But we're also talking about N-frame Smiths here, which may be suitable for carry in some rigs but are hardly easy to conceal and are big, heavy all-steel frames. No alloys allowed here. When it comes to carry, an all-stainless K-frame with a 3-inch pipe is as big as I want to tote. It isn't designed to stand up to a steady diet of .357 Magnum loads, but it can handle carry duty well with magnums of about 110-grain and for practice, that's what .38 Specials are made for.
The very first .357 Magnum is still first in the hearts and minds of many advocates of that caliber. This milestone revolver continues to morph into the future. In Part II of this excerpt from Massad Ayoob's Greatest Handguns of the World, the author looks at the history of the .357 Magnum. Click here to read Part I.So, what's your favorite barrel length for .357 Magnums, or your favorite caliber? And why?
An original Registered Magnum from the Chuck McDonald collection. The iconic 5-inch barrel…
Over the years, the Model 27 series has been produced in a great variety of barrel lengths. There are few handguns whose fans are so split as to ideal barrel length. During the Registered Magnum years, the ordering customer could specify whatever barrel length he or she desired.
Noted Arnold, “The .357 Magnum revolver was first made in two main barrel lengths – 3-1/2 and 8-3/4 inches.” The guns that Douglas Wesson used on his spectacular big game hunts may well have been the latter length, and not 8-3/8 inches as Keith wrote.
The reduction from 8-3/4 to 8-3/8 inches as maximum length came about after Smith & Wesson discovered that their longest barrel exceeded the maximum length allowed in competition at the time. To achieve the maximum allowed sight radius, 10 inches, the barrel had to be shortened to the 8-3/8 inches dimension.
Soon the company was making 4-, 5-, 6-, and 6-1/2-inch barrels among their standard offerings. I have heard of, but not handled, 7-1/2-inch versions.
Each had its adherents, because in this gun, the balance and overall esthetics changed significantly with barrel length. So, of course, did its ballistics. The .357 Magnum cartridge in most of its loadings dropped velocity dramatically as barrel length shortened.
The great double action revolver expert of the mid-20th century, Bob Nichols, appeared to favor the 3-1/2-inch barrel. However, he also said of this gun, “The .357 Magnum is a lot of gun for any man to hold; and it’s too much gun for the average man.”
J. Edgar Hoover’s Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum (now lost to history, and believed to have been passed on to a relative of Hoover’s heir Clyde Tolson) may have had a 3-1/2-inch barrel. Certainly General Patton’s did. Writes modern authority John Taffin, an enthusiast who owns them in virtually all barrel lengths, “…we have the short-barreled 3-1/2-inch .357 Magnum that is absolutely the most business-like looking sixgun ever made available. Dirty Harry did not originate ‘Make my day!’, the 3-1/2-inch .357 Smith & Wesson Magnum did!”
Charles Askins’ original .357 Magnum had a 4-inch barrel. So did the specimen Walter Walsh used to kill Al Brady in that famous Maine gunfight.
Today’s 27-series N-frames give you eight rounds of .357 Magnum, and they’ve been chambered for a like number of .38 Super rounds.
The 5-inch barrel was perceived by many as having the best balance, in both the visual and the tactile sense, of any of the slender barrels ever fitted to this large-frame, heavy-cylindered revolver. Skeeter Skelton was particularly fond of the 5-inch and influenced so much demand among his loyal readers that Smith & Wesson reportedly produced a short run of 5-inch Model 27s to satisfy the clamor.
The 6-inch and 6-1/2-inch barrels were ideally in proportion to the .44-size frame, in the eyes of some other enthusiasts. Many of the police departments that adopted these original .357 Magnums during their heyday seem to have gone to one or the other of these lengths, the New Hampshire State Police for example.
The 8-3/8-inch barrel was unique to this gun until the coming of the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum in the mid-1950s. Ed McGivern seems to have used this length more than any other. Chic Gaylord, an influential gun expert in the ‘50s and ‘60s, wrote: “One of the finest sidearms to take along on a hunt is Smith & Wesson’s .357 Magnum with the eight-and-three-eighths-inch barrel. It shoots as straight as a rifle and packs a lot of authority.”
To read Part I of this series, click here.
This article is an excerpt from the new book Massad Ayoob's Greatest Handguns of the World. To learn more, Click Here.