus, but the bullets were so soft as to cause serious barrel leading with the use of a cylinder full or two, a definite negative. Handloaders were able to overcome this problem by using hard cast bullets to replace the soft swaged factory bullets; jacketed bullets for the .357 were still off in the future.
The .357 Magnum, the first, and to many appreciative shooters, the best of the Magnums, has been a steady seller for the past fifty plus years. Of all the Magnums, it delivers the most muzzle energy in exchange for the least felt recoil. While it was looked upon as some kind of magical round in the 1930's, one that would penetrate any automobile or down any game animal, it has been put into proper perspective over the years, and has become a favorite of shooters who also realize its limitations. It is at its best as a defensive round; a varmint and small game round for hunters and outdoorsman; and is only pressed into service for big game occasionally, and is generally regarded as a round that should only be used by expert shots for hunting anything above the size of coyotes. In recent years, it has proven to be an excellent round for both long- and short-range silhouetting when used with the proper guns and loads.
The .357 has been the favorite of some notable gun writers and looked upon with disdain by others. Elmer Keith regarded it as barely adequate, and one got the feeling that he would never own one as it was nothing more than a hot .38 Special. However when I recently examined all of his sixguns, I found an ivory gripped early Smith & Wesson 3 1/2 inch .357 among them. Skeeter Skelton held the .357 in high esteem, both in the original Smith & Wesson .357 with a 5 inch barrel and the original Ruger Blackhawk with a 6 1/2 inch barrel. And one cannot ignore Bill Jordan and the .357 he designed in conjunction with Smith and Wesson, namely the .357 Combat Magnum.
Let's look at some of the best .357's that are available to shooters today and perhaps even take a short stroll down memory lane to look at some of those that are no more. Come along and enjoy the first Magnum, the .357.
SMITH & WESSON: Smith & Wesson started it all, of course, as outlined above. The original .357, now the Model 27, sadly ahs been dropped from the S&W lineup. A classy feature of the Model 27 is the fineline checkering found on the top strap and barrel rib. As the checkering on the top of a Model 27 is observed, one literally feels he has traversed back into a time when guns were lovingly assembled more by the hands of skilled craftsmen and less by machine.
The original 8 3/4 inch barrel of the 1930's .357 was quickly "shortened" to 8 3/8 inches to conform to sight-radius target-shooting rules of the time. Two of the most popular lengths, the 3 1/2 inch was favored by FBI agents of yesteryear, and Skeeter Skelton's favorite was the 5 inch length.
In the 1950's, Bill Jordan, then of the U.S. Border Patrol, began to beat the drum for a smaller, lighter .357; one that a peace officer could carry all day with less fatigue than the N-frame .357. The result was the mating of the K-frame .38 Special with a .357 cylinder and heavy barrel with enclosed ejector rod. The resulting model, the .357 Combat Magnum, now Model 19, is one of the slickest, little carry guns ever devised. Fully loaded, the 4 inch K-frame Magnum shaved six ounces from the weight of the 3 1/2 inch Model 27 plus it was much less bulky. By the 1980's, some Combat Magnum/Model 19 shooters, as well as those using its stainless counterpart, the Model 66, were complaining that the K-frame would not hold up to modern ammunition. Jordan originally devised the K-frame Magnum as one to be practiced with using .38 Specials and fed .357's for serious business. When shooters started pushing thousands of rounds of Magnum ammunition through the 19/66 some problems developed with forcing cone wear and guns shooting loose. Since the vast majority of my loads through Model 19's have been cast bullets, I have never experienced any problems with mine. In fact, when I shot the Sheriff's Department Qualification Course with the little 19 and even after years of use, it turned in a perfect 300 x 300 score.
But the problem was real and Smith & Wesson responded with a third .357, the L-frame Model 586 blue, and the 686 stainless, the Distinguished Combat Magnum. The L-frame falls somewhere in between the K- and N-frames with a 4 inch, fully loaded 586 weighing in at 43 ounces. SO the 586 weighs only one ounce less than the N-frame .357 but the weight is in the heavy L-frame barrel and forcing cone, with the cylinder diameter in between the two older models. And most importantly Smith and Wesson retained the K-frame grip size. It is very difficult for men and women who have small hands, including peace officers, to control the larger N-frame Smith.
The original .357 loading in 1935 consisted of a 158 grain swaged bullet over 16.0 grains of #2400 ignited by a rifle primer. This load is too hot today for most guns as #2400 has changed through the years and is better suited for 158 grain bullets with 14.0. to 15.0 grains.
My 8 3/8" Model 27 as it has always been a very accurate revolver but most of its use has been with cast bullets. So out came my old standby load, Keith's original load of .38 Special brass, 13.5 grains of #2400, and his long nosed-bullet, the 168 grain Lyman #358429. This bullet is used in .38 brass since it is too long to allow cylinder rotation of many .357 revolvers when crimped in the crimping groove and used with .357 brass. Five shots with this old load gives a groups into 1 1/8 inch at 25 yards.
COLT: While Colt immediately jumped on the .357 bandwagon in the '30's by chambering their two large frame revolvers for the first Magnum, it would be almost 20 years before an original Colt .357 Magnum would be offered to the public. By this time, both the New Service and Single Action Army in .357 and all other calibers were gone from the Colt Catalog. The Single Action would be resurrected in 1956; the New Service has stayed buried. The first Colt .357 was basically their excellent .41 frame Officer's Model Match .38 Special made into a .357 with a heavy bull barrel. Every kid of the time period knew that cartoon cop Dick Tracy carried a Colt .357 Magnum. Then as so often happens, one gun, destined to be one of the all time classic guns, started out as something else.
Target shooting with .38 Special revolvers was in vogue in the '50's and Colt set out to create the ultimate target revolver. They used the Officer's Model/.357 Magnum frame and added a very heavy bull barrel with a full underlug. The result was a very heavy revolver, so the barrel was give a figure 8 silhouette when viewed from the muzzle end, the rib received slots to further cut weight, someone decided to chamber it in .357 Magnum, and the Python was born. So with a series of changes, what was to be the ultimate .38 Target revolver became, what many still consider the ultimate .357 Magnum. Advertising of the time called the Python the "cadillac of revolvers."
Will Rogers used to say that he never met a man he didn't like. Along the same lines, I have never met a Python owner who did not feel that he had the best possible .357 Magnum. Myself, I would have a difficult time choosing between a Smith Model 27 and a Colt Python especially when both wear long barrels. They are true classic .357's and superbly accurate and durable sixguns.
The Python was originally offered with a 6 inch barrel, later to be joined in succession by barrel lengths of 4 inches, 2 1/2 inches, and my personal favorite, the 8 inch barrel length. The original finishes was the gorgeous Colt Royal Blue, now long gone.
The Colt .357 Magnum, the Trooper Mark III Model, The Trooper
Mark V Model, the Single Action, and the New Frontier .357's are all gone from the Colt line-up. The on again/off again King Cobra is basically a blending of the best features of the Python and Trooper Models at a lower price than the Python. The King Cobra is the Trooper Mark V fitted with a Python type heavy barrel.
The 8 inch Python, equipped with Skeeter Skelton grips of Kingwood, weighs in at 52 ounces fully loaded with six 158 grain rounds and is extremely pleasant to shoot and very accurate. Pythons that I have encountered over the years normally have very tight groove diameters that aid accuracy with both cast and jacketed bullets.
RUGER: Bill Ruger brought American shooters back to the Single Action mainly with his .22 Single-Six introduced in 1953 and .357 Blackhawk introduced in 1955. Graduating from high school in 1956, I purchased a Single-Six and soon thereafter a .357 Blackhawk and have been shooting Rugers ever since. Ruger did what shooters had been urging Colt to do for years: modernize the Single Action. Bill Ruger has an uncanny knack of knowing what handgunners will like, and basically took the Colt Single Action, up-dated it with coil springs and adjustable sights, chambered it in Magnum calibers, and captured a significant portion of the American market in the process.
The first centerfire Ruger Blackhawk, now lovingly referred to as the Flat-top Model, was offered in three barrel lengths: 4 5/8, 6 1/2, and 10 inches. The latter is very rare and very valuable to collectors. IN 1963, the Flat-top was replaced by the "Three-screw" Blackhawk. The grip frame was changed from Colt Single Action style to one that allowed more knuckle room. At the same time, the flat-top silhouette was lost as protective ribs were placed on both sides of the rear sight. The third generation .357 Blackhawk, the New Model, came about in 1973 with the addition of the safety transfer bar, plus the size and weight of the .357 Blackhawk was increased substantially as the .357 frame size was dropped and all centerfire Blackhawks began to share the .44 sized frame. At 50 ounces, a fully loaded 4 5/8 inch stainless New Model .357 Blackhawk weighs a full 7 ounces more than a fully loaded 6 1/2 inch First Model Blackhawk. That is one reason so many sixgunners still cling to their Flat-tops.
Ruger had a nearly complete lock on Single Actions into the '70's so it was surprising when they decided to capture a large part of the law enforcement market with the introduction of their Security Six line of double action revolvers. After over a million of these .357's have been sold, the Security Six has been dropped and replaced by the better GP-100. The GP-100 is a thoroughly modern double action revolver of modular construction, offered in stainless and blue, with heavy underlug barrel only in the 4 inch model and both a heavy barrel and a standard barrel model available with the 6 inch length.
Like Dan Wessons, Ruger GP-100's do not have a grip frame as such but a stud that accepts the grip, in this case a rubber grip with wooden panels. And like the Dan Wesson, Ruger also offers one of the few factory double action grips that are comfortable to shoot. An added bonus is the fact that the Ruger grip stud readily accepts custom grips of various sizes and can easily be fitted with grips that will mate with small hands.
The GP-100's have a reputation for exceptional accuracy. All GP- 100's have the standard Ruger adjustable rear sight and come with black ramp front sights that can easily be replaced with Ruger front sights in red, white, blue, or yellow as the shooter desires. To me, good sights and front sight interchangeability is a top selling point.
Every GP-100 I have handled has had an excellent double action and single action trigger and the design is such that good double action shooting can be done, especially with the heavy barrelled 4 inch model which is showing up in the holsters of many peace officers.
A third .357 Ruger is available in the Bisley Model. Once again, Bill Ruger reached back into the past, took the grip frame, trigger, and hammer of the old Colt Bisley, modernized them and combined them with the Blackhawk frame and action and we have the .357 New Model Bisley. And for the first time, a Ruger single action .357 is offered with a 7 1/2 inch barrel, a real plus for outdoorsman, hunters, and long-range shooters.
With its all steel grip frame, the fully loaded 7 1/2 inch Bisley .357 weighs in at 54 ounces and is a most pleasant .357 to shoot even with the heaviest of loads. Having worked with numerous Bisleys of all calibers over the past few years, I have found them to be well above average in accuracy, finish, and trigger pulls. These are good, strong, single action sixguns that will give decades of tough service.
DAN WESSON: The early Dan Wesson .357 was a good design that very few people wanted for two reasons: it was a radical and ungainly looking sixgun. Dan Wesson himself, left Smith & Wesson and went out on his own to build, what he considered, a better mouse-trap. But the world did not flock to his door until the design was cleaned up and a whole new world of shooters discovered the inherent accuracy of Dan Wesson revolvers. But we are getting slightly ahead of the story.
Dan Wesson decided the time was right for a new revolver design. Completely breaking with tradition, he offered a revolver that featured modular construction, that is it was easily disassembled for cleaning and repair; instead of a grip frame, the grip proper, of one piece design, accepted a stud on the frame of the Dan Wesson revolver; and most radical of all, the Dan Wesson revolver featured easy barrel removal and the shooter had the option of changing barrel lengths at will and in a matter of just a few moments.
Those early guns with their slim barrels and barrel retaining nut at the muzzle end of the barrel were unsightly to say the least. Once the barrel nut was secreted inside the barrel shroud, and the heavy barrel became an option and most importantly, when silhouetters discovered the Dan Wesson, success was assured.
The DW factory got into the silhouette game early, offering long heavy barrels for the .357, starting with an 8 inch and then a 10 inch barrel, plus they were willing to listen to silhouetters and improve their sights and offer long range, Patridge-style, interchangeable front sights. Silhouetters responded by working their way through the DW .357 and all other calibers that have been offered by the factory.
While the .357 Dan Wesson found much acceptance with silhouetters, it has not been looked upon strongly by law enforcement personnel. This is unfortunate as the DW .357 is perfect for right-handed shooters and the use of speed loaders. With the cylinder release at the front of the cylinder, it is both quick and easy to shift the revolver to the left hand, open the cylinder with the left hand and insert speed loaded cartridges with the right hand all in a very short time.
The .357 Magnum has survived the onset of the .44 Magnum, the .41 Magnum, the .454 Casull. It was been the favorite sidearm of peace officers for over fifty years. It is still a great cartridge for most, but not all, of what we need sixguns for.