December 21, 2020
By Leroy Thompson
The gangster era during Prohibition and later saw the typical police officer, who was armed with a .38 S&W or .38 S&W Special revolver, outgunned by gangsters with self-loading pistols, BARs, or Thompson SMGs. These same gangsters generally drove fast cars with heavy steel bodies that often would defeat the .38 Special standard load of 158-grain bullet, at 860 feet per second, producing 260 foot pounds of energy.
In 1929, Colt introduced the .38 Super, which gave law enforcement officers a load that would punch through auto bodies, but many law enforcement agencies did not want to adopt an autoloading pistol. Some officers, including many Texas Rangers, did carry individually owned Colt 1911 .45 ACP or .38 Super pistols. Other agencies, especially in the Southwest, adopted revolvers chambered for the .44 Special or .45 Colt cartridge. More often, officers purchased their own big-bore revolvers. These offered more stopping power than the .38 Special, though the .44 Special was marginal if not hand-loaded. However, even though the big-bore revolvers offered more stopping power, they did not always offer superior penetration against vehicles.
Smith & Wesson, always aware of the needs of its law enforcement market, offered an alternative to the .38 Super with the introduction, also in 1929, of its .38/44 Heavy Duty revolver chambered for an enhanced .38 Special load at 1,100 feet per second. The loads were designated .38/44 to indicate they were .38 caliber, but were intended to be fired in revolvers with the heavier .44 frame. Initially, the .38/44 Heavy Duty was only offered with a 5-inch barrel and fixed sights. Later, a 4-inch barrel version was introduced, and a few 6½-inch ones as well.
Sportsmen saw the advantages of the heavier .38 Special load but wanted a revolver with adjustable sights. As a result, in 1931, S&W introduced the .38/44 Outdoorsman with adjustable sights and a 6½" barrel. Using the Outdoorsman, hand loaders such as Elmer Keith and Phil Sharpe pushed the limits of the .38 Special round even further.
Meanwhile at Smith & Wesson, company Vice President Douglas Wesson, a descendant of the company’s founder, was aware of the experimentation in developing even heavier loads, having received samples from some of those hoping to enhance the performance of their .38/44 revolvers.
Wesson became convinced that a .38 load using a 158/160-grain bullet at 1,450 to 1,500 feet per second could be developed. Remington was approached about loading a cartridge that fit Wesson’s parameters but felt such loads would create pressure too high for the revolvers then available. Winchester, however, was willing to undertake development of the hotter cartridge and, by 1934, using a beefed-up .38/44 revolver produced by Smith & Wesson, had perfected the load. As developed by Winchester, the load exceeded even Douglas Wesson’s expectations, as it pushed a 158-grain bullet at 1,515 feet per second for 812 foot pounds of energy.
To prevent careless shooters from firing the new load in older, lighter .38 Special revolvers, the cartridge case was lengthened by .135 inch. To handle the new loads, Smith & Wesson built a .38/44 Outdoorsman with a specially heat-treated cylinder and recesses for the case heads in case they ruptured, though in actuality, this did not prove a problem. To help deal with the “punishing” recoil, the revolver weighed 41¾ ounces and had an 8¾" heavy barrel. The new cartridge was designated the .357 Magnum to clearly differentiate it from the .38 Special. S&W trademarked the name “.357 Magnum.” The irony for shooters today reading about the pains to have a heavy, long-barreled revolver for the .357 Magnum is that we can order the .357 Magnum 360PD with a 17⁄8-inch barrel and a weight of 14 ounces!
Doug Wesson decided that the new revolver would be built to special order. This added to its cachet, but also made it more difficult for criminals to acquire the powerful weapon. Wesson also saw a market among handgun hunters and generated early publicity for the .357 Magnum revolver by using an 8¾-inch version on a Wyoming hunt for antelope, elk and moose at ranges between 100 and 200 yards. On another hunt to Canada, he used his .357 to take a grizzly bear with one shot at 135 yards.
Each customer for a .357 Magnum would make various choices for the features he wanted. He could choose any barrel length between 3½ inches and 8¾ inches. Barrels had full ribs to dampen recoil. Other choices were of type of grips, finish, and sights. Each revolver was sighted with the purchaser’s choice of ammo and at the distance of his choice. It has been estimated that the various choices offered over 21,000 possible combinations.
Douglas Wesson chose three of the foremost S&W craftsman to assemble the .357 Magnum revolvers. Barrels were produced in 8¾-inch length, then cut to the size ordered by the customer. Retail price in 1935, when the revolver was introduced, was $60.00 (about $1,072 in 2017 dollars), $15.00 more than the .38/44 Outdoorsman. On the frame of each revolver, inside the crane, was a special registration number. Each revolver carried a lifetime guarantee, and those purchasers returning a card that came in the box with the .357 Magnum revolver received a certificate listing its purchaser, home town, and special features.
Revolvers with the 8¾" barrel were considered standard, as it was felt this length would maximize the revolver’s performance. Registration number one with an 8¾" barrel was given to J. Edgar Hoover. As mentioned above, this was considered the standard length by S&W, but T. J. Mullin, who wrote the book Magnum, also theorizes that S&W may have wanted to publicize the longer barrel for possible police sales as a substitute for the carbine.
Other early examples had been sent to Springfield Armory for U.S. military tests and to prominent hand loaders and hand gunners such as Phil Sharpe, Ed McGivern, and Elmer Keith. Guns were shipped to shooters who had read or heard about the new revolver throughout 1935, with a total of 724 .357 Magnums having been produced by the end of the year.
A substantial number of the revolvers were ordered by individual police officers or federal agents. Despite the presentation to J. Edgar Hoover, initially there were no FBI orders for the agency, but individual agents did order .357 Magnums, mostly with 3½" or 4" barrels. The ramped combat sight that would be most popular with law enforcement customers is usually designated the “Baughman Quick Draw” or some variation, after Frank Baughman, a well-known FBI agent who preferred this type of sight. The actual originator of the sight was likely another customer. In July 1937, the FBI purchased 100 of the .357 Magnums, with 5-inch barrels and Baughman front sights. Based on talks with FBI agents, as of 15 or 20 years ago, some of these 5-inch revolvers remained in FBI armories, though reportedly, field officers were ordered to send any of them remaining back to Quantico.
An array of front sights was available. Although I like the Baughman ramped front sight, another favorite of mine has always been the King Reflector Front Sight. This sight incorporates a small mirror at the base of the sight to throw additional light onto the bead. To allow adjustment of elevation for varying loads, an extra rear sight blade was included with each revolver.
Smith & Wesson produced 5,224 of the Registered Magnums. Within that number, at least one revolver was produced with a barrel length having each length between 3½ and 8¾ inches, in ¼-inch increments. However, only one each is known to have been produced in 5¾-, 6¼-, 7¼-, and 7¾-inch lengths. Separate records are not available for 853 revolvers, so it is possible that another revolver with one of these barrel lengths was produced. By far, the most popular barrel length was 6½ inches, with an estimated 1,518 produced. Second most popular was the 5-inch barrel, with an estimated 869 produced, and third most popular was the 6-inch barrel, with an estimated 702 produced. Indicating that a substantial number of purchasers were hunters or long-range shooters, 615 8¾-inch revolvers are estimated to have been produced. After the .357 Magnum’s introduction, it was determined that the 8¾-inch barrel did not qualify for use in some matches. As a result, to meet the requirements, Smith & Wesson introduced the 83⁄8-inch barrel. Only an estimated 32 revolvers were sold with barrels of this length, seeming to indicate that the longer barrels were more popular with outdoorsmen than match shooters.
Blued Registered Magnums were far more popular than nickeled ones, with estimates that fewer than 175 nickeled .357 Magnum revolvers were sold.
In October 1939, Smith & Wesson discontinued the practice of building each .357 Magnum to order and registering each revolver. Instead, barrel lengths of 3½, 5, 6, 6½, and 83⁄8 inches were standardized based on the popularity of those calibers among those who had ordered Registered Magnums. For an extra dollar, a special barrel length could still be ordered. Among collectors, these revolvers are known as “Pre-War Non-Registered Magnums.” According to Smith & Wesson records, a total of 5,224 Registered Magnums were sold, and 1,418 Non-registered Magnums were sold prior to stopping production so Smith & Wesson could concentrate on military contracts for World War II.
The Registered Magnum did go off to war, though. Individual officers carried their personally owned Registered Magnums. Most famous was Gen. George Patton, who carried his 3½-inch Registered Magnum as his “killing gun.” When he wore two guns, it was normally carried on the left side, while his Colt Single Action Army in .45 Colt was carried on his right side.
Some other American heroes of the silver screen were owners of Registered Magnums. Friends and hunting/shooting buddies Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, and Gary Cooper each owned a Registered Magnum. Gary Cooper’s, which has the scarce 4½-inch barrel, recently sold at auction for $50,000 plus a $7,500 buyer’s premium!
The .357 Magnum came back after World War II; production began again in 1949. The same five barrel lengths that had been offered on the Pre-War Non-Registered Magnum were continued. When Smith & Wesson assigned model numbers in 1957, the descendant of the Registered Magnum would become the Model 27.
Today, the Registered Magnum is one of the most sought-after and collectible Smith & Wessons. Its special features and quality evoke the time between the two World Wars when a high-quality Smith & Wesson double-action revolver was considered a faithful companion. Smith & Wesson offered the Registered Magnum as its elite revolver. As with classic cars, nostalgia has only enhanced that elite status.
Shooting The Registered Magnum
I decided this article wouldn’t be complete unless I took one of my Registered Magnums to the range. I chose a 4-inch example with bluing wear that precludes it from being a “safe queen.” I have a Smith & Wesson factory letter on this revolver with Registration number 144, so I know that it was shipped on June 17, 1935 to an inspector in the U.S. Border Patrol. Its registration number would seem to indicate that the original customer saw the announcement of the Registered Magnum early and put in his order. The letter also states that he got the law enforcement price of $48.00, a 20% discount.
First, to test the revolver’s accuracy, I fired it two-handedly at 25 yards on a bullseye target. The single-action trigger pull was among the smoothest I’ve ever used. I remembered this as one of the reasons I shoot this Registered Magnum more than any of the others I own. My 5-shot, 25-yard group fired two-handedly was 2.5 inches using Black Hills 158-grain semi-wadcutters. I also did some shooting with Black Hills 158-grian JHP. Neither load matched the velocity of the original .357 Magnum loads, but at least the bullet weight was correct.
Especially since my revolver had gone to a Border Patrol inspector, I wanted to shoot it one-handedly, double-action, using the crouching combat stance taught by the FBI and other agencies during the “gangster era.” Oddly enough, I had originally learned this technique as the French Sasia method, but Sasia had adopted it from the FBI. Firing from a crouch, double action, but using the sights, at seven yards, I put all six rounds into the red center-of-mass oval on a law-enforcement training target. The double action was very smooth on my Registered Magnum. I should note for those looking at the photos with this article that my crouch is not as low as it was when I first learned the technique 40+ years ago!
I finished up by firing off-handedly, using one hand, to shoot plates at 50 yards. Although I still practice one-handed drills occasionally, it had been awhile since I shot one-handedly at that distance, but I was running about 50% hits after a couple of cylinders full.
Over 82 years after it left the factory, the Registered Magnum is still a fine revolver. As the price of Smith & Wesson Registered Magnums goes up, fewer will probably get taken to range. But enough of them were used by peace officers or outdoorsman that they show honest wear. Taking them to the range occasionally won’t hurt their monetary value and will enhance their personal appeal.