Small-frame revolvers include some classics

By Jeff Hutchins
For Lebanon Local

In my last column, I launched into the subject of “Holy Grail” guns, the ones that are hard to find and worth keeping indefinitely, if not eternally, due to their function and craftsmanship.

At the top of my list are the Double Action Korth, the Colt Python and Peacemaker, and quite a number of Smith and Wesson models, led by the Model 58, which I discussed last time around.

This time I want to go to the other end of the spectrum, where we find the J-Frame Smith & Wesson revolvers, their small frame. The J-Frame supplanted the older I-Frame with its slightly longer cylinder to accommodate the 38 S&W Special.

I’ve always favored the 3-inch barreled versions myself as they are just as easy to hide in a belt or shoulder holster as the more popular 2-inch models and I find even the 2-inch too large or heavy for pocket or ankle carry.

The lightweight version is the Model 37 and is extremely handy and very easy to shoot with the 3-inch barrel. The longer tube also adds some velocity to the bullet, which is nothing but good when you are dealing with calibers like the .38 Special, which is not exactly the Hammer of Thor.

One little hidden advantage of the over 2- and 2½-inch S&Ws is that as soon as you opt for a 3-inch or longer barrel, it automatically comes with a full-length ejector rod. This is a very handy feature indeed! When only five to six rounds are available, it’s always nice to make reloading as fool-proof as possible.

The S&W design, for over a hundred years now, has used a latch under the barrel at the front of the ejector rod. With a 2- to 2½-inch-inch barrel that mechanism limits the length of the ejector rod, not so on the 3-inch and up. My 3-inch Model 37 has the unmatched Pachmayr Compac grips.

My other 3-inch J-Frame is one in 32 S&W Long that has been re-chambered to .327 Federal Magnum. If you are looking for potency in a small package, this round can’t be beat. Most likely, S&W would frown on this conversion and it has one major downside. The original cartridge this revolver fired is weak at best.

The common upgrade is to go to the 32 H&R Magnum, which is a great idea and equals the power of the .38 Special easily and since the .32 is smaller in diameter, the S&W J-Frames are capable of chambering six at a time instead of only five, if chosen in .38 S&W Special.

Originally, that’s what I did to this 3-inch gun. When Ruger and Federal joined up to produce the .327 Federal, I acquired a chamber reamer as quickly as possible and re-chambered four of my .32 H&R Magnums to the new cartridge. The power is equal to .357 Magnum defense loads (not quite as good for medium game hunting), yet it recoils less and again can gain you a round or two in capacity.

Now for that major downside: S&W never imagined this revolver would some day be chambered two sizes up, so the cylinder is a little short for the .327 Fed. With factory ammo, I just slightly shorten the bullet (NOT always a good idea!)  with a jig I made. With hand loads, it’s an easy endeavor to just work up a load accordingly.

Since this is a steel frame, heat-treated revolver, the strength is fine but I’m sure if fed a steady diet of .327s, it would accelerate the wear substantially. But that’s what’s great about the .327; you can still chamber and fire .32 S&W (about like a .22 to shoot), 32 S&W Long and 32 H&R Magnum as well.

It’s a very versatile chambering. I lent my grandma my Colt in .327 but just loaded it with .32 H&R Magnums so the recoil would be tolerable and the power adequate, if she ever needs it.

One Smith & Wesson I’ve never been able to lay my hands on (and am starting to doubt was ever made) is a Model 12, Round Butt with a 3-inch barrel. As you can tell, I like lightweight handguns for carry and this one is one such revolver. The model 12 is almost too good to be true.

It is the same revolver as the Military and Police revolver that filled the vast majority of police holsters, and many military ones, until the “Wonder Nines” took over for police duty in the ’80s. The M&P was the most prolific of the medium K-Frame and evolved into the Model 10 when S&W started issuing model numbers to their offerings instead of just cool names.

Most Model 12s were made with 2-inch barrels since the obvious reason to make the revolver’s frame out of a lightweight aluminum alloy was for concealment/carry purposes. It must have seemed the obvious choice. For all of the reasons mentioned above, I submit that the 3-inch barrel would have made much more sense.

There must be some merit to this, as some of the most sought-after K-Frame S&Ws just happen to be equipped with 3-inch barrels.

My first Model 12 was a round-butt 2-inch and it was nice but the short barrel and medium frame just seemed odd. I next acquired a square-butt 4-inch barrel and, as I suspected, it was much easier to shoot, more accurate, more powerful and just better all of the way around – with just one issue: It was a square butt.

Pachmayr doesn’t make the best grips in the world (Compacs) for the square butt, so the hunt was on for a round-butt model.

I happened into one at the Portland Gun Show many years ago and scooped it up – quick! It shot even better than the square butt, so off the old one went. I worked over the action and put it in service. The magic of the Model 12s is that they don’t know they’re not a model 10.

They have all of the accuracy and velocity of their heavier, more popular brother, but are much easier to carry all day. Another part of their magic is that they weigh just enough to have low recoil as well, even with stouter +P loads.

I carry mine often in a Galco cross-draw holster if I’m carrying another handgun in a shoulder holster. Probably surprisingly to any real “gunnies” reading this is that it’s my primary gun in that situation and the usually more “advanced” auto in the shoulder holster chambers a more powerful cartridge to boot.

That Model 12 shoots so well for me that I don’t feel “under-gunned” with it in the least. The only downside is the revolver’s basic lack of capacity and slow reloading. I know if I was reading this I’d say “just cut the 4-inch down to 3-inch…duh!” I just can’t bear to do that. It took too long to find a 4-inch RB model 12. What I should have done was keep the SB 4-inch, round butt it and cut it down to 3-inch, and if I ever come across another one, I probably will.

While on the subject of 3-inch Smiths, let’s move up the scale to the twice as powerful .357 Magnum.

The Model 65 is a stainless steel K-Frame revolver that was wisely offered in 3-inch and 4-inch barrels. It and its twin in standard blued, chromoly steel are highly sought after for their optimum barrel length and the fact that most or all of the 3-inch guns had round butts.

Even if you have not yet become enamored with the Pachmayr Compac grip like I have, it is still generally easier to find a suitable grip for the round butt. S&W must have also come to this conclusion as almost all of their newer offerings are round butt only.

Back in the “old” days, before square guns took over from round guns, the model 65/13 3-inch was a favorite of federal agents.

A slightly beefed-up model made by S&W to compete with the indestructible Rugers is the L-Frame model 686.

I had one of these given to me by a retired Customs Service agent and will never get rid of it. This is one of my all-time favorite revolvers and most definitely a “Holy Grail” gun. It’s known as a CS-1 (Customs Service Variant One).

There was also a CS-2, which is exactly the same as the CS-1 only, fitted with a 4-inch barrel. I’d like to have a CS-2 to keep company with my 1 but the rising cost has kind of put it out of my want/need arena.

For a practical person, an even better, and cheaper, alternative would be the 686 Plus. This is the same revolver, only with a polished finish, slightly wider front sight and one more round on board.

That’s right, it’s a seven-shooter. I once had a S&W Custom Shop/Performance Center Model 629 44 magnum, stainless steel, fixed sights and 3-inch barrel. It should have been perfect for me but it had one big flaw: It was a Power Port. This was a half-inch long port at the end of the barrel to help tame the substantial recoil.

I hated that port for its noise, flame-throwing and velocity reduction, but most of all because it reduced the sight radius and fouled the looks of the revolver as the port was ahead of the front sight.

They almost got it right.

I am only going to mention one more S&W because it might be your chance to score a “HG” Smith at the right time. Texas became 150 years old in 1986. To commemorate that, S&W built a very unique revolver. In homage to the “Cowboy State,” a rare chambering in a S&W double action was chosen: 44/40 WCF.

The only other models ever chambered for this round were 100-year-old Triple-Locks. If you sold your one of the “Holy Grail Trucks” mentioned above, you might be able to buy one – IF you can find one!

The Model 544, as it was christened, also has a 5-inch barrel – another rarity! I have no idea why these revolvers are still available for $800 in the presentation case, but I bought one just as an investment.

Some day the collectors are going to wake up and realize what this gun really is, and I plan to cash in on it.

That is unlike one of my greatest blunders, which just so happened to also be centered around a S&W revolver.

I had an old codger bring in a Smith & Wesson Registered Magnum that had been used by his uncle, who had been a sheriff up in the Portland area decades before. The barrel was 8¾ inches long and came with a Mexican carved holster.

The revolver was well worn but mechanically it was perfect. I had that revolver sit on my shelf for $879 forever. I finally took it to a Portland gun show and put it on display. It sat all of the way through Friday and almost through Saturday when almost simultaneously two guys on each side of the aisle spotted it.

One guy definitely asked to see it before the other so I handed it to him. He asked me what I would take for it. The other guy said “I’ll give you full price and I haven’t even handled it yet.” The first guy decided he’d better jump or run and bought it for full price.

You’re probably asking yourself where I made the blunder and no, it wasn’t that I should have started a bidding war, which would have been unethical, as far as I’m concerned.

There was a price on the gun and that was top-dollar. My blunder was that I should have added that revolver to my collection.

You see, they call those revolvers a registered magnum because they were so special that when you bought one it was registered to you officially by Smith & Wesson. Not registered to the government, but you were the official owner/caretaker of this hand-fit revolver that was a significant step above just a regular production gun.

It was also priced accordingly. A shorter-barreled, mint Registered magnum with the original registration letter, brings high five figures at auction. Now “my” gun had a long barrel, not mint by any stretch and did not have the letter, but would have brought probably $8,000-10,000 a couple of years ago. So I got roughly 10 percent of that. Therein lies the blunder!

The RM lost its registration and then in 1957 became the Model 27, S&W’s “Python.” I always wanted one with a 3½-inch barrel and when I finally got the chance at one, I snatched it up. It didn’t have its original Coke-bottle grips, but otherwise was just what I wanted. Then, later, I got rid of it!

You see, the guy I bought it from wanted it back. I didn’t want to get rid of it, but he had this nice Italian copy of a Winchester 92 Take-Down in .45 Colt with a 24-inch octagon barrel. A trade was made.

I didn’t really regret it, but I did miss that mean-lookin’ Model 27-2. As it turnedf out, I got it back. I don’t even remember what we traded for this time, and I don’t care!

Another (albeit smaller) blunder was a Pre-29 Model Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum. These revolvers were really only made for one year. Although the .44 Remington Magnum cartridge was introduced in 1955, they really were not available until 1956.

Then, in 1957 (as stated above), all S&W handguns received model numbers. This pre-29 came in “loose” as the .44 mag. S&W was simply built on an existing platform not really meant for this type of pressure.

Smith & Wesson basically just heat-treated the steel to a higher standard and produced the gun. They are not dangerous by any means, but will not hold up to the abuse of hot loads very long.

The Smith will also, very definitely, blow up, as evidenced by the four I have pieces of at my shop. All killed by reloads. One of those was also a pre-29. But I digress. Back to the original story.

I tightened up the gun, since it was obvious, after tearing it down, that this was its first “rebuild.” I felt good about it. I would have kept it too, except it was the “Dirty Harry” length of 6½ inches and I much prefer 4. One of my best friends is a S&W nut and just happened to come in as I was finishing up.

He fell in love instantly and offered me a 7.5-inch Model 629 Classic DX. This is a fancy Stainless Deluxe model and worth a tad more than the pre-29 was at the time. It was a good deal for both of us, as he doesn’t like stainless guns and I got the slightly more valuable one.

Done deal! That DX, if I still had it, might go for upwards of $1,100-$1,200 today, a fair increase in value. The other, which my friend still has, is probably around $2,500, maybe more?!

Just as a teaser for a future article is one of my Charter Arms revolvers.  None of these are considered as “Holy Grails,” but some of them should be.