Skip to comments.THE SIXGUNS THAT MADE THE MAGNUMS
Posted on 05/06/2004 2:56:14 PM PDT by 45Auto
We seem to be living at a time when history is either greatly ignored or subject to being rewritten so as to be in line with that terrible social disease known as political correctness. History is history. It should be studied, learned from, and above all kept pure. The study of the history of sixguns is second only to the many uses of sixguns and the enjoyment thereof.
Those grand cartridges known as the Magnums just did not happen overnight. It took many years of experimenting with other revolvers before the .357 Magnum, the .44 Magnum, and the .41 Magnum all products of Smith & Wesson, and all intertwined, arrived on the sixgunning scene.
THE FIRST MAGNUM: The 1930's, the Great Depression, the rise of the modern gangster, bank robberies, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie & Clyde and the like, and peace officers found themselves on the short end of the stick. With medium framed .38 Specials such as S&W's Military & Police and Colt's Official Police Models, they found themselves fighting a new breed of criminal that used the automobile to its greatest advantage. A better weapon was needed. One that carried ammunition that could penetrate car bodies.
Smith & Wesson turned to their large framed sixgun, the model now known as the N-frame for the answer. Usually found in .44 Special chambering, the .44 Hand Ejector was now in its third model phase, the 1926 Model after the original First Model, or New Century, and the Second Model which was still in production. More on these later. The Second Model with its fixed sights and fully enclosed ejector rod was chosen.
In 1930, the Second Model .44 hand Ejector was chambered for the .38 Special. At 41 ounces with a 5" barrel as standard, the new sixgun, known as the .38/44 Heavy Duty, was stout enough to handle a new round, the .38/44 or .38 Super Police. It looked like a standard .38 Special but the muzzle velocity was 300 fps faster than the old round. Sixgun ammunition was entering the 20th century.
The .38/44 was, still is, a great sixgun. With its old long action and heavy cylinder it was particularly easy to shoot double action, as it almost seemed to shoot itself once that big cylinder started to rotate. It was heavy enough that recoil was virtually non-existent with standard .38 loads and still very mild with the .38/44 loads.
Although the 5" barrel was standard, a few were made in 3 1/2", 4", and 6", even 8 3/4". I've never seen an example of the latter. For a carry gun, I am very fond of a 4" version that I picked up at an embarrassingly low price. It has a most business like look to it, everything a serious defensive double action sixgun should be. Heavy duty sights, slim trigger and hammer, and a stout barrel with enclosed ejector rod. It should still be made in .357 Magnum, .44 Special, .41 Magnum, and .45 Colt. It is basically a Mountain Gun with fixed sights and a square butt. For the sixgunner who uses one load exclusively, fixed sights are no disadvantage once they have been filed in.
One year later, adjustable sights were added and the .38/44 Heavy Duty (A great name for sixgun!) became the 6 1/2" barrelled .38/44 Outdoorsman. Approximately 5,000 were sold in the Depression years from 1931 to 1941 which makes it a most popular sixgun. In all its versions, Heavy Duty and Outdoorsman, pre-War and post-War, the .38/44's production figures were right at 34,000 total sixguns. Those made from
1950 until many of the old line sixguns in .38 Special, .44 Special, and .45 ACP, were dropped in 1966, are excellent sixguns and well named. For those who prefer model numbers, the .38/44 Heavy Duty became the Model 20 in 1957, and the Outdoorsman was relegated to Model 23 nomenclature. Surely going from such grand names to such impersonal numbers was a portent of what society was about to become.
Elmer Keith, though a confirmed big bore sixgunner by this time, also was a fan of the .38/44 and soon developed what was to become known as the .38 Keith load. Using a bullet he designed, Lyman's #358429, a long nosed semi-wadcutter of 168 grains, and 13.5 grains of the then relatively new #2400 powder, he basically came up with the Magnum that was soon to follow. This load, in the +++P category, does 1450 fps from a long barrelled sixgun and is too hot for any .38 Special being made today. It is only for use in heavy-framed .38 Specials such as the .38/44 Heavy Duty, Colt New Service, and Colt Single Action Army.
In 1935, after much experimentation, mainly by noted ballistician Phil Sharpe, the .38 Special case was lengthened by 1/10", .38/44 Heavy Duty sixguns were specially heat treated and chambered to handle the new round which came to be known as the .357 Magnum. Sharpe had designed a 158 grain semi-wadcutter bullet, Lyman's #358477, for use with heavy loads in the Smith & Wesson .38. At a time when the .44 Special was factory loaded to 750 fps, and the old .45 Colt was about 100 fps faster, we suddenly had a sixgun that launched a flat-nosed bullet, now known as a semi-wadcutter at 1500 fps. Smith & Wesson could easily advertise that the new round was more powerful than any .44 or .45 in existence.
Sharpe's bullet design with its shorter nose worked fine in .357 cases, however, Keith found his bullet was too long to be properly crimped in .357 Magnum brass and still fit the short cylinder of the new sixgun. He used the new Magnum revolver with his .38 Special loads, claiming they were more accurate anyway. He certainly was right as the hard cast bullet load was better suited to high velocities than the relatively soft swaged bullet used in the new Magnum bras which by the way originally used large primers.
Doug Wesson of Smith & Wesson promoted the new revolver and cartridge by using it to take several head of big game, including pronghorn antelope and moose. It has been my good privilege to handle the first 8 3/4" and 6 1/2" .357 Magnums that Wesson used. They are beautifully made sixguns and I certainly felt as if I had living history in my hands.
The sixgun that to this day still remains the most business like looking revolver of all times, the .357 Magnum with a 3 1/2" barrel, was first presented to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in 1935. That same year, a soon to be internationally known figure by the name of George S. Patton, a Lieutenant Colonel then, purchased a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum while stationed in Hawaii, equipped it with ivory grips, and made it the mate to his .45 Colt Single Action. Patton's .357, that he would later call his "killing gun", was a 3 1/2" blue version with a gold bead front sight. The .45 Colt, which had been purchased by 2nd Lt. Patton in 1916 before going into Mexico with Pershing, was fully engraved, nickeled, and fitted with carved ivory stocks, Both became symbols of General Patton's leadership as a modern cavalry officer, one with tanks, in World War II. They were carried in matching border patrol style holsters by S.D. Myres of El Paso. Both guns and their leather are now on display at the West Point Museum.
With adjustable sights and barrel lengths from 3 1/2" to 8 3/4", later to be cut back to 8 3/8", the .357 Magnum, now known as the Model 27, exceeded the supply even in the pre-War Depression years. It would be well into the 1950's before many who wanted one actually were able to take delivery. With 3 1/2", 4", and 5" barrel lengths it became the peace officer's sixgun, while hunters and outdoorsman most generally preferred the 6 1/2" and 8 3/8" versions. After 60 years of production, the original .357 Magnum was quietly dropped from the Smith & Wesson catalog. Now I know how those sixgunners felt when Colt dropped the Single Action Army in 1941.
THE MEDIUM-FRAMED MAGNUM: By the 1950's peace officers found themselves carrying other equipment on their belts besides the duty revolver and the quest for a lighter, smaller sixgun that could still handle the .357 Magnum round began. A key figure in the development of the medium-framed Magnum was then Border Patrolman Bill Jordan.
In 1899, Smith & Wesson had introduced the first modern double action revolver, the Military & Police in the then new cartridge, the .38 Special. More than a million M&P's were produced before World War II and it still remains in production today as the Model 10. Jordan looked at the M&P and said Why not?
Why not add a heavyweight barrel, shrouded ejector rod, and chamber the M&P for the .357 Magnum? Smith & Wesson engineers went to the drawing board and the result in 1955 was the Combat Magnum (Another great name for a sixgun!). Those original medium-framed revolvers had a 4" ribbed barrel, a Baughman front sight on a ramp base, counterbored cylinder to surround the rims of the cartridges, handfilling stocks known as "target stocks", and were eagerly welcomed by peace officers who appreciated a half pound less weight as well as less bulk. It would take the semi-automatic wave of the 1990's to replace the Combat Magnum as the number one sidearm of choice by peace officers.
The 4" version was soon joined by the 6" sixgun for general outdoor use and in the mid-1960's, a round-butted 2 1/2" "belly gun" was added. All were available in both blue and nickel as the Model 19. With the new wave of stainless steel sixguns, the Model 66 came forth in 1970 in the same barrel lengths as the Model 19 Combat Magnum. Whether in blue, nickel, or stainless versions, the 4" Combat Magnum has never really been improved upon as a duty sixgun. Mated with today's highly efficient ammunition, it still rates Number One.
THE .44 MAGNUM: The roots of the .44 Magnum go way back, even before the time of the Colt Single Action Army. In 1870, Smith & Wesson introduced the first big bore centerfire sixgun, the single action Smith & Wesson American chambering the .44 S&W or .44 American. One year later the Russian government placed a large order for the new top break revolver with the specification that they be chambered in a new cartridge known as the .44 Russian. The .44 S&W American carried a heel type bullet, much like today's outside lubricated .22 Long Rifle rounds, that had its base inside the cartridge case. The new Russian round enlarged the cartridge case and placed the full diameter of the bullet inside the case. There is enough difference in the diameters of the two brass cases, .44 S&W and .44 Russian, that .44 S&W brass can be made from .41 Magnum brass today. Starline is now offering .44 Russian brass which Black Hills uses in the manufacturing of their new .44 Russian ammunition.
The American Model was made from 1870 to 1874, the .44 Russian Model of the American from 1873 to 1878 when it evolved into the New Model #3, the sixgun I consider the best of all the Smith & Wesson single actions. This sixgun would stay in production until 1912. In addition to the .44 Russian chambering, 16 other cartridges, including the .38-40 and .44-40, found their way into the New Model #3 cylinder but only very rarely.
Along the way, the Schofield Model, which is offered today by both Cimarron and Navy Arms in replica form, was made by Smith & Wesson from 1857 to 1877 only in a .45 "Short Colt" known as the .45 S&W or Schofield. A very few New Model #3's were chambered in .45 S&W. This old round has seen a resurgence of interest among cowboy shooters and is available in brass form from Star Line and in loaded ammunition from Black Hills.
By the time the .44 Russian New Model #3 arrived in 1878, Colt had already introduced their first double action sixgun, the 1877 Lightning. Three years later Smith & Wesson would bring forth their first Double Action also in .44 Russian. The Double Action was also chambered in .44- 40, and a Frontier Model was found in both .44-40 and .38-40. Although the Double Action would be manufactured right along side the New Model #3 until the beginning of World War I, all frames were manufactured in the 19th century and production ceased when these were all gone. The stage was set for a new double action big bore sixgun.
Remember the Military & Police first saw the light of day in 1899. Someone at Smith & Wesson looked at their .44 DA and the 1899 and decided to combine the two into what would become one of the greatest sixguns ever. The M&P was enlarged to accept a. 44 cartridge, the ejector rod was enclosed, and a third locking lug was incorporated. The M&P locked its cylinder at the rear and also at the end of the ejector rod. The new model also had a third locking feature at the front of the cylinder.
A new cartridge was needed for such a fine sixgun. The .44 Russian was lengthened, and the .44 Special came forth in the New Century, or First Model .44 Hand Ejector, or the Triple Lock. From 1907 to 1915, nearly 16,000 Triple Locks were made with 90% being chambered in .44 Special. Then someone at S&W made a decision to drop the third locking lug to save production costs, a move that can be easily understood, BUT they went too far and also dropped the enclosed ejector rod with the result being a Second Model Hand Ejector that looked like a slightly enlarged Military & Police. During World War II this model would become the Model 1917 chambered in .45 ACP.
In the 1920's sixgunners started to request a return to the Triple Lock, the result being the 1926 Model with the enclosed ejector rod that eventually became the .357 Magnum. After World War II, the 1926 Model was upgraded to the Model 1950 which in its adjustable sighted version carried a full ribbed barrel, new short action, and was known as the Model 1950 Target .44 Special.
When the .44 Special was introduced in 1907, it was the ballistic twin of the .44 Russian using the same round nosed bullet at a sedate 750 fps. From the late 1920's into the 1950's, several experimenters and reloaders found they could easily attain 1100 to 1200 fps with the .44 Special and do it with a semi-wadcutter bullet, the same design as used in the .357 Magnum.
Elmer Keith led the way in trying to convince someone to bring forth the heavy Special load. His heavy loading of the .44 Special with his semi-wadcutter bullet, a design that went back to the turn of the century, was the heavy big bore sixgun load in the 1920's to 1950's. Keith took the semi-wadcutter design, changed it so all bands, top shoulder, center, and base, were all the same diameter and height, and also incorporated deep square cornered grease grooves.
Keith loaded his bullet over 18.5 grains of #2400 in older, larger capacity .44 Special brass of the folded head or balloon style, then dropped it to 17.5 grains when the new solid head brass became available in the early 1950's. These are 1200 fps loads to be used only in heavy framed .44 Specials or .44 Magnums.
In the late 1940's, John Lachuk went a step further with the .44 using cut down .405 Winchester rifle brass to make his version of a heavy loaded .44 Special. Used in specially cylindered Colt Single Actions, with the brass made as long as possible to fit the cylinder, Lachuk's .44 virtually duplicated what was to come forth from Smith & Wesson and Remington a few years into the future. His load consisted of 22.5 grains of #2400 under Lyman's #413244 gas check bullet and he was surely walking the edge in the Colt Single Action. When the .44 Magnum arrived, Lachuk replaced all of the wildcat cylinders in those Colts with standard .44 Special cylinders.
Finally in the mid-1950's, Smith & Wesson and Remington cooperated to introduce the .44 Magnum. Smith & Wesson used the 1950 Target Model
as the platform with specially heat treated the cylinders and frames. The recoil was so fierce that they added weight by lengthening the cylinder to fully fit the cylinder window and adding a full diameter bull barrel to replace the slim barrel found on the 1950 Target Model. A wide hammer and trigger, along with a white outline rear sight mated with a red ramp front sight, was added and the .44 Magnum was born. Remington's ammunition consisted of a semi-wadcutter bullet with a gas check at more than 1400 fps. As with the earlier .357 Magnum ammunition, the original bullet was too soft and handloaders early started making up loads using Keith's old .44 Special bullet. Cast hard and loaded over 22.0 grains of #2400, it would be the "standard .44 Magnum" load for decades. It is still one of the most popular for the first big bore Magnum.
To this day the .44 Magnum, now known as the Model 29 remains one of the handful of the most beautifully crafted sixguns of all times. If the .357 Magnum was good for hunting, the .44 Magnum using 100 grains more bullet at a larger diameter and traveling at the same speed was great. The handgun had become a viable option for hunters.
THE OTHER MAGNUM: Both the .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum followed a natural path; the .41 Magnum did not. The .357 Magnum came from a natural evolution of starting with the .38's of the 1870's, the .38 S&W and .38 Long Colt, followed by the .38 Special and the .38/44 Heavy Duty. The .44 Magnum came from the .44 American via the .44 Russian and .44 Special. Both an unbroken lineage. Not so the .41 Magnum. The .41 Long Colt came forth in Colt's double action sixgun in 1877 and was also chambered in the Colt Single Action Army using the same barrel as the .38-40. At some time the New Model #3 Smith & Wesson was chambered in a cartridge known as the .41 S&W at least once. Colt dabbled with the idea of a .41 Special back before the days of the .357 Magnum and experimenters such as Pop Eimer and Gordon Boser used cut down rifle brass, .30-40 Krag and .401 Winchester to wildcat the .40 caliber using Colt Single Actions with .38-40 barrels and custom cylinder. Herter's took up were they left off with mail order offering of the .401 PowerMag revolver, for $48!, and cartridge in the early 1960's.
Re-enter Bill Jordan and Elmer Keith. Both convinced sixgun and ammunition manufacturers a new round was needed for peace officer use. They asked for a .40 caliber bullet at around 900-1000 fps. The resulting sixgun, the Model 58, an enlarged M&P, proved to be too large to be taken to heart by peace officers. However, in addition to the police loading, a full powered Magnum round with a 210 grain bullet at over 1500 fps could be used in the Model 58 as well as the Model 57 which was simply the .44 Magnum in a new chambering.
Never accepted as a police round, the .41 Magnum in its full house loading is powerful and flat-shooting, but remains the cartridge that gets little respect 35 years after its inception. Jordan and Keith turned out to be prophets of sorts as their vision of the perfect police round is now found in the .40 S&W.
The Military & Police, the Triple Lock, the Model 1926, the .38/44 Heavy Duty, the 1950 Target, all great guns in their own right. Their greatness is enhanced even more by the sixguns they sired.
I'm liking the Model 629 Classic, personally.
This one is engraved and will be found at most of the Friends of NRA banquets this year.
I have always favored the Colt Python .357 Magnum. OK so call me crazy. Colt "wavered" a bit a few years back, but I believe they are back in the fold. Here's my idea of a magnum...I just LOVE the 4" barrel. 6" is too long. Wow, I can't believe I just typed that.....
Fantastic article. One small correction, though. I believe the revolvers and leather are in the Patton Museum at Ft. Knox KY. I was studying them yesterday morning.
I wouldn't trade my 6" barrel Python for anything. Sure is hard to get out of a glovebox, though. Guess that's one of the reasons I drive a pickup truck.
The .38 S&W was designed by Smith & Wesson and introduced during the late 1870's. Also known as the .38 Super Police and the .38 Colt New Police, the .38 S&W was once available in numerous revolver made by too many foreign firms to mention, plus U.S. manufacturers such as Harrington & Richardson, Smith & Wesson, Colt, Iver Johnson, and Hopkins & Allen. There was a time when the Welby revolver in .38 S&W was the official sidearm of the British military, a combination claimed to be more effective in combat then the old .455 Welby revolver. More recently, Ruger built a number of Service Six revolvers in this chambering for the government of India.
Like the less powerful .32 S&W, the .38 Smith & Wesson once enjoyed tremendous popularity in the private sector simply because of its availability in inexpensive pocket revolvers. It 145 grain and 200 grain loadings were rated at respective muzzle velocities of 730 and 620 fps, for the 173 and 176 foot pounds of energy. U.S. ammunition manufacturers now offer factory loads with a 146 grain bullet at 685 fps for 150 foot pounds of energy. Although specified nominal bullet diameter commonly seen listed for the .38 S&W varies from .359 inch to .361 inch, most owners of guns in this caliber report acceptable accuracy with the more common .357 inch bullets. Like many guns built during the first half of the century, some in .38 S&W caliber are now quite weary, something the wise handloader will keep in mind.
Yup. when I was at the Armor Officers Advanced Course in 1993, I got pics of them in their case at the Patton Museum.