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The History of the .357 Magnum

Now commonly regarded as no big deal, in 1935 this revolver created quite a stir.


The 1920s was a fascinating time in American history. With the passage of the 18th Amendment enacting Prohibition, the United States allegedly became dry. In reality, though, Americans' insatiable thirst for demon rum provided a perfect environment for the underground enterprise of bootlegging. As with most criminal enterprises, profits were proportional to risks, and when the big money was at stake bullets tended to fly, and fly often. Too, just as today with big drug cartels, the big money bought lots of big, powerful guns. Law enforcement was caught behind the curve with their handy little .32- and .38-caliber double-action revolvers. Cops on the street pined for a revolver that had better penetration.

Smith & Wesson realized that if it loaded the .38 Spl. much hotter, it would overstress the relatively light frame of its .38 Military & Police revolvers, so the company chambered its heavy .44 frame in .38 Spl. with a 5-inch barrel, calling it the .38/44 Heavy Duty. Introduced on April 1, 1930, the .38/44, along with ammunition loaded to give a 158-grain bullet about 300 fps more velocity than a standard .38 Spl., the .38/44 was an instant success with policemen and rural troopers. About a year and a half later an adjustable-sight, 6 1/2-inch barreled version debuted as the .38/44 Outdoorsman, catering toward the hunter and long-range handgunner.

Phil Sharpe, a noted gun writer of the time and a member of the NRA Technical Staff, felt the .38/44 was capable of much better performance—read: higher velocity. Elmer Keith thought so as well, and both men separately began working up hotter loads that approached 1,400 fps with a 158-grain bullet. Keith's interest in the .38 caliber waned as he turned his attention to revving up the performance of the .44 Spl., but Sharpe continued stumping for a truly hot performing .38. He found a sympathetic ear in Smith & Wesson's Vice President Douglass B. Wesson. Smith & Wesson and the ammunition division of Winchester Repeating Arms took note, and by 1934 the cartridge design had been completed. It featured a .125-inch longer case than the .38 Spl. and launched a 158-grain bullet at 1,515 fps from an 8 3/4-inch barrel. A year later, Smith & Wesson introduced the revolver to contain this new mighty beast—the .357 Mag., which is reaching its 75th anniversary.

The brass at Smith & Wesson envisioned the .357 Mag. as a custom-built revolver, targeting handgun connoisseurs. America was deep in the bowels of The Great Depression, so the company could not fathom big sales of a revolver costing a mind-boggling $60-$15 more than any premium gun in the Smith & Wesson line. Each of the initial .357 Mag. revolvers was lavishly finished in a brightly polished blue. Any barrel length from 3 1/2 to 8 3/4 inches could be ordered. Chambers were burnished, and, of course, target sights were standard with a choice of seven front sights. The topstrap and barrel rib were hand checkered to eliminate any glare. Magna grips-with or without a grip adapter-were available. Each revolver was sighted in at the factory with the customers' choice of ammo at any distance out to 200 meters. The owner also received a numbered registration certificate in his or her name with all the features of the revolver. That registration number was stamped in the yoke cutout of the frame. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover received the first .357 Mag. on April 8, 1935. By the way, that $60 revolver of 1935 will fetch between $2,000 and $4,000 or more today.

Sales of the new .357 Mag. started very strong and continuously increased. The factory found it challenging to produce 120 guns a month, and even at that production could not keep up with demand. Smith & Wesson discontinued the registered Magnum idea in 1938 after some 5,500 revolvers. Production of the .357 Mag. ceased in 1941 in order to accommodate the wartime effort. Pre-war production of the .357 Mag. was 6,642 units.

Production resumed in 1948, and the action had been updated with the rebound-slide-operated hammer block and the short-throw hammer. Sales of the premium revolver remained very strong. In 1957 Smith & Wesson instituted its now-famous model numbering system, and the .357 Magnum became known as the Model 27. Three years later, the extractor rod was changed from a right-hand thread to a left-hand thread to correct the problem of the rod backing out during use and tying up the revolver. That change initiated the stamping of -1 after the model number. In 1962, the screw-retained plunger spring hole in the front of the trigger guard was eliminated, marking a second engineering change and a -2 after the model number. The Model 27 was given the full factory treatment of a target hammer, target trigger, oversized checkered Goncalvo alves target stocks and a mahogany presentation case in 1975-the year I bought my first centerfire revolver, a Model 27.

It came to me with an 8 3/8-inch barrel (Smith & Wesson trimmed 3/8 inch from its original 8 3/4-inch barrel years before to accommodate target shooters' rules regarding overall length). It shot wonderfully and was an easy gun to learn handgun shooting, but the long barrel made it ungainly to carry. At this period of time any Smith & Wesson premium revolver was a difficult item to come by, due primarily to the "Dirty Harry" phenomenon of the day. Trading it was out of the question since I would have to come up with more cash, and I had blown everything I had on the big gun already. All of my spare cash at the time went for handloading components. So I did the unthinkable: I had the barrel cut to 5 inches. Thankfully, this is one time I decided to not do the work myself, and a southern California gunsmith did the job.

Armed now with a real belt gun, I immersed myself into learning handgun marksmanship. For a little more than two years I would feverishly load 500 to 700 rounds of .38 Spl. wadcutters during the evenings on a single-stage RockChucker press and expend them all during a day or two of practice in the canyons outside Los Angeles. Meanwhile, my Model 27 traveled with me on numerous camping, hunting and backpacking trips. During this time I was buying guns-rifles, handguns and shotguns-with every bit of folding green I could spare from room, board and ammo requirements, but the Model 27 and later a Colt 1911 garnered the majority of my shooting attention.

By the time I first moved to Wyoming in 1979, I had, in addition to the Model 27 and 1911, a Colt New Frontier .22 LR/22 WMR, a custom-built .44 Spl. and a Model 29. The .44s were real man's guns-or so I thought at the time-and I relegated the .357 Mag. to varmint status. I had been shooting a lot and thought I was pretty hot, and maybe I was within the very small circle of gunnies I ran with at the time. On one occasion we were bounding along some dirt road deep within the forest when a rockchuck suddenly darted across the road going for a rock pile. I bailed out of the truck drawing the Model 27 from my Don Hume Jordan holster. I tracked the rodent as it scampered through the rocks; it leapt from one rock as I loosed a shot and center-punched the unlucky whistle-pig in mid air, some 30 yards away. Sometime later, a friend was visiting, and we retired to an area for some informal shooting. Once again, I was a bit full of myself and began to play Ed McGivern with the Model 27, holding it upside down and picking off cans double action with my pinkie finger. My buddy Gene said something like, "Smart alec," or thereabouts, and picked up a stick about 12 inches long and a couple inches in diameter, and threw it in the air. To be honest, I'm not sure who was the most surprised when the stick split in two in the air, but I tried to keep my game face intact as if it was just another shot. Of course, I declined the opportunity to repeat the feat, citing low ammunition supplies or some other desperate travesty.

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16 Responses to The History of the .357 Magnum

chuckmtexas wrote:
February 23, 2012

I have carried the models 28,19,66 and 586 before crack cocaine made semi autos a must against full autos. We were stil out gunned by dealers. But I still think the 357 is more reliable.

JM wrote:
January 03, 2012

Model 19 I have 2. Great guns. Doesn't match the 44mag but it gets the job done at a much cheaper price.

Bill (Pennsylvania) wrote:
May 15, 2011

I bought a S&W Model 13-2 in June 1979 just before getting out of the Navy. Still have it. Just recently, I made a change to it that has been long in coming, I added comfortable Hogue grips to replace the original wooden grips.

D A Smith wrote:
May 05, 2011

Visiting a friend in Ohio a rabbit jumped and ran, I drew my Model 19 & put a 125 JHP into it as it jumped over a ditch at about 20 yards. My first hunting shot with a .357 Magnum. I would take a doe at about 30 yards a few years later with the same 4 inch pistol. Each time only one shot fired. The .357 is the most useful combination cartridge ever made. From self defense, hunting, & target shooting its the one I reach for the most. You can't go wrong with the .357 Magnum.

Michgncop324 wrote:
February 13, 2011

My first gun ever was a S & W .357 model 686 I bought in 1990 before the academy. I still have it and shoot best with it.

Dale wrote:
February 01, 2011

The .357 maybe the most useful of handguns. From hunting small & large game (deer & black bear)to self defense & target shooting it covers it all. My favorite is the S&W M19 4", Bill Jordan's Peace Officers dream gun.

Jack Cooper wrote:
January 31, 2011

I bought my first Ruger Blackhawk 357mag. I was so supprisingly safisfied with this handgun. I recommend it highly along with the Ruger 327mag. Excellent. JC

Chip M. wrote:
December 13, 2010

my niece took her first whitetaile at 40 yrds. in her 4th. season of hunting. she uses my Colt King Cobra with a leopold LER 2pwr./158gr.JHP. superb gun/caliber/scope combo.

James wrote:
December 08, 2010

Love the 357! Smith and Wesson 586 Taurus 605 Awesome.

Bill Johnson wrote:
December 03, 2010

I bought a Ruger Security Six in 1974, loaded with 158 grain Jacketed hollow points. Knocked a coyote head over hills at 50 yards with it. wish I still had it! Had to make my own grips out of birch to fit my large hands cause the factory grips were too small.

BURT wrote:
December 02, 2010


Dale wrote:
December 02, 2010

I own more 357's then any other caliber handgun. Probably the most versatile handgun. From tagets, self defense, to hunting does it all.

William wrote:
December 02, 2010

I fell in love with a Ruger Blackhawk single action in 357mag as a 17 year old back in 1962. Being able to chamber 38spl was very appealing. I carried it both hunting and with shot cartridges for poisonous copperheads and rattle snakes while Trout fishing in North Central PA. It packs more than enough wallop for me. I added a Ruger stainless Security Six (also with adjustable sights) to keep me and the single action company. I reload both calibers to stretch my ammo budget and always keep one or the other at the ready ... just in case. I'd feel naked with out them. 38spl & 357mag ammo is relatively available do to the high popularity. That has always kept it's factory prices economical (compared to say the 45auto or 44mag. The dependability of a revolver has many strong points especially in a home self defense situation. If awakened from a sound sleep there's little to double check with once it's in your hand. I have two semi-autos as well but the 357mag allows me to place 38spl rounds as well as 357's in the chamber for in-house self defense use. The lighter powered 38 can be much less damaging than the 357 should it pass through an intruder into a wall where it could continue it's path and injure or even kill a household member on the other side of that wall. Both of my models have 6(+) inch barrels making them more accurate at longer ranges. As a first center fire handgun that has target/hunting in it's intended usage...a 357mag can serve you well for a lifetime. It's chambered in numerous rifles that further adds to it's applications. 75 years is a great run for any ammunition. I don't see it loosing it's major standing among American shooters. It was a classic caliber by the 1960's. I can only thank it's inventors for providing such a practical police and sport shooting success.

Jerry in AZ wrote:
December 01, 2010

I think I've got you beat for acquisition. I bought my 27-2 in 1962, but I've got a few less zeros in the rounds fired. Still shoots great with small rifle primers and 14.5 gr's of 2400 pushing Lymans 158gr SWC.

Darren wrote:
December 01, 2010

Sweet indeed. I've always been a fan of the .44mag but looking at the ballistics of a .357 out of a longer barrel, it comes close to the .44mag. The .357 is a great round and another American Classic. Along side the .45ACP, .44Mag .45Colt/LC....

cooler bean wrote:
November 26, 2010